Rex Gildo was once Germany's biggest pop star: a national icon and a sex symbol. But advancing age and the strain of leading a secret double life put him under intolerable pressure. Finally, he couldn't keep up the act any longer. Imre Karacs reports on a classic showbusiness tragedy
Sunday 28 November 1999
Gildo was a superstar, who rose to fame on the crest of Germany's economic miracle. Few of his 25 million record sales went abroad, and none of his 30 films travelled successfully. But Rex Gildo, who was in his early sixties when he killed himself last month, had been every bit as important a part of the German cultural landscape as, say, Cliff Richard or Tom Jones is in Britain's.
His speciality was Schlagers: treacly songs about blue skies and innocent love in a world where life is one long celebration. For decades, this was post-war Germany's most popular musical genre - and Rex Gildo was its greatest star. He was the blue-eyed boy from Bavaria's southern climes, beguiling and charismatic, with exceptionally good looks, a perpetual tan, and a deep, resounding voice. He scarcely seemed to age beyond his forties, and he continued to show his strong white teeth when he smiled, which was much of the time.
But on the night of 23 October, a Saturday, he leapt out of the window of his smart second-floor Munich apartment. His organs ruptured, he suffered extensive internal bleeding, and died two days later of what the German doctors diagnosed as a "broken heart".
Now Germans are being presented with uncomfortable truths. The mega-star was, like his Dorian Gray appearance, a fake. His life, which was orchestrated by the entertainment industry, had been an elaborate deceit. And the tabloids, which had happily peddled stories of his glamorous exploits for years, now ply their readers with lurid details. So Gildo's fans find themselves learning about a boozy has-been, crushed by the magnitude of a career in free-fall, driven to suicide after a disastrous swan-song at, of all places, an out-of-town furniture store. One rumour has it that Gildo's toupee slipped off during a drunken rendition of "The Last Sirtaki", and that he beat a hasty retreat as the audience dissolved in laughter. Bit by bit, the picture builds up of someone used to the limelight, unable to cope with ageing and with declining audience numbers. Meanwhile, his fans, most of them middle-aged women, are left to decide which is more of a shock - that their beaming idol was a suicidal depressive; or that the famous heart-throb was gay and that his 26-year old secretary, Dave Klingeberg, was his lover
Gildo's seven-year relationship with Dave Klingeberg had been harmonious for the most part, particularly in the early years. They divided their time between Gildo's country house and his one-bedroom flat in Munich. Quite a few of the residents of the apartment block are celebrities: they value their own privacy and, in return, respect that of others. Those in neighbouring flats patiently endured Gildo's occasional Sinatra impersonations into the early hours. On these nights, he would sing "Come Fly with Me", "New York, New York", and, particularly, "My Way", over and over. But, of late, neighbours had also heard rows on the second floor, and doors banging.
On the evening of 23 October, voices were raised again. The couple, it seems, were arguing about whether they should go to the country house or stay in the city. Klingeberg wanted to go; Gildo did not. Then the quarrel subsided, and everything was quiet until about 8pm.
Christian Baur lives on the third floor of the block. He knew Gildo and Dave well, and would often socialise with them. He says he will never forget what happened on that Saturday night. "I had worked hard all week, and just wanted to relax in front of the TV," he recalls. "There was a crime show on, starting at about 8.15pm. In the first scene, a woman falls from the 10th floor of a building.
"Then somebody screams. So I say to myself: `Don't they know this is only a film?' But the voices grow louder. `No, no, don't do it,' someone shouted. I opened my bedroom window and looked out, and I saw someone standing in the window. Then, suddenly, this person was no longer there, but because the courtyard was completely dark you couldn't tell whether he had jumped, or gone back inside. Then I heard screaming again, so I went to find out what had happened. There was this feeling that something was not quite right."
Baur went downstairs. The door to Gildo's apartment was open, an ambulance crew was milling around, and Klingeberg was beside himself. "He was like an animal. He was screaming, `No, you can't do this,' and banging his head against the wall." Slowly, the facts emerged. Rex Gildo had locked himself into his bathroom, threatening to commit suicide. Klingeberg had called an ambulance.
Baur goes on. "A friend of mine arrived from downstairs. She had seen somebody lying in the courtyard, but could not see who it was, because it was pitch-dark and the person was wearing a dark suit. Then the doctors asked the name of the person downstairs and Dave said: `That is Alexander Hirtreiter' - Rex Gildo's real name. And then we were really shocked."
Gildo was still alive, but the paramedics did not dare move him until the specialists arrived an hour later. "He was unconscious, but he whined like no human being," Baur recalls with a shudder. "I think it came from his subconscious. I don't think he was aware of the situation."
