Waiting for my wife to join me for coffee, people-watching…
Her, 92, thin white hair with an attempt at coloring long-ago expired.
Him, 95, bald at the crown with a classic old man’s ring of gray, mouth agape as if a minor stroke has impaired some facial muscles.
A foo-foo dog rests in each of their laps. Yesterday, one of them had an accident on the carpet, one of the dogs I mean. They — the people now — dutifully reported this but with regal haughteur versus apologetic embarrassment, damning them in my book and here for posterity.
Nearby they sit and watch as people come by to coffee up. Not a word, until another elderly man asks the Ritz staff for assistance. He can’t remember his room number could they look it up please? He is European, a strong German accent resonant as he spells out his last name. G E R H A R D T.
I only noticed this little drama because, as the gentleman explained his predicament, the older woman came alive for the first time, evilly and gleefully calling her husband’s attention to Herr Gerhardt’s dilemma. Her joy at another’s discomfiture seemed petty. The combination of this and yesterday’s handling of the doggie event solidified in my mind that these two were nazi war criminals, living out their last years in wealth on Grand Cayman.
I imagined him escaping the final days of World War II with a bucket of loot, probably a buck private assigned to concentration camp duty who stumbled across a hoard of gold and diamonds and never looked back. She, a casual girlfriend, accepted his invitation to flee as the only bright option in an otherwise dark future.
After racing across the border into France on a stolen motorbike, the two were able to pass unchallenged through repeated checkpoints on the back of Masie’s perfect French; her mother after all was Paris-born and bred, even while her father was a senior officer in the SS. His silence was explained preemptively by a horrible cold, barely far from the truth as Matthias in fact was ill with an infection and bronchitis.
Gradually they stole their way through France into Spain, then Morocco, then a long and arduous freighter ride to Venezuela where Matthias remembered an uncle or great uncle, he wasn’t certain which, that had emigrated before the war. In Venezuela, though, they couldn’t find their uncle and were frightened by the country’s late-breaking anti-Axis fervor. They sought out and found sympathetic Germans, and learned that those of higher means found the Cayman Islands an emerging and exalted place to vacation. And so there they went, bribing the captain of a small oil tanker heading to Mexico with a few pieces of gold for transport.
Once on the Caymans, they kept a low profile for years while they mastered English, living in a tiny rented home on the outskirts of Georgetown. The Caymans despite their British ties were relatively far removed from the conflict that had consumed most of civilization, and over time Matthias and Masie’s fear of discovery slowly waned. In 1954 he took a junior position in one of the early trust banks on the island, a small firm relative to the esteemed Barclays; gradually, he became a well-respected banker, trustworthy in no small part because he never used two words when one would do, or one when a nod of the head was sufficient.
Masie in turn took an interest in the sleepy real estate market just to pass the time, and when Caymans property became a hot ticket in the 60's and 70's, there she was, tremendously successful because she spoke French, German, English and even a smattering of Portuguese, Spanish and Italian. She quickly became the go-to realtor for wealthy westerner Europeans seeking vacation properties.
Despite their newfound careers and financial success, the gold and diamonds Matthias stole in that fitful moment 25 years earlier dwarfed what they would ever earn in a thousand lifetimes. As careful as they were to live within the means of a banker and real estate broker, they inevitably desired more than this. So, huddled close together late one night, they concocted a scheme whereby Masie’s mother passed away leaving her, her only surviving family, a substantial estate. Details shared within their Caymans community were fuzzy but hints of royalty in the far-away past, of chateaux and vineyards, were dropped by Matthias in late-night whiskey-infused chatter, and quickly passed around as gospel.
So on Masie’s tear-filled return after six weeks abroad, no one was surprised when the Bakers — their made-up name selected in the early days of their refuge, because it was innocuous and of vague heritage — purchased one of the largest homes on the Island and left their day jobs. Soon and again to no one’s surprise, they bought a dozen or so beautiful properties. They even swept up some undeveloped property on the desolate West Bay Beach, where Seven Mile Beach thrives today. In the early 70's, they were laughed at as naive but within ten years that opinion was reversed and the Bakers were revered as shrewd geniuses and considered among the founding class of a new breed of Island royalty.
Their reticence and studious avoidance of social gatherings only increased their reputation on the island and through the 80's and 90's, their wealth grew. Their marriage had produced no children but the Bakers took in rare breed Schnauzers and Bijon Frise. Rarely were they spotted in town but never without their pets.
The turn of the century brought a softening of the Bakers’ isolationism. With no apparent heirs, everyone in the Cayman community wondered what would become of the massive wealth they had accumulated. The chatter increased as the Bakers appeared more and more in public, not at social events but simply walking the streets together and taking meals in town versus privately at home. In 2006, they purchased the premiere suite at the newly-established Ritz-Carlton Residences on Seven Mile Beach, and moved there. Their health had clearly deteriorated and moving into a place where assistance was never more than a few seconds away made sense.
And so it was that I came to observe the Bakers in the self-service coffee bar in the Ritz Grand Cayman. Their pets were allowed special dispensation in this no-pet resort. What the Bakers intend to do with their vast wealth on their inevitable demise remains one of the island’s greatest mysteries.
My own theory after spending two days observing the couple observing their kingdom: they are looking for worthy successors to their dirty and extensive pile of wealth. They to this day have all but a few of the original silver pieces of gold and diamonds they stole from nazi concentration camps. They rationalized their wealth as built not on these few pieces of judas silver but instead on their own hard work and ingenuity.
So here they sit looking for someone to whom to pass on their legacy. They debate in their sleepless nights how much to disclose. They also debate donating their entire estate to a Jewish charity to make amends but silently dismiss this notion because of the shame it will bring them, but what would it matter when they’re gone? It gnaws at them but not enough to force the issue. So here they sit wondering what to do, more lost at least in their souls than even when they were navigating Europe to escape their shameful and inconsolable past.
— — — — — — — — — — —
Of course, this fictional tale was simply my daydreaming, and these folks were certainly of a more innocuous heritage. But the mean-spirited glee I saw in “Masie” that sparked my imagination for the few minutes it took to write this was as real as you and me.