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!


 

NOTE: This was written in 2018. Ron Rosenstein is still a Crook. Barry Landau is still a Good Guy who got schnookered.

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 sentence.

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.

When Barry showed up at one of these libraries he’d present himself as an historian researching a new book. This was completely plausible. His CV was odd for an scholar—“America’s Presidential Historian,” his website proclaimed him—as he had mainly worked as a celebrity publicist.

NEW YORK, NY – CIRCA 1979

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. 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 scholar.

Sometimes I’d see him in our 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, and the next day they raided his New York apartment.

The press treated it all as a big joke, a man-bites-dog story, at least initially. “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.”

NEW YORK, NY – CIRCA 1979: Barry Landau and Phyllis Diller dancing at Studio 54 circa 1979 in New York City.

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.”)

In 1979 Barry was on the front of the New York Post 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, and his lawyers consistently denied it. They said Jason Savedoff was to blame. The 24-year-old “aspiring model” from Vancouver BC was a persuasive, greedy Svengali. He wormed his way into Barry’s confidence and 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.

Disco nights notwithstanding, Barry Landau had led a fairly blameless life. But as the months rolled on, the media soured on him, and convicted him 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 we were looking at an Aladdin’s cave of stolen history. 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.

And so 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.

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 Uncategorized

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 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

New Friends and Neighbors

My mother and I were driving around with the new girl in school, who’d just moved to the area. We passed a tract of cheap ticky-tacky houses going up over by the expressway. I said, “My parents say that crappy new housing development is going to hurt property values in town.”

Was my face red when my new friend told me her parents were planning to buy one of those tacky houses!

| Published in children

H. K. Thompson: Trollmeister

My theory on feds is that they’re like mushrooms: Feed ’em shit and keep ’em in the dark.
(Mark Wahlberg’s character in Martin Scorsese’s The Departed)

The gracious and courtly Harald Keith Thompson (he told me to call him H. K., as we had too many Keiths around) would never put it that crudely. But when it came to disseminating (mis)information, H. K. and Marky-Mark were very much on the same page.

The wonder is that some investigators would gladly repeat his stories as gospel truth even when they knew Thompson liked to tease and deceive.

I’m thinking in particular of two Left-wing journalists, Kevin Coogan and Martin Lee. Colleagues and sometime collaborators (they shared bylines at Mother Jones), each of them spent most of the 1990s cranking out an impressive doorstop of a book. Coogan called his Dreamer of the Day: Francis Parker Yockey and the Postwar Fascist International (1999) while Lee’s was simply titled The Beast Awakens (1997). 

I should add that these are good, well-produced books, and often hard to find. If you can find them, you should buy them. But be aware they’re chuggy-jam with nonsense.

Like the Synoptic Gospels, they have the same cast of characters, cover the same territory, and promote the same thesis. To wit, that there is an secret international network of Fascists, or Nazis if you please: an intricate, exclusive web that connects doddering SS officers in ODESSA to Willis Carto’s Liberty Lobby to the truck bombers in Oklahoma City.

Or perhaps I should say “connected”…the present day in these tomes is around 1995. Ancient history, maybe inaccessible to anyone under the age of 50.

Preposterous? You bet. But it’s also a spicy, irresistible idea. I mean, think of the movie scripts you could write!  And don’t tell me it’s been done to death. This subject will never be done to death.

As with Levy’s Real Jewish Rye, you don’t have to be Jewish to see the attraction here. Coogan and Lee both laid the pastrami on thick, and they had a helping hand from the master prankster himself, Mr. Harald Keith Thompson. Because both books basically consist of interviews and memoranda from H. K. Thompson.

And H. K. really piled it on. Some of the more piquant allegations have achieved the status of quasi-history.

For example, the story that in the early 1950s G. Sylvester Viereck held sex orgies in his suite at the Hotel Belleclaire, which is portrayed as a kind of a Hellfire Club of the early 1950s. This demimondaine circle brought together such unlikely stablemates as F. P. Yockey, Viereck’s friend Dr. Harry Benjamin (Mischling, but fellow German nationalist), Hazel Guggenheim (Solomon’s niece and definitely not a Mischling), and the novelist Charles Jackson (The Lost Weekend), with maybe Alfred Kinsey and Wardell Pomeroy stopping in for scientific-sexual observation.

