While residing in Monaco 33 years ago a letter arrived from former CIA spymaster Clair George. We’d met a couple of years earlier when I tried to recruit him to write a book about his career—and now he was reaching out.
Looking to live in Washington, I flew over and Clair graciously booked me a room at the Chevy Chase Club (CCC) and my first day in town we lunched in the Winter Center, the club’s casual hub though not casual enough for blue jeans or cell phone use. Caught twice violating such rules and management ran you up their flagpole.
Clair introduced me to a realtor, doctors and dentists, anyone and everyone needed when resettling somewhere new. He always concluded most phone conversations with, “Is there anything else I can do for you?” And he truly meant it.
That summer, sitting on Adirondack chairs and sipping mint juleps facing CCC’s immaculately landscaped golf course, Clair ‘fessed up. “I’m probably never going to write a book.” But, he added, “Maybe we can do something else together.”
I perked up. “Like what?”
“But only for billionaires and royalty,” I quipped.
And that’s how our “creative problem resolution” enterprise began—as a joke, lubricated by bourbon and mashed mint leaves. Moreover, we agreed only to accept assignments possessed of a high L.Q. (Laugh Quotient) on the basis that If it ain’t funny, we won’t do it.
“We’ve got brains, contacts and a phone number,” said Clair. “Now all we need is CLIENTS.” In fact, Clair already had a client: Barnum & Bailey Ringling Brothers Circus.
Post-CIA, Clair could have sat on White House panels or joined a think-tank like many of his contemporaries, but he would have found those pompous temples of pontification boring. Instead, he tried to help acquire holy grails for the circus: a panda from China, a white elephant and acrobats from North Korea. Clair never needed to do crossword puzzles; he preferred puzzling real-life situations and instead of sitting in a fluorescent lit room the whole of downtown Washington was his office. He would spend the day “floating around” (his parlance).
He might float from a meeting at the Pentagon to the White House then to lunch and on to the State Department, stopping along the way at public telephones (he knew them all) to check messages on his home phone answering machine, check in with various persons, myself included, before floating home late in the afternoon, at which point his wife’s social calendar took over.
DeCarlo’s, Clair’s favorite neighborhood restaurant, became our headquarters and so, aside from the cost of a cocktail or a meal, we had no overhead. No secretaries, no advertising.
And then something of deep concern to The Circus fell into my lap. The ensuing assignment lasted five years and wound up in court for almost twice as long, providing me one of the finest learning experiences of my life. A condition of settlement is that I am precluded from writing about that mission—a great pity as only the plaintiff’s side was ever told in the media.
That December I got invited to Clair and his wife Mary’s 35th wedding anniversary bash and one of Clair’s close friends befriended me and took delight in pointing out all the biggest luminaries from CIA, current and retired. I chuckled at the notion that not even Halloween could produce so many spooks.
And I felt privileged to be among them.
OFF & RUNNING
In early January 1991 the stars aligned for Clair and me to travel to Europe, our first trip as problem resolution specialists, for a Fortune 500 company that retained us to explore the possibility of creating a lottery in Monaco, based on my having lived there.
With the Gulf War about to begin, no problem with airline, hotel and restaurant reservations. Aside from us, no one was going nowhere.
Upon arrival at Nice-Cote d’Azur a helicopter whirled us across the French Riviera to Monte Carlo and, at an open-air table café beneath brightly shining sun, Clair perused a newspaper, sipped cappuccino and lounged in his chair. “I could sit here all day and not feel guilty,” he said. “In Bethesda I wake up and look for things to do—the American work ethic, you have to do something. But here it feels the most natural thing just to sit in a café, read and do nothing.”
An hour later we manifested ourselves at the Monaco Yacht Club. One day we’re freezing our butts off, slushing through icebox Washington weather; the next, luxuriating in warm sunshine, an elegant yacht club—and lunching with a real prince.
I'd met the Hereditary Prince Albert a few times but this was our first meal together. The prince was shy, not knowing where to fix his eyes or what to say, relying on a mutual friend to grease the conversation.