Two days later, Klingeberg knocked on Baur's door to tell him that Gildo had died in hospital. "I think it was the best for him this way," Baur says. "Had he recovered, things would have become unbearable for him. His whole life would have been uncovered, because the public would have wanted to know everything about him."
Only one detail in Rex Gildo's official biography is undisputed: that he was born Ludwig Alexander Hirtreiter. The rest is debatable. We are told, for example, that he came into this world in Munich in 1939; and, indeed, he did throw a lavish party this summer to celebrate his 60th birthday. But Gildo was actually born in 1936, and not in fashionable Munich but in an obscure Bavarian village called Straubing. His mother was not an opera singer, as he claimed, but a housewife. And although as a young star he made much of his time as choirboy at Regensburg cathedral, there is no record of a Hirtreiter ever having sung there.
Such lies are not unusual in the world of entertainment, his fans point out. Which pop stars have not put a little gloss on their CV? And, OK, so he didn't get that tan lying on a deckchair in Munich, and the smoothness of his sexagenarian face suggested more than just anti-wrinkle cream. Neither did he write the songs that brought him fame. But he had something special, something that was all his own. "He had this radiance - it was exceptional," says his manager, Uwe Kanthak. In the days when his youth matched his looks, girls would tear off their bras and toss them at his feet as he gambolled on stage. He had sex appeal.
It would not have helped his early career if his fans had known he was gay. Germany was hardly a bastion of enlightenment: the Nazi law that pinned the Verboten sign on homosexuality was not removed until 1974. So when Gildo first broke into the charts in 1960, his sexual orientation had to be kept secret. The industry had plans for him, and during the Sixties he was paired on- and off-screen with one female bombshell after another. He didn't deny his audience the occasional thrill. In A Girl at Sixteen (1966), wearing swimming trunks, he played an accordion to an enraptured and equally under-dressed Conny Froboess. The film was thought very risque.
He also tentatively pushed the limits of convention, singing about the difficulties of remaining faithful. But generally his songs upheld old-fashioned values, and whenever his record company arranged a "liaison" with a rising young female singer/actress/model, he did his duty and contrived to look every bit the doting boyfriend.
In 1972, he had his greatest hit. "Fiesta Mexicana" was a song about love in the sun, and its chorus involved countless repetitions of "Hossa", a word which doesn't mean anything but which springs readily to the lips of most Germans when Rex Gildo's name is mentioned. Gildo became a national icon. The tabloid press continued to tantalise the nation with pictures of the playboy and his consorts. But the record company was becoming impatient, worried that the female fans of their biggest star might cotton on, and urged him to marry. Obliging, and ambitious, as ever, he looked around, and found in his cousin Marion Ohlsen a pretty young bride. The wedding was extravagant and well-hyped, but, despite medical certificates testifying to the singer's fertility, no offspring appeared. Some tabloids used this as an opportunity to insinuate that there was more to the star than met the eye. But although Gildo's homosexuality was regarded as an open secret in the entertainment business, it was still a secret, and when, nine years ago, Marion walked out, shortly after her husband had swallowed 40 sleeping pills, it was never reported. The star was allowed to maintain the charade.
He was finding his double-life more and more of a strain. "Gildo was trapped in a vicious circle," Baur says. "At the beginning, before he was famous, no one cared about his sexuality. Then he became a really big star, but these were difficult times. You couldn't say openly that you were gay. So he married, and the rumours died. Years and years pass, and the moment to out himself is gone. Eventually he reached a point when he couldn't handle it any more. But by now he was too old to start a new life."
Simultaneously, his career was on the slide. Schlager was going out of fashion, and so was he. Invitations to appear on television dried up, and in restaurants he could hear hushed conversations at neighbouring tables: "Look, isn't that Rex Gildo, the Seventies singer?" But if he suffered inner anguish, he never lost his trademark curl of the lip.
"He had sad eyes," Baur says. "He laughed all the time, said hello to everyone and wished them a nice day, but he was only happy on the face of things. I think he had a problem with the changing world, with the fact that he and his songs were now being used for things like opening furniture shops in the German outback."
A couple of years ago, Gildo made a last-ditch attempt to revive his career, and failed. "He recorded a new album with a lot of wonderful songs, sad songs," Baur continues. "Not Schlager, but ballads. But this album flopped, because nobody wanted to see Rex Gildo like that. They wanted to see him as the life and soul of the party." So Gildo, professional that he was, gritted his teeth and reverted to his time-honoured act. A few months before his death, he declared in a newspaper interview: "Actually, I am an `Entertainer'." The word, uttered in English, seems poignant and apt, suggesting ambition, pretence and sadness. "But naturally I'm best known as a Schlager singer," he continued. "And I can live with that."
