Friday, May 13, 2011

Finding Hitler's Horse (unabridged)

(x-posted on Facebook)

To honor my dear friend Terry Kennedy who left us a year ago today, here is the unabridged version of the "Finding Hitler's Horse" story that he and I wrote for the Oct. 2008 issue of Country Roads Magazine. The magazine had to cut it for size and reign it for focus, so I dug up our original that goes in all directions as Terry was wont to do.

Finding Hitler’s Horse
Ghost stories, Champion horses and the nature of mystery on Louisiana’s German Coast
by Alex V. Cook and Terry Kennedy.

I believe the truth is fundamentally elusive. It is a slippery thing that sits unnoticed right in front of you, begging to be lassoed, all while your rope gets caught on the facts. The difference between the facts and the truth is a metaphysical question. Fortunately, Louisiana is a deeply metaphysical place and I have found metaphysical people like Terry Kennedy with which to explore it. A couple months ago during one of our many conversations about the greater weirdness of Louisiana, he mentioned, “You know, one of these days, we should go out and visit the grave of Hitler’s horse and see what comes of it.”

The wine had been flowing during that conversation and I wasn’t sure what Terry was talking about, but a quick web search revealed that Nordlicht, a racehorse that once belonged to Adolph Hitler was indeed buried in St. Rose, LA, at La Branche, a plantation just down River Road from Destrahan. The Pedigree Online Throuroughbred Database shows that Nordlight won both the Osterreicheisches (Austrian) and Deutches (German) Derbies in 1944.[i] It does not require a stretch of the imagination to why thoroughbred horses were of particular interest to the Nazis, whose name is synonymous with the horrific potential of genetic engineering, so this prize winning horse belonging to Hitler at the peak of the Nazi regime was a symbol of great significance. further offers this about Nordlicht:
Undefeated, he was named horse of the year in 1944 and had his image placed on a German postage stamp. [ii]
At the end of World War II, Nordlicht (“northern light”) was claimed as a prize of war by the US Army, and purchased for stud by C. Walter Mattingly, a surgeon and horse breeder. Mattingly brought Nordlicht to La Branche Plantation in 1948, where he spent the next two decades siring horses right there on what is known as Louisiana’s German Coast. Further research in the Pedigree Online database revealed that Visionaire, running 24-to-1 odds in the 2008 Kentucky Derby, was a direct descendant of Nordlicht, so we decided Derby Day was the day to go.

Searching for metaphysical truth involves lining up one’s connections, however tenuous, in hopes that the greater picture reveals itself. So we set up as many connections in our favor as possible. We took off in Terry’s 1980 Mercedes 450 SLC with a copy of Richard Strauss’ opera Salome to listen to. The significance of Salome is that its 1906 premier in Graz – the salacious subject matter was too racy for Vienna – saw an audience of eager idealists. According to Alex Ross in The New Yorker:
Strauss took particular note of the crowd’s demographics; he mentioned, in a letter to his wife, Pauline, the “young people from Vienna, with only the vocal score as hand luggage.” Strange to say, one of them was an Austrian teenager named Adolf Hitler, who had just seen Mahler conduct Tristan und Isolde in Vienna.[iii]
Terry: I love Strauss, he really is one of the best.
Alex: He cuts through the middle of all that music that came before him. Like coming after the Romantics, and the classicists – he was left to figure out what to do with all this.
Terry: And he’ll take a Schoenberg atonal note in the middle of some perfect tonality, and make it beautiful
Alex: He’s a real climatic composer, like it’s all in dense layers of atmosphere forming into clouds
Terry: And all those currents run into each other, starting and stopping all the time, but it makes sense. It’s beautiful music.
Terry: (after listening for a while) You think drugs are behind this music? I’m guessing cocaine.
Alex: Maybe. There is a touch of syphilitic madness to this music. It’s paranoid music, always looking over its shoulder.

Strauss had good reason to be worried. He was appointed president of the Reichsmusikkammer, the State Music Bureau, by Joseph Goebbels without his consent in 1933. Strauss composed the Olympische Hymne for the 1936 Summer Olympic Games in Berlin. The significance of the 1936 games is that it was a showcase for Hitler to demonstrate the superiority of the Aryan race, a notion undermined by the four gold medals won by black American athlete Jesse Owens. The other popular image of Jesse Owens is his publicity stunts later in life, defeating racehorses in a sprint. When on the metaphysical trail, coming full circle is the first clue that you are onto something.

