The first time I met Ace Rosner he said to me, “I’ve had the best life and the most interesting life of anyone in the world.”
I doubt that anyone will ever make me think otherwise.
But now that most interesting of lives is over. The man I called my favorite one-armed, race-car-driving ex-CIA officer died Sunday at the age of 94.
Adolph Charles “Ace” Rosner Jr. was born in 1917 in Birmingham, Ala., the seventh of eight children. His father was a serial entrepreneur, and the family lived all over the country.
For a while after high school, Ace was a photo stringer in Baltimore for the New York Times. Then he joined the Army. As an officer in the 3rd Division, 30th Infantry, 1st Battalion, Ace participated in four invasions: Morocco, Sicily, Salerno and Anzio.
It was at Anzio in 1944 that a German mortar shell tore his right arm to ribbons. “When I was in Europe, shot up and injured, I decided that anything that I want that I can afford, I’m going to have,” said Ace, who received four Purple Hearts and three Bronze Stars for valor.
Cars became an obsession, not surprising for someone who learned to drive at age 8, sitting on his father’s lap in the family’s Packard Twin Six. Over the years, Ace owned more than 200, up to 44 at any one time: Rolls-Royces, Bentleys, Jaguars, Austin-Healeys, Lincolns. . . . Last year he let me drive his brand-new $200,000 Mercedes SLS AMG Gullwing.
Ace kept his collection in the parking garage of the Woodley Road NW apartment building he moved to in 1961. He was working for the CIA then, a job that took him to London and Vienna during the height of the Cold War.
Ace never said exactly what he did in the CIA. His niece Susan Parker remembers Ace showing her a letter of commendation from the agency. It was totally devoid of details as to how he’d earned it. He would know what they were talking about, and that was good enough.
Whatever it was, it afforded Ace the opportunity to hobnob. While in Europe, he befriended the Greek royal family, endearing himself to the queen because of his ability to procure American peanut butter. He shared his love of cars with the king. Once, Ace was driving his black Ford Thunderbird to visit the monarch at the palace when he noticed that pedestrians stopped to cheer and wave as he sped past. He waved back, curious about the accolades.
When he parked his car at the palace, he saw why. The king had an identical T-Bird. Ace had been mistaken for royalty.
While living in Austria, Ace bought a 1949 Ferrari Barchetta and raced against the likes of Wolfgang von Trips. In Washington, he was a founding member of the Lavender Hill Mob, a group of rabid sports car enthusiasts who helped build the Marlboro race track in Maryland. He invested in a racing-themed bar in Georgetown called the Pit Stop that featured bucket seats as bar stools.
Ace’s cars were not the pampered sort you find at the show at Pebble Beach, Calif. He drove them, filling them with wrappers from his beloved McDonald’s. Sometimes he would just go down to the parking garage to wash them or move a battery charger from vehicle to vehicle. Wherever he was — in the garage, at a car show, driving celebrities in the Cherry Blossom Parade — Ace was always natty, with a driving cap perched atop his head and a scarf knotted around his neck.
His love of cars was infectious, and he had a cadre of younger friends from the local car club scene. Jaime Steve met Ace after moving into his building in 1993. At the time, Jaime owned one car. Today, Jaime owns 19, including a vintage Jeep painted to resemble the kind Ace drove at Anzio.
Ace could have that effect on you.
People would inevitably ask Ace how he could race with just one arm. He was good at steering with his knees, he explained, and at shifting through the steering wheel. Ace was also a great believer in the spinner knob — a little contraption that attaches to the wheel — and he bought them in bulk from Pep Boys. He gave me one, promising that it would enhance any driving experience.
Ace had a loyalty for Walter Reed Army Medical Center that dated back to the year he spent there after losing his arm. Once, when visiting a sister in Baltimore, he was attacked by a knife-wielding mugger, who stabbed Ace in his left hand. Rather than risking an unfamiliar emergency room, Ace wrapped his bleeding hand in towels and drove to Walter Reed in the District.
It was at Walter Reed — now in Bethesda — that Maj. A.C. Rosner passed away from congestive heart failure. He had no immediate survivors.
“I remember everything,” Ace used to tell me before launching into a story. I certainly won’t ever forget him.