Fritz Mandl: the eccentric millionaire who escaped Hitler, married a Hollywood star and created an empire in Argentina

Fritz Mandl: the eccentric millionaire who escaped Hitler, married a Hollywood star and created an empire in Argentina

Strong, smart and a womanizer. So define Mandel pupa (82) to his father, the Argentine nationalized Austrian businessman Fritz Mandel. “The second of the five wives he had was the actress Hedy Lamarr, considered one of Hollywood’s greatest beauties, says her eldest daughter. When they got married, she had just shot her movie Ecstasy, where he made the first nude in the history of cinema. My father, who was very jealous, took it badly: he tried to buy as many copies of the film as possible. There was an Italian who made copies, so dad bought them all. In the end, she decided not to pay him more and, afterwards, no more copies appeared”, she says laughing, from the garden of her house in Recoleta.

Born in 1900, Fritz Mandl took over at the age of 19 Hirtenberger, an ammunition factory inherited from a great-uncle, with headquarters in the district of Baden, Lower Austria, and subsidiaries in Hungary and the Netherlands. The young businessman, known throughout Europe as the “king of cartridges”, boasted of not mixing politics and business: he sold ammunition to the Franco army and to the Spanish rebels; the Italians to attack Ethiopia and the Ethiopians to defend against the Italians. So too to Egyptians, Turks, most European countries and also to Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia, Brazil and Colombia. He had business almost all over the world, as well as contacts with high officials in several countries. “Dad admired Mussolini because he was a fascist. But I didn’t know him, he did business with Italy through his ministers,” says Pupe, debunking the myth that his father was a close friend of the Italian dictator.

Fritz Mandl with his third wife, Herta Wrany, and their two oldest sons, Pupe and Fritz, in their apartment in Palermo

Not only that. Over the years, many theories and conjectures have been written about his father: that he was a Nazi spy, that he was an arms dealer, that he was Perón’s best friend, that his bicycle factory in Argentina was in fact an arms company. “There are so many barbarities that have been said. The truth is that he manufactured ammunition and always opposed Hitler. Even during the Nuremberg trials, my father was designated as one of the main enemies of the Nazi regime”, says his daughter, who does not forget any date or detail.

Besides being a renowned businessman, his father was also president of the Austrian Industrial Union and was a member of the Austrian political group homeland defensefascist tendencies. Neither his business nor his parallel political activity brought him any major complications until March 12, 1938, when the Nazi regime annexed Austria to Germany. “My father had no choice but to run away. He was in the opposition. Through his political group, to which he also gave a lot of money, he spoke out against Hitler’s invasion of Austria,” explains his eldest daughter.

Fritz Mandl with his second son, also called Fritz, in La Cumbre
Fritz Mandl with his second son, also called Fritz, in La Cumbre

His father and mother, the Austrian Herta Wrany, wife number three, left the munitions factory and fled to the south of France. But, faced with the threat of German troops spreading throughout Europe, they decide to go to New York, Pupé’s hometown. Soon after, disgusted with the North American way of life, they moved to Argentina. “They loved this country. At that time, there was a more European lifestyle here. In addition, my father had friends here, like Alberto Dodero -the maritime businessman-, the ambassador of Hungary and Poland”, says his daughter, who arrived in the country with only five months of life.

Mandl and his third wife are naturalized Argentinians upon their arrival in Buenos Aires. For 15 years, until 1955, he could not return to his native country. Because of his nationalist and anti-communist ideals, he was considered an enemy not only by the Nazis, but also by the Russians who settled in Austria after World War II. This is why the tycoon settled permanently in Argentina, where he opened the “Cometa” bicycle factory, bought, together with businessman Alfredo Fortabat, a field in Flores and founded one of the first rice mills in the country in the region of Mazaruca, in front of the Las Lechiguanas Islands, in Entre Ríos. He also became a shareholder of the Argentine Metallurgical and Plastics Industry (IMPA SA), which, among other metal objects, such as. buttons and pins, produced tableware and Mauser cartridge cases for the army and aircraft.

