The Secret Lives of Trebitsch Lincoln by Bernard Wasserstein (Yale University Press, New Haven, 1988)
Like Woody Allen's Zelig, Trebitsch Lincoln was the consummate social chameleon, and like "Lazlo Toth" (aka Saturday Night Live's Father Guido Sarducci, aka etc.), he though well enough of himself to court relationships with world-famous people and did so with awesome determination. In The Secret Lives of Trebitsch Lincoln (Yale University Press, 1988) Bernard Wasserstein writes a fascinating report, not without a "true" scholar's apology for allowing "curiosity" to progress into "genuine interest" and "virtual obsession" . His writing on the many-faceted personality of this historical (hysterical, nonetheless "highly disturbed") figure, for whom the word "scoundrel" is a polite understatement of what must have been a phenomenal life. (Would you prefer "rogue"?) He presents us with a well-documented (mostly from the records of the British Foreign Office, as well as a few encounters with the subject's distant relatives) text on what he considers to be "the closest accessible approach to the true history of a false messiah." (The book really doesn't really give one a romantic notion; although, he'd make good company for Jacob Frank and Sabbatai Tzvi.)
One should look at the life (lives?) of Trebitsch Lincoln with caution: "Don't try this at home, kids." He is but a mortal; born Ignacz Trebitsch in 1879 at Paks, Hungary to a prosperous, religiously conservative Jewish family. Talented for little scholastically or professionally (He had hollow careers as an actor, journalist and industrialist, among others), he was, however, brimming with bravado, linguistically adroit and motivated by a modicum of tsoris. Wasserstein allows us a broad view of the culture in terms of time and space which nurtured Trebitsch, the impressive array of social, political, economic and religious bureaucracies entangling both Eastern and Western hemispheres through whose loopholes the subject masterfully slipped and whose movers and shakers he tantalized.
Despite his chronic financial destitution, it would seem even superficially that he had made it successfully: such as the times he was known (and "functioning") as Ignatius Timotheus Trebitsch, Lutheran (not too long afterward Anglican) missionary to the Jews, as I.T.T. Lincoln, British M.P.,or as the Chinese Buddhist Abbot Chao Kung (who he died as in 1943). But most of the time he was not productive in these guises, save the temporary satisfaction of his ego's hungry ghost. And he had little material impact on history, save his mere existence. It was all much to the joy of the media and the bane of those whose financial empires he drained in a flury of misfortunes. From Berlin to Brooklyn to Budapest, Shanghai to San Francisco to Montreal, he attempted to storm into the countries and consciousness of an amazing number of people of high rank and stature. He offered a colorful package particularly to budding Western Buddhists and other Eastern mysticism-craving Europeans. Again, his successes were enough to make one wonder, "Why not try. What's to lose?" To Hitler and the Japanese occupation forces in China, for example, he positioned himself as the incarnate of spirits of both the Dalai and Panchen lamas (simultaneously!) and offered the powers of his good offices (i.e. whatever worked). "Teflon" Trebitsch (my nickname for him) even evaded suspicion / harassment / more properly, death by the Germans they apparently knew of his Jewish genealogy because there were officials who trusted him.
In the end, we are tempted to respond in the classical manner, "Who was that masked man?" Wasserstein's well-indexed, annotated text is perhaps a bit short of the sensationalist style which assures a best-seller at airports stalls; nonetheless, it is the author's true fascination with the chase that makes the book highly readable.The Secret Lives of Trebitsch Lincoln is much more satisfying than a silver bullet anyway.
(Originally Published in Points East, 1993)