Talk finally turned from pleasantries to lotteries. Albert didn’t seem optimistic about creating a Monaco lottery. Others had tried, he said, but not succeeded, partly because his principality desired to steer away from its gambling image.
“Lottery isn’t gambling,” I said, repeating our client’s mantra that “Lottery is the imagination business. People who buy tickets imagine what they would do if they won a million dollars. They fantasize about having lunch at a yacht club on the French Riviera with a prince.”
We all laughed. In truth, lottery is a tax on people who don’t know arithmetic.
THE PT PHILOSOPHY
Clair and I spent the next couple days goofing off. “Let’s goof off,” Clair would say. If he wasn’t “floating around” he was “goofing off.” And thus we floated around Monaco’s fine dining establishments while awaiting a summons from Harry Schultz, a reclusive multi-millionaire American who had expatriated himself in Monte Carlo as part of his ongoing struggle to evade Big Brother. Schultz espoused a so-called PT Philosophy, which he claimed to have conceived. PT was supposed to stand for Permanent Traveler or Prepared Thoroughly.
But it really means Partly Tetched, at least as Harry practiced it, because he rarely left Monaco, the second smallest country in the world, about a mile-and-a-half square. On top of that it was the Romany (gypsies) who had originated a PT lifestyle and they’d been doing it for centuries.
From his ivory tower in Monte Carlo, Harry dispensed financial advice to those willing to pay $800 for 15 minutes (a Guinness World Record). I’d gotten to know him while living in Monaco.
The only time he would ever remove himself from analyzing stocks, bonds and currencies was when I’d invite him to Le Texan and cajole him into drinking beer directly from a bottle. He once looked at me in awe and said, “YOU practice what I preach,” referring to my devil-may-care approach to enjoying life.
The problem we’d been striving to resolve for Harry: He had created an organization called Freedom Inc. to help crusade the freedom against worldwide tyranny and oppression. But his partner spent the organization’s money on first-class travel and gourmet meals without little else to show for it.
One of the donors had grown irate by Freedom Inc.’s high expenditure and lack of results, had gotten hold of Freedom Inc.’s mailing list and mounted a letter-writing campaign accusing Harry and his partner of fraud.
Harry hired a lawyer and filed a libel suit who then countersued and Harry found himself entangled in litigation at the greater cost of what he valued most: His privacy. Case in point: The second question asked of Harry during a telephonic deposition was where he lived. “Uh,” Harry replied, “why do you need you know that?”
Harry’s brief for Clair and me: Get the antagonist off my back.
So I telephoned the antagonist and feigned interest in his lawsuit. “Fraud has been alleged,” I said. “Do you know anything about that?”
Whoosh! Out it flowed as if I'd opened a fire hydrant. My only problem was getting this guy to shut up long enough to keep my notes straight. Harry Schultz had become this guy's obsession and he confided what he was thinking, doing and thinking of doing, along with his legal strategy.
I was able to report to Harry that the antagonist was unmarried, had no kids and no hobbies. Legal costs did not concern him and he perceived litigation a worthy recipient of his disposable income to expose Harry Schultz as a thief and a fraud.
Our advice: Drop the libel suit and maintain total silence because attention only stoked this guy’s fire. But Harry wanted a resolution that required the antagonist to pen no further letters about him.
“Harry,” I countered, “It’s not like he’s publishing. He’s just writing letters. The most dignified response would be to ignore his accusations.”
But Harry wanted punishment dealt to his antagonist, by proxies. Truth be known, he wanted the guy’s legs broken. After all, Harry reasoned, the antagonist “caused me stress,” which had evolved into vertigo rendering him chronically cranky.
I patiently explained that Clair and I do not do mayhem.
Ultimately, Harry took my advice. He withdrew his lawsuit and ceased all contact with the antagonist, who quickly got bored and disappeared.
Problem solved. Clair and I broke the first rule of problem solving: We actually solved our clients problems, resulting in a satisfied client that no longer needed us.
“Not so fast,” said Schultz. He had another problem. (Clair and I quickly learned that after solving a problem we were in greater demand than before.) That’s why we were seeing Harry in Monaco.
