Johannes Heesters on the stage in Holland (1923)
I SUSPECT THAT BEING named the world's oldest man or woman is a dubious honor, not only because the distinction is so fleeting, but because, thanks to modern medicine and hygiene, there are now more and more centenarians in the world, pushing the envelope of mortality. At 108, Johannes Heesters may have fallen short of World's Oldest Person by a couple of years (the last I heard, the current record-holder is Mrs. Besse Cooper of Monroe, Georgia, who weighs in at 115), but he did achieve a distinction no one is likely to match any time soon: he was the world's oldest actor and singer - and by a long shot.
Heesters's career reflected all the highs and lows of the twentieth century and a respectable chunk of the twenty-first as well. He was born in Amersfoort, Netherlands on December 5, 1903. His Catholic faith pushed him towards the priesthood, but he ended up serving an apprencticeship in a bank before studying music and acting at age sixteen. He took to the stage for the first time in 1921, then moved on to cinema three years later while continuing to perform in plays and musicals. A skilled tenor, Heesters auditioned for German-Jewish band leader Harry Frommermann, who would go on to found the "Comedian Harmonists," the most popular German singing group of the era. The contract fell through when Frommermann told him that he would have to forego a paycheck in the first months. Heesters kept looking and finally hit the big time in 1930. He embarked on a distinguished career as an operetta performer in Austria and Germany. He would still be treading the boards eight decades later.
After two successful years at the Vienna Volksoper, Heesters accepted a series of engagements in Berlin, performing at such popular venues as the Admiralspalast, the Metropol, and the Komische Oper, all of whose Jewish artists had recently been thrown off the stage and sent scurrying for their lives. The purge opened up vast new career opportunities for young performers, and Heesters now reached millions of fans through his numerous starring roles in film musicals and operettas. Best known for his role as Count Danilo in The Merry Widow, which he would continue to perform until his eighty-fifth birthday, Heesters was now one of the stars of the German stage. His role was that of the elegant bonvivant, a sort of heart-melting Dutch-German Fred Astaire, who charmed millions in the cinemas of a country in upheaval. Following a performance of The Merry Widow in 1939, Hitler himself descended from his box seat and congratulated him publicly. From then on, the Dutchman enjoyed a reputation as the Führer's favorite actor.
Heartthrobs Heesters and Marika Rökk in the
German operetta film "Gasparone" from 1937
Yes, Johannes Heesters was one of the Third Reich's A-level stars. Did that also make him a Nazi? He certainly never was in any formal sense. The sexy Dutchman never joined the party and never supported it publicly. In fact, he refused to apply for German citizenship, even when Goebbels asked him to (he became a citizen of Austria in 1945, shortly after the end of the war). He continued to perform in Holland, where he once worked alongside a troupe of Jewish actors who had fled Germany, and there is no evidence of any anti-Semitic statements leaving his lips, let alone of any direct harm he ever did to another person. And yet, there is no doubt that he personally benefited from the racially and politically exclusive climate the Nazi regime created. During the war he was even placed on the "God-gifted list" of essential persons who were to be exempted from military service at all costs.
In 1976, a German writer claimed that Heesters and other actors performed for SS guards at Dachau concentration camp in 1941. While Heesters finally lost his libel case in 2008 (he had in fact visited the guard barracks, but there is no solid evidence that he sang for anyone), no one has ever claimed that he was more than an opportunist. The Dutch have always taken a less charitable view of their prodigal son. When Heesters finally returned to perform in his home town of Amerfoort in 2008, several of his erstwhile countrymen showed up to boo him.
After the war, Heesters quickly resumed his career and became one of the most visible performers of West German and Austrian stage, screen, and TV. He played his last stage role in the summer of 2010 and his final film role - as Saint Peter - earlier this year.
My intention in writing this obituary is not to defend Heesters for his collaboration during the Nazi era - even he never put up much of a fight - but rather to wonder at his longevity and vitality. Just think about it: Johannes Heesters was born the same year as George Orwell, Bing Crosby, and super G-man Eliot Ness. Lou Gehrig, Bob Hope, Claudette Colbert, Theodor Adorno, Anaïs Nin, Georges Simenon, and Eveyln Waugh could all have been his twin brothers or sisters. He was actually born one year before Peter Lorre, Glenn Miller, Reinhard Heydrich, and J. Robert Oppenheimer. Heesters's death marks the final passing of a golden age of European stage and film.
Heesters as Count Danilo in The Merry Widow, 1970
When asked why he refused to retire, Heesters once quipped: "Should I just sit around at home, waiting for them to come and get me? I wouldn't dream of it." So how did he live to be so old? Whatever his secret was, it had nothing to do with the usual health precautions. Heesters always enjoyed a good bottle of champagne and he chain-smoked for nearly a century, only abandoning the habit shortly before his 107th birthday "out of love for my wonderful wife." That would be his second wife, actress Simone Rethel, who is forty-six years his junior. Say what you want about the man - he knew how to live.
Johannes Heesters passed away at a clinic near his home in Starnberg, Bavaria, from complications following a stroke on Christmas Eve, 2011. He is survived by two distinguished daughters: singer Wiesje Herold-Heesters (80) and actress Nicole Heesters (74).