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Sir Basil Zaharoff, the arms dealer, one of the richest men in Europe, is seen on the streets of Monte Carlo, February 3, 1931. (AP Photo)

The Mysterious Mr. Zedzed

Sir Basil Zaharoff was the archetypal “merchant of death”—an arms salesman who made a career out of selling to both sides in a conflict

The real-life WWI political intricacies of Sir Basil Zaharoff — a man once known as ‘the wickedest man in Europe’ — are the stuff of Hollywood legend. Late in November 1927, an elderly Greek man sat in his mansion in Paris and tended a fire. Every time it flickered and threatened to die, he reached to one side and tossed another bundle of papers or a leather-bound book into the grate. For two days the old man fed the flames, at one point creating such a violent conflagration that his servants worried he would burn the whole house down. By the time he had finished, a vast pile of confidential papers, including 58 years’ worth of diaries that recorded every detail of a most scandalous career, had been turned to ash. Thus the shadowy figure whom the press dubbed “the Mystery Man of Europe” ensured that his long life would remain, for the most part, an impenetrable enigma.

Few men have acquired so scandalous a reputation as did Basil Zaharoff, alias Count Zacharoff, alias Prince Zacharias Basileus Zacharoff, known to his intimates as “Zedzed.” Born in Anatolia, then part of the Ottoman Empire, perhaps in 1849, Zaharoff was a brothel tout, bigamist and arsonist, a benefactor of great universities and an intimate of royalty who reached his peak of infamy as an international arms dealer—a “merchant of death,” as his many enemies preferred it.

Sir Basil, whose fortune was built largely from his armament, shipbuilding, oil and banking enterprises, once was reputed to have had a controlling interest in the Monte Carlo gambling concessions, but he never gambled himself. Zaharoff, ‘the mystery man of Europe,’ gained his vast wealth and his reputation as ‘maker and breaker of Kings,’ through imagination shattering deals in armaments and munitions. During the last years of his life, two of the world’s great powers sough to draw aside the veil of secrecy with which Sir Basil had cloaked his existence.

His name was linked prominently with arms investigations in both the United States and Great Britain. In 1934, agents of the American Senate’s special investigating committee reported that they had found a connection between the master arms salesman and United States war materials manufacturers.

Letters from the ‘confidant of Chancellors’ were said to have been found in the files of some of the leading munitions makers of the United States.

In 1936, Sir Basil’s adopted country of Great Britain, which knighted him for his service, brought his name before a Royal commission investigating international munitions manufacturers. At that time, the Chairman of the Board of Vickers, Ltd., and Vickers-Armstrong, Ltd., the great British arms firms, testified Zaharoff had taken no part in the companies’ activities since 1924 except to retain an interest in the Spanish branch.

During the World War, Sir Basil was an influential figure.  He was a generous donor to the poor of Paris.  He founded professorships of aviation at the Universities of Paris, Leningrad and London, and was interested in a professorship of French literature at Oxford and a Chair of English Literature at the Paris University.  He held the degree of Doctor of Laws in the University of Paris and Doctor of Civil Law in Oxford University.

The flower of Zaharoff’s roman blossomed in the palace at Madrid.  Descending the grand staircase he saw a man wearing the great Collar of the Golden Fleece seize a woman by the neck and shake her.  Zaharoff jerked the man violently backward and stepped between the couple. The woman was swaying as though about to fall and Zaharoff put an arm round her.  The man was His Royal Highness Prince Francisco de Bourbon, a cousin of the King of Spain.  The woman, who many years later became Lady Zaharoff, was the twenty year old wife of the Prince, formerly the Duchess de Villafranca de los Caballeros, María del Pilar Antonia Angela Patrocinio Simona de Muguiro y Beruete, and as wife of the Prince, Duchess de Marchena. There was a scene, but the encounter was the beginning of friendship between the Duchess and Zaharoff.  Prince Francisco’s mind became disordered until his family was obliged to confine him in a country residence where he died in 1924.  Zaharoff and the Duchess were married the same year, and Lady Zaharoff’s death in 1926 was a severe blow to Sir Basil.

‘My luck,’ said, he, ‘has been so well known among my friends and acquaintances that on more than one occasion when a new enterprise was being begun I have been asked by the promoter to be the first client of the house.  I have the reputation of having a great fortune, but I can say sincerely that I have not since 1900 tried to add to my possessions.  The Duchess and I prefer to give away in our own manner our income, with the exception of sufficient to live in the way to which we have become accustomed.’

