American Hippopotamus

American Hippopotamus

A bracing and eccentric epic of espionage and hippos.

By Jon Mooallem

The Atavist Magazine, No. 32


Jon Mooallem is a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine and the author of Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America, one of the New York Times Book Review’s 100 Notable Books of 2013. He lives in San Francisco.

Editor: Evan Ratliff
Producers: Gray Beltran, Megan Detrie
Research: Kelsey Kudak
Illustrations: Mark Summers
Fact Checker: Riley Blanton
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Soundtrack: “Across the Black Prairie” and
“Hero Theme” written and performed by Black Prairie www.blackprairie.com
Images and Film:
Image MAH11087A, Smithsonian Institution Archives
R362.D92p, Theodore Roosevelt Collection, Houghton Library
AF-85.4.1, Smithsonian Institution, Human Studies Film Archives

Published in December 2013. Design updated 2021.

This is a story about hippopotamuses, as advertised, but it’s also a story about two very complicated and exceptional men. These men were spies. They were also bitter enemies. Each wanted to kill the other and fully expected to feel really good about himself afterward. Eccentric circumstances—circumstances having to do with hippopotamuses—would join these men together as allies and even dear friends. But then, eventually, they’d be driven into opposition again.

Whatever strange bond these two men had, they were loyal to it. They were like repulsive magnets: Some fundamental property of each was perfectly opposed to the core of the other. And yet, somehow throughout their long lives—as several volatile phases of American history tumbled along in the background—they also had a way of continually snapping back together. One of these men was a humble patriot, known for his impeccable integrity. He tried to leave detailed, reliable accounts of what he did and thought and felt. The other, I discovered, was a megalomaniac and a pathological liar.

This is a true story, and a very serious one, even though it’s composed of many details that will seem ludicrous and impossible. Most of those details are irrefutable, though. And while I worked hard to verify the rest, doing so occasionally proved futile. I’d like to try and explain why.

These two men will seem larger than life, but they lived at a time, a hundred years ago, when, I would argue, life in America seemed larger than life—when what was unimaginable still felt feasible and ideas that looked ridiculous could still come true.

That said, this is the story of one idea that looked ridiculous and didn’t come true. The idea was ridiculous. But it was completely reasonable, too.

All I can say is, try to keep that in mind.

Part One

I

The Most Complete Human Being Who Ever Lived

Frederick Russell Burnham didn’t like public speaking, but he arrived at the Maryland Hotel, in Pasadena, California, on the night of September 19, 1910, determined to communicate a few clear and uncontroversial truths.

Burnham was 49 years old—a frontiersman and soldier of fortune who’d spent his life leaping into conflicts with American Indians and colonial wars in Africa. He looked bronzed and weather-beaten, like a living monument to those campaigns, and though small—he was only about five foot four—his presence was imposing. He was a compact strongbox of a man. One admirer would describe him as “emphatically a man’s man: able, active, alert.” The impression he gave was immediately one of “force and self-control.”      

Burnham had risen to fame as a scout—an esteemed breed of solitary wayfinder and spy with no exact analog in contemporary warfare. Scouts slinked into enemy territory to gather intelligence or cut supply lines, or roamed the no man’s land around camp to keep watch. They were disciplined, self-sufficient, preternaturally competent. Their proficiency in the wilderness seemed almost supernatural at times, and Burnham, who’d earned the nickname King of Scouts, exemplified their character and prowess.

“He has trained himself to endure the most appalling fatigues, hunger, thirst, and wounds; has subdued the brain to infinite patience, has learned to force every nerve in his body to absolute obedience, to still even the beating of his heart,” wrote the journalist Richard Harding Davis. “He reads ‘the face of Nature’ as you read your morning paper.” Another writer described Burnham’s life as “an endless chain of impossible achievements.”

People who met Burnham tended to comment on the same disarming quality of his eyes. The novelist H. Rider Haggard called them “steady, grey blue eyes that have in them a far-away look such as those acquire whose occupation has caused them to watch continually at sea or on great plains.” They were eyes that absorbed every inch of the periphery, even as they bored deep into your own—eyes, one woman noted, “of startling keenness and brilliancy, eyes that see everything without seeming to see.” She remembered sitting with friends under a great sycamore tree in California while Burnham spun tales of a certain African siege. The scout paused at one point and said casually, “We’ll kill that snake when I finish the story.” No one else had noticed the rattlesnake that had slithered in silently behind them as he spoke.

He was “a man whose senses and abilities approached that of a wild predator,” one writer explained. He could go two and a half days without sleep. He could fix a pistol’s broken mainspring with a bit of buffalo bone. It was said he could smell water from afar, and very seldom drank alcohol and never smoked, for fear it would dull his senses. Commanding officers described him as half jackrabbit and half wolf, or as “a man totally without fear.” But ultimately, the most impressive thing about Burnham may have been his reticence to talk too much about his conspicuous impressiveness. (Years later he would prepare two versions of a prologue for his memoirs and label them “Boastful” and “Non-Boastful.” The “Boastful” version was hardly boastful, and the last paragraph of the “Non-Boastful” version began: “If mine seems a rather boastful recital, I shall apologize.”) One acquaintance would call him “the most complete human being who ever lived.”

Burnham had come to the hotel in Pasadena to address the Humane Association of California at its second annual convention, a banquet hall full of do-gooders, dedicated to the prevention of cruelty to animals. The Humane Association had quickly become one of California’s most powerful civic organizations, and Burnham—now part of an eccentric brain trust that was getting its own innovative animal project off the ground—knew that the philanthropists in the room might be valuable allies. He didn’t necessarily respect them, though. Privately, he mocked humane societies as small-minded and sentimental—full of romantics who’d rush to save flies from murderous spiders. It was foolish, Burnham felt, to “fritter away our money and time on silly, emotional things as proposed by so-called animal lovers” at a time when America roiled with so many substantial opportunities and terrors.

Burnham was here at the Maryland Hotel to call these animal lovers to a higher purpose, to gather them behind an idea. It was a grand and sparkling idea, an idea with momentum. The idea was already making its way through the U.S. House of Representatives in the form of a bill, introduced by one of Burnham’s partners, the Louisiana congressman Robert Broussard. Theodore Roosevelt, a friend of Burnham’s, had been so impressed with the idea a few years earlier that, newspapers reported, he’d pledged “his hearty approval and promise of cooperation.” Days before the speech in Pasadena, Burnham had gone to Denver to meet with the former president and secured his endorsement all over again. The New York Times called the idea “practical and timely.” Editorials around the country claimed that the idea’s time had come, or that it couldn’t come soon enough.

The idea was to import hippopotamuses from Africa, set them in the swamplands along the Gulf Coast, and raise them for food. The idea was to turn America into a nation of hippo ranchers.

II

The Meat Question

“I do not think this importation idea can be laughed down,” Congressman Broussard had insisted to the press. And truly, to anyone who appreciated common sense—who loved to see logic, like a bicycle chain, pushing a wheel smoothly forward—the idea was nothing short of gorgeous. Hippopotamuses, it turned out, could solve a number of problems for the country, all at once. For starters, they constituted a blubbery, elegant fix to what newspapers had taken to calling the Meat Question.

America was withering under a serious meat shortage at the time. Beef prices had soared as rangeland had been ruined by overgrazing, and a crippled industry struggled to satisfy America’s explosively growing cities, an unceasing wave of immigrants, and a surging demand for meat abroad. There were more mouths to feed than ever, but the number of cows in the country had been dropping by millions of head a year. People whispered about the prospect of eating dogs. The seriousness of the Meat Question, and the failure to whip together some brave and industrious solution to it, was jarring the nation’s self-confidence and self-image. It was a troubling sign that maybe the country couldn’t keep growing as fast and recklessly as it had been. Maybe there were limits after all.

Now, though, someone had an answer. The answer was hippopotamuses. One Agricultural Department official estimated that an armada of free-range hippos, set moping through the bayous of Florida, Mississippi, and Louisiana, would easily yield a million tons of meat a year. Already, Representative Broussard had dispatched a field agent on a fact-finding mission. The man, a native of southern Africa, found the Louisiana swamps “wildly dismal and forbidding.” (The “silence strike[s] one with an almost unforgettable horror,” he wrote in his report, titled “Why and How to Place Hippopotamus in the Louisiana Lowlands.”) Still, the place was perfect for hippos. His conclusion: “The hippopotamus would find no difficulty living in Louisiana.”

Apparently, the animals tasted pretty good, too, especially the fatty brisket part, which could be cured into a delicacy that a supportive New York Times editorial was calling, euphemistically, “lake cow bacon.” (“Toughness is only skin deep,” another reporter noted.) Congressman Broussard’s office was receiving laudatory letters from ordinary citizens, commending his initiative-taking and ingenuity. Several volunteered to be part of the expedition to bring the great beasts back.

In other words, in the encroaching malaise of 1910, it was easy to be gripped by the brilliance of the hippopotamus scheme, to feel hippopotamuses resonating not just as a way of sidestepping catastrophic famine, but as a symbol of American greatness being renewed. Burnham’s generation had seen the railroad get synched across the wild landscape like a bridle and the near solid swarms of buffalo and passenger pigeons get erased. America had dynamited fish out of rivers, dredged waterways, felled and burned forests, and peeled silver from the raw wreckage of what had once been mountains. The frontier was now closed. So much had been accomplished and so much taken. It was clear that a once boundless-seeming land did have boundaries, and with those limits revealed, you couldn’t help but feel like you were drifting listlessly between them. There was a sense in the country of: Now what? And, lurking beneath that: What have we done?

For Burnham, though, this moment was only a chance for the country to pause and regather itself, then start over, with more wisdom this time. “Let us not make the same mistakes again,” he would tell the Humane Association that night in Pasadena. “This nation has reached a stage in its development where we should take stock of our assets and make full use of them in an intelligent manner.” So much of the continent had been left “lonely, silent, devoid of life in any useful form,” and, Burnham believed, “the hour of time is at hand when we can make use of it. It is within our power to people it with useful and beautiful animals.”

In short, the same industriousness that had allowed America to snatch up the continent’s natural resources and snuff out its beauty could be deployed now, more pragmatically, to restock it. Yes, the hippo idea sounded crazy. But as a glowing editorial in Washington Post noted, “Proposals which at first may look odd and chimerical to the mass of our readers will be seen to be matter-of-fact propositions when they become familiar.” And if we’d learned to swallow raw oysters and suck the meat out of crabs, the paper argued, why couldn’t we also embrace “that plump and pulchritudinous beast which has a smile like an old-fashioned fireplace?” The reasons it might look impossible were fickle and foolish. Burnham understood that the most restrictive boundary America was running up against was psychological—a scarcity of courage and imagination, and not really just meat.

The introduction of hippos would signal an awakening, a kind of national maturation: proof that, as Burnham put it, “we have passed from the destructive to the constructive period of our national life.” Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine was even more stirred by their promise: “This animal, homely as a steam-roller, [is] the embodiment of salvation,” it wrote. “Peace, plenty, and contentment lie before us; and a new life, with new experiences, new opportunities, new vigor, new romance, folded in that golden future when the meadows and the bayous of our Southern lands shall swarm with herds of hippopotami.”


The master of ceremonies at the Maryland Hotel that night was the Reverend Robert Jones Burdette, an avuncular Baptist minister known nationally for his early career as a newspaper humorist and touring performer. (Burdette, it was said, had delivered his comedic lecture “The Rise and Fall of the Mustache” more than 3,000 times.) All night he introduced speakers with poems and little jokes. But when announcing Burnham, all of Burdette’s corniness fell away. The reverend seemed suddenly stiffened, stilled—like the air before an electrical storm.

“I am going to introduce to you a man who knows the cruel edges of war,” he began. “Who has seen the keen blades sweep together as they clashed like the grim shears of Atropos, severing the throbbing threads of human life, smearing the golden sands and the emerald grasses with the darkest stains that ever discolored the pain-distorted face of God’s beautiful world. A soldier. A scout whose name has filled both hemispheres with stories of his daring and loyal service. The rider of the bad lands between the lines, who trusts his own knowledge some, providence a great deal, and the sound legs and good horse sense of his steed perhaps most of all in some blood-freezing emergencies.… I am honored, in being permitted to present, as our next speaker, the only man in America who [knows] the darkest shades of darkest Africa.… Major Frederick R. Burnham.”

The scout surveyed his audience. He readied himself to speak.

“I am by nature an optimist,” he said.

III

Guts

Frederick Russell Burnham was born in southern Minnesota in 1861. One night the following year, his parents watched from their isolated log cabin as the night sky turned red in the distance. The nearby town of New Ulm was burning. Chief Little Crow was leading the Lakota on a raid, killing hundreds of people, including children, during a conflict known as the Dakota War. Burnham’s father, Edwin, a Presbyterian minister, rushed off to the town of Mankato to gather powder and bullets to protect the family.

One evening while Edwin was away, Burnham’s mother, Rebecca, was brushing her hair in the doorway when she saw a band of Lakota slip out of the forest. Knowing she wouldn’t be able to evade them with her child in tow, she hid the boy—not yet two years old—in a heap of newly shucked corn, too green to catch fire. She told him to keep perfectly still. Then she took off, vanishing into the cottonwoods toward a neighbor’s house six miles away. At dawn she came back to find that the Indians had burned the cabin, but her son was still alive. He’d stayed motionless in the corn—stashed away, like baby Moses in his basket, as a river of violence rushed past. “I had faithfully carried out my first orders of silent obedience,” the scout later wrote.

Seven years later, Edwin was injured when a log he was carrying slipped and fell on him, puncturing a lung. The family relocated to Los Angeles, a town materializing out of the sagebrush and dust, where he could find some relief in the warmer climate. But Edwin would pass away only a few years after they arrived. Burnham’s mother took out a loan and bought two train tickets, for herself and Burnham’s young brother, to return east, where they could be with family. Fred stayed behind, deciding to strike out on his own in California. He got a job delivering telegrams as a mounted messenger for Western Union and excelled at the job, riding hard over precarious terrain day and night, switching to a second horse when he wore out the first, then a third horse, and a fourth. In no time, he’d repaid his mother’s loan, racing between Los Angeles and Anaheim, out to Santa Monica, and through the hinterlands that would become Pasadena. He was often alone for days at a time. He was 13 years old.

When he was 14, religious family members in the small town of Clinton, Iowa, concerned about his soul, summoned Burnham to live with them—to try life as a regular townie kid. But the regularness of Clinton didn’t suit him. He resented his relatives for trying to impose a prefabricated existence on him. He wanted to live in a world that unfolded, little by little, on the trail ahead of him. Playing games—ordinary kid games, with sticks and balls—seemed strange to him; he couldn’t get his head around it. “I felt an urge to do bigger things,” he said. He lasted a year. Then one night he stole a canoe, slipped off down the Mississippi, and never came back.

Burnham reached Texas, where he encountered the grizzled characters of a fading West. Many of these old frontiersmen had wound up as alone at the end of their lives as Burnham was at the outset of his, and they’d sit with him for hours, unspooling their stories. An old scout named Holmes had lost his family in the Indian Wars and, without any heirs to pass his knowledge on to, began teaching Burnham the old ways of scouting. He led Burnham through the desert for six months, forging the boy’s grit and courage into actual skills.

These adventures were exhilarating but often unpleasant. Holmes could be a curmudgeon, especially at the end of a long, hot day, and would pick apart everything Burnham did. Watching the boy sling a saddle off his horse, the old man would bark: “Oh my God, I never can teach you anything! You are a little ass. In the morning you can go back home.” But then the sun would come up and all would seem forgiven.

From Holmes and the other high priests of scouting he encountered, Burnham learned to read the air like a river and pull the scent of a campfire out of the warmer currents floating along high ridges; how to build up his internal compass and rely on it even in total darkness; how to hone a photographic memory for the tracks of individual horses; how to improvise and conceal booby traps; how to carry a gallon or two of water in a saddle blanket, then wring it out over a concave rock; how never to ride a straight line into camp, in case someone had detected you and was plotting an ambush. One of the old men would use corncobs and sand to demonstrate how forts were built, or how to decipher the movements of troops. More than anything, Burnham learned that, as he later put it, “we should be learning something always, no matter how long we live, or how long we play the game.”

Soon he began spending all his money on ammunition. He practiced trick shots, trained himself to be ambidextrous. He’d set up oilcans in the brush and fire at them from a gallop, or place a cork in a puddle and shoot underneath it to make it hop, then try to hit it again in midair—practicing, again and again, until he could nail them three times out of five. But he also learned to treat his gun as a luxury and a lifeline, not an appendage. (The old scouts had taught him that reliance on a firearm decayed a man’s courage and made him worthless in hand-to-hand combat.)

The most grueling lessons were psychological—learning to weather the loneliness, fear, and deprivation amid which those physical skills would be deployed. Scouts, after all, worked alone. “The darkness of night is his best friend,” Burnham wrote, “for it will hide his secret movements—although it is at night that physical exhaustion is most apt to breed the cowardice that comes creeping into the bones of every man at times.” One of the most pernicious forces a scout needed to suppress was hunger. It could be just as powerful a disincentive as exhaustion or fear—often more powerful. In a way, Burnham came to see the stomach, paradoxically, as the weakest and most persuasive part of a man. It messed with you mentally, tried to order you around. A scout couldn’t afford to humor his stomach; it was hard enough to make sure his horse was properly fed. And when Burnham ended his years of apprenticeship and began working out in the world—protecting mining camps from raids or guarding prospectors as they transported their gold back to town—he found that eating conventional food on these missions was often impossible. (Hunting can be a problem, for example, because cooking over a fire creates light and smoke, and butchered carcasses attract conspicuous circles of buzzards.) So he adapted. He’d hammer deer jerky into a powder, mix the powder with flour, and bake the mixture into a saddle-bag-shaped loaf. Then he’d eat off that block of deer cake for the duration of his travels, one pound per day.

