The telephone rang one night last summer. Ileana Bulova Lindt was dead. That is “Bulova” as in the Bulova Watch Company and “Lindt” as in the Lindt Chocolates. Once a Grande Dame, reigning in splendor from homes in Manhattan’s Pierre Hotel and 480 Park Avenue, the Swiss Embassy in Washington, and a chateau in the Hamptons, she died in near penury in a modest garden apartment in West Palm Beach, Fla., Aug. 9, 2009, a victim of the Brancusi curse.
Born Ileana Pociovalisteanu in Targu Jiu, Romania, she was blessed with stunning beauty coupled with provocative, sensual mystery. Bucharest, in those pre-World War II days, was “delightfully depraved” with the famed Athénée Palace Hotel at its epicenter. A gaudy establishment with excellent service, a corrupt staff and “continual competition by ladies of easy or nonexistent virtue” as The New York Times’ Sulzberger recalled. King Carol II, the “Playboy King,” had reclaimed his throne in 1930.
Ileana was romantically involved with a royal minister and part of that entourage. On Sept. 6, 1940 Ileana boarded the Royal Train, a train loaded with gold and treasure, including paintings by Titian, Rubens and Rembrandt and escaped from Romania and the looming war.
By 1946 Ileana, now Ileana Kerciu had washed ashore in New York, one of the many refugees trying to find a safe haven. How, when and where she caught Arde Bulova’s eye is not known, though some claim that she was his maid. Bulova was a man of great wealth, a multimillionaire in fact, but of humble origins, and a son of immigrants. Much to the chagrin and opposition of his sisters, Louise Guilden and Emily Henshel, Arde embarked on a liaison with Ileana, a veritable scandal. By 1948 Arde had transferred 5,000 shares of Bulova stock to a trust to “provide an annual income” for her, and soon thereafter they married.
Triumphant and luxurious trips to Europe followed. The newly rich and respectable Ileana hobnobbed with the glitterati of the day. One of these was another Romanian living in Paris, sculptor Constantin Brancusi, a native son of her hometown. Brancusi was world famous, after all, he had exhibited several pieces at the historic New York Armory Show of 1913 and had received a commission from an Indian maharaja in the 30s. But the war had decimated the number of potential patrons and collectors. Ileana often visited the famous artist’s Paris studio with Arde in tow. Over sips of white wine, mention was made of an upcoming auction at New York’s Park-Bernet Gallery. Her high bid for “The Muse (Repose)” was $7,000, if memory serves. Sold! And Arde wrote a check for what he called “a piece of stone.” It came with a curse attached.
Back in the apartment in the Pierre Hotel “The Muse” was used as a doorstop. Ileana moved in exalted circles, which included the ruggedly handsome society divorce attorney Arnold Krakover. By 1957 her marriage was in tatters and divorce loomed. After a violent altercation she was “physically evicted from their home” and left with only one piece of luggage, leaving “The Muse” behind.
Krakover took on Ileana as a client and a lover and installed her in the Essex House down the block from the Pierre. Before all these issues could be resolved, Arde died. Ten days later with Arde’s body not yet in the crypt in Woodland Cemetery, his sisters seized the apartment and its contents. “The Muse” was promptly delivered to the Guggenheim Museum as a gift. The curse was beginning.
Ileana did what any decent, red-blooded American would do, she sued. After all “The Muse” was then worth $80,000, not a paltry sum in those days. That malevolent genius and political fixer Roy Cohn represented the sisters who soon lost interest. They didn’t want “The Muse”; they had just given it away. A. Chauncey Newlin, who was just as plumy as his name, represented the museum. The case dragged on and was finally tried in Supreme Court, New York County, during an excruciating hot August without a jury and with only a judge presiding. The fix was in. The judge adjourned the proceedings late on a Friday afternoon without a verdict. Come back on Monday. He went to Penn Station for a weekend in the Hamptons. On the train he suffered a stroke and died before even reaching Jamaica, Queens. The curse was still in effect.
But it took until 1969 for New York’s Court of Appeals to declare Ileana the winner and award her “The Muse.” More legal wrangling followed, and it wasn’t until 1971 that, accompanied by two burly Deputy Sheriffs and her attorney, Ileana finally got her hands on “The Muse”. By now it was worth quite a bit. In 1972 Ileana added Lindt to her name having married Auguste Lindt, the former United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the then-Swiss ambassador. After giving birth to a son, Nicolas, the marriage foundered in a matter of months. The curse lived on.
Andrew Crispo was a flamboyant, gay New York art dealer. It has been written that among his conquests were Liberace and the chairman of the board of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. He was the agent for Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza, the heir to a Swiss steel fortune, who also funded some of his acquisitions. In l976 he agreed to purchase “The Muse” for $600,000. Or was it $800,000 as Ileana claimed? It was clear that the purchase price was, in fact, $800,000. But that led to another lawsuit. Enter Cohn, the ultimate fixer, again, stage left. In short order the court found in Crispo’s favor, which was affirmed on appeal. The curse was still in effect.
While Crispo had “The Muse” a nasty incident took place involving Baron Heinrich, his fourth wife, Denise, and her lover Franco Rappetti, another art dealer who had dealings with the baron. The facts surrounding this brouhaha are not clear but seem to involve substantial sums of money and threats of violence. In any event, in 1978 Rappetti went sailing out of a window in midtown Manhattan to his death. The curse struck again.
Crispo couldn’t shake the curse. In March 1985, a burned and dismembered body was found on property belonging to the LeGeros family in Tompkins Cove, Rockland County, overlooking the Hudson River. The head was covered by a black leather mask used in sadomasochistic play. The tabloids had a field day with what they dubbed the “death mask murder.” The police arrested Crispo’s assistant and the son of the owners of the estate.
Although implicated in the bizarre encounter that ended with the shooting death of Eigil Dag Vesti, a handsome fashion student and model, Crispo dodged that bullet. But not for long. Soon thereafter he was indicted and convicted of income tax evasion, failing to pay $4 million on income of $10 million, and was sentenced to five years, serving three. The curse again.
Crispo’s escapades and brushes with the law destroyed his finances and he sought bankruptcy protection. The bankruptcy proceedings proved to be widely successful—an auction raised $14 million, $4 million to $6 million more than expected. But in the course of these proceeding he threatened to kill a lawyer and kidnap her daughter. In 1999 he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to a seven-year stretch. The curse once again.
But there was a bright side to this financial debacle. “The Muse” became available. In December 1985, the Guggenheim announced that it had re-acquired “The Muse.” It was rumored that the acquisition was for $2.8 million. Perhaps the curse had run its course.
Deyan Ranko Brashich lives in Washington.