Lady Zaharoff in her own right was reputed to be one of the richest women in Spain.

Sir Basil had several residences, his country house at Balincourt, formerly the property of King Leopold II of Belgium, is one of the most beautiful in France.  The house was filled with works of art, the results of selections throughout forty years in the markets of Europe.  Zaharoff’s favourite exercise was rowing in a lake in the grounds, while his preferred winter residence was Monte Carlo. He remarked: ‘I have spent thirty seasons at Monte Carlo and I have never yet been in the Casino.’

The British National Archives file marked as CAB301/116 looks innocuous enough at first glance. But within its ordinary cardboard cover lies a torrid story, the tale of a man once known as “the Merchant of Death,” who was called “the wickedest man in Europe.”

The file, found among the Cabinet papers of 1952 and released in 2015, relates to a tin box of documents which are so toxic that neither the Cabinet Office nor the Foreign Office wanted to keep them – though they knew they could not risk them becoming public. The British National Archives file marked as CAB301/116 looks innocuous enough at first glance. But within its ordinary cardboard cover lies a torrid story, the tale of a man once known as “the Merchant of Death,” who was called “the wickedest man in Europe.”

The file, found among the Cabinet papers of 1952 and released this month, relates to a tin box of documents which are so toxic that neither the Cabinet Office nor the Foreign Office wanted to keep them – though they knew they could not risk them becoming public.

In 1952, Sir Edward Bridges was a civil servant, Permanent Under-Secretary at the Treasury. He needed help from the Treasury Solicitor, Sir Thomas Barnes. Here was the problem:

One day last week Strang [Sir William Strang, Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office] gave a small party for the retiring ‘C’ [the intelligence chief of MI6, Britain’s secret service]. During the dinner C said that he had that day had lunch with one of the banks. Later he disclosed that the bank was Glyn Mills [later part of the Royal Bank of Scotland].

“The bank said that they had a box of papers about Sir Basil Zaharoff’s dealings with the Government in the First World War. I attach a precis of the papers, prepared by the bank… it is clear that the correspondence deals with bribery on a large scale and is pretty hot.

“Sir Basil is dead. And so, I gather, is his wife. The bank do not know who the papers belong to and they want to get rid of them. It was suggested that if we liked to take custody of the papers, the bank would hand them over to us.

“…It seems to me that the papers deal with Government transactions on the seamy side of life and that we ought not to run the risk that these papers will fall into outside hands.

It is unclear what advice Sir Thomas gave to Sir Edward about what to do with the Zaharoff material, not least, as they both sniffily observed, Zaharoff had been carrying out many of his murky deeds at the instigation of World War I Prime Minister David Lloyd George.

While the papers themselves are no longer in CAB 301/116, the bank’s précis of what they contained is still there. Suffice it to say that Sir Edward’s description of Sir Basil’s activities as “pretty hot” is the understatement of all time. In fact, the bank’s laborious notes show gigantic sums of money being thrown about, furtive meetings with both Greek and Turkish leaders, Keystone Kop-style chases through Swiss hotels, special pleadings for British honours – Lloyd George was known to hand these out like confetti. The documents even describe in the year following the Balfour Declaration, fake undertakings by Sir Basil as to what would become of Palestine.

So who was “ZedZed,” as he was known to his intimates, the international man of mystery?

Zacharias Basileios Zacharoff. Zaharoff, was a Greek arms dealer and industrialist. One of the richest men in the world during his lifetime, Zaharoff was variously described including “merchant of death” and “mystery man of Europe”. His success was forged through his cunning, often aggressive and sharp business tactics. These included the sale of arms to opposing sides in conflicts, sometimes delivering fake or faulty machinery, and reportedly sabotaging trade demonstrations.

According to a article in the Smithsonian Magazine, Zaharoff was born “in Anatolia, then part of the Ottoman Empire, perhaps in 1849.” Other articles suggest he was Armenian or Greek, or even Russian by birth. Certainly he spoke many languages and took full advantage of that in his scandalous career, which apparently included stints as a brothel tout, a bigamist and arsonist – as well as the “profession” he was in when he first started his under-the-radar work for the British government, that of a wildly successful arms dealer.

