South Ocean Boulevard in Palm Beach, Florida, is one of the most magnificent stretches of highway in the world. The Atlantic Ocean, with its jeweled turquoise waves crashing over bone-white sands, frames the road on the east. On the west South Ocean gives rise to opulent, pastel mansions, caricatures of gargantuan Hollywood-set missions and Greek temples, enmeshed in hibiscus, gardenias and jasmine.
It was here on the southern tip of Palm Beach in his sumptuous villa that Hans Fischer of Cleveland, Ohio, came to live. And to die.
In one way Fischer was like so many other men of great wealth, who, having made fortunes and carved destinies in distant metropolises, rush to Palm Beach to play alongside other rich men. They arrive, as Fischer did, in their twilight years to bask not only in the comforting sun but also to immerse themselves in the glittering social swirl of this Fantasy Island.
But as much as Fischer this year at 60 could look bark at what life had yielded him — a prosperous manufacturing combine, material possessions that lesser men can only yearn for, good health, a loving family — there was one thing he did not have, the one thing he craved the most: total control over his own fate.
To a small degree what befell Fischer was blurted out in a story or two in the newspapers this spring when he came up against one of the most potent and unforgiving forces in the world: the government of the United States of America.
At the time he was briefly in court on what seemed to be a routine tax dispute between the government and a wealthy businessman. It was hardly a case that would prompt reporters covering the courts to pursue for in-depth articles, even with what strangely followed the judicial decision. But in between the lines of those short articles is an allegory about a society whose values are changing as mercurially as the shifts in tradewinds buffeting Florida's eastern shores.
Roles once blindly accepted have been tossed topsy-turvy, and it has become difficult for a man — even a rich and insightful man such as Hans Fischer — to know what rules to live by.
For Fischer the paradox was that while he chased what he thought was the American Dream, he would not understand until it was too late that the dream, like everything else in America, also has changed. Indeed, some would argue that the American Dream of self-determination no longer exists.
But many things were paradoxical about Fischer, a man who followed the beat of a different drummer.
Socially, for instance, he could be engaging, witty, sardonic. And when speaking in an ever-so-slight, clipped German accent, dressed in a black dinner jacket, surrounded by the crystal chandeliers of his Palm Beach villa, discoursing on world issues, he was charming, if not commanding. Society writers would probably call him "continental."
But there was, conversely, Hans Fischer the no-nonsense businessman: brilliant, inquisitive, perceptive, uncompromising, shrewd and cold. It could be said that his sometimes stiff Germanic countenance, his seemingly relentless pursuit of money, his drive to ever expand his industrial empire, his self-assuredness in business deals, intimidated and sometimes offended his more mildly disposed professional associates.
Then there was Hans Fischer, the family man: devoted to his wife of nearly 40 years, dedicated to the well-being of his five children, beaming over their achievements, proud to be an American.
But it really was difficult to figure out Hans Fischer even if you were his good friend — and he had many good friends. He was candid about his views on business, government and the great issues of the day, but vocalized precious little about himself, giving rise to endless speculation in Palm Beach about his background.
Whether greeting someone at his Waite Hill estate, at his Palm Beach villa or even on his 105-foot yacht, he seemed to take on a Gatsby-like mysteriousness to those who knew him casually. Like F. Scott Fitzgerald's fictional Great Gatsby, Fischer had risen from humble beginnings to a position of great wealth.
And just as Gatsby sought social acceptance, so too did Fischer. After Fischer made his money, he promptly bought a mansion and began inviting society figures to his lavish parties, much the way Gatsby did. And if Gatsby left departing guests foggy about who he was, so too did Fischer leave more than one visitor wondering who he was and how he could have arrived so rapidly.
Yet through the mist of these personality outlines the character of Fischer gradually comes into focus. But to really clarify who he was, what he accomplished and what eventually befell him, the story must begin in Europe.
Fischer was born in Vienna in September 1918, the only son of a highly cultured haute bourgeois family. His father, Albert Fischer, was a successful mechanical engineer who spoke seven languages. His mother, Johanna Geiringer Fischer, was equally conversant in foreign tongues and a woman whose life was devoted to art, music and literature. Even in Viennese society where most cultivated women played the violin or piano, Mrs. Fischer was acclaimed as an accomplished pianist.
Fischer was a child when his parents divorced and 17 when his mother died. Nevertheless, throughout his life he would often speak of her reverentially, expounding on her love of the fine arts. An oil painting of his mother as a beautiful young woman, her golden hair flowing into a dark formal gown, still hangs in the foyer of the Palm Beach home.
The young Hans Fischer inherited the best traits of both parents. His engineering and design skills and his uncanny ability to sense new trends came from his father. His artistic qualities came from his mother. He knew most operettas and operas by heart, could play the violin and had an intimate knowledge of Mozart.
It was in this pre-World War II Viennese milieu that Fischer was to demonstrate the first signs of his virtuosity.
Vienna of the 1930s was still the cultural magnet of Europe, its spirit reflected in the music of Mozart, Strauss, Beethoven and others, its later scientific achievement in Freud. Refined and educated society, the society into which Hans Fischer was born, preoccupied itself with pursuits of the mind and physical senses, with an emphasis on art, architecture, literature, theater, music, opera and various aspects of medicine and design.
The city had been the seat of the Hapsburgs who dominated Central Europe for centuries until 1918, when the Austro-Hungarian monarchy broke up, the year Fischer was born.
Because of this Hapsburg hegemony, Vienna was an international melting pot with countless generations of intermarriages between Italians, Hungarians, Germans, Slavs, and even the French because of Napoleonic invasions.
The pooling of cultures not only created an atmosphere in which artistic development could flourish, but it also blurred religious and ethnic distinctions among the upper classes. Unlike in America and Cleveland where your place in the pecking order is still subtly conferred by religion, ethnic background and the date of your ancestors' landing, in Vienna status in gentle society was contingent on cultural background, artistic and academic accomplishments.
Fischer himself descended from a blend of Catholic, Jewish and Protestant and an ethnic mix that for generations had transcended Austria's narrow borders. His hybrid heritage was typical of the educated Viennese classes. Yet Austria itself was still heavily Catholic — a Hapsburg legacy — and his parents, while not professing any religion themselves, baptized him a Catholic, his mother's original faith. Fischer took instructions in Catholicism, but as a young man was only nominally Catholic, which also was not an unusual practice among cultured Viennese families.
It was only in America years later that Fischer would encounter social snubs from various Catholics, Protestants and Jews. In placing an emphasis on religion and blood unknown among upper classes in Vienna, they believed he was avoiding admitting to a portion of his ancestry: that of being Jewish, neither a religion nor a culture he considered his. In fact, this concern over bloodlines in America would confuse and anger him.