When Mandl bought the castle of La Cumbre, it had four towers and a marked medieval style
When Mandl bought the castle of La Cumbre, it had four towers and a marked medieval style

For the entertainment of his family, he also built several mansions and farmhouses. In addition to his permanent residence in Palermo, he purchased properties in La Cumbre and Mar del Plata. “My father went to see Punta del Este once, but he didn’t like it. He said it was very windy. Instead, he loved Mar del Plata and decided to buy a house there that I inherited,” says Pupé. For years, in the 10 rooms of this gable-roofed, stone-fronted mansion, she ran the country’s first bed and breakfast.

Undoubtedly, the best known of the properties acquired by Fritz Mandl is the White Castle, today known as Castle Mandl, located between the Cordovan mountains of La Cumbre. When the Austrian millionaire bought it, in 1942, the large property was completely different from what it is today. Built in the 1930s, the castle had a marked medieval style. Not only did it have four towers and a moat, but it also had a keep with period weapons and a drawbridge.

Mandl Castle is for sale.  The international real estate agency Christie's is asking for 3,800,000 US$ for this.
Mandl Castle is for sale. The international real estate agency Christie’s is asking for 3,800,000 US$ for this.Denise Giovaneli

Upon purchase, the businessman ordered a major renovation that took two years. Where the drawbridge was, he had a tunnel built so that cars could enter. He also filled in the moats with earth, had three of the four towers demolished – he left the rest to function as a water tower – and built the service area on the roof. “Before, the most common thing was that the house staff lived far from the house, but they wanted them to be close to them. All the changes he made were to make the house more practical,” says Pupe. “It’s a divine house, he loved it. And the view you have is magnificent. When my father died, it was left to two of my brothers, who turned it into a hotel. Currently the house is for sale. The international real estate agency Christie’s is asking for this 3,800,000 US$.

For years, the Austrian-Argentinian businessman and his family have spent much of their summer and winter holidays in the castle of Cordoba. Its owner received different guests each season, including well-known personalities from the country and Europe. “My father had many guests. He invited many foreigners who lived here, many of whom had come as refugees from World War II,” his eldest daughter recalls. Among the most important, she highlights the Prince of Starhemberg, former Vice-Chancellor and former Security Minister of Austria, who, like Mandl, moved to Argentina after Austria was annexed to the Third Reich. The prince, his wife, the famous actress Nora Gregor and their son spent long periods in the castle.

Mandl with his two eldest sons in the gallery of Mandl Castle, La Cumbre
Mandl with his two eldest sons in the gallery of Mandl Castle, La Cumbre

Fritz Mandl returned to settle in Austria as soon as he was able to return to his native country, in 1955. But until his last days of life, he returned to Argentina every summer to spend his holidays. “I have always come here to escape the European winter. My brother and I, on the other hand, are still staying here,” says Pupe. Years later, he succeeded in recovering his factory, the Hirtenberger Patronenfabrik. Instead of retiring, he decided to rebuild the munitions colossus that had made him one of Austria’s wealthiest men before World War II. Once again the company established itself as one of the great ammunition and dynamite factories in Europe, but without the branches it had before the Nazi invasion. “It was the only ammunition factory managed by a single person,” explains Pupé. Today, the company still exists, but it belongs to another family. It is called Hirtenberger Holding GmbH and has more than 1,800 employees.

Prince von Starhemberg at Mandl Castle, La Cumbre
Prince von Starhemberg at Mandl Castle, La Cumbre

After divorcing Wrany, her father married for the fourth and penultimate time to an Argentine, quarantine glory, with whom he had three other children. Six years later, during his divorce, he married the German Monika Brucklmeier, 40 years younger than him and the same age as his eldest daughter. “He had already had so many wives that for me the question of age was not important,” says Pupe, smiling. With his young wife, Fritz had his sixth and last child. He was still married to her when he died, aged 77, on September 8, 1977.

In Austria, historian Ursula Prutsch, hired by Mandl’s sons, published a biography of Fritz Mandl a few months ago. For Pupé, this hardcover book that rests on the coffee table in his living room helps to deny many of the myths that have been created around the figure of his father.

Mandl Castle is now a boutique hotel with 16 rooms
Mandl Castle is now a boutique hotel with 16 rooms

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