[2 December 2011]
Excerpted from Chapter 1: Coming to America from The Last Sultan: The Life and Times of Ahmet Ertegun by Robert Greenfield. Copyright © 2011 by Schoolyard Productions, Inc. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher.
“The older I get, the more I realize how Turkish I am. I display the prime characteristics of Turkish vices: indolence and excess.”
As much as any man who ever lived, Ahmet Ertegun loved to tell stories. That many of them happened to be about himself was never the point. In his unmistakable nasal hipster’s voice tinged with the black inflections of the street and the syncopated rhythms of the jazz music he had loved since childhood, Ahmet always knew how to find the groove when he talked. With the smoke from a cigarette curling into his eyes and a drink in his hand, he was a born raconteur who could command an audience of any size. Taking just as much time as he needed to build to the punch line, Ahmet would tell his favorite stories over and over again, carefully polishing each one like a jeweler.
In a business where everyone loved to gossip and those who ran the world’s leading record companies were constantly on the phone talking about one another in the most vulgar way imaginable, no one ever refused to take a call from the man whom they always referred to by only his first name. But then long before most of his colleagues had made their bones in an industry where the ordinary rules of conduct did not apply and the only way to stay on top was to continue putting out one hit after another, Ahmet was already a legend. On any given day during even a casual conversation, there was no knowing what might come out of his mouth. It was just one of the reasons people liked being around him.
Over the years, one story Ahmet loved to tell about himself was repeated constantly by those who would have never dared to criticize him in their own words. God only knows who told it to Steve Ross but David Geffen first heard the story from him. Mo Ostin and Joe Smith in Los Angeles knew it as did Robert Stigwood in London. Outliving the man it was about, the story was posted on a well-read music blog after Ahmet was no longer around to tell it. In its simplest form, the story goes like this.
During the early 1970s, Kit Lambert and Bill Curbishley, the current and future managers of The Who, found themselves locked in a particularly difficult and contentious negotiation with Ahmet in his second-floor office at Atlantic Records in New York City. Although Atlantic had made a ton of money distributing “Fire,” a huge but very unlikely worldwide hit by the Crazy World of Arthur Brown that Lambert had produced on his own label, their discussion soon reached a sticking point.
No matter what Lambert or Curbishley said, Ahmet simply would not budge. Knowing he had nothing to lose, Lambert, who in Curbishley’s words could sometimes be “a bit Barnum and Bailey,” suddenly leaped to his feet and stormed out of the office in a rage. Returning a few seconds later, he threw open the door and shouted at Ahmet, “Do you know why there’s so much anti-Semitism in the world?”
Always unflappable, most especially in situations where money was on the line and he was the one who would have to pay it, Ahmet said, “No, Kit. Why is that?” “Because,” Lambert replied, “Turks don’t travel.” Slamming the door behind him, Lambert then made his final exit as Ahmet collapsed with laughter behind his desk.
More than most people in the music business, Kit Lambert would have understood the historical basis of his remark. Like his father, a well-known classical composer, he had been educated at Trinity College, Cambridge. He was also the grandson of the painter who had been commissioned by the Australian government to document that nation’s crushing defeat by Turkish forces commanded by Mustafa Kemal at the Battle of Gallipoli during World War I.
Whether any of this was actually on Kit Lambert’s mind that day, no one can say for sure. However, the man who was the butt of his joke did not need anyone to explain it to him. In a business dominated by hard-driving Jewish businessmen, Ahmet was the ultimate outsider. On some level, this was also always his role in the world.
Although Ahmet loved to mingle in the most rarefied circles of high society, he never truly belonged there either. In the most famous piece ever written about him, an unnamed woman who seemed comfortable in this world noted there was no one Ahmet did not “feel snubbed by.” Whenever another of his socialite friends sensed he was about to say or do something inappropriate, she would caution him by saying, “Ahmet, don’t go Turkish on me. Don’t go Turk.” In order to warn the Rolling Stones that Ahmet was about to appear backstage before a show, their tour manager would tell them, “Boys, Ataturk’s coming.”
Although he left his native land at the age of two and was shocked to see what Turkey was like when he returned there for the first time six years later, everything Ahmet was and all that he became was shaped by the place of his birth. Had it not been for the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the subsequent creation of the modern Turkish republic, his own life would have followed an entirely different and far more predictable path. And yet to the very core of his being, he could not have been more Turkish.
