Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part article by columnist Robert Eringer.
While residing in Monaco 33 years ago, a letter arrived from former CIA spymaster Clair George. We’d met a couple of years earlier when I tried to recruit him to write a book about his career — and now he was reaching out.
Looking to live in Washington, D.C., I flew over, and Clair graciously booked me a room at the Chevy Chase Club. On my first day in town we lunched in the Winter Center, the club’s casual hub, though not casual enough for blue jeans or cell phone use. Caught twice violating such rules and management ran you up their flagpole.
Clair introduced me to a Realtor, doctors and dentists, anyone and everyone needed when resettling somewhere new. He always concluded most phone conversations with, “Is there anything else I can do for you?” And he truly meant it.
That summer, sitting on Adirondack chairs and sipping mint juleps facing CCC’s immaculately landscaped golf course, Clair ’fessed up. “I’m probably never going to write a book.” But he added, “Maybe we can do something else together.”
I perked up. “Like what?”
“But only for billionaires and royalty,” I quipped.
And that’s how our “creative problem resolution” enterprise began — as a joke, lubricated by bourbon and mashed mint leaves. Moreover, we agreed only to accept assignments possessed of a high L.Q. (Laugh Quotient) on the basis that “If it ain’t funny, we won’t do it.”
“We’ve got brains, contacts and a phone number,” said Clair. “Now all we need is CLIENTS.” In fact, Clair already had a client: Barnum & Bailey Ringling Brothers Circus.
Post-CIA, Clair could have sat on White House panels or joined a think tank like many of his contemporaries, but he would have found those pompous temples of pontification boring.
Instead, he tried to help acquire holy grails for the circus: a panda from China, a white elephant and acrobats from North Korea.
Clair never needed to do crossword puzzles. He preferred real-life puzzling situations, and instead of sitting in a fluorescent lit room, he saw the whole of downtown Washington as his office. He would spend the day “floating around” (his parlance).
He might float from a meeting at the Pentagon to the White House, then to lunch and on to the State Department, stopping along the way at public telephones (he knew them all) to check messages on his home phone answering machine, check in with various persons, myself included, before floating home late in the afternoon, at which point his wife’s social calendar took over.
DeCarlo’s, Clair’s favorite neighborhood restaurant, became our headquarters, and so, aside from the cost of a cocktail or a meal, we had no overhead. No secretaries, no advertising.
Then something of deep concern to The Circus fell into my lap. The ensuing assignment lasted five years and wound up in court for almost twice as long, providing me one of the finest learning experiences of my life. A condition of settlement is that I am precluded from writing about that mission — a great pity as only the plaintiff’s side was ever told in the media.
That December I got invited to Clair and his wife Mary’s 35th wedding anniversary bash. One of Clair’s close friends befriended me and took delight in pointing out all the biggest luminaries from CIA, current and retired.
I felt privileged to be among them.
Off and running
In early January 1991, the stars aligned for Clair and me to travel to Europe, our first trip as problem resolution specialists, for a Fortune 500 company that retained us to explore the possibility of creating a lottery in Monaco, based on my having lived there.
With the Gulf War about to begin, there was no problem with getting airline, hotel and restaurant reservations. Aside from us, no one was going anywhere.
Upon arrival at Nice-Cote d’Azur, a helicopter whirled us across the French Riviera to Monte Carlo. At an open-air table café beneath brightly shining sun, Clair perused a newspaper, sipped cappuccino and lounged in his chair.
“I could sit here all day and not feel guilty,” he said. “In Bethesda, I wake up and look for things to do — the American work ethic, you have to do something. But here it feels the most natural thing just to sit in a café, read and do nothing.”
An hour later we manifested ourselves at the Monaco Yacht Club. One day we’re freezing our butts off, slushing through icebox Washington weather; the next, luxuriating in warm sunshine, an elegant yacht club — and lunching with a real prince.
I’d met the Hereditary Prince Albert a few times, but this was our first meal together. The prince was shy, not knowing where to fix his eyes or what to say, relying on a mutual friend to grease the conversation.
Talk finally turned from pleasantries to lotteries. Albert didn’t seem optimistic about creating a Monaco lottery. Others had tried, he said, but not succeeded, partly because his principality desired to steer away from its gambling image.
“Lottery isn’t gambling,” I said, repeating our client’s mantra that “Lottery is the imagination business. People who buy tickets imagine what they would do if they won a million dollars. They fantasize about having lunch at a yacht club on the French Riviera with a prince.”
We all laughed. In truth, a lottery is a tax on people who don’t know arithmetic.
