Louis von Dutch, the first foreigner to drive a car in America, and the world’s first real driving instructor, is the subject of this profile by Kelly Rink, the justice reporter of The American Lawyer.
From 1886 to 1917, Louis von Dutch was a radio show host, tarot-card reader, explorer, inventor, auto racer, inventor of the first speedometer and vehicle toll collection, and the first American professional motorist to carry insurance and use a license plate. He was the modern-day version of earlier early American explorers, like Amah Mutsun and Pocahontas,who explored ancient civilizations. He called himself what he wanted to, and created his own language: Like Ulysses and Samson, he loathed and believed in himself. His life was a series of collisions with adversity, not an easy few decades. It was, by some accounts, the American dream. Most of it ended in failure, near-death experiences, or in cold storage. It was also a terrible wreck.
“It was astounding how great his ego was,” said Lina Langberg, a retired stockbroker in Chicago who knew von Dutch well, and is writing a biography. “He would work 12 hours, sleep for three hours, and then do it all over again. Louis considered himself an expert on everything. If he said anything, or didn’t mean anything, or took too long, it would mean he wasn’t an expert at it. There was a lot of nonsense attached to that. But that’s not a bad thing. He wanted people to trust him.”
Langberg married von Dutch in 1959 and remembers a decent man with an incredible ego. She remembers when the Turkish king of Turkey asked for a car. This was before America had established diplomatic relations with Turkey. While she has her doubts that the king knew von Dutch was from New York City, she thinks the king was impressed by his fame and reported’s prowess on the radio and on his travels. In the end, she said, von Dutch was too strong to ever fit into his empire. “He destroyed everything he touched,” she said.