Please Hire Me, Mister Twee!

Dear Mr Twee,

I just saw your request for a Research Assistant. I believe this arrived via someone affiliated with the Manhattan Institute.

I gather you’re looking for a young, feisty, driven person. I do not pass the first qualification. Any academic transcript I’d provide would be from 30+ years ago. So no transcript for now, just acres of experience.

What I bring you is an experienced, indefatigable researcher and pretty decent copy editor, if a rather reluctant writer. I’ll do anything to put off writing a first draft. (I’ve never acquired your knack of the one-paragraph lede to hook the reader.) Fortunately you are looking for background research and memos, not ghost writing.

I’ve written for and/or edited a vast array of publications, including some you have heard of: Punch, The Oldie, The Spectator, The American Bystander, San Diego Reader…San Diego Home Garden & Lifestyles…Travel+Leisure…Food & Wine…Chronicles…Euro-Synergies…The Unz Review (have a piece in there right now).

My professional, as opposed to freelance, experience has generally been on the technical side; the last ten years include stints as front-end web developer for Time Inc. Digital and Penguin Random House.

More pertinent to your needs: Years ago I managed travel and appointments for some top executives, including one who was CEO of a comms company in San Diego, and another who had just become President of American Express TRS, UK & Europe.

I can also book conferences and dinners.

I live a few blocks from the FoxNews/NewsCorp building, if that makes any difference.

We are quite familiar with your work in our household. We not only have hard copies of a couple of your books (in a stack on the floor at my feet, even as I type), but I own at least one on Audible. My husband is a great fan of your writing and online/TV commentary. Myself, I have more of that editor’s technical interest: how does he avoid ambiguity and evasiveness without sounding too strident?

A few years back I was asked to write a review of a Heather Mac Donald book. (Heather Mac and I were in college together, but have little more than a nodding acquaintance now.) My review was most difficult to write, because it was clear that Heather had had to hew to a certain PR message or political stance, yet I nevertheless felt obliged to give a glowing review. My difficult piece went back and forth a couple of times, with intense edits and queries, until finally I just abandoned it. (And the review copy of the book is still nearby on the bookshelf, ever a source of guilt pangs, or an object lesson in being too persnickety.) This has nothing to do with you, it’s merely an illustration of me.

Kind regards,

Penny Pringlebury

| Published in Uncategorized

Elements of Cringe

On the cringe scale, about a 1.2 out of 10.

When I began this site many years ago, I thought it would be a cinch to fill it up with pure cringe. Surely, embarrassing incidents are all over the place, lying on the ground waiting to be picked up?

In theory that might be true. However, embarrassment is usually a private emotion, and very few horrifying memories can be articulated in a way comprehensible to the reader. I suppose it’s terrible to discover as a child that your parents are adulterers, just as it may be a deep-dark secret within your family that your mother has been in and out of the booby bin. But when told years later, these traumas don’t impress adults of any sophistication.

For a really embarrassing anecdote, an incident has to have been risky and humiliating at the time, and still unnerving years later, yet capable of being told clearly and succinctly. Few stories pass that test.

I can think of only two real-life incidents here that score the bullseye. One is my friend Eric’s story, herein entitled “The Manhasset Babysitter.” The other one is the old Jeffrey Bernard anecdote about the boy who got drunk, shat in his drawers, and by mistake bought a V-neck pullover instead of trousers (“Sans-culottes in Sevenoaks”). Even these rattle on a bit, like shaggy-dog stories.

My imaginary staff and I have tried making up other ones, but they’re mainly silly and absurdist.

Alas, the lameness of the genuine anecdotes one picks up off the ground is usually on a par with these pointless old contributions from Calling All Girls.

| Published in Administrative

Sleepwalking with Destiny

A true-life story of somnambulism is on offer here from Caroline Meeber of Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin!

One night I had this terrible nightmare where I was invited to this fabulous party at the Waldorf-Astoria, and everybody was dressed up, and they all stared at me when I came in because I was in my underwear!

To make it worse, I’m a sleepwalker, and while this dream was going on, I went out walking the streets in my flannel Lanz of Salzburg nightgown, and wandered into a grand charity ball that was finishing up on the 24th floor of the Savoy-Plaza Hotel. Suddenly I awoke and there I was, and everyone was staring at me, particularly the waiters.

At least I wasn’t standing there in my underwear. But still, was my face red!

| Published in children

The Kitty Martyrs

 

Jocelyn Randolph of Rappahannock, Virginia offers this embarrassing tale of her summer vacation!

Last summer I went to visit my aunt and uncle, who live in an old sugar warehouse in Keesburg. Because there are lots of rats around, my aunt and uncle keep a lot of cats, as well as a sack of rat poison. One day I accidentally put rat poison into the cats’ food dish and they all died. So I took some dead rats and placed one under each dead cat’s head so it looked as though the cats died from eating poisoned rats. My uncle didn’t believe it at all. “We’ll have to find a lighter brand of rat poison,” he laughed good-naturedly, before handing me a spade and telling me to bury the cats. Was my face red!

| Published in animals

The Wayward Stepfather

Norma Logue of Exton, PA submits this whimsical memory of another time, another country.

I was visiting my cousins at their summer house when I noticed that their stepfather kept bringing a colored girl into the bedroom with him.

“Does your father have a colored girlfriend?” I asked.

“Oh don’t be silly,” my cousin said. “That’s just the cleaning woman!”

Was my face red!

| Published in children, weird people

Hey Frenchy! I Need Some Cartoons!

A short while ago I wrote a stately, eye-glazing memoir about knowing Colin Flaherty for thirty years. Colin had died on January 11, 2022.

Now I keep remembering the good parts I left out, either out of genuine forgetfulness, or because I didn’t wish to talk about myself too much.

Colin and I first met at a newspaper picnic in Mission Bay Park, San Diego, around July 1991. He had big black sunglasses, a big cigar and was lying back in some kind of beach chair or chaise longue.

I don’t know how we were introduced or got to chatting, but I think I said I was probably going to have a terrific headache soon because I’d been drinking (what?—wine? beer? tequila shooters?) out in the bright afternoon sunlight.