It’s all a lovely tale—Nazis and Jews and Jewish Nazis and sexologists doing the swinger thing, very comme il faut. But, alas, not very likely. There are simpler, more obvious explanations. The truth seems to be that these people were connected by a literary circle appended to Tiffany Thayer’s Fortean Society. You can research that on your own. The Fortean Society still exists, although without the exciting cast of characters.

If H. K. was straight-up lying to Lee and Coogan, that would be one thing. (Master Prankster Scores Again!) But no, his whole spiel was about how he continually gave misinformation to the FBI and other investigators. He gave the Feds false leads, putting them on the wrong track. Back in the 50s, H. K. would tell them that he’d seen Frank Healy (i.e., Yockey) at a party or someplace, but this would be months after Yockey had fled the country. H. K. did this simply to get the Feds chasing their own tails for a while. 

Lee and Coogan knew Thompson wasn’t on their side, but nevertheless he was the gold standard of sources. He evidently knew Otto Skorzeny and Otto Ernst Remer; he most certainly knew Yockey and Viereck. He was part of ODESSA, man!

The very fact that Thompson even spoke to Lee or Coogan was in itself newsworthy, not to mention flattering.

In truth, H. K. hid in plain sight and talked to everybody.  He gave his friend and neighbor Lyle Stuart (alias Lionel Simon) a chapter of a never-to-be published memoir or novel in which H. K. disses Francis Yockey as a dangerous fellow who should be avoided. He did this so it would find its way to the ADL and FBI, whom he never tired of taunting.

H. K. published a jokey “I Am an American Fascist” in Lyle Stuart’s Exposé magazine in 1954. But after that he pretty much went to ground. He wasn’t a person of interest again till the 1980s when the IHR discovered him, largely thanks to my old friend Keith Stimely.

Keith Stimely, sometime editor of the Journal of Historical Review, was led to the other Keith when he was compiling material for a biography on Yockey. A true scholar, Keith Stimely loved to research, hated to write. His biographical notes ended up being the skeleton of Kevin Coogan’s Dreamer of the Day. 

Anyway, Keith found H. Keith Thompson in Hornell, New York, now an obscure town but once a major stop on the old Erie line (and still prosperous—as it’s one of the few places left where you can assemble or repair rolling stock for your railroads or light-rail lines).

By this point, 1984, H. K. was long retired and pretty much out of politics, far-Right or otherwise, apart from the occasional Angry Old Man letter to the newspaper about parking spaces or automobile inspections. On the recorded tape, which now seems to have disappeared (though there is a transcript),  H. K. was very laid-back and self-effacing. Asked about Yockey’s Imperium, he hugged his big Labrador and said, “I believe in the DOG IMPERIUM!”

Often a spot of truth would emerge in the H. K. Thompson narrative; he didn’t so much deceive as make the facts un-researchable. I found this out when I discovered that I knew one of the minor characters in his story.

Back in the 1970s I attended the Lycée Français in New York, with someone whose mother had been a longtime and loyal intime of Francis Parker Yockey. Now, I’d barely heard of Yockey and I certainly did not know Steve’s mother’s connection, which went back to the early 1950s. It was something I got over the phone from H. K. Thompson. 

Anyway I phone-interviewed her, more than thirty years on (we’re talking 1988), and she was not happy to hear the names Francis Parker Yockey or H. Keith Thompson. I believe she was well lubricated when I first called, but there was a lot more to it. Virginia had been hounded many times over the years. I see the FBI grilled her in 1957. My mention of Yockey and Thompson cannot have been welcome.

| Published in Uncategorized

Doubles at Closing Time

Cissy Partridge of Oronoco, Maine favors us with these embarrassing memories of a childhood in the 50s and 60s:

When I was little most people didn’t have television sets, so got I dragged around to bars a lot. There wasn’t much to see except Milton Berle or maybe a prizefight, but it was good to get out of the house.

In those days you could walk up Third Avenue for blocks and blocks, and never miss a word of Uncle Miltie. The whole avenue was bars. This changed when the Third Avenue El came down in May 1955. The neighborhood improved somewhat, and pretty soon all you had left were P. J. Clarke’s, a couple of Italian restaurants, and some bird bars around East 53rd St.

