The Forgotten Jack Bilbo
Larger than life. What does it mean? When Paddy Ashdown passed away, he was characterised as having been larger than life. It was a description that captured a remarkable career - politically, diplomatically and militarily - a charismatic personality, a never-say-die attitude. There was also a slight touch of the rogue, an affair that he was to regret but which he resolved.
A week or so ago, a book was presented at the theatre in Capdepera. It was an autobiography. It was not new, as it had been written in 1948. The presentation was to discuss the author, and it was this author who started to make me think larger than life. Who in Majorca's past would fall into this category?
Being a rogue doesn't necessarily have to be a qualification, but it applied to Jack Bilbo. He certainly veered towards the roguish. He had spent some time in the US as Al Capone's bodyguard. Bilbo, real name Hugo Baruch, was a German Jew. Rebellious from a young age, his adopted name 'Bilbo' meant the damned. He ran away from school, enlisted as a cabin boy and escaped to America and to Chicago. He told the story of Capone in a 1932 book, Carrying A Gun For Al Capone.
By that year, he was back in Europe and in Berlin. He was arrested because of his efforts in opposing the rise of Hitler. Not for the first time, he escaped, and he turned up - of all places - in Cala Ratjada. He founded a bar that rapidly acquired great fame, the Waikiki. It was, in his words, "a meeting place for all the lunatics in the world". Cala Ratjada and that part of northeast Majorca was a haven for Germans who rejected the Nazis. Some were to eventually have their problems as a consequence. Bilbo didn't hang around to be one of those who was pursued by Francoist police under the influence of Hitler's man in Majorca, Hans Dede.
After a brief period supporting the Republicans, during which he became a ship's captain, he left for England. Under suspicion, he was detained, but again he got out. He was to become a celebrity. Artist, sculptor, anarchist, thinker, in 1947 he was invited by the BBC to offer his New Year's message to the British people. He finally returned to Berlin, died in 1967 and was described by the American novelist Henry Miller as the last great adventurer of his time.
The book was being presented in Capdepera in memory of his having lived in Cala Ratjada. It was a presentation to remember a character who has become forgotten. And yet, here was someone from Majorca's past with a genuine claim to that larger-than-life accolade. It is hard to think of others from the past who could match him.
Majorca has its cast list of kings, nobles and others. But history rarely reflects figures who were out of the ordinary. There are some. They include the amazing Mestelrich and his high-wire cycling troupe; Samson of Sant Llorenç, the world's strongest man; the boxer Young Martí. None of these, however, match Jack Bilbo in terms of his deeds and his adventures.
There is one character from the same vintage as Jack Bilbo who maybe does stand out as larger than life. In Joan March's case he was a genuine rogue. Whether March can be said to have been charismatic is questionable. He inspired fear and admiration in equal measure. He could be generous, but he was also ruthless. In his view, every man had his price, and he was willing to exploit this to the full. It is said of him, though, that his desire for wealth was a means of obscuring the insecurity he had developed as a child; his mother died when he was young.
While March didn't allow anything or anyone get in his way, this wasn't - one might conclude - through sheer weight of confident personality. Jack Bilbo didn't allow things to get in his way. He bulldozed through them. Insecure he was not. Larger than life enabled him to live a remarkable life.
There is just a possibility that Bilbo and March met. By the time that Bilbo arrived in Cala Ratjada, March had long had his palace there. The timing, however, may have prevented any meeting. March was imprisoned in 1932, but escaped the following year. In this regard - escape - he had something in common with Bilbo.
The March palace, Sa Torre Cega, is now under the Bartolome March Foundation. The gardens and the house can be visited. They are a form of homage to Joan March, even if some distance has been placed between the property and his memory. As for Jack Bilbo, there is none such. They should put up a plaque. Jack was here, and he was larger than life.
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