Although suspicious of new people, Harry took to charismatic Clair immediately.
Conversely, Clair felt comfortable with everyone, whether a prince or a bum. He knew how to work people and make them like him, trust him. He had built a career—an extremely successful one—based on conning people to betray their countries by revealing sensitive state secrets.
Harry relied on written "topic lists" with items such as “What did you mean by this?” referring to a phrase on a two-month-old fax and “Why can’t we do something more drastic” to his antagonist.
“What do you have in mind?” I asked whimsically.
“Send him subscriptions to pornographic magazines,” said Harry.
“Hell, Harry, he’d probably like that. And he’s no longer a threat to you.”
We sat for three long hours ticking off Harry’s agenda. For dinner, I suggested Le Texan, swig beer from a bottle. But Harry would have none of it, insisting on the stuffy Hermitage Hotel nearby.
The Hermitage—all of Monte Carlo—was a ghost town with war expected any minute and whatever war meant. Consequently, we were the only patrons inside The Hermitage’s restaurant.
Harry had obviously never learned the French habit of choosing a restaurant by how busy it is. The ambience in The Hermitage was opulent but their salmon, this night, tasted as if it had been cooked a week earlier, refrigerated and microwaved.
A TWIST & A TURN
After completing our business with Harry Schultz, back in my Monaco apartment I discovered a telephone message from Bob F., a New York City lawyer calling from Zug, Switzerland: As former CIA spymaster Clair George and I were in Europe might we be available to undertake a side-trip see his client, Marc Rich?
Mark Rich was a famed financial fugitive wanted by the U.S. government.
Clair could scarcely believe his ears when I phoned him at his hotel with this news but he was very game so next morning we flew to Zurich and cabbed 45 minutes to Zug. In contrast to the French Riviera, it was cold, sad and lonely. Said Clair: “You couldn’t pay me enough to live here.”
Yet Zug was home to Marc Rich, fugitive billionaire, protected by the Swiss due to his local philanthropy, but monitored and tracked by U.S. Marshals who wanted to cuff his wrists and deliver him to a judge.
The Rich building, headquarters for his company, Glencore, was six stories of concrete and bulletproof glass. Two lawyers both named Bob came out and took us to lunch at a pizza joint nearby.
“Marc didn’t really do anything wrong,” said Bob II. “Marc thought he had done something wrong but after a lawyer spent two years reading all the accumulated legal work, it was discovered Marc had done nothing more than steal his own money. Hardly a crime,” he added.
“So what’s the problem?” asked Clair.
“Marc is perceived as a tax evader and, as such, the Department of Justice has it in for him. You see, Marc admitted to a felony he never committed and if prosecutors will not be open-minded about this Marc would just as soon stay in Switzerland. He loves it here.”
We did not see much to love about Zug, especially on this dark, dank day.
The folks plugging this story missed something: Rich, a high-end commodities broker, was a born dealmaker and for seven years he’d been trying to deal himself—in vain—out of exile, with a justified fear of U.S. Marshals.
Back at Rich headquarters we passed through elaborate security hurdles into an elevator and up to the sixth-floor executive suite—the inner sanctum of Marc Rich, billionaire, fugitive.
One Bob switched the TV to CNN—everybody anticipating the Gulf War to break out any moment—and awaited Marc Rich to appear. The other Bob decided to start without his client.
“Mark has a lot to offer the U.S. government," he began. "As head of all his far-flung trading companies, he comes into a good deal of information that would be of interest, Clair, to your former employer [the CIA].”
Clair was nonplussed. He’d heard it all before, countless times, from persons offering their services, usually unsolicited.
“What’s he got to offer?” asked Clair.
“Plenty,” replied Bob II. “And it’s not as if we are looking to make a deal. We’re just maybe suggesting that our client knows a lot that would be of interest to your former employer. And maybe, if he was willing to offer information, maybe someone could suggest to the Justice Department that he be given a fair shake. We’re not suggesting that he be let off, just that we create the climate for a fair hearing.”
