An Evening With 'Million Dollar Listing''s Grandma Flagg
Edith Flagg is a freedom fighter, Holocaust survivor, fashion trailblazer and philanthropist. And, at 93, she's making her biggest splash yet as an accidental TV star. At the invitation of her grandson Josh, THR visited with the entertaining and inspiring woman who helped make the Bravo series appointment viewing.
If you haven’t said it yourself, it’s likely you’ve heard this one before: “That person should have their own reality show!”
It’s usually reserved for the kooks and eccentrics (your “sister Rosie” from Real Housewives of New Jersey, for instance) and often the elderly. Think: Kathy Griffin’s mom Maggie, Pawn Stars’ Old Man and Million Dollar Listing’s Edith Flagg -- 93 years young and as spunky as any primetime comedy sitcom writer. If she had a television special of her own, it could just as easily be a documentary on PBS as it would a series on Bravo.
Fans of the real estate soap opera have no doubt chuckled at her no-nonsense spiel, telling 25-year-old grandson Josh Flagg, one of the show’s three main stars, to only hire an assistant “with clean fingernails,” and doling out advice and philosophical musings on everything from the economy to taste (hers: impeccable) and, yes, real estate. After just a few minutes of camera time, it becomes abundantly clear: Edith Flagg is the ultimate character, rivaling even the show’s top-billed names Josh Altman and Madison Hildebrand in popularity.
Josh Flagg has offered up bits of his grandmother’s past on the show -- that she was a fashion designer and the first person to import polyester in mass quantities to the U.S., that she’s traveled the world (and certainly Europe) many times over, often with her doting grandson by her side, that she’s good with money, as evidenced by her posh Century City penthouse (only some 10 floors up from Josh), and that she’s a Holocaust survivor.
His grandmother spent her formative teenage years in Austria, where she instinctually managed to flee before things got really bad for Jews. Making her way to Amsterdam while barely out of her teens, she hid, infiltrated and fled -- first to Israel and later the U.S. Her accent, as anyone can tell on MDL, is a mishmash of countries, neighborhoods, coasts and dialects all jumbled up in a tiny four-foot-ten-inch frame.
I know this backstory partly from reading the book Josh wrote about his grandma, A Simple Girl: Stories My Grandmother Told Me, and at his invitation, also from meeting and interviewing Edith Flagg in person. Admittedly, it was the highlight of my July.
The 6 p.m. chat took place in her home, which at the time that she and her second husband Eric bought it from Jack Benny in 1976, was the most expensive penthouse sale in California history -- 3,000 square feet (with an additional 1,000 square feet in terrace space). Its view is the very definition of breathtaking, covering a solid 270-degree periphery that stretches beyond the high-rises of downtown and the hills of Hollywood. The décor is pre- and post-war European: walls, floors and built-ins of rich woods with just the right splash of color, on a sofa here and a chair there. It was once a three-bedroom, but the Flaggs committed the ultimate real-estate sin and had it converted to one because, “guests could stay at the Beverly Hills Hotel if they wanted.”
That’s right, Edith Flagg’s old world charm can turn into stinging bite within seconds. And she has every right to be judgmental and brutally honest. She’s lived and seen it all and then some.
To wit: Mrs. Flagg, as Josh refers to her in the presence of journalists, speaks seven languages -- “Yiddish, Hebrew, Romanian, English, French, German and…” Her memory is rusty for a second so longtime friend Lilly Carson jumps in. “Dutch!” Lilly is from Hungary and after nearly 50 years of working with and knowing Mrs. Flagg, swears that her friend can speak Hungarian too. Mrs. Flagg says, “not fluently,” so it doesn’t count.
What does count in the world of Edith Flagg are numbers. First and foremost, the ones on Lilly’s wrist -- a tattoo of her prisoner ID number from Auschwitz concentration camp. It was the sight of those five digits that prompted Mrs. Flagg to hire Lilly in a heartbeat.
Both have the Holocaust in common, but the similarities in stories stop there. For one thing, Lilly doesn’t even think of Mrs. Flagg as a survivor. “More like a Holocaust fighter,” she says. “Because she won the fight.”
Indeed, Edith Flagg managed to sidestep and outsmart the Nazis at nearly every turn, even foreshadowing their very arrival -- first in Austria, then Holland.
As the story goes: Edith Flagg, who was born in Romania in 1919, left what she calls “a very special school” for fashion design in Vienna (its student body, she reflects, “had never seen a Jew in their life”) to “become a farmer” in the Netherlands. Then presumed to be safe from invasion as World War II broke out, Holland was a haven only for a moment. Working the fields one day in 1940, “I hear a certain noise,” she recalls. “I see Messerschmitt, the airplane. They ask, ‘How do you know?’ I say, ‘One thing I know by heart are German planes. They find me wherever I am. They come.’”
“The Dutch didn’t think the Germans would invade Holland,” Josh says, filling in the blanks. “She was there saying, ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about. They’re German planes. You gotta get outta here.’”
“We all went out, by the way,” Mrs. Flagg continues. “We all went back, too. You ever been to Holland?”
Several times, I answer, but even though I made the requisite pilgrimage to the Anne Frank House on Prinsengracht (a moving and unforgettable experience where I recall the strangeness of standing but a few feet from the front door in a bustling city center and still sensing that crippling claustrophobia), I suddenly felt incredibly embarrassed about the real motivation for my first trip to the city as a 19-year-old. Let’s put it this way: many cappuccinos were consumed.
Nineteen. That was right around Mrs. Flagg’s age when the Germans invaded her adopted Dutch city and she decided to resist rather than surrender. Josh explains: “The Dutch had a notion, crazy as it be, that they could never be attacked -- that they were invincible, that this couldn’t happen to Holland’s Jews. And some people were smart enough to realize that wasn’t the case. She was one of them. She realized that back in Austria when she saw Hitler march in and said, ‘I’m getting the f--k outta here.’”
Mrs. Flagg chuckles at the unapologetic use of a curse word, then looks to Lilly with a pointed finger and says, “He knows.”
“People thought the Germans would come by boat through the waterways, but they didn’t. They came by air and flattened everything,” he continues. “Realizing there need to be places to hide, she joins a group of people in the Dutch underground -- a resistance force -- and she hides anybody she can.”
I ask the obvious question: “Why didn’t you run?” Mrs. Flagg gives the obvious answer: “Where am I running to? America was something like the moon. So far away.”