Among the strangest rumors to come out of Hollywood is the strange story of Dieter Dornhoffer. Born in 1911 in Berlin, Germany, to Irwin Dornhoffer and his wife Clara, both chemists at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, the foremost scientific institution in Europe, young Dieter should have had a golden future. But World War 1 and the changes it brought to the continent would alter his life forever.
During the first world war, Irwin and Clara's colleague, Fritz Haber offered his services to the military, and would go on to weaponize chlorine gas. When Irwin, known for his leftist politics, was invited to join the project as Haber's main collaborator, he refused. Soon after his principled stand, both Irwin and Clara were dismissed from their positions at the Institute. Having lost their jobs, their careers, and then their home, Irwin and Clara were forced to take menial jobs in order to survive and put food on the table for their growing son. After Germany's defeat, things changed for the better for the family when the couple were rehired by the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, but things would change again in 1932 with the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party. Suspect for their political beliefs, once again fired from the institute, Irwin and Clara made the decision to emigrate to the United States. But young Dieter, almost twenty one, decided to stay behind. Dieter Dornhoffer did not share his parent's political philosophy. Dieter Dornhoffer was a supporter, and early member of the Nazi Party.
After his parents departure for the United States, young Dieter began his slow rise in the Nazi party. At first, he was little more than a street thug, always ready to break a window, or beat up any of those deemed undesirable by the German government. Despite his street fighter beginnings, Dieter was well educated and multilingual, so it didn't take long before he was recruited into the Abwehr, the German intelligence service. When the opportunity arose for a position as a documents courier to the German embassy in Washington, D.C., he jumped at the chance. Dieter Dornhoffer may have been a loyal National Socialist, and he may have hated his parents left wing politics, but he also loved Irwin and Clara, and trips to the U.S. gave him a chance to make the long train trip to Muncie, Indiana where his parents taught at Ball State University.
On December 7, 1941, Dieter was on one of those visits. He sat, with his parents, in the living room of their house, listened to the broadcasts of the Pearl Harbor attack, knowing that at any moment Nazi Germany could be at war with the United States. On December 8, Germany declared war. On December 12, Dieter was arrested. His parents had turned him in.
Dieter spent the war in an interment camp in the middle of nowhere, or so it seemed to him. He had grown up in Berlin; his intelligence work had taken him to Prague, Paris, London, New York City and Washington, D.C. The isolated camp in the middle of a Kansas prairie was one day of boredom after another. For security reasons, his only contact with the outside world was the camp radio, shared by the 100 inmates. As the years went by, he came to accept the hard reality that Germany would loose the war. When V-E day finally happened, Dieter assumed he would be deported to Germany, where he could start the hard work of building a fourth Reich, but that would be another dream dashed by the flow of history. As an early member of the Nazi Party, the occupation government wasn't anxious to have his kind wandering the streets and back roads of a defeated Germany. He would be released from the camp, but he would also not be allowed to return to Berlin. Like it or not, he was to spend his life in the United States.
Upon his release, Dieter Dornhoffer was given one new suit of clothes, a twenty dollar bill, and an authorization to work in the United States, all jobs subject to review by the State Department. With no chance to return to Germany, and few opportunities in the wheat fields of Kansas, young Dieter did what many immigrants to America did, he stood by the road, put out his thumb and disappeared into the vast expanse of North America.
Almost nothing is known of the next two years of his life. All that is known is that in January of 1947, Dieter Dornhoffer was sitting on a bench in Palisades Park in Santa Monica, California. He was cold, tired, and hungry. He was wondering what had gone wrong with his life. Then, his life's path would change once again. A man walked up to him, looked at him with an odd, quizzical stare, and said, "So Ronnie, what's with the hair? I gotta say, if some director wants the blond dye job, he's making a mistake."
Except for his hair, Dieter Dornhoffer looked exactly like Ronald Reagan.