Zaharoff plainly made lying into an art form. As one of his early biographers, Austrian Robert Neumann, put it: “You ask for his birth certificate. Alas! a fire destroyed the church registers. You search for a document concerning him in the archives of the Vienna War Office. The folder is there, but it is empty; the document has vanished…”

So Zaharoff may or may not have been Jewish, but we will never know because in his old age, in 1927, he sat in his chateau in Paris – almost certainly acquired by dubious means – and systematically burned 58 years’ worth of diaries and papers.

What we do know is that he turned up in Britain in 1872 and married Emily Burrows, daughter of a Bristol merchant. The couple went to Belgium but it wasn’t long before Zaharoff was arrested and brought back to Britain to face trial, on charges of embezzling an astonishing £7,000 ($10,782) in merchandise and securities. In fact ZedZed was the first person to be repatriated as a result of a new extradition treaty signed between Belgium and Britain. At his trial he claimed to have attended the public school, Rugby, and to have habitually carried a revolver since he was seven years old. (Both claims were probably untrue and he managed to escape a prison term.)

But the £7,000 pales into insignificance compared with Zaharoff’s other adventures, which appear to have included a bigamous marriage to a New York heiress and various deeply suspect “investment” projects in the US, where he sometimes styled himself Count Zaharoff.

By the time of his appearance in the tin box papers stored at the Glyn Mills Bank, Zaharoff was a well-established arms dealer, who made millions as a “super-salesman” for the British company, Vickers.

Between 1902 and 1905 he was paid £195,000 in commissions — worth $25 million today — and by 1914 he was active not only in Istanbul and Athens but in St Petersburg, Buenos Airies and Asunción; he owned several banks, lived in a French château and was romancing the Duchess of Villafranca, a Spanish noblewoman who would become his third wife.

Zaharoff confronts an English court in 1874.Zaharoff was summoned to court in London over irregular commercial activities involving the export of goods from Istanbul to London. The London Greeks from Constantinople preferred such matters involving members of their community to be settled outside the English courts, and he was discharged on condition that he paid restitution to the claimant in the sum of £100, and remained within the court’s jurisdiction. He immediately left for Athens, where the 24-year-old Zaharoff was befriended by a political journalist, Etienne Skouloudis. The eloquent Zaharoff succeeded in convincing Skouloudis of the rightness of his London court case. Illustration from the National Police Gazette.

In his prime, Zaharoff was more than a match for the notorious Aleister Crowley in any contest to be dubbed the Wickedest Man in the World.  Still remembered as the inventor of the Systeme Zaharoff—a morally bankrupt sales technique that involved a single unscrupulous arms dealer selling to both parties in a conflict he has helped to provoke—he made a fortune working as a super-salesman for Vickers, the greatest of all British private arms firms, whom he served for 30 years as “our General Representative abroad.” He expressed no objection to, and indeed seemed rather to enjoy, being referred to as “the Armaments King.”

Zaharoff’s youth remains shrouded in mystery and rumor, much of it put about by Zedzed himself. He was born in the Turkish town of Mughla, the son of a Greek importer of attar of roses, and soon proved to be an astonishing linguist—he would later be described as the master of 10 languages. At some point, it is supposed, the family moved briefly to Odessa, on Russia’s Black Sea coast, where they Russified their name. But remarkably little proper documentation survives from this or any other period of Zaharoff’s career. As one early biographer, the Austrian Robert Neumann, put it:

You ask for his birth certificate. Alas! A fire destroyed the church registers. You search for a document concerning him in the archives of the Vienna War Office. The folder is there, but it is empty; the document has vanished…. He buys a château in France and—how does the story of the editor of the Documents politiques go?—”Sir Basil Zaharoff at once buys up all the picture postcards… which show the château, and strictly prohibits any more photographs being taken.”

Most Zaharoff biographers have filled these gaps by indulging in colourful speculation, nearly all of which needs to be discarded. What can be said is that among the allegations that survived investigation to make their way into Britain’s august Dictionary of National Biography are the suggestion that Zedzed began his career touting for business for a Turkish brothel, and the statement that he subsequently established himself as a professional arsonist working for the Constantinople Fire Brigade, which ran a profitable sideline in burning down the mansions of the wealthy in order to extort rewards from their owners for saving the valuables within.

Books published since the late 1920s accuse Zaharoff of more or less every crime in the book, up to and including starting the First World War for his personal profit. Subjected in October 1874 to stiff cross-examination in an English court, Zedzed claimed simultaneously to have been educated at Rugby—the great British public school that was the setting for Tom Brown’s Schooldays—and to have habitually carried a revolver since he was 7 years old. Later, he was accused of selling death-trap submarines to Greece at a time when he was demonstrably romancing heiresses in the United States.

