I JUST MET A GIRL NAMED MARIA...
By Jennifer Buonantony
Is the story of an unlikely, epic romance between a young LA Producer-Actor and a renowned Holocaust refugee, Maria Altmann, sixty years his senior. Find out how taking a harmless job as her care-taker changed this man's life forever.
I first met Gregor Collins at an acting class. He seemed to be your typical late-twenty something actor in Los Angeles- good-looking, talented, charming, and it would have been easy to stereotype him into a Hollywood cliche. But then I got to know the man who just came back from a whirlwind trip to the birthplace of the elderly woman he spent the last several years caring for- a trip he took to write the final chapter of a book he is publishing about her amazing life. Though his relationship was a romance of the soul, this story is a true testament to the idea that love has no rules or bounds.
Q: You are currently getting ready to publish your first book about the life of a woman who is near and dear to your heart. But before you met her, you had quite an interesting story and different career path of your own. Tell me about this.
A: I came out here originally from Washington D.C,. and had just graduated from Florida State University. I literally drove to Los Angeles in my Geo Storm with about $1,000 to my name, not knowing anyone. I landed my first job on the TV show, Blind Date, as a production assistant, and worked my way up to producer over time. The people at that show literally became my family here. From there I worked on a number of shows, one was helping create games for Celebrity Mole and another was producing segments for Ripley's Believe It or Not. My last gig on the production side was with E! producing the red carpet segments for the Golden Globes and the Academy Awards. After that, I didn’t have anything lined up and I felt creatively at a stand still. I knew I didn’t want to be a reality TV producer for the rest of my life and had this feeling that I wanted to do more with my career and had something more to give. I actually never wanted to be an actor or even a writer, per say, I just wanted to move here and be in the field and see where things took me.
Q: But you have become both an actor and writer. How did that transformation come about?
A: One day, someone said, 'Hey, why don’t you try acting?', so I took a beginning acting class at Ivana Chubbuck Studios. I was scared to death. I didn’t know what I was doing there and literally kept thinking to myself, 'Why am I here?'. We had a scene from David Mamet's Sexual Perversity in Chicago. When my partner and I were done, the teacher asked, 'Gregor, how long have you been acting?'. I looked at my watch and said, 'About three minutes'. The instructor was surprised and was very encouraging and genuine in his feedback to me. He felt that I had what it took to pursue a career and I went home thinking, 'I am an actor now and I have to pursue this'. I booked the first film I ever auditioned for and within six months I booked the television soap Passions. I thought, 'This is great! I am a working actor and this was easy'. Then I rode the lows for a while without any work and you realize it's all about keeping the same attitude through the lows and the highs of a career. I just full-on committed to acting after that and this was back around late 2004/early 2005. I remember that I broke down and cried in front of my mother and brother in a restaurant because they didn’t belive in my new career choice. But they’ve learned over time to embrace it, and now, they're both my most ardent supporters.
Q: What has your experience been since then and how did you meet Maria?
A: In acting, there came a point where I decided I didn’t want to wait for auditions and took my career into my own hands. I produced and starred in two films called Night Before the Wedding and Goodnight Promise. We self distributed NBTW, opening up small theaters ourselves in cities like D.C., NY, and Columbus, through the use of social media. We're set to release GP in the coming weeks. Currently, I just co-wrote a script called It’s A Good Day to Die and we have Cloris Leachman and Fairuza Balk attached. My co-writer Andrea Shreeman and I are pushing it around town as we speak. There's been a lot of interest and it's amazing what you can do with your own career now with the use of social media and the Internet. As for meeting Maria and becoming an author, well, that story begins in 2008.
Q: How did you first cross paths with Maria?
A: As a struggling actor you take any job that will pay the bills, preferably night jobs, so you can have the day free to audition. So in 2007, a friend of mine named Tom answered an add on Craigslist for a caregiver position and he kept saying, 'Gregor, you need to meet this lady, she has an amazing story'. He mentioned the family needed another caregiver. I blew him off, thinking, 'What do I need an old lady for?' Plus, you know, the job would take up my days and I wouldn't be able to audition. But he kept pestering me about meeting her, and the job, so I finally decided, 'What the hell. I'll meet her.' Maria lived in Cheviot Hills, just south of Fox Studios, and she was turning 92 at the time. I remember I was dreading meeting her and getting offered the job. I really felt I was doing more of a favor for Tom. I was nervous, too, because I didn’t have much of a relationship with my own grandparents, and I'm like, 'What do you even say to an old person?' So I sat there talking to Tom and Peter, her son, and suddenly she rounds the corner on her walker and she opened her mouth and it was love at first... sentence. She had this impossibly charming Viennese accent, and as soon as we got to talking, I was swept off my feet by her elegance and her warmth. I mean, I don't get swept off my feet by girls. She spoke to me with such genuineness, like no other woman has ever done. Afterwards, Peter came up to me and said, 'Do you want the job?' I didn't even think twice about it. 'Yes.' The rest, I could write a whole book about, which, I did.
Q: What makes your relationship with Maria so special?
A: Within days as her caregiver I began to feel like we had met in another life. Within weeks, I felt like her own son, and within months, we had a bond that not even her family understood. How could I have such a strong bond with someone more than 60 years older than me? I have a hard time explaining it myself. There was just this otherworldly romantic spark that you couldn’t have with say, just a grandmother figure. It was as if we had been in love in another life. I know it must sound odd to some, like it was sexual, but no, it was just... beautiful. And we both knew it. Maria grew up in one the wealthiest and most cultured families at the turn of the century in Vienna, Austria - the Bloch-Bauer family. Her story is unbelievable, which, is really only the backdrop to the story I'm telling.
