January 18, 2008

GSTAAD—The row over Indonesian “hobbits” has split this beautiful alpine village in half. Alas, it began when I wrote something about the Olden, one of Gstaad’s oldest and most beautiful inns and its owner Bernie Ecclestone, of Formula I fame. The Olden was originally owned by the Mullener family since the turn of the last century, and run by Heidi Mullener for close to 50 years. Her cousin Rudy instructed the greatest Greek skier ever, and while he was at it, he also turned Sir Roger Moore into an Alberto Tomba double. Now for the hobbits. When Heidi sold the Olden to Bernie Ecclestone 10 years or so ago, the consensus of opinion was that he would keep the place as it was, which was perfect. There were two large public rooms in the front where the local farmers congregated, smoked their pipes and drank the local wine and spirits, one great room in the back done in the local style where the swells dined, and a cave below where the jet set drank and danced throughout the night.

So Bernie did what he does usually, tried to maximise his profits by turning the two front rooms into chic spaces for the old and pulled, drove the locals out by raising the price of a drink to that of a cow, and presto, the Olden was ruined, at least as far as some are concerned. When the local paper described Bernie as a hobbit, a new species of human, some of his friends, including myself, came to his defense. The letters to the editor were polite but firm. Ecclestone is not a hobbit, according to those who know him. Mind you, whether he’s a hobbit or a dwarf is immaterial. People who work for him, those who owe him money, and scientists who are trying to discover whether he’s a hobbit or simply a dwarf don’t care. Basically, the research indicates that the 18,000-year-old remains found in Indonesia were modern humans with a growth disorder that left them normally proportioned but half-sized. I once found myself in the next tennis court from Bernie, and I can reliably state that although he does have a growth disorder, he is perfectly formed. My bet is that he’s a dwarf and not a hobbit at all. Still, the human evolutionary cousin, nicknamed the hobbit after the diminutive people in J.R.R. Tolkein’s “Lord of the Rings,” stood only 3 ft. tall and was thought to be a new species of human, with a brain the size of a chimpanzee’s.

This is what has split this village right down the middle. Most Gstaad residents have trouble finding things to do, hence the sudden interest whether Ecclestone is a hobbit or a dwarf. Writing in my Anzeiger column, I asked for any scientists who happen to be around to tell us whether hobbits could have possessed the greed gene. Dwarfs like Philip Greene do, but he’s a human (5 ft. 2 in.). Which brings us right back to the controversy over Bernie. He’s 3 ft. 6 in. and greedy, which may or may not make him a hobbit, but for the last time, I declare him a dwarf.

Whew! What a scorcher! Which brings me to another shorty, Nicolas Sarkozy, a man who needs no introduction to anyone who has ever been taken for a ride by a model. Let’s face it. Sarko is very much a human. And no matter how much anyone is against him, as my friend Jean D’Ormesson, a member of the forty immortals, recently wrote, France has no other choice. Truer words have never been spoken. Sarko may be antipathetic, is definitely loud and a bully, vulgar as hell, a know it all, but he will get things done. He also knows how to handle the hacks. A ludicrous CBS female reporter tried to sandbag him on “60 Minutes,” but he handled her the only way one should handle an aggressive American female. He told her the interview was over because he had more important things to do than spar with a know-nothing female. Bravo Sarko!

Of course his flamboyant personal life will eventually trip him up. And of course the French did not elect him to be a rock star. But maybe the French are fed up with being pushed around by Muslim gangs, lazy workers, and overpaid civil servants feathering their nests. Let’s face it, human or hobbit, Sarkozy will put his nose to the grindstone. The irony is that I like Sarkozy although he is the spitting image of another Frenchman, his fellow Hungarian Robert Zellinger, who changed his name to Robert de Balkany, and has never looked back. Balkany and I played polo together in the ’60s. He was loud, extremely vulgar, and nouveaux riche. He screamed and bullied everyone until I stood up to him one day and told him I was going to put him down for the long count unless he behaved. He has never spoken to me since—a blessing in a way.

Like his fellow Hungarian, Balkany has had a lot of trouble with women. They tend to leave him despite the fact he’s extremely successful as a real estate developer.  Which shows that there are still some members of the fairer sex who put manners ahead of moolah. Oh yes, I almost forgot, Balkany is also short, a spitting image of Sarkozy. But, alas, so am I, although I have never been accused of being a hobbit at 4 ft 4in. 


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