Colin told me he didn’t drink at all, because he once got a DUI when going through Colorado. That wouldn’t spook most people, but maybe it was a problem for him because he was riding a motorcycle, which rather eliminates a designated-driver option.

I just don’t know, and probably never will. I don’t like to inquire after people’s clean-and-sober sagas anyway, it’s too much like an AA meeting.

A more interesting revelation was that we’d grown up near each other. He at one end of Brandywine Creek (its mouth, actually, in Wilmington, Delaware), and I at the other, about 15 miles to the north. In between there was Chadds Ford, PA, famous for Andrew Wyeth and the Battle of Brandywine, one of the many routs and massacres the Continental Army suffered in 1777.

Colin always liked to announce me as “San Diego’s Funniest Cartoonist.” For a brief shining moment, maybe I was, when I was doing editorial cartoons and illustrations for local papers. I had a cunning, old-school, brush-and-ink style that worked very well when I had to do strips of Mayor Maureen O’Connor claiming the broken sewage pipe in the bay was just an act of God, “a natural disaster.”

Rare quickie, 2003, in crowquill-type pen and india ink. Here the vested-interest enemies are anti-horse people, not even bothering to pose as environmentalists.

But—to answer your next question—I didn’t have sufficient mainstream perspective or malleability of imagination to pursue a career as a political cartoonist.

Nevertheless Colin continued to flog my talents for the next fifteen years, whether I was California or New York or London or Paris. He included cartoons as part of his public-relations packages, even though most of the work I did for him was limp and tawdry, in my humble opinion.

Mainly they were simple, absurdist, derogatory cartoons about some minor voting initiative in small-town SoCal. But he paid me very well. And it was all tax free, old man!

Because I never declared my earnings from freelance clients. Payment in personal checks and cash meant that the thousands I might make from these and other freelance work each year were pretty much untraceable. I had a steady job in the graphics department of a major banking corporation, so the IRS wasn’t going to investigate my middling income too closely.

Another reason I was happy to do them was that I liked to explore different techniques. Drawing with a Wacom tablet, for example, vs my traditional brush-and-ink. Unfortunately this meant that I became more focused on technology and effective online presentation, and less on the delight of cartooning.

From 2005. TV’s Zelda from Dobie Gillis grasps at straws to halt development in semi-rural Santee.

As I suggested before, I was usually living far, far away. For a while I spent a month or two every year in England and France, training for marathons and imagining that I was writing a novel. But a good deal of the time was spent drawing cartoons for Colin.

I’d be sitting in some Paris café with my laptop, and my Vodafone would suddenly go off. It was Colin. “Hey Frenchy! I need some cartoons!”

So I’d bottle myself up in my hotel room or flat for a couple of days, doing nothing but ha-ha drawings about minuscule matters 6000 miles away.

September 2004. Something about Carlsbad or Encinitas.

Anyway, as a result of this, I had a very good idea of what was happening in Colin’s career, what pissant town or county politics he was being paid to influence. Santee, Bolsa Chica, Perris, Del Mar…

Politics dovetailed with business, often as not. For ten years the major client was a housebuilder named Barratt American Homes, originally a subsidiary of the Barratt Group in Great Britain. It was led by a very fine fellow from Bedford, England named Mick Pattinson.

I say very fine because I stayed in Mick’s house in Olivenhain, east of Carlsbad, for a day or two in February 2004 when Colin’s daughter was getting married nearby. I had been camping at Colin’s rented condo in Murrieta, but then Colin’s father, brother, and sister arrived for the wedding, and there was no room at the inn.

So Mick put me up in his ginormous mansion. As I did work for Colin, and Colin was Mick’s PR boffin, I was practically a blood relative.

*   *   *

The wedding itself happened at a vast catering hall in Fallbrook, an area known for its rolling estates, wineries and catering halls. I hadn’t seen Colin’s daughter in ten years, and she had no recollection of me. When Colin introduced us, I might as well have been Cousin Kate from Budapest.

Bride and groom were both very young and strikingly good-looking (as I note in my diary of the time). The wedding service itself, however, was something of a farce.

It was held outside, as though it were June rather than a cold wet day in February. The minister was a woman, more or less, with short, spiky grey hair. The sort of figure you might have seen officiating at a lesbian “holy union” at Metropolitan Community Church. She and the happy couple got some shelter by standing under the floral bridal arch. The rest of us sat on wet folding chairs and put up with the cold drizzle.

(People would ask Colin, discreetly or otherwise, why his daughter wasn’t having a Catholic wedding, where you got a great gothic church with a choir and a proper prelate. Colin’s answer: “I’m not Catholic.” He was once, apparently . . . but didn’t have the money to be one when he landed in La Jolla.)

Before the service began, we wet ones in the mosh pit looked around and took in the surroundings. There was a brick-lined man-made lagoon nearby, quite extensive, surrounding us on three sides.

“This body of water is shaped like a heart!” a young woman sitting near me said to her husband.

“More like another internal organ—liver, maybe,” came the reply.

All dialogue verbatim. I wrote it down.

Now the drizzle turned into rain. Things were hurried along, and we all ran inside to  music and cake.

After the party, Mick and I drove back in the rain to Olivenhain, first stopping off at a stripmall for some Chinese lettuce-wraps and Starbucks tea, for dinner. Then Mick sat down and worked on business while I watched TV and wandered the house.

Mick had made a big donation to the Arnold Schwarzenegger gubernatorial campaign, and in the living room of his big, near-empty Olivenhain house there stood an autographed photo of Mick and Arnold together, shaking hands. I did a spindly sketch of it. (See cut.)

Not much else in that house: a TV, a little furniture, a couple books, a basalt bust of Winston Churchill! I believe Mick had just gone through a divorce the past year.

He’d also recently bought controlling interest in Barratt American Homes, with a big loan from Bank of America. He’d completed, or planned, several developments in Olivenhain, Carlsbad, Temecula, Perris…and finally Winchester, CA, a “census-designated” tract in Riverside County, not far from Murrieta.

Winchester acquired some substance and population when Barratt built a slew of McMansions there, in a hillside development called Sagecrest or Sagewood. One of the new residents was going to be Colin Flaherty. Mick was giving Colin a big new house, I expect as payment in kind.

