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Larger Than Life

From escaping concentration camps to cavorting with royalty to plotting an education revolution, Michel Thomas has had one adventure after another. Even he knows his life story invites skepticism.

April 15, 2001|ROY RIVENBURG | Times Staff Writer

If everything he says is true, Michel Thomas has led an astonishing, even miraculous, life. Dressed in a navy blue suit and sporting a silver pompadour of unknown origin, he opens a battered briefcase and removes a stack of old photos and documents as he recounts various exploits:

He was the sole survivor of not one but three concentration camps in World War II; he talked his way out of being executed by Gestapo chieftain Klaus Barbie; he helped liberate Dachau; he rescued 40 tons of Nazi dossiers on the verge of destruction in Munich; he hobnobbed with princes and seduced starlets; he dropped acid in 1958 as part of a pioneering drug experiment; he beat the slot machines in Monaco.

Oh, and his New York and Beverly Hills language schools can teach anyone a foreign tongue in just three days.

Could one man really have done so much? Judging from several decades of glowing media coverage, a flood of celebrity endorsements and a new book by a British journalist, yes.

"Everything is fully documented," Thomas says. "Don't take my word for it. Ask me how I can prove it."

Easier said than done.

On this day, the 87-year-old language guru is holding court inside a suite at the Luxe Summit Hotel Bel-Air. The visit is part of an international publicity blitz for his $18,000 classes, his language CDs and "Test of Courage: The Michel Thomas Story" (Free Press/Simon & Schuster), a biography by Christopher Robbins.

A short, rounded man who speaks with fiery intensity, Thomas readily admits his stories are hard to believe. When a UCLA law professor first heard the saga, he said: "Michel, either more miracles are associated with your life than anyone I could possibly imagine, or you're the biggest fraud who ever walked the face of the earth." But after taking Thomas' Spanish class, the professor, Herb Morris, became a believer.

"I expect people to be skeptical," Thomas says.

Many of his claims are impossible to prove--or disprove. Nevertheless, they have frequently propelled him into the public eye--most notably at the 1987 trial of Gestapo leader Barbie, where Thomas' controversial testimony was disparaged by some but supported by well-known Nazi hunter Serge Klarsfeld and the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

In the Los Angeles Times, 10 articles about different aspects of his life have appeared since 1965, when he volunteered his services to inner-city youth and won raves for succeeding where traditional teachers failed.

More recently, he has been profiled in a BBC documentary, Forbes magazine, USA Today, the New York Post, a spate of British newspapers and on CNN. Last November, his biography briefly cracked L.A. bestseller lists, boosted by dust jacket blurbs from actress Emma Thompson and author John Le Carre, who calls Thomas "one of the bravest men you will ever read about." Michael Ovitz's talent agency is peddling the movie rights.

Told in often melodramatic tones, the book follows Thomas from his childhood in a prosperous Jewish household in Poland to Germany and later to wartime France, where he joined the Resistance, interrogated Nazis for the U.S. Army and slept with a bevy of women ("As we were making love . . . an American artillery position opened fire right above us in the hills. The ground moved"). In 1947, he came to L.A. and opened his language school on Rodeo Drive.

Some big names swear by his classes.

Woody Allen told the BBC that when Thomas offered to teach him French over a weekend in 1972, he figured: "Why not? Either the guy's crazy and I lose a couple hundred bucks or it's some kind of miracle. So I gave it a try, and he was amazing." Other celebrity clients include the duchess of York, Mel Gibson, Carl Reiner, Armand Hammer and Ann-Margret.

Thomas, who teaches six languages, doesn't promise students enough fluency to understand a foreign film. But he does guarantee a basic command of words and grammar--all without memorization or note-taking. Yet nobody on his staff can duplicate the feat. Their lessons--at one-third the price--take about eight days. That time-frame is comparable to other intensive language programs, such as Berlitz or Dartmouth's Rassias seminar.

What's Thomas' secret?

He somehow instills enormous self-confidence, says UCLA's Morris. "You enter another world. It's not a trance. It's more like learning from a Buddhist master. When people are in the master's presence, something happens to them."

Jackie Kearns, principal of a British school experimenting with the program, offers a more down-to-earth explanation. Thomas borrowed a method from the past and brilliantly repackaged it, she says. With French, for instance, he begins by explaining how thousands of words--regret, comfortable, opinion, etc.--are the same in both languages. "English is French, badly pronounced," he intones.

Right away, the student feels mastery of a previously alien tongue, Kearns says. From there, Thomas ingrains pronunciation and grammar.

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