“There’s a guy I could go to,” said Clair. “The head of Domestic Contacts—that’s the division that does this kind of thing—but the first thing he’d ask me is, what have you got?”
“We’ve got a lot,” repeated Bob II.
“Fine,” said Clair. “But you’re going to have to show me yours before I show you mine. That’s the way it works.”
ENTER MARC RICH
That’s when Marc Rich brusquely strode in. He gave Clair and me a long hard look, shook our hands and seated himself at the end of the conference table.
He held a big cigar and asked if anyone objected to his smoking it. No one did. “So, what do you have in mind?” Marc looked at Clair, then me, unsmiling with an expression that said, Okay, you got this far, what the hell do you want?
“Well,” said Clair, slightly intimidated, “we’re aware that you have serious problems with the U.S. government and we’ve started this little problem-solving consultancy and, with our contacts and experiences, we thought we might be able to help you.”
“You wrote me a letter,”’ shot Marc, abruptly. “You must have had something in mind. An idea?”
“To be completely honest,” said Clair, “we don’t have an idea at this stage. Our letter was meant to get us this far, into your office.”
Marc digested this. “And now you’re here.”
We were, indeed—and beginning to wonder why we came.
Bob II helpfully interjected: “We were talking about a scenario whereby we might be willing to share information we have with Clair’s former employer.”
“And I was saying,” said Clair, “that I have to know what kind of information you’re talking about. A lot would depend on that.”
A functionary rushed in and whispered into Marc’s ear. He spoke to the young man in Spanish, as if to rebuff the call but then thought better of it, rose from his chair and said he would return in a few minutes. He paused at the door and turned to say, “Let them come to me if they want to make a deal.”
The Bobbsey twins seemed less uptight, more comfortable, with their client out of the room. They continued their banter about a fair exchange, information not for leniency but for a fair shake.
Marc strode back in, retook his seat and asked his secretary to bring him a beer.
I felt like saying, may I have one, too?
Then Marc looked at Clair with hard eyes. “What can you tell me about the U.S. Marshal Service?”
“All I can say,” replied Clair, “is that when I was in my last job, they came to me and said they wanted our help to catch you.”
Marc’s reaction was probably indiscernible to the average observer but I thought I detected a slight draining of blood from his face.
“And?” growled Marc.
“It really wasn’t our thing but we humored them along.”
“Did they say anything about where they hoped to catch me?”
“No,” said Clair. He was lying, of course. He wasn’t about to give away secrets, under any circumstances.
I piped up. “What we have here is an image problem,” I said. “Maybe what you need is a biography of yourself by a credible writer that will tell the truth as you see it.”
“We’ve thought about that,” said Marc. “A lot of good writers have asked. But we long ago decided a no-publicity policy would suit us best and we see no reason because it has been a success.”
A success? Are you nuts? You’re still stuck in this place surrounded by misty mountains! I refrained from saying this.
Marc warmed a tad, not much, but a tad, during our 45 minutes together. He graciously left the door open, saying, “Let us know if you think of anything.”
The Bobbsey twins were gracious too. They escorted us down and arranged for the receptionist to call us a taxi. Outside, Clair took a breath of clammy air and shook his head. “Well,” he said. “THAT was interesting.”
A Mercedes pulled up.
“I don’t suppose we should talk about it in the taxi,” said I.
“Not a word.”
The driver pretended not to speak English. But he could not interpret total silence.
At ride’s end we offered to pay the hundred-buck fare but the driver pushed it away, compliments of Mr. Rich.
At The Cavendish Hotel in London I fell into the first decent sleep I’d had since arriving in Europe one week before. Until a ringing phone awakened me.
It was Clair. “Turn your TV on,” he said. “It started.”
From beneath bedcovers I watched bombs explode and anti-aircraft fire shoot into the night sky over Baghdad, reported by panic-stricken correspondents.
After a six-month build-up and six-day wind-up the Gulf War had begun—and it felt as if a world war had just ignited.
Note: Marc Rich was later pardoned by President Bill Clinton after his former wife, Denise, gave $450,000 to the Clinton Library. Mr. Rich never returned to the United States but remained in Zug until his death in June 2013.