But such considerations were not to hamper Fischer's drive, and perhaps they fueled his motivation to succeed.
"He was not ordinary, not run of the mill, even as a young man," recalls his sister, Mrs. Viola Lowen, now of Denver. "You have to go back into the family history, with its emphasis on academic and professional achievement, to understand his motivations.
Whatever he did had to be excellent. He was a genius with capacity to analyze critical situations far above the ability of the common man."
At 16 years old, Fischer already had decided to pursue his father's engineering profession. Within two years he completed the American equivalent of high school and two years of college.
When his father moved on to London from Vienna in 1937, he followed, continuing his education at the University of London. But his ability to quickly analyze the meaning of a situation, an ability that would in later years make him an American success story, brought him back to Vienna after the Nazi invasion of March 1938.
Fischer understood the realities of what was happening. Despite the detached attitude of the refined Viennese about one's mixed ethnic and religious heritage, the Nazis with their obsession about anything remotely Jewish, their contempt for the artistic classes, would not allow such a fiercely independent man as Fischer to live freely in Austria.
"He would not stay in a place where he could not exercise his free will," says Mrs. Lowen.
Fischer and his two sisters packed up and fled Austria, while many of his contemporaries in Viennese society continued attending the opera as usual, and remained contemptuous of politics and convinced their lives would not change. The strength of the Viennese culture, its preoccupation with art and science, to the ignorance of world affairs, was also its downfall.
The refugee Fischers were helped to America by a friend of their grandfather who had emigrated to the United States from Austria years before. The children stayed with the friend's family on Long Island while they were seeking work. Mrs. Lowen and another sister, who now lives in Arizona, eventually became governesses (Mrs. Lowen with the David Sulxherger family, relatives of the New York Times owners). Fischer himself, barely managing to hold onto the little money he had after arriving in New York, moved into the Manhattan YMCA, and, after finding a job, sold some of his personal possessions, and scraped together rental money for an apartment.
Although he was very educated and was taking college courses again, the best position he could find was as a stockboy at Bloomingdale's, for the United States was still pulling out of the Depression.
"Whatever he attained," observes Mrs, Lowen, "he started out right from the bottom and worked his own way up."
For a young man who already was speaking near-flawless English and could converse in French and Italian as well as his native German, who was determined to be something in his new country, Bloomingdale's back room was to be the springboard for his pursuit of the American Dream.
But fate would come to characterize most turning points in Fischer's adult life, and it was fate that enabled him to quit Bloomingdale's and come to Cleveland. The First Baptist Church at Baton Road and Fairmount Boulevard in Cleveland Heights had begun a program to bring to Cleveland displaced persons fleeing Hitler's tyranny. George Reuben Brown, one of the church's leading members and founder and owner of North American Manufacturing Company, agreed to sponsor one of the refugees. He instructed his New York representative to search for someone with an engineering background. That man discovered Fischer through United States immigration authorities and on the spot offered him a job in Cleveland, a city Fischer surely knew nothing about.
But the decision he made that day in 1939 would be a fortuitous one, not only for Fischer but for Cleveland and the First Baptist Church. Young Hans packed up almost the next day, said goodbye to New York, family and friends and boarded a train for the Terminal Tower.
He worked as a draftsman for North American, an industrial combustion equipment manufacturer near East 71st Street and Harvard Avenue, but resigned after two years over a personality clash with the chief engineer, a German immigrant. Fischer might have been a greenhorn, but even at his young age he was not to be intimidated.
"Mr. Brown [now deceased] was really proud that Hans had the initiative to strike out on his own," recalls retired North American president Norman Davies.
Fischer moved on to engineering jobs at McCann Furnace and Fairchild Engineering and, in early 1942, while living in a small East Side apartment, he met Mary Whitmore. The daughter of a Nelsonville, Ohio, florist and greenhouse operator, she was living with an aunt in East Cleveland while attending business college and working as a private secretary. The pair had introduced at a social club at the First Baptist Church.
By the early 1940s, Fischer had shucked off his Catholic upbringing and had become a devoted member of the Baptist Church which had brought him to Cleveland and changed his life. It was the successor church to the one that John D. Rockefeller had contributed so generously to while still living here. And as Fischer's career unfolded, it would be obvious that the two devout Baptists had more than that one similarity.
In November 1942, with World War II in full swing, Fischer married Mary Whitmore in Nelsonville and came back to Cleveland to join the Army.
"More than anything else, he wanted to be an American citizen," says his second oldest son, Larry, "and so he enlisted in the Army."
Citizenship was automatically conferred by joining the armed forces, hastening the naturalization process that otherwise often took several years.
The Army took the aspiring new American as a buck private and promoted him to corporal while he served in the Corps of Engineers, building supply roads in India. Although he had been weakened by a bout of malaria in the Indian jungles, he already showed signs of the brilliance and ambition he would demonstrate later in business. He even invented a kind of makeshift sawmill that could easily be assembled and taken apart under combat conditions. The Army, recognizing his leadership qualities, hustled him back to America and to Officer's Candidate School. He emerged a second lieutenant and finished out the war at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, analyzing intelligence and research documents.
After the war, he joined Joy Manufacturing as senior engineer in the New Philadelphia plant for a salary of $7,000 a year, a job he found through a service buddy. But Fischer's drive could hardly be satisfied in a small central Ohio town in a little plant. Bored, he came back to Cleveland and went to Republic Steel, and, in less than a year and before he was 30 years old, he was chief of the open hearth furnace, one of Republic's top engineering positions.
Although a rising star at Republic Steel, Fischer still longed, now more than ever, to run his own company. He was convinced he could never be an outstanding success in the regular chain-of-command corporate structure, which he found stifling. He wanted to give the orders, not take them.
"All engineers dream of being autonomous operators and being in business for themselves," he told a newspaper reporter who interviewed him in 1957, about his reasons for forming his own company. Even before the war, he had confided, he was thinking of striking out on his own. He believed that many large corporations were doomed because they thwarted new ideas.
"What entraps business people today is while they're young they had evolved a pattern of doing things that was successful," he was quoted in a Plain Dealer Sunday supplement article only a few years ago, at the crest of his success. "And as they get older, they are reluctant to change, so they will try harder to do more of the same, which will create less and less results . . . and companies do this all the time and fade out of the picture. . .
"Republic Steel is a good example locally. They think they are in the steel business ... they are in the materials business and don't know it. And steel is slowly going to phase out. It has to, because it's a bad material. ... Steel is the kind of material that wants to go back to the soil ... so eventually we will evolve materials that are uniquely designed to accomplish tasks that they were intended for.
"But each one of the executives today, all his life was in the steel business and he did not see the change ... so they will be ... a holding company which has a lot of money but no more place in our economy."
Fischer's outspoken views seemed incisive and visionary to some, but others found them superficial and sarcastic. Whatever, this glibness both enticed and repelled those who came in contact with the ambitious businessman.