For countless generations, “the Turk,” in the words of Stephen Kinzer, the author of Crescent and Star: Turkey Between Two Worlds, had always been viewed in the West as the “scourge of civilization. His chief characteristics were thought to include mendacity, unbridled lust, sudden violence and a passion for gratuitous cruelty.”
Beginning in 1095 when Pope Urban II sent the Crusaders to reclaim the holy city of Jerusalem from the Ottoman Empire, “Europeans came to perceive Turks as the epitome of evil. They were presumed to be not only bent on destroying Christianity but also determined to kill or enslave every man, woman, and child in Christendom.” Five centuries later, Martin Luther, who began the Protestant Reformation, declared, “The Turks are the people of the wrath of God.” In a letter to King Fredrick II of Prussia during the eighteenth century, the famed French essayist Voltaire wrote, “I shall always hate the Turks. What wretched barbarians!”
After the Allies defeated the Ottoman Empire in World War I, the onerous conditions imposed by the Treaty of Sèvres were specifically designed to reduce a once great power to ruins. In large part, Mustafa Kemal’s nationalist movement blossomed because of his refusal to abide by the provisions of the agreement, which soon proved impossible to enforce. His subsequent rise to power eventually forced all parties to the treaty to return to the negotiating table in Lausanne, Switzerland, in 1922.
Mehmet Munir, who served as chief legal adviser and translator for the delegation from the Ottoman Empire during talks that went on for months, was present when the Treaty of Lausanne was signed on July 24, 1923, thereby bringing the modern Turkish republic into being. Seven days later, Ahmet was born, as he would later recall, “in a house on the rocky hills of Sultantepe in Uskudar on the Asiatic side of Istanbul, that grand old decaying city which had once been Byzantium and Constantinople.”
A child of privilege like his older brother Nesuhi, Ahmet spent the first two years of his life in a truly primitive land where nearly everyone was illiterate, life expectancy was short, epidemics commonplace, and medical care virtually nonexistent. In a territory stretching for more than a thousand miles where most men eked out a living as subsistence farmers, there were only a few short stretches of paved road and the most common means of travel was by horse-drawn cart. Most villages did not have a central square or plaza, reinforcing the widely held belief that life was meant to be lived within the family or clan.
While those like Ahmet’s father who had been born and raised in Istanbul enjoyed a far more cosmopolitan existence, nothing in his background could have prepared him for the rapid succession of sweeping social changes that transformed the remnants of the Ottoman Empire into the modern Turkish republic in a relatively short period of time. Born into a family from Uzbekistan in central Asia, Mehmet Munir was the grandson of a Sufi sheik who presided over the Ozbeker Tekkesi, a dervish lodge in Istanbul. His father was a career bureaucrat who spent his life working in the Ministry of Monuments and Antiquities. His mother was one of the first Turkish women to make the pilgrimage to Mecca by camel.
Exempt from military service by imperial decree because he had been born in the city where the Sultan held court, Mehmet Munir graduated from Istanbul University with a degree in law in 1908. He then began working in the imperial chancery, rising to the rank of chief legal adviser eight years later.
After his short-lived first marriage ended when he was in his twenties, his parents, in accordance with the custom at the time, arranged for him to wed Hayrunnisa Rustem. Fourteen years younger than he, she could play any keyboard or stringed instrument by ear, loved to dance and sing, and, as Ahmet would later say, “probably would have become a singing star or musician or performer if she had lived in a time when well-born girls were allowed on the stage. She was an outgoing, fun loving, good looking young girl who had been quite disappointed to find that the husband picked for her was a quiet, scholarly young law and philosophy student who did not share her love of music and dancing.”
Three years after they were married, Mehmet Munir embarked on the journey that would change his life as well as the future of his homeland. On December 5, 1920, as part of a high-powered delegation headed by Salih Pasha and Ahmet Izzet Pasha, two of the Sultan’s most trusted ministers, he traveled about two hundred and fifty kilometers by train from Istanbul to the railway station at Bilicek to help negotiate an agreement to end the civil conflict between the Sultan and the new nationalist government in Ankara headed by Mustafa Kemal.
Unlike the leaders of the delegation and the great war hero they had come to meet, Mehmet Munir had never seen combat on any of the battlefields where the fate of the empire had been contested during the past two decades. Bespectacled, with a thick mustache and a receding hairline, he was then thirty-seven years old, the father of a three-year-old son, and a devout Muslim who prayed five times a day.
