27 July 2010

Working Through the Horowitz Family Lore

Back when I read the first Alex Rider book by Anthony Horowitz, I disliked the snobbery and xenophobia built into it. Those qualities may have been borrowed from the British spy thriller’s genre conventions, but Horowitz chose to perpetuate them. (And revisit them.)

All the odder, I thought, given that Horowitz hadn’t grown up as an insider in British society, especially when attending the Rugby public school in the 1960s as, well, a Horowitz. But then I read that his family legend, as described among other places in this interview with the Jewish Exponent, actually presented his father as a rich insider:

his father’s secret service as a so-called “fixer” for Prime Minister Harold Wilson couldn’t fix the financial problems at home once the Jewish family’s fortunes evaporated. . . .

But secrets got the best of his dad, whose survival of bankruptcy banked on certain Swiss accounts that held a secret fortune in his name.

Unfortunately, says his son, those accounts held numbers as unfamiliar to the rest of the family as the Da Vinci codes. “He died of cancer at age 55, when I was 22,” his cache of cash unfound.

“And all of a sudden, these letters started arriving from different banks, starting out the same way, offering their condolences about my father’s death, but then saying how he owed them hundreds of thousands of pounds.” . . .

“Somewhere in Switzerland, he had all this money. My mother went there two or three times searching for it. She never found it. We had to sell everything,” says Horowitz. “My mother had to go back to work.”
I’ve read enough family and local lore that my historian alarms immediately went off. That narrative seemed far too tidy, explaining away all faults and losses and lack of evidence.

Back in mid-2007 I prepared some notes for a blog posting expressing doubt that the senior Horowitz ever had much actual money, or close ties to Harold Wilson (who was known within British politics as his own “fixer”). I was going to suggest the senior Horowitz’s possible similarities to the father figures in John Le Carré’s A Perfect Spy (based on the author’s own father) and Graham Greene’s The Captain and the Enemy—i.e., men conning the world, their loved ones, and themselves.

But at the end of that year, without any butting in from me, Horowitz began to rethink his family lore, as revealed in this Telegraph profile:
He took his family’s wealth for granted; but when his father died, he found himself, aged 21, a pauper. There was only a notebook filled with indecipherable squiggles related to Swiss bank accounts. Despite a year-long attempt to find the missing wealth, it has remained a mystery — as has its origin. “I don’t think my father was a crook, but I don’t know,” he says. “I recently found that one of his closest associates was wanted on fraud charges.[”]
The old story still surfaced occasionally, as in this 2008 interview with the Independent, but the senior Horowitz was never such a mythical hero as first described. Horowitz now writes of his family [hat tip to Gail Gauthier] with more overt and admirable skepticism. Leaving me with less to complain about.

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