Right now, however, it was just a concrete shell in the ground. A day or two after the wedding, Colin took some of us on a tour of the muddy tract. We walked in the rain with our sweatshirt hoods up, stepped around puddles, walked on boards, and headed for the model houses that were already open for viewing. The decor was a mixture of colonial-rattan and Marriott-tacky. Rooms set up for TV watching, rooms with computer-terminal props, rooms with exercise treadmills . . . no room set up for books and reading, although some prop volumes were scattered here and there. I noted a Reader’s Digest Condensed Books volume, and Frank McCourt’s ‘Tis.

Mick lavished a lot on Colin. A few months earlier, Mick had taken Colin on a business trip to England, to meet with the parent company. During their travels they stayed at the Royal Midland Hotel in Manchester. “Where Mister Rolls met Mister Royce,” as Colin liked to repeat. That sticks in memory because I was twice in Manchester over the next few months, and once stopped at the Royal Midland, just out of curiosity. A lovely old caravanserai, though it seemed to be in the middle of renovation for years to come. But the Midland had an excellent gym in its basement, including two Concept 2 rowers.

At the time I didn’t ponder the subtext of the many cartoons I did for Colin during his Barratt period. But now I reflect that Mick Pattinson was continually struggling to put up his elegant developments, while local pols and rival property interests were continually fighting to prevent them. Mick’s opponents depicted him as a rapacious developer, always mucking up the countryside. But when I talked with him it was clear he saw himself as a humanitarian, putting up essential housing in tracts of habitable wasteland.

“We might have 200 people wanting to buy houses, but we have to turn 180 away with tears in their eyes!” Mick told me, his own eyes welling up.

On February 23, 2004, a couple days after wedding, Colin and I went to a lunch meeting in a sad café at the Murrieta golf course. (In my diary I whine that the salad with my hamburger was “just some chopped iceberg & tomato”.) Colin was seeing a colleague named Nancy, someone I’d met a couple of times during the wedding weekend. Nancy had her “mute” son with her, I note in the diary.

Nancy said she was starting a “newspaper” called Santee Life, “the purpose of which was to create phony grassroots support for Mick’s upcoming housing project” (diary). Santee Life hadn’t launched yet. Nancy said she planned to start it with a “web presence.” I gather this is where I would come in, though I heard no more of the project.

Nancy had formerly lived in Rancho Bernardo (an upscale “master planned community” built ex nihilo in the 1970 and 80s), but she flipped that home and moved to Las Vegas. Now she owned one house there and was trying to buy another. But the builder wouldn’t let her, because he had a waiting list. Sounds like Mick Pattinson. Here was the 2004 housing bubble in microcosm.

In one of these locales Nancy had encountered a pet skunk. She wrote a poem about it. She suggested maybe I could do drawings for it.

Nancy reminded me of another lady colleague Colin introduced me to at the Del Mar racetrack in 1997. She was a publicist named Lisa, and she too used a sort of “newspaper” as a PR mouthpiece. Except this local journal focused on Del Mar, and it actually published a number of print issues. No “web presence” nonsense. That would have been futile and propeller-head in 1997.

Fake newspapers, astroturfed public support, press releases, cartoons…it all sounds like nine-tenths of a scam, and for the pure of heart, perhaps it was. But this was politics, and the other side was doing the same thing. The difference was, the other side liked to dress up their agenda as some high-minded, environmental initiative. Using that as a front, they’d then seek private and governmental support from all over, using special interests and slush funds to promote their pet projects.

And they had another weapon. They knew it was Colin who was masterminding the political message in favor of the Barratt developments. So they persuaded a Sacramento outfit called the Fair Political Practices Commission to claim that Colin had made illegal (or rather, unreported) donations to political activities.

Pete Wilson

California FPPC put out the word that Colin had broken campaign finance rules thirty-eight (38) times in 1997-98 and was therefore being fined $76,000. (LA Times, Sept 12, 2003.) One of these purportedly illegal donations was $4000 for a birthday cake and balloons for Governor Pete Wilson. Anyway Colin never paid that “fine,” nor did the FPPC boondoggle ever make any serious effort to collect it. As recently as October 29, 2021 the FPPC sent him a letter, limply threatening to garnish the $76,000 if Colin won the California Lottery!

(Full letter here.)

FPPC never made any serious effort to collect their “fine” because that would have triggered a legal response, and most likely their claim would have been vacated by the court. The FPPC allegations were harassment and vendetta, pure and simple. Significantly, after the LA Times ran that one story (basically an FPPC press release), there was no follow-up or resolution.

I am still personally exercised by this because I myself was put through interrogations via phone, by one Dennis Pellon at FPPC in Sacramento. I was identified as one of a number of people who made a token donation to Colin’s 1997 political campaign in Perris, California. I gave $50, or maybe $25. I was happy to make that little contribution, you betcha. Colin had paid me many times that for graphic and web work in the past year. Not surprisingly, Pellon couldn’t frame my little bagatelle as “money laundering” (to use FPPC’s odd choice of words). After two or three phone calls he gave up.

Were all donors flagged and harassed by FPPC? I don’t know. I may have been because I mailed it from a home address in Seattle, where I lived briefly. A tiny donation from 1100 miles away should always look suspicious, because political fundraisers like to pretend they’re getting their money and moral support from a broad base of locals.

But of course they almost never do.

February 2005

Postscript. On my way back to the San Diego airport next day—I mean, February 24, 2004—I stopped in at Ocean Beach, on the the ocean side of Point Loma. Both Colin and I had lived there at various times in the 80s and 90s. It had always been a raffish place, but right now it seemed more rundown than ever. Dirty, desolate, mostly abandoned. Or maybe it was just that I was there on a chilly, wet, dark day in February.

A few weeks later I flew to Paris, then entrained for London, and en-bused to see friends in Oxford; then on to Manchester and Leeds, where I took dismal pictures of myself on dark, drizzly days; and then down to Torquay, also very dark and drizzly; and back to wet London, and Paris of the slate-grey skies (there was no sun anywhere that season); finally via Air France to New York…because it was time to get back to work. This all seems so crazy today. I worked on my novel and did a couple of cartoons for Colin.

Whom I saw again a few weeks later, May 2004. Colin’s new home was barely finished, vast and empty, but with that new-house smell. I left a minivan-load of my belongings in his garage.