After making the delegation wait for an entire day at the railway station, Mustafa Kemal finally arrived. Thirty-nine years old, with piercing blue eyes and high Oriental cheekbones, he had the commanding look of a fearless soldier who had already proven himself in battle. Introducing himself as the prime minister of the government in Ankara, Kemal shocked Salih Pasha and Ahmet Izzet Pasha by asking them who they were.
Explaining he could not possibly speak to them as cabinet ministers because he did not recognize the government in Istanbul, Kemal said he was perfectly willing to talk with them as fellow patriots. After a discussion that lasted for hours, Kemal told both men he could not let them return to Istanbul. Instead, they would now accompany him to Ankara so they could get a sense of what life was like under the nationalist government. Knowing they had no choice in the matter, the entire delegation boarded a train heading in the opposite direction from which they had come the day before. Although the word was never used, they were now being held as hostages.
Because the nationalists controlled the army and no one in Istanbul could mount an expedition to free them, the delegation remained in Ankara for the next three months. When Salih Pasha and Ahmet Izzet Pasha realized Kemal’s movement was directed not just against the foreigners occupying their homeland but the Sultan as well, they both made it plain they could never become part of it.
Not so Mehmet Munir. After a period of intensive soul searching, he decided only Kemal and his followers could preserve what little was left of his beloved homeland. Switching sides, he threw in his lot with them. Born with the personality of a true diplomat, Mehmet Munir had a set of unique personal credentials that made him an immediate asset of great value to the new nationalist government.
Having served two years earlier as the chief legal adviser to the Ottoman delegation at the signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk that forced Russia to return all the territory it had seized from the empire during World War I, he had already dealt with foreign powers across the bargaining table. Fluent in French, then the language of diplomacy all over the world, he also spoke English.
On February 6, 1921, Salih Pasha and Ahmet Izzet Pasha signed a handwritten document giving Mehmet Munir official permission to attend the international Peace Conference that would begin in London six days later. To ensure his safety as well as their own, the signers made it plain they were being kept in Ankara against their will and that Mehmet Munir had been repeatedly and insistently pressured to attend the conference because of his personal ability and professional knowledge. Serving as an adviser and a translator, he then represented the Ankara government at peace talks in England to which the Sultan also sent his own set of representatives.
In March 1921, Kemal finally decided to allow the rest of the delegation to return to Istanbul on the condition that Salih Pasha and Ahmet Izzet Pasha would not resume their government positions—which they both soon did. When Mehmet Munir’s wife read the morning newspaper only to learn that everyone but her husband had returned safely to Istanbul, she was furious. In every sense, he had now become the odd man out.
Unlike those who had chosen to continue supporting the Sultan, Mehmet Munir had aligned himself with a movement that in time would change the modern world. For him, it had all begun with the decision he made after that fateful meeting in the railway station at Bilicek on December 5, 1920. And while Mustafa Kemal himself once proclaimed, “I have no religion, and at times I wish all religions to the bottom of the sea,” Mehmet Munir steadfastly continued to roll out his carpet to pray five times a day even after he had become one of Kemal’s most trusted aides. In Ahmet’s words, “Although my father was basically a timid man, he had great stubbornness in living out his convictions and defending his beliefs. His sense of morality somehow governed all his actions.”
In 1925, Kemal rewarded Mehmet Munir for his service to the new republic by appointing him the ambassador to Switzerland. As Ahmet would later write, his father “left behind the teeming hodgepodge of the Istanbul that he loved, the shoeless porters, the grimy street kids, the blind beggars, the black-shawled peasant women, the hawking vendors, all of whom hovered below the countless majestic mosques and minarets that formed the skyline of this mysterious city, crossroads of many civilizations; the last stop of the Orient Express, the last capital of the fallen Ottoman Empire, ‘the sublime port,’ the city of my father’s dreams.”
Accompanied by his wife, his two sons, and their newborn daughter, Selma, Mehmet Munir set off to represent his fledgling nation’s diplomatic interests in Bern. Beginning what would become a life of constant travel, Ahmet embarked on the long and highly improbable journey that eventually brought him to the land where he would make his fame and fortune.
In “the clean quiet serenity of the capital city of Bern, with many green gardens, parks, churches, clocks, and chimes,” Ahmet’s first real childhood memory of himself was as a two-and-a-half-year-old boy playing in the immense gardens of the Turkish legation. Befitting his status as the Turkish ambassador to “this bland beautiful sterile country,” Mehmet Munir and his family were now able to live in a manner that would not have been possible in their still impoverished and chaotic homeland.