The man who had spoken to him was Jerry Bodlitz, a minor executive with Warner Brothers, with the unique job of maintaining the studio's roster of stand ins and photo doubles. Each contract player had someone his exact height, weight, and body type to stand there while the lighting men did their jobs and as the camera crew rehearsed their moves. If the studio was lucky, the stand in would look enough like the actor that he could do an occasional shot for the player, something over the shoulder or even a partial profile, so that actor could move on to other things. Reagan's stand in had just quit, and when Bodlitz realized that Dieter was not Reagan, he hired him on the spot. After a quick stop at the studio hair department to have his hair dyed to match Reagan's, he was set to start his movie career.
Dornhoffer was smart enough to obscure his background as much as possible. He told his new employers that he was a refugee from Hitler's Germany. True enough, but in not going into detail, he gave the impression that he had fled the Nazis, rather than having been a Nazi. He told the truth about the five languages he spoke. He had been the son of prominent scientists who regularly read scientific journals from all over the world and who had also hosted many international visitors in their home. He left out that his gift for accents and mimicry was a result of his intelligence training. Yes, Dieter Dornhoffer was a treasure to Warner's. He could also imitate Reagan's voice to perfection.
Ronald Reagan detested Dieter Dornhoffer. Perhaps it was his actors instinct for character. Perhaps it was his mid western openness. In any case, Reagan felt there was something dishonest about his new stand in and photo double. Still, there was nothing that Reagan could do. He was a contract player, obligated to play what ever part was assigned to him. Reagan kept Dieter at arm's length. He took notes from Dieter and discussed scene blocking and that was it.
The duo worked on three movies together. It was the fourth that was marked by both tragedy and mystery. It was on the second day of filming on Honest Joe, a comedy about a man who tries to find the true owner of a bag of money, when a fire broke out on the sound stage. It was Reagan himself who alerted cast and crew about the blaze. He had dashed from the corner where the fire had started, warned everybody, and had even opened the elephant door, allowing people to escape. It seemed as if Ronald Reagan had saved everybody's life. Except for one. After the studio fire brigade put out the fire, a charred body was discovered. All were accounted for except Ronald Reagan's stand in, Dieter Dornhoffer.
Honest Joe was cancelled. It would take too long to rebuild sets; the movie would have to be recast; Reagan felt himself unable to work so soon after the tragedy, so Warner's collected the insurance money and moved on.
When Ronald Reagan did return to the studio, he was different. The happy go lucky actor had turned serious. The left wing New Deal liberal had changed his political outlook to a far more conservative point of view. His wife, Jane Wyman, had started divorce proceedings. At first, his fellow actors put it all down to the fire. Reagan was know for his sympathy for his fellow man. It was well known that Ronnie was a soft touch. Always willing to help a guy down on his luck, Reagan was viewed as one of the true gentlemen of Hollywood. While other Hollywood liberals talked about social justice, Ronald Reagan would sometimes go to downtown's skid row and hand out dollar bills to the poor and dispossessed. Ronnie was just shook up, and he'd get over it.
And then the rumors began. What if it wasn't Dieter Dornhoffer who died in that fire? What if it was Reagan who perished? Jerry Bodlitz thought so. "Reagan was a pro. He knew the Warner's lot like the back of his hand. He was more at home on that lot than anywhere else in the world. That fire started in the far corner of the sound stage. The scene painters had just finished the set the day before, they had worked late, the paint shop was already locked up, so they left their paint cans on the stage. Sure, paint is flammable, but it just doesn't go up like that. The fire investigators thought it might have been a discarded cigarette, but there were no lights back there, so who would have been smoking in the dark? No, I think Dornhoffer bumped off Reagan and took his place, and let me tell you, I'm not the only one."
So, if the rumors are true, Ronald Reagan was not the fortieth President of the United States. Berlin born Dieter Dornhoffer, Nazi, spy, killer, took the oath of office on January 20, 1981, and led the United States of America for the next eight years.