"Hans would give anyone an argument," notes Dr. Victor deWoIfe, a Cleveland Clinic surgeon, who knew Fischer nearly 30 years. "He was very knowledgeable on many subjects and enjoyed people who could intellectually spar with him."
Unquestionably, those who did not want to spar with him were the Republic Steel executives. While still the chief open hearth engineer, and barely into his 30s, Fischer formed a part-time engineering consulting firm, using $4,000 in savings to open an office and meeting his early payrolls by borrowing short-term money from loan companies. Going first-class from the start, a characteristic which distinguished him all his life, Fischer hired the city's largest law firm, Squire, Sanders & Dempsey, to handle the early legal work of the promising new company. This was the same prestigious firm he would be forced to call on in the most unexpected way in later years.
In any case, the new undertaking made increasing demands on his time, and the Republic hierarchy forced him to make a decision: "full-time with us or with your own company."
Yet even before the showdown, Fischer's decision was a fait accompli. By 1953, with a new office building — the Fischer Building — at East 52nd Street and Euclid Avenue, Fischer & Associates already had a number of partners and loyal employees. Among them was Fischer's devoted personal secretary, Mrs. Kathryn Winbigler, who, like his law firm, would play an important role in his destiny some 25 years later.
Before the 1950s closed, Fischer & Associates had some 200 engineers working part- or full-time, and the firm was selling more than $2 million annually in services to scores of Cleveland s blue-chip corporations.
Fischer & Associates revolutionized engineering practices in Cleveland, making Fischer himself extraordinarily successful but drawing the jealousy and antagonism of others in the staid profession who were unnerved by his unorthodox practices.
Fischer simply pushed into a vacuum in a languishing profession with almost blinding speed. His concept was simple enough: He employed engineers and "rented" them to other companies who needed temporary skills for a particular long- or short-term job. His specialty was the design of industrial material handling systems which demanded custom design services. With the post-war growth, with a touch of imagination in an unimaginative profession, Fischer seemed to be at the right place at the right time.
But he was not only an engineer; he was inventor and marketing director as well. He concerned himself with every aspect of the business, even advertising his services (anathema to engineers at the time), and involving himself even in the choice of layout, copy and color for the direct mail advertisements.
"We're not in the business to advance the profession," he was quoted in those years as saying. "We're in business to make money."
And make money he did.
As the 1950s were closing, Fischer was getting rich and working harder than ever — upwards of 16 hours a day. To be able to meet that grinding regimen, he stayed in excellent physical condition — throughout his life he lectured associates on the need for exercise. For years he could be seen at the Cleveland Athletic Club during most noon hours jogging, swimming or playing handball, then lunching on a spartan diet of V-8 juice, cottage cheese and buttermilk.
And like other penurious immigrants who came to America to make their fortunes, Fischer also wanted the material trappings of status and success. This was evident even in the early fifties. After the war, he had purchased a house on Stock-bridge Avenue in the Lee-Harvard area in the southeast corner of the city. It was a neighborhood of postage-stamp lawns and bungalows inhabited by first-, second- and third-generation Hungarians, Poles, Germans, Italians, Slovaks and Czechs. But like other blue-collar enclaves of the city, it was on the brink of social and racial change.
A longtime Fischer friend who asked not to be quoted by name tells this story: "One night in the early fifties, Hans attended a neighborhood meeting called to plot strategy over the matter of blacks moving in. The residents were adamant, they would not sell to blacks. But he knew better. He knew change was inevitable and foresaw the economic realities it would bring. He had nothing against blacks, but the next day he went out and put his house up for sale."
By 1953, his children had a full-time nurse and the family was living in a stately, seven-bedroom Tudor house on Shaker Boulevard in Shaker Heights, in a neighborhood philosophically and socio-economically further away from Lee-Harvard than his native Vienna. It was a quantum social jump.
But if the Fischers were someday to hire help to do for them what they once did for themselves, most people who knew them in Cleveland over the years insist that they never entirely lost the common touch, particularly Mrs. Fischer.
Laura Cole, a real estate saleswoman who tried to sell the Fischers their Shaker Heights house, recalls meeting frequently with Mrs. Fischer on Stockbridge Avenue. "She was a lovely lady then," says Ms. Cole, "just as friendly and caring as she could be. I can see her now, with her hair in a bandana, carrying a pail, mopping the floor, playing with the kids. I was awfully fond of her."
Fischer had made the big leap to Shaker Heights with relative ease but he was not abandoning the institution which had made possible his initial success. He headed the fund raising drive in the early fifties to build a new education wing on the First Baptist Church. His company designed the building and in his spare time he personally supervised the construction. Later he served as chairman of the church's board of trustees. Mrs. Fischer herself took an active interest in Baptist affairs, volunteering at the church's senior citizen home, Judson Park.
"Anytime I would call either of them, they would give us a hand," notes Dr. Russell Bishop, former pastor of the First Baptist Church, now living in Florida. "They gave of their time as well as their money. They were very loyal to their church and 100 per cent honest. They were dependable. Just like a rock."
By the mid-fifties, Fischer already seemingly had fulfilled the promise of the American Dream. He was not yet 40 but rich by anyone's standards. The stockboy from Bloomingdale's was recognized as a pillar of his church, a proud and dutiful citizen, a major philanthropic contributor. His wife was active in numerous charitable causes. His children were enrolled in the best private schools. The family lived in one of the wealthiest suburbs in America.
But men who forge mighty industrial combines are seldom content. Fischer certainly was not.
Although his rent-an-engineer concept was innovative, he realized that vast wealth could only be attained in industrial manufacturing. And to that end, in the mid-fifties, he incorporated Fischer Industries, which would later serve as a holding company for the second phase of his organizational expansion.
The fifties were years of steady growth for the American economy and for Fischer's enterprises, but the sixties were perhaps the most fertile years for American business in this century, the last expansionist, guns-and-butter, pre-inflationary, pre-regulatory days of untroubled capitalism. And Fischer seized on the sixties like a man possessed of his dream.
He begged and borrowed the down payment, even using the mortgage on his Euclid Avenue office building as leverage to buy Mayfran, a small manufacturer of material handling systems with offices and plant on the East Side. Perhaps the company owners believed that such systems were outmoded and that they were dumping a white elephant on Fischer, for he bought Mayfran in 1960 for not much more than $1 million. But material handling was his forte.
"The reason they were not successful," he counseled Donald Bibbo, who rose steadily through Mayfran ranks from a blueprint boy until Fischer appointed him president, "is that they never marketed the company properly."
Fischer obviously did.