Their large house at 18 Kalcheggweg was staffed by several servants the family had brought with them from Turkey. A young Swiss governess who spoke French took care of Ahmet, who was soon communicating with his brother and sister in “a mixture of Turkish and French with a sprinkling of the French-German patois that we picked up on the street and in kindergarten.”
Charged with more responsibility than ever before, Ahmet’s father was always busy working. In addition to his diplomatic duties in Bern, he made regular visits to Geneva, where in two years’ time he became the Turkish observer to the League of Nations while also traveling to Paris to meet with other Turkish diplomats and statesmen. Unlike his wife, he had little difficulty adjusting to their new life.
During the early years of their marriage, Ahmet’s mother had been able to avail herself of the loving support of both her own and her husband’s extended families. She had also spent a good deal of time traveling back and forth from Istanbul to Ankara by train and horse-drawn carriage, a journey that in 1921 had taken eight days. In Bern, where her primary job was to run a household where she was addressed in Turkish by those who served her as “Hanimefendi” or “Madame,” the fissures in her prearranged marriage grew wider.
A short, stout woman with a broad face and straight brown hair she tinted auburn, Ahmet’s mother felt isolated in this strange new culture and sought solace in music. Over and over on the family’s hand-wound phonograph, she would play her favorite Turkish records until “the sad haunting Oriental music of Istanbul” brought tears to her eyes. In Ahmet’s words, “When she could no longer hold back her sobs, she would retire to her room so as not to upset the children. I could not tell whether it was because of her homesickness or her unhappiness with my father or her missing some unknown lover of the past, or whether it was just the music that evoked in her this deep melancholy.”
The scene around the family dinner table when all the guests were Turkish was far happier. Once the meal was over, Ahmet’s mother would sing and play the piano or the oud and people would dance. Although Ahmet’s father “would never participate in these carryings-on,” he would “regale all those present with funny anecdotes about the anomalies between the Near Eastern and Western cultures and some of the ridiculous situations that resulted.”
Still too young to go to school, Ahmet and Selma spent their days being looked after by “nurses, governesses, and maids.” Foremost among them was Madame Yenge (yenge being the Turkish word for aunt) whom Ahmet’s sister would later describe as “a beloved distant relative who was like a doting grandmother to us.” One day as she was walking with Ahmet, who was then four years old, “a miserable-looking beggar” approached them. Yenge was about to walk away when Ahmet grabbed her hand, “started crying furiously, and refused to budge until she had given him a few pennies.”
In later years, Yenge would tell this story with tears in her eyes to show how compassionate Ahmet had been as a young boy. However, he could also be quite headstrong and, in his sister’s words, “perhaps a bit spoiled.” After Yenge had left Ahmet alone for a few minutes to fetch something from the top floor of the house, he began to scream, “Why didn’t you take me with you?” When Yenge came back to get him, Ahmet refused to go with her. Insisting she should have taken him with her in the first place, he continued crying while repeating she had “wronged him.”
During this period, Ahmet’s only real companion was eight-year-old Nesuhi. “He was like a hero to my sister and me,” Ahmet wrote. “At seven or eight, he seemed to be a big grown-up man who had much more in common with the adults than with us.” In a photograph from this period, Ahmet sits on his brother’s knee peering at the camera with a shy, inquisitive look on his face. Enacting the role he would play for many years in Ahmet’s life, a broadly smiling Nesuhi has both his arms wrapped protectively around his younger brother.
In the afternoon, the brothers often played soccer together on the large lawn behind their house. Some days, the two sons of the Swiss president, who were roughly the same age, would come to join them. Placing two caps at each end of the field to serve as goal markers, they would pretend Turkey was playing Switzerland in a match that “was always a bloody battle.”
The most significant moment of Ahmet’s life in Bern occurred when his father brought home a motion picture projector. Ahmet would later remember watching silent films starring Charlie Chaplin.
No matter how many times Ahmet’s father showed these films, his children never wanted them to stop. As a special treat, Ahmet and his sister would occasionally be taken to the cinema, which they adored.
In 1931, Mehmet Munir was posted to Paris as ambassador. His family moved with him into a house at 33 rue de Villejust in the 18th Arrondissement, the bohemian district of Montmartre. Soon after moving to Paris, Ahmet’s mother began looking for a new governess to care for her two younger children. Ahmet and Selma were sitting on the floor of their playroom when their mother entered with the woman she was considering for the job.
