Friday, July 20, 2012

Drath and Muth (on the death of Viola Drath)

drath and muth

The names alone sound like something out of a strange detective story, “Drath and Muth,” as if the legendary French Inspector Clouseau (Peter Sellers) were pronouncing “death and the moth,” which wouldn’t be far from the truth, given the essay I recently read about the death of German journalist Viola Drath through the hands of her younger husband, Albrecht Muth.

      Drath, a Washington, D.C. journalist of long renown, 44 years older than her young lover, was found dead in her Georgetown, Q Street house, on August 12 of 2011, her reportedly violent husband, it appears, the perpetuator.

      Franklin Foer’s New York Times Magazine essay recounted the horrifying story of their early meeting in 1982, before the death of her husband, Francis, the former deputy American military governor of Bavaria, “whom everyone called the Colonel.” Drath had somehow insinuated herself in Washington, D.C. society, her husband and she throwing regular dinner parties at their Georgetown house, and she writing essays for German language journals, as well as Harper’s and Commentary. Her writing, filled with Teutonic-like pronouncements, once led a Hirshhorn Museum executive to react:  Also sprach Viola!”

      Yet, Drath established herself as a significant figure in the D.C. world, befriending author Norman Mailer, who stayed in her house as he researched his fiction, Harlot’s Ghost.  Working for the government, her husband commented, “When I speak German to Henry Kissinger, he talks like a little boy.”

       She and her husband, indeed, often entertained the German-speaking community in the capitol city, dinners which included significant guests almost every weekend.

       Upon the Colonel’s death in 1986, Drath, lonely and distraught, began meeting with Muth quite often, and quickly became enamored with the young German-speaking “Muti,” who matched her Teutonic memories, and with whom she argued, in German, deeply into the night.

        Behaving, as Foer’s essay relates, more like an intern than a companion, Muth slowly insinuated himself into Drath’s life, reading the daily newspapers and reporting back, and, most importantly, assuming the domestic responsibilities including cooking and cleaning, for which Drath had no facility.  After the later abandonment of Muth, Drath revealed to a friend that she did not even know how to cook breakfast.

        As a couple, however, Drath and Muth achieved even greater recognition in the Washington, D.C. community than she had ever achieved with the Colonel. In regular dinner parties, attended by figures such as Pierre Salinger, Antonin Scalia, Dick Cheney, and numerous others, with Muth serving up dinner from their infamous yellow-tinged kitchen, D. C. insiders slowly grew to admire and respect Drath's new husband, who began to claim outrageously exaggerated relationships with Iraqi government officials; gradually, as his lies spun literally out of control, proclaiming a kind of double-spy involvement with the Iraqi community, using his connections to reveal internal secrets to various governmental agencies, while simultaneously involving international figures from George Soros (who once quipped to the French Ambassador, that Muth was the “the type of man who would have closed the oven door behind him at Auschwitz,” a statement Muth saw as a testament to his worth) to Arun Ghandhi, the grandson of Mahtama.

       There is something almost touching about Foer’s New York Times essay's description of Muti's madness, as he reveals Muth’s strategies, wherein he contacted only the highest figures with whom he had access, ignoring the underlings, which only made the upper echelons, who believed that he had necessarily been vetted by their lower assistants, more vulnerable—and ignorant. Only a few bothered to check into his actual credentials, which eventually revealed that he was a complete fraud. Muth had it down perfectly; as he himself described it: “You meet someone of import, check him out, determine [if] he can be of use, you make him yours. At some point you must decide whether to run him as a useful idiot, he not catching on as to who you are and what you do.”

     By that time his connections with Drath had already established him within the political community and the fact that Muth was also gay (one of his gay lovers actually lived in Drath’s house), and, increasingly, a violent drunk, took ages apparently to reach the political consciousness. Muth, despite temporary escapes to Miami (during which he proclaimed he was in Iraq, working behind lines), contrived to be seen as a major government informant. Muth was even thanked for his fabulated e-mail reports out of Iraq (written on Drath's Georgetown apartment computer) by higher-ups at the State Department such as the seasoned Thomas Pickering. Only in 2011, the year of the murder of his wife, had Muth begun to be perceived by many in the higher levels of government as another fraud and even a mad man, in the manner of the great Washington, D.C. con-artists such as Edward von Koberg III, Craig Spence, and Steven Martindale.   

      Certainly I was not surprised by this revelatory essay—although, I admit, I was completely entertained. After all, Howard and I had lived in the city for 14 years before moving to Los Angeles. If anything, the whole event sounded all too familiar.

      Indeed, from the first statement of Foer’s fascinating essay, “Dinners were served in the basement. Ambassadors, generals with many stars, senior White House officials and closely read columnists—all would walk past the yellowing kitchen, which looked as if it hadn’t been updated since the Ford administration, and down the dimly lighted dining room,” I suddenly became sickened with a kind of strange sense of déjà vu. I had been there! “Howard," I shouted out, "do you remember Viola Drath?” After a slow pause of aging memory, Howard responded, “Yes, she was a German journalist.” “Didn’t we attend a party at her house?” Howard wasn’t sure of the event. “Read the article,” I demanded! Suddenly everything came rushing back into my memory. I immediately recalled the dinner party we had attended, Howard invited, obviously, because we was a central curator at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Suddenly the whole evening, a rather dreadful one, came into focus. I recall—and Howard eventually confirmed this—a great many significant figures crowding into the open living room of the large Georgetown house for cocktails. One man was draped with numerous metals—on his way to another party after. We descended that small staircase beside the yellowing kitchen down to the dining area, me following Viola, who said: “You’re Swiss! The Swiss always make such good cooks!” Her comments entirely flummoxed me—was I suddenly in her mind a mad, gay chef? (our acquaintances in that city often said such strange things that I sometimes felt that I was living on another planet). I remember the crowded dinner, but little of what occurred during our dinner. I recall only my complete discomfort in having to endure the affair, typical of many a Washington, D.C evening for me in those tortured days. As we left the house, I whispered to Howard, “I feel like we’ve just descended into the heart of a Nazi enclave.” 

      “Drath and Muth,” of course! In those days of the early 1980s, however, I am confident the Colonel still stalked the halls, caring for his wife and daughters. I believe I never encountered the “moth,” drawn to death's flame. But death was already in the air.

Los Angeles, July 18, 2012