Spiro Ark


The Second Lecture of Dr. Maisie Meyer's Mini Series on the Jews of China

Sir Victor hails from an exotic and noble lineage in Baghdad. His father Elias David Sassoon, pioneered the settlement of Baghdadi Jews in Shanghai, around 1845. Over a hundred photographs, documents, and not least extracts from his meticulously written diaries illustrate Sir Victor's astonishing verve and exhilarating flamboyancy. We get a glimpse of his amateur dramatic activities at Trinity College, Cambridge and his undying passion for dangerous sports such as motor-racing and flying. We find that Victor while serving in the Royal Flying Corps had a plane crash which left him with a permanent limp, and acute attacks of pain in his hip, and a resolute determination to overcome his handicap.

We learn that Sir Victor succeeded to the family baronetcy on the death of his uncle Jacob in 1916, and became a director of E. D. Sassoon & Co. Merchants and Bankers in Bombay and fourteen textile mills employing over 20,000 native workers. The growth of Indian nationalism convinced him that there was little scope for foreign enterprise in India and he made Shanghai his headquarters- - which we discover turned out to be a catastrophic error of judgment. We take a look at his wide ranging investments in Shanghai among them some of the best property sites, and the iconic Cathay (now Fairmont Hotel) where he hosted extravagant parties.

We discover that Sir Victor's contributions for the relief of some 20,000 refugees fleeing from Nazi persecution were reputedly the largest in the east and that he donated huge sums to the British War Fund. The FBI in New York provided him with two bodyguards, believing he might be a target of the Nazi Bund or Japanese gunmen, because of his outspoken anti-Japanese comments which were reported in the press. We feel Sir Victor's dejection when the Communists took over Shanghai in 1949 and wrote off his extensive holdings, eliciting his rueful remark: "I gave up India and China gave me up."

We find out that he transferred his huge fortune to the west and settled in the Bahamas and when a reporter inquired if it were true that he was the third richest man in the world he replied: "I never contradict that, because it's good for credit." At the age of 78, he shook the world with surprise when he married his 39 year-old Texan nurse. We understand why according to Sir Victor's own assessment: "Neither business affairs, nor politics, nor an aristocratic descent would have made me famous. My fame is due to the fact that I own the best racing horses of the century."