This flexibility—the fierce epicurean stoicism that Burnham cultivated—would be a subtle hallmark of all of Burnham’s future adventures. In East Africa, he’d do as the local tribesmen did, eating no vegetables for months at a time, instead consuming a mixture of three parts milk and one part fresh blood, drawn from a vein in the neck of a living ox the way syrup makers tap the trunk of a maple. (After ten days, Burnham claimed, his system had adjusted.) During conflicts in Africa, he’d steal rank-smelling, partially fermented corn that had been buried in the ground by the locals and live off that for a while. During one stakeout, he subsisted wholly on a ration of uncooked corn, grinding away at the stuff until his jaw was sore and his starchy, thickened tongue made his speech unintelligible.

“The man of one diet is hopelessly handicapped,” he wrote, “for nature has made it possible for a well organized human being to wrest sustenance out of a thousand foods.… Man’s stomach, like his hand, can be trained to adapt itself to many strange uses.” In other words, the stomach wanted what it wanted, but appetite, like all desire, was a liability. And with enough discipline, you could disregard it and fill the stomach with drab blocks of pure common sense instead.

It was only because Burnham had had this epiphany, and proved his hypothesis in the growling laboratory of his own gut, that he could consider hippopotamus steaks such an obvious solution to America’s meat shortage 30 years later.


For all his self-control, Burnham was susceptible to gold fever and spent years during his young adulthood rashly chasing rumors of lost mines around the American Southwest. He had only one small strike, at age 22. It brought him just enough money to send back to the town in Iowa he’d long ago escaped, for a girl he’d met there, Blanche Blick, and make her his wife. He bought them a house in an orange grove in Pasadena and settled into a more conventional life as an upstart Californian citrus grower.

But somehow the man with an alchemical ability to turn crud into food couldn’t manage to produce oranges from orange trees. The economics of his operation quickly bottomed out, and the sedentary lifestyle he’d carved out for himself and Blanche left him restless. The whole project had been a serious miscalculation. Burnham spent his time reading books about Africa and dreaming.

Burnham’s infatuation with Africa had started as a child in Minnesota. An older girl named Katy Boardman, charged with babysitting him for a few days, had read Burnham adventure stories about young boys trekking into the wilds of a southern territory known as the Orange Free State—one of the republics founded by the descendants of Dutch settlers called Boers. (In the mid-1800s, Boers living in the British-controlled Cape Colony, in present-day South Africa, had undertaken a large-scale migration known as the Great Trek, seeking autonomy.) The stories Katy read each evening brought Burnham his only moments of calm and focus during his stay at the Boardman home. Otherwise, he and Katy’s four younger brothers were running riot through the place, at one point shaving the family’s pig with Mr. Boardman’s only razor. But at bedtime every night, all five boys would sit still, beguiled by those stories from Africa, and Burnham had gone on reading similar ones ever since. Even as he wandered the Southwest as a young man, he tried to stay up on the developments in the region, following along as longstanding strife between the British and the Boers even sparked a brief war in 1881.

Burnham was particularly enthralled by the Cape Colony’s prime minister, Cecil John Rhodes. Rhodes was a shrewd and aggressive imperialist—a “superbrain,” Burnham called him. Burnham was swept up by Rhodes’s vision for remaking the African continent. Like many people of his time, Burnham earnestly believed that the transformation of Africa was a noble and even perversely humanitarian goal, never recognizing the hubris and vile racism that underlay it. “Rhodes saw Africa as a vast unkempt field, calling to him to be cleared,” Burnham wrote. He was striving to plant “the flower of civilization” there.

Frontiers like this were Burnham’s natural habitat. It’s why he’d been drawn to the Southwest in his youth. “It is the constructive side of frontier life that most appeals to me, the building up of a country,” he explained to a friend. “When the place is finally settled I don’t seem to enjoy it very long.” But the Southwest had been tamed, wrestled from the Indians and demystified. And as deflating as it was to admit, Burnham had only truly participated in the tail end of that conquest.

Now he was transposing all those same boyish ambitions to southern Africa, where the deserts happened to look remarkably like the ones he’d spent a decade traveling. Sitting in his orange grove in Pasadena, something about the blank slate he perceived in Africa and the industriousness of Rhodes seduced him. “I was as one summoned by an irresistible call,” he wrote. He figured Rhodes would need a good scout, one who knew how to operate in daunting desert terrain. He left for Africa with his wife and young son, Roderick, on January 1, 1893.

IV

The Human Epitome of Sin and Deception

In late January 1900, the novelist and war correspondent Richard Harding Davis was sailing from England to Cape Town on a ship called the SS Scot. The journey lasted 17 days, and every night, Davis noticed, the men on deck would gather around the same small, reserved man with piercing blue eyes. The crowd consisted of big-game hunters and career soldiers, many of whom had held command in British wars in India or Sudan—roughneck, capable survivors, in other words, with their own yarns to spin and advice to give. But they all sat like schoolkids, Davis later wrote, pelting the quiet man with questions.

The man explained to them how to tell a column of dust raised by a cavalry from one kicked up by a wagon train; how to read the speed of a horse from its prints; how to conceal a campfire. The crowd was impressed with the quickness and clarity of the man’s answers, but more impressed that, in the couple of instances when he wasn’t able to answer, he told them so—it was a unique combination of mastery and humility. This man was Frederick Russell Burnham, of course, on his way back to Africa seven years after that first impulsive trip. He had made his name fighting for Rhodes’s Cape Colony and gained a reputation as a scout. A series of conflicts had flared up almost as soon as Burnham and his family arrived in South Africa in 1893. Rhodes’s forces were pressing into Matabeleland, in present day Zimbabwe, and struggling to suppress the Ndebele tribe there. Burnham leaped right into the battle. It felt like the Indian wars of his youth all over again. Before long, Matabeleland had been occupied and rechristened Rhodesia.

Three years later, when the Ndebele staged an uprising and the so-called Second Matabele War erupted, Burnham and his family were living outside the city of Bulawayo. There was a second child now, a two-year-old girl named Nada. As the conflict intensified and the Ndebele advanced, the Burnhams were moved into Bulawayo for their protection. The city was being hastily locked down and fortified with homemade defenses; the Burnhams and another family were stuffed into a three-room shack, with their livestock milling outside.

Soon, a virus ripped through the colonists’ oxen. Thousands of animals died in the course of three weeks. “The scavenging hyenas and vultures could make no impression on the thousands of huge, swollen carcasses that blocked the roads for miles,” Burnham remembered. Bulawayo was 500 miles from the nearest railroad—it was with oxen carts that the colonists brought in food and supplies. Soon, thousands of people began dying, too. “For weeks,” Burnham wrote, “there was an unremitting stench.” The colonists couldn’t spare the fuel to cremate the bodies, and the men—going out at night to defend Bulawayo against raids by the Ndebele, who had put the crippled city under siege—were simply too exhausted during the day to bury them.           

Eventually, Nada came down with a fever. By that point, the remaining livestock had been eaten. So had the pets, including Nada’s three ostriches, which she’d been given as chicks. Ultimately, Nada was one of many children who could not outlast the siege. Burnham was off fighting when she died, and it was up to Blanche to enlist some friends to bury her daughter in a shallow grave outside town. Burnham was devastated, obsessing over a series of painful and unanswerable question—questions, he later wrote, that started with If only…, and even more wrenching questions that started with Why…. That June, he received a critical bit of intelligence, locating a man believed to be the Ndebele’s religious leader and commander, or Mlimo, in a secret cave. Burnham was sent to assassinate him. Sneaking into the cave, he paused a second to watch the holy man. “Constantly before my enraged vision rose the picture of my wife vainly holding to her breast our dying Nada,” he later wrote. Then he shot the Mlimo under the heart and ran out of the cave ahead of the commander’s men, lighting villages on fire as he went. 

The following year, at age 36, Burnham left Africa for Alaska. Gold had been discovered, and he was again determined to be part of the beginning of something big. But the gold still evaded him. He kept up on the news from South Africa: the antipathy between the British and the Dutch-descended Boers was escalating again. Burnham wrote to his friend, H. Rider Haggard, explaining that he now spent six hours a day in Alaska traversing a map of southern Africa in his mind, seeing all the trails and streams that led out of the city of Pretoria; picking the right spots to camp, obtain fuel, and stage the animals if there was another war. By now everyone felt one coming. “I fear I will miss it,” Burnham wrote glumly.         

He was mining quartz north of Juneau when, on January 4, 1900, a telegram arrived from the new British commander in South Africa, who had heard about Burnham’s service during the previous conflicts. It read: “Lord Roberts appoints you on his personal staff. All expenses paid if you accept. Start shortest way Cape Town and report yourself to him.” Burnham was en route to Africa two and a half hours later, aboard the same ship the telegram had come in on. Once in England, he transferred to the SS Scot, where Richard Harding Davis found him, reluctantly mesmerizing his fellow passengers night after night.


The Second Boer War was not going well for the British when Burnham received the call. The Boers had surprised the colonists, shattering their imperial confidence with a string of shocking and decisive victories right after combat had started the previous fall. 

In truth, the entire conflict was saturated with feelings of bewilderment and disarray. Two modern historians describe the Second Boer War as a clash characterized by a “capacity to produce confusion and ambivalence” and a “wide variety of half-truths.” (Even the war’s immediate causes are hard to pull from the slop of competing propaganda; in part, the British were simply seeking control of the Transvaal, a Boer territory rich in gold.) And for the British, “the scale of [the war’s] embarrassments and traumas were not merely shocking,” but relayed back home, vividly, by a new kind of popular press. (Both Rudyard Kipling and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle covered the war.) By December of 1899, England was determined to change tactics. Lord Frederick Sleigh Roberts of Kandahar was installed as the new commander in South Africa. Roberts began assembling his team, summoning Burnham as his chief of scouts and Major-General Lord Herbert Kitchener of Khartoum and Aspall as his chief of staff. Kitchener was a particularly merciless strategist, and helped steer the British through a series of barreling offensives. Within months, the tide had turned completely. Soon the Boer government in the Transvaal would be shattered, and its leadership would flee to Europe. But the Boers kept fighting tenaciously as guerrillas—a decentralized and lethal swarm. Burnham’s job was to gallop around inside this fractured conflict, undetected.

Like a lot of freelance adventurers involved in the war, and even many British citizens, Burnham felt great respect for the other side. He was awed by the Boers, in fact. He believed that they were uniquely menacing adversaries because, like the best scouts of the American Southwest, they’d somehow retained the instincts and senses of more primitive men. In a way, Burnham considered himself a Boer at heart, trapped in the wrong nation or time. His entire life, he’d felt people nudging him toward a world of “soft carpets, soft food, soft life, soft men and women,” he wrote. But “sometimes I wish I had never learned to read or form any conception of duty, civilization or religion; for then I might have been outwardly, as I am now at heart, a thorough savage, nothing more.” For years after the war was over, he would carry on about the virtuosity of two of his enemies in particular: the Boer’s lead scout, Danie Theron, and a more enigmatic figure working underneath Theron. The man was known as the Black Panther of the Veld. “He was one of the craftiest men I ever met,” Burnham would tell an interviewer 30 years later. He was “a man of extraordinary power.”

The Black Panther’s name was Fritz Duquesne. Burnham had heard that he’d adopted the nom de guerre as a boy, after watching a wild panther stalk its prey at a watering hole. Duquesne noticed how efficient the animal was—how it always waited to attack, intent and totally untroubled, until the other animal was compromised. The boy vowed to emulate the panther and made it his totem. The panther, Burnham wrote, was a wild predator that no one had ever succeeded in taming. By the Second Boer War, Duquesne had become just as cunning and sinister.

Duquesne would spend the conflict trying to kill Burnham, and Burnham was assigned to kill Duquesne. Burnham called him the “human epitome of sin and deception.” Another writer described him as a “walking living breathing searing killing destroying torch of hate.”

Captain Fritz Duquesne
Captain Fritz Duquesne

Duquesne was only one of countless threats Burnham had to dodge during the war, as his commanders sent him to infiltrate and sabotage the scurrying, deadly remnants of the Boer army. Burnham’s exploits were numerous and bizarre. Once, he hid for two days and nights inside an aardvark hole. Another time, he floated down a river disguised as a dead cow, drifting under a fresh, fleshy hide with two eyeholes cut out of it, to size up an enemy camp downstream.

In the spring of 1900, he was captured by Boer scouts but managed to conceal his identity. The Boers had been given index cards describing the famous Frederick Russell Burnham—a supposedly ruthless, godless, illiterate rogue from the American West. Realizing this, Burnham sparked an erudite theological debate with one of his captors—was baptism by immersion the one true route to salvation, or was it baptism by sprinkling?—then followed that up by reciting some poetry. Eventually, he slipped away from the Boers’ wagon train in the dark. As day broke, he hunkered in a fallow field, hidden just barely by four inches of vegetation, and resigned himself to lie there in the heat, with his hat over his head for camouflage, until the sun set again and it was safe to move on. Stuck in the brush, he became fixated on a thick ear of corn he’d jammed in his breast pocket before escaping, worried it was sticking up just enough beneath his shirt to give him away. He was already carrying one whole biscuit and a fragment of a second; the corn suddenly seemed to him like a horrible indulgence. “What a fool to be such a glutton for food!” he later remembered thinking. “I was not living up to the traditions of the American scout.” But a Boer patrol came and went. Burnham had waited them out, invisibly.

Eventually, he made it back to a campsite and from there was sent on a series of missions to cut supply lines. He spent his 39th birthday, in May of 1900, hiding in enemy territory, preparing to blow up some bridges, feasting on a ration of chocolate and condensed soup. Then, in early June, he was given 25 pounds of explosives and sent to cut the railway connecting Pretoria to the Indian Ocean.

After setting out, Burnham encountered a group of Boers in the distance, and his horse, Stembok, was shot. The animal fell on him. His spine burned. He assumed his back was broken. But he managed to reach his target anyway—a specific point on the railway, beside a distillery—traveling the rest of the way on foot, vomiting blood and compressing his abdomen with both hands to lessen the pain slightly, as though he were holding his guts together manually. (At one point, he wrote a farewell note to his wife, Blanche, and dropped it on the ground, hoping British soldiers would eventually pass by and find it.) Then, after rigging his explosives and detonating them, he hauled his busted body into a grove of eucalyptus and hid, trying to make himself invisible yet again as a unit of Boers fired systematically into the trees to flush him out. At one point, a commander sat on horseback less than 20 yards away from where Burnham was hiding, chastising his men for their ineptitude. Eventually, the troops gave up and moved on.

Hours later, Burnham heard the voices of British soldiers approaching. He was rushed to a field hospital, where doctors determined that, though his spine was not damaged, his internal injuries were severe. Lord Roberts promoted him to major and sent him to recuperate in England. On the ship back, he chatted with a young British newspaperman named Winston Churchill who had also been captured by the Boers and escaped. The two men swapped stories and, though Churchill’s involved taking many risks which Burnham, as a scout, could not condone, the scout ultimately understood that the writer had done the best he could. “His moves were restricted by the handicap of physical weakness,” Burnham wrote, “which made a twenty mile run at night”—what Burnham judged to be the most straightforward move in those circumstances—“entirely beyond his power.”

In England, Burnham was invited to dine with Queen Victoria and decorated with the Distinguished Service Order, a high honor for heroism during wartime, by King Edward VII. Burnham, with his characteristic stoicism, described the award as so humbling and unnecessary that it was “almost humiliating.” “I felt of no more importance than a grain of sand on the shore of the mighty sea,” he wrote.


Slowly, Burnham’s injuries healed. The darkness of Nada’s death was dissipating, too. Blanche had given birth to another child—a son named Bruce—and they joined Fred in England. By 1905, the couple were hatching a plan to return their family to Rhodesia and restart their lives.

The Burnhams’ oldest child, Roderick, was now 19 years old and in school back in California, living with his grandmother. One night that October, he woke and ran to her, shrieking from a nightmare. He claimed that he had watched his little brother chase a toy boat into deep water and sink to his death. The next day, a telegram arrived from England. It was from Blanche and Fred, and it read: “Bruce drowned. Coming soon.” Bruce was seven years old. He’d been swept away in the Thames.

The Burnhams returned to California, wrecked. They spent a lot of their time at home, overlooking a picturesque arroyo, in a secluded area of Pasadena called San Rafael Heights. Burnham tried his best to console his wife. It was a time of recovery and repose. “The wild quail, the meadow larks and mocking birds still drown [out] the ding dong of the American locomotive,” he wrote to a friend the following February, “and the squeak of the trolley car is still very faint. Nature has kindly softened the acute sorrow of my wife. So all in all, this year of 1906 can not be such a dreary and painful one as 1905.”

It was during this time that Burnham started to think seriously, and ambitiously, about an idea he’d had many years earlier. Maybe it was because Bruce’s death had made the horror of Nada’s slow starvation feel fresh again. Or maybe it was because Burnham was marooned at home, glaring at the arid and relatively lifeless landscape around him—a place, he knew, that had already been drained of so much of its wild, edible game by short-sighted hunters. Eventually, he sat down to write an article about this idea of his, hoping one of the major magazines back east might be talked into publishing it.

“There is in Africa a wonderfully varied range of interesting animals,” he wrote. “Most of the desirable ones could easily be introduced into our own Southwest.”

Part Two

Four years later.

V

We Ought to Have More Creatures

“Transplanting African Animals,” by Major Frederick Russell Burnham, was published in New York’s Independent magazine in January 1910. Before long, a chain of serendipitous connections were made and Burnham was invited to share his ideas in a hearing before the House Committee on Agriculture. It would be a long afternoon of testimony, but at the very start a federal researcher named W.N. Irwin summed up the matter nicely: “Mr. Chairman and gentlemen of the committee,” he told the congressmen, “in studying the resources of our country for a good many years, I was led to the conclusion that we ought to have more creatures than we are raising here.”

It was March 24, 1910. Under discussion was H.R. 23261, a bill to appropriate $250,000 for the importation of useful new animals into the United States—the hippo bill, as the public would come to understand it. H.R. 23261 had been introduced by the Louisiana congressman Robert Broussard, who had limited himself to a very short statement at the start of the hearing, not wanting to detract from the impressive roster of experts he’d assembled—“three gentlemen,” he explained, “who probably have devoted more time than almost anyone else to this matter.”

