Wilhelm von Brincken (May 27, 1881 – January 18, 1946), also known as Wilhelm L. von Brincken, William Vaughn, William von Brinken, and William Vaughan, was a German diplomat and spy during World War I, who went on to become an American character actor of the silent and talkie eras.
Von Brincken was born in Flensburg, Schleswig-Holstein, on May 27, 1881. He was a reservist in the German Army, and came to the United States as a military attaché to their embassy in Washington, DC, sometime around 1910. Once here, he met his first wife, Alice M Roedel; they married and had two children: Carl von Brincken (1911–1911) and Philip Morgan Roedel (christened Philip Roedel von Brincken) (1913–1985). Carl died several hours after his birth.
Von Brinken made his American film debut acting in The Redemption of David Corson (1914).
In 1915, he was transferred to the West coast, and assigned to the consulate in San Francisco. While working at the San Francisco consulate, he was arrested at the beginning of World War I on espionage charges, due to his alleged involvement in a bomb plot with his co-conspirators, C.C. Crowley, who worked at the German consulate, and an agent of a German shipping line, Robert Capelle. In February 1916, he was indicted, along with dozens of others, including the German consul general and his vice-consul, Franz Bopp and Baron E.H. von Schack, respectively. Von Brincken was convicted and sentenced to serve two years in prison in the Hindu–German Conspiracy Trial for plotting to foment an insurrection against British colonial rule in India, this sentence to run concurrently with a similar conviction for his alleged participation in bomb and dynamiting plots against the government of Canada. Von Brincken served his two-year sentence at Alcatraz Prison and McNeil Island Penitentiary.
After his release from prison in 1920, von Brincken became an American citizen in 1921. A fellow German expatriate, Erich Von Stroheim, included him in a group of former German military men whom he invited to Hollywood to work on films.
Due to his military background, he was called upon as military expert as a technical advisor on films, including the Academy Award-winning All Quiet on the Western Front (1930).
Von Brincken returned to acting in Von Stroheim’s 1928 film, Queen Kelly, starring Gloria Swanson.
Over the course of his career, he appeared under several different variants of his name, such as von Brinken, as well as going under Anglicized versions of his name, such as William Vaughn and Vaughan, when doing so was politically correct.
In 1929 and 1930, he had small roles in several films before receiving featured roles such as in the Eddie Foy and Irene Dunne film, Leathernecking, and playing the German ace, Baron Manfred von Richthofen in Howard Hughes’ 1930 classic, Hells Angels. Most of the rest of the 1930s had him appearing in numerous films, in both minor and featured roles.
With the outbreak of hostilities in Europe in 1939, von Brincken was often cast in the role of a Nazi, such as in 1939’s Confessions of a Nazi Spy, the Fay Wray film Navy Secrets (1939), and 1941’s So Ends Our Night, which stars Fredric March, Margaret Sullavan, Frances Dee, and Glenn Ford. Not only did he appear in dramas and suspense films, but he also did comedies such as The Ritz Brothers’ 1939 film, Pack Up Your Troubles, and Once Upon a Honeymoon (1942), starring Cary Grant and Ginger Rogers.
In November 1915, von Brincken married again to San Francisco socialite Milo Abercrombie (1895-1977). Born in Houston, Texas, Milo was the niece of John W. Abercrombie, U.S. congressman from Alabama, and she was acclaimed by noted portraitist Harrison Fisher as “California’s greatest beauty”. They had two children, Wilhelm Friedrich (1918-1980) and Maria A. (1917-2010). She divorced von Brincken in 1919 during his imprisonment, and legally changed their two children and her last name back to her maiden name, Abercrombie, so her children would not be “ashamed” of their name. Despite the divorce, von Brincken remained devoted to his former wife, and she was able to remarry, thanks to him.
When the Roman Catholic Church forbade Abercrombie’s intended marriage to U.S. Navy Lieutenant Lyman K. Swenson, due to her divorce, von Brincken came forth and disclosed his earlier marriage to Alice Roedel. As both Roedel and von Brincken were Catholic, that marriage was sanctioned by the Church. Thus, the Church did not recognize von Brincken’s later marriage to Abercrombie. Abercrombie and Swenson, who had both refused to marry unless it was sanctioned by the Catholic Church, were then free to wed. Abercrombie and Swenson were married on August 11, 1920, by Father John Byrne at St Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco. At the wedding dinner that night, von Brincken’s young son with Abercrombie, referred to as “John” and “Buster” in the press, was a “guest of honor” and toasted by his new stepfather and the officers of the submarine H-6 that he commanded, pledging, “the little chap’s future to the uniform of blue.” Swenson and Abercrombie had two children, Lyman K. Jr. (“Robert”) and Cecilia. Abercrombie obtained an interlocutory decree of divorce from Swenson in May 1925, with the final decree a year later.
Several months later, in October 1925, the newspapers speculated that Abercrombie would marry another naval officer, Lieutenant Commander Hugo W. Koehler, reputed to be the “wealthiest officer” in the Navy. The third generation of a wealthy St. Louis brewery family, Koehler had been a naval intelligence officer and U.S. State Department spy in South Russia during the Russian Revolution. Swenson had introduced Milo Abercrombie to Koehler in Honolulu. Koehler was in Panama with his ship, USS West Virginia (BB-48) when he read a newspaper account that he was engaged to marry Milo Abercrombie. Brushing it off, Koehler curtly told the press, “Some error,” while Abercrombie did not take it so lightly. “I have been deeply humiliated”, she told reporters, her eyes “wet with tears”. “This is a most unkind blow of fate. I cannot possibly understand how this false rumor got about.” Two years later, Koehler married Matilda Pell, the ex-wife of U.S. Congressman Herbert Pell (D-NY) and mother of future United States Senator Claiborne Pell (D-RI). In a bitter child-visitation court battle in 1927 that went all the way to the California Court of Appeals, Abercrombie lost custody of her children with Swenson to him, after making baseless accusations that he had molested their four-year-old daughter, Cecelia. The appellate court excoriated Abercrombie, “[I]n furtherance of a manifest determination to prevent him from ever seeing the children again, under any circumstances, she was instrumental in inspiring and promoting a scheme directly involving one of the children, which had for its obvious purpose the ruination of respondent’s character as a man, the bringing about of his complete disgrace as a naval officer, and the destruction of the love and affection which his children had theretofore manifested toward him.” Swenson v. Swenson (1929) 101 Cal.App. 440. In 1929, Lyman Swenson married Loretta B. Bruner (1897-1979). His son, Lyman K. Swenson Jr. (“Robert”) (1923-2016) was also a US naval officer.
In January 1946, while in New York City, von Brincken suffered a ruptured artery. He was rushed to St. Vincent’s Hospital, where he died on January 18, 1946. He was buried in Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California.
(Per AFI database)