Years before I had stored belongings in a Public Storage space near the Seattle airport. The time came to close this down and cart my stuff someplace else. It seemed silly to drive it to Southern California. In 1997 I’d moved it to Seattle from a storage space on Morena Boulevard in San Diego. But that’s what I did.

I sorted out a few books, and some drawings, and my old Prat™ portfolio, and flew them back with me to New York. Everything else in Colin’s garage and basement went up the spout around 2008. The economy crashed, Barratt American went bankrupt, Colin moved the basement contents to his son’s house near San Diego, the son had personal problems and lost his house with all my valuables and memorabilia. Colin went on a hitchhiking trip and wrote a memoir about it, and then a few more books that were far more popular and notorious.

“The perfect is the enemy of the good.” An expression I first heard from Colin, sometime around October or November 1997. Seriously, I’d never heard it before. “Clichés for every occasion,” he added.

It was a motto he could follow, I never could. “If it’s not perfect, I don’t want to bother,” is more along my habit of thinking. Makes life very hard.

 

 

 

| Published in Obituaries and memoirs

The (Lucky) Lives of Colin Flaherty

Colin Flaherty, July 1993, Ocean Beach.
Author’s photograph.

I found some intriguing perspectives in the recent batch of obituaries for Colin Flaherty, who died on January 11. They almost all recall him as best known for his internet videos and bestselling books on under-reported black crime (White Girl Bleed a Lot, Don’t Make the Black Kids Angry, et al.).

Maybe that’s a valid point today. However, having known him for thirty years, I thought of this post-2012 phase as just a minor coda to his career. Sort of like Laurence Olivier doing Polaroid commercials in the 1970s. If you had to explain to clueless people who Sir Laurence Olivier was, you’d mention the commercials, and the folks would think, “Oh he’s this guy who sells cameras.”

I was aware that Colin’s books were big bestsellers at Amazon—at least, till they canceled him. I’d meet him occasionally when he came up to New York for a media interview, or whatnot. I remember walking around Rockefeller Center with him in early 2015. Every few minutes he’d take out his iPhone and check his latest Amazon sales. (“500 more copies! Still number #1!”)

Colin was peeved a few months later when a New Yorker article by Evan Osnos called him as “a white nationalist” who’d done a “self-published book.” (There was a similar swipe at Jared Taylor, who likewise rejected such descriptions.) The truth was, for most of his adult life, Colin regarded himself as a moderate conservative, with a decided libertarian streak. But he wasn’t going to crumple because some Leftist hack with an agenda chose to mischaracterize him. Colin was an old political consultant and he had a tough hide.

For many years he was a top reporter and public-relations consultant in Southern California. He ghost-wrote op-ed columns for his congressman father-in-law, freelanced other pieces under his own byline, cranked out press releases for politicians and businesses.

At the San Diego Press Club awards in the 1990s, he  always took home some hardware. On the PR side, he had a long roster of political clients, as well as such gilt-edged corporate accounts as Qualcomm.

He was a pro at that punchy style of PR writing where every sentence is a simple declarative copy-point. And no paragraph has more than two sentences.

Colin got a kick out of being regarded as the top local public-relations guy. He liked to say Flaherty Communications was really just “a guy in a bathrobe, with a cigar and a telephone.” For a while there was also a hamster. His kids had brought it in on a visit (he had custody of them part-time). Little hammy soon made a prison break. It would turn up again every few days till the local cat got it, or something.

Often enough, the bathrobe guy would get dressed and take his son and daughter to the pier in Ocean Beach. I’d sometimes join them there. There would always be some withered hobo types fishing off the dock, and pulling up little mangy-looking fish. The kids had a routine for this. Walking by, they’d call out, “Mmm! Some mighty good eatin’!” Then we’d repair to the pier café for its specialty, which was not anything fishy, but jalapeño poppers.

*   *   *

Sometime around that hamster period, mid-1993, Colin drew me into an offbeat, short-lived enterprise. I think it was called NewsFax. We’d produce news briefs and political cartoons, I’d lay them out with QuarkXpress, and then we’d fax this tidy sheet of business and political gossip to our select list of subscribers. In those days most people didn’t have e-mail, but they did use fax machines. The past is indeed another country.

NewsFax was never expected to become a long-term profitable concern; it was more of a calling card to drum up PR clients. In a non-election year, demand was thin for press releases and opinion columns. We’d tool around on Colin’s motorcycle and call on friends who had substantive jobs—in banking, mortgages, brokerages. Colin had been working in local media for a decade, and he knew everybody who was anybody, which maybe wasn’t all that hard in a small pond like San Diego. He’d even been friends with Dan Broderick, the physician and malpractice lawyer who was famously shot by his ex-wife Betty in 1989.

He’d turn up frequently on the radio, sometimes as a talk-radio substitute host, sometimes as an interview guest. I recall doing the Roger Hedgecock show with him in 1992, and with the KPBS guy, Dan Erwine, the following year. When Colin was going to sub on a radio program, he’d send out a three-line whip beforehand so all his friends could phone in and shill for him. Years later, when he moved back to Wilmington, Delaware, he sometimes co-hosted his brother’s talk-radio show. I’d met the brother years before, back when he was a Joe Biden aide. In late 2012 Colin had me on the show as a third co-host. That didn’t work out too well because I seized up  with a fit of the st-st-stutters.

He had a charismatic personality and a magical Midas touch in almost everything he attempted. Colin would come up with a bizarre idea like NewsFax, and by golly, the thing really did bring him those well-heeled business clients. Years later, when he started writing and selling his edgy books, that looked like a cockeyed long-shot too. (What’s more hopelessly pathetic than thinking you can make a living by selling your own books?)

His luck always seemed to hold. We’d go to Indian casinos out in the desert, and he’d clean up at the blackjack tables. (Not me; he’d give me $50 or $60 to bet, and I’d always lose it all or just maybe break even.) If you went to the Del Mar racetrack with him, your best bet was to bet like Colin, if you wanted to be in the money. We did a lot of pinball on Newport Avenue in Ocean Beach, and he always beat me. He always beat everyone.

