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An Evening With 'Million Dollar Listing''s Grandma Flagg

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 StarsOld 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.

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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.

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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.”

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And so Edith Flagg survived the Holocaust. Taking on the identity and paperwork of a deceased woman, Lydia Voskuilen, she lived among the enemy and fooled them all -- day in, day out.  “She walked around in a Red Cross nurse uniform and spoke German impeccably so they had no idea she was Jewish,” Josh elaborates. “She used to swim with the Nazis in the morning. She would go into the lake and spy on them to hear what they were saying.”

“That’s why I’m such a good swimmer!” Edith cracks. The levity is uncomfortable, stupefying and admirable at the same time.

An unexpected pregnancy (Josh’s father, Michael) threw the concocted alternate identity tale off-track, but didn’t derail Mrs. Flagg’s plan or her will. She checked her uncircumcised newborn son into a sanitarium to get him out of harm’s way. Her husband Hans, however, would not be as fortunate. After a failed attempt to escape to France, he was taken to Auschwitz where he died in 1944. “Nobody can come out alive from Auschwitz,” she says looking to Lilly whose very presence in her living room defied all odds.

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The other numbers that preoccupy Mrs. Flagg are those with dollars signs in front of them. This too fascinates for as uncouth as it is to talk about money with people you know, never mind publicly, her grandson is a star of one of the most ostentatious shows on a network already teeming with materialistic one-upmanship.

Then again, Edith Flagg’s first life-changing experience with fashion is on an entirely different plane than, say, going to a designer store to buy the latest Kardashian-cradled tote.

Following the war, and with only a few bucks to her name, Mrs. Flagg made her way to Israel, where she spent time on a kibbutz in primitive pre-statehood conditions, and later New York City, where she had an epiphany in Times Square one afternoon. “I think to myself, ‘What are those people doing? For five cents, they get a cup of coffee. They must be insane!  What I can do with a nickel, you know? I say, ‘Where you going? Shopping? What kind of word is that?’”

The thought of using your afternoon simply for the pleasure of buying things you don’t desperately need was a foreign concept for Mrs. Flagg, but her sole purpose post-WWII she says, was “to make money -- that was my most important thought.”

Mrs. Flagg moved to Los Angeles in 1948. Soon after, she started her own business importing a fabric called polyamine -- a form of polyester. It was used for parachutes and military uniforms during the war, but once the bombers faded into memory, a surplus prompted crafty European entrepreneurs to use it for other purposes, like underwear.

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Opportunity knocked in the form of wrinkle-free apparel, which Mrs. Flagg jumped on without hesitation. In short order, a $2,000 investment made her a millionaire several times over -- her business savvy and negotiating skills clearly passed down to her grandson, whose natural knack for selling multi-million-dollar properties is truly a sight to behold.

I had to know: how did Mrs. Flagg react to the idea of her darling grandson showing how the sausage is made on a voyeuristic reality TV show? “I said, ‘Took you long enough,’” she replies in all seriousness.

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Edith Flagg likes to pay in cash. Once, when buying a rug at the Pacific Design Center, she pulled a wad of $17,000 from her bra. At a 1995 showcase of new Rolls-Royces held at the Beverly Hilton, the petite grandmother, dressed down in sandals and jeans, told a suited car rep, “I want that car. I want it gassed up and delivered today to my house.” The Englishman greeted her audacity with a crooked eye.

As yet another legend goes, Mrs. Flagg went home, grabbed a check for $100,000, came back and presented it to the man, reminding him not to forget to fill ’er up. Says Josh: “She bought two more after that, too.” Mrs. Flagg corrects him: “Three.”

Indeed, the Flagg family has done well for itself. With real estate holdings in Beverly Hills and throughout the U.S. along with the millions Mrs. Flagg pocketed from her fashion line (her net worth, according to one estimate, is in the vicinity of $100 million), it’s clear where Josh gets his real estate savvy from. Asked what’s the most impactful lesson about business that he learned from his grandmother, Josh answers, “One plus one is two.”

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But running a business has tested Mrs. Flagg in ways she never imagined. While operating a warehouse in downtown Los Angeles not long after the war, she helped one female employee gain access to an abortion -- illegal at the time -- then allowed the Japanese immigrant to sleep overnight in the office so that the girl’s parents wouldn’t find out. “She was like anybody else -- she got pregnant,” Mrs. Flagg says matter-of-factly. One thing you notice the more time you spend with Mrs. Flagg is, the decades may roll on (her favorite was the 1970s), but the themes are often the same. In the case of the pregnant worker, it’s a simple matter of someone who needs a break and a helping hand, and Mrs. Flagg, who was for all intents and purposes a single mother during the war, is there with hers, as she was for hundreds, maybe thousands more over the years.

These days, it’s mostly Mrs. Flagg’s patience that gets tested. Although she’s a hugely generous philanthropist who’s often photographed with dignitaries, politicians and Beverly Hills’ crème-de-la-crème, she describes herself as anti-social and dreads what Curb Your Enthusiasm’s Larry David calls “the stop and chat” with acquaintances. As for strangers who proclaim their Bravo devotion? I hate to disappoint, but she barely cares enough to grunt. Josh paints a clearer picture, explaining how at Hillcrest Country Club, Mrs. Flagg is more likely to bond with the waiters than fellow members. “Let me tell you one thing,” Mrs. Flagg says (for what easily could have been the 10th time), “the most important thing in life is not to evaluate yourself against others.”

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There’s a duality to Edith Flagg -- a side that flaunts her exquisite style and cosmopolitan manners, and then the other half, which stays at “the fanciest hotels in Europe but washes her laundry in the sink,” says Josh proudly. Surely this balance of thrift and indulgence must have rubbed off on the mogul-in-the-making. “When I was a kid, I would only want to wear Gucci or whatever, but I don’t care today,” he says. “It doesn’t mean anything to me.  People who have money don’t need to flaunt it. And the person who wears the Rolex is not necessarily the person who’s going to buy your house. The flash doesn’t mean anything at the end of the day.”

“I’m happy to hear that Josh,” nods his grandmother in approval. “He knows how to present himself.”

Edith Flagg has only watched Million Dollar Listing a few times -- never with Josh and rarely all the way through. She and her grandson don’t talk about the show amongst themselves and you get the sense that they both approach it much like Edith Flagg did her next border crossing back in the 1940s: pragmatically. To get there in business or in life, I need to go here and Bravo is my ride.

“It’s not important to her, it’s my thing,” Josh defends. Whether she’s on TV or not, “doesn’t make a difference. She probably won’t even read this article when it comes out in The Hollywood Reporter. She knows what she’s done in her life and she’s proud.”

In which case, Edith, may you remain blissfully unaware of how incredibly inspiring of a woman you are. And here’s looking forward to the movie version of your life that you’ll probably never see.

Twitter: @shirleyhalperin