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The Artist at Home

Essad Bey at Positano

Lev Nussimbaum spent the second half of his life as a refashioned Muslim prince—before meeting an early end in Italy.

Strangely, Essad Bey was never a spy.

He was everything else a good interwar European celebrity should be: an exile, an eccentric, an artist, and the owner of an assortment of identity papers. He was a monarchist who flirted with fascists and married a capitalist. He moved in mystery, died in penury, and has only recently been thoroughly (if not definitively) exposed for what he was. Not a spy—just a Jew from Baku who had almost entirely erased his background.

Given more time, this self-remade man could very well have fallen into espionage. He had all the personal bravado and political ambivalence. But he died early—victim to a rare blood disease at age 36, leaving behind a dozen published books, including best-selling biographies of Stalin, Nicholas II, Reza Shah, and Mohammed. A prodigious, almost fanatic, chronicler of Great Lives, Essad Bey was most creative with his own. Embroidered beyond recognition, his biography eventually unraveled, like a thread in a much larger tapestry.

Investigative reporter Tom Reiss recently followed that 70-year-old thread to write the book on Essad Bey. But The Orientalist is more evocative of the large tapestries than of the subject before them. Essad Bey wanders through Reiss’s tale like an exotic Waldo (where is he now?) or a literary Zelig (in Mussolini’s antechamber of course!)—as unobtrusive as he is omnipresent.

So it was with a sad sense of “gotcha” that I stood upon his grave last month. There’s nothing less elusive than a carved headstone.


* * *

The Amalfi highway runs hell-bent from the chaos of Naples through blasted tunnels along a dizzying blue expanse that makes a mockery of the guardrail. It slows at the roundabout that is the center of Meta and again at the fork to Sorrento. Then it stretches white-knuckled and serpentine until Capri recedes into the distance.

Positano emerges from around a bend, the first of a number of sun-drenched towns built in defiance of gravity on the sea cliffs. In Positano the highway is corralled into a single, one-way lane of switchbacks that provide entrance to, transit within, and exit from the town—a vehicular mobius strip.

Several hundred feet below the bottom of the street is the beach, which is reachable only by foot along steep cobbled streets lined with shops selling ceramics and ghastly sweet limoncello. Several hundred feet above the road’s apex is the town cemetery.

Most of the dead of Positano lie below small shrines that shield silk flowers and photographs from the sun. Their epitaphs are easily legible, chiseled in shade and topped with a tile roof and single cross begging to be photographed against the haze of mountains that plunge into the sea.

But one headstone prefers the direct exposure of Tyrrhenian sun. It wears a turban in place of a cross. It faces away from Positano, south towards the next outcrop of a town. It is the resting place of Essad Bey, aka Kurban Said, author of that tale of Azeri star-crossed lovers, Ali and Nino. In Positano he is known as “The Muslim.” Thanks to Tom Reiss, he is also known by his birth name, Lev Nussimbaum.

I like to think of him as the Weimar Scheherazade.


* * *

Lev Nussimbaum was the son of an oil magnate in pre-revolutionary Azerbaijan. He fled with his father during the Civil War, making a circuitous escape to Europe via the Caspian Sea and Persia. He disappeared in 1921, when he walked into the Ottoman consulate in Berlin and emerged as Essad Bey.

“Now my hereditary estates belong to the Bolsheviks.” Tears, the reporter concluded, shone in the eyes of his Serene Highness. Refashioned as a Mohammedan prince, the young émigré ushered into Berlin’s literary salons the romance of his Azeri homeland. Dressed as a Circassian warlord and spouting tales of his youth in a gilded harem, Essad Bey was an amalgam of the East, an Oriental curiosity. From the cafes on Kurfürstendamm, he conjured up fig trees and sea breezes; on the pages of the leading journals, he offered suggestive self-portraits of a tribesman of the Caucasus, an Arab sheik, and a Persian pasha.

A Jew hounded by Bolsheviks into the dawning Third Reich, Nussimbaum knew from the modern menaces of ideology. His embrace of the East in all its barbarity and archaic color, therefore, was earnest. Tribalism, in his mind, was a bulwark against more pernicious fidelities—to Party or to patria. Blood feuds, dancing girls, and caravans of gold were his version of political pamphleteering. And they made great copy: “In this selfsame blessed land of Mingrella, where priests and nobles may be slaves,” wrote Essad Bey in his 1931 collection Twelve Secrets of the Caucasus, “…in this place a delightful incident occurred some twenty years ago…”

In 1931, 20 years ago was ancient history. Which made it that much easier for the young Nussimbaum to claim timelessness as his nanny, and the lore of centuries as his own.