Ceding the spotlight was not in Broussard’s nature. Then 45 years old, Robert Foligny Broussard was a raucous and charismatic Democrat from New Iberia, Louisiana. He was the son of a Cajun planter and had lived in the district he represented for most of his life. He loved speechifying and glad-handing and generally addressed himself to the job of campaigning the way a gourmand addresses himself to a platter of oysters—despite having never encountered any real opposition in his seven successive reelections. A native French speaker, he sometimes traveled to give campaign speeches for colleagues in close races in Maine or Massachusetts, parachuting in to charm any French-Canadian constituents in their mother tongue.

Robert Foligny Broussar
Robert Foligny Broussar

Louisianans knew Broussard affectionately as Cousin Bob. He claimed to be related to a quarter of the voters in Iberia Parish—sometimes to a full half of them. “Certain Louisianians may protest they are not his cousins,” one Saturday Evening Post profile noted. “That is a matter of minor importance. The point is that Cousin Bob is their cousin; and he is satisfied, even if they are not. It is quite impossible to stop Cousin Bob from being everybody’s cousin.” A company in New Orleans named a cigar after him.

Broussard had met Burnham for the first time that morning. Launching a national effort to import foreign animals that could benefit American society, especially hippos, had been percolating on Broussard’s legislative agenda for some time, and he had been referred to Burnham by mutual friends in Washington who knew the major would gladly advocate for any bill he introduced to fund that work. It was a stroke of symbiotic political matchmaking. Four years earlier, after returning to Pasadena from England following his son Bruce’s death, Burnham had tried to jump-start his own African animal project in Washington. He had called for 30 varieties of edible antelope—klipspringers, gemsboks, waterbucks—as well as other animals, including giraffes, to be imported from Africa and plopped down in the American Southwest. The pioneering conservationist Gifford Pinchot, then head of the forestry service under President Theodore Roosevelt, had been scrambling to claim and protect more land as federal reserves, and Burnham had imagined those areas as ideal incubators for the transplanted creatures. New populations could be built up under the government’s protection, then dispersed. Formerly vacant, unproductive landscapes could be converted into wonderlands for sportsmen and new storehouses for the nation’s food supply. Burnham and several wealthy friends had even raised $50,000 to pay for the first wave of importations. They’d had a successful meeting with President Roosevelt. Pinchot had written to Burnham, “I have talked with a good many men about the plan and no one has developed any weak points yet.”

But the proposition had eventually broken apart in the churning, acidic stomach of Washington politics. An enemy of Roosevelt’s in Congress had lumped the president’s support for the plan into a broader, petty attack. Importing antelopes and giraffes suddenly became politically impossible. The experience had left Burnham angry—mostly at himself. He’d been naive enough to believe that America made decisions about its future in a more commonsensical way.

This time around, though, Burnham was partnering with an insider. He and Broussard were like Darwinian finches—the same species of capable specialist evolved to thrive within two parallel environments. As adeptly as Burnham maneuvered through the African desert, Broussard seemed to maneuver through the disorienting wilderness of Washington, reading the landscape, performing what could only seem like magic to outsiders. In Broussard, Burnham saw new hope now that his gorgeous idea for America might actually become a reality. He called the congressman “a tower of strength for the movement.”     

Broussard, for his part, had locked onto the potential of African animals for his own idiosyncratic reasons—and they did not, initially, have anything to do with food. Cousin Bob had actually set out to solve a different crisis for his constituents. The crisis was a flower.

Water hyacinths had been brought to New Orleans in 1884, distributed as gifts by the Japanese delegation to an international cotton exposition. New Orleanians loved the frilly, pale lavender flowers and gradually planted them as decorations around the city in garden ponds. The hyacinths multiplied rapidly. (The plant reproduces asexually.) Soon they were spreading through local waterways, clotting into impenetrable mats, then drifting toward the mouth of the Mississippi like big, menacing hairballs toward a drain.

By 1910, when Broussard introduced his bill, the flowers had been plaguing his state for at least a decade. They’d clogged up streams and made shipping routes that had previously moved millions of tons of freight unnavigable. They’d blanketed rivers and wetlands, hogging the oxygen and killing fish. The hyacinth had destroyed fishermen’s livelihoods and transformed some of the state’s greatest resources into a chain of stinking dead zones. The War Department was staging an all-out offensive against the flower, “[b]ut they have only been partially successful,” Broussard said. “They clean a stream today, and in a month it is covered all over again with the same plant.” They’d even tried throwing oil on the hyacinth, but the plant would just sink to the bottom, wait out the disturbance, then send out another bulb and rise again.

Broussard was not the sort of man who could abide such defeat. He liked to plug up problems with big solutions; he was “a large operator,” one reporter wrote, who “goes in for broad effects.” It occurred to him that perhaps some animal could be brought to Louisiana to swallow this particular problem up, and he seems to have hit on the hippopotamus after encountering the curious, aging bureaucrat he’d now called to brief the House Agricultural Committee just before Burnham.

William Newton “W. N.” Irwin was a veteran researcher at the pomological branch of the Bureau of Plant Industry at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He was an apple guy, basically—“one of the foremost fruit experts in the country,” according to The Washington Post. Irwin appears to have spent his career championing ideas that were simultaneously perfectly logical and extravagantly bizarre. (Another of his crusades was trying to convert Americans from eating chicken eggs to eating turkey eggs. The advantages of turkey eggs were just so obvious to Irwin: they were richer, larger, and more nutritious and had thicker shells and membranes, so they stayed fresh longer. Sometimes he wouldn’t eat a bunch of turkey eggs until six months after he’d purchased them. And still, he bragged, “the yolks would drop out round and plump, and the white, or albumen, would be perfectly normal.”) He had first laid out the case for hippopotamuses while delivering a paper at a conference in Missouri the previous year. He reviewed the causes of America’s gathering meat crisis and noted that, in the past, the country had sidestepped these kinds of Malthusian forecasts by expanding just a little farther west. There had always been more land to put into production. But now the great prairies had all been overgrazed or carved into farms; there was little suitable rangeland left to occupy. The only way forward, Irwin concluded, was to find ways of wringing nourishment out of land that now seemed barren or worthless—for example, the vast marshes along the Gulf Coast. Extracting the energy embedded there would require assembling a new set of tools—new technologies. The hippopotamus was one such technology.         

Hippopotamuses eat aquatic vegetation, like water hyacinths—loads of it, Irwin learned. Deposit some hippos in a hyacinth-choked stream, he argued, and they’d suck it clean in no time. That is, hippos could solve Louisiana’s problem with the flower while simultaneously converting that problem into the solution to another—an answer to the Meat Question. The animal, Irwin now told the committee, would “turn the plague that they now have in the South into good, wholesome flesh for our people.” The hippopotamus was a perversely elegant win-win.

Of course, it could be hard to see that logic through all the lavish weirdness of the proposal. But for Irwin—and Burnham—any resistance to their idea came down to simple small-mindedness. The only reason Americans didn’t already eat hippopotamuses, Irwin claimed, was “because their neighbors don’t, or because nobody ever told them it was the proper thing to do.” Like Burnham, he saw the Meat Question as a test of American ingenuity and resolve: To defend our freedom and way of life, some generations of Americans are called to go to war; this generation was being called to import hippopotamuses and eat them. And, also like Burnham, Irwin seemed incapable, or at least unwilling, to let any emotional objections or queasiness detract from the divine common sense of their plan. At times he seems to have gotten a little pissy about it, actually. A few months earlier, Irwin had invited a Washington Post reporter to his office, fed him a stick of hippo jerky while showing him a photograph of five East African men skinning the very beast he was now digesting, and whined: “I am at a loss to understand why anybody should protest against the hippopotamus as a food animal. There is no good reason beyond that inexplicable American habit of following beaten paths. Everyone seems to hate to go out and blaze a trail.” In one scientific paper, Irwin compared himself to Christopher Columbus, being laughed at as he sailed toward what looked like the edge of the earth but was, in reality, a new and nutritionally superior world of turkey eggs and hippopotamus brisket.


When it was Burnham’s turn to testify, he echoed Irwin’s arguments but tried to imbue the bureaucrat’s geeky reasoning with his own firsthand experiences and gravitas. Burnham challenged the committee to consider how bizarre it is that we eat only cows, pigs, sheep, and poultry—just four types of animals, basically all of which had themselves been imported by Europeans centuries ago. Why, somewhere along the line, had we stopped feeling entitled to improve our country’s food stocks by infusing them with animals from the great global pantry abroad? “I think we are allowing one of our greatest assets to lie idle,” Burnham told the committee. It was only the passage of time that had made a pork chop or a bowl of chicken soup feel American—not their actual origins. Time would make hippo roasts just as familiar.

Burnham also noted that hippopotamuses would be only a few shades stranger than other animals recently brought into the country. Twenty-five years earlier, for example, an Englishman named George Cawston had started an ostrich farm near Pasadena, where Burnham lived. Cawston had been made fun of initially, caricatured as a crazy man riding ostriches—he offered ostrich rides at the farm—but he was now making a fortune selling ostrichplumes for pillows and ladies’ accessories. More recently, the federal government had introduced Russian reindeer as a food source in Alaska. And in the 1850s, Burnham noted, the nation’s Secretary of War and eventual president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, had brought African camels to the deserts of the American Southwest, convinced that they would outperform horses as pack animals on that terrain. And they did—the camels’ endurance impressed everyone, just as Davis smugly insisted they would. But in that case, too, it was explained to the committee, silly emotions had gotten in the way of good sense. The soldiers on horseback made fun of the soldiers asked to ride camels; the camel riders began refusing to ride their camels. Eventually, the experiment was discontinued, and many of the camels were left to scatter in the desert.

Burnham told the committee that he’d actually stumbled onto one of the feral descendants of these camels while traveling through the region with a cowboy friend in his youth. “We were five days chasing one of those animals with the best horses we could get in Arizona,” he explained. Eventually, they caught the camel, and though it took days of roping and fighting they were able to tame it. Burnham and his friend started concocting plans, thinking maybe there’d be a market for camels if they rounded enough of them up. It never happened. As Burnham explained, “one of the Apache Wars broke out at that time, which was more interesting than breaking camels, and we both went off to that.” But he’d seen firsthand how well a foreign animal could adapt to America—how well it could serve us. His dream of importing useful new animals was born then and there, he told the congressmen. “And it has clung to me ever since.”

It was an impassioned, impressive testimony. But Congressman Broussard had invited another speaker that afternoon, one who would wind up being the star attraction. Broussard introduced this man to the committee as a “hunter of great note” in Africa who happened to be touring America now, lecturing on the African continent’s wild animals. “I now desire to present to the committee,” Broussard announced, “Captain Fritz Duquesne.”

It was him, the Black Panther of the Veld. Two of Broussard’s three expert witnesses—these men seated in the hearing room, graciously educating the 61st Congress of the United States about the usefulness and deliciousness of hippopotamuses—were, in fact, arch enemies who had vowed to assassinate each other.

Duquesne took the floor and sought immediately to establish his singular credibility on the subject at hand. “I am as much one of the African animals as the hippopotamus,” he began.

VI

A Unit of Hate

The details of Fritz Duquesne’s life dart around in a deep pool of uncertainty. Partly this is because the journalists of his day who assembled them were unscrupulous, but mainly it’s because Duquesne would dramatically reinvent himself again and again.

Frederick L’Huguenot Joubert Duquesne (pronounced du-cain) was born in the Cape Colony on December 21, 1877—according to one suspect source, at least; friends would claim that even Duquesne did not know his own age. He was a lean and alluring man with a youthful, clean-shaven look. He was said to be a champion womanizer, with an unflappable confidence that seemed drawn from some mysterious wellspring. His hair was black, or else it was brown. His eyes were brown, hazel, or blue. He spoke with a clipped British accent, which may have been fake.

Duquesne grew up on a farm among other Boer families. His father was a hunter and trader who was constantly traveling, and so Fritz was raised by his mother and his Uncle Jan, who’d been blinded when an elephant gun backfired on him during a hunt. As a boy, Duquesne would watch the adults return from the river with a hippopotamus—they were among the easiest animals to hunt—then butcher its massive carcass and divide the meat among their families. It was up to Duquesne and the other kids to collect the fat and sell it to the French soap manufacturers who came around to claim it.

As a teenager he was sent to school in Europe. He was studying at a military academy in Belgium, learning about weaponry and explosives, when a letter arrived from his father, calling him back to fight for his people against the overbearing British. It was 1899; the Second Boer War was underway.

Duquesne arrived at Boer headquarters in Pretoria, a city in the Transvaal republic, northeast of the Cape Colony, just before the British aggressively revised their strategy and the war turned uglier and more unruly. Over the next year, Roberts and Kitchener would funnel the Boers into concentration camps and scorch the earth behind them. There were as many as 160,000 Boer prisoners in the camps at one time; 25,000 would die there by the end of the conflict in 1902.

Boer soldiers like Duquesne began roving the land in small guerrilla squadrons, without the security or support of a formal army. Duquesne was captured and escaped at least twice. (In one failed attempt, he painstakingly dug through the grout of the prison wall with a spoon, pushing the resulting dust out the window to blow away in the wind. It took weeks and ultimately came to nothing: When Duquesne finally tried to wriggle through the hole he’d opened, the stone wall—which he’d rendered structurally unsound—partially collapsed on him. A guard found him pinned and unconscious the next morning.) At one point, he was shipped all the way to a prison in Lisbon. But he escaped easily, first finding the time to seduce his jailer’s daughter. He then made his way to England, claimed to be a Boer defector, enlisted as a British soldier, hitched a ride back to the front in Africa, and took off on his own again.

Duquesne became a military courier, delivering messages between Boer commandos. Traveling around, he saw the devastation of Kitchener’s scorched-earth policy—the fires, the horses sprayed with bullets so the Boers could not use them, the crops burned and the livestock shot up and clubbed. He was sickened by how much the British had obliterated, how desolate they’d left the land. There was virtually no one left, except for the occasional pockets of women and children who fed Duquesne in his travels.

During this time, Duquesne found an opportunity to visit his family’s homestead, north of Pretoria, after 11 years away—according to the writer Clement Wood, who in 1932 published a detailed but extremely romanticized and journalistically tenuous account of Duquesne’s life. Duquesne knew that his father had died shortly after calling him back to fight but had no other news of his family. Wood writes that it wasn’t until Duquesne had gotten off his horse, and touched the blackened stone that had once been the corner of his house’s foundation, that he knew where he was; the British had so totally destroyed the place, it was unrecognizable. Duquesne found a servant there who had worked for his family since he was a child. The old man, Kanya, was living in a primitive shelter he’d dug for himself in the ruins. Hunched over and demoralized, Kanya explained that the British soldiers had hung Duquesne’s blind uncle Jan from a telegraph pole with a cow rope, then jabbed at his body with their bayonets. They’d taken turns raping Duquesne’s sister Elsbet, then shot her. Then they’d tied his mother’s hands, raped her, and carried her off.

Duquesne assumed that his mother had been taken to the nearest concentration camp, a few days away on horseback. He sped there and, disguising himself in the British uniform he’d been given as a supposed defector, entered the camp and tried to track her down. He found her in a barbed-wire paddock clutching a seven-month-old baby, both of them starving and dying of syphilis—essentially dead already.           

Before leaving, Duquesne pledged to his mother that he would kill 100 Englishmen for every drop of blood in her body. But he felt nothing for the baby—it was his half-sibling, but it was also half-British, the evidence of his mother’s rape. Riding away from the camp, still in uniform, Duquesne saw two captains in the British army approaching. He saluted them. Once they’d passed, he turned in his saddle and shot both men in the back. Then he got off his horse and kicked each in the face.

Any number of these details that Wood relays could be wrong—possibly all of them. But at the very least, the story was as an attempt to explain one unmistakably true thing about Fritz Duquesne: that at some point in Africa, he became radicalized, consumed with searing rage for the British and for Lord Kitchener personally.

“Something happened inside of him that had fused him into a unit,” Wood wrote, “a unit of hate.”


Duquesne was captured one last time, late in the Boer War, while plotting a sensational symphony of explosions around Cape Town. The British shipped him to a prison camp on Tucker’s Island, in Bermuda, with his wrists and ankles bound so tightly that he’d be scarred for the rest of his life.

He wasted no time in escaping. In one version of the story, Duquesne coordinated a jailbreak with two other prisoners, banging out their plans in Morse code from their cells. They slipped past the guards and dove into the sea with their clothes and boots tied to their bodies as bullets whizzed around them. They spent three weeks on the lam, subsisting mostly on onions pilfered from people’s gardens at night. Eventually, Duquesne reached the port town of Hamilton, where, according to a 1995 biography by Art Ronnie, Counterfeit Hero, he established himself as a pimp for a prostitute named Vera.

It was a strategic job placement; in the course of her nightly business, Vera acquired detailed information about the ships moving in and out of the port. Duquesne had been her pimp for only a week when he managed to get one of Vera’s clients drunk and learned he was a crew member on a private yacht about to sail for Baltimore. While Vera serviced the sailor, Duquesne stole his uniform and snuck onto the ship in his place, huddling into one of the holds, pretending to be drunk. He was eventually discovered, but he hit it off so well with the yacht’s owner, a middle-aged inventor of a powdered headache remedy, that he was ultimately invited to ride along. Duquesne set foot on American soil on July 4, 1902. Unless, according to another account, it was on December 16.

There was peace now in southern Africa—the Boer territories had been subdued and claimed by the British. But, given his sinister machinations during the war, Duquesne believed he would not be welcome there. He was on his own now. With the help of a network of Boer sympathizers on the East Coast, he slowly began constructing a life for himself in America. He went to New York and got a job selling subscriptions for the New York Sun. Soon, after proving himself and deploying enough of his charm, he was bumped up to reporter. Duquesne was an immigrant, in other words, living his own lonely version of the classic American immigrant story—reinventing himself, hustling. And it was working. Seven years later, Fritz Duquesne found himself sitting in the White House with the President of the United States.