British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, the “Welsh wizard,” approved a knighthood for Zaharoff’s secret service work during the First World War.

Neither Churchill, Sir Edward Grey, Asquith or Lloyd George mentioned him by name in their biographical histories, though we should always remember that the Censor intervened to ensure that details which the state wanted to remain secret were ruthlessly expunged before publication. But Zaharoff was there, lurking in the shadows of Whitehall, dealing, and double-dealing mainly through the offices of Lloyd George when he was minister of munitions and later as prime minister. Asquith, in his last months in Downing Street, and Reginald McKenna, who stood-in at the Treasury for Lloyd George, even agreed that Zaharoff should be used to bribe the Greeks into war. Who was this shadowy figure from whom the public record shrank after the war?

Basil Zaharoff was born into a middle-class home in Mugla, Anatolia in 1849 and died on 27 November 1936 in the height of luxury at the Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo. His family were Greeks living in Turkish Asia Minor where persecution of Greek Orthodox Christians threatened genocide. They fled to Qdessa in Russia, but did not stay long, returning to the Greek quarter of Constantinople when the political upheavals had settled.  Zaharoff knew fear and poverty in his earliest years, but language and dialect came easily to him, and proved to be important building blocks for a self-propagandist and salesman who travelled the world to sell the armaments of death.

He has been repeatedly airbrushed from history, yet was historically important. He lied frequently about his origins, his age, his education, his early life in Turkey and wherever he claimed to be from or going to, yet was accepted into the wealthiest and most powerful villas and châteaux in Europe between the late 1880s until his unremarkable death. He revelled in the mystery he sought to create about himself, in the women with whom he claimed to have consorted, in the deals and fortunes of which he loudly boasted. He bought honours and goodwill in France and Britain by acts of ‘philanthropy’. He gave generously from his alleged vast wealth to fund university chairs in Paris and Oxford yet like many benefactor before and since, he built his fortune on the misery of war and remained untroubled by its consequences.

Hiram Maxim at the trigger of his invention, the world’s first fully automatic machine gun. Maxim’s automatic machine gun was a significant improvement over the hand-cranked models in use prior to then. Maxim’s gun was certainly better than anything that Nordenfelt had on the shelf at the time. Zaharoff is believed to have had a hand in the events surrounding Maxim’s attempts to demonstrate his invention between 1886 and 1888.

Zaharoff had all the records and diaries which pertained to his life, destroyed. His biographer, Robert Neumann was exasperated by the lack of historical documentation. ‘You ask for his birth certificate. Alas! A fire burned all the church records. You ask for a document concerning him in the archives of the Vienna War Office; the folder is there but the document has vanished…. You obtain permission to inspect the papers in a law case….but no-one in the office can find them.’  So successfully was he airbrushed from the accepted establishment history that no mention is made of him by Lloyd George in his Memoirs, and Zaharoff was ignored by almost every one George’s biographers. The Times newspaper has in its accessible archives no reference to Basil Zaharoff between 11 May 1914, when he donated £20,000 to the French National Committee of Sports and 6 July 1918, when he made a ten guineas donation to a Concert on behalf of Belgium.  What does that tell us about his need for anonymity during the war, for Zaharoff was deeply involved in munitions and international politics during those years.

His entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography is valuable because it avoids the mystique with which Zaharoff surrounded himself and itemises his early law-breaking and underhand dealings in a Turkish brothel, as an arsonist in the Constantinople fire-brigade, as an embezzler, a bigamist and an unscrupulous contractor in Cyprus before focussing on the single most salient fact. Zaharoff was an international arms dealer and, by all accounts, was very good in his chosen vocation. He began selling weapons for the Anglo-Swedish armaments firm Nordenfeldt, in Greece in 1877 but it was his salesmanship which became the trademark of corruption.

His Systeme Zaharoff included the use of large bribes to government and military officials and his technique of playing one country off against its neighbour first came to the fore in 1885 when he sold one almost unusable submarine to Greece and then two of the same type to their longstanding rival Turkey in 1886. Quick-firing guns became his chief specialism in the 1880s and 1890s. He had all of the qualities necessary to be a successful international arms salesman, including a complete lack of scruples, an ability to lie convincingly, a capacity to manipulate officials and politicians and a ready command of several languages. Crucially, and perhaps most importantly, he was a Rothschild man.

