Monday, May 11, 2015

Washington Social Diary: It's a Horror Story

Waltz, a master of sinister characters.
by Carol Joynt

The intriguing news was announced this past week that Oscar-winning actor Christoph Waltz plans to make a Washington film, telling the sensational Albrecht Muth-Viola Drath story. It will be based on a New York Times piece, “The Worst Marriage in Georgetown,” and Waltz will star and direct. I wish him well and hope he gets it right, meaning he makes the ghastly tale into the horror film it deserves to be.

The couple were 20 years into a May-December marriage in 2011, when Drath was found dead, beaten and strangled, in the upstairs bathroom of their modest Georgetown rowhouse. She was 91 years old. Within days Muth, 47, was arrested, charged and locked up, even though he claimed innocence with nonsensical alibies. A jury convicted him of murder in the first-degree a year ago and he was sentenced to 50 years in prison. He is currently incarcerated at the federal prison in Springfield, MO. 
Muth done up as an Iraqi general in an undated photo.
There’s no question Muth and Drath are intriguing characters, but in the mode of Stephen King and Stanley Kubrick. The media portray them as glamorous “socialites,” as part of the Georgetown scene or set, as if they routinely dined with Katharine Graham or played tennis on George and Liz Stevens home court. They were not in that crowd. They were an odd couple, each with ambitions, bonded in their German heritage, and seeing in each other a match that might make a socially successful whole. But they were fringe, on the outside looking in.

Their enormous age difference was not the oddest thing about them, either. They lived in Georgetown in a small block across from a gas station, in a house where the curtains were always drawn. The décor was old world, just shy of drab. He came and went from the basement door. They entertained but the guests were an odd lot, too, and while he was the host he was also the cook and manservant.
Viola Drath and Albrecht Muth in June 2001. Photo: Carroll Williams
Muth’s presentation of himself was mannered, but it didn’t hide the creepiness. He talked the talk as if he studied the performance before a mirror. If he made your acquaintance and was interested, the email messages flowed. His interest in my 9-year-old son, and invitations to take him to the opera or theater, set off internal alarms, and was why I backed away from them as soon as possible.

Viola seemed a woman of intelligence and pride but who had made a pact with the devil, knew it, was trapped in a nightmare, and saw no way out. She did not warm to me and I suspect that was because of her husband’s obvious interest in my child. Clearly she had his number. She had family nearby, and I knew and liked them, and their nearness likely bolstered her, but still Albrecht had a strange power over her. Dating back to well before the murder there was a police record of domestic abuse.
Muth reportedly is serving his 50-year sentence at the federal medical prison in Springfield, Missouri.
The person most pleased with the news of the film is likely Muth himself. A 27-page psychological report on him notes his delight with an earlier New York Times profile with the headline “The Talented Mr. Muth.” He liked that, according to the psychologists. He suggested it be made into a film with Leo DiCaprio playing him. Waltz is a good choice, though. He does sinister and creepy with a master’s skill.

As any of us who encountered Muth here in Georgetown can attest, he was already a movie star in his own mind. The forensic psychologists who spent hours with him in 2012, and prepared the report on him, said he “built his entire life by constructing multiple and often simultaneous false narratives, tales within tales, like Russian nesting dolls, in order to advance his strategic objectives.”
Long after the murder, the house where Viola Drath was murdered (gray, in the middle) was put on the market and sold relatively fast.
The Muth-Drath house in 2013, emptied of the couple's furniture and professionally staged for the real estate market.
One of the ways in which Washington and Los Angeles are alike is that they attract a type of person who is drawn to the taste, a touch, the simple nearness to what they perceive is power and glory and glamour. They serve minor roles, eager bit players. In Washington you see them on the diplomatic circuit, at the think tanks, and circling within the military establishment, where they hope to rub up against a title, however minor, or forge some friendships they can leverage for a step up. In those vast worlds, where Muth thrived, a loser can hide in plain site, creating resumes-du-jour to serve a purpose, and leave not too many fingerprints.

The forensic report stated, “Mr. Muth has a proven track record, conning very savvy people to buy into his persona, methods and schemes.” That is why you’ll read of Justice Antonin Scalia and Vice President Dick Cheney as having been among the couple’s dinner guests. But if their visits to the house were anything like mine, they were the first to depart and they left scratching their heads, trying to figure out what they’d just experienced.
Earlier, Drath's family sold the home's furniture and some of her possessions in an estate sale.
Based in part on interviews with Drath’s family, the forensic report gives a chilling picture.  It describes Muth’s “strong need for interpersonal control and dominance coupled with cold detachment.” And it explores his endless shape-shifting. “Over the years there were a zillion stories and many personas. He adopts a persona and sticks with it for a couple of years, and then he gets tired of it and abandons it.”

Albrecht Muthin Georgetown, just before he was arrested and charged with killing his wife.
Christoph Waltz will star in and direct a film about Albrecht Muth and Viola Drath.
For example, the year I first met him he was head-to-toe Savile Row and, he said, involved in the diplomatic realm, working on “missions” for his “friend,” U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. He was also doing some work for Arun Gandhi, the activist grandson of Mohandas Ghandhi, who he introduced around town. We were all together at an Indian Embassy party where Albrecht was in prime form.

A few years later he had a whole new thing, strutting into Café Milano dressed in head-to-toe khaki as a high-ranking Iraqi general, dandified with a riding crop under his arm. Which is why, of course, Waltz should spend as much time as possible with Milano’s general manager, Laurent Menoud. Muth and Drath were regulars at Milano. Laurent may know as much about Muth as the forensic psychologists. Ditto Ed Solomon, a Georgetown businessman, who Muth sought for assistance when the police were hunting him. Solomon did not provide it, of course. But he has stories to tell.

It’s exciting for Washington when a book or story about the town is made into a movie, but many productions about Washington, even when they delve into corruption and deceit, miss its other dark side. They get caught up in the top tier, the power and the myths of power, and the people who have it and run the town, and miss the fringe, the sad, ambitious underside. Albrecht Muth’s story takes you to that dark other side.

Muth had no power, but craved it, and planted himself in scenarios that made it seem he had power. He fooled people, but usually not for long. He had power only over an older lonely widow, who had the dreams widows dream of a new man, security and protection. That Viola’s protector was her murderer, that he strangled her in the night, takes any oddball charm out of the story, and which is why the genre is pure horror.

Further reading:

• Dinner With Albrecht Muth and Viola Drath

• The Forensic Report on Albrecht Muth

• The Worst Marriage in Georgetown
James R. Brantley/The Washington Times.

Having just mentioned Laurent Menoud and Café Milano, let me add that we are sailing into the restaurant’s sweetest months, when a table on the front terrace is prime real estate. It’s the best people-watching in town, and the parade runs the gamut from bold face names in the news to mysterious characters to stylish international wealth whose children are at Georgetown University to weary tourists looking for a glass of cold rosé and a good bowl of pasta. It’s all action, stories being told and unfolding, a fair share of intrigue, and Laurent is at the calm center, keeping the actors on their marks. Its what you would get if you morphed Michael’s with Rick’s Place and put it in Georgetown.

Café Milano
3251 Prospect Street NW

Outside Cafe Milano on Saturday, May 9th.
Laurent Menoud, on the left, greets guests on the terrace at Cafe Milano.
Inside Cafe Milano.
The perfect place for a glass of cold rosé and a bowl of pasta.

Follow Carol on twitter @caroljoynt