Eventually he focused mainly on one client, a large housebuilding concern in San Diego and Riverside Counties. As part of his compensation he got a brand-new million-dollar McMansion (well, a half-million at least), and it was next to a golf course.

Colin would also beat you at golf.

*   *   *

Eventually his success as a PR and political operative brought him into the enemy’s sights. In 2003 a California state commission accused him of violating campaign finance laws 38 times during 1997-1998. The alleged “violations” were preposterous, one of them being an undeclared “donation” of $4000 worth of party balloons and birthday cake for Gov. Pete Wilson; while the others were mostly tiny political donations from Colin’s friends and associates, whom the campaign supposedly later reimbursed. One wonders how many millions the State of California spent over five years to come up with these trivialities.

Five years later the economy tanked all over, and Colin’s main client filed for bankruptcy. That was when Colin finally retreated to his family’s home back east. He did a hitchhiking road trip around the West and wrote a travelogue-memoir about it, Redwood to Deadwood (2012), sold mainly through Amazon.

That writing/publishing experience turned out to be training wheels for the next phase of his career, beginning with White Girl Bleed a Lot, which came out shortly afterwards. At the end of the day, then, having his PR client go belly-up was a great stroke of luck. Otherwise he might never have become an Amazon bestselling author, known and beloved by millions. (Worse luck for me, though, as I had stored 20 years’ worth of diaries and pictures in Colin’s basement in 2004. When Colin moved out he transferred all the basement stuff—his, mine, and everyone else’s—to his son’s house. After which it all unaccountably vanished.)

I was surprised to hear the sad news when he died, but I’d detected failing health after he came back from his hitchhiking trip. When I went to an art show with him in 2011, I noticed he was getting rather wobbly on his pins, especially if he had to stand for more than five minutes. At first I put this down to his extreme height, which he claimed was 6’5″, but which I personally suspected was a couple inches more.

So I take a Pollyanna-ish view about his death at 66. It could have been 56. But his lucky star granted him another ten years. And a whole new career. And then he had the good fortune to get to know Jared Taylor. (Whom I had also first met in the early 1990s, in Southern California. Strange coincidences!) In June 2019 when Colin phoned me up and invited me to join him and Jared and others in a backyard talkfest in Virginia, it was like hearing that Stanley had found Livingston. But that, alas, was the last time I would see Colin.

*   *   *

As I recall, he once had a girlfriend who was a high-flyer at Dow Jones. Colin had written for the San Diego Business Journal, among many others, and it was suggested by me and others that he too should aim high and land a job at the Wall Street Journal. That did not appeal to Colin in the least. He did not want to go Back East.

In Ocean Beach, while doing one of our pinball tourneys in the early 90s, I joked to him that when people in California speak of the East Coast, they seem to imagine a vast unbroken slum of red-brick tenements, complete with fire escapes and wash lines and broken bottles in the street. The original set of Sesame Street, in other words.

“But that is what it’s all like,” insisted Colin, focusing seriously on the pinball machine.

There was a seed of something there, even if neither of us knew it.


 This article was published at Counter-Currents on 20 January 2022.

| Published in Obituaries and memoirs

Return of the Cupcake Bandit

Our young correspondent Margot V. S. “Meg” Burns of Manhattan writes: “This is one of a handful of articles rejected by a little online rag called SpliceToday, which I contributed to briefly, 2018-2019. Writing on spec, I had about a 75% acceptance rate. The unaccepted pieces were insufficiently frothy, too factual, or anyway of no interest whatsoever to the editors. I do hope they will be embarrassing enough for Was My Face Red!


 

Document thief Barry Landau got a raw deal in 2012—from the press, the judge and Rod Rosenstein.

From the Federal Correctional Center in sunny Lompoc, California comes news that my old pal Barry Landau has been released. Oh wait—not quite. It turns out he’s just been transferred to a halfway-house in Riverside, and has a few months left on his bid.

This semi-prison is one of those private-contractor outfits that specialize in rehab and prisoner “re-entry,” but strangely enough (and unlike the Federal pens) it doesn’t let its wards use e-mail. So Barry and I are playing telephone tag right now and soon I’ll know when he’s getting out.

Barry Landau, you will recall, is the White House party animal and self-styled “Presidential Historian” who got arrested in Baltimore in 2011 while he and an accomplice were filching archives from the Maryland Historical Society. The Baltimore documents weren’t terribly exciting—e.g., 1881 presidential Inauguration programs. But then a Federal raid on Barry’s apartment in New York turned up a trove of choicer nuggets, lifted from a half-dozen historical libraries. A letter from Ben Franklin, an inscribed volume from Karl Marx, a note from Marie Antoinette, the autograph of Christopher Columbus.

That made it more than small-time local museum theft. A federal case was opened, by none other than Rod J. Rosenstein, now U.S. Deputy Attorney General, but then the U.S. Attorney for Maryland.

Barry and his young accomplice, Jason Savedoff, had a routine. They’d research an institution’s holdings online and draw up a wish-list. Then they’d show up, wreathed in smiles and bearing a plate of cookies or cupcakes for the library staff. Barry would schmooze personnel and distract them, while Jason pocketed precious paper.

The usual ruse was that Barry would show up at a library or museum and announce himself as an historian researching a new book. This seemed  plausible. A few years earlier, Barry had published a lavish coffee-table book about White House banquets (The President’s Table: 200 Years of Dining and Diplomacy), and this got him appearances on C-SPAN, 60 Minutes, Martha Stewart, Today Show, etc. etc., as an erudite foodie-historian. Nevertheless his CV was odd for an scholar—“America’s Presidential Historian,” his website proclaimed him. He’d spent most of his career as a celebrity publicist.

Eight or nine years ago, when I was at Food & Wine magazine, I became aware that this neighbor of mine had somehow reinvented himself as a fine-dining expert. Sometimes I’d see him in our apartment building’s elevator or lobby, dressed in a souvenir roadie jacket from some Clinton Administration beano. “So you know Bill Clinton, then?” I asked.

I’ve known lots of Presidents. Almost every one since Eisenhower!”

It was during Barry’s second visit to Baltimore (July 11, 2011) that a Maryland Historical Society staff member got suspicious and called the cops. Police and staff found up sixty MHS documents in a museum locker. The next day, they raided his New York apartment.

