Portrait in Oil
Peddler of Death: The Life and Times of Sir Basil Zaharoff
Here are portraits of two plutocrats, two playboys of the western world, Basil Zaharoff (1850?-1936) and Nubar Gulbenkian (1896—). A first glance at their photographs, the shrewd grin between the topper and the beard, and you think of Uncle Sam. But turn a page and see them at Buckingham Palace, solemnly displaying their orders and cocked hats, and you realize that they’re truly English gentlemen, almost archetypal—Sir Basil, the wicked squire, and lovable Mr. Nubar, eccentric huntsman and munificent heir. The late Sir Basil Zaharoff (alias Z. B. Gortzacoff, Z. Z. Williamson, etc.) is fretfully condemned by his biographer: this armament salesman’s record of skilled work on international defense programs is dramatized into a “portrait in evil” of a Peddler of Death. But the memoirs of Nubar Gulbenkian, who is still alive, have been warmly received in Britain; most millionaires are mean and gloomy, runs the cant, but jolly Nubar does enjoy himself. The pair are presented as vulture and macaw.
Yet, in some respects, they’re birds of a feather. Though neither fought for the King, both courageously attempted war-time espionage on his behalf. Both combined their English distinctions with membership of the Légion d’Honneur. Both have helped organize the world’s oil oligopoly—though failing in the attempt to keep US interests out of the Middle East. Both seem to have originated in the old Ottoman Empire and might, I suppose, have remained there, had not the world’s center of power moved so obviously westward.
Nubar Gulbenkian was born at Kadi Keui on the Bosphorus. Because of racial disturbances, he was conveyed to Victorian England in a Gladstone bag. His Armenian grandfather had been an over-powerful citizen; one of his servants died under punishment and the master’s comment—“I told you to beat him, not kill him”—became a family joke. Nubar caps this horrid anecdote with an urbane Horatian tag (about “golden mediocrity”), as befits his cheerful claim to be an “English gentleman”; but he has retained an unEnglish awareness of the barbarities resulting from economic injustice and a willingness, rare in his class, to face the brute facts. As the son of Calouste Gulbenkian—whose pioneer work on oil exploitation brought him in 5 per cent interest on the declared profits of Anglo-Persian (now British Petroleum) and Royal Dutch Shell—Nubar had a different standpoint from most of his peers and contemporaries. He was more cosmopolitan—more neo-colonialist, perhaps—and had a sharper comprehension of the impact of western investment on the outside world. Touring the Mexican oilfields in the 1920s, he stopped to photograph a hanged terrorist; police offered to bring out two more to be executed for the gentleman’s benefit. Another cop accidentally shot a bystander outside a night club; the doorman drew Nubar inside: “Come in, sir. It’s only a little man they have killed.”
Nubar shudders like a gentleman, but accepts the situation. Much of this rich man’s story is taken up …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.