Plunge From Grace: The Baron Von Petersdorff Story

Born September 23, 1895 in Berlin, Otto Wilhelm Helmut von Petersdorff was a member of one of two non-related noble von Petersdorff families. His parents Paul Julius Axel Von Petersdorff and Elisabeth Adelheid Anna (Fehlan) von Petersdorff were well-to-do Lutherans from Wiesbaden. His father served as a guard in the Artillery Brigade of the Prussian army.

Helmut - or the Baron von Petersdorff as he was referred to his entire life - learned to skate at the famous Swiss skating resorts prior to The Great War - a fitting locale as his family had ties to Switzerland which dated back to the thirteenth century. In 1917, he won the Bezirks-Kunstlaufen competition in pairs skating with Thea Frenssen - one of his very few known connections to amateur skating.

Following the War, the Baron emigrated from Amsterdam to Buenos Aires, Argentina, taking a job teaching ballroom dance at the Palais de Glace, a ballroom that was once South America's first ice rink. It was in this venue that another Baron - Porteno trendsetter Baron Antonio de Marchi - later staged tango soirees, after which the dance was accepted by local high society.

The Baron moved on to New York City in 1921, listing German skating star Charlotte Oelschl├Ągel as his arrival contact. He applied for permanent residence two years later and in 1925 married Erna Schmidt, a professional skater from Berlin who went by the stage name Erna Charlotte. The Baron and Erna gave adagio skating exhibitions during hockey matches at Madison Square Garden and ballroom danced professionally at the Paramount Hotel Grill in Brooklyn. They also spent some time in Canada, visiting the Montreal Winter Club and Winnipeg Winter Club. After a brief stint in Paris skating in a show with Arne Lie, the Baron and Erna relocated to Great Britain, where their impact on the figure skating world was substantial during the thirties.

The Baron and Erna Charlotte skating at the World's Fair of 1934. Photo courtesy Boston Public Library.

Name a British ice pantomime in the thirties and the Baron was connected with it. He starred in a series of pioneering shows at the S.S. Brighton and Westover Ice Rink in Bournemouth with names like "Ice Time", "Marina" and "Patria: A Coronation Ice Cruise". He also appeared in shows at Empress Hall at Earl's Court, Blackpool and the Palace Ice Rink in Liverpool. Perhaps most notable was the 1933 production "Gypsy Dream", a full-scale nightly show with matinees which he both produced and starred in with Erna and Phil Taylor. During the thirties, the Baron also skated in The Black Forest ice show, staged in the German village during A Century Of Progress, the Chicago World's Fair of 1934, at Madison Square Garden and with Hilda R├╝ckert in Herbert Selpin's 1934 comedic film "Der Springer von Pontresina". His signature solo number was a torch dance and he and Erna's signature duets were an adagio act and a Rhumba. The Baron and Erna - who divorced in 1932 but continued to skate together for many years afterwards - even skated by command before the Royal Family in 1937. The Baron supplemented his income from skating in shows during this period with a job as an instructor at the S.S. Brighton.

The Baron and Erna Charlotte performing their neck spin in "Marina" in 1937

The Baron was in his early forties around the time World War II broke out, but at six feet tall and one hundred and forty pounds (and in excellent shape from skating and dancing) could have easily served in the Wehrmacht. The June 7, 1938 issue of the "Mid Sussex Times" reported, "Last April the Baron went over to Germany to attend to some of his property. While he was there efforts were made to get him to join the German army. He was only released because of his contract to appear in the show." How the Baron managed to escape Europe is unknown, but he left behind his older brothers Egon and Horst. Egon had converted to Catholicism, studied demonology and worked at the Pontifical Library in the Vatican City. He became involved in the South Tyrolean German Resistance as a Vice Commander of a group which worked with the Western Allies.

Egon and Anna Dorothea von Petersdorff in 1914 at the start of the Great War

In January of 1942 the Baron headlined a skating carnival in Hastings-On-Hudson, New York with a new partner - hotel show skater Janice Hamilton of Great Neck, Long Island. From 1942 to 1946, he worked in the Big Apple for Arthur Murray as a dance instructor. After the War ended, he returned to Germany to visit relatives in Helmstedt in the Western Zone and Berchtesgaden, a town on the Austrian border in the Eastern zone best known as the home of the Kehlsteinhaus - Hitler's mountain hideaway. He returned to America in 1948 under the German immigration quota, settling in Detroit and later Houston, Texas. In February of 1952, the Baron moved to Miami Beach, taking up residence in the Indian Queen Hotel and teaching ballroom dancing at the Shoremeade and Broadmoor Hotels.

Postcard of the National Hotel in Miami Beach in the fifties

That brings us to the strange and tragic conclusion of the Baron's story - his death on May 23, 1952 in Miami Beach at the age of fifty seven. Shortly after two in the afternoon that day, the Baron got into the elevator of the National Hotel, a swanky waterfront hotel on Collins Avenue. Posing as a window cleaner, he nervously asked the operator to be taken to the solarium on the roof. Earl B. Useden, the manager of the hotel, said he saw the Baron walk down a stairwell to a window on the landing between the tenth and eleventh floors and climb out onto the ledge. Useden said he shouted and the Baron plunged to a concrete area used for the removal of garbage. Detective Wayne Miller and Deputy Constable William McCrory said he died instantly. The scene was a gruesome one - his chin was torn off completely and both of his feet were nearly severed from the impact. The Baron's body was taken to the Beach Memorial Funeral Home and an autopsy was ordered. Reporter Wilson McGee noted, "A check on von Petersdorff's hotel room [at the Indian Queen] showed that he was an active trader in the stock market, one balance sheet showing a credit of almost $16,000 on March 26. On that day, he purchased 1,300 shares of stock in a movie company. A record of a $2,300 cash deposit in a Miami Beach bank also was found. The police said no reason was found for von Petersdorff to take his life. However, he had only $45 in his wallet and the hotel said his bill was in arrears."

Photo courtesy Helen Muir Florida Collection at Miami Dade Public Library System

That wasn't all. Staff of the Beach Memorial Funeral Home telephoned his New York stockbrocker and discovered that he'd closed his account some time ago. Two cut diamonds and a diamond watch that the Baron was known to have owned less than a month before his death were strangely missing. The police had discovered that he'd recently reclaimed these items - valued at over nine thousand dollars - from a Miami firm that he'd entrusted to sell them. There was an inquest into the Baron's death, which was ruled a suicide, but as the police weren't able to locate his next of kin, his body remained unclaimed at a chapel for some time.

Having lived on three continents, made history as one of Great Britain's first 'visiting' professional stars in ice pantomimes and pushed the envelope with elements like the neck spin back in the thirties, the Baron has been all but ignored by many chroniclers of our sport. Though he met a tragic end, his fascinating story deserves to be recognized.

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