At a dinner at Princess di Vicovaro’s, Gilbert met a Parisian banker, Averoff, related to the famous Greek philanthropist, George Averoff, in Alexandria who donated the marble to refurbish the Olympic Stadium for the first modern Olympic Games in 1896. In the course of conversation, the name Sir Basil Zaharoff was mentioned, and the dinner guests were surprised to see that Gilbert had heard of him.
Sir Basil Zaharoff, celebrated as the ‘mystery man of Europe,’ had risen from poverty by adroitly selling Maxim machine guns, submarines, and other arms to countries potentially in conflict with one another, which he tried to incite through his newspapers. He earned a commission on the sales of Vickers arms to countries overseas. Able to travel freely around Europe during the First World War, he brought back information considered so valuable to the British and French governments that they showered him with honours after the war. Reputedly he persuaded French Prime Minster Clemenceau to recognize Monaco’s rights in the Treaty of Versailles, and thereby facilitated his acquisition of the controlling interest in the famous Monte Carlo Casino.
In Greece he was a friend of former Royalist Prime Minster Skouloudis as well as of Venizelos, straddling both political sides as befitted an arms merchant. In 1919 Zaharoff, who controlled some banks in Paris, had hosted the Allied leaders at his Paris mansion, and it was later alleged in the British Parliament that Zaharoff had been influencing Lloyd George and his foreign policy by financially supporting the Greek forces in Smyrna. Biographies of Zaharoff suffer from lack of any documentation, and his influence on Venizelos, especially in 1919, has never been investigated. As the military stalemate in Anatolia persisted through the winter of 1922, more questions about Zaharoff’s influence on politicians were raised, and the press soon picked up the scent. In early 1922, however, Zaharoff’s life had not yet been so sensationalized in the press and literature as the archetype of the amoral arms merchant. His name was known more to politicians and bankers like Averoff, and thus their surprise at Gilbert’s familiarity with his name. Since Gilbert and his mother loved gossip about highly-placed people, it would actually be surprising if he had not heard of Zaharoff.
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