The Cultural Ambassador: Germany's Second US Embassy

By Jan Fleischhauer

The new United States Embassy in Berlin may be drawing the headlines, but Gary Smith of the American Academy has served as Washington's unofficial cultural ambassador to Germany for the better part of the last decade. The organization he leads has become the world's most important center for American intellectual life outside the US.

Gary Smith with prominent guests to the American Academy including German director Volker Schlöndorff (left), American actor Robert De Niro, German actress Martina Gedeck ("The Lives of Others") and Matt Damon.
DPA

Gary Smith with prominent guests to the American Academy including German director Volker Schlöndorff (left), American actor Robert De Niro, German actress Martina Gedeck ("The Lives of Others") and Matt Damon.

Gary Smith has just come back from the United States. He's returned to a room that overlooks Berlin's Lake Wannsee with a canvas by German painter Max Beckmann hanging on the wall. He was in New York over the weekend for a black-tie dinner -- one of those formal events where you smile and shake hands with new people and, if you're lucky, you can walk away with a pledge for a fellowship or a new library.

A pesky transportation problem has come up and Smith needs to deal with it quickly. On Friday, the 4th of July, the new American Embassy is opening in Berlin, and George Bush Sr. will be the guest of honor. And you won't find the former president, now 84, flying coach.

Smith has a word with a member of his board, and soon arrangements are made for Bush to fly to Berlin on a private jet on July 3. The ex-president is scheduled to be at the American Academy's magnificent lakeside villa that same evening for a get-together with former US secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, along with 250 other invited guests. "We are just the small event preceding the major one," Executive Director Gary Smith says with a smile.

The American Academy in Berlin has been in operation for almost exactly 10 years now. What began as an idea to establish a kind of intellectual beachhead in the German capital, a base for American artists and scholars in Central Europe, has since become the most important center of American intellectual life outside the United States. There is no better place in Europe to find out what is currently being thought, researched and debated in the United States.

About a dozen fellows, representing a wide range of academics, policy experts, writers and artists, are in residence here for a period of four to five months starting each spring and autumn. They are supplemented by distinguished visitors and special guests who are in Berlin for much shorter periods of time. The current fellows include a young composer, Sean Shepherd, who is working on an opera set in Wyoming, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Anne Applebaum, who is writing a book about the communist takeover of Central Europe between 1945 and 1956, as well as National Book Award-winning author Jonathan Franzen, who is collecting material for a new book to follow his best-selling novel "The Corrections."

The residential situation is very informal. Fellows can sit and chat over a meal or they can be left alone to pursue their intellectual interests. They only have one official obligation: At some point during their stay, fellows are expected to give a talk on the project they are working on. It is these lectures that are the highlights of the academic semester, carefully orchestrated appearances that often provide new insights into subject areas as diverse as the direction in which Russia is heading, the obscure art of puppet theater or the reeducation of the German music world after 1945.

The walls lining the stairs of the American Academy villa are covered with framed photos of many familiar faces, including authors William Styron, Jeffrey Eugenides, and Norman Mailer, artists Jenny Holzer and Chuck Close, film director Terrence Malick, and even actors like Robert De Niro and Jerry Lewis.

It was a love for the writings of Walter Benjamin that first brought Gary Smith to Germany many years ago. Others conceived of the idea for the Academy -- first and foremost American diplomat Richard Holbrooke, who felt that there was a need to bring more American intellectuals to Europe in order to open their eyes to the Old Continent. But it is 53-year-old Smith, with his myriad talents and even more interests, who has become the Academy's indisputable intellectual figurehead.

Most of the funding for the Academy comes from an endowment provided by Stephen Max Kellen, a Jewish banker and philanthropist who fled the German capital in 1936 but always remained a Berliner at heart. Not by coincidence the lakeside villa that was provided by the state government in Berlin to house the Academy had belonged to the parents of Kellen's wife, Anna-Maria Arnhold Kellen, and had been her childhood home.

But the Academy's heart and soul is definitely Smith, with his enthusiasm, a deft instinct for selecting the right guests, and a seemingly effortless ability to bring people together who might otherwise never cross paths.

Smith is a master at the art of networking -- a talent that has helped to make the Academy as successful as it is, raising its profile much higher than that of other comparable institutions in the German capital such as the Aspen Institute or the Berlin Institute for Advanced Study. It's a very American trait to buttonhole people with a purpose in mind, but Smith has perfected the skill of doing so without coming across as being bothersome or self-serving.

When Nobel laureate Al Gore was in Berlin a few months ago to promote his global warming documentary "An Inconvenient Truth," Holbrooke called and asked Smith if he could lend a hand. Smith rang the Chancellery to see if Angela Merkel could squeeze Gore into her schedule. He organized a nice sightseeing tour for the former vice president and then they sat with Merkel in her office and discussed climate change and the US election campaign.

"I have been networking since fifth grade," says Smith, a strongly built man with a round, friendly face, and a thick head of dark-brown hair. He is talkative in a way that is at once cheerful and infectious, switching back and forth between German and English. His ebullience, it would seem, can be dampened only by prolonged sleep deprivation, if at all.

Smith has a knack for being at the right place at the right time. Be it starting up the mathematics club at his high school or leading a Jewish Youth group, he always seems to be there. He once nearly succeeded in getting the Rolling Stones to play at his university, but the concert was cancelled at the last minute after one of the Stones got arrested for drug possession.

Smith grew up in Texas. His mother was a teacher until she decided to try her hand at selling real estate during the housing boom in the 1970s; his father worked as a dentist. They were a well-to-do Jewish family whose political leanings always tended to fall on the side of the Democrats.

At home his parents normally spoke English together. But when they didn't want him to understand something they would speak German peppered with Yiddish -- a household habit that motivated a young Gary to crack open the textbooks and learn German. Austin, Texas wasn't exactly a cultural hub at the time, but the University of Texas did have an active German Studies department. With a relatively small student population that could speak fluent German, Smith managed to take up contact with German-language writers like Max Frisch, Heiner Müller and Lars Gustafsson.

In the autumn of 1976 Siegfried Unseld, owner of the legendary Frankfurt-based Suhrkamp publishing company -- home to many of the leading modern German-language authors -- gave a series of six lectures on authors and their publishers. Smith was registered as a student of philosophy at the time. He idolized Walter Benjamin and had read everything he could find on the subject. He waited for an opportunity to approach Unseld and then invited him to a Southern steak and egg lunch. By the time they were ready for dessert the then 22-year-old had secured a letter of recommendation for a DAAD academic scholarship to Germany as well as a promise that he have access to Benjamin's Moscow unpublished diaries.

Smith took this promise more seriously than Unseld had expected he would. He learned the old German Sütterlin script so that he could decipher Benjamin's handwriting and he managed to finagle an appointment with Gershom Scholem, the strict guardian of Benjamin's literary estate. "Your German is horrible, so let's continue our conversation in English," Scholem growled during their first encounter. When Smith produced a letter from Benjamin to Hannah Arendt that Scholem hadn't seen before, he made the young academic an offer: "If you deliver 25 pages of the diary without any mistakes, you've got the job."

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