As Ahmet’s mother talked to her, Ahmet leaned over to his sister and whispered in her ear, “I don’t like this woman. See what I’m going to do.” Taking the scissors he and Selma had been using to cut up pictures, Ahmet crawled over to the woman and began cutting her skirt. She screamed, “I can’t take care of savages like these!” Ahmet’s mother, who had to pay for the skirt, was horrified and punished her son.
A very imaginative child, Ahmet also invented elaborate fantasy games to play with his sister. Using a broomstick as a mast, he would pretend the sofa was a small boat in which they were sailing around the world and being tossed about by huge waves only to be marooned on an island where they were then attacked by natives.
Along with his brother, Nesuhi, who attended the upper school, Ahmet was sent to the exclusive Petit Lycée Janson de Sailly on the rue de la Pompe in the 16th Arrondissement, where the poet and critic Stephan Mallarmé, the actor Jean Gabin, and the filmmaker Jean Renoir had been before them. Always a far better student than his older brother, Ahmet regularly achieved perfect scores in French and calculus and began studying English. Now listening to records by Josephine Baker, the Mills Brothers, Bing Crosby, Paul Whiteman, and Louis Armstrong, Ahmet would travel with his mother each year to Deauville for the Concours d’Elegance, where the most fashionable cars of the day were on display.
In 1931 at the age of eight, Ahmet was taken back to Turkey by his mother so he could be circumcised in accordance with Islamic law. While the family was living in Switzerland and France, Ahmet would sometimes say how beautiful his physical surroundings were only to be told by others in the household, “It’s nothing. Turkey is so much more beautiful.” He soon came to believe the land of his birth was “an incredible, wonderful paradise.”
As Ahmet walked with his mother from the central railway station in Istanbul down a street full of holes with lights that did not work, he turned to her and said, “Mother, what happened here? Did a bomb fall? I mean, it’s so dirty.” As Ahmet would later say, “And then I noticed all the people walking around without shoes on. Instead of shoes, they had pieces of cloth that were tied together with strings and I said, ‘How could you talk—why did everybody lie to me about how fantastic this country is?’ It took me a few weeks to look beyond the poverty and to see an inner beauty which exists in a country.”
At his own request in 1932, Mehmet Munir was transferred to England, where he assumed his new post as the Turkish ambassador to the Court of St. James’s. In London, he and his wife were presented to the king and queen. Although Ahmet did not accompany them, Nesuhi did take him to see a duke who changed the course of both their lives.
Nine years old and barely able to speak English, Ahmet was wearing a beret as he stepped off the train from Paris with his family in London and immediately got into a fight with “a couple of ruffians who were hanging around the railway station.” Swept up into a rarefied life of luxury and privilege in a country where the class system was still in place, he would have no further contact with anyone from the street in England. In a city where the fog was often still so thick his mother panicked one day when she let go of his hand for a moment only to lose sight of him, Ahmet’s childhood soon became far more structured than before. In no small part this was due to the heightened nature of his mother’s social life.
After Mehmet Munir presented his credentials to the Court of St. James’s on July 23, 1932, he and his wife were invited to dine with King George V and Queen Mary. Fearing she might lose her balance as she was introduced to the queen, Ahmet’s mother, who was overweight at the time, carefully practiced her curtsy before going out that night. When she called upon the Duchess of York, the mother of the future Queen Elizabeth II, the two women discussed their daughters, both of whom were about the same age.
Ahmet and Nesuhi were sent to school at the French Lycée in Cromwell Gardens in South Kensington. In the Turkish ambassador’s residence at 69 Portland Place in Marylebone, Ahmet and his sister ate their meals separately from their parents, whom “they hardly ever saw.” Their new governess, Miss Whittingham, who “was very British and very strict,” had previously looked after the Duke and Duchess of York’s daughters, Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret, and so made Ahmet and Selma dress each night for dinner.
“We wore our party clothes and Miss Whittingham wore evening gowns, rose or yellow chiffon dresses with matching satin shoes,” Ahmet’s sister would later say. “We had dinner in the dining room but at a much earlier time than our parents. In accordance with Miss Whittingham’s rules of etiquette, I led the procession into the dining room with Miss Whittingham behind me and Ahmet third and last. I don’t know how we did it but we were even taught how to eat grapes with a knife and fork.”
In London, Selma first realized her brother “was interested in women from an early age.” When their new governess wanted to undress both children so she could put them to bed, six-year-old Selma refused to let her do so but “Ahmet just sort of left himself in her hands and threw himself at her. He wanted her to undress him.”