President Theodore Roosevelt, preparing to leave office in early 1909, began enthusiastically plotting a stunning first act to his retirement: a big-game-hunting expedition to East Africa, undertaken in conjunction with the Smithsonian. Roosevelt spent months studying up, writing letters to men who’d hunted in the region, figuring out which caliber firearm to use on which species and how exactly to topple a lion or rhino. Somehow, Duquesne, with his native’s knowledge of the continent and its wildlife, had inserted himself into this informal committee of experts and was invited to meet with the president that January. They talked for more than two hours. Duquesne was impressed with the President. He told the press, “He seems to have mastered all the details.”

Over the next year, Roosevelt’s journey through Africa would unfold in the newspapers back home in daily, time-delayed dispatches. It became a national fascination. (By the end of 1909, for example, there were two separate children’s games called With Teddy in Africa, featuring a miniaturized Roosevelt and his local guides to skin and field-dress miniaturized giraffes, hippopotamuses, and warthogs.) Duquesne had been dropped into the center of that excitement, briefly, during their meeting at the White House. Now he’d do his best to capitalize on it.

He wrote a series of syndicated columns called “Hunting Ahead of Roosevelt,” in which he drew on his own adventures in Africa to speculate about the kinds of animals and adventures the president was now encountering. When that momentum seemed exhausted, Duquesne went negative, keeping his name in the papers by mocking Roosevelt, denigrating him as nothing more than a dandy tourist blustering across the continent with a team of Africans to do the real hunting for him. He offered his own unflattering translation of the honorific reportedly given to Roosevelt by his African guides. (“Bwana Tumbo,” Duquesne told the press, meant “Mr. Unusually Large Stomach.”) And as Roosevelt readied to return in early 1910, Duquesne announced that he believed the former president might have contracted a deadly, still-dormant disease and should not be allowed back into the country.

By then, Duquesne had adapted his hunting stories into a theatrical lecture called “East Africa—the Wonderland of Roosevelt’s Hunt” and taken the show on tour. It featured moving pictures and stereopticon slides of “hunting scenes and savage life in darkest Africa,” all narrated by “Captain Fritz Duquesne,” as he’d taken to calling himself: “a man who knows and feels what he tells because it is what he has lived.” As it happened, he was booked for two shows at the Columbia Theatre, in Washington, just as Broussard was gathering experts for his hippo hearing.


In a sense, then, Duquesne’s appearance at the committee hearing was both an advertisement for his performances and performance in itself. The man wanted attention, and he knew how to work his audience when he got it.

Duquesne affably walked the congressmen through his knowledge of hippos and parried their skeptical questions with composed and charming assurances. He described how easy it was to domesticate a hippo; how you can feed a young one milk from a bottle, “like a baby,” and lead it on a leash like a pudgy hound. “It is absolutely not dangerous,” he said of the animal and described the meat—especially from young, castrated males—as a delicious, satisfying, and sustaining meal. (“Splendid food,” Duquesne insisted, “excellent food.”) As proof, he pointed proudly to how well his own people, the Boers, had performed in the recent imperial wars, despite being outnumbered. “There was nothing mentally or physically defective about them,” he explained, “and they lived on hippopotamus.”

Duquesne was not finished, however. He recommended elands, a kind of brutish antelope, as another phenomenal addition to American wildlife. Also giraffes. And what about elephants? Hannibal’s army crossed the Pyrenees on elephants, Duquesne reminded the congressmen, so this should give us all some inkling of the animal’s usefulness and stamina. “It went right around the Pyrenees,” he said, “backward and forward.”       

It was a fetching, whip-smart whirlwind of a performance, and it seemed to sweep up everyone. Before it was over, one congressman had invited him out to Bethesda to have a look at some captive zebras being bred there and offer an expert opinion.

“I think I have about exhausted the proposition,” Duquesne finally told the committee. “I have finished.” Although, he added, if the congressmen wanted him to perform his lecture right then and there, he’d be glad to. He happened to have all his transparencies with him.

VII

The New Food Supply Society

The hearing was followed by a surge of excited publicity. “Hippopotami for Dixie,” one headline read. The Chicago Tribune covered the proceedings right above news that Delmonico’s, the famous steakhouse, had been forced to raise the price of everything on its menu due to dwindling meat supplies. Another story speculated that, because full-grown hippopotamuses would be too large to profitably ship to the stockyards in Chicago, smaller slaughterhouses would have to be built on-site, creating a constellation of local food systems, and breaking the monopoly lording over American meat production. (Only four years earlier, in The Jungle, Upton Sinclair had exposed the horrendous abuses of that monopoly—the way, for example, workers sometimes slipped into rendering tanks, then were churned together with scraps and sold as Durham’s Pure Leaf Lard.) Most newspapers led their coverage with splashy quotes from Fritz Duquesne, but even the torturously uncharismatic W. N. Irwin got called on occasionally. (“I like to say ‘hippo’ instead of the full name, because it is shorter and somewhat more euphonious,” Irwin paused to explain to one reporter.) The momentum felt unstoppable. According to The Washington Post, it was “a question of only a very few years now when large shipments of hippos will be made to America.”

It wasn’t likely that Congress would be able to act on Broussard’s appropriation bill before the end of its session, but Broussard, Burnham, and Duquesne believed that, with the right legwork, a reintroduced version would breeze through the next one. And so they decided to build a new organization to leverage their position and keep the pressure on—a lobbying firm, essentially, that they would call the New Food Supply Society. Shortly after the hearing, the congressman invited Duquesne and Burnham down to his plantation in Louisiana to hash out some preliminary plans.

It’s unclear what, if any, contact the two enemies had had in the nine years since they’d fought against each other in Africa. The evidence suggests that Burnham and Duquesne never actually crossed paths during the war—just loomed heavily, and terribly, in each other’s minds. Theirs was an old-fashioned kind of rivalry. What adhered them to one another was a dismaying and unshakable respect, nothing as vulgar as hatred. It involved a bizarre kind of honor; Duquesne remembered that he had once “tossed coins with a brother scout for the privilege of having first shot [at Burnham,] of splitting his body with a bullet,” but had never managed to track the great scout down. Now their inadvertent partnership on the hippopotamus project gave them an opportunity to finally know one another at close range. They’d fought on different sides but were still soldiers—part primitives, deep down—and they were presumably far more comfortable with each other than with the genteel politicians surrounding them.

Burnham was impressed by his old rival. “Duquesne was clever, educated and resourceful,” he would recall. He knew all about the sins in his past, but chose to force them out of his mind. He wanted to help the Boer. Duquesne was free-floating in permanent exile and, nearly a decade after being cast out of Africa, still struggling to set a new trajectory for himself in the United States. Burnham believed that this noble attempt they were making to answer the nation’s Meat Question would show his former adversary, firsthand, the sort of hard work, imagination, and values that made America great. It might finally steer Duquesne’s talents in a productive direction. The hippo project was a way to convert Duquesne, to cleanse him.

Burnham was ambivalent about playing the reformer. He remembered his own experience as a kid, suffering through life with his pious relatives in Iowa. But he believed that if he could understand what “had transformed this strong and remarkable man into a being abnormal and terrible” and “conquer the cruel darkness” that had infected Duquesne somewhere along the way, there was a chance that the wily Boer could “become one of the world’s noblest figures.” And so, Burnham later wrote, “I set out to win over to genuine Americanism one of the most remarkable men I had ever met.” Duquesne could be assimilated, made useful—just like the hippopotamus.


 As Broussard, Duquesne, and Burnham began plotting the formation of the New Food Supply Society in the spring of 1910, each man was being driven by different levels of idealism and opportunism, and by different semi-secret motives. Letters began flying between the three men, and then also—all of a sudden—to and from a fourth man as well, a New York City–based writer and inventor named Eliot Lord.

It’s possible someone may have actually asked Lord to participate in the fledgling New Food Supply Society, or he may have just barged his way in, but within two days of the hearing he was writing to Burnham, claiming to already have rounded up some of the most powerful members of the House of Representatives for the group’s organizing committee and detailing what his own duties in the organization should be. There was a slipperiness to the man, not unlike Duquesne’s, but Lord’s slipperiness was clumsier and less convincing. His rapid-fire updates to the other partners came on a series of mysterious and seemingly random letterheads: John A. Stewart, president of the Carbonating Company of America, or Huff & Coryell Underwritten Securities, or the Republican League of Clubs. Repeatedly, he nagged Burnham to ask a mining magnate he knew from his Africa days to bankroll the organization.

Burnham was suspicious of Lord. He’d gone about everything in his life with caution and poise, and he found Lord’s rashness and moneygrubbing irritating. He described Lord to a friend as “flighty and without any financial balance.” Burnham was ready to forward the society’s goals, to ask friends for financing and give speeches to groups of influential sportsmen and naturalists he had access to. But he wanted to see a real plan in place first. He imagined the New Food Supply Society becoming a “permanent and valuable branch” of the nation’s new conservation movement, but so far it felt pretty wishy-washy. He wrote to Broussard: “I do not wish to go among my friends and ask for their names for a society that is soon to go the way of so many abortive congresses and federations and high sounding things mentioned about twice in a Sunday paper and then forgotten.”

Broussard agreed. “Like you,” he told Burnham, “I am adverse to organizing any movement unless energy, spirit and intelligent management are to follow the organization.” But Broussard was also becoming busy with higher-profile projects. He was journeying back and forth to Central America all summer, part of a delegation trying to bring an upcoming World’s Fair to New Orleans. And he’d spend August traveling his district, shaking the hands of his many Louisianan cousins and wringing all the available joy from another reelection campaign, even though he was once again running unopposed. Still, he told Burnham that he hoped to schedule a meeting with the would-be New Food Supply Society at some point soon—to sit down, all of them, and talk things out face-to-face.

Lord did not relent. He kept claiming, throughout the summer, to have an increasingly impressive roster of dignitaries ready to become charter members of the New Food Supply Society. He unilaterally announced plans to send Duquesne, as an “agent of the Society,” on a lecture tour of Ivy League colleges and then the leading seaside and mountain hotels. Of course, the New Food Supply Society still did not technically exist, and so, again and again, in letters to Broussard and Burnham, Lord begged them to finally incorporate it. He even went so far as to compose one of these letters to Broussard on a sheet of New Food Supply Society letterhead. In the upper left corner, Lord listed Broussard as chairman of the society and himself as secretary. “My compensation can be arranged for after the Society is in funds,” he informed the congressman.

Duquesne, meanwhile, seems to have been the only one doing any concrete work. Not long after the hearing, the society had sent him on a fact-finding mission to Louisiana, and he hoped that his role as freelance hippo expert might soon turn into a legitimate job. Lord was farming out articles Duquesne wrote about African animals to newspapers, which in the interim was a nice bump for his career, and Duquesne kept making sure that the other members of the would-be society saw his clips.

In short, Duquesne wanted credit. He made it clear that he was doing this work at his own expense and that the newspapers seldom paid him for his articles. In a letter to Burnham, he described writing African animal essays all day until his hand cramped and his handwriting became illegible, at which point he’d switch to using a typewriter, which carried its own costs—ribbons, maintenance, and so on. Burnham tried to buck him up. (“My dear Captain,” he wrote. “You certainly are pushing your part of the society in advance of the rest of us.”) He told him he would try to get Lord and Broussard to finally hammer out some financial arrangement and employ Duquesne properly. Duquesne replied to Burnham that he didn’t appreciate being left in the dark and was getting fed up with Lord’s “glowing promises.” “I do not want this movement to die through undue satisfaction or dry rot,” he said.

Months passed like this. Burnham tried to keep his optimism up, writing to pitch new acquaintances about the idea and scheduling public appearances, including his speech to the Humane Association of California in Pasadena that fall. At one point, he sent Lord $25 to keep the operation running. But the time between the men’s letters grew longer and longer. In September of 1910, Duquesne wrote to Broussard: “What have you that is new or valuable in the way of suggestion? If any make them and I shall act.” Broussard replied: “There is no news to communicate.”

The following month, the New York World published an article about the importation of African animals which apparently credited the idea to Charles Frederick Holder of Santa Catalina Island in California, a well-known fisherman of exceptionally large tuna. Duquesne was irate. He sent copies of the article to both Burnham and Broussard, seething, and demanded that Broussard issue some sort of universal correction to the press.

It was a momentary outburst; soon, the slow and painful birthing process of the New Food Supply Society would quietly resume. But something in Duquesne had snapped. He may have believed, deep in his gut like Burnham did, that importing hippopotamuses was the right and necessary thing for America—that the animal, if transplanted properly, would thrive here. But it was clear by now that he was working primarily for the prosperity of his favorite transplanted African animal: himself.

“It seems every day I hear of someone else, not Duquesne, being the man who brought this matter before the people,” Duquesne wrote to the congressman. “I am working day in and day out to keep this matter before the people, at some expense too.” But now, he explained, there were half a dozen other writers wandering around New York, all cribbing from Duquesne’s published work to sell stories about their supposed plans to import African animals.

“The thing was never heard of in DC till I spoke to you,” Duquesne insisted to Broussard. “No one else, mind you. Only Duquesne.” 

Part Three

Seven years later.

VIII

Captain Claude Stoughton

Around Thanksgiving in 1917, the head of the New York City Police Department’s bomb squad, Thomas J. Tunney, asked two of his detectives to begin investigating a certain Captain Claude Stoughton, a British officer who had served in the West Australian Light Horse division and was now stationed for a time in New York.

It’s unclear why exactly Tunney had taken an interest in Stoughton, though his suspicions seem to have grown out of an ongoing investigation of a recent explosion at a warehouse in Brooklyn. City authorities had also been approached about Captain Stoughton by a widow on Riverside Drive. America had entered World War I that April, and the woman was troubled by sympathetic comments about the Germans which she’d heard a slightly inebriated Stoughton make at parties, and even more so by the style of his mustache. He wore it “trained upward in imitation of the well known style affected by the German emperor,” she explained.

Tunney’s detectives began digging up what they could on the man. They obtained a photograph of him, a slender and handsome man in uniform, and learned that he lived in a second-floor apartment at 137 West 75th St. But an eventual search of the apartment produced photos of Stoughton dressed in other countries’ uniforms, too. Another photograph identified him as a war correspondent for a Belgian newspaper and showed him wearing his hair in florid curls. In another, he sat in tall grass and wore a thick black beard. Another pictured him with ammunition slung over his torso, standing over a dead white rhinoceros. (Clearly, Tunney wrote, the man “fancied photographs of himself, as he made up rather dashingly.”)

The trove of paperwork the detectives recovered was similarly fragmented and irreconcilable. There was an insurance policy for a staggering $80,000 worth of motion-picture film, taken out five years earlier, protecting against “fires, pirates, rovers, assailing thieves, jettison, barratry of the master and mariners and all other perils, losses and misfortunes.” There were newspaper articles—piles of them, which, according to The New York Times, detailed “practically every bomb explosion since the war began,” with a special focus on a ship called the SS Tennyson, which had blown up a year earlier, after leaving Brazil for New York. One of the clippings described an investigation into the Tennyson explosion that had led to a British safe-deposit box, where police seized $6,740 in cash in an envelope addressed to someone with the virtually unpronounceable name Piet Niacud.

Duquesne’s lecture pamphlet
Duquesne’s lecture pamphlet

The men had also obtained a program for a theatrical lecture staged seven years earlier. The cover featured a very small circular photograph of President Theodore Roosevelt in safari gear, and a much larger studio portrait of Captain Stoughton. The captain was wearing khakis and clutching the holster of his sidearm, while glaring dramatically into the middle distance as though he were stalking a lion. He was identified here by another name, one that had appeared in several other documents as well—including, most troublingly, a letter of introduction from a diplomat in Nicaragua, describing him as a man who had “in many circumstances rendered notable services to our good German cause.” The name was Fritz Duquesne.

“A thousand questions sprang up in our minds about the man,” Tunney remembered. They started following whatever leads they had. At some point, they reached out to a well-known adventurer in California who, according to a magazine clipping they’d found, had once appeared alongside Duquesne at a congressional hearing about hippopotamuses in March of 1910.

IX

Preparedness

In 1917, Frederick Burnham was living in relative seclusion. Shortly before the First World War started, he’d sold the house in Pasadena and moved his family and in-laws to a ranch in Tulare County, California, backed up against Sequoia National Park. He felt that Pasadena had swollen into a stifling and crowded suburb. The ranch, which the Burnhams called La Cuesta, offered them privacy, space, and some very well-deserved peace.

The phase of Burnham’s life that had included the hippo hearing, seven years earlier, had been busy and stressful. While the New Food Supply Society was struggling to get off the ground, he was also traveling back and forth between Mexico and California, establishing copper mines and irrigation projects in the Yaqui Valley for a number of financiers, including the Guggenheim family, J. P. Morgan, and John Hays Hammond, a mining baron he befriended during his days in Rhodesia. Burnham considered Mexico “the most active region left in the world”—the next unruly frontier, rich with opportunities—and he was drawn to it just as he’d been drawn to the Southwest as a boy and Africa as a young man. But Mexico, too, eventually burst into violence. And when the Mexican Revolution began, in 1910, Burnham was called down to watch over Hammond’s interests; at one point, he would command an encampment of 500 armed men on the banks of the Yaqui.

The move to La Cuesta ranch presented him with yet another empty frontier to master and improve—but a tranquil one, on a smaller scale, far removed from any geopolitical violence. He imported white-tailed deer from Mexico and took pride in how they prospered. He introduced wild turkeys, peccaries, pheasants, and game bantams. The Burnhams were part of a small community of settlers living deep in the Sierras, widely dispersed—people who worked hard and made do on their own. Burnham thought of them as a “lost white tribe.”

“When the World War broke,” he remembered, “it was some time before the reality of it penetrated into our deep canyon.” But when it did, the lost tribe sprang into action. Young men filed out of the mountains to enlist and fight. “Elderly women walked four miles in the heat of summer over dusty mountain roads to knit and sew for soldiers over seas,” he wrote. This determination reassured Burnham. Otherwise, he was unsettled by the war. The new technological mode of warfare—the gassing, machine guns, and trenches—had “turned us all into military robots,” he wrote. He argued that the traditional skills and ethos of self-reliance that those old scouts had taught him as a boy remained as important as ever, and he worried that they were being lost.

