Austria’s Dreyfus? The Story of Philippe Halsman, the Man Who Didn’t Murder His Father

Philippe Halsman took some of the most famous photos in the world – hundreds of images of iconic celebrities and pictures adorning the cover of Life magazine and museum walls. But before all this, Halsman was tried in Austria for the unimaginable crime of murdering his own father. Was he truly a cold-blooded killer, or was he an Austrian Dreyfus, persecuted solely for being Jewish?

Karen Haber
British soldier at rest. Photo taken by Philippe Halsman while on a visit to Mandatory Palestine during the 1936 Arab Revolt, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Philippe Halsman was one of the 20th century’s most famous photographers. He created iconic photographs of many famous figures of the era, including Albert Einstein, Marylin Monroe, Marc Chagal, Humphrey Bogart, Frank Sinatra, Ingrid Bergman, Betty Davis, Winston Churchill, Henry Matisse, Jean-Paul Sartre, Brigitte Bardot, and Audrey Hepburn. His work has graced no fewer than 101 covers of Life magazine, more than any other photographer. He even collaborated with Salvador Dali for 37 years to create unforgettable images.

Halsman was primarily known for his penchant for photographing people while jumping: “Starting in the early 1950s I asked every famous or important person I photographed to jump for me.  I was motivated by a genuine curiosity.  After all, life has taught us to control and disguise our facial expressions, but it has not taught us to control our jumps.  I wanted to see famous people reveal in a jump their ambition or their lack of it, their self-importance or their insecurity, and many other traits.”

One of Halsman’s most famous photos with Salvador Dali. From: Wikicommons

But Halsman’s past also included a darker, less well-known chapter. In 1928, he was accused of nothing less than murdering his own father. Tried, convicted twice, and imprisoned, he was ultimately forced to leave Austria altogether. But what actually happened? And how did this affair develop into what some have called “The Austrian Dreyfus Trial?

First, some background: the Halsman family of Riga, Latvia was wealthy and well-educated. It spent its summers on family outings throughout Europe, and 1928 was no exception. That year, the family – father and successful dentist Max, mother Ita, 22-year-old son Philippe and 18-year-old daughter Liouba – set out on a trip through the French, Italian, and Swiss Alps.

At one of the Italian hotels they visited, an acquaintance told them of the beauty of the Tyrol mountains, sparking the father’s interest and imagination. After Liouba returned to Paris for her studies, Max insisted that before Philippe left them to continue his studies in electronics at the University of Dresden, the three would go on to the Tyrol. This decision decided the family’s fate.

Before we continue, some historical context is necessary. In 1928, the Tyrol region of Austria was fertile ground for Nazi ideology, and antisemitism was rampant. Although the number of Jews in the region had been minuscule since the Middle Ages, hair-raising tales of Jewish blood rituals were part of the local folklore.

The Tyrol mountains, late 19th century. From a photo album depicting Austrian landscapes, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

On the fateful morning of September 8, 1928, Mrs. Halsman decided to take leave of her son and husband, who then set out on a hike meant to last a few days. Two days later, Father and son ascended to the peak of a mountain with the aid of a local guide, who recalled how they were in good shape and often stopped to photograph one another.

What happened next can be reconstructed from witness accounts given during the investigation and trial, including Philippe’s own version of events. Shortly after two o’clock in the afternoon, they passed by an inn at the mountain’s peak, at a height of some 5,900 feet, and began to descend back down the mountain. An hour later, Philippe reached a small village along the way, out of breath, telling of how his father had slipped and fallen from a height of 26 feet into the local brook, and that he was wounded and in need of medical attention.

A young shepherd named Alois Riederer offered to help Philippe and a young girl was sent to get the local doctor. The shepherd reached Max first, finding him dead, with his lower body immersed in water and his head showing many wounds. He tried to prevent Philippe from seeing his father, but the son insisted on approaching and even attempted to lift the body out of the water with the shepherd’s help – to no avail.

Philippe stayed with his father while the shepherd went out to get help, but when Alois climbed up, he accidentally knocked down some stones, something which would have fateful consequences. The traces of blood seemed to show the body had been dragged, but no-one bothered to ensure the crime scene was untouched, since everyone was still operating under the assumption it was an accident. Philippe ran to the nearby city to call his mother; he didn’t want her to hear of her husband’s death from strangers.

A young Yemenite immigrant to the Land of Israel. Photo taken by Philippe Halsman while on a visit to Mandatory Palestine in the 1930s, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

On his way there, Philippe encountered a rescue team and returned with them to the scene, not knowing the doctor leading the team was a known antisemite. When they arrived there, the owner of the nearby inn who also reached the location immediately theorized that the son had murdered the father, and despite Philippe’s insistent denials, the doctor believed the story. They then decided to escort Philippe to a nearby town. A German police officer who was nearby volunteered to search the young man; his clothes contained no blood stains, there were no signs of a struggle, and no money was found on his person.

The local coroner arrived at the scene the next day in the afternoon, and Philippe, who had gone through quite a night in lockup, had to be there as well. The scene had been contaminated in the meantime. Testimony was collected without documentation, a stone with blood stains and hairs, identified as the murder weapon, was passed around and mysteriously disappeared. The body had since been moved to the nearby town and the rain that had fallen since the murder entirely transformed the area.