Zaharoff is credited with engineering the merger of the armaments firms Nordenfeldt and Maxim in 1888 before setting off across the world to sell their powerful new machine-gun in Russia, Chile, Peru and Brazil. If Zaharoff engineered the amalgamation, it was the London House of Rothschild which issued the £1.9 million of shares and debentures to finance it. This was one of the first deals that Rothschilds undertook with Sir Ernest Cassel and marked the start of many years of direct involvement in the armaments industry. Natty Rothschild retained a considerable holding in the company for himself and influenced the management and direction of the firm, for which Zaharoff was both the major international salesman and an influential broker. When Vickers took over the Maxim Nordenfeldt Guns and Ammunition business in 1896, it was once more Rothschild and Cassel, two of the most important bankers associated with the Secret Elite, who financed the deal. Zaharoff became increasingly indispensable to them and was very clearly an important cog in the world-wide armaments business financed by Rothschild and Cassel.

Basileios Zacharias was the only son and eldest of four children of a Greek merchant, born in the Ottoman Empire town of Mugla. Young Basileios’ first job was as a tourist guide in the Galata. It is thought he then became an arsonist with the Istanbul firefighters: 19th-century firemen in Istanbul being less effective at extinguishing fires than the recovery or salvage of treasures from the rich for payment of a hefty commission.

Maxim-Nordenfelt owned a Spanish light-armaments works in Placencia, of which Zaharoff became a director in 1896. His connections in that country were cemented by a long-standing relationship with a royal duchess, by whom he allegedly had three daughters. From this vantage point he ‘created’ Vickers’ a business in Spain where bribery and corruption were used on a grand scale. As a result, the Sociedad Española de Construcciones Navales, a branch of Vickers in Spain, was awarded exclusive naval construction rights for the Spanish Navy. Vickers not only sold weaponry to the Spanish armed forces but also in 1909 formed a new naval arsenal in collaboration with the state. Zaharoff was also very active in Russia where, between 1902–4, Vickers paid him a total of £109,000 which has a current equivalence of around £10.5 million. In 1905, at the time of the Russo-Japanese War, he earned £86,000 (an additional £8.4 million at current prices) in direct commission. Little wonder that he was hailed as Vickers’ ‘General Representative for business abroad.’

The Vickers Company records show that the ‘ever active’ Zaharoff used bribes to gain orders in Serbia, Russia, and ‘probably’ Turkey. Bribes were used liberally as a part of Zaharoff’s business process when the customers were Spaniards, Japanese, South Americans, Russians, Turks, or Serbs. In 1900 he was ‘greasing the wheels in Russia’ and in 1906, ‘doing the needful in Russia and Portugal, and administering doses of Vickers to Spanish friends’.  The British Ambassador in St Petersburg, Sir George Buchanan, assisted Vickers’ sales effort in Russia while criticising the German Krupp and French Schneider-Creusot firms for seeking to gain advantages in the same market as ‘too disgusting for words.’ This breathtaking hypocrisy places Vickers, their prime agent Zaharoff, and the British Ambassador right at the centre of the Russian military acquisitions which emboldened them to mobilise against Germany in 1914. Indeed, every overture to Russia made by Britain from 1905 onwards was occasioned by its value in an all out war with Germany and both Vickers and Zaharoff played their part.

On the eve of the First World War Zaharoff had taken up residence in Paris. He represented Vickers on the Board of Societe Francaise des Torpilles Whitehead, and when Albert Vickers retired from the Board of the French ‘Le Nickel’ company in the spring of 1913 he was replaced by Zaharoff on account of his ‘great expert knowledge and powerful industrial connections’.  Le Nickel had originally been an Australian company based on the French-owned Pacific island of New Caledonia, but was bought into by the Rothschilds who had acquired most of the nickel refineries in Europe. The discovery of nickel reserves in Canada forced them into a market-sharing agreement with the American-Canadian International Nickel Company, and nickel remained an invaluable asset as part of the steel-making process. The Rothschild-backed company operated two nickel plants in Britain and the cartel arrangement between Le Nickel and British nickel-steel manufacture ensured that prices were kept artificially high. Thus by 1914 Basil Zaharoff, an adopted son of France, sat on the Boards of Vickers and Le Nickel, both Rothschild-financed and influenced.