Self-reliance was becoming an obsession of Burnham’s—the only sensible response to the growing disorder of the world. In the run-up to the war, he’d been extremely sympathetic to the so-called Preparedness Movement in America—the belief that conflict was inevitable and that President Woodrow Wilson wasn’t building a sufficiently large and capable military to handle it. Burnham and his friends traded letters about “Preparedness,” extolling it as an ideal, griping about the glaring unpreparedness of those around them. And in July of 1916, Burnham was listed as a grand marshal’s assistant in San Francisco’s Preparedness Day Parade.

The parade would be a stunning display of civic preparedness, featuring more than 50,000 marchers: 200 nurses in uniform; 500 physicians and surgeons; 200 optometrists and opticians, prepared to help the nation’s eyes; a vaudevillian actress, dressed as the Goddess of Preparedness; and a Division of Six-Footers, which was essentially a few rows of very tall people organized by a six-foot-four gentleman named J. R. Martin. But the day was disrupted by a terrorist attack. Antiwar, anti-preparedness radicals detonated a suitcase bomb shortly after the start of the parade, killing 10 and injuring 40. It was perhaps the clearest sign yet of the insolence that had begun churning in the world—the audacity it took to try and catch a Preparedness Day Parade by surprise.

Burnham kept preparing, however. In fact, he prepared more vigorously now. In early 1917, he enlisted as one of 18 lieutenants in a battalion of aging, able-bodied men from around the West that his friend Theodore Roosevelt had begun zealously organizing and was threatening to lead into battle himself if President Wilson continued to keep the nation’s military on the sidelines. By now, American writers had related Burnham’s feats in Africa, making him a famous war hero. But it gnawed at him that he’d never actually fought for his own country. He thought, at age 55, that he’d finally get his chance. But Roosevelt’s army never shipped out. It wasn’t until America finally joined the Great War in April 1917 that Burnham found an idiosyncratic opportunity to serve.

Manganese, a mineral used to make steel, had suddenly become invaluable during the war: a scarcity developed after shipments that the U.S. relied on, including German exports, were compromised or cut off. America scrambled after new exports from Brazil and other South American countries, but also took a hard look at its own potential reserves. The mineral had not been worth much during the gold and silver rushes, and engineers now began poring over old U.S. Geological Survey documents and historical maps, looking for any sign of deposits that the miners had skipped over.

Burnham attacked the problem differently. He began rounding up prospectors he’d encountered in his youth. They were wizened old nomads now, but, Burnham would remember, they’d retained an “indescribable spiritual quality” and “perennial optimism” that allowed them to “wander vaguely over the desert wastes with the patience of the burro and the imperturbability of the Sphinx.” Burnham began roaming the desert with these men, hunting for manganese. Many of them were able to lead Burnham back to deposits they remembered stumbling across years ago. Soon they were pulling manganese out of the hills in Nevada, from the sides of Mount Diablo, outside San Francisco, and from the belly of Southwestern deserts, and sending it off to be bolted into the flanks of the modern war machine. It was the only inheritance this nearly extinct species of American frontiersman could manage to leave: “the desert people’s best tribute to the nation,” as Burnham put it. For him, it was reassuring proof that old skills could still contribute in a new kind of war.

In other words, Burnham spent the years after Broussard’s congressional hearing essentially championing the same ideals he’d fought for in Washington: self-sufficiency and industriousness powered by an underlying optimism. As a young scout, he’d taught himself to stay awake for longer than seemed humanly possible by thwacking the back of his head with his fist if he started to nod off. Now, at the outset of the 20th century, America clearly had problems—horrible and frightening ones. But they seemed solvable to Burnham if the nation would only rap itself on the head with enough determination and force, if it would shout at itself to wake the hell up. His loyalty to this belief was unwavering. And in this way he was the perfect foil to his old nemesis, Fritz Duquesne—who during those same years, the New York City police detectives were now learning, had been slowly shedding his belief in everything. 

X

Captain Fritz Duquesne’s South American Expedition 

Duquesne had worked hard to cobble together a small amount of notoriety and influence by the time he appeared at Broussard’s hippopotamus hearing, and as the New Food Supply Society bumped along, he was determined not to let any of it go. He branched off on his own, marshaling all his entrepreneurial energy to stay in the limelight. He wound up spiraling into darkness instead.

At first, Duquesne simply took the hippopotamus idea and built on it, eccentrically. In the spring of 1911, he organized a series of banquets in Washington and New York, likely as showcases for a potential animal-importing venture he was considering launching on his own. He served guests a menu of imported African springbok soup, dik-dik, and hippo croquettes. Next, he explored bringing elephants to Central and South America and selling them as beasts of burden. And after that, he came improbably close to staging an incomprehensible publicity stunt for an American matchstick manufacturer, wherein Duquesne would bring over a band of indigenous Peruvians and have them drive a herd of imported llamas across the eastern United States, from New York City to the company’s headquarters in Ohio.

 In 1913, however, Duquesne began planning a more promising business venture—one that apparently had started in earnest but would gradually contort into an ambitious and deadly con. Theodore Roosevelt was now organizing a follow-up to his African expedition: a long, daring journey to trace one of the Amazon’s tributaries through the Brazilian jungle. Duquesne saw another chance to capitalize on the public’s fascination with Roosevelt’s adventures, just as he’d done with his lectures during Roosevelt’s safari.

He started canvassing acquaintances, and then acquaintances of acquaintances, for money to produce Captain Fritz Duquesne’s South American Expedition. It would be part movie, part lecture; he’d travel through the jungle with his wife Alice, filming the same sorts of things that Roosevelt would encounter, then narrate his footage live on stage. (Duquesne first encountered Alice while locked up in the British prison camp in Bermuda—she was the daughter of an American bureaucrat stationed there. It was a classic meet cute: he was resting under a tree, taking a break from his chain gang, when a ball from her tennis game came rolling toward him.) Duquesne eventually secured funding from the Thanhouser Film Corporation and the Goodyear tire company—he’d apparently agreed to do some rubber hunting in South America on the side—and agreed to deliver the finished travelogue in time for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco, in 1915. He bought 20,000 feet of film, at four dollars a foot, and insured the lot of it before sailing out of New York, thereby generating the policy that Tunney’s detectives would discover in his apartment four years later.

Apparently, not one foot of the film was ever used. World War I began shortly after the Duquesnes left New York, in the summer of 1914. The details are foggy, but President Wilson’s initial insistence that the United States remain neutral seems to have disillusioned and enraged the Black Panther. Duquesne’s contempt for England, forged during the Second Boer War, was so overpowering that, in his mind, the only conscionable response to the outbreak of the Great War was for America to team up with Germany and crush the British Empire. In short, he hated Britain so much that he would hate any nation that refused to hate it, too. According to his biographer Clement Wood, Duquesne’s attitude became: “There are no good Americans except the anti-English ones.”

Duquesne sent Alice back home on a ship from Brazil, then went to the German consulate and offered up his services as a spy and saboteur. He started hanging around the docks in disguise. From then on, Duquesne would move through life in a cloud of aliases. These included Frederick Barron, Colonel Bezin, F. Crabbs, Colonel Marquis Duquesne, Fred Buquesne, J. Q. Farn, Berthold Szabo, Von Goutard, Vam Dam, Fritters, Worthy, and Jim. Some people knew him as the Handsomest Man in Europe.

But now, on the docks, Duquesne morphed into a frumpy and feeble middle-aged botanist from the Netherlands who walked wrenched over in a stoop and wore thick, unflattering glasses. He called himself Frederick Fredericks.


As Fredericks, Duquesne hung out in bars, sidling up to drunk English sailors and offering them bribes to carry rare orchid bulbs to his friends and relatives abroad. But the packages contained explosives; Duquesne would later claim to have sunk 22 ships and started 100 dock fires during this time.

Most famously, Duquesne would claim responsibility for the destruction of the HMS Hampshire, a British ship that sank west of the Orkney Islands, in northern Scotland, in 1916, killing more than 600 men aboard, including Duquesne’s old nemesis Lord Kitchener, now Britain’s secretary of war. (Clement Wood’s 1932 biography, titled The Man Who Killed Kitchener, relays as truth Duquesne’s totally fabricated account of how he supposedly infiltrated the Hampshire, posing as a young Russian count named Boris Zakrevsky, then signaled a German U-boat to take the ship down.) But, as Frederick Burnham later pointed out, much of what Duquesne actually accomplished during his time in South America was likely to disrupt outgoing shipments of manganese—exacerbating the problem that Burnham and his tribe of prospectors would file into the desert to solve. That is, the two adversaries still somehow managed to lock themselves in an oblique, intercontinental standoff—Frederick Burnham versus Frederick Fredericks, with one man racing to rebuild what the other was breaking apart.

In February 1916, Duquesne packed the film from his aborted motion-picture project into a trunk and registered it as cargo aboard the SS Tennyson, a British ship heading for New York. Then he went about engineering the ship’s destruction.

Maybe there was no film in the trunk; maybe it was filled with explosives instead. Or maybe they were in the six boxes labeled “Minerals,” which, investigators came to believe, Duquesne had also stashed aboard the Tennyson. But something on the ship exploded as it approached the equator. Three sailors were killed in the fire. Before long, a clerk who claimed to be a co-conspirator was captured by British intelligence and gave up Duquesne’s name. He also led authorities to the safety-deposit box and the envelope full of money waiting for “Piet Niacud.” “Niacud” was “Duquesne” spelled backward phonetically.

Duquesne was now wanted for murder by the British. But before long, on April 27, word came in The New York Times that Duquesne had himself been murdered. He was traveling through the Bolivian frontier when his party was raided by “hostile Indians.” Then, two weeks after that, a second dispatch in the Times reported that he was, in fact, alive—that, though badly wounded, he’d heroically fought off the vicious Bolivian raiders and escaped. The world, it seemed, had underestimated the tenacity of Fritz Duquesne.

But the truth was, there were no Bolivians and there was no attack. Duquesne seems to have faked his own death, then regretted the decision and miraculously resurrected himself. According to Inspector Tunney’s account, police eventually discovered that the first wire report from Buenos Aires, telling the Times of Duquesne’s death, had been filed with the byline “Frederick Fredericks.” 

atavistillu-1429650230-5.jpg

XI

Frauds

By the beginning of 1917, Duquesne was a suspected murderer and a fugitive, a fake film producer and a formerly dead botanist, and likely still a German spy. But it was taking American authorities time to piece all this together, and Duquesne was either audacious or reckless enough not to care if they did. That summer, he resurfaced in Washington, D.C., and was very quietly puttering around under his own name, trying desperately to latch onto some kind of living.

Duquesne connected with Horace Ashton, an old friend whose photographs had illustrated some of his hunting articles. Ashton did his best to help Duquesne, even putting him up for a job as a U.S. censor and propagandist for the war effort. Ashton later explained to police that he’d only learned Duquesne was back in the country by chance. During a visit to Washington from New York, Ashton had taken a beautiful young secretary to dinner. The woman later wrote to him: “You may be interested to know that Captain Duquesne is in Washington, but does not want it to be known.” She was Robert Broussard’s secretary—the former congressman, now senator, from Louisiana. Apparently, Duquesne had reached out to his old comrade from the New Food Supply Society, too. And Broussard, presumably in the dark about Duquesne’s recent activities, had also tried to help, coming close to getting him hired doing low-level clerical work under the “acting quarter-master general and director of purchases, storage and traffic” of the U.S. Army.

After a while, however, Duquesne must have started to seem like a lost cause—broke and unemployable. Ashton brought him back to New York and let him crash at his apartment—the second-floor flat on West 75th Street. There, Duquesne attempted to get back on the lecture circuit. But the zeitgeist had changed. His old material was irrelevant now—the public wasn’t interested in learning about African safaris, only in hearing Allied war heroes tell battle yarns. And so Duquesne transformed himself into Captain Claude Stoughton, a nervy and debonair military man who had, his promotional materials claimed, “perhaps seen more of the war than any man at present before the public.” Stoughton had been bayoneted three times, gassed four times, and stuck once with a hook.

Captain Stoughton’s career took off. His talks made decent money, his heroism earned him respect, and ladies found him alluring. Interesting people invited him to parties. Duquesne was wrenching his way back into society. His invented persona had such magnetism and such possibility, in fact, that he began deploying his alter-ego in a wide variety of personal appearances. Claude Stoughton was a gifted booster, brimming with pep and dynamism, and he seemed willing to promote any cause if it kept the admiration and affection flowing. This even included making speeches to pull in donations for the Red Cross and to sell Liberty Bonds. Stoughton would appear uniformed, before crowds of devoted American patriots, and belt out slogans like, “We must have dollars as well as men in the fight for freedom!” The irascible Black Panther, whose contempt for England had metastasized so completely that he’d gone to work blowing up ships for the Germans, was now raising money for the Allied war machine.

The biographer Art Ronnie writes, “It is difficult to explain the paradox of Fritz Duquesne at this time.” This is an almost preposterous understatement, but also, ultimately, as truthful and illuminating as one can be. There’s a cynical way to read Duquesne’s activities in New York: that he was up to no good, running some diabolical con that would eventually throw the world he’d infiltrated into chaos, just as it always did. But it’s also possible that Duquesne simply liked the attention, the performance. And maybe he liked it so much that he wouldn’t allow even his deepest and most sinister principles to break him out of character—because his character’s life was so much more gratifying than the remnants of his own.

Ronnie describes him as “an arrogant prisoner of his own ego.” He had stopped caring about anything except his own glorification. The Black Panther was an adrenaline junkie and a nihilist now. There was nothing he wouldn’t get behind, and there was nothing he wouldn’t destroy.


Duquesne was arrested in New York on December 8, 1917. He was charged with insurance fraud. Investigators alleged that, aside from orchestrating a scheme to claim the insurance money for the film he blew up on the Tennyson, he was also running a similar, parallel fraud—one that accounted for Inspector Tunney’s original arson case in Brooklyn. While in South America, Duquesne apparently agreed to produce educational movies for an Argentine board of education, bought $24,000 worth of film on his return to New York, insured it, stashed it in the Brooklyn warehouse, then set off an explosion that burned the building down.

Duquesne was held in a city jail for months as the fraud charges knotted into complicated legal cases, and the British haggled for his extradition for the explosion aboard the Tennyson. He started behaving erratically. His appearance changed. The alluring glint in his eye turned into something wilder. So did his hair. He started blathering nonsensically.

This transformation was met with skepticism, of course. In May 1918, a judge ordered a three-person “lunacy commission” to assess his condition and issue a “lunacy report.” Duquesne appeared at the commission’s hearing ranting and unhinged, shouting orders at the doctors who’d come to testify as though he were commanding them in battle. The lunacy commission sent him to a state mental hospital in Beacon, New York, exiling him alongside a man who whistled constantly, believing he was a train, and another man who, Ronnie writes, “said he was not Napoleon but Napoleon’s tomb.” At some point, Duquesne’s wife, Alice, visited, shook his hand through the bars, then divorced him. It was “obvious he had gone German,” she said.

Soon, Duquesne’s body stopped working as well. In court one day, he collapsed and claimed to be suddenly paralyzed from the waist down. This elicited even more cynicism from the government, but when doctors stuck pins in his legs and under his toenails—torturing him, in short, to prove he was malingering—Duquesne never once wriggled or winced.

And so he was transferred to Bellevue Hospital on a stretcher and installed in the very last bed of a long, secure ward. He had a view of First Avenue through a window with three iron bars. He slept with his blanket over his face and every day asked to be set by the window in a wheelchair so he could watch the birds. The nurses adored him and would lift his slack body wherever it needed to go. He got lighter and lighter. He read the newspaper with a pair of pinhole glasses he improvised out of cardboard. The birds started eating out of his hand. He wasn’t an old man, but he seemed like one. Then one night he escaped.

Duquesne had managed to acquire two small hacksaw blades and had been quietly going at the window bars day after day as he sat in his wheelchair. Eventually, he got all the way through two of them and, just past midnight on Tuesday, May 27, 1919, four days before he would finally have been extradited to England, Duquesne squeezed out.

He’d been faking paralysis for seven months. (Later he claimed to have been vigorously massaging his legs, to keep his muscles conditioned, during his twice-daily visits to the bathroom.) After wiggling through the window, he leaped six feet onto the roof of a neighboring ice house, or perhaps shimmied down using a blanket as a rope. Then he leaped again from there to the ground. And still “even this display of agility,” reported The New York Times, “did not give him his liberty.” Duquesne was then “forced to climb a brick wall about six feet high and an iron fence with menacing spikes, about eight feet high.” Then, after he’d done all that, he lurched down 27th Street toward the Hudson River, hopped a ferry to Hoboken, New Jersey, and disappeared.

The wiliness and determination of it all was jaw dropping. Duquesne had waited patiently until he’d receded to near invisibility, then pounced. It was a classic Black Panther performance. It must have killed him that no one was around to see it.

A month later, in fact, Duquesne messengered a letter to a friend in New York, purporting to lay out the dramatic mechanics of his escape. The operation involved two swashbuckling, fictitious accomplices and a foreign sports car zooming away in the night. The letter was a kind of press release; Duquesne wanted his friend to get the story published. “Nota bene,” he wrote. “As many papers as possible. Keep clippings.”

XII

Taking Chances

There are no herds of hippopotamuses in Louisiana. As far as I can tell, not one ever set foot in the bayous of the Gulf Coast. The idea was never exactly defeated but seems merely to have evaporated unspectacularly over a very long period of time.

In March 1911, a full year after the committee hearing, Frederick Russell Burnham traveled to Washington to meet with Congressman Broussard again about the hippo idea. They decided that Broussard would reintroduce his bill that spring, and in the meantime Burnham would lead an exploratory trip to Africa, scouting out other good candidate species for importation to strengthen their case. He would leave as soon as possible.