The bird bars were populated mostly by homosexuals. They were called bird bars because they usually had a bird in their name: The Pink Cockatoo, The Blue Budgerigar, etc. I used to sneak in there dressed as a boy just to see what was going on. Homosexuals aren’t interested in kids, so they didn’t molest me. They bought me drinks though. The drinking age in New York was about fourteen then, but you could get served if you passed for twelve. By the time I could drink legally I had a real alcohol problem.

“The year after my father shot himself and we went to Disneyland, my mother went hopelessly insane.
She probably always was, but the booze hid it.”

 

I was a hermaphrodite, and in those days they used to pressure you to declare for one sex or another by the time you entered your teens. They’d tell you, if you don’t decide what sex you are pretty soon, you’ll end up a weird-looking adult, and you won’t get married and have kids. I looked at my mother and my stepdad Dan, and wasn’t sure I wanted to grow up at all.

I spent part of every year with my real father in California. He had a ranch in Montecito, and I’d be a boy when I was with him. This was my “Spin and Marty” period. I told people I’d be Tim Considine when I grew up. One day my father shot himself. I don’t know why, he was just drunk. My mother had to fly out and get me. We drove down to Disneyland before we flew back.

Back in New York my mother took me to Dr. Max Josephson, a gland specialist on Park Avenue. He treated old people who didn’t want to be old, and also people who didn’t know what sex they were. Dr. Max was half-Jewish but also a Nazi. His best friend was G. Sylvester Viereck, a poet who was in prison during the war for being a Nazi. They’d both been in America most of their lives but talked in thick German accents, just to show off.

Dr. Max and Sylvester would take me out to a hotel bar around the corner and drink schnapps. The bar was so dark Dr. Max had to take out his pocket flashlight just to read the menu.

“Zo! De cherrystone clams, dey are fresh today!” said Dr. Max. “Ve vill all haff cherrystone clams!”

“Dat zounds wunderschoen!” said Sylvester.

They’d pretend to discuss world events, and then suddenly start selling me on the various advantages of being male or female. “If you don’t decide now, you vill grow up to be ein veirdo,” Sylvester would say.

“Na, ve giff her anudder year,” said Dr. Max. They were like the Katzenjammer kids when they talked.

They’d get me very drunk on liqueurs, which I think they sometimes spiked with truth serum, but I was very stubborn and refused to talk. They told me it was important to choose a sex, because most good colleges were single-sex. In other words, here I was, maybe eleven, twelve years old, and already they were riding me to figure out whether I wanted to go to Yale or Vassar. As things turned out, the colleges all went coed a few years later, so in the end the issue was moot.

Anyway, my attention was on other things. The year after my father shot himself and we went to Disneyland, my mother went hopelessly insane. She probably always was, but the booze hid it. She went to AA meetings for a few months and then the craziness came out. We didn’t have the money for a good private sanitarium, so she ended up being put away in one of the state insane asylums, way upstate in the middle of nowhere. I don’t know what happened to her, but I think she died there.

Then my stepdad Dan left. He took a job building prefab houses on Guam. At least that’s what he said. I moved in with my Aunt Pudge who lived on Perry Street in the Village. I was always just a girl with Aunt Pudge because she did not like weirdness in any way. I went to an all-girls school in the East 80s, and she worked long hours at Time-Life Books, then went out drinking with friends, so we hardly ever saw each other.

On my own in the evening, I would check out the queer bars in the Village sometimes, dressing appropriately. They weren’t as nice as the bird bars uptown. They were mostly patronized by old people. I had to pretend to be looking for my father or mother when I was in there, and nobody ever bought me a drink. A nameless lesbian place under the West Side Highway wouldn’t even let me in. I think you had to be about 40 years old to enter. Julius’ at Waverly Place and 10th wouldn’t serve me liquor but they did have good hamburgers on toast.

One of my Aunt’s boyfriends gave her a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black for Christmas, but as she was not a Scotch drinker, it just sat on the shelf, collecting dust. I thought, “What a waste.” I broke the seal and started to take nips from it. Within a week it was gone. I filled the bottle up with tea and put it back up on the shelf.

Wouldn’t you know it though, right after that Aunt Pudge woke one morning with a terrific hangover and decided she needed some “hair of the dog.” She immediately figured out what I had done, and smashed my head through the window. The authorities came by and tried to put me in a home for delinquents, but then they found out my special condition and sent me back to Aunt Pudge instead. Of course it was all news to her too.