In fact, he did for material handling what Henry Ford did for the automobile. Although material handling systems must be custom made to fit the particular needs of the factory or warehouse, Fischer himself designed such systems using standard, interchangeable parts. He sold his products to some of the biggest industrial corporations in the nation. Fischer could be relied upon to meet the price quoted and guarantee the work. "If you make a deal," he reminded Bibbo from time to time, "no matter how it hurts, carry it out. If you make changes, make them beforehand."
Fischer excelled in every aspect of the business. He knew how to promote and sell his product, overwhelming a client with his knowledge, then sizing up the particular need, designing the quality machinery at a low cost and finally making the sale, at a hefty profit.
He continued to make heavy use of direct mail advertising to preferred clients and potential customers, much as he did with his engineering consulting firm. "We might have to spend 90 cents to make a dollar," he would explain to his executives, "but we are going to make a lot of dollars."
Indeed, last year Mayfran had sales of $18 million in the United States, an increase of $1 million annually since Fischer took over. His European operations, which he started in the late sixties, had sales of $9 million. The Japanese division of Mayfran finished with sales of $3 million. And, of course, this was only a fraction of his overall holdings.
Fischer was complex in his personal and social dealings, and on the job he also could be highly unpredictable. One afternoon, for instance, he found that a pin machine — a kind of conveyor belt system — was not functioning at his Mayfran plant. He unhooked the vital parts, took them to his office, shut the door and did not emerge until 10 hours later with the machine repaired.
He was also temperamental in handling employees. Although he had a handful of loyal longtime executives who stuck by him because he allowed them to participate in company decisions, he had trouble recruiting many others because of his reputation as a demanding boss. Managers came and departed over the years, intimidated by Fischer's curt, hard-driving style.
He rarely paid more than minimum union wages to his laborers, but also had somewhat of a paternalistic attitude toward them. He would send them a $10 check and card on their birthdays and offer them a choice of a ham or turkey at Christmas.
But perhaps it was the hard side of him, this seeming intolerance for persons beneath his intellectual capabilities, that would cause him problems socially over the years. Or perhaps it was simple prejudice.
By 1962 Mayfran was already highly profitable, and Fischer himself was gaining a reputation as a successful entrepreneur. But at 44, he seemed to want not only the material adornments but the social status that his professional position should bring.
Thus in November of that year he purchased a five-acre lot in Daisy Hill, an exclusive, affluent, platted WASP enclave in Hunting Valley where some of the best names in Cleveland industry, law and medicine live. In terms of the status pyramid, Daisy Hill in the early 1960s was at the tip. And that is where Fischer believed he deserved to be.
But building a house in Daisy Hill or being accepted apparently then (and presumably now) demands more than just money. A Daisy Hill Neighborhood Committee has the power to approve or disapprove new buildings, depending on whether the plans meet certain restrictive codes. These include the size and shape of the house, its distance from the road, even the contour of the landscaping. The committee also has the authority to determine if one qualities for a permit to hook onto the water system.
And this Daisy Hill Neighborhood Committee covenant can still be found in the Cuyahoga County Recorder's deedbooks, although similar ones were struck down years ago by the U.S. Supreme Court:
No sublot shall be sold, rented, leased, used or occupied, in whole or in part, by any person of African descent or any person not of the White or Caucasian race, other than domestic servants employed by any owner, tenant or lessee of any sublet. No part of said sublet shall be sold, rented, leased, used or occupied, in whole or in part, by any person without first having obtained the written consent of the Neighborhood Committee ...
Fischer was simply told he was not wanted in Daisy Hill. Not being the kind who would make his mortifying experience public, he turned the property over to his land management company, which some years later sold it to a family found more acceptable by the Daisy Hill folks.
(While this incident was substantiated by several sources, most residents who lived in Daisy Hill at the time and who were contacted about the matter insist they have no knowledge of it or simply do not want to discuss it.)
Whatever the ostensible reason for the snub, whether it was because some believed he was Jewish, or they disliked his flashy style — he drove both a Cadillac and a raffish red Jaguar convertible — or his growing reputation as a businessman willing to break traditional rules, Fischer was determined now more than ever really to make it in terms of money and social prestige.
He soon purchased a 30-acre estate in Waite Hill — one with swimming pool, stables and tennis courts — and redecorated the enormous manor house with little cost to spare. And it was not uncommon to see Fischer blithely driving a huge Mercedes limousine along the winding roads of the Chagrin Valley.
In any case, the move to Waite Hill opened some social doors for the Fischers. Their property abutted the Kirtland Club, considered the most prestigious country club in Greater Cleveland, the members of which are the city's Old Guard Protestant families, some chosen lawyers, doctors and corporate executives, a few handpicked Irish Catholics and an upper-class Jew or two.
The Kirtland tapping was a tour de force, especially by standards of the less liberal sixties. Fischer, however, had the assistance of John Sherwin, retired chairman of Pickands Mather & Company, the very embodiment of the old-line WASP establishment, and the late Henry Mclntosh, another equally prominent business leader. They both apparently saw the "newcomer" as a credit to Cleveland's industrial life.
Yet some of the other old, perhaps more prim, Kirtland members never did really accept Hans Fischer. His style was not theirs. These members of the Old Guard had money but did not show it and were unimpressed by Fischer's splendid house, his cars, his various yachts. Neither did they warm up to his expounding at cocktail parties about his achievements or how government was stifling free enterprise.
In this small upper-class cocoon that is Cleveland Society, it seems acceptability is only conferred through generations of "proper" finishing. And Fischer, the highly opinionated upstart with his indomitable Germanic spirit, no matter how bright, no matter how cultured, was still not one of them. And even though he was in the Kirtland Club, he was never invited to join the Union Club, the top businessmen's club in Cleveland, because, presumably, his outspoken manner was offensive to certain members, many of whom he surely could have bought and sold.
Still, not all Kirtland-Waite Hill-Hunting Valley circles snubbed the Fischers, and they were entertained in the best houses and returned the engagements at dinner and cocktail parties as posh as any in the fashionable area. Mrs. Fischer, acknowledged as a gracious and lovely hostess, devoted much of her time to serving on the Willoughby School of Fine Arts board, the acceptable charitable cause among Waite Hill society. Fischer himself even donated $50,000 to the school's building fund.
In the meantime, he maintained his furious 12- and 16-hour-a-day work pace. He sold his consulting firm, Fischer & Associates, and in 1964 purchased American Monorail of Euclid, a firm for which he had been a consultant. American Monorail makes overhead single-rail systems for moving heavy equipment. Fischer took this dowdy company, as he had taken Mayfran, and made it so profitable that Eaton Corporation offered him more than $7 million for it in 1968, almost three times what he had paid for it.
But the acquisition caused antagonism between Eaton and Fischer, because American Monorail began losing money.
Fischer believed Eaton did not properly operate the company. Eaton, in turn, held that Fischer did not deliver the company he promised. In 1972 Eaton resold American Monorail to Fischer at half the original purchase price.