In an early example of the Systeme Zaharoff, Nordenfelt succeeded in selling one of his primitive, steam-driven submarines to Greece, then two to the Greeks’ archrivals, the Turks, and finally a more modern boat to the worried Russians. Zedzed was intimately involved in at least two of the deals; pictured here is the Ottoman submarine Abdul Hamid, on the surface at Constantinople in 1887. One of the most notorious sales by Zaharoff was that of the Nordenfelt I, a faulty steam-driven submarine model based on a design by the English inventor and clergyman Rev George Garrett, which US-Navy intelligence characterized as capable of “dangerous and eccentric movements.” Thorsten Nordenfelt had already demonstrated his vessel at an international gathering of the military elite, and whilst the major powers would have none of it, smaller nations, attracted by the prestige, were a different matter.

Two events took place in Paris on 31 July 1914 that epitomised the chasm between good and evil. The ancient grudge of the warmonger wiped out any lingering hope by assassinating the peace-maker, while the wicked procurer was raised onto a public platform and promoted to the rank of Commander in the Legion of Honour by the French President. At 9.20 pm. the charismatic French Socialist leader Jean Jaures was in the Café Croissant at Montmartre in Paris discussing the critical situation in Europe with the editors of his publication, L’Humanite. He was shot twice in the back of the head at point blank range. History has recorded the assassination as the work of Raul Villain, a 29 year old right-wing student, but no serious attempt was made to discover ‘whether any other motive power directed the assassin’s arm.’ Villain was later acquitted of murder.

Days before, Jaures stood on a political platform in Lyon-Vaise and urged his international socialist brothers in France, Britain, Germany, Russia and Italy ‘to come together, united, to turn away from the nightmare’ which faced Europe. He raged against war and the makers of war, and his message carried great weight.  Jaures was in Brussels with the Scottish socialist leader James Keir Hardie on 29 July thanking the German Social Democrats for their splendid demonstrations for peace. With impassioned eloquence he urged workers throughout Europe to rescue civilisation from a disastrous war. He returned to Paris after an emergency meeting with Rosa Luxemburg and was deep in conversation about how war could be averted when his life was taken.

Shock and consternation filled the streets of Montmartre, and the Paris police reacted by throwing a cordon around the palatial home of Basil Zaharoff at 41 Avenue Hoche. It may seem an odd reaction, but in July 1914, Zaharoff the arms dealer was invaluable to the French government’s war preparation, and that very day President Poincare had announced his elevation to Commander of the Legion of Honour. The irony is odious. Jaures, the peace-maker, murdered in cold blood; Zaharoff, the merchant of death, hailed as an outstanding Frenchman. In fact, Parisians were too traumatised to turn their wrath against Zaharoff, and were dragged into war so quickly that the moment for instant retribution passed without incident.

The great prima ballerina assoluta Mathilde Kschessinska was used by Zaharoff to help win business against considerable odds in Czarist Russia.

As an arms dealer Zaharoff was pre-eminent in his time but he was much more than simply a multi-millionaire international salesman whose stock-holdings crossed every important munitions company in Europe. Rarely have there been so many uncorroborated stories about someone who was later dubbed ‘the mystery man of Europe’ by Walter Guinness in the UK Parliament. This unfortunate name-tag added mystique to Zaharoff’s clandestine activities. His association with Lloyd George has been immersed in a legend that distracts from an alliance which was intrinsically linked through the Secret Elite to the war effort. Allegedly, Lloyd George had enjoyed an extra-marital liaison with Zaharoff’s English wife, Emily Ann Burrows, and this purportedly gave him some kind of hold on the Minister of Munitions. There was more than this to their unholy relationship.

Zaharoff was a friend of both the actress Sarah Bernhardt and her Greek husband Jacques Damala (who was once described as the handsomest man in Europe). When Damala’s mistress (who injected him with heroin between acts of plays he was appearing in) had an illegitimate daughter by him in 1889, she left the baby in a basket (with a note) on Sarah Bernhardt’s doorstep. The baby (who was baptised Teresa) was given to the care of Zaharoff, who found a family to raise her in eastern Thrace (at Adrianopole). In 1920, Teresa posed for Picasso, and she had affairs with the American novelist Ernest Hemingway, and Gabriele d’Annunzio. The story of her life is told 1997 by Freddy Germanos (1934-1999) in the book Teresa: Historical novels.

Zaharoff was fascinated by aviation, and gave money and other support to pioneers in Great Britain, France and Russia. He encouraged Hiram Maxim in his attempt to build a flying machine, and later claimed that he and Maxim were the first men to be lifted off the earth, when Maxim tested his first “flying machine” at Bexley in 1894.