After all this, the suspect was finally asked to give his own version of events. But Philippe, who according to one of the passing tourists said that he was ahead of his father when he heard a yell, now added another detail – that he saw his father fall. The investigator didn’t dwell on this point at the time, but he did make a note of the discrepancy and insisted on asking Philippe where he was exactly when his father fell. Here Philippe erred: he thought the stones Alois accidentally knocked down the day before marked the spot where the fall occurred. In fact, he mistakenly placed himself precisely where his father had fallen. On September 13, the body was subject to an autopsy, and the pathologist determined that Max was murdered by blows from a sharp object. The fact that no blood or weapons were found on Philippe made no difference, and Philippe was arrested that day.

A female pioneer milks a cow. Photo taken by Philippe Halsman while on a visit to Mandatory Palestine in the 1930s, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

The local media was quick to plant the idea of the murder in the minds of the locals, and even before the trial began, the press had concluded that the son murdered his father in cold blood with repeated blows to his head. The police themselves only began to question witnesses two weeks after the murder, after all the locals were already convinced Philippe was guilty.

Every detail took on a life of its own: the fact that Max carried his son’s knapsack supposedly showed the son’s lack of respect for his father. The fact that they had ordered two separate bedrooms was an indication that their relationship was rocky. This was all compounded by rampaging conspiracy theories: the son murdered his father to spare his mother from an abusive marriage; the son fell in love with a woman his father objected to; the father had a life insurance policy with his son as the sole beneficiary; and so on – as far as imagination would take them. Worse, the family’s request to leave the father’s body untouched and deliver it to them to be buried as quickly as possible – as Jewish law requires – was seen as a family conspiracy to conceal the murder they all knew occurred. The desire to bury the father in shrouds rather than a coffin was taken as proof that the family did not respect the memory of their father.

The police went along with a public convinced of Philippe’s guilt and treachery. Nothing that hinted at his innocence was looked into. When tracks were found in the ground that fit neither Philippe nor anyone on the rescue team – no effort was made to identify who made them. Max’s head contained injuries from a sharp object that was never found, Philippe’s light clothes had no blood on them, yet still – nothing was investigated.

Two weeks after the murder, blood-stained Austrian money bills were found at the scene, hidden under a pile of rocks. Pictures taken from the scene of the crime proved that this pile was not there when the body was found – but once again, there was no follow up by the police. The similarity of this case to a number of other murders in the area at the time also suggested Philippe was innocent. It didn’t matter.

Tel Aviv Port. Photo: Photo taken by Philippe Halsman while on a visit to Mandatory Palestine in the 1930s, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

The first trial of Philippe Halsman began on December 13, 1928, and lasted just four days. Standing before a biased jury, head prosecutor Dr. Siegfried Hohenleitner laid out his theory of Philippe’s guilt. The fact that Philippe was aided by one of the best lawyers in Vienna, Richard Pressburger, only worked against him. The locals didn’t care for the liberal atmosphere of the Austrian capital, and the defense attorney’s Jewishness didn’t help, either.

During the first two weeks following his arrest, Philippe wasn’t even allowed to speak with Pressburger. For its part, the police didn’t cooperate with the defense or provide it with information. This forced the defense to take the line that Max fell to his death and was hit by a stone along the way. Pressburger argued that Philippe did not push his father since relations between them were good, and family and friends were put on the witness stand to attest to this.

But Philippe’s behavior at trial worked against him. He appeared too confident, condescending, and self-righteous. It was his own testimony that really got him in trouble. On the witness stand, he told of how his father went to the side of the path to urinate while he kept going. Then, he heard a yell and saw his father lean strangely and fall off. He claimed it took him two minutes to get to the scene, but the prosecution then presented the details he’d given at the time of the incident: the place Philippe said he was standing was just two steps from where his father fell, which meant Philippe must have been lying. The defense tried to argue that Philippe had been in a state of shock, and made an honest mistake in placing his location, but the jury had heard enough.

Thus, without evidence proving his guilt, without any motive for premeditation, and without heeding exculpatory evidence such as Philippe’s clean clothes, and in a general atmosphere that automatically condemned a Jew as a murderer, the jury convened to make a decision. It came very quickly.

By a majority of nine to three, the jury declared his guilt, and the court sentenced Philippe Halsman to ten years of hard labor and one fast day a year on the anniversary of his father’s murder.

“A judicial crime is being committed against me”, The Sentinel, December 28, 1928, the Historical Jewish Press Collection at the National Library of Israel

In prison, Philippe tried to take his own life with a blade from a pencil sharpener he’d managed to dismantle. In the meantime, his lawyer tried to have a mistrial declared, arguing that the conviction was based on insufficient evidence, and that certain other evidence was hidden from the defense. The Supreme Court accepted the appeal, but decided the retrial would take place in Innsbruck in the Tyrol rather than in Vienna, a serious blow for the defense.