Fischer himself shied away from investing in companies he could not personally direct. He made only one major exception. In 1968, with his Monorail profits, he joined his lawyer from Squire, Sanders & Dempsey, Joseph Coakly, in buying 31 per cent of Union Commerce Bank stock. The move successfully prevented a Cincinnati company from gaining control over the bank. Fischer was upset that his investment did not give him immediate management control, and he sold most of his stock in 1969, at a profit of nearly 2 million. He remained on the bank board until 1976.
The stock sale profits allowed him to buy back American Monorail and search for other investments. By the early seventies, he had purchased Lyman Boat Company of Sandusky for a mere $500,000 and American Tool, Inc., of Cincinnati, a machine tool manufacturer, for $4.5 million, another good price.
He changed production of Lyman Boats from wooden lapstrake to fiberglass, but the boats did not sell. As a result, he sold off Lyman, his only unprofitable venture.
At the same time, he moved Mayfran into a new headquarters and factory in an industrial park in Mayfield Heights.
The modern, spotlessly clean building, on a corner lot, can be seen from Interstate 271, a small "Mayfran" sign above the entrance. "Hans wanted an obscure sign, because he figured people driving by would strain to see it," recalls Mayfran President Donald Bibbo. "This way they would have a lasting impression of Mayfran."
Fischer was in his fifties now, but still he believed he had missed something. He had not quite fulfilled his quest for the American Dream and thus wanted to build a house in Palm Beach and spend his time among international society. In a way, Palm Beach was the natural progression for Fischer.
He already was piloting his own company planes — later it would be a Lear Jet — and spending the winters on his 105-foot yacht, the Piscator, a converted, steel-hulled Norwegian trawler. Fischer had elegantly refurbished the teakwood and mahogany salons of the ship and hired a full-time crew. When not docked at Fort Lauderdale, the ship cruised the Caribbean.
But he eventually sold the lavish yacht, hard-pressed to justify the draining maintenance and fuel costs.
"You could say my dad did high-key things in a low-key way," says son Larry. "He was not concerned with material things per se, but with the quality of life they could bring."
To that end, the Palm Beach house replaced the Piscator and became Fischer's magnificent obsession. After buying the property — then one of the few undeveloped oceanfront sites in Palm Beach — Fischer hired the town's leading architect and builder.
John Volk, the architect, designed the house so that all windows had a view of the water, either the ocean to the east, or the Intracoastal Waterway, which abutted the property to the west. His choice of style was the English Regency period, using low-slung roofs and surfacing the exterior with peach-colored stucco.
Construction started in 1971, but soon became mired in delays. On one occasion, there was a four-month hiatus when the custom-made glazed tile roof, trucked down from Ohio and uncrated, was discovered to be the wrong color. A new roof had to be made, tile by tile.
Scores of design changes and rising labor and material expenses inflated the final cost from $1 million to $3 million. Though Fischer complained about the costs, he visited the site only twice during construction to inspect the progress, leaving the supervision to his wife.
Like everything else in Fischer's life, the house was elaborate. The property itself was dressed up with more than $100,000 in landscaping, from profusions of viburnum and ligustrum to palm and grapefruit trees.
The house was built on two floors. The bottom floor, at the level of the tennis courts and pool, is for casual living, with a large lounge, guest bedrooms, a gymnasium with steam and sauna and a wine cellar built to resemble one in Fischer's pre-war Austrian summer house.
The first floor is more formal, containing a foyer and stairway sheathed in blue onyx, the last of a vein of this precious Portuguese stone, imported at a cost of more than $200,000. Fischer also insisted on building a $100,000 tunnel from the first floor beneath the highway to the beach.
"You could say it has the intimacy of a small castle," observes the builder, Robert Gottfried. The market value today would be $4.5 million to $5 million, according to a Palm Beach realtor.
Fischer first saw the house completed when he and Mrs. Fischer came to Palm Beach in November 1973, after opening the Japanese offices of Mayfran. The Fischers could not have been happier. The edifice to this great industrialist's genius and money was grand beyond even his expectations. The overruns and delays certainly were justified. On this homecoming day, Hans Fischer seemed to lock an expansive smile across his normally impassive oval-shaped face.
Bob French, also a Clevelander, cannot forget that day, that Fischer smile. He remembers almost in phantasmagorial detail, the Fischers alighting from the limousine, the family, friends, domestic staff rushing at them, welcoming them . .. welcoming them home! French himself could not have been more overcome by the moment, for the majestic house was also the fulfillment of his dreams.
At the lime, French was 4 years old. He had grown up in lakefront Michigan towns, working as a steward for business guests in the hushed private cabins of the ore boats of Republic Steel and Cleveland Cliffs. Tired of sailing the lake, he wanted to settle down to something permanent. And it was natural he would find his way to Cleveland through shipping contacts who were primarily Clevelanders.
As a waiter and bartender for Hough Caterers in the sixties, French came to know the best families in social Cleveland. With his ingratiating manners and gentle handling of guests, not to mention his catering ability, he soon became a favorite of the city's elite who requested Hough that he serve their parties.
The Fischers, living in their Waite Hill mansion, Sunning Hill, also found Bob French to be courteous, cordial and competent, and began requesting his services. "He was sort of a friend of the family in many ways," recalls Larry Fischer.
In turn, French seemed to like the Fischers as well as, or better than, other society folks he worked for, Mr. Fischer for his drive and success, Mrs. Fischer for her kindness and genuineness.
"You couldn't find nicer people to work for," he says. "I might have had a choice of six or seven parties on a Saturday night, but if the Fischers were one of the choices, I always wanted to work for them."
Along the way French came to know Kay Winbigler, Fischer's longtime assistant. Mrs. Winbigler had started with Fischer in the early days of the consulting firm and had risen to treasurer of his operations. Despite the demands of her increased duties, she continued to manage the family's finances. She considered herself one of the family, in fact, and as she had no children herself, acted as kind of an aunt to the Fischer children.
Mrs. Winbigler telephoned Bob French in early 1973 and offered him a new job. "She said I would be the major-domo of the new Palm Beach house," French says.
It was the break French was waiting for, something on which he could plan for the future and support his wife and three children.
"I had been offered similar jobs before," he says, "but I always turned them down. In this case I was convinced I had made the right decision, because I had heard stories about Mr. Fischer's loyalty to employees."
By September, French was in Palm Beach commanding a staff of laundresses, cleaning women, gardeners and cooks. All were feverishly preparing for the arrival of the Fischers. And because the house was so carefully groomed when they did arrive, the Fischers set out almost immediately to show it off to Palm Beach society. French was asked to greet guests at the door of these affairs.