Initially the press treated it all as a big joke, a man-bites-dog story. “At the Maryland Historical Society, they’re calling it the Great Cupcake Caper,” wrote the Baltimore Sun (July 12, 2011). “Before being arrested by police on Saturday and charged with stealing dozens of historical documents, author and collector Barry H. Landau had brought cupcakes for the center’s employees. They figure he was trying to ingratiate himself with the staff, much as he has for decades with political and Hollywood elite.”

Indeed, the Cupcake Bandit had been a demi-celebrity for most of his life. Barry Landau turns up, Zelig-like, in old news and stock photos, with George Hamilton, Cheryl Tiegs, Tom Selleck, Patricia Neal, George Plimpton, the Bushes, the Reagans. Andy Warhol mentions him 20 times in his Diaries, usually rather sniffily. (“Barry Landau, that creepy guy we can’t figure out, who somehow gets himself around everywhere with every celebrity.”)

NY Times, 1979

In 1979 Barry’s picture was in the New York Post and NY Times for grassing on Hamilton Jordan, President Jimmy Carter’s chief of staff. Barry claimed to have seen him trying to score cocaine at Studio 54. This led to grand jury investigations in which 30-year-old Barry was a star witness, under the guidance of a bushy-haired young attorney named Andrew Napolitano.

But could Barry Landau really, truly be the mastermind of the Cupcake Caper? That looked unlikely at the outset. His lawyers denied it. They said Jason Savedoff was to blame. They portrayed the 24-year-old “aspiring model” from Vancouver BC as a persuasive, greedy Svengali. Savedoff had wormed his way into Barry’s confidence, and then used “America’s Presidential Historian” as a front-man to gain access to valuable archives. Unlike Barry, Jason wasn’t interested in history, or presidents; he just wanted to steal a lot of autographs and make a lot of money.

But as the months rolled on, the media soured on Barry, and convicted him in the press long before the trial date. On TV and in the newspapers they’d show old file photos of him beside his vast horde of presidential memorabilia—acquired honestly over a half-century, ever since he first met Ike and Mamie Eisenhower in the 1950s—and insinuate that it was all an Ali Baba’s cave of stolen archives.

They’d write that Barry had grossly exaggerated his experience as a publicist and White House event manager. Famous names got phoned up for snotty comments. (“He was a name-dropper,” sniffed Barbara Bush.) And inevitably such outlets as The Daily Beast would speculate snarkily about the nature of the relationship between Landau and Savedoff.

Thus in the end it was Barry who got a ten-year sentence (7 years prison, 3 probation), while pretty young Jason got off with a slap on the wrist (one year in prison). At his trial in Baltimore, Jason’s attorneys drew a portrait of a pathetic, mentally ill youth who believed “conspiracy theories”; a naive kid who got hoodwinked by a worldly old reprobate.

This “victim” argument was probably inevitable; it’s an accusation that requires no proof, as was illustrated recently with the lurid, ludicrous rape tales aimed at Judge Kavanaugh, or as we keep seeing over and over with the ancient, transparently fake “clerical abuse” stories.

What’s poignant and amusing about the Jason case is that his lawyers were claiming victim status for him at the end of many months in which the consensus among press and prosecutors was that Jason Savedoff was most likely just a pathologically dishonest male hustler.

Barry’s sentence amazed me. How in hell does a 63-year-old first-time offender get a ten-year sentence for a non-violent crime? A crime, ladies and gents, in which most of the stolen goods were recovered—and (a crucial but overlooked point) had little historical significance. Most of them were ephemera—tickets, programs, cartes-de-visite—or autographed letters from the junkier end of the antiquarian world, the equivalent of a baseball signed by Mickey Mantle. You don’t send an old guy to prison for seven years because he seems to have been involved in the theft of a mint 1940 copy of Batman Comics #1.

At Studio 54 with Phyllis Diller, 1979.

Did Barry have the worst legal representation in the world? I don’t think so; I think I know what went down. Barry and counsel got conned. Rosenstein’s office did a bait-and-switch on them. You see, initially, Barry could have had a jury trial, and he could even have pled not guilty. Rosenstein’s office didn’t want that, because they really didn’t have the goods. Their case was based mostly on Jason Savedoff’s testimony, which would never stand up under cross-examination.

And so the prosecutors offered Barry a deal: they promised leniency if he pled guilty, and waived a jury trial and right of appeal. The trial would be over quickly, and he wouldn’t have to serve much time—so they said.

And then, instead of giving Barry a suspended sentence or a year in prison (like Jason) they threw the book at him. And he couldn’t even appeal the verdict, because he signed that away when he signed the plea agreement.

Is there a murky backstory to all this? Did Rod Rosenstein have some personal interest in the case, perhaps on behalf of a friend? I don’t know, but his discussion of it was most peculiar and bespeaks a personal grudge. On television and in press releases, he repeatedly referred to Barry as a “con man” or “con artist.” Here he is announcing the verdict in 2012: “Barry H. Landau was a con artist who masqueraded as a presidential historian to gain people’s trust so he could steal their property.”

A con artist? There was no con or flim-flam involved here. Barry wasn’t taking people’s money for swampland deeds or forged documents. He didn’t masquerade as “presidential historian Barry Landau,” that is who he really was, with a big book and everything!

If he did in fact steal or misappropriate original documents . . . okay, that is not a transgression unknown among professional historians. But that’s not being a flim-flam man.

Rod Rosenstein’s choice of words is revealing. It suggests that Barry Landau’s real crime was not helping Jason Savedoff steal historical bumpf, rather it was having been a show-off, a social-climber, a celebrity hanger-on, a name-dropper (yeah; as Mrs. Bush said). The kind of person who would crash Andy Warhol parties and boast about seeing Hamilton Jordan try to buy cocaine.

Of course there might be some other, specific offense from the olden days that Barry had to be punished for. I just don’t know yet, dear readers. But I think it’s pretty safe to say he wasn’t sent on a long prison stretch just for lifting some ephemera from museums.

| Published in True Crime

Punch: Not As Funny as It Used to Be

Our young correspondent Margot V. S. “Meg” Burns of Manhattan writes: “This is one of a handful of articles rejected by a little online rag called SpliceToday, which I contributed to briefly, 2018-2019. Writing on spec, I had about a 75% acceptance rate. The unaccepted pieces were insufficiently frothy, too factual, or anyway of no interest whatsoever to the editors. I do hope they will be embarrassing enough for Was My Face Red!