“We are serious in the movement, and I am confident of the success of the project,” Burnham told the Washington Herald. A year earlier, the New Food Supply Society had seemed awash in goodwill from the public and the press. But America had apparently turned more skeptical now; as Burnham gave interviews around Washington and New York that week, he sounded increasingly pained to stress the sincerity and value of their vision. He kept trotting out his imported-reindeer and ostrich-farm examples as proof of concept. Finally, he just told one reporter: “I have spent 11 years in Africa, and I have had two years of experience in British East Africa and have traveled about and led expeditions into the interior, so I know the lay of the land pretty well, and I think I know what we are doing,” and left it at that.

Burnham never sailed for Africa, however. He was forced to cancel his expedition at the last minute, when the revolution in Mexico escalated and his business partners called on him to protect their investments along the Yaqui River. Even so, he kept sending Broussard encouragement and information: tips he’d elicited from a famous German circus master for shipping wild animals long distances; photos of the ostriches at Cawston’s Ostrich Farms in Pasadena, with an assurance that “if that strange and erratic bird can be handled and domesticated,” then the other “magnificent animals of Africa” could be, too. Broussard, meanwhile, made one set of meticulous political calculations after another about the society’s next move, postponing the introduction of his bill from one upcoming session of Congress to the next. But he’d soon leave the House for the Senate. Then, in 1918, he passed away.

W. N. Irwin, the Agriculture Department bureaucrat—the old man who had told The Washington Post, “I hope to live long enough to see herds of these broad-backed beasts wallowing in the Southern marshes and rivers, fattening on the millions of tons of food which awaits their arrival; to see great droves of white rhinoceri … roaming over the semiarid desert wastes, fattening on the sparse herbage which these lands offer; to see herds of the delicate giraffe, the flesh of which is the purest and sweetest of any known animal, browsing on the buds and shoots of young trees in preparation for the butchers block”—died within a year of his appearance at Broussard’s congressional hearing. Scientific papers that Irwin had written continued to appear long after his death, drifting into journals like whispers from a particularly petulant ghost. One, published in 1914, proposed importing a breed of pygmy hippo instead of the larger variety, because it would be easier to control. Another made the case for turkey eggs, which even in death, apparently, Irwin found to be superior.

Eventually, officials at the Department of Agriculture contradicted Irwin’s reasoning in the press, insisting that hippos were a terrible idea and that America ought to work instead to turn those useless-seeming marshes into grassy pastures, then give the South beef cattle to raise on that reclaimed land. Because people ate beef. Because beef was a normal meat to eat.

And that’s essentially how America did choose to break through the Malthusian barrier that the New Food Supply Society saw coming in 1910. Rather than diversify and expand our stock of animals, we developed ways to raise more of the same animals in more places. Gradually, that process led to the factory farms and mass-confinement operations we have today—a mammoth industry whose everyday practices and waste products are linked to all kinds of dystopian mayhem, from the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, to a spate of spontaneous abortions in Indiana, to something called blue baby syndrome, in which infants actually turn blue after drinking formula mixed with tap water that’s been polluted by runoff from nearby feedlots. That same runoff also sloshes down the Mississippi River to its mouth, pooling into one of the world’s biggest aquatic dead zones, seven or eight thousand square miles large at times—an overblown, reeking grotesque of the exact conditions the water hyacinth was creating there, far more modestly, in Broussard’s time. Meanwhile, the flower continues to cause problems. The state of Louisiana alone spends $2 million a year spraying herbicides at it.

These aren’t problems that America created so much as ones we’ve watched happen—consequences of our having ducked other, earlier problems by rigging together relatively unambitious solutions that seemed safe enough. We answered the Meat Question. But there were more meat questions ahead.

I’m not arguing that America would be a better or more beautiful place if it had imported hippopotamuses in 1910. But there is something beautiful about the America that considered importing them—an America so intent on facing down its problems, and solving them, that even an idea like this could get a fair hearing; where the political system and the culture felt so alive with possibility, and so confident in its own virtue and ingenuity, that elected officials could sit around and contemplate the merits of hippo ranching without worrying too much about how it sounded; where people felt free and bold enough to imagine putting hippopotamuses in places where there were no hippopotamuses.

Somewhere along the way, our politics, and maybe our psyches, too, became stunted by a certain insecurity—by the fear that someone is quietly sneering at us, just waiting to skewer and betray us if we take a bold chance. Who knows how we became so guarded. And maybe it’s naive to think that we weren’t back then. But the fact is, Robert Broussard’s bill did exist. It was discussed and debated. There was a window when anything was possible. Then the window closed. In retrospect, it’s hard to even pinpoint a moment when America said no to hippopotamuses. There were just too many moments when it failed to say yes.

In the end, Frederick Burnham and Fritz Duquesne stood at either end of a spectrum—a spectrum where optimism shaded slowly into cynicism. The petering out of the hippo scheme, and the horrible reality of world war that arose on its heels, may have been a point when America took a step away from Burnham and toward Duquesne; when we became just a little more convinced that modern life would be governed by the sinister logic of a Black Panther and not the lucid vision of a scout. Some orchid bulbs are actually explosives. Some paralyzed people can secretly walk.

Summarizing the whole episode at the end of his life, Burnham wrote that, in his memory, the difficulty with the animal-importation plan started with one particular congressman’s objection. The man had argued that, if exotic species like the hippo were introduced for the common good, wealthy, self-interested hunters would simply sneak in and kill the animals for trophies. It was inevitable, the congressman said—betraying a conviction that people are basically sly and opportunistic, and should never be trusted.

You can call that cynicism or you can call it realism. But it’s the attitude that’s given us a hundred years of hippopotamuslessness in America.


In the summer of 1943, a man named Mart Bushnell visited Frederick Burnham at his home in California. Burnham was 82, still four years away from his death, and accustomed to visitors. Men who had read about his exploits as boys kept turning up to meet the old scout before he died. They were never disappointed. Bushnell, after his own pilgrimage, wrote: “Frequently, these almost legendary characters fail to measure up to expectations—but not Major Burnham. He surpassed even the highly colorful adventurer he has become in my own imagination.” Burnham still had a thick head of hair, nearly all his teeth, and a mind that was as quick and focused as ever. Most of all, Bushnell was taken by the same enduring quality of Burnham’s eyes: “clear, steady, and almost magnetic in their probing,” he called them.

Bushnell was visiting on business from the Boy Scouts of America. Burnham was not only a longtime member of the group’s National Council but a model for the entire organization—the original Boy Scout. The group’s founder, the Englishman Lord Robert Baden-Powell, had been one of Burnham’s commanders in Africa and was so impressed by his friend’s integrity and ability that he aspired to build an institution to raise generations of similarly capable men. The Boy Scouts wore neckerchiefs because Burnham had always worn one in the desert. Their motto, “Be Prepared,” couldn’t have been a clearer distillation of his beliefs.

Bushnell had come to discuss the creation of a Major Frederick Burnham Medal for Frontiering and Scouting Skills. And, he’d learn, Burnham had very strong opinions about what should be required to earn such an honor: Boys, he felt, should demonstrate mastery of everything from “stalking and evasion” to “axemanship,” and should have to hike in isolation for two days and nights with almost no food, foraging for wild vegetables. In short, Bushnell reported back to headquarters, Burnham was disappointed that the Boy Scouts weren’t doing more to put America’s youth through the kind of intensive training that the old scouts like Holmes had put him through in the deserts of Arizona as a kid nearly three-quarters of a century ago. Major Burnham, Bushnell explained, was “vitally concerned with the virility of the country’s future man power.”

America was now in the throes of a second, gruesome world war—“war to the nth degree,” Burnham called it. “It is beyond shallow emotion, beyond good and evil as commonly reckoned.” And yet, he argued, “not even the world-wide harvest of death need dismay us.… In spite of war’s present black-out, the future is certain to be brighter than all the ages past.” Somehow his optimism was still unflinching, and he projected it, almost tangibly, into the space around him. Bushnell told his superiors that his visit with Burnham was “one of the most stirring experiences of my life. How I wish every boy in America could feel the impact of this wonderful fellow’s personality!”

Burnham was also a wealthy man now. Twenty-five years earlier, he and his son Roderick had struck oil on an overlooked piece of land between Los Angeles and Long Beach. He used the money to buy three adjacent houses in a new neighborhood being built on the bucolic fringes of Los Angeles. Roderick and his oldest daughter’s family moved into two of the houses, and Burnham and Blanche took the third. Directly above it, on a scrubby, mostly desolate hillside that Burnham said reminded him of the landscapes of Rhodesia, was propped a tremendous white “O”—part of a sign to advertise the new real estate. The developers were calling the area “Hollywoodland.”

Burnham built a study for himself on the first floor and filled one wall with dozens of framed portraits of the friends and mentors who had influenced his life: Lord Roberts and Lord Kitchener, Cecil Rhodes with his dog, Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot, the forward-thinking forester and conservationist in Roosevelt’s administration who’d championed Burnham’s animal-importation scheme since he took his first crack at it in Washington. The New York Times had once claimed that Burnham’s story was one “no novelist could write because of its seeming incredibility.” (Ernest Hemingway and Cecil B. DeMille, however, would later both be working on screenplays about Burnham at the time of their deaths.) But now Burnham committed to setting it all down himself, and would spend much of his last years at his desk, a large ornate map of Africa behind him, writing simple essays and remembrances. In 1943, he collected these pieces into a book, printed a few hundred copies, inscribed each, and distributed them personally to friends. “Dear Pinchot,” he wrote in one. “Once upon a time we took an active part in trying to save this nation from starvation. Hippo meat would now be welcome.”

Burnham called the book Taking Chances. The title came from an Ohio senator who had said: “It is the spirit of venture, of taking chances, that has built America. Without it we cannot go forward, with it we cannot fail.” One of the chapters in Taking Chances, “The Totem of the Black Panther,” was about Fritz Duquesne. Duquesne was now in his late sixties and had just begun serving a 20-year sentence at Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary in Kansas. The Black Panther had reappeared briefly after his hospital escape, posing as a New York City vaudeville critic named Major Fred Craven, but subsequently disappeared again. Then, in 1941, after two years of FBI surveillance—of tailing Duquesne on the streets of Manhattan and orchestrating meetings between him and a double-agent in a bugged office in Times Square—the government arrested Duquesne as the alleged leader of a 33-person Nazi spy syndicate. The so-called Duquesne Spy Ring included a thuggish Gestapo operative trying to foment strikes among American workers, an aging male librarian, and a seductive figure skater named Lilly Barbara Carola Stein. The Bureau accused Duquesne of coordinating the syndicate’s communications with Germany, sending the Third Reich technical information about military gas masks, fuel tanks, airplanes, and munitions, and plotting to start fires at American industrial sites. Prosecutors produced his communiqués as evidence: the Black Panther had stamped each with an inky, attacking cat.

J. Edgar Hoover bragged that the operation that led to Duquesne’s arrest was the most ambitious and well-executed spy roundup in American history, and it produced what is still considered the nation’s largest espionage case. In the arc of Duquesne’s life, however, it amounted to just another con—a final, eccentric, and ham-fisted epic. His FBI file described him this way: “Excellent talker with captivating personality. Inveterate liar. Sexual pervert.”

“His doom fills me with sadness,” Burnham wrote of his old adversary in Taking Chances. He had tried to redeem Duquesne, and was still hopeful that some empathetic and perceptive historian might one day absolve the Boer by showing he was merely “a product of the extreme hate to which we have all contributed, and for which we continue to pay the price.” Burnham still kept a letter from Duquesne in his desk in the Hollywoodland study: “To my friendly enemy,” it read, “the greatest scout in the world, whose eyes were the vision of an empire. I craved the honour of killing him, but failing that, I extend my heartiest admiration.” And among those portraits on the wall, he’d hung an old, framed picture of the Panther, too—just a reedy, awkward boy in his first military uniform, looking sideways.

Burnham was organizing his papers at the time, as well—preparing them, and the singular life they chronicled, for posterity in archives at Stanford and Yale. One day in 1944, he came across a typescript of the speech he had given to the Humane Association at the hotel in Pasadena, 34 years earlier, while advocating for Broussard’s bill. There in the text was his younger self, ardently challenging his audience to recognize that the “complacent belief in the unending plenty of our natural wealth” had now been obviously disproven, but also unveiling an idea that could restore that feeling of promise in America—one that just made so much sense but would require working against “overwhelming difficulties and the loud guffaws of the ignorant” to make a reality.

Burnham read the speech over. His hand shook with age, but he pressed hard and scrawled a note across the top:

“The facts are still unrefuted” signed, “FRB – 1944.”

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Note on Sources

All events described and dialogue quoted in American Hippopotamus are drawn from congressional transcripts, first-person accounts, personal letters, contemporaneous newspaper and magazine stories, scientific journals, and published biographies of the subjects. These include the books Scouting on Two Continents and Taking Chances, by Frederick Russell Burnham; Counterfeit Hero: Fritz Duquesne, Adventurer and Spy, by Art Ronnie; The Man Who Killed Kitchener, by Clement Wood; Real Soldiers of Fortune, by Richard Harding Davis; He-Who-Sees-In-the-Dark: The Boys’ Story of Frederick Burnham, the American Scout, by James E. West and Peter O. Lamb; In Meat We Trust, by Maureen Ogle; and The Boer War: A History, by Denis Judd and Keith Surridge.

Much material was also drawn from the Robert F. Broussard papers, at the Edith Garland Dupré Library at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and the Frederick Russell Burnham Papers, split between the Hoover Institution Archives at Stanford University and the Sterling Memorial Library at Yale University. Thanks to I. Bruce Turner for his research assistance in Lafayette and to Caitlin Verboon for her research assistance in New Haven.

Finally, personal communications with Rod Atkinson, a great-grandson of Frederick Russell Burnham’s, and documents he provided were invaluable. Thanks to Rod for his help and enthusiasm for the project, as well as to Captain Russell Burnham of the U.S. Army, another great-grandson of “The Major.”

Coronado High

Coronado High

How a group of high school kids from a sleepy beach town in California became criminal masterminds.

By Joshua Bearman

The Atavist Magazine, No. 27


Joshuah Bearman has written for Rolling Stone, Harper’s, Wired, McSweeney’s, Playboy, GQ, and The New York Times Magazine, and he is a contributor to This American Life. He is currently working on his first book, St. Croix, a memoir.


Editor: Charles Homans
Producers: Olivia Koski, Gray Beltran
Animation: Colleen Cox
Web Design: Alex Fringes
Music: “Life’s a Gas,” written by Marc Bolan, copyright 1971 TRO/Essex Music International, Inc., performed by Islands
Animation Soundtrack: Jefferson Rabb
Research and Production: Vonecia Carswell, Lila Selim, Chris Osborn, and Nadia Wilson
Cover Photo: Courtesy of Gary Kidd
Audiobook Narrator: Brett Gelman
Fact Checker: Riley Blanton

Published in July 2013. Design updated 2021.

The Lost Coast

1976

There, on the horizon: a ship.

Dave Strather* could see it through binoculars, the sails ghostly against the water. He was sitting on an exposed cliff overlooking the Pacific. It was dark, and the beach was deserted for fifty miles in both directions. This was the Lost Coast, a vast swath of rugged, uninhabited, magnificently forested Northern California, the kind of place that made you understand why people have always been drawn to the Golden State. Dave chose the spot for landfall precisely because it was so empty. He and his team needed secrecy.

The sailboat was laden with contraband: 4,000 pounds of Thai stick pot, the latest in marijuana commerce, a product as potent as it was valuable, which Dave and his crew—a team of smugglers called the Coronado Company—would unload and sell for millions of dollars. Once Dave made visual contact, his team got on the radios: “Offshore vessel, please identify.”

“This is Red Robin.”

Finally. Smuggling always involves waiting, but Red Robin—the code name for a ship called the Pai Nui—was months overdue, and Dave’s nerves were frayed. The Company, as its members called it, was already a successful and sophisticated operation, importing Mexican pot by the ton, hugging the coast in fishing boats from as far south as Sinaloa. But this was a new type of gig, crossing the Pacific in a double-masted ketch. There were more variables, more opportunities for error. The Pai Nui had run out of gas before it even reached the International Date Line. Then, under sail, she was becalmed in the Doldrums. And then she disappeared.

“Red Robin, come in,” Dave had said into his radio a thousand times, in a daily attempt to reach the boat. He set up a radio watch, 500 feet above the ocean, for a better line of sight. The beauty of single sideband radio was that you could communicate halfway around the world, coordinating, as the Company liked to do, with your fleet at designated hours on Zulu time. The problem with single sideband—besides that it wasn’t secure, and anyone could listen—was that there wasn’t much bandwidth. Dave and the others would eavesdrop on conversations in dozens of languages, hoping to hear the captain of the Pai Nui. Back in September, it was pleasant to be perched on a palisade covered in redwoods, taking in the panoramic view, drinking a beer, tweaking the dial, watching the ocean go from silver to teal to green to blue in the late afternoon. By late December, however, everyone was cold and jumpy. But now, just before Christmas, their ship had finally come in.

Dave and his team snapped into action. Everyone was practiced and drilled—that was the Company’s style. They were a tight, coordinated unit, most of them friends who grew up together in Coronado, a secluded little beach town on a peninsula off the coast of San Diego. A decade earlier, they had been classmates at Coronado High. Some of them were surfers and would bring small bales of pot across the border after surfing trips to Mexico. A half-decade later, the Coronado Company was the largest smuggling outfit on the West Coast, on its way to becoming a $100 million empire, one the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration would later call the most sophisticated operation of its kind. “These kids were the best in the business,” James Conklin, a retired DEA special agent, says about the group he tracked for years. “They were ahead of their time. They operated almost like a military unit.”

The crux of the business was the off-load; the battle was won—or lost—on the beach. Everyone had their role. Dave ran field strategy. Harlan Fincher, who had a knack for equipment, was the logistics manager. Al Sweeney, a hobbyist photographer and silk-screener in high school, was the crack forger. Grease monkey Don Kidd was the chief mechanic. Allan Logie, a onetime motorcycle racer, was the flamboyant wheelman. Ed Otero, a great swimmer and athlete, provided muscle. Bob Lahodny, a handsome charmer whose 22-karat Baht chain signaled some mystical time spent in Thailand, had made the Company’s Asian supply connection. Lance Weber, who started the whole thing, was a fearless nut whom everyone called the Wizard on account of his thaumaturgical ways with engineering, especially the boat motors he rigged to run at smuggler speeds.

