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‘The Kellner Affair’ - A True Spy Story with Newly Discovered Material and Private Documents

Page 133 - Paulin designs second Bentley

Page 133 - Paulin designs second Bentley

Page 87 - Princess Stella of Kapurthala

Page 87 - Princess Stella of Kapurthala


‘The Kellner Affair’, by Peter Larsen and Ben Erickson and published by Dalton Watson Fine Books is a remarkable book. But how to categorise it, what is the genre and where should one place it on one’s bookshelf? For place it on one’s bookshelf, if it is sturdy enough to handle the weight of this three-volume tome, one certainly should.

On March 21, 1942, five members of a French resistance group operating in Paris were executed by the Nazis at Mont Valérien just outside the city.  Two more had been sentenced to deportation to Germany. One went to prison there. The other was transported by cattle car to Mauthausen, a forced labour camp where he succumbed in 1945, just two weeks before the camp was liberated. Although the group was rooted in the French luxury car industry, it was diverse. One of the dead was the coachbuilder and industrialist, Jacques Kellner. Another was the ground-breaking designer Georges Paulin who had created aerodynamic car bodies of breathtaking beauty. There was also an architect, a panel beater, a shop foreman, a salesman, a railroad conductor and a housewife. The mastermind in Madrid was the former director of Rolls-Royce in France.

The group’s name was Phill. Its composition shows that in the fight against the oppressor, questions of wealth, position and social standing are of little value. Valour, moral integrity, fearlessness and ingenuity are. In a few short months, crucial information was secretly passed to the Allies concerning German activity in Occupied France, not least, critical intelligence about the early development of the Messerschmitt Me 262 Schwalbe jet-fighter. The group was denounced and arrested in late October and early November 1941. They were tortured, given a trial of farcical proportions, and then shot. One man escaped with the help of the Alliance network.

Over the years, many accounts of the Resistance have appeared, about its members, their doings, their capture, deportation and death. This book endeavours to present the first factual account of Phill; what happened, how it happened, and who shouldered the blame.

The Kellner Affair is written in didactic style by Dr Peter Larsen, but with a sense of humour and horror, that I know from my personal acquaintance with the author, has the undoubted ring of truth. Larsen is an automotive specialist and a member of the jury at events such as the famous Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance. His period of expertise is very much that of pre-war French elegance, les grand routières of the art deco era, marvelous, exotic machines with coach-built bodies – Saoutchik, Figoni, Chapron, and Kellner et al. And this work certainly started out life as a book by a man involved with cars about a man involved with cars, but it is not a car book even though Volume III is a very comprehensive review of Jacques Kellner’s oeuvre and is indeed a veritable catalogue raisonné and archive of his creations.

Yes, if you want to know about the cars designed by the famous French carrosserie of Kellner which designed and built bodies for such as Rolls-Royce, Bugatti and Hispano-Suiza, this is undoubtedly the book to read. Indeed, for the ‘car bits’ one does also need to have an interest in and some knowledge of automobiles, for Larsen is a great expert and does not bow down to the lowest common denominator. It is after all very much a specialist’s book which enters into an enormous amount of detail and depth running to some 1,056 pages including 1,568 images, along with a USB inside the front cover of Volume 3 with a further 401 pages and 388 images of reference material. The regular edition of 1,000 numbered and signed copies costs US$445, whilst the deluxe edition of a limited run of 20 leather bound copies is priced at US$1,950.  The deluxe edition must be trés luxe for the regular book, is a beautifully presented three volume-affair in a slip case, with all of its pages sporting marvelous silver fore-edge painting, with debossing to the cover along with a photograph of Kellner (July 5th 1894 – March 21st 1942) affixed to the cover of each volume. Perhaps it would have been even more satisfying if a differing photograph had been used for the cover of each Volume, but this is to quibble.

The photographs in this work are one of its finest attributes. All the images are period and many of them have never been seen before outside of family circles or old files. They are tremendously informative and virtually all in black and white, apart from a few which were hand tinted at the time. It is such a visual pleasure to see such fine images and for the whole story to be told without resort to modern images to supplement the text.

This book is far-reaching and cross references many people including such as Gustave Eiffel, André Dubonnet, Douglas Fairbanks Snr, Van Cleef & Arpels, Josephine Baker, Maurice Chevalier, Marlene Dietrich, and places and texts. I love a good ‘Easter-egg’ and intertextuality but for a book of this nature I wonder if Stephen King or Disney’s Lightning McQueen are significant enough literary quotations to head up chapters. Still, King deals with horror, and Larsen does have a wicked tongue-in-cheek sense of humour, so perhaps he is an apt reference for some of the dreadful deeds within this book.

But this book is not about cars, as Larsen says in the last paragraph of page 17, Volume I, “And by the way, you’re all out of luck: there’s absolutely nothing in this book about Ferraris, Porsches, racing – or Steve McQueen for that matter.” Nor is this book about the Second World War, though much of it deals with the people and difficult events that took place leading up to, during and immediately after this conflict. Ultimately it is a book about humanity, and for anyone who has an interest in mans’ inhumanity to man, to reference Robert Burns, and how some strive to rise above it, it is a wonderful work of record and intelligence and an intriguing ‘spy’story wonderfully told. The world is a better place for challenging and possibly at times flawed works such as this. Lest we forget!

  • 3-volume leatherbound in a solander box
  • (includes bonus material on USB)
  • Page count: 1,056 with 1,568 images
  • Flash Drive: 401 pages with 388 images
  • Limited to 1,000 numbered copies signed by the authors
  • ISBN1854432915

    $445.00 (incl. US/UK shipping

Review by: James Nicholls