As for the details of “the delightful incident,” they include a rejected dowry, a spurned Queen, a peace-loving Grey Eminence, and a polygamous act of dishonor. Its hero is one Temurkva the thief, who, we are told:

…ended up as an industrial magnate, but his son was driven out by the Bolsheviks. He is doing very well in spite of it however, as his title “Prince” serves him equally well abroad. He married a wealthy American girl, and I myself read an interview he had in the papers “Yes,” he told the reporter, “my family dates back to the 8th century and my father was a high dignitary at the court of the Mingrelian Queen. But now my hereditary estates belong to the Bolsheviks.” Tears, the reporter concluded, shone in the eyes of his Serene Highness.

It is the story of Nussimbaum, as told by Essad Bey, and it is entitled “How to Become a Prince.”


* * *

Positano is the kind of town that regularly suffers the inane delight of a tourist who has discovered a place “where time stands still.”

It’s true that the town’s topography has presented some limitations. Positano will not be burdened by urban sprawl, zoning disputes, or subway expansions. Still: Superlative, picturesque, beachfront towns do modernize in their own fashion. Positano hospitality now includes summer cooking camps for American families on vacation; the local craftsmen make cell phone carriers as well as sandals; and most importantly, the glitterati, from Steinbeck to De Sica to Coppola, have kept it contemporary for years.

But the view from the vertiginous cemetery is close to timeless. Particularly if you are gazing down on the pink terraces and warped church plazas at dusk on Good Friday.

No one in the small town knew, nor much cared, about the mysterious Muslim. But still he feared the secret police and all heavy black cars. This is when the locals from Positano and the few hamlets higher up the mountain gather at the chiesa nuova to take Jesus down from his cross. Actually, they don’t so much take him down from the cross as they take him down with his cross and parade him through the cobbled streets. Then they wrap him up and put him back in the closet for next Easter season.

From a spot on the cemetery wall I watched the far below milling about, punctuated by a dozen or so red lanterns that eventually formed the lead and pulled the procession up the stone stairways, murmuring lamentations as it went. At the head of the procession were 12 figures cloaked and fully hooded. Klansman-style hooded. Around their robed middles was a length of dark rope.

I hurried out of the cemetery to meet them, but caught only the tail end as they turned back around to retrace their path. I asked one of the stragglers about the menacing acolytes, to which he responded with a yell at Paolo. Paolo fell back, issued a high complaint about his faulty lantern, and then tugged the hood from his pudgy 10-year-old face.

“Boia,” announced Paolo’s dad. The executioner.


* * *

Elsewhere in Twelve Secrets of the Caucasus, Essad Bey writes about the Svaneti of Western Georgia. He was particularly interested in their traditional form of crucifix, which is not a cross but a plinth carved as a man, with arms raised beseechingly and “eyes which would cause the most courageous to shudder.”

Somewhere between Positano’s cemetery and church is the darkened room where Essad Bey spent his last days.

This was where he landed after his tumultuous marriage to an American shoe heiress ended in tabloid ignominy—after his flirtation with Nazism withered on a Viennese vine; after the publication of his most famous book under yet another pseudonym; after a last-ditch flight to Italy and inexplicable attempt to become Mussolini’s authorized biographer.

An exotic bird pinioned by war, his jet-set life revoked along with his membership in the Reich Union of German Writers, Essad Bey no longer needed to choose among his aliases, for no one in the small town knew, nor much cared, about the mysterious Muslim. But still he feared the secret police and all heavy black cars.

He wrote letters abroad, pleading for recognition, royalties, comfort. He began to resemble the Svaneti mountaineer who had once accosted the young Nussimbaum as he admired strange totems. This “fantastically ragged personality,” wrote Bey, had addressed the travelers menacingly, but when translated, turned out to be an overly eager host: “I am very wealthy and a nobleman,” was the message, “and I beg you to honor me with a visit.”

As I watched the 12 little hangmen leading the lynched Lamb of God down the mountain, I imagined Nussimbaum’s observations of a Santa Croce procession. I wondered if he had read in it messages from conspirators real or fictitious. If he had woven its picturesque macabre into the unfinished novel in six leather notebooks that biographer Reiss discovered among the deathbed effects of Essad Bey, aka Kurban Said, author of Ali and Nino.

I wondered if he had ever told an all-night tale about a runaway Sultan, a foundling Prince, a captive heir forced to collaborate with the executioners of his God. Perhaps only to himself.


TMN Contributing Writer Elizabeth Kiem is the author of Dancer, Daughter, Traitor, Spy. More by Elizabeth Kiem