At the center of it all was Lou Villar. A former Spanish teacher, Lou had taught some of the guys back at Coronado High. Lance originally brought Lou along for his language abilities; it helped that he was a smooth talker. But when he got a look at all that money, Lou discovered an instinct for business. He organized the Company into a visionary outfit, with himself as the kingpin.

It was Lance’s idea to buy the DUKW, a 31-foot, six-wheeled, World War II–era amphibious landing craft that served as the audacious centerpiece of the operation, allowing the Company to drive right into the water and dock at sea with the sailboat. Lou had thought this was crazy—Oh sure, why not use zeppelins?—but after some research, Dave convinced Lou to approve the purchase of the 7.5-ton vehicle, which the crew had stashed in a barn near the tiny delta of Juan Creek.

Dave directed the boat south of the creek, where the beach, as expected, was deserted. (On the occasions when civilians wandered too close, they were intercepted by Dave, dressed as a park ranger, who told them that the area was the site of a wilderness-reclamation project and off-limits to civilians.) Lance went down the coast to Fort Bragg, 20 miles to the south, to get eyes on the local Coast Guard station. Company lookouts—code-named Nova for north and Saturn for south—took position out on the Pacific Coast Highway. At midnight everyone radioed in with a round of affirmatives. The coast, as they say, was clear. “Let’s get the Duck rolling,” Dave said over the comm.

With Ed and Don in the cockpit, the Duck pulled out of the barn, drove down the Pacific Coast Highway to the beach, and nosed into the water. They’d welded an additional wave shield to the bow so the Duck could break through the heavy California surf. Their compass turned out to be useless. But Ed, undaunted, plowed through the murky night—“nine feet up a black cat’s ass,” as Don put it—to meet the waiting ketch. They tied up, quickly transferred the load, and found their way back by aligning two lights Dave had set up onshore marking a safe passage. “Heading back,” he radioed Dave, who looked at his watch: So far, so good.

It was a funny thing to see the Duck rise from the darkness, shedding seawater like a real-life Nautilus—until it stopped rising. By now the tide had gone out, and the Duck, weighted down with Thai product, sank in the soft sand. The tide wouldn’t lift the vehicle for another six hours. By that time it would be broad daylight, and the Duck would be as conspicuous as a relic on Omaha Beach.

“Fuck,” Dave said over the radio. “We’re stuck.”

Ed hit the throttle and spun the wheels, sinking the Duck deeper into the sand. “Kill the engine!” someone yelled. Don got out, looked at the tires, and stood back. “Don’t panic,” he said. “I know exactly what to do.”

Don told Allan, who was on the beach, to get a couple of pickup trucks and a lot of rope. Like everyone else, he called the hirsute Allan “Fuzzy.” The two men were close, both a little wild, a couple of pranksters who got under Dave’s skin. But by God, they knew how machines worked. Now they assembled an elaborate pulley system connecting the pickups to the Duck’s winch. “Are you sure this is gonna work?” Dave asked.

Don didn’t flinch when the motors fired, and sure enough his ad hoc Archimedean apparatus enabled the Duck to lift itself out of the sand and back up to the road. It was a goddamn glorious sight. Cheers went up on the beach. Safely back in the barn, the Company hands unloaded the Duck’s fragrant cargo. It was a sweet reward to sample the supply; Don thought the faintly purple buds were thick and beautiful, the finest he’d ever smoked.

The cache was processed at the old general store next to the barn. It was the Company’s biggest haul to date: $8 million (about $33 million today). The Company had stepped up its game, bringing in better product with more sophisticated technique. The distributors would be pleased. By now they had been waiting a long time, too. Back in his cabana at the Beverly Hills Hotel—as the ringleader, he rarely set foot near the beach himself—Lou had had a hell of a time keeping them calm. He was worried that the Company’s reputation would be ruined if the supply didn’t show. It was a relief to call the dealers and announce, “The Eagle has landed.”

The exchange with the dealers always happened fast. Like in the movies, the money would come in Halliburton briefcases. Unlike in the movies, the Company usually waited to count it. And count it. And count it. And count it. It took so long to count that much cash, they got bored. When all was said and done, the partners each made half a million off the operation. For his rescue of the Duck, Don got the MVP award, a new Company institution, which came with a $25,000 bonus. Everyone else got their wad and scattered to the winds—the sweet scent of their trade wafting from their clothes.

It was exhilarating, the money and the camaraderie. Company members saw themselves as hippie outlaws. There was no violence—they didn’t even carry guns—just the threat of the law, which bound them together. They were criminals, but they were also a family.

Afterward, Lou and Dave sat in Lou’s cabana, going through receipts, looking at ledgers, accounting for a very good year. Later, they burned the receipts and went out to a Beverly Hills restaurant to celebrate. “Here’s to everyone’s efforts,” Lou said as they hoisted champagne flutes. “Let’s do it again soon.”

*Not his real name.

From The Beachcomber, the Coronado High School yearbook, 1972.

The Teacher

1964

Lou knew he wouldn’t stop until he reached the Pacific. He had left New York in his convertible on that modern-day westward migration, a midcentury Manifest Destiny, with the top down and the red metal-flake lacquer on his Corvette flashing in the sun. On the radio were Dick Dale and the Beach Boys, songs about girls, woodies, surfing. That’s where he was headed. He was 25 and looking to change his life.

Lou was born in Havana, Cuba, to a family of small-business owners. His mother brought him to New York City as a teenager, in 1954, and he liked it: the hustle, the gritty determination required to get ahead. Lou was smart-mouthed and got into more fights than he should have for a guy his size. Despite being small, however, he was a great athlete, and he held his own in the rough-and-tumble of Flatbush, Brooklyn.

After college, Lou studied law at Syracuse, but it was the early 1960s, and the California lifestyle was just dawning on America. Syracuse was awfully far from the beach, and when he heard about a job teaching Spanish at a high school in Coronado, he packed his bags.

Coronado was all Lou had hoped for, an easygoing beach town of 18,000 people, known for its handsome Victorian hotel, Navy base, and isolation. It was a funny mix, a sort of military Mayberry. Coronado was connected to the mainland by an isthmus, but it took so long to drive around that it might as well have been an island out in San Diego Bay. Lou loved the nonchalance that came with the geography. Everyone called it the Rock, or, playfully, Idiot Island: a place where people did their own thing.

At Coronado High, Lou quickly developed a strong rapport with the students. He was handsome and charming and cultivated a cool image. In addition to teaching Spanish, he coached swimming, water polo, and basketball. Lou liked to shoot hoops with his students after school; he was the kind of coach kids confided in. A lot of his students were Navy brats, raised in strict military families just as Vietnam was escalating. Lou had an ear for what the kids wanted to talk about. He was not much older than them, and he understood.

Lou’s father died when he was three, and his own high school basketball coach had helped fill the role; he knew everything that a coach could be. My boys, he called his players. But when the whistle blew, they knew it was time to work. Lou was a demanding coach, and his players loved him for it.

Among Lou’s Spanish students was Bob Lahodny, a popular kid with an easy smile, president of the class of ’68 two years in a row. Bob, a swim-team star, was a close friend of Ed Otero’s, class of ’72, another strong swimmer on the team. Ed’s nickname was Eddie the Otter, or sometimes just Otter. He was short and stocky, powerfully built, but he didn’t like practice and was difficult to control. Lou liked Ed and thought he could have been a great competitive swimmer, but he had no discipline.

Discipline was something you needed if you swam or played ball for Lou. He could be unforgiving even with his favorite players, like Harlan Fincher*, the star center of the basketball team. Harlan was tall and friendly—he’d been named Best Personality and Best Sense of Humor in his senior year—and he liked Lou’s coaching. Lou thought the same of Harlan’s playing, until the day Harlan snuck off with some friends and a bottle of Chivas after school and showed up dead drunk for the last game of the season. Furious, Lou took Harlan off the floor. “When you play for me,” Lou told him, “you give me everything.” He didn’t speak to Harlan again for the rest of his time at Coronado High.


The social scene in Coronado in those days was typical of its time: greasers, lettermen, and—by the time Gidget was on television—surfers. The greasers wore black Converse, the lettermen wore white tennis shoes, and the surfers tended toward blue Top-Siders. Over time there were more and more Top-Siders as surfing took hold. Not far behind Gidget was the rest of the ’60s: hair, rock and roll, and drugs. Coronado was fertile ground for the changing times, full of military kids eager to rebel.

Alarmed by the influx of drugs, the city government set up a pilot project at the high school to keep students on the straight and narrow. It was called the “no-bust policy,” and one of its counselors was Lou Villar. His approach was simpatico; he’d spent plenty of evenings in his kids’ homes, watching disciplinarian fathers fume and military wives crawl on the floor after three martinis, and he sensed the hypocrisy. He knew the kids were just looking for an outlet and suggested alternatives. “Why smoke a joint,” he’d ask, “when there are so many other ways to have fun in life?” It was persuasion over punishment, and Lou was nothing if not persuasive—until he stopped believing the message.

Lou had always been the bohemian teacher, the one who pulled into the faculty lot in a red Corvette and shades. When the school banned sunglasses, he wore his prescription Ray-Bans in class anyhow. For the students of Coronado High, this was a sign of solidarity: Lou was going through the same changes they were, reflecting a culture that was advancing at a frantic pace. Imagine starting high school in 1964, how fast it was all moving between freshman and senior year: from the Gulf of Tonkin to the Tet Offensive, from the Voting Rights Act to the Watts Riots, from Help! to “The White Album.”

Like his students, Lou started growing his hair and learned to surf. It was humbling at first, eating saltwater a thousand times before he managed to get up on the board. But once Lou could feel the ocean lift him up and bring him to shore, he was hooked; there was energy in that ride. He started inviting “his boys,” and some girls, over for dinner. Together they all smoked their first joints. Everyone was scared, convinced they’d go crazy. Instead, smiles gradually spread around the room. They talked waves while the hi-fi played the Doors, whose front man, Jim Morrison, had lived in Coronado.

Soon, Lou was counseling his kids against following in their parents’ footsteps. “That’s not a career,” he would say, pointing at the ships moored off the Navy Yard. “That’s a war machine.” Lou thought it was pretty cool that one of his favorite Spanish students, Dave Strather, a talented musician, wanted to become a rock and roller. Lou started dating Kathy, a beautiful former cheerleader—voted Most Popular the same year she was in the homecoming court—who had graduated from Coronado High a couple of years earlier. She was seven years younger than Lou, but Lou himself was not yet 30. We’re just kids, he thought, and the kids are finally in charge.

It was just a matter of time before he quit teaching. Nobody wanted to be in the establishment anymore. In the summer of 1969, the summer of Woodstock, he traded his Corvette for a VW bus. During his last week in class, Lou brought in his turntable, wore his shades, and listened to Jethro Tull with his students. 

The bridge was going up that summer. You could see the caissons rising out of the bay, spelling the end of the Rock as a de facto island. In August it opened to traffic. The two-mile feat of box-girder engineering arced gracefully across the bay, connecting Coronado to the rest of the world. The locals gathered on the Coronado side, waiting to watch those first cars roll across, knowing things would never be the same. 

Lance Weber (Photo: Courtesy of Rex Gammon)
Lance Weber (Photo: Courtesy of Rex Gammon)

The Boys

1969

Lance Weber was never cut out for the Navy. He had joined after graduating from Coronado High mostly so he wouldn’t get shot at in Vietnam. His father, a Navy captain, wanted him to be an officer, but when Lance’s service was up, his parents had to accept that he was just another washed-out swabbie loafing around back on the Rock.

One thing the Navy did do for Lance, however, was teach him how to turn a wrench. After his stint as an engineer on a submarine, he could make anything work. Back in Coronado, he tricked out a VW microbus with a Porsche engine and built the island’s first low-rider bicycle by hand. “Here comes the Wizard,” people would say, watching Lance cruise the beach on his tuned-up rig, barefoot, shirtless, his long blond hair flowing behind him and a stoned smile on his face. Easy Rider had just come out, and leaning back on two wheels was maybe the coolest thing you could do. When people said Lance was a space cadet, that meant they thought he was a rad fucking guy.

That summer marked the first great marijuana supply shock in the United States, the consequence of booming stateside demand and a drought in Mexico. Prices spiked, encouraging creativity. There were mules caravanning the desert, planes flying low over the Arizona mountains, tires stuffed with green at the border. It was the dream of every pot smoker to get a “block,” or a kilo, keeping some and selling the rest. And for the stoned surfers on the beach in Coronado, there was an enormous arbitrage opportunity just a few miles south. The trick was figuring out how to get the stuff home.

It was Lance who came up with the idea of taking to the water. At the Long Bar in Tijuana, he got his hands on 25 pounds of pot and swam it north from the beach by the bullring of the Plaza Monumental de Tijuana. He washed up on the U.S. side, on a beach with no name, no facilities, not even a parking lot—a perfect terminus for illegal night swims. He did it again, and again. It was dangerous, being in the water at night with only the blinking radio-tower lights for guidance, but it was worth it: Each delivery netted five grand.

Soon, Lance had a little team of marijuana marines working with him, swimming as many bundles as they could get their hands on. They were misfits, guys who couldn’t get girlfriends in high school before Lance put pot and money in their hands, and now they looked to Lance as their eccentric leader. He got busted in 1971, but the few months he served in Lompoc made him Coronado’s first hippie outlaw hero, a local legend.

When Lance got back, Paul Acree, one of Lance’s misfits, introduced him to a new connection, and they strapped on their fins again. A few bales later, however, they came up with a better idea: a Zodiac, similar to the inflatable rubber crafts used by Navy SEALs. One run in the Zodiac was good for 100 pounds of grass. It was easy money.

Looking to expand the little operation, Paul brought in Ed Otero. Ed was the archetypal California boy: blond, square face, cleft chin, like a letterman who had traded his varsity jacket for the waves. He was a former lifeguard, strong on land—he was known around town for tearing phone books in half—and in the surf. They would call him the Otter for his facility in the water, his ability to break through nasty surf with bales in hand.

A division of labor emerged: Paul arranged supply, Lance piloted the Zodiac, and Otter swam. The only thing holding them back was the connection, their guy in Tijuana. They called him Joe the Mexican, and since none of them had taken Lou’s class, they couldn’t understand a word Joe said.


Lou was in dungarees, standing on a ladder with paintbrush in hand, when Lance rolled up on his low-rider bike.

“You speak Spanish, right?”

“Sí,” Lou said. “Naturalmente.” It was a rhetorical question.

“Then come down here,” Lance said. “I got an idea.”

“I don’t have time,” Lou said. “I have to finish painting this house.”

“I’ll make it worth your time,” Lance said. He would pay Lou fifty bucks, he explained, to go with him to Tijuana for dinner.

Fifty bucks sounded good to Lou. He was painting houses for money, living in a little cottage. Since quitting Coronado High, he had become a bona fide beachside Buddhist, surfing, reading Carlos Castaneda, pondering the evils of materialism, making candles, and meditating with a local guru named Bula. He’d run into his old student, Bob Lahodny, among Bula’s disciples. He had also reconnected with Dave Strather,  who had recently returned to Coronado after spending a few years as a studio musician in San Francisco.

Life was simple, and Lou and Kathy were having a great time—until free love got the best of them. After four years together they had split up, driven apart by jealousy. There was nothing wrong with their relationship other than timing; 1971 was a bad time to be young, good-looking, stoned, and married. Now Lou spent his days painting houses and his free time at the beach. That was where he met Lance, out on a jetty where people went to watch the sunset.

Lance had gone to Coronado High but graduated before Lou’s time. They started hanging out around the Rock and roasted some pigs together. (Luaus were the thing then.) Lou loved that life. But he didn’t love being so broke. Traveling down to Tijuana and translating for Lance was the easiest fifty bucks he ever made—until Lance offered him a hundred the next week to do it again.

During the second meeting, Lou sensed an opportunity for his friends and negotiated a larger load for a better price from Joe the Mexican. Impressed, Lance offered Lou a cut of the next shipment.

When it was time for the pickup, Lou helped Lance, Paul, and Ed inflate the Zodiac and load it offshore by the little salt-eaten Rosarito beach shack where Joe the Mexican delivered the goods. Once they got it across the border, Lou’s share was $10,000. It was more money than he had earned in the past several years. He gave away his painting equipment and never looked back. Like everyone else, Lou had been smoking pot for giggles, but then came a moment of clarity, when he took that joint from behind his ear, sparked it up, and saw the future. 

The Gig

1972

Gigs, they called them. Or scams. Or barbecues, since they would plan them while throwing steaks on the grill at sundown. Everyone would get the call—“Do you want to go to a barbecue?”—when it was time to mobilize. The missions were simple at first, with just the 12-foot Zodiac running a couple hundred pounds at a time from Rosarito to the Silver Strand beach on Coronado’s tiny isthmus. But the loads were getting bigger, and even Eddie the Otter had trouble hauling 50-pound bags through head-high waves. And everyone knew it was unwise seafaring, to say the least, to negotiate the coast in that little raft with no lights and no navigation.

Still, Lance was an adventurer; he would have made a great swashbuckler, Lou always thought, or a test pilot. When Lance reached the Silver Strand, he’d signal with a flashlight and run the Zodiac right up onto the sand—Burn up the motor, he’d say, well buy a new one. They would off-load the bags, deflate the boat, and pack it all into the van. It would be over in five minutes, the most exciting five minutes they’d ever experienced: everyone holding their breath until the van was on the road, knowing as they drove away that they each had just made twice their parents’ annual salary.

At first there was one gig a month. Then it was one a week. Within a year, the crew was scaling up from the Zodiacs to a clandestine armada of speedboats, fishing boats, even a 40-foot cabin cruiser. Some of the money they made went back into the business. Lance bought a Chris-Craft called the Lee Max II and rebuilt the engine so he could carry serious weight at top speeds. They hired beach crews to expedite the off-load.