While the Vienna press began writing in support of Philippe’s case and against the biased trial he was subject to in the Tyrol, the attitude was the opposite in the region itself. The local press was entirely swept up by the populist spirit opposing the “socialist-Jewish” winds blowing from Vienna.

The retrial started almost a year later, in September 1929. This time, the defense took the line that Max was apparently murdered by another person, but the defense found itself constantly refuting lies from the prosecution and fighting a war of attrition against local public opinion that was clearly opposed to Halsman. For instance, it was claimed that Philippe witnessed the autopsy of his father with complete calm from the window of the inn where he was detained. The defense was forced to prove that no window in the inn provided a view from which the autopsy could be seen. Many expert opinions the defense tried to submit were rejected for baseless reasons, but slides of the wounds to Max’s head and his father’s severed head were allowed to be shown in court, despite the request of the family not to do so.

For various reasons, the trial had to take a break for a month. During this period, the Halsman affair became a battleground between liberal Vienna, which increasingly supported the defendant, and the conservative periphery. Scandal after scandal began to emerge. In the middle of the second trial, for instance, a witness appeared who claimed that on the day of the murder he was approached by a man covered in blood. He said he provided the man with clothes before helping him cross the border into Italy. A few days later, the same witness claimed he’d made the whole thing up and had received money from Halsman supporters to give this false testimony. In the end, Philippe Halsman was convicted a second time. This time, just seven of the twelve jurors decided that he’d murdered his father, but nine agreed to the manslaughter charge. He was sent to four years of hard labor, an annual fast day, and was required to cover the costs of his trial and imprisonment.

“He is said to have gone mountaineering with his father, and when the two of them reached a precipice he threw his father down and killed him” – The Palestine Bulletin, October 20, 1929, the Historical Jewish Press Collection at the National Library of Israel

Philippe started a hunger strike, and this time the defense decided to appeal to the Supreme Court. In a detailed, 100-page document, the defense explained why the verdict should be set aside. The court deliberated on the request for three days, after which it announced that there was no reasonable ground for intervening in the verdict, although this did not mean the court took a stand on Philippe Halsman’s guilt or innocence.

All Philippe had left was worldwide public opinion. Even before the court decision, Jewish author Jacob Wasserman published an open letter to the President of Austria to intervene on Halsman’s behalf and pardon him, a letter which reminded many of Emile Zola’s letter in defense of Alfred Dreyfus. Halsman’s family asked that he be released on humanitarian grounds due to his contracting pneumonia and his poor physical state. Within weeks, the Austrian Justice Minister was bombarded with petitions from within Austria and around the world, calling for his pardon. The minister eventually decided to simply avoid the question of the pardon altogether, instead allowing Philippe to stand before the parole board after having served half his sentence.

Jacob Wasserman’s letter drew comparisons to that of Emile Zola, J. The Jewish News of Northern California, December 13, 1929, the Historical Jewish Press Collection at the National Library of Israel

Efforts to free Halsman continued, and in September 1930, he was finally released from prison, but this was not the end of his travails. As a former convict and foreign citizen, he was immediately expelled from Austria. He could no longer return to his studies and therefore decided to rest and recuperate in Czechoslovakia and then in Paris, where his sister Liouba resided.

The public crusade for Halsman did not end there, as his supporters tried to get him acquitted entirely. To that end, they even recruited Sigmund Freud to come to the defense of a convicted criminal for the first time. Freud dismissed the prosecution’s claim that Philippe acted out of an Oedipal complex and lent support to the argument that trauma was what led Philippe to believe his own testimony. But the prosecution did not stand idly by and worked to prevent the acquittal. The Justice Ministry ultimately stayed out of it and the case remained closed. Philippe remained a convicted felon.

Meantime, Halsman flourished professionally in France. He worked as a freelance photographer and even arrived in British Mandatory Palestine on assignment for a French magazine in 1936, taking pictures which can now be viewed via the National Library of Israel website. He opened a studio in Paris and fell in love with Yvonee Moser, a young female photographer. The couple soon married and had a daughter. As the Nazis were approached Paris, Halsman sought a visa to America for his family. Just before the Germans entered the French capital, Yvonee and their daughter left for New York, along with Philippe’s mother and sister. He was only able to secure a visa for himself later, thanks in no small part to the personal intervention of Albert Einstein.

A report on the death of Philippe Halsman, Maariv, June 29, 1979, the Historical Jewish Press Collection at the National Library of Israel

While everyone knew him in Paris, no-one knew him in New York. Still, Halsman slowly made a name for himself in photography circles in the Big Apple. He met the artist Salvador Dali and together they worked on some fascinating collaborations. His first cover photo for Life magazine soon followed. But the stain of the trial and murder conviction didn’t disappear so quickly. In 1943, his criminal record was discovered and he faced expulsion from the United States, his newfound asylum. Fortunately for him, noted author Thomas Mann came to his aid and Halsman managed to prevent his own deportation.

After this, Halsman focused on leaving his past behind him and building a new future. History and the collective memory of this famous photographer suggests he succeeded. Halsman would live to see his criminal record expunged in Austria in 1973. On July 25, 1979, he died in New York, leaving behind thousands of famous images – as well as a familiar story about a Jew subjected to an unfair trial.


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