Ahmet was ten years old when Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington, “the King of Jazz,” came to London for the first time on June 12, 1933, to perform with “His Famous Orchestra” at the London Palladium. The grandson of a former slave, Ellington was then thirty-four years old. Raised in Washington, D.C., he had begun taking piano lessons when he was seven years old, written his first composition at the age of fourteen, and begun his career as a professional musician four years later.
Duke Ellington’s two-week engagement at the Palladium was a cultural event of major proportions, changing not only how he performed but also the way in which his music was perceived. Long before Ellington’s genius was fully appreciated in America, British audiences demanded he play his more serious extended compositions as well as the dance music “typically expected of black artists in the jazz world.” English critics compared Ellington’s work to Arnold Schönberg’s twelve tone system, while also noting its relationship to “the primitive, discordant, rule-breaking” rhythms of sixteenth-century Elizabethan madrigals.
On Ellington’s opening night in the Palladium, the curtain opened to reveal an expansive stage decorated with three huge cardboard cutouts of cartoonlike black musicians, all of which would now be considered racist. In a pearl gray suit, white shirt, and tie, the impossibly elegant and regal-looking Duke sat behind a concert grand piano. Before he could play a single note, the audience of nearly four thousand, who had paid from 9 pence (about 20 cents) to 5 shillings (about a dollar and a quarter) to see the show, greeted him with the kind of extended ovation that had before been given only to well-known classical performers in England.
Facing an orchestra composed of three trumpet players, three saxophone players, a banjo player, three trombone players, three clarinet players, and a drummer, Ellington kicked off the show with “Ring Dem Bells.” During what was a full-fledged variety show, he played “Bugle Call Rag” and “Black and Tan Fantasy” and brought out Ivie Anderson who sang “Stormy Weather” while leaning against a marble pillar. The dancers Bill Bailey and Derby Wilson gave “a display of neat and fast footwork,” Bessie Dudley, “the original snake hips girl,” did “an impressive rhythmic dancing turn,” and trumpeter Freddy Jenkins sang the Sophie Tucker favorite “Some of These Days.” Ellington brought “the program to a happy conclusion” with “the somber strains of ‘Mood Indigo.’”
The “scores of smartly dressed young English people” in the expensive seats, among them the Duke of Kent, the third son of King George V, stomped their feet, shouted, whistled, and applauded in approval as did the “hundreds in the hinterlands of the Palladium.” After the show, “a small army of autograph seekers,” sixty women among them, “besieged the Duke and his musicians” outside the stage door.
In what one English jazz scholar would later call “a precursor to Beatlemania,” fans clung to Ellington’s limousine as he was driven from the hall. After paying Ellington the highest broadcast fee in its history so he would repeat his stunning performance on the radio, the BBC extended the program for five minutes so Ellington could play “Mood Indigo” in its entirety.
For Ahmet, who was taken to the show by his brother, the evening was an ear-shattering, life-changing experience he would never forget. “It was nothing like hearing the records,” Ahmet would later say. “The engineers at the time were afraid that too much bass or too much drums would crack the grooves on the 78s so they recorded them very low. And when you heard these bands in person, it was explosive. This boom-boom-boom incredible rhythm. It went through your body. I went, ‘Oh my God, this is jazz. This is not this bullshit thing we hear on a record player. This is real jazz.’... The very loudness of the sound, the reverberation of the bass and drum in the theater frightened me, it was so powerful… I’d never heard music with that kind of strength… For the first time, I saw these beautiful black men wearing shining white tuxedos and these brass instruments gleaming. It was an incredible sight.”
A year later, Nesuhi took Ahmet to see Cab Calloway at the Palladium. Although Ahmet would later often confuse the dates of these two shows as well as what the musicians had been wearing, the transformative effect of those magical nights at the London Palladium made him want to make records as powerful as the live performances he had experienced as a boy.
When in June 1934 Mehmet Munir was posted to Washington, D.C., as the ambassador to the United States from the Republic of Turkey, Ahmet was very excited. In his words, “I was twelve when I got to America so my impressions were that I knew about cowboys and Indians but the most important thing for me was jazz. And I was dying to see Louis Armstrong and I thought, ‘Well, that’s where we’re going.’ ”
Leaving his family behind, Mehmet Munir went by himself to Washington so he could begin representing his country’s interests in America as soon as possible. Ahmet’s mother then returned with her children to Turkey for a summer visit that extended for months as she prepared for the long journey to a land where no one she knew had ever gone.