She was mad, but then she calmed down and took me out to the Schrafft’s on Fifth Avenue for a late sundae, only we stayed all night and got completely plastered instead. Schrafft’s closed up and threw us out.

Was our face red!

Note: This originally appeared in SpliceToday on January 1, 2019.

| Published in Intoxication

What a Swell Howard Johnson’s Article

WSJ and other periodicals routinely run stories of why and how Howard Johnson’s died, but for the real skinny you can’t beat this swell takeout!

 

| Published in Babysitting, children, History

Advice to the Young Fry

Notes from the Jane Weir commencement speech, 2019.

Don’t be like Mister Hornblower, kids. Mister Hornblower had one little precious talent, which would have made him rich and famous if he had bothered to exploit it properly. So famous, in fact, that I couldn’t even write about him here, because you’d recognize him right away, the same way you’d recognize a thinly fictionalized version of Andy Warhol or Donald Trump.

But you see, Andy and The Donald early on learned to accept themselves, warts-and-all. And that was the secret of their success. Mister Hornblower by contrast is just as weird, or weirder, but he never owned up to his weird, unique talent or parlayed it into a career. His big special talent is pederasty: picking up teenage boys on the street: luring them to his lair with drugs and alcohol, and then ravishing them like the old-school pederast that he is. A secondary talent is sponging off friends, which enabled him to survive into old age with nary a nod to gainful employment.

He’s 75 now, so he’s got a half-century of juicy degeneracy behind him, and at least a dozen madly brilliant, but unwritten, novels or plays inside him. He fancies himself a writer, but has never written, let alone published, anything you’d ever care to read. Instead of writing pulpy, scathing dialogue with dirty old men and boy hustlers—the world he knows—he keeps cranking out talky, artificial plays about gentlefolk from the world of A. P. Gurney and John Cheever (a world he has never known). Or else he tries to write fluffy, whimsical essays in the style of a New Yorker magazine casual from many decades past. In college had an elderly, bowtied writing teacher, Mr. E. J. Gordon, who liked that jejeune style; so here we are, 65 years later, with Mr. E. J. Gordon long under the topsoil but Mister Hornblower is still writing to please him.

I’ve put the question to him, gently and tactfully: “Why don’t you write what you know, Hornblower? Why not write a stage comedy where an old guy is continually bringing little twinks into his tiny studio apartment, and everyone gets into a whole lot of mischief? Think of the possibilities!”

He makes a face and winces. Hornblower can’t see it; it’s just too perverse.

So Hornblower doesn’t put his genius into his writing; he puts it into his life. He has structured his whole life around his need to pick up boys on the street. He’s practically never had any sort of regular job. Fifty years ago, not long after college, he had his one and only fling with substantive employment. He went to Rockefeller Center every day and wrote questions and answers for a daytime TV game show.

This may sound like a dream job to you, because you don’t know anything. I mean, they paid him like $150 a week and he had to deal with dreadful people. Ron Greenberg Productions, my God. Or maybe it would be a dream job for you. Maybe for most people. It does sound sort of fun.

Anyway, Hornblower quit this after about a year, in which time he saved up a princely thousand dollars or two, and made contact with a couple of outlets for his proposed “freelance writing.” One of these was his college alumni magazine. He wasn’t looking very far and wide. He wrote an article in twinkling prose about a visit to the new “gay” club on campus, but it got killed. It was hardly lurid, but the Secretary and chief development officer of the university found the subject just too scandalous to lay before the alumni.

That’s pretty much where his “freelance” ambitions died. He was smoking too much dope to get off the ball anyway. When money ran out he inveigled a young friend of his to help him apply for Unemployment by claiming that he, the young friend, had employed Hornblower for a couple of months. This project likewise went nowhere.

Finally, out of desperation, he went back to the game show on a short-term basis, then lucked into another position writing for a television program, this time a kiddy show on Boston educational TV. He sublet his New York pigeonhole, took an overpriced studio on Beacon Hill, and moved to Boston. He lasted four weeks.

Hornblower didn’t understand children, or television, since he owned neither and the sum total of his kiddy-show knowledge in the area lay in memories of Andy’s Gang and Spin and Marty, circa 1955. Which weren’t much of an aid in writing educational kiddy fare in the 1970s.

