The Billionaire and the Pauper

Calouste Gulbenkian
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and Armineaghayan

He was a playboy whose financial resources were infinite. A womanizer who would make Wilt Chamberlain’s “conquests” seem trivial. His life was one adventure after another and at any time in his young life it could have ended. He held citizenships in many countries and during World War II he served his adopted country, England, as a spy. Because he was an Iranian citizen, he managed to fly into Nazi Germany on missions on a passport that wasn’t challenged.

At birth, he was scooped up from his crib by his father, handed to friends on horseback and taken to a port before the Turks attacked the village. He grew up in wealth…

And, no, I am not talking about Donald Trump, but the son of “Mr. 5 Percent”.

“You mean you don’t know who Mr. 5 Percent is?”

I looked at the stranger and said, “No.”

“He’s only one of the richest men in the world.”

I was sitting in the lobby of the National Hotel in Moscow. The year was 1959. We had just finished a basketball tournament and my coach allowed me to remain in the capital so that I could visit the American National Exhibition, which was scheduled to open in a couple of days (July 1959).

While tourists from all over the world were flooding into the Soviet Union to see for themselves what secrets were hidden behind the Iron Curtain, I had had that opportunity to learn first-hand, thanks to the Armenian Repatriation in 1947.

While sitting and waiting for a cab, a young man, well-dressed, with American shoes (that’s how the Soviets could identify the foreigners – by their shoes) sat down in a chair across from me. I was curious about life in the West and I raised the first question, asking him where he was from. “Canada,” he said. He countered with, “Are you American?”

His question sent me into a quandary – Should I tell him that I was an American, but am now considered a Soviet citizen. I settled for “I’m Armenian and live in Armenia.”

“My employer is Armenian…and I know a lot of Armenians. You truly don’t look Armenian.”

“That has always been my problem.” I thought about telling him my story, but instead I asked him who his employer was.

He replied, “Nubar Gulbenkian. His father Calouste Gulbenkian is known as “Mr. Five Percent.” He went on to tell me that the senior Gulbenkian was the conduit in the development of the Iraq oil fields which netted him a 5 % stake in the Turkish Petroleum Company. He also brokered the Iraq Petroleum Company contract with the stipulation that 5% of the laborers in the fields be Armenian.

Calouste Gulbenkian died in 1955.

The gentleman rose abruptly and said, “Here is Nubar now. Since he is going to Armenia I know he would be interested in speaking with you.”

What approached us was a man in gray suit, about five feet-six, overweight, unsophisticated, with those dark Armenian eyes and thick black eyebrows. I might have been a bit naïve, but he didn’t impress me as being the son of one of the wealthiest men in the world at the time.

Those in the lobby immediately turned their attention to him. Where there was a man of distinction, there was always a KBG crew. I was standing on quicksand, Mr. Gulbekian was not. There would be no one to save me once he left.

He asked the usual Armenian questions – who and where my father was and the reason for my stay in Moscow. I gave him all the answers, then asked, “And why are you going to Yerevan?”

“On a mission,” he said. “I would like them to name a street in honor of my father. I hope to see one built from Yerevan (the capital) to the Etchmiadzin (The See of the Armenian Apostolic Church). And then he smiled. Do you think they’d be interested?”

“I’m quite sure they would be.”

He disappeared as quickly as he had appeared.

Years later, when I was granted my freedom, I asked one of my former teammates whether Gulbenkian managed to build the street. He replied, “Those Neanderthal communists would never allow someone to put the name of a capitalist on a street sign, even if they were given millions.”

But, after the downfall of the Soviet Union, the Republic of Armenia granted the Gulbenkian Foundation its wish: Gyulbenkyan Street, not all the way to the Etchmiadzin perhaps, but in the city of Yerevan…in Armenia.

Gyulbenkyan St, Yerevan Armenia

***

bookTom Mooradian was one of 151 Americans who traveled to Soviet Armenia to repatriate during the 1940’s. Thought to be a spy by the KGB, Tom miraculously survived 13 years behind the Iron Curtain winning the hearts of the Soviets through his basketball prowess.  Filled with political drama, romance, and intrigue, Tom’s autobiography, The Repatriate reads like a novel, and will have you guessing how Tom managed to return to America alive.
The Second Edition is now available on Kindle and in Paperback!

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