French insists he was put on the payroll to manage the household staff, but adds that he never received the authority he had been promised. When the Fischers arrived in Palm Beach, they sought to transform the "major-domo" into a butler, he says, a position he was not comfortable with.
By spring his job was in peril. French was resented by a staff over which he had little authority. His duties were nebulous. The Fischers simply did not want him around anymore, as the situation was causing household consternation. Something had to give. And it did. On May 14, 1974, a date that would have significance five years later, a Mayfran carpenter working temporarily at the Palm Beach villa was instructed to fire French.
Bob French is a small man, and physically resembles a jockey. He is soft-spoken, almost to the point of being deferential. And he is religious in a fundamentalist way, peppering his conversation with Biblical references or asides about his trust in the Lord. He attracts people at first blush, because of his sincerity. In fact, he talks about the importance of family and religion not much differently from the way the Fischers would talk about such things.
But above all, Bob French is no fool. He is perceptive, and while working for the Fischers he watched the way they lived, observed their habits, their movements, the subtleties of their personal interactions, much the way a precision general drills himself on his opponent: his strategies, tactics, weaknesses, strengths and even oddities. And French after months of living almost side-by-side with the Fischers believed there was something strange here.
He had expected the firing, and even considered the $1,000 check in the envelope some balm to ease the pain. But he was bitter. He had given up a monotonous but secure life in Cleveland to follow the Fischers to the sun, but was barely earning $14,000 a year — the price tag, he thought, of one good Fischer soiree — had a wife and three daughters to support, mortgages on an apartment building and farm in Ohio and house in Florida. He was more than bitter, he was panicked.
That night after dinner, he locked himself in his den and with the fury only a scorned servant can heap on the master, French wrote down in neat paragraphs, each prefaced with a Roman numeral, the prologue to what would become an incredible tale about the life and ways of Hans Fischer. French scrawled on that yellow note pad until 12:30 a.m. when he stopped, exhausted.
By 7:30 that morning he was at the door of the West Palm Beach Internal Revenue Service office, waiting for it to open. He hesitated. Am I doing the right thing? He almost turned away. But something prodded him on. And within seconds, he had handed his accusations to an agent.
"Don't expect us to get to this tomorrow," the agent cautioned.
Bob French came home, out of work. And being out of work in Florida where pay scales are low can be scary.
He sold liquor in a package store at $100 a week. And after leaving the store at night, pumped gas on the Florida Turnpike until 7 a.m. for the same wages. In the meantime, he lost the little apartment building he owned in Cleveland. And by August he was so desperate that he began selling off household possessions. Finally, he humbled himself and appealed to Fischer for money to move back to Cleveland. Fischer gave him $700.
But Fischer could hardly have been disturbed by the firing of a hired hand. because in the mid-seventies he was reaching the height of his social and professional success. Not only were his companies expanding, but in Palm Beach he and Mrs. Fischer were acknowledged as part of society.
Mrs. Fischer herself had taken the most unobstructed route to social approval in Palm Beach by volunteering for the right charities. By 1977 she actually was named chairman of the Heart Ball, perhaps the second ranking fund raiser on the town's subtle social scale.
Thus things could not have been better for Hans Fischer when on that afternoon in the winter of 1976 agents from the Internal Revenue Service walked into his Mayfran office and changed the course of his life.
The IRS had been quietly investigating French's allegations for two years, but now intended to expand that probe. And they asked French to sign a number of affidavits about his work in Palm Beach.
In one affidavit, he summed up what he said he was asked to do by Kay Winbigler before she hired him for the job as "major-domo." He charged that Mrs. Winbigler set up a petty cash fund of $1,000 a month to run the Palm Beach villa, and was told to submit expense reports equal to the money needed. The expenses were then charged off to Mayfran or American Monorail, rather than Fischer himself.
"I [also] would hire persons [domestic help] and submit the proper forms to Kay. After a short period, payroll checks would be sent to me, and I would give them to the persons working at the estate. I was paid my salary from Mayfran or American Monorail ... I never performed any services for [these companies]."
French reported that he had been listed as an employee on Mayfran's executive sales payroll and that he filled out dummy vouchers, supposedly for sales trips throughout the South.
He could not say why these personal expenditures were being written off against Fischer's companies, but he also listed several other allegations about how the Palm Beach villa was charged off as a company expense in his IRS memorandum.
"If he had just put me somewhere else instead of firing me and ruining my life," says French today, "I would have had no ax to grind."
He adds, "I believe in not cheating on taxes. I pay mine, you should pay yours."
Was Hans Fischer knowingly cheating on his or his companies' taxes?
Even to date, with all that has happened, there is no easy answer.
Federal tax laws are the most complicated and arabesque laws of the land. They change almost as often as the seasons and are subject to widely differing interpretations. Most millionaires and corporations retain qualified accountants and lawyers to interpret these laws and provide them the best deductions. As did Hans Fischer.
Tax violations are not black and white; they are generally arguable, even the most potentially blatant. It is obviously a violation of tax codes to intentionally charge an expense to a company that was strictly for personal use. You get service or goods and avoid any outlay of personal cash, and the company gets a reduction on its income and therefore a reduction on its taxes. But how is "personal use" defined?
According to tax lawyers, it is not uncommon for the owner of his own company to charge off the use of cars, boats, even a plane or house, to his company when, in fact, the expenses technically should be a blend of personal and corporate. Is, say, a party strictly personal when half of the guests are business clients? How is this written off?
So where did Fischer go wrong? What did he do that other entrepreneurs who have their own companies have not been doing for years? IRS agents, prosecutors, defense lawyers, not to mention Fischer, his family and associates, would grapple with these questions. Reaching conclusions would not be a simple task.
As his business interests expanded, Fischer paid proportionately less attention to the bookkeeping. "He had no time for this," says son Larry. "He was not an accountant, he was a builder."
And when the IRS first made him aware of the depth of their probe, one that would penetrate deeper than Bob French's simple allegations, he turned on Kay Winbigler, on whom agents were also focusing much of their attention.
However, even before the tax investigation surfaced, there was pressure within the Fischer companies to move Kay Winbigler aside. Years ago when the Fischer business was starting up, she was a qualified bookkeeper. But now that Fischer's interests were spread across the world and involved hundreds of millions of dollars, she seemed in over her head, not properly trained to manage such high finances.
Fischer moved her to her own office in the Park Centre. But the possible violations under investigation centered on the early seventies when she still managed the company finances and was writing the Fischer family's personal checks.
Mrs. Winbigler, who is now retired to her Berea home, will not discuss the situation or her former employer, Hans Fischer. "The whole thing is too painful," she says. "I want to forget it."
If Fischer saw the case as one where Mrs. Winbigler, not out of criminal motives, but only to protect the Fischers and give them a tax break, especially at a time when their Palm Beach house was consuming so much cash, some government officials did not see it that way.