In September 1924, Zaharoff, almost 75 years old, remarried. (He married an English woman much earlier in life—it is believed as of mid-February 1911, primarily to obtain a British passport). In the late 1880s he had met 1st Duchess de Villafranca de los Caballeros, María del Pilar Antonia Angela Patrocinio Fermina Simona de Muguiro y Beruete. On 7 January 1886 she had married Prince Francisco María de Borbón-Braganza y Borbón, 1st Duke of Marchena (1861-1923), whose brother, Pedro de Alcantára Maria de Guadalupe Teresa Isabel Francisco de Asis Gabriel Sebastian Cristino, was a grandfather of María Cristina de Borbón y Bosch-Labrús, the first wife of Antenor Patiño. Divorcing her husband, a cousin of the King of Spain Alfonso XII, was, despite his documented insanity, almost impossible so she and Zaharoff were made to wait until Prince Francisco died. Lady Zaharoff in her own right was reputed to be one of the richest women in Spain. Some eighteen months after their marriage, Lady Zaharoff died of an infection.

Declassified papers dating to 1917 prove that the British government was willing to take a chance on Zaharoff during the crisis of the First World War. In 1916-17, he actively involved himself in clandestine negotiations to drag Greece into the war on the Allied side, and to persuade the Ottoman Empire to defect from the Germans. The highlight of this obscure episode came when, equipped with authorization from Lloyd George and £10 million in gold, the by then 68-year-old arms dealer traveled to Switzerland in a bid to buy Turkey out of the war—and, not incidentally, establish what would become the state of Israel.

Unfortunately for Zaharoff, his reputation preceded him; intercepted at the border, he was humiliatingly strip-searched and left standing in sub-zero temperatures for more than an hour by the border police. In the end, his intrigues came to nothing, but that did not stop him writing to the British government to demand “chocolate for Zedzed,” his coy reference to the major honor he craved. To the loudly expressed disgust of George V, who had come to loathe him, Lloyd George grudgingly recommended a Knight Grand Cross, enabling Zaharoff to style himself “Sir Basil” (against protocol, since he was by this time a French citizen) for the remainder of his life.

Sir Basil Zaharoff, so-called mystery armaments salesman, died in Monte Carlo, Nov. 27, 1936. He was eighty-six years old and accounted one of the wealthiest men in Europe. In recent years he had lived the life of a retired country gentleman, ruling serenely at Château Balincourt near Vallangoujard, France, over a retinue of six personal Hindu attendants and a British secretary.

He died at 9 a.m. at the hotel to which he arrived ten days previous on his annual visit.  Death was sudden, for he seemed in excellent health for his years, motoring and lunching at the hotel restaurant the day before he passed away.

There remains the matter of the Zaharoff fortune, estimated on his death bed by “fiscal experts” to have amounted to $1.2 billion from the Great War alone. Zedzed often claimed to have given vast sums away—he endowed chairs at the University of Oxford and in Paris, was reputed to have personally funded Greece’s war with Turkey over Smyrna, and was still, the American press excitedly reported, “believed to be the wealthiest man in all Europe.” Yet, after his death, the cash seemed to melt away, vanishing just as surely as the further “tons of documents” that servants hastily burned at his château. Zaharoff’s will was proved at just £193,103, rather less than $1 million at the time, leaving us to wonder: Was his money hidden? Was it spent? Or were all those reports of a billion-dollar fortune merely the last of the great myths that Zedzed happily allowed to circulate?

Basil Zaharoff – Wikipedia

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Basil Zaharoff, the merchant of death who became Europe’s richest man

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The Mysterious Mr. Zedzed: The Wickedest Man in the World – LGF …

zedZED on

Basil Zaharoff – Alchetron, The Free Social Encyclopedia

Basil Zaharoff – Revolvy

The Esoteric Curiosa: 2012/11/08

The Mysterious Mr. Zedzed: The Wickedest Man in the World – LGF …

The Modern Pragmatist: February 2012

“The Mysterious Mr. Zedzed: The Wickedest Man …

A scandal of international proportions comes out of the vaults | The …

The Merchant of Death: Basil Zaharoff | Mises Institute

Munitions 8: The Strange And Unendearing Story Of Basil Zaharoff …

The Arms Dealer Basil Zaharoff (1849-1936) – Cairn International

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