 

Remembering the unfunny, ill-advised 1996 revival of Punch magazine.

A couple of years back I started getting e-mails from an online wine-and-spirits organ calling itself Punch. “Good Lord, what effrontery!” I sneered. Not only was this rag totally unconnected to the long-gone London comic weekly, It didn’t even acknowledge its famous namesake. Surely a little disclaimer was in order? “Mistah Punch, he dead. We steal his title.”

I was even more exercised when I discovered that this blurb for beverage alcohol was really a promotional blog for an obscure Penguin Random House imprint I worked for. I wanted to hunt down the person responsible and give him a piece of my mind.

First, though, I had to share this with somebody who knew the real Punch during its last incarnation in the 1990s. I thought of veteran editor Alexander Chancellor in London. Well actually, he was the only person I had an e-mail address for.

Take a look at the new Punch,” I wrote, with a link to the drinks blog. “It’s not as funny as it used to be.”

Alex sent back a reply from his office at The Oldie (a kind of bastard Punch for old folks): “Ugh—very interesting!” Alex didn’t want to be reminded of our Punch fiasco. The magazine was relaunched as a glamorous, glossy weekly in 1996 but quickly degenerated into a mindless gossip rag.

I wanted to reminisce further with Alex, but he dropped dead shortly afterwards.

Alex Chancellor and I were two of many people who got sucked into the Punch-relaunch vortex in the summer of 1996. Officially Punch had folded in 1992, after a run of 150 years, but its name and archives had been purchased by Harrods owner Mohammed al-Fayed. Because, you know, that’s what you do when you have that kind of money.

The Egyptian Mr. Fayed bought Punch because it was a matchless totem of British civilization. But mainly he wanted to use it to attack the Establishment and the Royals, who year after year refused to give him a peerage, or even British citizenship!

Fayed’s minions engaged editorial offices in Brompton Road (across from Harrods) and ordered up some layout artists and copies of QuarkXpress. Then, for a hefty sum, they hired a convivial Fleet Street scapegrace named Peter McKay to edit the thing. (“Peter McLie, the World’s Worst Columnist,” Private Eye called him.)

The result was like a mashup of The New Yorker and Vanity Fair, but thicker, with more illustrations and better cartoons. We had a huge launch party in September, published some impossibly lavish issues, and invited every idle hack we knew to help fill the spaces between our deeply discounted four-color ads. A weekly magazine on this scale chewed up copy at a terrific rate.

It also chewed up cash. After the first few weeks, our retail tycoon went into panic mode. He had his dogsbody fire both Peter McKay and the deputy editor (a savings of about £350,000 right there). Then, gradually, management tried to figure out ways to cut back on contributor’s fees and advertiser discounts.

Eventually it became a loud, ugly fortnightly. We started out aiming for the Tatler and Country Life crowd, and in the end we got something as subtle and tasteful as VIZ. But for a little while, we had fun.

In July 1996, about six weeks before the Punch launch, I attended a writers’ luncheon at the Groucho Club, hosted by Oldie founder Richard Ingrams. Richard had come up with the idea for The Oldie in 1992 when he bought the original Punch mailing list and found it was mostly old-age pensioners. Us Oldie writers weren’t all old, but most of us had been through a career or two. Out of 15 people in that upstairs room, maybe ten of us were eking out a precarious freelance existence, and it turned out we were all pitching to Punch.

In those days, I remember, the Spectator and The Oldie and the Observer all paid £100 or less for freelance submissions, and that didn’t go very far in London. But this new Punch—ah hah!—was paying £600 per printed page. Let’s say you do six pages a month; that’s £3600 (close to $6000 in those days). We thought we’d struck oil.

Our skyscraper-tall, teetotaling host Mr. Ingrams gazed at us indulgently from his heavy-lidded eyes, while we got drunk on Groucho Club wine and mentally measured the drapes for our new Battersea maisonettes. Richard knew the new Punch was going to come to grief. It was being founded out of it pure spite, and proposed to serve a need that didn’t exist.

The two publications Richard created, Private Eye and The Oldie, always had explicit purposes and definite, if narrow, audiences. The Eye is for undergraduate satire and libelous gossip; The Oldie is aimed at folks whose cultural referents are Christine Keeler and Philip Larkin (1963 was a good year). A general-interest humor book like the 1996 Punch lacked a built-in audience, so no matter how many advertisements for scotch and gin you sold—or gave away—you were never going to convince readers or advertisers that you had a core target market. (And, to repeat the obvious, Punch already had a successor in The Oldie—still going strong today, after 26 years.)

Mr Ingrams, last espied with Louis at the Gare du Nord

The new Punch was never going to find its way; its owner was too impatient. When the top editors got sacked in November 1996, the rumor was that they weren’t responsive enough to Fayed’s grudges. He would hand over a list of politicians and journos to be flayed, tabloid-fashion, but jolly Peter McKay was too decent a guy to do it.

And so Punch began its descent into Nigel Dempster gossip hell and inchoate editorial rants. Snippets from May 1997:

Q. Could you tell me what that columnist Petronella Wyatt is like?
A. Petsy worries me, not least because she’s the only person who refused to bonk Taki Theodoracopulos. I think she just doesn’t bonk.

We at Punch say the country has had enough. AWAY WITH THIS DISCREDITED GOVERNMENT!

Hard-hitting satire, no?

The peak event of Fayed’s war with the Establishment occurred three months later. His son Dodi was romantically involved with Princess Di. One August night in Paris they got killed while driving through the Alma tunnel. Misadventure or murder? Clearly the latter, Fayed declared: a murder arranged by MI6, sanctioned by Tony Blair, and done at the request of the Royal Family.

The fact that these accusations might be plausible is really beside the point. From here on in, the editorial direction of Punch became completely unhinged. Instead of satire, it was crammed with tawdry sensationalism and lost up to £2 million a year.

