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Susanne Krejsa MacManus' five finger excercise

3/2021: Grimm's Fairy Tale

It’s high time today to tell you something about my research project that has been occupying me for a good year: it’s about Austria’s supply of penicilin directly after World War II, when we were not yet able to manufacture this important medicine ourselves. I am captivated by the mixture of contemporary historical drama, suspense and, occasionally, even comical facets, as, for example, in the following stories about the black market.

In April 1946, a drunken man dropped a bottle of penicillin in a Berlin alehouse. This led to the investigation of a gang of crooks, consisting of seven men and three women, who bought empty penicillin bottles and sold them filled with a simple glucose solution. They also offered powdered “penicillin”, which was actually a mixture of make-up powder and ground Atabrine tablets, which are normally used to treat malaria. One of their customers, a Russian officer, had to be transferred to the intensive care unit after being injected with the fake penicillin.

Stupidity and greed also exposed a smuggling operation in June 1946, because a sailor had boasted that he would soon be rich without having to do any work. After an unsuccessful search of the man’s apartment, the security official was already making his way to leave, but then quickly opened the refrigerator and was astonished to find shoe boxes in it. They contained more than 300 vials of penicillin – worth $25,000 on the black market.

An example of a beauty queen’s crown – in this case, a creation by George Wittels.

My absolute favourite find is this one here: an alleged Miss Austria, Norberta Grimm, had apparently turned the heads of two members of the American occupation forces in Vienna. In order to be able to buy her a large diamond ring, the two of them stole penicillin from army stocks, which the girl was then supposed to sell or exchange on the black market.

Only, there was no Miss Austria in 1928, as wrongly stated by the New York Times, nor in 1938, as reported in the newspaper of the American troops in Europe. Likewise, no one of her name ever appears in the list of winners for the other years. Information about a “Norberta”, “Norbeta” or, possibly, “Roberta” Grimm proves just as elusive – so, her name may not be entirely real either.

Source: Wiener Kurier from 18/5/1946, p. 3

Miss Grimm was sentenced to 18 months in prison by a military tribunal of the American troops in Austria. Her accomplice, Capt. Hyman Vernonsky of New York City, received two years and was demoted; the medical officer Capt. George Neusbaum got “only” three months’ behind bars and a $2,000 fine because he had allowed himself to be talked over. They were caught when Neusbaum handed over ten bottles of penicillin to Grimm, worth a black-market price of $10,000 per bottle.

Austrian newspapers also reported on it, but only very plainly: not a word about the diamond ring that was promised, just a brief mention of her name in a list of black marketeers who had been sentenced. We are told only that she was stateless.

What lends the story a certain punch though is that it coincided with a lecture given by the famous British penicillin expert Prof. Ronald V. Christie in Vienna on the “miracle drug penicillin” – to be found in the same edition of the Wiener Kurier, just a page further on.


But perhaps there was more to it than a mere love story after all? In the biographies of the two American army personnel, Michael Hotchkiss, operator of the website “Dark Arts Criticism”, found so many parallels to actors involved in Soviet espionage activities (for example, the famous Cambridge Five) that he draws his conclusions from these. He also sees connections to Graham Greene’s distinctive life story, as well as to his film “The Third Man”, and to the political biography of Orson Welles, who embodies Harry Lime in that film. “It really makes me wonder if Vernosky might have been dealing in more than penicillin [...] There is too much smoke here to assume there is absolutely no fire.” Incidentally, the main female role in the film (Norberta Grimm?) is also played by an only “half” Austrian, the actress Alida Valli, whose real name is Alida Maria Laura Altenburger von Marckenstein und Frauenberg.


Source: Joseph M. Maurer / Library of Congress
Third International Pageant of Pulchritude and Ninth Annual Bathing Girl Revue, June 1928 in Galveston, Texas.

When I have finished my penicillin research, I would like to then follow up on a tip from the author Elisabeth Patsios. In her book “Die Schönsten der Schönen” (“The most beautiful of the beautiful”) she devoted herself to the history of Miss Austria from 1929 to 2009.

During her research, she did, in fact, come across an Austrian participant in a beauty competition in America in 1928.

Was she perhaps called Norberta Grimm? Unfortunately, it was not possible to discover her name.

Who knows, maybe it wasn’t a fairy tale after all?

My previous ‘five finger exercises’ and newsletters can be read here. I’d be delighted if they were shared!

I post my five finger exercises every so often, whenever I have something to relate.
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