National Corvette Museum
National Corvette Museum
 

 

Elfi Arkus-Duntov passed away October 23, 2008

The First Lady of the Corvette

1915 — 2008

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If Zora Arkus-Duntov is the godfather of the Corvette, Elfi Arkus-Duntov is its first lady. With her blonde hair, sparkling blue eyes and German accent, Elfi helped personify the car in her own inimitable way. But Elfi was much more than Zora's other half. She had her own claim to fame as a professional model and dancer with the Follies Bergere in Paris, the Copa Cabana in Miami and on Broadway in New York. She even learned to fly an airplane long before Zora did.

A native of Berlin, Elfi came from an artistic family. Her father, William Wolff, was a great fan of Shakespeare and Elfi, her sister Ruth and brother Walter were all schooled in the fine arts. Elfi specialized in ballet, but also modeled extensively for a Berlin department store.

She met Zora as a teenager in the warm glow of a Berlin café after ducking out of the rain on her way to a date. Captivated by the blue-eyed Russian, she instantly fell in love. They began running around Berlin together in his Bugatti Type 30. She would spell out “Zora” in Russian with bandages on her body and then tan in the sun to brand herself as his girl.

Elfi remained Zora's girl for life. After moving to Paris, she landed as a dancer with the world famous Follies Bergere, becoming a member of the Bluebell girls that performed cabaret-style reviews all over France.

Elfi and Zora married outside of Paris in February 1939 under the gathering storm clouds of World War II and settled in an apartment on the west side of Paris. While Zora was deployed in the French Air Force in the town of Toulouse, Elfi stayed behind and was still there when German tanks began rolling though the streets. So she grabbed everything she could fit into her open-topped MG and sped out of town, despite the fact that she had no traveling papers and no money to purchase gasoline. Relying on the kindness of strangers and luck, she managed to rendezvous with Zora in Toulouse four days later.

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Reunited, they engineered a harrowing escape from the Nazi-occupied France, hiding out in a Marseille brothel before finding their way to Lisbon where they boarded a New York-bound refugee ship, the Nyassa, in December 1940.

Landing at Ellis Island, they quickly blended into the West Side Russian-Jewish community that gave us the likes of Irving Berlin and Leonard Bernstein. After the US entered the war, they struck it rich in the war munitions business and enjoyed a penthouse view from their Riverside Drive apartment. After the war, they hosted lavish parties for people in the entertainment and racing business.

After Zora's postwar plans to offer overhead valve conversions for Ford flathead V8s failed, the two separated for a time. Zora took a job at Allard sports cars in England and Elfi moved to Miami to become a member of the June Taylor dancers and performed at the Copa Cabana in Miami. Several years later she learned to fly an airplane at Detroit's City Airport during an extended performance in the Motor City.

Eventually they reunited in New York where Elfi danced on Broadway. Meanwhile, Zora saw the '53 Corvette concept at the GM Motorama display at the Waldorf and was instantly dazzled with the car. He secured an engineering position at GM just for the chance to work on it.

Upon coming to Detroit, Elfi and Zora settled on the east side to be close to Lake St. Clair. They became avid boaters and joined the Old Club on Harsens Island, where they spent many summer weekends when Zora wasn't traveling to a race or a Corvette event.

While Zora was putting the Corvette on the map, Elfi would travel with him to the car shows and the races — to Pikes Peak and Daytona and Sebring and Le Mans. Together they personified the performance and the allure of the Corvette. They became an endearing fixture in the Corvette community.

Even well into their 80s, Zora and Elfi had an energy and spark that infected everyone around them. They were rock stars at the opening of the National Corvette Museum in 1994 and the two would patiently sign autographs for hours at various Corvette events for thousands of adoring fans.

Zora's death at age 86 in 1996 changed her world forever, but she worked tirelessly to promote Zora's legend and saw to it that a fitting biography was written of Zora's life.

Elfi lived on in the Grosse Pointe Woods, Mich., home they made together where she often dwelled on their life together. She continued making appearances at places like the National Corvette Museum and Corvettes at Carlisle before health concerns eliminated her ability to travel. But she never stopped loving her Zora, the man who made the Corvette an enduring reality.

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Click for larger And the Corvette world will never stop loving its first lady, Elfi-Arkus-Duntov. — Jerry Burton

View Elfi's guestbook