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  • Writer's pictureMeirion Harries

DAY THIRTY SEVEN Ball Bearings and Bardot

Pedalling the long road to Schweinfurt reminded me of how much my schoolfriends resented my playing marbles with them. My uncle had given me a steel ball of great heft and to roll it against glass marbles always brought victory. When smooth balls are contained in a bearing, they reduce friction on a turning axle. My wheels run smoothly because I remembered to grease the bearings before setting out - and my freewheel was invented in Schweinfurt.

the steel balls mean the inner ring can rotate with very little friction (c)

Allied strategists understood the vital importance of ball bearings: deny the Nazis ball bearings and their war machine will literally grind to a halt. The major centre for production of this vital component was Schweinfurt. On 14th October 1943, 291 B-17 Flying Fortresses of the USAAF headed off to bomb the factories. The mission was ill-fated from the start. Planning errors meant that the escorting squadrons of fighters did not carry the usual spare fuel tanks and had to turn back; the weather was foul and the squadrons had to spread out – losing their mutual protective fire. And the Luftwaffe knew they were coming. Sixty Flying Fortresses were were shot down by Messerschmidts or ground fire; one hundred and thirty eight managed to limp back, with significant damage. Some 2,900 men flew the mission and 650 were killed. And in the autumn of 1943, this level of casualties really mattered. 'Black Thursday' , the USAAF official history name, was such a defeat that the US Eighth Air Force had “for the time being lost air superiority over Germany".

That soon changed and by the end of the war, Schweinfurt had been bombed twenty one times – with a total of 2,285 USAAF and RAF planes – plus one final raid before the assault on the town by US infantry on 11th April 1945. Twenty years later, in another bombing raid, a helicopter flew over Brigitte Bardot's villa in St Tropez and dropped hundreds of roses. The pilot was Gunter Sachs, son of one of the ball bearing manufacturers in Schweinfurt - Willy Sachs. In the war, using forced labour, the Sachs company produced arms-related components: almost every Panzer tank was equipped with Sachs couplings made in Schweinfurt. Though Willy owned the factory, it was run by others while he led a playboy life in his nearby castle, Schloss Mainberg. He was a member of the SS, a friend of Goring and Himmler, and the Americans soon arrested him - but he was only categorised as a 'Follower Class IV' and so was released. In a state of depression, Willy committed suicide in 1958.

Gunter Sachs was born in 1932 in Schloss Mainberg and had the good fortune, firstly, to have spent the war at school in Switzerland and, secondly, to have as his mother the daughter of Wilhelm von Opel – so, in addition to the Sachs family wealth, the boy was heir to a huge automotive fortune. Gunter turned out to have a great many talents - most of which were obscured in the public eye by by his becoming newsworthy primarily as Brigitte Bardot's husband.

Gunther Sachs and Brigitte Bardot (c)

Artistic, he was a professional photographer all his life and he won important prizes. He took the first nude image that Vogue France published. and in the 1990s, Claudia Schiffer was his model for his Heroines series. All the money he made from photography went to a trust set up in memory of his first wife, who had died two years after their marriage, when he was 26; the trust supports children in need. Sachs' photographic style is surrealist, surrealist - a clue to his tastes and to what is probably his most enduring memorial. He built an extraordinary modern art collection – Magritte, Dali, Lichtenstein, Warhol and many of the Nouveaux Réalistes, including the group's founder, Yves Klein, Jean Tanguely, Cesar, Arman and Marital Raysse. (Raysse was a good investment: Last Year in Capri sold for $6.58 million at Christie's – still the most expensive work by a living French artist.) In the 1960s, César, Klein, Arman and Sachs would meet for lunch at the Brasserie la Coupole in Paris (ordering, perhaps, the chestnut soup with mascarpone and truffles or, on a cold day, maybe marrowbone with snails and Burgundy sauce). The glories of la Coupole's kitchen seem to have outweighed any inconsistency between la gastronomie and the aspiration in the Realistes' manifesto to reboot art and the artist in the new consumerist society by “reasserting humanistic ideals in the face of industrial expansion”. Close company with the avant garde educated Sachs. In 1972 he opened his own gallery and began with a show of Warhol's work. Later, he commissioned Warhol to make a silkscreen portrait of Bardot – which sold in 2006 for $3 million. He worked to promote the avante garde: from 1967 to 1975, Sachs in partnership with Prince Konstantin of Bavaria (until the Prince's death in a plane crash in 1969) lobbied for a museum of contemporary art in Munich. As a temporary venue, they used the extremely grand Villa Stuck in Munich for monthly exhibitions drawn mostly from Sachs' own collection. Built in 1898, the Villa is classical on the outside - but inside is a world of art nouveau. At one private view, the sculptor Cesar Baldaccini carries off a tour de force. He is known for his Compressions (crushing different coloured cars together, for example) and for his Expansions. And it was one of the latter that Cesar performed that night: he took a bucket of bright yellow molten polyurethane and to the horrified gasps of the cognoscenti poured it across the art nouveau floor. Out it spread in a long, yellow tongue, solidifying as it cooled. Of course, all there knew that this was not artistic vandalism: they understood that Cesar was simply affirming his “pioneering and poetic awareness of the expressive potentiality afforded by synthetic materials and chemical reactions.”

Gunter Sachs' Hommage à Gruau, Chapeau 1991 (Claudia Schiffer)

Sachs was also a gifted sportsman. From 1969 until his death, Sachs was the chairman of the St. Moritz Bobsleigh Club; one of the turns on the Olympic Run is named after him. When in St Moritz, he stayed in his apartment at the top of one of the towers of Badrutt’s Palace Hotel, an hotel of many legends. One concerned Billy Fiske, an American fighter pilot who, before his death during the Battle of Britain, helped turn Aspen into a ski resort. A regular on the Cresta run, Fiske was notorious for his ski jumps from the chandelier in the bar.

Sachs himself became a Badrutt legend by turning his tower apartment into a shrine to pop art. As you enter, a rill of bright yellow - Cesar's nouveau realiste polyurethane - leads you to the drawing room. Sachs hung all ten of Andy Warhol’s Marilyns in the kitchen and the bathroom was designed by Roy Lichtenstein. His other apartments (glimpses of which can be seen in the first film below) were also extraordinary repositories of modern art, sculpture and furnishings.

It all ended suddenly in 2011 when Sachs was diagnosed with what seems to have been Alzheimers. Like his father before him, he took his own life with a gun: "The loss of mental control over my life was an undignified condition, which I decided to counter decisively".

Tomorrow we head to Wurzburg and hope for an encounter with Japanese knotweed. This evening, though, there is the possibility of Flammkuchen with gorgonzola, spring onions, walnuts, cream and honey. Unfortunately, there is no special Schweinfurt sausage - but there is in Madison, Wisconsin. Fred Voll and his wife Kathe emigrated there from Schweinfurt in 1956 to found the Bavaria Sausage Company, where they have proudly maintained their recipes for 50 years.

This is a Sotheby's film showing the apartment in St Moritz and several others housing his collections -

Another Sotheby's film - this one of his life and his art collecting -

A gentle, rather long, tour of Schweinfurt without commentary -

This is an hour long lecture about the terrible days leading up to and including the second raid on Schweinfurt on October 14th, 1943 (the second Schweinfurt raid part starts at about 40 minutes in) -

International Blue by the Manic Street Preachers inspired by nouveau realisme, in particular the blue used by Yves Klein on eleven identical canvases in his 1957 exhibition Proposte Monocrome, Epoca Blu -

The blue he used is still known as International Klein Blue (hex #002fa7)

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