Wednesday, October 28, 2015

A Visit With Dracula: 1997

For about eight years, I had an enviable freelance position as a roving cultural correspondent for the Wall Street Journal Europe, with a territory encompassing Germany, Scandinavia, Switzerland, Eastern Europe, and, occasionally, other places the other correspondents didn't want to go or where stories they had no interest or knowledge in were. I wrote a lot about art, some about music, and got to visit a load of interesting places and people. I'm thinking of doing another Kindle book with some of my greatest hits from this period of my life, but seeing as it's Halloween and this CD just showed up in my living room for some reason, I figured it's time to tell the tale of my brief encounter with Dracula.

Yup, that's him

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        Dracula lives!
And, this being 1997, he lives in the suburbs, drives a car, has a cellular phone, and frets over the exorbitant cost of heating Castle Dracula in the wintertime. Some things haven’t changed, though: this year hundreds of people have left Castle Dracula minus some of their blood.
Yes, there really is a Dracula, and yes, he really has a castle. Not the sort of forbidding stone pile of filmdom, but a stately country home built in the middle of the last century by Rudolf Mosse, a Jewish publishing magnate who lost it to the Nazis in 1934. The house was commandeered after the War by the East Germans, who used it as housing for some of the tenants of the collective farm they built on the grounds. Dracula bought it for a token fee from the Treuhand, the organization in charge of converting East German state property after the unification of Germany, and now he’s stuck with it.
As readers of Bram Stoker’s classic novel, published 100 years ago in Dublin, have discovered if they’ve researched its background, there really was a historic Count Dracula, Vlad Tepes, or Vlad the Impaler, a gruesome Wallachian nobleman in Romania who used to enjoy punishing disobedient subjects and “unchaste women” by impaling them on sharpened logs, often dining amidst the hapless victims as they died. Tepes was the son of Vlad Dracul, Vlad the Dragon, and “Dracula” means “son of the dragon.” In the 350 years since his reign, the family grew in stature in Romania, eventually becoming the Kretzulesco family, whose status was upgraded to princes and princesses, and whose grande dame, Katharin, escaped the Communists and settled in Kansas City, where she was awarded the Congressional Medal of Freedom by Ronald Reagan for her tireless anticommunist activities and work to free her native land from the Russian yoke, and died in 1994.
The story takes its current turn in 1977, when a Kretzulesco heiress walked into an antique store on Berlin’s fashionable Pestalozzistrasse, trying to sell some of the family silver. The store’s owner noticed the crest and inquired about it. The woman told him a tale of woe: the Kretzulesco line was about to become extinct, having produced nothing but women in its current generation, and they were too old for child-bearing. This was a worry, because the family was responsible for the maintenance of two palaces in Bucharest, nine churches, and eleven monasteries scattered throughout Romania. Unfortunately, the Orthodox Church only recognized men as having the power to make decisions, and if the property was to remain in the hands of the family, the Kretzulescos would have to adopt a male heir. Thus, after consultation with the youngest daughter, Princess Caradja Krezulesco, the antique dealer became Ottomar Rodolphe Vlad Dracula, Prince Kretzulesco.
It was, if not quite a deal with the devil, not quite an ideal situation, either. At first, there wasn’t much Prince Dracula could do about things. The Ceauçescu regime didn’t mess with the Church, so those properties were safe, and the state maintained the two palaces in Bucharest, which were regarded as national treasures, and housed the Goethe Institut and a musical-instrument museum. But with the changes in Eastern Europe eight years ago, he seized the opportunity to buy the Mosse property in Schenkendorf, a village a few miles from Königs Wusterhausen, a town on Berlin’s southeast edge. He set about renovating the house and grounds, only to start running into problems.
“I want to paint these walls,” he told a recent group of visitors, “but the historic preservation people want me to conduct a color analysis to discover the original wall-color that will cost me 70,000 Marks ($39,600)! It’s been painted so many times, who can tell?” That, and the fact that it costs 200 Marks ($113) a day to heat the antiquated building, is just the tip of the costly iceberg.
In order to make money, the Prince has moved his antique business into Castle Dracula, and has opened a lovely beer-garden and snack bar, complete with an outdoor grill and a stage area for outdoor musical events. Even there, he’s run into problems: this year, he tried to have a fireworks display and was informed that it would interfere with nesting storks in the area. He lost his deposit with the fireworks folks, only to discover that, due to a late spring, the storks stayed in Africa longer than they normally would.
The property has potential: off in a wooded copse near the main house, Mosse erected a tower with a commanding view of the countryside, atop which he would take breakfast. This still has bomb damage, and the pond next to it is filled with muck and beer-cans, but there are plans to renovate both next year. The collective farm Prince Dracula plans to turn into a complex with a hotel, shops, and a restaurant as soon as a stubborn 87-year-old woman who lives there is persuaded to go elsewhere or passes away. But all of this will take money, and so far, Castle Dracula has been a financial black hole.
The most successful undertaking at Castle Dracula, though, has been, unsurprisingly enough, a blood drive for the German Red Cross. “They were completely unprepared for the response,” the Prince glowers. “Twelve thousand people showed up, but they only managed to have the resources to get donations from 870 of them.” In addition to the five Marks ($2.82) donors got from the Red Cross, they also got a CD of “Dracula’s Song” from the Prince. “I pressed up 10,000 of them, and there are 500,000 more of them waiting to go,” he says. “If only I could get a connection with the American Red Cross, I’d be willing to tour the U.S. promoting their blood-drive, but...” He shrugs his shoulders.
But noblesse oblige and all that. Still, another crisis looms for the 56-year-old Dracula. “It is of course essential that Ottomar produce a male heir,” his 38-year-old girlfriend Bärbel explains as she gets ready for a bartending shift. “We are planning to marry next year, but I feel a tremendous pressure, and this makes me feel terrible.” Meanwhile, the publicity machine grinds on, with a web-site (long vanished as of 2015), plans for more concerts next year, and, of course, another blood drive. And, just maybe, Son of Dracula.
(To reach Castle Dracula, take the S-Bahn or regional rail from Berlin to Königs Wusterhausen. From there, it is a short taxi ride to Schenkdorf, where the Castle is easily found.)

* * *

As much as the story above paints him as a gloomy guy, Dracula was hardly publicity-shy, and mine was certainly not the first story about him -- as a friend of mine who freelanced for them noted, People magazine had run a story about him not long before mine. But there was some truth to his worries; even today, Schenkdorf isn't exactly a tourist destination. 

I remember the visit as pleasant, with a friend's sister translating for me, and in the end, I managed to talk him out of a beer mug from Castle Dracula's beer garden. He'd never even thought of selling them as souvenirs. 

And in the process of researching this post, I found a Wikipedia entry on him, which noted that he'd opened a winery, but had died ten years after I'd talked to him of a brain tumor. He didn't even live long enough to see the birth of his son, Otti, in December, 2007. By then, the Kretzulescos had given up on the castle, and had moved out. But Dracula lives on. 

1 comment:

  1. I've still got my Dracula mug, too! And when you think of all the other commoners who bough themselves titles through adoption as adults, Ottomar never managed to make it work like Zsa Zsa Gabor's husband did.


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