I had originally intended to present another lovely vintage Vacheron at this time, but I just acquired a very interesting pocket watch with a “best-before” relevance. So it receives priority at this time. It is nit a Vacheron but it is unique (as in one of a kind)
Last week I attended a gala opening of the ballet La Sylphide by the New York City Ballet at Lincoln Center, as a guest of Vacheron Constantin., who is a major sponsor. It was an opportunity to see so magnificent dancing but also to meet Vincent Brun, the new CEO of Vacheron America as well as some good friends from VC including Dorit Engel, Daniel Adams and André March. A few Lounger friends were there as well, including Robert Esposito and Michael Berlin. In all, a wonderful evening.
Since I was in New York for this gala, I also arranged to pick up a watch I had recently won at auction.
Last week was also significant from another point of view. The week marked the liberation of Holland by Canadian troops on May 5th 1945 and the surrender of Germany to the Allies on May 7th. (Another signing was on May 9th in Berlin at the insistence of the Soviets). Celebratory events took place throughout week in Holland France and culminating today in London and Moscow.
In the early hours of May 7th, at 2:41 am, in the small French town of Reims (Rheims), the centre of the champagne district and the site of the beautiful Reims cathedral; and at that time the headquarters of General Eisenhower (SHAEF – Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Forces), the initial documents of complete surrender of Germany were signed.
The building, colloquially known as “the little red schoolhouse”, was a boys’ school,: Le College Moderne et Technique de Reims and was Eisenhower’s command centre.
The little red schoolhouse has become a small museum.
And it was there in the recreation hall that the brief ceremony took place. The document was signed by General Walter Bedell “Beetle” Smith for the Allies, General Ivan Susloparov for the Soviets and witnessed by General François Sevez of the Free French. The unconditional surrender was signed by General Alfred Jodl for the Germans.
General Walter Bedell Smith
General Smith signing the document of German unconditional surrender on behalf of the Allies.
The table around which all the parties have gathered. The German delegation has its back to the camera.
General Jodl signs the document of surrender.
The document of surrender. The signatures are of Jodl, then below left: Smith, to his right, Susloparov and below Smith, Sevez.
General Smith was Eisenhower’s Chief of Staff and was known to be a tough no-nonsense and very capable individual whom Eisenhower relied upon as his “go-to guy”. To some he was considered a “hatchet-man” because of his abrupt and peremptory style. But he was a skillful diplomat and got on well with the British including the insufferable Montgomery, smoothing over difficulties between the Allies. He was also able to handle Ike’s sometimes querulous generals such as Bradley and Patton.
Among “Beetle” Smith’s many accomplishments were initiating the surrender of Italy and its transfer to the Allied cause, negotiating the transfer of food and supplies to the starving Dutch civilian population and negotiating the complete surrender of German forces in Holland to the Canadian Army. He also successfully arranged the surrender of all German forces, whose leaders were simply stalling for time, in part by threatening to seal the front and leave the German forces in the East to the “mercies of the Red Army.
After the war he was appointed Ambassador to the USSR and in 1950 became head of the newly formed CIA. He later served as Assistant Secretary of State under Dulles.
I have omitted much of what is an illustrious career and there are many like him who are below the media radar who performed enormous tasks during the war but are little know or all but forgotten.
Since the trip had been arranged many weeks before and the auction held in April, I made a note of it all and put it out of my mind.
After arriving in New York I headed over to the auction house to pick up my prize. I inspected it and left for Madison Avenue and the Vacheron Boutique. But as I walked out I looked at the inscription on the back: “May 7th, 1945”.
Then the unexpected irony of the situation hit me... Today was May 7th !
Now, you may be asking yourself at this time: “Why all the WWII history and attention to Walter Bedell Smith”?
Well the answer follows below.
A typical Cartier box from the 1940’s. Behind a scene from the liberation of Paris in 1944.
The inside of the box showing the Cartier logo of that period.
The front of the 1904 $20 coin watch.
Cartier polished the original markings from the back of the $20 gold piece and have inscribed:
May 7th, 1945
The place: Reims, France
The date: May, 7th 1945
The time: 2:41 A.M. European Theatre of Operations
On the inside is engraved: “LOUIS from BEDELL”
The watch face has the typical Cartier hand and Roman numerals, still used today. It also has a wide guillodhéed ring. The crown is a split-ring design.
And very surprising, the watch works and keeps fairly accurate time.
You also might be wondering who “Louis” is. Well this took some time and detective work. At first I thought it might be Louis Mountbatten. But I do not believe Smith ever met him. I checked the names of many general officers but to no avail… no Louis!
Then I discovered that both Smith and Eisenhower had a good friend by the name of Louis who they knew from their days at West Point. He was Louis Marx who became a toy magnate and who with his brother founded Marx Toys, which produced a great many of the toys in America for decades. At one point he was the largest toy manufacturer in the world. He was called “The Toy King” and “The Henry Ford of Toys”.
And so you have it. A unique historical piece, a pocket watch by Cartier, Paris to mark the end of the war in Europe.
For me, being a history buff of that period, this was a spectacular find. It is a link with the past and marks the beginning of the end of a momentous world-wide struggle.