IRS agents and prosecutors apparently believed that Mrs. Winbigler was not smart enough to invent and carry out such a system of potential tax fraud and evasion on her own and was intimidated into it by Fischer. And while no one from any of those offices will discuss the matter, it is safe to conclude they believed Fischer had been the instigator of a system, some kind of system, to avoid paying taxes. Or short of that, he at least knew what was going on.
IRS investigations, particularly ones where criminal violations are suspected, are time consuming, often moving at a pace that might be described as glacial.
The IRS, to say the least, is thorough, and in this case, the service left no stone unturned. Agents took an office at Mayfran, down the hall from Fischer's spacious suite, and seemingly searched through every scrap of paper handled in the early seventies by Fischer or Winbigler.
They also fanned out across the country, checking the expenditures of Fischer and his companies. They talked to almost everyone he did personal business with, including the ex-captain of the Piscator, and the architect, interior decorator and builder of the Palm Beach house. They met with cooks, gardeners and laundry women. Agents were seeking to determine what services Fischer paid for and what his company paid for. Fischer inevitably would get telephone calls from those persons visited by the IRS. "Tell them the truth," he would instruct his associates. "I've got nothing to hide."
But Fischer was morose. He believed he was being hounded on a matter over which he had little control. More than anything he could not accept the idea of going to jail or that his family would be publicly humiliated by such an IRS investigation.
By late 1977, events were quickening, events that would further dismay Fischer.
After the IRS criminal division wrapped up its investigation, a meeting was held in the Cleveland office of Larry Nameroff, then on the IRS regional counsel staff. The purpose was to discuss the facts, before Nameroff would — by procedure — make a recommendation to the tax division of the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington on how to proceed, civilly or criminally, against Fischer. Among those in attendance were Fischer's lawyers, Carter Bledsoe, of Squire, Sanders & Dempsey, and Vincent Fuller, a partner in Edward Bennett Williams' Washington law firm, Williams and Connolly. Also present were representatives of Fischer's accounting firm, Hausser & Heintel, who insisted that they uncovered no indications of fraud when signing off on his or his companies' tax returns.
None of those present will discuss the meeting. Calls to the IRS here have been met with a "no comment." Even Nameroff, now in private practice in Cincinnati, refused to discuss the matter.
In any case, what transpired at this meeting has been pieced together from interviews with Fischer associates.
Fischer's lawyers presumably convinced Nameroff that Fischer was not aware of the extent of the system to defraud the government as he was not handling his own checkbook. Nameroff sent his findings to the Justice Department without recommending criminal prosecution.
Nevertheless, the Justice Department disagreed and after reviewing the facts sent the case in early 1979 to the U.S. Attorney's office in Cleveland for criminal prosecution.
"This is not necessarily unusual," says Justice Department spokesman Mark Sheehan, regarding the intragovernment disagreement.
Fischer, however, was distressed. He wondered how one arm of the government could suggest that the facts did not warrant criminal prosecution while another insisted upon it.
But Fischer still would not fight the case and subject himself to a public rebuke. Besides, there was a Catch-22 here, one of the many that would arise in the final days of the case. Since the government was also planning on moving against Mrs. Winbigler, Fischer could have only defended himself in a trial by blaming any fraud on his worshipful assistant, and he would not do that!
Fischer also had another problem. No matter how sincerely he would have protested his innocence or how successful his lawyers would have been in repudiating the prosecution's case, he believed it would have been difficult to select a jury of peers. Men of average intelligence and wealth could hardly be relied upon to have sympathy for a man who led the golden lifestyle of Hans Fischer.
This extravagance would have been a factor, Fischer believed, even after his lawyers wrangled out of Bob French that, yes, the "major-domo" stood to reap 10 per cent of what the IRS might collect from Fischer and, yes, French had turned in another suspected tax violator since moving against Fischer.
Fischer also was convinced the Justice Department was pushing the investigation because it has been under pressure from the Carter White House for white-collar prosecutions. He was angered that the government did not see fit to consider his own contributions to society, the fact he had 1,200 employees on his payrolls, that he generously donated to his church and various charitable causes and that he had done many unpublicized deeds for persons in need.
Nevertheless, Assistant U.S. Attorney James Lynch decided to summon various Fischer employees to a grand jury hearing, almost the final straw in breaking Fischer's resistance, what little was left of it. This man, once so disciplined, was now deteriorating rapidly, physically as well as mentally. He felt that the government could not be satisfied, perhaps ever, and that its legal wheels, once set in motion, were inexorably spinning away toward his doom. He could end this nightmare in only one way. He began telling anyone who would listen that he would not stand trial and would not go to jail. He would kill himself first.
One night in March, after putting in a full day at American Tool, he took an overdose of pills. His wife found him on the bedroom floor of their Cincinnati apartment and called the emergency squad. That night he was flown from a Cincinnati hospital to the Cleveland Clinic. For a week he stayed under the care of Dr. Richard Steinhilber, the Clinic chief of psychiatry.
Fischer was discharged after doctors perceived his strength returning. But he continued to insist, at the Clinic as well as outside, that he would not stand trial or go to jail.
"He came to the United States a second-class citizen, poverty stricken and unaccepted," allows Larry Fischer. "He struggled to create something, and he wanted it to last. Now it was flying away. To him, this was unbearable. He even thought of leaving the U.S., but he could not stand the thought of being a fugitive."
His lawyers themselves were in a quandary. Every approach they considered indeed had a Catch-22.
By spring they finally asked Lynch to work out some kind of plea bargaining and to call off the grand jury. Fischer, they said, would accept his criminal charges by "information." This would mean that the prosecutor would not need a grand jury to return an indictment, and Fischer could be spared the indignity of having additional associates called to testify against him. The information, a filing of the charges at the clerk's office, would contain the same counts as the indictment.
Meanwhile, lawyers jockeyed back and forth between Fischer and Lynch, fighting to get the best deal for their client, considering his insistence on not going to trial.
In the process, the government and his lawyers agreed that Fischer would be charged with four counts of income tax fraud and evasion and would plead guilty to one count. The other three then would be dismissed. Lynch also agreed not to make a statement of recommendation with respect to sentencing before the court. (He had been given a copy of a report of Dr. Steinhilber pointing out Fischer's suicidal tendencies.)
That first week in May, Fischer was in Palm Beach. His sister, Mrs. Lowen, remembers his telling her:
"The only thing I did wrong was to trust someone in a position too long."
By Monday, May 14th, the inexorable wheels that Fischer talked about were whirling faster than ever. Fischer showed up that morning at the offices of Squire, Sanders & Dempsey and signed a codicil changing his will. This allowed his wife to have control of his companies, now estimated at upwards of $25 million, in the event of his death, The revision was needed because of tax consequences. But it came also at a time when associates were beginning to take Fischer's promise to kill himself, in the event of jail sentencing, at his word.