In the very formal, stilted English he had learned at school in London, Ahmet regularly wrote letters to his father in which he expressed his desire to come to America because he thought “there were very many cowboys there.” Although he had already received one from someone else, he also thanked his father for the gift of a new Kodak camera. Repeatedly, Ahmet asked for soccer journals, which did not then exist in America. He concluded one of his letters by writing, “I kiss you a hundred of times, Your dear son, A. Munir.”
During the last week in December 1934, Ahmet, his mother, and his sister traveled to Genoa on the Orient Express and then boarded the ship that would take them to America. At a time when, as Ahmet would say, “making the trip from Europe to America was a major event,” his family did so in the grand manner to which they had all become accustomed. In first-class, they embarked on the SS Rex, the luxurious Italian ocean liner that in August 1933 had won the Blue Riband for the fastest westward crossing of the Atlantic by completing the journey from Gibraltar to New York in the astonishing time of four days, thirteen hours, and fifty-eight minutes.
As they journeyed to a country gripped by the Great Depression, Ahmet, his mother, and sister occupied a suite that was “a rung above the first-class cabins and certainly the most luxurious accommodation the ship had to offer.” In an era when the average salary in America was less than $1,400, their passage cost more than most people in the United States earned in an entire year. Because it was the custom for ambassadors and their families to be sent abroad in the best possible circumstances, all their expenses were paid for by the Turkish government.
With them from Turkey, his mother had brought two Armenian families who were in third-class on the Rex. “But when the sea got rough,” Ahmet recalled, “she went down to get them. We had this huge suite and we had all these poor people sleeping with us. Because down there, it was much worse. Where we were, at least you could look out the window. It had air.” Ahmet and his family spent New Year’s Eve on the ship but, in Selma’s words, because the passage was so stormy, “There were only a few passengers well enough to take part in the festivities, which consisted of dinner and a dance orchestra with nobody dancing. It was hard enough to keep one’s balance just standing up.”
The crossing became so rough at one point that Ahmet’s mother, who blamed herself for having postponed their trip until midwinter, tearfully embraced her two children while telling them she was the cause of their impending deaths. Neither Ahmet nor Selma, both of whom “enjoyed roaming around the empty corridors of the ship, trying to keep our balance as we superiorly belittled those who were throwing up in their cabins,” took her seriously. To keep her children busy, she gave them “thousands of dollars” to bet on a “fake horse race with dummy horses” and a dice game that was held each afternoon on the ship. “My sister and I won every day,” Ahmet would later say. “We used to go back and give her all these huge sums of money.”
After the Rex landed in New York, the family was greeted by the consul general of Turkey and two people from his staff. As Ahmet recalled, “We arrived in the evening and the first thing I said was, ‘I want to see 42nd Street.’ Because I’d seen the movie, right? We drove down 42nd Street, Times Square. It was incredible. It was America the way I expected it.”
After staying in a hotel that night, the family took a train to Washington, on which Ahmet would later remember seeing “the black Pullman porters who would say, ‘Yes sir, I’ll give you a shine.’” At Union Station, the family was met by the Turkish embassy limousine, a navy blue Packard. Eleven and a half years old, Ahmet had finally arrived in the land he had only read about in comic books. His initial expectations of America had also been formed by Miss Whittingham, his “very strict” and “difficult” English governess in London, who had told him “Americans were savages… They spoke like peasants and were not upper-class people at all. They were just ruffians.”
By the time Ahmet arrived in Washington, his father had already become embroiled in a heated controversy for which none of his previous diplomatic service could have prepared him. In the fall of 1934, a novel entitled The Forty Days of Musa Dagh by Franz Werfel, an Austrian Jew who had served as an Austro-Hungarian artillery corporal during World War I, was published in America to uniformly positive reviews.
Written in a very grand, florid style, the novel recounts the heroic stand taken by its hero, Gabriel Bagradian, to defend his fellow Armenians against deportations, mass murder, and rape at the hands of the “Young Turks” who had led the Ottoman Empire in 1915. While as many as a million and a half Armenians of the Christian faith were killed during this period, the Republic of Turkey steadfastly denied that such acts had ever occurred. Any reference to the Armenian massacre as genocide was considered a grievous insult to Turkish pride.