Cowboy Duke’s Science Show was the name of the program. Actually it wasn’t; I’m hiding the real name from the search engines. But regardless of the actual name, Hornblower freaked them all out with offbeat ideas. They wanted to do a segment about sound, the physics of sound. Hornblower proposed showing a dog’s head slugged by a hand in a boxing glove; this would be played in slow-motion with a slow bum-bum-bum soundtrack. That’s how sound works, kids!

On another occasion the “science” angle was that people used to  believe in witches. The idea was that everyone should pooh-pooh the idea of witches, but Hornblower excitedly announced that he knew a real witch, a witch who was General Patton’s daughter and lived in Ipswich, Massachusetts, not too far away. She could come on the program and tell the kids what real witches were all about!

The rest of the writing and production staff were aghast. Hornblower was given his walking papers. Cowboy Duke, the host, told him nicely that with his great imagination he should go off and write a novel.

No novel was in the offing. This four weeks’ experience instead led him down a delusional path of imagining himself a kiddy-show producer-writer. For the next three years he lived by borrowing money from “investor” friends. Most of his days he still spent recruiting teenage boys, this time telling them they could become television stars. Because you see, he may have lived in a 100-square-foot flat (by now he’d moved back to Manhattan) but he was a genius and big TV show producer.

Hornblower’s kiddy-show project took a long time to die. He dreamt it up as he left Cowboy Duke’s show in mid-1972, and three years later he was still promoting it to anyone who wanted to hear. By this point he was so hard up his electricity had been turned off. He persuaded an upstairs neighbor to run an electrical cord through the windows, so he could still keep a couple of lights on, in the bathroom and at his writing desk. Friends at a brokerage firm gave him a little work rewriting sales materials, and one philanthropist ponied up the money to send him off to rehab. Poverty notwithstanding, Hornblower had acquired a daily habit of cocaine and vodka. A few years later he got into a drunken argument with some Jew in a gay bar (as Hornblower tells the story), and the Jew smashed a bottle into Hornblower’s cranium, so hard that Hornblower was rushed to Emergency, and ever after had a shallow crater in the crown of his head. But it was a lucky turn; he sued his assailant, a lawyer of some kind, and they settled for enough money for Hornblower to retire from his life of ease and move to coastal Maine.

There, as always, he managed to keep a string of boys around. Now the drugs of choice were heroin and freebase cocaine. (“I can make in three seconds in the microwave,” he boasted.) One of his boys got arrested for holding or selling, and Hornblower too had some minor legal strike against him.

He never had any interest in men his own age—not even when he was in his twenties—which made him sort of Odd Man Out back in the late 60s when he was first announcing himself as “Gay.” He would frequent rather tweedy, grown-up gay bars—Julius’ in Greenwich Village, Sporter’s on Beacon Hill—but never accosted the other patrons unless they happened to have a cute young trick in tow.

What a fascinating oeuvre Hornblower could have parlayed his cockeyed experiences into! Instead of pissing away his energies trying to pretend to be precisely what he was not: a polite writer writing polite plays about the upper bourgeoisie in the leafy exurbs of New England.

Other men with double lives will double-insulate the secret one: build an upright career beyond reproach, surround themselves with wife and kids; and then be free to go to town in the half-world. They might even preserve a measure of imaginative honesty, should they be creative sorts.

But not Mister Hornblower. Don’t be like him, kids.

Revised 4 December 2021

| Published in Intoxication, Television

The New York Times Book Review Caper

Famous Broadway columnist Mr. D. Runyon Smythe tells of the time he moved beyond his showbiz column and tried his hand at book reviewing—to his great regret!

So the year 1962 rolls around and I am fed up with the sort of horseradish that is now being presented in Broadway shows. Neil Simon is just getting started with his cascade of onstage sitcoms, but already I smell the rot in Shubert Alley.

You have straight plays like “Take Her—She’s Mine,” by Phoebe and Henry Ephron, two inveterate scribblers of bad movies. You probably cannot even name any of their scripts, but I assure you such things are in the books, and they are stinkers indeed. Such people ought to be banned for life from Broadway.

The only positive point about this piece of malarkey is a fetching young ingenue named Elizabeth Ashley, who in future days undoubtedly goes the sad way of other ingenues and starlets and debutantes. Although it also has Art Carney, who carries the ball.

Through the grapevine I learn that people do not read my “Lullaby of Broadway” column much anymore. They syndicate me in only 7 papers, including the Yonkers Herald-American, which doesn’t really count. So I decide to take a crack at the book-review game.

