The Intellectual Wildcatter
Landry was born in bleak postwar London in 1948 to parents who had fled Germany in the 1930s. His father, Harald Landry, had been a professional philosopher, a cohort of Ludwig Wittgenstein and Friedrich Nietzsche; his political activities against the Nazi regime made staying in his native Berlin dangerous. Although Harald managed to secure asylum in Britain, he came under suspicion as a German national, Britons being skeptical about how to regard refugees from that country who were not Jewish. When the war came, he was sent to an internment camp as a suspected spy, an experience that his son believes broke his spirit.
After Harald Landry’s release, the family struggled in north London, supported primarily by Landry’s mother, who ran a toy factory. Then in the early 1960s, the German government began offering restitution to citizens forced to flee, and the family decided to return to its home country to stake a claim. Charles went from being a German boy in English schools to being an English boy in German schools, which gave him both the outsider’s perspective that a writer’s life seems to require and a deeply pan-European outlook. This was intensified when his parents decided to relocate to Italy, to a seaside village near Genoa, where the restitution paid out in strong German marks would go further.
Charles matriculated at Johns Hopkins University’s Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies in Bologna, where he would also do his postgraduate work in political economy. Inspired by his polyglot experience, he developed an intellectual curiosity about how Europe was changing and what the political and economic future of a united continent might look like. Living in Bologna and traveling around the great central Italian cities of the Renaissance also stirred in him a passion for culture and aesthetics — art, architecture, great music, and other monuments of creative achievement. But this passion seemed at the time a side interest, unrelated to the field of economic development upon which his academic course work focused.
While in Bologna, Landry served as an assistant to Robert Skidelsky, the economic historian whose biography of John Maynard Keynes is recognized as a classic. Skidelsky hired him to help identify the emerging problems of postindustrial society, a charge that by Landry’s account mostly involved “arguing with the master — arguing in the best sense — while also playing a lot of chess.” Though a skilled player, Landry came to dislike the game, which struck him as epitomizing a world view that admitted only black and white, whereas his interest was in exploring the subtleties of gray. In a similar vein, he began to develop a belief that economic challenges could not be addressed except in a cultural context — a belief with which Skidelsky’s great biographical subject would certainly have concurred.
Landry’s work with Skidelsky brought him unusual prominence as a graduate student, and upon receiving his degree he was hired by Lord Kennet, one of Britain’s envoys to the European Economic Community (EEC), now the European Union. The year was 1973. Kennet wanted him to coordinate a massive study aimed at determining what Europe would look like 30 years in the future. The opportunity put Landry on the fast track to influence and success, and also landed him a comfortable sinecure in Brussels.
But Landry, still in his mid-20s, quickly perceived that life in a structured bureaucracy would not suit his restless imagination. “The job was extremely well paid, very prestigious, with a huge expense account,” he says, “but I felt trapped in the layers of the organization. Every idea I had seemed to get reduced or compromised. I knew if I stayed inside that kind of structure I would be frustrated for the rest of my life.”