When a middle-class Jewish boy from New York enrolled at a Swiss boarding school in 1971, the lessons in swordsmanship and elocution were hardly the strangest things he encountered. Unchaperoned boys were often sent with minimal supplies on expeditions into the frozen Alps for multiple days.
Younger boys, barefoot and without gloves, cleaned pubic hair and dirty gunk from the drains of the common showers (which dispensed cold water). And once the doors in the dormitories closed each night, supervision, minimal as it was, ceased.
Even faint rumors of the behavior in the anecdotes from Allen Kurzweil’s new memoir, “Whipping Boy,” would trigger lawsuits today. Kurzweil’s roommates forced him to swallow painful quantities of hot sauce; they whipped him with a belt while playing “The Thirty-Nine Lashes” from “Jesus Christ Superstar;” they hurled his most treasured possession, an irreplaceable family heirloom from his deceased father, out the window of their fifth-story room. The worst of the bullies threatened to throw Kurzweil out the window as well.
“Boys will be boys” doesn’t capture the gravity of their behavior; “boys will be sadistic little monsters whose victims suffer lifelong trauma” is more precise. Suffice it to say that boarding school made a lasting impression on Kurzweil. He was a middle-class Jewish kid from New York, but his peers were the sons and daughters of bankers, aristocrats and heirs to vast fortunes. He was soon nicknamed “Nosey” in sneering tribute to his Jewish roots.
This might make Kurzweil’s memoir sound like the typical fare publishers favor: a work that wallows so happily in childhood misfortune that sympathy slowly gives way to suspicion that the author is secretly thrilled by the chance to relate such infinite suffering. But the alpine agonies of the 10-year-old Kurzweil occupy only the first 50 pages of the book. What follows is something much stranger and more interesting than an ordinary woe-is-me story.
After a year at the Swiss boarding school, Kurzweil returned to the States and grew up to be a successful author and journalist. But hot sauce and songs from “Jesus Christ Superstar” still prompted painful memories of his chief tormentor, a boy aptly named Cesar Augustus. Encouraged by his wife and experienced in sleuthing as a journalist, Kurzweil decided to research what became of his old bully.
He learns that Cesar, full name Cesar Augusto Viana, played a vital role in an international fraud scheme involving associates implicated in acts of deception, forgery, fraud and assassination. In short, his old bully seems to have behaved with all the unscrupulous and ravenous ambition befitting his imperial name. “Never in my wildest dreams had I expected to unearth such exquisite corroboration of childhood villainy,” Kurzweil writes after a key discovery.
The fraud scheme itself is a fascinating demonstration of the power of prestige. Some of the details are pure Hollywood. A group of disingenuous men claimed the titles of minor European royalty, dressed in silk ascots and tailcoats, and made liberal use of a Maltese lapdog and a gold-handled cane. This regal paraphernalia helped them swindle hundreds of thousands of dollars from prospective borrowers who were constantly criticized for their lapses in etiquette and their tastelessly casual clothing.
Those duped were not necessarily naïve — they included a powerful television executive and several lawyers at one of the most prestigious firms in Manhattan. The combination of brazen lying and subtle manipulation fooled the worldly and gullible alike. Eventually the group was prosecuted and its principals found guilty of fraud. The trial generated a massive paper trail that Kurzweil tracks with a doggedness bordering on obsession. But his research is rewarded with appalling and hilarious revelations about Viana and his fellow con men.
Certain features of the hustle are suspiciously evocative of the Swiss boarding school that Viana and Kurzweil attended. The crest of the invented loan consortium resembles the logo of the school, and an emphasis on ornamental displays of rank is central to both institutions. A deeper continuity runs between Viana as a 12-year-old bully and an adult con man: He inflicts material and psychological damage with the same callous cruelty in both incarnations.
Kurzweil’s book is a captivating hybrid of investigative journalism and memoir. His tone is more often comic than aggrieved or vindictive, but the stakes are serious. Viana inflicted real emotional anguish and financial loss on many people. When Kurzweil confronts Viana in person at the end of the book, he’s not simply settling a private score; he’s standing up for anyone who has ever been bullied.