American tycoon who used his millions to honour the unsung hero of British aviation - R.J. Mitchell, designer of the Spitfire.
The Times, London
A HIGHLY successful American businessman who made his millions from the marketing of Grey Goose vodka and the German liqueur Jägermeister in the US, Sidney Frank became a passionate enthusiast for the aero engineer R.J. Mitchell, who has his place in aviation history for designing the Spitfire of Battle of Britain fame.
The Sidney E. Frank Foundation commissioned the statue of the reticent design genius which was unveiled at the Science Museum, London, last August. Frank, who regarded Mitchell as one of the great unsung heroes of the Second World Ware, spent more than $1 million on realising his dream of permanently honouring the designer.
The result was a life-sized statue, by the artist Stephen Kettle, which portrays Mitchell at his drawing board, sleeves rolled up. Made from 400,00 pieces of Welsh slate, it was created with the help of photographs contributed by Gordon Mitchell, the designer's son, who had himself sought greater recognition for his father.
Frank, a forthright man, confessed himself astounded that Mitchell had not received a knighthood: "I mean this was the guy who, after Churchill, was the most important man in winning the Battle, and if that had been lost, well... we would have been fighting the Nazis from across the Atlantic."
The fact was, of course, that Mitchell died of cancer at the age of 42 in 1937, only a year after the first flight of the Spitfire, and before he, or anyone else, could have known how famous his aircraft was to become. He had been appointed CBE earlier in the 1930s for his work on Supermarine's world-beating Schneider Trophy-winning seaplanes.
Sidney Frank was born in 1919 into an impecunious farming family in Montville, Connecticut. He went to school at Norwich Free Academy from where he gained entry to Brown University, Rhode Island. Although he enjoyed himself there, and made many useful connections who would stand him in good stead later in life, he had to leave after a year as he simply could not afford to keep up the fees.
He joined the aero-engine company Pratt and Whitney, for whom, during the Second World War, he was sent to the Fart East to supervise the maintaining of aircraft engines in the Pacific theatre. Later he worked on early jet fuels. When he returned to America after the end or the war, a Brown University friend introduced him to Louise "Skippy" Rosenstiel, daughter of the founder of the distillers and importers Schenley Industries.
He married Miss Rosenstiel and became a Schenley executive, gaining a thorough grounding in the drinks business, and rising to become company president. In 1970 he was forced out of the company as a result of a family dispute.
Hi wife died in 1972, and after selling art for several years Frank set up his own business, Sidney Frank Importing Co. Among his first importing successes was the unlikely herbal liqueur Jägermeister, well not as a fortifying tot on cold days in Germany, but virtually unknown in the US. Flying to Germany, Frank obtained the rights to produce Jägermeister under licence in America.
There, he marketed it to the young with troupes of scantily clad girls, the Jägerettes, who toured college campuses, bars and parties flirting with male students, pouring shots of Jägermeister and implying that it, not the time-honoured bourbon, was the route to sexual conquest. By the mid-1990s sales had grown to more than 430,000 cases a year, though the Jägerette promotion idea was not without its controversial side. In 1997 the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued the company on behalf of 104 women who had alleged sexual harassment by bar owners, bartenders and patrons. The company denied the charges but made an out-of-court payment of $2.9 million in settlement.
An even greater success than Jägermeister was Frank's own creation, in the mid-1990s, of Grey Goose vodka, which he developed in France. Although it never usurped the position of the market leaders Smirnoff and Absolut, Grey Goose was selling 1.4 million cases a year by 2004, when Frank sold the brand to Bacardi for £2 billion.
Frank was now looking for ways in which to spend hi money to benefit good causes. His alma mater, Brown, received $20 million for a new building to house the cognitive and linguist sciences department and more than $100 million for undergraduate scholarships last year.
His own wartime work in aviation had made him very aware of the Spitfire, and when he came to wonder about who had been its creator he became astonished that the name of R.J. Mitchell was not more generally known in Britain.
Out of the blue Mitchell's son received a letter from the American tycoon announcing his intention to set up a memorial fund to recognise his achievements.
Besides commissioning the statue, the Sidney E. Frank Foundation established an R.J. Mitchell website, worked on an education programme for schools, lobbied for Southampton airport to change its name to acknowledge Mitchell, and planned Battle of Britain reunions for all survivors of the historic aerial conflict.
But even his "can-do" energies could not obtain for Mitchell the posthumous knighthood that Frank dearly (if somewhat unrealistically) wanted for him. (Sidney Camm, designer of the Hurricane, had lived on to be knighted in 1953.) And he was to be disappointed in his demand: "You guys built a column for Nelson. Well, I want one for R.J. Mitchell."
Nevertheless, the Mitchell monument, currently part of the Science Museum's Inside the Spitfire exhibition, is a testimony to the dogged admiration of an American businessman for a great British engineer.
Among other Second World War memorial projects to which Frank contributed was the Battle of Britain London monument, unveiled last year on the Victoria Embankment. One his last benefactions was a substantial one to the Bletchley Park Trust, which was established in 1992 to preserve the fabric and memory of the unique codebreaking centre, whose work contributed so much to final victory in 1945.
Sidney Frank is survived by his second wife Marian, and by the son and daughter of his first marriage.
Sidney Frank, businessman and philanthropist, was born on October 2, 1919. He died on January 10, 2006, aged 86.
© The Times, London,10 January 2005. This article may not be copied or reproduced without the prior permission of the copyright holders.