Although Mustafa Kemal had denounced the massacres as “a shameful act” in 1919, he wanted to distance his new nation from the actions of the Young Turks as well as the legacy of the Ottoman Empire. To bind his people into a single nation, he also “outlawed ethnic and minority identity” and removed all public references to Armenians within Turkey.
When Irving Thalberg, “The Boy Wonder” who was then the head of production at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer began implementing the studio’s plan to film The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, the government of Turkey reacted swiftly to the news by sending its new ambassador to America to meet with Wallace Murray, the State Department’s chief of Near Eastern Affairs. During their meeting, Mehmet Munir told Murray he “earnestly hoped” the studio “would desist from presenting any such picture, which would almost certainly stir up anti-Turkish feelings in the country.”
Pursuing the matter as though this was now his top priority, Mehmet Munir continued corresponding with Murray. He also visited the Hays Office in New York where the Motion Picture Production Code was enforced to insist the film be terminated and informed MGM’s legal counsel that all of the studio’s films would be banned in Turkey if the company insisted on making this movie. In June 1935, he agreed to accept two copies of the script so he could read one himself while sending the other to the Foreign Affairs Office in Ankara.
In Turkey, the story had become headline news. On a daily basis, newspapers published anti-American and anti-Jewish harangues protesting the project. The issue soon became so inflamed that a group of Armenian intellectuals gathered in a churchyard in Istanbul where they set the book and a photograph of its author on fire as they sang the Turkish national anthem to prove their loyalty to the government.
In September 1935, Mehmet Munir contacted Secretary of State Cordell Hull to inform him the Turkish government considered the script “utterly negative. Kindly exert your high influence with a view to precluding the carrying out of the project.” He then told an official at Loew’s, the company that owned MGM, “If the movie is made, Turkey will launch a worldwide campaign against it. It rekindles the Armenian question. The Armenian question is settled. How else would you explain the presence of Armenians in the Turkish Parliament? The movie will only stir up troubles about a situation that has been smoothed out.”
Due in great part to Mehmet Munir’s unrelenting efforts, MGM eventually scrapped its plan to film The Forty Days of Musa Dagh. Forty-seven years after the studio first purchased the rights to the book, what was generally considered an atrocious version of the novel finally made its way to the screen.
As Peter Balakian, the author of The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America’s Response, would later say, “Munir Ertegun became a pit bull on this with the State Department. He was clearly a very successful political animal. Nevertheless, he was an absolute purveyor of the Turkish denialist narrative on the Armenians and the Armenian genocide, and it is really a dark and twisted immoral story of huge proportions.”
“My personal view,” Ahmet’s sister Selma would later write, “is that my father did this because it was his duty to try to stop anti-Turkish propaganda in whatever form it appeared. He was certainly instructed by the government to do whatever he could to stop the film. This does not mean he condoned the actions of the Ottoman government. I was too young then to know what his personal thoughts were. All I can recall is that it was a very difficult and stressful time. I am still amazed he was able to succeed in his efforts to stop the making of a film in a democratic country like the U.S.”
In 1994, Ahmet, who by then had become a very wealthy man, donated $3.5 million to create the M. Munir Ertegun Turkish Studies Foundation in the Department of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University. Four years later, Ahmet publicly conceded that deaths had in fact taken place in Armenia in 1915. Stating they were casualties of war and not part of a planned genocide, he added, “There are different interpretations of what happened.”
In 1998, Ahmet also contacted Harut Sassounian, the publisher of The California Courier, the oldest independent English-language Armenian newspaper in the United States, to discuss the issue with him. After Ahmet’s death in December 2006, Sassounian wrote that as a precondition to their meeting Ahmet needed to acknowledge the Armenian genocide. Over a lunch that lasted for more than two hours at the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills, Ahmet “made it clear that he was not acknowledging the Genocide in order to appease the Armenians. He believed that it was, first of all, in Turkey’s interest to acknowledge the Genocide, because doing so would help Ankara’s application for membership in the European Union and get rid of the stigma that had haunted his native land for so many years.”
Although Sassounian wrote it was “a shame that the public statement we had discussed regarding the Armenian Genocide never materialized,” he noted Ahmet had contacted him not because “he was pro-Armenian, but because he sincerely wanted to help erase the stigma of the Genocide from Turkey’s name.” Sassounian added, “I could not write this column while he was alive since I did not want to make him the target of hate mail and threats from Turkish extremists by alerting them that he was considering the possibility of issuing a public statement on the Armenian Genocide. Alas, he passed away without being able to do so, which is a loss for both Armenians and Turks.”