Finally, in 2002, the debt-encumbered Mr. Fayed pulled the plug on Punch. Almost nobody noticed.

| Published in Publishing

My Life and the CIA

Our young correspondent Margot V. S. “Meg” Burns of Manhattan writes: “This is one of a handful of articles rejected by a little online rag called SpliceToday, which I contributed to briefly, 2018-2019. Writing on spec, I had about a 75% acceptance rate. The unaccepted pieces were insufficiently frothy, too factual, or anyway of no interest whatsoever to the editors. I do hope they will be embarrassing enough for Was My Face Red!

 

For a little while there, early in the Reagan Administration, the CIA was hiring just about anybody. I was lousy with languages, my Yale transcript was crap, I had no graduate degree, and I’d hardly ever been out of the country. But the Agency was interested. This was mainly because I’d aced their day-long battery of Spy Aptitude Tests, although I liked to think it was because I looked good: “lanky” (in the interviewer’s description), physically fit, someone who could handle herself in a tight corner. Because, you know, intelligence work can be dangerous.

I was interviewed by someone from Clandestine Services. He, not I, gave the sales pitch. The Agency is a great place to work these days, you bet! High morale, now we’ve got Bill Casey in charge! We got rid of The Admiral!

“The Admiral” was the despised former Director of Central Intelligence, Stansfield Turner. He got the job by accident. Jimmy Carter’s first few choices for DCI said no or had blots on their record. So Jimmy went down the list and came up with Turner, a black-shoe admiral with no background in intelligence. Turner slashed operations and fired hundreds of seasoned officers.  But then Ronald Reagan came in, and installed elderly, mumbly, able William Casey. As DCI, Old Bill brought back the big budgets and expensive toys, and he let the spooks get on with their job.

And what a job, what an era! We didn’t know it, but we were seeing the last shimmering Aurora Borealis of the Cold War. The new Soviet premier was Yuri Andropov, an old KGB hood who sent the tanks to Budapest in ’56 and to Prague in ’68. Andropov heard the fresh buzz coming out of the CIA, counted our new Pershing II missiles in West Germany, and got his country revved up for war. Anytime there was a NATO war game or nuclear exercise, Andropov said America was getting ready to launch a “first strike,” with warheads that could wipe out Moscow in four minutes.

This 1983 war scare was sudden and startling. For years the USSR had been soft-selling disarmament propaganda to the West. Memorably there was a “No Nukes” campaign that dovetailed neatly with anti-nuclear-power protests. You saw happy-sun pinback buttons (“Atomkraft? Nein Danke!”), stickers, pop songs, films; and then astroturfed Nuclear Freeze groups, with fatuous “women’s peace encampments” outside missile bases.

After Reagan’s election the propaganda got intense, with endless newspaper and magazine articles about the horrors of “nuclear winter,” and warning that our new President was a trigger-happy cowboy who was going to start World War III.

And now the wheels were coming off the peace wagon. The Soviets got so jumpy they shot down Korean Air Lines flight 007 (with a congressman aboard) and then  denied  it. Later on they offered the incredible excuse that they mistook the widebody 747 commercial airliner for a spy plane. Meantime, Cowboy Reagan had turned out to be an unexpectedly effective and popular President. His Teddy Roosevelt-style interventions were a total delight: invading the pipsqeak island of Grenada in October to protect American students at a crummy offshore medical school!

Americans followed these stories round-the-clock now on Ted Turner’s CNN, a habit we got into back in May 1982, when Margaret Thatcher had her glorious little Falklands War. War and militarism were sexy again!

So there I was, in early October 1983—halfway between the KAL 007 shootdown and the Grenada invasion—sitting with my spy-guy interviewer in an East 52nd St. hotel suite, and we were talking about world events. He was an old operative, maybe 58, beefy with a florid face that looked to have been lifted recently. He was also very twitchy,  like someone with high-blood pressure from too much boozing. Or maybe he was just eager to tell me about the thrilling operations he’d been in on over the past thirty years. Only of course he couldn’t tell me, because!

That must get frustrating. I on the other hand can tell you all I know, because I bailed out of the intake process a couple months later.

Through the recruitment period I kept receiving packets postmarked McLean, Virginia. One was the full application and background-check dossier, about three-quarters of an inch thick. I put that aside. Other mailers had bumpf thanking me for making myself available to Clandestine Services. No discussion of what the hell Clandestine Services did, however. (“We buy hats for the poor and make the world a happier place!”)

It was all very murky. The Agency wanted me to be something called a desk officer, but I saw myself running spies into Czecho. My whole picture of intelligence work came out of John LeCarré.

There was a reading list for new recruits. Some books were pop histories of the KGB and the Communist Menace. Shallow stuff, airport reading. And then Cord Meyer’s  Facing Reality: From World Federalism to the CIA. This is a dreary memoir where the author apologizes for having been a pinko peacenik in his 20s, during a brief hiatus between Yale and the Agency. At Clandestine Services he ran the notorious “Operation Mockingbird” project, overseeing the same sort of media manipulation that the KGB was now doing with its Nuclear Freeze antics. That’s not in the book though.

Cord’s onetime wife, Mary Pinchot Meyer, was the JFK girlfriend who got mysteriously murdered in Rock Creek Park; but that’s not in the book either. Like my interviewer, Cord had lots of juicy stories, but he couldn’t tell ’em.

In the end I never got around to filling out my application, and here’s why. It had to do with my orthodontist. I was going through a protracted ordeal of adult orthodontia. We would chat about my CIA business, and one day the orthodontist remarked that the FBI would probably be coming by to ask questions about me. This had happened before, whenever one of his old patients was up for a security clearance.

Well this was unnerving. Somehow it hadn’t really registered with me that the background check would go that deep. But apparently so; on my fat application I had to account for the past 17 years. Schools, family, medical professionals . . . anyone you ever worked or lived with.

That killed it for me. I didn’t mind the Bureau boys dropping in on my employer or orthodontist, but I couldn’t have them bothering my relatives. The idea of G-men visiting my parents, when I hadn’t seen them in years, was too awful to contemplate. My parents were mad as hatters, and would themselves try to debrief the Fed boys about my doings of the past 10 years.

A perfectly reasonable excuse for dropping out of my CIA recruitment, I think. The only trouble was, for years and years I couldn’t explain it to anyone. The story was just too embarrassing.

 

| Published in Nostalgia