The PT Philosophy
Clair and I spent the next couple days goofing off. “Let’s goof off,” Clair would say. If he wasn’t “floating around” he was “goofing off.” And thus we floated around Monaco’s fine dining establishments while awaiting a summons from Harry Schultz, a reclusive multi-millionaire American who had expatriated himself in Monte Carlo as part of his ongoing struggle to evade Big Brother. Schultz espoused a so-called “P.T. Philosophy,” which he claimed to have conceived. “P.T.” was supposed to stand for “Permanent Traveler” or “Prepared Thoroughly.”
But it really means “Partly Tetched,” at least as Harry practiced it, because he rarely left Monaco, the second smallest country in the world, about a mile-and-a-half square. On top of that it was the Romany (gypsies) who had originated a “P.T.” lifestyle, and they’d been doing it for centuries.
From his ivory tower in Monte Carlo, Harry dispensed financial advice to those willing to pay $800 for 15 minutes (a Guinness World Record). I’d gotten to know him while living in Monaco. The only time he would ever remove himself from analyzing stocks, bonds and currencies was when I’d invite him to Le Texan and cajole him into drinking beer directly from a bottle. He once looked at me in awe and said, “YOU practice what I preach,” referring to my devil-may-care approach to enjoying life.
The problem we’d been striving to resolve for Harry: He had created an organization called Freedom Inc. to help crusade for freedom against worldwide tyranny and oppression. But his partner spent the organization’s money on first-class travel and gourmet meals without little else to show for it.
One of the donors had grown irate by Freedom Inc.’s high expenditure and lack of results, had gotten hold of Freedom Inc.’s mailing list and mounted a letter-writing campaign accusing Harry and his partner of fraud.
Harry hired a lawyer and filed a libel suit. The defendant then countersued, and Harry found himself entangled in litigation at the greater cost of what he valued most: His privacy. Case in point: The second question asked of Harry during a telephonic deposition was where he lived. “Uh,” Harry replied, “why do you need you know that?”
Harry’s brief for Clair and me: “Get the antagonist off my back.”
So I telephoned the antagonist and feigned interest in his lawsuit. “Fraud has been alleged,” I said. “Do you know anything about that?”
Whoosh! Out it flowed as if I’d opened a fire hydrant.
My only problem was getting this guy to shut up long enough to keep my notes straight. Harry Schultz had become this guy’s obsession and he confided what he was thinking, doing and thinking of doing, along with his legal strategy.
I was able to report to Harry that the antagonist was unmarried, had no kids and no hobbies. Legal costs did not concern him, and he perceived litigation as a worthy recipient of his disposable income to expose Harry Schultz as a thief and a fraud.
Our advice: Drop the libel suit and maintain total silence because attention only stoked this guy’s fire. But Harry wanted a resolution that required the antagonist to pen no further letters about him.
“Harry,” I countered, “It’s not like he’s publishing. He’s just writing letters. The most dignified response would be to ignore his accusations.”
But Harry wanted punishment dealt to his antagonist, by proxies. Truth be known, he wanted the guy’s legs broken. After all, Harry reasoned, the antagonist “caused me stress,” which had evolved into vertigo rendering him chronically cranky.
I patiently explained that Clair and I do not do mayhem.
Ultimately, Harry took my advice. He withdrew his lawsuit and ceased all contact with the antagonist, who quickly got bored and disappeared.
Problem solved. Clair and I broke the first rule of problem solving: We actually solved our client’s problems, resulting in a satisfied client who no longer needed us.
“Not so fast,” said Harry Schultz. He had another problem. (Clair and I quickly learned that after solving a problem, we were in greater demand than before.) That’s why we were seeing Harry in Monaco.
Although suspicious of new people, Harry took to charismatic Clair immediately.
Conversely, Clair felt comfortable with everyone, whether a prince or a bum. He knew how to work people and make them like him, trust him. He had built a career — an extremely successful one — based on conning people to betray their countries by revealing sensitive state secrets.
Harry relied on written “topic lists” with items such as “What did you mean by this?” referring to a phrase on a two-month-old fax and “Why can’t we do something more drastic” to his antagonist.
“What do you have in mind?” I asked whimsically.
“Send him subscriptions to pornographic magazines,” said Harry.
“Hell, Harry, he’d probably like that. And he’s no longer a threat to you.”
We sat for three long hours ticking off Harry’s agenda. For dinner, I suggested Le Texan, swig beer from a bottle. But Harry would have none of it, insisting on the stuffy Hermitage Hotel nearby.
The Hermitage — all of Monte Carlo — was a ghost town with war expected any minute and whatever war meant. Consequently, we were the only patrons inside The Hermitage’s restaurant.
Harry had obviously never learned the French habit of choosing a restaurant by how busy it is. he ambience in The Hermitage was opulent but their salmon, this night, tasted as if it had been cooked a week earlier, refrigerated and microwaved.
Next Saturday: Part 2 of “How I Got Into The Spy Business.”
Robert Eringer is a longtime Montecito author with vast experience in investigative journalism. He welcomes questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.