By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 6, 2009
Looking back, James W. von Brunn's best year was probably 1951.
He was a talented young commercial artist. Newly married to the daughter of a British novelist, he had just illustrated his father-in-law's latest book. And that June, von Brunn and his wife had their first child, a son they named Jim.
In 1951, von Brunn's future seemed bright. He had been a World War II PT boat skipper. He had talent and education. And he had married into a family whose pedigree went back to England and whose roots were now in the gentility of rural life by the Chesapeake Bay.
Within a few years, it all came apart. Von Brunn and his first wife, Joan, separated, then divorced. Their teenage son was sent off to boarding school, a life estranged from his father and, years later, a lonely death in a cheap motel room. And von Brunn, infected with paranoia and virulent anti-Semitism, was well on the way to his own disaster.
As the 88-year-old white supremacist recovers from the gunshot wound incurred in his alleged June 10 attack on the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and awaits his first court appearance, as soon as next week, his early days of promise on Maryland's Eastern Shore are a striking contrast to the bitter, self-destructive time that followed.
Von Brunn has been charged with the killing of museum security guard Stephen T. Johns, whom prosecutors say he shot with a rifle as Johns held the door for him. Authorities found racist and anti-Semitic writings in the suspect's car and reported that he had been engaged in anti-Semitic proselytizing for decades. His second wife, from whom he is long divorced, and a son from that marriage have verified those accounts and denounced him.
But in 1951, five years home from the war, the college-educated, middle-class son of a St. Louis steel mill supervisor seemed to have everything going for him: a family, a job and connections with the upper crust.
Two years ago, when police found his son Jim dead in a $60-a-night motel room in Seaside, Calif., the last remnant of that life was gone.
Jim had pneumonia, anxiety and depression, and his life had been unraveling for years. He was bankrupt and living out of his Plymouth. And he had just been asked to leave his old fraternity buddy's home, where he had resided for months, sleeping in the dining room, afraid to eat or go outdoors.
The motel staff found Jim in bed, with a narcotic drug patch on his upper left arm. He was 55.
When authorities informed James von Brunn that his son was dead, he first told them that he wanted nothing to do with it. But after the Monterey County Sheriff's Office had Jim's remains cremated and scattered his ashes in Monterey Bay, the elder von Brunn complained and feuded with local officials until this May.
Cmdr. Mike Richards of the county sheriff's office recalled: "He just couldn't let it go."
It seemed to be the story of von Brunn's life.
His family emigrated from Germany and Austria to St. Louis in 1845, James von Brunn has written in his Web posts.
His father, Elmer, was a manager at city steel mills, according to records and von Brunn's writings, and during World War II he designed and ran an ammunition plant in Houston.
His mother, Hope, had been educated at a private girls school and was an accomplished pianist. He had one sibling, a sister, Alyce.
Von Brunn wrote online that his love of art came after his grandmother gave him a set of oil paints when he was a child and he discovered the book illustrations of Howard Pyle and N.C. Wyeth.
According to historical records, the family lived for many years on Columbia Avenue at the edge of a south St. Louis neighborhood called "the Hill." James von Brunn's paternal grandparents lived across the street.
South St. Louis had a strong German cultural presence, the records indicate. Henry Berger, professor emeritus of history at Washington University, said many of the city's German immigrants had roots in the liberal German traditions of the 19th century.
Still, St. Louis had a German-language newspaper until 1938, the year von Brunn went off to college, and a host of German fraternal and cultural organizations. One, according to the newspaper, appeared to be a branch of the German American Bund, an American Nazi organization whose logo was a swastika rising from a globe. And during the mid-1930s, the swastika flew from the German consulate in St. Louis.
It's not clear, however, whether any of this influenced von Brunn's extremist views or what sparked them.
He attended Washington University, in St. Louis, where he played football, was president of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity chapter and was on the art staff of the Eliot, a school literary publication, according to school records.
He spoke French, and his 1942 yearbook picture shows a handsome, blond-haired young man.
But it was about that time, according to his Internet writings, that his paranoia and anti-Semitism surfaced. He claimed to have had a dispute as a college student with a Jewish man over a car von Brunn damaged while driving it. Afterward, he wrote later, "word got around that I was a Nazi."
His anger seems to have smoldered through his service during World War II, his writing indicates. His anti-Semitism grew when he came back from the war, he wrote, and found New York "the largest Jew city in the World."
Still, he wrote that he continued his art studies in New York and landed a good job in advertising there.
On June 1, 1950, he married Joan Patricia Beverley-Giddings in a Connecticut wedding announced in the New York Times. She was the divorced daughter of the British novelist, sportsman and World War I aviator Arthur R. Beverley-Giddings.
Von Brunn's in-laws lived in New York but also had an 18th-century country home called Schoolridge Farm at the edge of the vast Chesapeake Bay marshland near the Annemessex River in Somerset County.
The isolated house sat amid trees at the end of a dirt driveway about four miles from the fishing hamlet of Rumbley. There, the family gathered on holidays, and Beverley-Giddings wrote books about Tidewater Maryland in the early 1800s.
In 1951, Beverley-Giddings edited a book of the writings of the 19th-century hunting enthusiast Henry William Herbert. The book was filled with advice for "the modern shooting man." It was illustrated with black and white drawings by von Brunn of men in hunting jackets, dogs and game, and a color scene of a dashing Clark Gable-like sportsman on the front dust cover.
On June 22 of that year, James Beverley-Giddings von Brunn was born. His parents' only child, he was soon sent to private elementary school in Easton, Md., and then a private boarding school in Delaware.
But behind the facade, according to court records and the elder von Brunn's account, his anti-Semitism was growing, along with unhappiness in his marriage.
He wrote later that his "political posture placed a burden" on his marriage. The couple's divorce papers indicate that marital trouble began even before the family moved to Talbot County, Md., in 1962. They separated in 1964 and divorced in 1966. Joan was granted custody of their son, then 15.
"The divorce was a tragedy for all concerned," the elder von Brunn wrote.
It is not clear what effect this or the rest of his father's embittered life had on Jim, or what effect, if any, Jim's death had on his father. The elder von Brunn's second wife, when asked whether Jim's death affected him, said, "I doubt it."
Jim never married. Scott Mutchler, who described himself as the younger von Brunn's best friend and former fraternity brother, said father and son were distant.
Jim "had a long decline," Mutchler said. "I'm not sure how his father's issues helped or hurt that. . . . His dad . . . I could sense hostility to various things. I think he blamed Jim's not getting better on some of the doctors that he saw. He blamed everybody. He believed everybody was Jewish and involved with something."
In September 2005, Jim temporarily moved to Mutchler's home in Fargo, N.D. Despite their estrangement, the elder von Brunn telephoned to check on his son often, Mutchler said: "They talked all the time." There was even talk of Jim moving back east with his father. But that didn't work out.
It was about that time that von Brunn, himself infirm and in troubled financial shape, moved to Annapolis with his son Erik. He paid $400 a month rent for his room, investigators have said, and brought his two rifles when he moved in.
Staff writer Ashley Halsey III and staff researchers Julie Tate and Alice Crites contributed to this report.