Much like dominoes, our coincidences started to tumble in on each other and collapse in a heap. Terry’s Mercedes started to sputter at the Sorrento exit on I-10, leading to the Auto Zone and some shade tree maintenance. “I have a lot of theories on what’s wrong with this car. I’ll keep pulling them out as I need them.” Terry said. While replacing the distributor cap, and subsequently eliminating that from the solution column, we decided that maybe we were trying too hard to make the connections line up. We limped back to his house on Airline, just in time to catch the 6 pm run of the Kentucky Derby on the radio. Visionaire got a cursory mention in the opening lineup, but was lost in the blur of horses. Even the Derby itself succumbed to defeat that day with second place horse Eight Belles breaking both front ankles and needing to be euthanized while sprinting down after the wire.

The following weekend, we set out in my Honda, spreading our metaphysical reliance across the Axis. We were contemplating the meaning of “La Branche,” whether it referred to genealogy, lineage and through that, the genetic purity that is central to both the Nazis and racehorses as we pulled onto the gravel road of the former dependency house or garconiere, a separate building used to house the male children of the plantation. Terry found the marker for Nordlicht’s grave in short order, under a crepe myrtle, marked with a stone and brass plaque

NORDLICHT 1941-1968

The visitors’ office was closed and the doors to last significant original building on the grounds, the garconiere was were padlocked. Parked outside it was a gorgeous carriage. “I wonder if Nordlicht ever pulled this beauty around, “ Terry remarked as he snapped some photos. We were about to walk back and head home, when up drove Sal Lentini, former police chief, plantation enthusiast and veteran of the invasion at Normandy.

Sal explains that previous owners were named Zweig, meaning “branch” in German and they gave the place the French name, La Branche. “I got this place because of my daughter.

“It’s funny. One day I took her up here because I’d been trying to get the place from Dr. Mattingly. I come up to talk to him, I knew him and his wife good, she was a doctor too. I told them, ‘One day, you are gonna sell me this place.’ I took my daughter up here several years after that, and we walked up to the gate. A horse walked up to the gate with an eyeball hanging out. My daughter went berserk, she cried and everything else. She was so upset she didn’t say a damn word to me, my own daughter. She’s got more nerve than Carters’ got liver pills.

“You know she called Dr. Mattingly, and went to see him and fussed him up and down about that horse. Dr. D. Mattingly called me and said, “Sal, I’m not going to sell you the place. I know who I’m going to sell it to – your daughter.”

Sal pointed to the plantation’s original carriage lane of oaks, long feral, on the edge of his property “See those oak trees over there? Right here under those trees, I remember people out there at night, digging for gold, looking for where Jean Lafite hid some of his treasure.”

“See that big pecan tree back there? It is 24-feet in circumference. A county agent came here to measure it, and they found a little box down in the roots of that tree. It’s gotta be a casket. Somebody that used to live on the plantation used to come by here , and had a little sister that died, and back then they buried them on the grounds."

On our way to the garconiere, Sal pointed out a ring of oak trees. “There was a Houmas Indian chief that was buried out here. You ever heard of tree huggers? The tree huggers would come out, and have come out many times. “ Later, I could find no reference to tree-hugging or tree ceremonies particular to the Houmas tribe. It seems our entire metaphysical mission, chasing a horse to its grave, was trumped by real history.

“That’s why I like plantations, they have so much history to them. “ Sal found the leys to the garconiere and took us into the lovingly decorated building. Period antiques he had collected over the years glowed against the robin’s egg blue walls. In the last room he took us through, we were met by a magnificent burled walnut bed whose origins Sal coyly guarded.

Sal: I’m not going to tell you who this bed used to belong to.
Terry: it looks like one of Huey Long’s beds
Sal: You are close. It’s a real coincidence on how it got here. You wouldn’t believe it.
Alex: OK, so how’d it get here?
Sal: (laughing) Oh, people would get the wrong impression. I won’t say. If that bed could talk… lots of people would take a picture with it, I know that.
Alex: Come on, whose bed is this?
Sal: (laughs again) Sorry, I’ve never told and I can’t say now.
Terry: That’s alright, I like a mystery better than knowing. It’s a beautiful bed.

[i] Pedigree Online Thoroughbred Database,
[ii] Roadside America,
[iii] Ross, Alex, “The Last Emperor: Richard Strauss”, New Yorker, Dec. 20, 1999

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