When Calouste Gulbenkian died in 1955 at the age of 86, he was the richest man in the world, known as 'Mr Five Per Cent' for his personal share of Middle East oil. Written with full access to the Gulbenkian Foundation's archives, this is the story of the man who more than anyone else helped shape the modern oil industry.
Mr Five Per Cent is a remarkable book, if only because Gulbenkian is not an easy subject. His single-mindedness — in the pursuit of art treasures, sex or money — renders him rather dull. Yet Conlin somehow constructs an engaging tale about this one-dimensional man. Every page is packed with figures, but there are also delightful details that provide welcome contrast to all those labyrinthine deals ... Gulbenkian fascinates not because he’s particularly interesting in and of himself, but rather because of the shady deals, broken friendships and family turmoil that littered his life. Gulbenkian, writes Conlin, became 'so fixated on protecting his fortune . . . that he seemed uninterested in the purposes for which it was being preserved'. Other than that brief moment of reflection, Conlin refrains from criticism. Yet this book still provides an important moral lesson about the pathology of greed.
What does the life of an Ottoman-born ethnic Armenian oil tycoon have to teach us about the modern world? Quite a lot, it turns out, judging by this fascinating biography of Calouste Gulbenkian ... Conlin had access to the foundation’s archives, which did not give up their secrets without a fight. Some of Gulbenkian’s early correspondence was in Ottoman Turkish, a language no longer spoken, and written in Armenian characters, an alphabet few people know. Decoding all this, and making sense of the worlds that Gulbenkian moved in, is a remarkable feat of scholarship. Mr Five Per Cent is written precisely, with flashes of dry humour, and Conlin wears the depth of his research lightly.