My good friend Alston Parker Ellis is the editor of the Herald-Tribune Book Review, which is the premier book rag in New York. Alston sets me up with a desk, and a phone, and a couple of drinks sessions with John Hay Whitney, who holds the purse-strings.  Before long I am whacking out three or four book reviews per week, on such grand titles as Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris, Franny and Zooey, Ship of Fools, and Seven Days in May.

Alston informs me that I am very good at this craft, for I can fill up a 600-word column without saying anything actionable. I merely leave a pleasant fragrance behind. When publishers want to quote me in blurbs and ads, they pull something like,

There are a lot of pages in this book, even more than in By Love Possessed.
— D. Runyon Smythe, NY Herald-Tribune.

Because of this, almost every single one of the books I review receives an option for a Hollywood movie. So I am really cooking.

But now the Herald-Tribune Book Review falls upon some lean years, and it appears this pre-eminent publishing-rag-of-record must be cut back to free up budget for a new Sunday supplement called New York magazine.

This supplement publishes exciting, scurrilous articles by young turks such as Tom Wolfe and Gail Sheehy, however it does not add to the Herald-Tribune bottom-line, for the big old advertisers who support the Trib in its salad days are now going out of business. The retailers we all grow up on—Best & Co., DePinna, Peck & Peck, Rogers Peet—one by one they disappear, and so do their display ads in the front section of the New York Herald-Tribune.

As we like to say at Mindy’s restaurant, I see the handwriting on the wall.  Fortunately I never give up my famous “Lullaby of Broadway” column for the syndicate, so there will always be at least a little something in the kitty. Nevertheless I am now regarded a book-review guy, so I go crosstown to the lowlifes at the New York Times.

At the New York Times Book Review, I work for the editor Chuckles McGrath, who assigns me the “New and Noteworthy” column. Every day a hundred horrible books land on my desk, or rather to the side of my desk, as I have barely the room on my desk-blotter to swing a very small kitten. At random I pick out five or six of these doorstops. Then I pay very close attention to the dust-jacket blurbs and press release, and write witty summaries of what I think the book must be about.

One day a stocky, expensively-upholstered little Japanese girl comes down from Yale—for Yale is now coed, it being the 1970s—and tells me Chuckles McGrath has given her leave to start a column of her own, using the extra books I don’t have time to read. This is about a thousand books a week. So I let young Miss Michiko Kakutani (for such is her name) cart off my extras in a wheelbarrow.

Miss Kakutani finds gold amongst the dross, as they say. Overnight she discovers Jay McInerney, Tama Janowitz, and Brett Easton Ellis, all of whom would lie in my review pile forever if their fate hangs on D. Runyon Smythe.

 

| Published in Books

Bea Lillie and Bert Lahr at the Winter Garden

Ruth Anne Clairison of Upper Montclair, NJ, charms us with this embarrassing tale from 1936:

We had never heard of Beatrice Lillie or Bert Lahr (this was years before Just Around the Corner or The Wizard of Oz) but when our uncle told my twin brother and me that he had free tickets to their new revue at the Winter Garden Theatre, we were on it like a dog on a porkchop.

We had never been to a legitimate theater before, so didn’t know what to expect. Outside a newsboy was shouting: “Extree! Extree! Read all about it! Passenger liner goes down with all hands on board!” So it was a big night for a lot of people, and we knew the revue had to be even more exciting.

The theater manager came out in front of the curtain to announce that Mr. Lahr had been taken ill, and in his stead would be his understudy, the young Byron McBeardsley. My brother and I didn’t know the difference, but I could tell my uncle was profoundly disappointed.

A revue is a series of short plays with songs and music. Our uncle pointed out Bea Lillie to us. She was not a nice lady. She was very mean to the young man who was replacing Bert Lahr.

In the second scene he was playing a piano, and she closed the key-lid on his fingers, just to be mean. Then she laughed.

“I think she is drunk,” said our uncle. “Come children, we are getting our money back.”

But at the box office they said we couldn’t have refunds because they were free tickets. My uncle became very angry, and the manager had to bring in five policemen to calm him down. He ended up putting us on the train to Upper Montclair, but we missed the last one that evening and had to sleep on a bench in Penn Station.

It was not a fun night.

 

| Published in theater