That same day, five years to the day Bob French was fired in Palm Beach, Lynch filed his four-count information in Cleveland. The government charged Fischer with understating his personal income by some $350,000 in 1972 and 1973 and with signing fraudulent income tax returns for Fischer Industries, his holding company, for two years.
The prosecutors in the criminal case, The United States of America vs. Hans Fischer, did not lay out what were the specific bases for their charges. Nor would they accept defense arguments that Fischer and his companies were so intertwined that it would be difficult to determine income and expenditures of one from the other.
Fischer signed the plea bargaining agreement, hoping for best when he would make liis formal plea on the reduced charges before U.S. District Judge Robert Krupansky.
During the few days remaining before Fischer would actually step before Krupansky, the lawyers once again found themselves in a quandary. They had given Dr. Steinhilber's report on Fischer's suicidal proclivities to Lynch, but had not made a written one available to the judge. They feared that the court might take this as a signal that Fischer was mentally ill and instruct the defendant to undergo psychiatric testing and make the results part of the public case. Not only would Fischer probably refuse, but lawyers also feared that such an order might immediately prompt him to once again try to take his life.
Lynch himself will not comment on the case, other than to say he could not call off prosecution simply because of Steinhilber's report.
"Health is always a consideration," says Lynch. "But also from a prosecutor's point of view, whether the situation is legitimate or not, it would not be appropriate to allow someone to escape prosecution for this reason alone."
The lawyers could hardly go before a judge and say their client believes himself to be innocent but is pleading guilty to get this monkey off his back and spare his family and lifelong associates.
Neither Fischer's lawyers nor Krupansky will discuss the events of May 18th, the day of sentencing. But what follows was put together from talking to family and friends.
That morning, while Mrs. Fischer remained at the offices of Squire, Sanders & Dempsey, Fischer was accompanied to the federal courthouse by Fuller and Bledsoe.
While he waited in the hallway, Bledsoe and Fuller met with Krupansky and Lynch in Krupansky's chambers for about 20 minutes. The defense lawyers handed the judge a report of Fischer's civic accomplishments and testimonials to his upstanding character from a number of Cleveland business and civic leaders. They apparently apprised Krupansky of Fischer's fragile state of mind and when he had done in March and threatened to do again if sentenced to jail.
But Krupansky had also listened to what Lynch had to say about the extent the government believed Fischer was involved in perpetuating the thorough system of tax fraud for which he was investigated.
As he often does, Krupansky gave some subtle signals as to what he would do in open court in the next few minutes.
Moments later Bledsoe and Fuller nervously confronted their client.
They spelled out what would probably happen and once again left open the idea of pleading not guilty. There was still time to call off the plea bargaining agreement. But Fischer long ago had made up his mind. And he was not a man to change it, regardless of the consequences.
"Hans F. Fischer," intoned Judge Krupansky from the bench, "What is your plea to count two of the information...?"
Fischer showed no emotion even now in his hour of anguish. He would not have accepted his fate in any other but a dignified way. Desperately wanting to cry out his true feelings, he stood with his shoulders square, his back straight, his eyes ahead. "Guilty," he said firmly.
Krupansky hurriedly sentenced him to a year and a day in jail, but deferred his reporting date until July 2nd.
Sometime later, Kay Winbigler was indicted in the same case. She pleaded guilty to one count, and Judge Krupansky placed her on probation. He reportedly noted beforehand that she had been dominated by the personality and force of her boss. It is the only insight into how deeply Krupansky believed Fischer was involved and why he gave him a jail sentence and not probation.
Fischer left the courthouse that morning in despair. He probably would have been out of jail in four months on probation, back in Palm Beach for the winter season. In fact, in Palm Beach, where most of the wealthy residents as a matter of course believe the IRS is gouging them, Fischer would have been hailed as a martyr to a righteous cause.
But four minutes in jail, even in a relatively comfortable minimum security institution such as Allenwood in Pennsylvania, where many of the Watergate defendants were sent, would have been too much for this man of infinite pride.
"Imagine the distress of a man doing good works and getting good publicity all his life, of a man who dug himself out of a ditch, being judged in a matter of a few minutes by men who knew little of his character and accomplishments," says Larry Fischer. "They were destroying what he had built up. Even Hitler couldn't do that!"
Late that Friday afternoon Hans and Mary Fischer flew from Cleveland to Florida on a company plane. They were picked up at the airport by Austin Metcalfe, the Fischer family butler, a real English butler, the only kind to have in Palm Beach.
Fischer said very little until after a light dinner, which he barely touched. Then he once again talked to his wife of the injustice, the indignity of a sentence for a man who had worked all his life to honor his adopted country, his church and, above all, his family.
Mrs. Fischer was worried about what he might do. She stayed up through the night as he paced the floor. Finally, when she was assured he was about to sleep, she herself lay down in exhaustion and slipped off into a deep sleep. Sometime shortly before dawn Hans Fischer, lying beside her, nudged his wife. "Mary," he said, "I love you." She fell back to sleep.
Fischer did not sleep that night, even though his wife believed he was, at least, resting or attempting to sleep. No matter how others tried to rationalize the investigation, plea and sentencing, he could find no way of justifying the horror to himself.
And so while Mary Fischer slept, her husband tip-toed to the kitchen and mixed a whiskey and water. No one else was in the darkened house, the faint murmur of the air conditioner the only noise.
Something suddenly pushed Fischer back to the bedroom and to the night-stand where kept a .38-caliber revolver and a full box of bullets. There had once been a prowler on the Fischer property and, like others in Palm Beach with a lot to protect, the family kept a gun at bedside.
Now it was near daybreak, and Fischer was in a silk bathrobe and pajama bottoms. He walked outside to the terrace of of the pool, the same pool in in which so many mornings he had swum so vigorously. Then he sat down in a beach chair and faced the east.
The first rays of the morning sun — the sun came up that day at 6:31 a.m. — skipped across the Atlantic Ocean, and a mild breeze tingled the shore. Hans Fischer, Jew, Catholic, Baptist, father, husband, stockboy, millionaire, industrialist. American, Austrian, Cleveland businessman, Palm Beach socialite, sat in the beach chair and stared at the beloved house, the only house he had ever felt comfortable in. He loaded each chamber of the .38 Smith & Wesson, the most American of guns. There would be no room for error. He sat back, calm now.
He adjusted the revolver into the crook of his head beside the right ear. Then he took aim; he tightened his right index finger on the trigger of that gun and did what he had to do to avenge his loss of honor. In one split second the dream he had chased was now just that, a dream, gently drifting off somewhere with the Palm Beach wind.
Hans Fischer, the man without a country, was finally at peace, a peace he had never found on this earth.