This Day in Jewish History

1889: A Luxury Car's Namesake Is Born

The nickname of Adrienne Manuela Ramona Jellinek, the granddaughter of a highly distinguished rabbinic scholar, later became associated with the Nazis' auto of choice.

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September 16, 1889, is the birthdate of “Mercedes” Adrienne Manuela Ramona Jellinek, the namesake of Mercedes-Benz cars. Even though her father’s involvement with the car's manufacturer, Daimler, ended before World War I, the company maintained the name for its line of cars. Thus, the quintessential German car, whose 770 luxury model was the auto of choice for the very pinnacle of the Nazi hierarchy, bore the name of the granddaughter of one of the most distinguished rabbinic scholars and preachers of late-19th century Vienna.

Adrienne Manuela Ramona Jellinek was the third child, and first daughter, of Emil Jellinek (1853-1918) and the former Rachel Goggman Cenrobert (1854-1893). Emil’s father was Rabbi Adolf Aharon Jellinek, was not only probably the best-known rabbinic orator of his day in Vienna, but also a scholar of midrashic and mystical literature. It was Adolf Jellinek who postulated that the Zohar, the principal text of Kabbala, was written by the 13th-century Moses de Leon, although de Leon attributed the work to Shimon bar Yochai.

Two of Adolf Jellinek’s three sons, Georg and Max were university professors, the former of law, the latter of philology. It was the middle son, Emil, however, who had the more dashing career as racing-car owner and Austrian diplomat. Not an intellectual or even a good student, Emil was sent to Morocco in the early 1870s when a friend of his father’s arranged a job for him in the diplomatic corps. That was followed by consular jobs in Algeria, where he met and later married Rachel Goggman Cenrobert, an Algerian Jew. For some time, Emil worked with Rachel’s father in exporting Algerian tobacco to Europe.

The family moved back to Austria, and Emil began working for an insurance company, while living the life of a bon vivant. When he and Rachel had a daughter, born in Vienna in 1889, they named her Adrienne Manuela Ramona, but called her by the nickname Mercedes, meaning “mercies” in Spanish. Rachel died when her daughter was four years old.

Emil spent the winters in Nice, on the French Rivera, where he liked to race cars, calling his team by his daughter’s nickname. He became his country’s consul general in the town, and he also began selling automobiles to the rich and famous of Europe who also had vacation homes in Nice. One of the companies he represented was Daimler Motoren Gesellschaft. He visited the company’s designers, Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach, in Stuttgart, and sent them frequent notes with suggestions (and complaints) about their products.

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In April 1900, Jellinek and Daimler agreed that the company would design a new engine, which would be called “Daimler-Mercedes.” Jellinek had the power to make a demand of that nature. Within weeks, he ordered 36 units of the new model, with its 35-horsepower engine, at a price of 550,000 Marks, the equivalent of 3 million euros in today’s currency. Several weeks later, he ordered another three dozen Daimler cars with a standard 8-horsepower engine.

The first car with the new Mercedes engine, the 35-hp racing model developed by Wilhelm Maybach, came out at the end of that year. The first unit arrived at the Nice train station on December 22, 1900, and delivered to its purchaser, Baron Henri de Rothschild. By Nice Week, in March 1901, when a week of racing events took place, Jellinek entered the Mercedes in every different racing event – each of which it won.
Paul Meyan, the director of the French Automobile Club, declared, “We have entered the Mercedes Era.”

By 1903, Emil Jellinek had legally changed his surname to Jellinek-Mercedes. He continued representing Daimler in France, but by the end of the decade, he had fallen out with the firm, and stopped selling autos. Instead he concentrated on his diplomatic work. During World War I, he found himself in trouble with both Austrian and French authorities. His property was confiscated by France, and found himself and his second wife accused of espionage – one by the French, the other by Austria. He died on January 21, 1918, in France.

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In the meantime, Mercedes had married an Austrian baron, with whom she had two children. The couple was wiped out financially during World War I, and she was reduced to begging in the streets. After leaving her husband, she married again, to a Baron Rudolf von Weigl, who had a noble name, but no money. Mercedes died on February 23, 1929, of bone cancer, at the age of 39.

Although the Daimler company merged with the Benz company, in 1926, it has continued to this day to call its automobiles Mercedes-Benz.