Gildo had always been a workaholic - he aimed to do a concert every other day - and when the album failed to take off, he set himself an even more punishing schedule. Since his heyday in the Seventies, he had done proper concerts, but for most of his recent performances he had been hired to promote commercial ventures, mall openings - that sort of thing. His manager, Kanthak, denied that this suggested a declining career: "It's normal for German artists to appear at furniture stores, there's nothing degrading about it." And Gildo still swept forty-something women off their feet as he breathlessly pranced about to their enraptured refrain of "Hossa! Hossa!". It wasn't the most glamorous of circuits, but it fed his stage addiction and reunited him with his adoring fans. He was also making decent money: in his last year, he is estimated to have earned something like DM1m (about pounds 330,000).
On the last day of his life, Gildo performed a set at the furniture store Wohnparadies - "Home Paradise" - on an industrial estate in the outskirts of Frankfurt. The shop was celebrating its 20th anniversary, and Gildo was hired to be the top act. The sofas and dining tables were cleared away, spotlights were fitted on the ceiling, and he was given an office as his dressing-room. More than 3,000 people turned up to see Gildo sing; if he had narrowed his vision, he might have been able to pretend that he was in a real theatre.
He had arrived the previous night and stayed at a nearby hotel. "Everything was quite normal when he got here about 10 o'clock on that Saturday morning," recalls Simone Sagermuller, the Wohnparadies publicist who was responsible for organising Gildo's show. "He looked a bit tired, though. He complained he had slept badly the previous night, and said he was suffering from early autumn fatigue. We didn't quite know what was wrong. One of the ladies in his entourage said he had had problems with his back for several years - some kind of nerve inflammation. Because of this he had to take strong pills, which made him look tired. A lot has been written about his problems with alcohol, but he did not drink that day. He was not drunk."
Because he was so tired, the members of his entourage (including Dave Klingeberg) wondered whether he should cancel his appearance. "We said he should decide that for himself," Sagermuller says. "And he wanted to go ahead with the performance. He wanted to be with his fans. It went very well. The audience enjoyed it, people clapped. All that stuff written in the papers about his toupee falling off and people laughing at him is just not true."
But the performance did not go as smoothly as Gildo would have liked. The backing system providing canned accompaniment was not working properly. "There were a few technical problems, mostly feedback," admits Kanthak. "For a professional like Rex Gildo, that was very difficult. But he was definitely not drunk."
Sagermuller recalls: "He was more upbeat after the performance. He went to meet the customers in the restaurant. He didn't have to do that. But he stayed for another hour, chatting to the fans. He seemed at ease, no starry behaviour - a very nice and sympathetic man. As he left he squeezed my hand and said, `I hope to play here again. This was a great audience.'" Then he was driven back to his Munich apartment for the last time. Five hours later, he would be lying crumpled on the ground below his window.
As to the rumours of drunkenness, Gildo had slipped a disc several years earlier, and, in the months leading up to his death, he was having to take more and more medication as the pain worsened. His slurred speech and puffy complexion were less likely to have been the result of alcohol than of the pills and cortisone injections he was receiving. He must have suspected that he would not be able to keep up the act much longer. In a letter to Kanthak, he implored: "Find me just one more great single."
He seems to have been very aware that his life was unfulfilled; that by denying his true self he had also denied himself the possibility of complete happiness. "He had money, some success, good looks, but the thing that really mattered to him - his private life - was not the way he wanted it," Baur says. "I think he saw other normal relationships and asked himself, `Why can't I have that?' Perhaps he was not strong enough to change his circumstances."
The latest revelations - that there exists a handwritten testament by the star, bequeathing half of his wealth to Klingeberg, and that Gildo's ex-wife, Marion, is speaking to her lawyers - do not shed much light on Gildo's life. Neither does the news that a woman in her early twenties has come forward, claiming to be Rex Gildo's love-child.
Eventually, some sort of truth may be sifted from the lies. But one wonders if whether it will ever be understood who the real Rex Gildo was. His companion for the last seven years of his life thinks not. The sad open letter that Klingeberg released after Gildo's death shows that he, too, is still searching for answers: "Rex, you could never accept what you really were. And I did not succeed in removing your eternal playboy mask. You simply could not part with it. No one really knew you. Do you actually know yourself who you were? Did you ever think of yourself? In Love, your Dave." 2
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