The Disappearance Of Helmut Gräf

On May 28, 1951, twenty two year old Helmut Gräf arrived in New York City. He had travelled first class from Amsterdam aboard the Holland America liner M.V. Moordam. After his steamer trunks were unloaded from the ship, the young Austrian headed west for Cincinnati, Ohio, where he was to enroll as an exchange student at the University Of Cincinnati. Gräf was no 'regular' exchange student; he was the heir to the Gräf & Stift Austrian automobile manufacturing fortune. Upon his arrival in Ohio, we met twenty year old Trixie Hochaltinger while she was working at the YMCA in Cincinnati. It seemed like fate had brought together the two Austrians in the Queen City so far from their home country and soon the two lovebirds started dating. Gräf fell hard, and when Trixie left her job at the YMCA to join the chorus of the Ice Follies, he skipped the entire spring semester of classes at the university, following her to Buffalo and then to Pittsburgh with the tour.

On March 12, 1952, Gräf visited Hochaltinger backstage at the Ice Follies show in Pittsburgh. He was last seen around 5:50 that night when he stopped his car at a fire engine house and asked for directions to Wilmington, Ohio. Fire Chief Richard Rose claimed Gräf had told him his car was "acting up". His car abandoned near the B&O Raiload tracks in Columbus, Ohio sometime between March 14 and 16. When discovered, a window was smashed and a large spot of blood was found on the front seat. Officials at the Austrian embassy initially suspected foul play, as Gräf was believed to be carrying upwards of one thousand dollars of cash on him at the time but another theory was developed by Lieutenant Ellsworth P. Beck, who suspected that Gräf had car trouble, parked the car and took off hitchhiking and that the bloodstain was the result of a thief who smashed the window to enter the car. A nation-wide search ensued and folks from Jersey City to Jacksonville had more speculations and theories than the Maura Murray case.

A tip came in that Gräf was seen boarding a Washington bound train at Union Terminal but it was checked and proven to be incorrect. Another reports from a truck driver who claimed they had picked him up in Delaware, Ohio hitchhiking and let him out near Fostoria, Ohio didn't pan out either.
Trixie Hochhaltinger hadn't the faintest clue what had happened to Gräf, first saying he was "happy and contented" when he left "to return to Cincinnati" but later admitted that they had a big old spat backstage at the Ice Follies show the night he disappeared. She had defaced a picture Gräf had given to her of him and he was quite upset by it.

Gräf was found on March 19, 1952. The police picked him up at The Blackstone, a swanky Miami Beach hotel, where he'd stayed since March 15. He was registered under an an alias. Detective William Murray of the Miami Beach police explained that Columbus authorities had located Mr. Gräf through an airplane reservation made under the name Harry Granger. The mistake he made that tipped them off (rather easily) was the fact that he used his own address on Bishop Street in Cincinnati when he booked the flight with a Columbus travel agency.

Gräf was detained by the Miami Beach police under 'protective custody' as a missing person at the request of the Columbus authorities and held for questioning about the bloodstains in his car. Detective Sargeant Peter Stewart put him in a holding cell. "He was given a routine search and then placed in a cell. He didn't say much at the time," Stewart told an Associated Press reporter. Two hours later, Stewart returned to place another man in the cell. "Gräf was unconscious in a pool of blood. There was a razor blade on the floor. He had cut a main artery near the left elbow with a single edged razor blade."

Detective Captain Charles W. Pierce of the Miami Police advised that Gräf was rushed to a hospital, near death from blood loss. He was in critical condition at Mount Sinai Hospital and given plasma and a blood transfusion by Dr. Russell Lavengood and cared for by Nurse Doris Miller. Dr. Lavengood said that his blood pressure was so low when he arrived at the hospital that it could not be recorded and that his body was in a "state of profound shock from the loss of blood." When asked why he attempted suicide, Gräf told police he wanted "to see what the other side is like." He also told police he had been considering "killing myself for two months."

On March 22, 1952, Miami Beach police advised Gräf that he would be allowed to go free once he recovered from his self-inflicted wound. Detective R.B. Loveland said, "I think that boy has had enough trouble without our filing any charges against him." However, he was required to go to Columbus to explain his abandoned car with the smashed window and bloodstain... a scene he admitted to Miami Beach police he had staged. He called it a "silly, spur of the moment deed with no reason."

Detective Sargeant Stewart advised that upon a search of Gräf's hotel room at The Blackstone, his passport was found hidden under a rug. He claimed Gräf had "been despondent because of his low marks and the possibility he might be sent back to Vienna because of them." Dr. Raymond Walters, the President of the University Of Cincinnati, sent Dr. Robert Bishop, the Dean Of Men, to Miami Beach "to do whatever is essential to assist Gräf." Immigration authorities advised that Gräf was attached to the university by a 4E Visa and police advised that it was likely he would be shipped back to Austria but Bishop discounted reports he might face deportation. His parents arrived from Vienna and swiftly hauled him back to Austria.

Gisela Hochaltinger and Otto Preißecker in 1929. Photo courtesy Bildarchiv Austria.

Gräf faded into obscurity, as did Trixie Hochaltinger. Perhaps most interestingly, Trixie was the daughter of Gisela Hochhaltinger, the first woman in history to win a bronze medal in pairs skating at the European Figure Skating Championships with her partner Otto Preißecker. Shortly after that competition in Vienna in 1930, Gisela retired to become a mother. Had Gisela Hochaltinger chosen to continue in competitive figure skating through the 1932 and 1936 Winter Olympics, history would have been altered and one of the most compelling missing persons cases of the fifties - Ice Follies connection and all - might never have made front page news.

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