Maria Altmann was a Holocaust refugee from Austria who gained international prominence at the age of 82, when she waged what was widely perceived as a hopeless legal campaign against her native country. It was to recover five paintings by artist Gustav Klimt, which were all looted from her Uncle Ferdinand’s home in 1938 by the Nazis during the Anschluss, and signed over to the Belvedere Museum in Vienna by Hitler himself. Maria had grown up in Europe in a time where salons, or gathering of intellectuals, writers, musicians, and artists of the era, were prominent. She understood the importance of art and her family had owned some of Europe's most renowned paintings- among those were the five Klimts which were lost to the Belvedere Museum for nearly seven decades.
Maria and her lawyer, Randol E. Shoenberg, launched the lawsuit in 1998 in the civil courts of California. It would be stuck there for six years, until one day in 2004 when they found themselves at the Supreme Court of the United States to learn if they had the legal grounds to sue Austria for the paintings. The highest court in the land said yes, they had the right. No one with half a brain could have ever predicted this verdict, let alone it even making it past the civil courts. Up until now the case had only been whispered about in small circles, but now the average person was talking. The media turned on their cameras. With the attention of the world now on their side, Maria and Randy agreed to appear in front of a panel of three Austrian judges, where, on January 16th, 2006, it was ruled that Austria was legally required to return the art.
Two months later, in March, the paintings made their first appearance on American soil. Four out of the five sold in a record seven and a half minutes at Christie’s Auction in New York City, and the fifth – The Gold Portrait, featuring Maria’s enigmatic Aunt Adele Bloch-Bauer in a stunning glittery gold gown – was sold in a private sale to Billionaire Businessman Ronald Lauder for $135 million, at that time the highest price ever paid for a work of art. When it was all said and done the five paintings garnered more than 325 million tax-free dollars. It was the most significant event to happen in the art market since World War Two, and more importantly, no longer could Austria continue to deny their anti-Semitic past.
But for Maria, it was about justice, not money. She wanted the money to give away which she did, most of it to support the arts here in Los Angeles. For Maria, it was more important that her case was responsible for opening the door to Jews whose art had been looted during the Holocaust. She opened a flood gate so that people could claim back their history and their lives through regaining these artistic treasures.
Q: Why did you feel compelled to become an author and tell her story? Why not just continue admiring her yourself?
A: Because I wanted the world who already knew her, to really know her, through the eyes of someone who truly loved her. Not just through the words of some journalist or reporter who could only write about her charmed childhood and her court case. This woman's heart was bigger than both of those combined. I've been writing the book since I met her, even though I didn't know it at first. I was her caregiver for three years, ending with her passing in February, 2010. It started as a book about Maria because she has this amazing, inspirational life. But as the weeks went on, I felt such a personal connection to her that it became a book about us and our relationship and how she changed me as a man. I was going along in my own world as this self-serving producer-actor, and this woman tapped me on the shoulder and woke me up to the beauty of life and what it's really about. To me, it felt like we were both 21 and we met in pre-war Vienna, and then escaped the Nazis together. It was very cinematic. She's really the most elegant, charming, and charismatic woman I have ever met in my life. That’s a big reason she won her case, too. Her cause was righteous but her strong character made her a star and she literally wooed the judges and the media with her effortless wit. I think part of the reason she took a liking to me is that I was somehow replacing her husband, Fritz, who died in 1995. He was a dreamer, an artist, a really brilliant, handsome guy - not to say I'm brilliant or handsome, but that's who I was to her I think. Well, I was a lot of things to her - a son, a grandson, a friend, a lover from another life. And she was all those things to me too (you know what I mean). The universe really brought us together at just the right time.
Q: Did Maria know you were writing a book about her and did she ever read your manuscript?
A: She would read parts of the book as I was writing it. Part of me wanted to finish it when she was alive, but I somehow knew the last chapter would have to be about her death because every time I saw her it opened new chapters, new ideas, and new conversations for me. I was there at her bedside when she took her final breaths. It was the first time I had experienced a death of a loved one, let alone actually seeing them die in front of me. It was the most intense day of my life, the day she died. I just went to Europe last month to see where Maria grew up and write the final chapter. It was a magical trip and I wrote the epilogue there. I'm really proud of that epilogue. It was sort of closure for me.
Q: What are your plans for publishing your debut book?
A: I already have publisher/agent interest because of Maria's reputation in the international art scene. That's what will sell the book, even though to me, the love story should sell it - I mean, it's a pretty unique love story. But if I don’t get it published through a big publisher, I will absolutely find a way to get it published myself be it through Kickstarter or social media, or Amazon - whatever it takes. My motivation was never money or recognition, so self-publishing is secretly most appealing to me anyway. The appeal of doing it my way, with 100% creative control, is very strong. I found a really great editor, too. So the manuscript is all ready to go. This book is really the most important thing I've done in my life. It really is.
After seeing Gregor's passion while chatting about Maria, I have no doubt he will easily woo publishing houses across the nation. I look forward to reading the finished book but in the meantime wanted to share this video trailer of Gregor and Maria from before she passed.
To learn more about Gregor Collins' film projects and updates on his debut book, please visit his website.