Mr Five Per Cent: The Many Lives of Calouste Gulbenkian, the World’s Richest Man
Profile Books, 2019
As the title suggests, there is more than one Calouste Gulbenkian portrayed in this comprehensive biography by Jonathan Conlin. Two in particular stand out: Calouste the indefatigable man of business and Calouste the Armenian, who belongs to everywhere and to nowhere. For both and more, Conlin has put together a revelatory piece of writing, having gained access to the archives at the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon, Portugal, among a broad variety of other sources. Combined with his adept skills as a historian and storyteller, Conlin’s work makes for engaging reading. (Some disclosure: I had the privilege and pleasure of assisting with archival research for this book.)
As far as the first Calouste goes, this book offers a detailed account of the life and efforts of a remarkable and influential man whose actions informed key aspects of the world’s economy in the 20th century. The development of the oil industry and the financial practices and networks associated with it owe a great deal to Gulbenkian, as does the shaping of commerce between the Western world’s powers and other regions at a time when European colonial empires were being challenged by a rising United States and an upstart Soviet Union.