Curious J�

2.22.2009

By Ilya Marritz

For weeks after the accident, night after night, the door swung open with jarring frequency, letting in gusts of cool mountain air. Bartender and patrons looked up, and saw strangers in the threshold. In ones and twos and threes, they gaped in the glow of the bar. It was easy to read their thoughts on their faces:

So this was the place where he spent the last hour of his life. A gay bar... This is what a gay bar looks like?

Tangerine walls with mirrors. A framed picture of the Golden Gate Bridge. Men and a few women (some familiar faces!) drinking beer in a chamber scarcely larger than an airport bathroom.

A gay bar. Our J'rg. Well!

And then the door would close. The din of voices would resume, and the bar would once again fill with body heat and cigarette smoke.

It was in this provincial bar, der Stadtkr'mer, that J'rg Haider, the playboy-prince of Europe's xenophobic fringe, took the last drink of his life. Then he got into his black Volkswagen Phaeton, and minutes later crashed it against a concrete post, crumpling the vehicle like a soda can. It was the early hours of Saturday, October 11. Haider's blood alcohol content was almost four times the legal limit. He was 58 years old and had been driving at twice the speed limit. He died on the way to the hospital.

A gleeful provocateur, Haider whipped up fear of immigrants, referred to concentration camps as 'punishment camps' (he later apologized), and hobnobbed with Saddam Hussein and Mu'ammar Gadhafi. In 1999, he achieved worldwide notoriety after his far-right Freedom Party collected more than a quarter of the vote in Austrian elections, making it a coalition partner in government. Allies believe Haider, who was serving as governor of the state of Carinthia when he died, was on the brink of another political comeback.

Although many Austrians are unwilling to believe the twinkly eyed, perpetually tanned Haider was that way, his homosexuality is accepted as fact at Stadtkr'mer (which translates as 'the town shopkeeper'). As one patron said, 'Everyone knew it. It was obvious. You didn't have to ask.'

The posthumous outing came hard and fast. Less than 48 hours after the crash, Haider's spokesman and political heir apparent, Stefan Petzner, held a live press conference on Austrian television to share what information was available. Petzner, who has a long, bony face and a buzz cut, wore a slim-fitting black suit and a black tie in a Windsor knot. Over the course of nine minutes, he repeatedly strayed off-course, choking out his personal admiration for the deceased man, his face in a pained red pucker. Petzner ended his soliloquy in a shower of tears, declaring Haider 'the man of my life (mein lebensmensch), he was my best friend.'

Petzner's grief seemed to know no bounds. In a rash of radio and TV interviews, he referred to the 'incredible harmony' between him and Haider, and said 'we had a special relationship that went far beyond friendship.' Petzner informed reporters that 'destiny' brought him together with Haider for the first time, in a rural village festival. And he recalled Haider's desire not to let their age difference (Petzner, at 27, was 31 years younger) stand in Petzner's way. ' 'Not in your political way, either,' ' Petzner recalled Haider saying.

In the public imagination, the photogenic younger man instantly displaced Haider's wife of 32 years, the matronly Claudia Haider, as the grieving widow. Mrs. Haider, a psychologist, gave few interviews, but penned a curiously clinical portrait of her husband. Inspired by Alfred Adler's theories of the 'inner child,' Mrs. Haider writes tellingly that 'whenever someone thinks they understand this being, J'rg Haider, his vibrant inner child emerges and surprises them with a totally new face.' (Through a lawyer, the Haider family declined to comment for this story.)

By October 16, journalists and police had reconstructed Haider's last night. It included the opening of a new wine bar, a magazine launch party, and a final appointment that had nothing to do with his duties as governor -- a visit to Stadtkr'mer. Coming days after Petzner's meltdown, this fact seemed to point to one conclusion: Haider liked men.

On October 18, Austria buried Haider in a funeral attended by 25,000. A coffin covered in red roses was carried through the streets of Klagenfurt, the pastel capital of Carinthia. Longtime foes found something nice to say about the man. Petzner, who orchestrated the funeral, sat discreetly in the seventh row. Shrines to the dead man blossomed everywhere.

'He was buried like Princess Diana and everyone was crying and everything,' says Marco Schreuder, a member of Vienna's city council and one of the country's few out elected officials.

It was a bizarre few days, Schreuder recalls, made ugly by the tone of the news stories about Haider's private demimonde.

'Newspapers didn't want to say 'gay' bar. More like 'scene' bar or 'trendy' bar,' Schreuder says. 'There was this homophobic tone'. You know, 'Should a governor do something like that?' '

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