It was risky, bringing more people into the operation, but it was Coronado, and everyone knew each other. “If we take care of them,” Lance said, “they’ll take care of us.” And the partners could afford to be generous. Still in their twenties, they were walking around with $50,000 in their pockets, then $100,000, then a quarter of a million dollars. “Don’t you love it,” Lance once remarked, “when life goes from black and white to Technicolor?”

Lou walked into a bank, asked for the balance of his mother’s house, and paid it off in cash. Once, when he was buying first-class tickets to Hawaii for himself and his girlfriend, it dawned on him that he had enough money to hang out there and surf for the rest of his life. And he might have, had Ed and Lance not flown over personally to retrieve their partner. “Come on, Señor Villar!” Ed said. “There’s more money to be made!”

It got to be like clockwork, enough so that sometimes Lance’s and Lou’s girlfriends would tag along on the supply runs to Tijuana. It was about this time that Lance started calling Lou “Pops,” a nickname that caught on. “What do you think, Pops?” Lance asked one evening, drinking Coronas on the beach in Baja.

“I think we got a good thing going here,” Lou said. “Let’s not fuck it up.” 

Lance Weber, top right, and friends from Coronado pose with the Coronado Company’s DUKW amphibious landing craft. (Photo: Courtesy of Gary Kidd)

The Agency

1973

When the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration opened its office in the San Diego suburb of National City in 1973, it had just six field agents. The DEA was a brand-new agency, assembled from various other departments, including the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (BNDD), a tautologically titled bureaucratic relic that was poorly equipped to fight the war on drugs that President Richard Nixon had declared in 1971.

The impetus for the drug war was a congressional report issued the same year stating that as much as 15 percent of U.S. soldiers serving in Vietnam—a conflict that put hundreds of thousands of Americans in close proximity to the Golden Triangle—had come back hooked on heroin. The same report said that half of the service smoked pot. Alongside other law-enforcement agencies like the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms and the FBI, the DEA was tasked with fighting what Nixon called “the new menace.”

Bobby Dunne was one of the first agents working out of the new office. He’d started his law-enforcement career in National City a dozen years earlier, as an animal-control officer. After working his way up through the ranks of the local police department, he’d become a federal narcotics agent in 1968 and spent several years working in Guadalajara, Mexico. Dunne was excited to be abroad but quickly realized that corruption in Mexico made his job nearly impossible. When he came back to the States, he asked to join the DEA’s San Diego office, because “the action,” as they called it, was at the border.

The new agency needed all the local savvy it could get. San Diego was a world apart from drug interdiction on the East Coast, where well-understood organized-crime syndicates brought heroin in through the ports. California was a new front, the Wild West. Newly arrived agents couldn’t believe it: In one 12-hour shift at San Ysidro, you’d get three or four hauls of 100 kilos. Dunne was the first officer to pull a full ton of pot out of a truck heading north.

Dunne was a field agent, and in San Diego the work lived up to the title. In other DEA offices, you went to work in a suit and tie and spent a lot of time at your desk. In San Diego, the agents were veterans of border details and dressed like vaqueros: boots, jeans, guayaberas, cowboy hats. They spoke Spanish, wore beards and mustaches, and spent the nights in Tijuana bars with informants and local cops. To get anywhere, you had to roll up your sleeves and go drinking down in Revolución, getting to know the people on both sides of the border trade.

None of that shoe-leather work, however, clued the DEA into the new homegrown smuggling organization right under their noses, on the other side of San Diego Bay. The DEA’s first tip about the Company came from a Coronado police officer who had heard through the grapevine about some local guys and a former teacher running bales of pot up the coast. The beach runs weren’t in Coronado proper and were beyond police jurisdiction, so the officer called the feds.

Dunne was intrigued. He was assigned to a special unit that worked closely with local police and other law enforcement, and he debriefed the Coronado officer. He arranged for the Coast Guard to run some exercises with Zodiacs and realized that the small crafts could cruise the coast without showing up on radar. Very clever, he thought. Then the DEA got wind of a boat called the Lee Max II, owned by a local kid named Lance Weber who had done time in Lompoc a couple years before for smuggling. There were reports of the Lee Max II on the water at 3 a.m., and Dunne doubted they were out fishing.

Once, following a late-night sighting of Lance’s boat, the DEA posted agents at regular intervals along the coast, hoping to catch the smugglers in action. They saw the boat motoring away from a lonely stretch of beach in Carlsbad, north of San Diego. Dunne and the other agents rushed to the scene and scoured the beach, but it was too late. All they found were footprints going up the dunes to a house overlooking the ocean. 

Professionals

1974

Lately, Lou had been spending more time in North County. There was money up there, in Carlsbad, where he rented a house, and new hot spots like Del Mar and La Costa. One night, Lou met the owner of the Albatross, a nice seafood restaurant housed in an old church in Del Mar. He thought the place was groovy: good food, drinks, and music, and well attended by rich dopers. The owner of the restaurant was a big-time distributor himself.

Lou had come to recognize that smuggling was as much about personality as it was about know-how. To climb the ladder, you had to play it cool. Which is what he and the restaurant owner did, warily revealing their mutual interest, pulling their cards away from their vests to talk about how they might fit into each other’s business models.

“How much can you handle?” Lou asked.

“How much can you bring?” the owner replied.

The Albatross crowd offered Lou entrée to a new class of distributors, the kind of dealers who dressed well and belonged to racquet clubs. Lou began joining them for dinner, talking books, travel, and wine. They turned Lou on to a wine importer up in San Francisco, and he started ordering Bordeaux and white Burgundies. Refinement suited him. By now he had cut his hair and traded his hippie beads for silk shirts. When Lou suggested bringing in a ton, and the dealers said they’d pay cash on the barrelhead, he saw the horizon expanding before his eyes.


 Lance delighted in the prospect of expanding their little navy. But carrying more weight meant more people on the beach—five, ten guys running bags up and down the sand—and they needed to tighten the screws on the organization. Lou started strategizing. He turned to his good friend and former student Dave Strather.

Dave’s band was still playing around town, and he had recently married a tall, good-looking hippie girl named Linda. But Lou knew he was struggling financially. “Are you interested in some profitable moonlighting?” Lou asked him one day.

Dave, a solid bodysurfer, handled himself well in the waves and started as a loader. But he was a gifted planner, and it wasn’t long before Lou gave him more managerial duties. Lou wanted a right-hand man, and Dave was a natural. He was a drummer, after all, used to keeping time, being the backbone. Even in his hippie days he was fastidious, shampooing his long hair every day (and belying his nickname, Dirty Dave). That hair was gone once Dave started running around with a clipboard and checklists, buying and storing equipment, running smuggling gigs like a stevedore superintendent.

That put Dave at odds with Ed, whose run-and-gun style had been central to the early days of the operation but was fast becoming obsolete. Ed was a beloved figure around Coronado, a fun guy, the life of every party. But he was impulsive. When Ed was a lifeguard, he liked to drive his truck down the sand at full speed—and that’s how he’d flipped it right into the water. Dave bristled when he would show up at a gig at the last minute and start bossing people around, imperiling Dave’s meticulous plans. Dave would appeal to Lou, who tried to promote Ed out of Dave’s hair. “You don’t want to be a grunt on the beach,” he told him. “You’re in management. Let Dave roll up his sleeves.”

That mostly worked, at least at the smuggling sites. Off the beach was another matter. Ed was young, wild, and flush—a dangerous combination in a small town. Here he was, no known job, celebrating one of the organization’s first big paydays at the Chart House down on the Embarcadero, cozying up to some girl with his hands full of cash. “Look what I got, baby,” Ed told her, laying out ten grand in bills. Lou would’ve jumped on the table to cover it up, but the whole place had seen it already. We need to cut these shenanigans, Lou told his colleagues. We’re gonna bring heat on ourselves.

What he didn’t know was that they already had. The DEA was onto Lance, watching him run the Lee Max II like a daredevil, at full speed on autopilot, ripping through the swells like a lunatic. And Lance was as flamboyant on land as he was cavalier in the cockpit. He knew he was known to the authorities, and he loved pushing his luck. “I like making the cops look bad,” he’d say. “It’s fun.”

Not to Lou, it wasn’t. One night after a gig in Carlsbad, they’d planned to meet at a coffee shop near Oceanside Harbor after the beach crew unloaded the shipment. Lou was sitting in his booth with a fork in a slice of cherry pie when he looked up and saw Lance drive past in his truck, pulling the Lee Max II on its trailer, two squad cars in tow. The cops tore the boat apart, right in front of the coffee shop, but found nothing. Lance relished his little victory—and then walked in to meet Lou. “Don’t even talk to me,” Lou said, jumping up to leave. “Just keep walking.”

It was the same night Special Agent Dunne  found footsteps on the beach near Lou’s house. The DEA agents had followed Lance in his boat to the marina, but when the boat came out clean, the district attorney refused the DEA a search warrant for the house.

It was a close call. Lou didn’t realize how close when he moved to Solana Beach and relocated the entire smuggling outfit out of Coronado. It was the first time some of its members had lived anywhere besides the Rock. By then, everyone on the island knew what they were up to. They even had a name for their hometown smugglers: the Coronado Company.

The name stuck; Lou had misgivings about it, but it suited the group’s professional aspirations. By now they were evolving quickly. Lou turned out to be not just a natural leader, but also an organizational genius. The one-time anti-materialist candlemaker became a business visionary, laying out plans for the Company to dominate its market niche. As he had when he was a coach, Lou knew how to motivate people, establish mutual trust, and make the members of his squad believe in their abilities. Pops was now a father figure to a new kind of team. It was fun in those early days, he told his boys in the Company, but amateur hour is over.


The new organization left little room for Paul Acree. Paul was always his own worst enemy. He was cold and had a nasty gift of gab. He could be funny, but always at the expense of others. Paul had found the crew’s original line of supply in Tijuana, but Lou knew he wasn’t the right guy to make the bigger connections the operation needed to grow. You couldn’t look like a hood at the next level. His idea of business—give me the money, you get the pot—was oafish. Where was the salesmanship in that? Where was the finesse?

And lately, Paul had started sniffling and rubbing his nose. Nobody knew when exactly he had become an addict. Maybe it was when everyone got rich and he could suddenly get as much heroin and coke as he wanted. Once driven, he was coasting now, showing up at meetings with watery eyes. He looked terrible. He was Lance’s friend, but even Lance knew that you couldn’t trust a junkie. When the Company convened to vote Paul out, it was unanimous.

One of the Company’s Mexican contacts, known as Pepe de Mexicali, had told Lou about the time he had to get rid of an associate who had been caught with his fingers in the jar by taking him on a “one-way plane ride.” The Coronado Company’s style was more genteel than that; if you got fired, they just stopped calling you. With Paul, the partners decided, they would simply move away. They left him with $10,000. It wasn’t much in the way of hush money, especially for a guy who was speedballing, but that was the offer.

With Paul gone, Lou took on an even larger role within the Company, and he started to act the part. He conducted business from his new house in Solana Beach, on a cliff overlooking the ocean, with his malamute, Prince, at his feet. There he’d preside with his girlfriend, Kerrie Kavanaugh, a waitress he’d met at another tony spot in nearby Cardiff-by-the-Sea. Lou had left her a $100 tip one night, followed the next day by 20-dozen roses, along with a card bearing a poem he wrote. Kerrie thought the roses were a bit tacky—a nice little bouquet of handpicked wildflowers would have better suited a girl like her—but the poem was nice. She showed up at Lou’s house, where she found him sunbathing on the deck.

Lou had spent a few years floating between girls, but he saw immediately that Kerrie had a spark. She was smart, with a bright smile and an eager outlook on the world. Lou was older, wealthier, and more worldly than the boys who hit on her on the beach. He doted on her, gave her gifts and several cars, paid for her dance classes. Soon she moved from her beach trailer into Lou’s place. They would entertain the rest of the Company guys and their girlfriends there, drinking greyhounds until dinner and then smoking and doing lines while dancing to the Average White Band until three in the morning. The next day, they’d wake up and start all over again.

Lou initially told Kerrie he was an interior decorator, but she didn’t believe it for long; his place was well decorated, but she never saw a single catalog or bolt of fabric around. It wasn’t a surprise when Lou finally confessed that he was a drug kingpin, nor did it change how she felt about him. Kerrie was the kind of girl who watched the Watergate hearings from beginning to end. With her anti-establishment sympathies, Lou’s profession had a renegade appeal.

For his part, Lou saw himself as a new kind of CEO. He just wanted to excel at what he did. He was already a multimillionaire, as were his partners. They thought that was all the money in the world. They were wrong. 

Kerrie Kavanaugh and Lou Villar shortly after they first met, in the mid-’70s.
Kerrie Kavanaugh and Lou Villar shortly after they first met, in the mid-’70s.

The Don

1975

Lou and  Dave were south of the border, in a Tijuana flophouse near the racetrack, surrounded by a dozen men with machine guns. They were drug-lord foot soldiers; you could tell from the chrome-plated pistols in their belts. No one moved. Dave and Lou waited. The seconds felt like hours.

They had gotten themselves into this situation on purpose, after deciding that the Company should do some supply-chain outreach. Dave had run across a guy they called Rick Pick who said he knew Roberto Beltrán. The Don. The head of the Sinaloa-based trafficking syndicate, one of the biggest drug dealers in the world. Lou and Rick met and sized each other up. Once they decided that they trusted each other, Lou said, “Introduce me to the Don.”

Thus began a series of false starts and frustrations. Late at night, Lou and Dave would get a call and rush to the appointed meeting place under the San Diego side of the Coronado Bridge, only to find nobody there. Finally, when the real call came to meet in Tijuana, Lou arrived two hours late on purpose. That’s the Mexican style of business, he thought. Mañana! Keeping them waiting, Lou reasoned, would show that they were equals.

But now, trapped deep inside the syndicate’s flophouse, they knew they were not equals. And Beltrán’s guys didn’t look happy. Dave was terrified. But Lou kept his game face. He was still wondering if the meeting was for real. “Are we going to see the Don?” he asked. Finally, the Don’s bodyguard, who went by the name El Guapo, led them into a small room. There, reclining on a king-size bed, was Beltrán.

Dave and Lou were surprised to see that the Don looked like a maharishi, or maybe a bum: scraggly hair, jeans, unshaven. When they walked in, he didn’t get up. It was a weird scene, standing at the foot of the bed, unsure of what to do. Dave thought they were dead. Especially when Lou decided to take a pillow and lay down on the bed, right next to Beltrán. Dave silently said a prayer.

One of the things Dave liked about Lou was his finesse. Dave’s own father was the executive officer of the Navy base on Coronado, a tyrant whose explosive temper kept him from ever becoming an admiral. He had trouble forming real relationships with anyone, including his son. Dave hated his father, and he admired Lou for being the opposite in every way. Dave thought he had an aristocratic bearing, an elegance that could charm people in any situation. But this situation was different. This was Roberto Beltrán. And he wasn’t smiling.

Lou and the Don were chatting softly, faces inches apart. Within a few minutes, Beltrán was grinning, then laughing. Lou’s instinct was right; the Don respected the wildly daring initiative of showing up like this, offering a new service to the syndicate. No one from the States had ever approached him. “What do you have to lose?” Lou told him.

Lou knew the Mexicans were sending half-tons north every way they could think of and losing a lot of it at the border. It was a model that made money—the supply that got through paid for the rest—but still, there was a lot of smuggler’s shrinkage. This is what Lou told Beltrán, in so many words: The Coronado Company can reduce your shrinkage. “Let’s do business,” the Don said.


The days of cabin cruisers were over.  Lance hired a commercial fishing vessel and a sailor of fortune who went by the name Charlie Tuna. The boat arrived for pickup at an isolated beach on the Sea of Cortez. Beltrán’s bodyguard drove Dave and Lou; they were rumbling along the barely paved highway in the shadow of the Sierra Madre Occidental when they saw roadblocks flanked by soldiers on the road. The jig is up, Dave thought, but their caravan was waved right through. The men were from the Don’s security team, part of his service package as a supplier. Federales on the Don’s payroll guarded the beach operation.

Out on the water, Charlie Tuna maneuvered his boat through the beach mud, getting as close to shore as possible. The boat was loaded with hundreds of bales, passed from sand to canoe to Zodiac to deck, along with some cases of beer for the crew’s return trip. “See you in Malibu,” Charlie said over the radio.

Onshore, Lou shook hands with the Don. The whole deal was on credit. And now the Company owed the Sinaloa suppliers $3 million. It had never occurred to Lou what might happen if something went wrong. “Good luck!” Beltrán told Lou. “You’ve got some real cojones, you know?”


Fifteen tons, Dave thought, right on the goddamned beach? The Mexican job was an enormously challenging off-load, an order of magnitude bigger than their usual runs. Dave bought more sophisticated equipment and procured several houses to use as staging sites and covert entrepôts, including a rental right off the Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu.

That was where the team assembled. The company had added some new recruits, including Allan “Fuzzy” Logie, a surfer turned motorcycle racer. Fuzzy was amazed at the scale of the Company’s operation and quickly took a liking to Don Kidd, another trafficking tenderfoot recruited by Lance. Don hailed from Coronado—Lou had taught his brother Spanish—and he would have been class of ’69 if he had graduated instead of going to Vietnam. The Company had brought Don on as a gofer, but he quickly distinguished himself as a talented mechanic whose expertise would eventually elevate him to chief engineer.

The midnight chaos reminded Don of Vietnam, exciting but perilous. They were in plain view of the neighbors, whose lights were on. And they were out there on the water for hours, buzzing around in the Zodiacs, carrying everything by hand.

Luckily, it was overcast, and the reflected glow of the city gave them extra light. They got the job done, but it took forever. Fuzzy ran for eight hours straight. In the end, they managed to fit all 15 tons in three rented Ryder trucks. The next stop was the processing site. As the convoy pulled away from the beach, they drove right past a highway patrol cruiser on the shoulder with lights flashing. Fuzzy smiled as they passed; the officer was writing some poor bastard a speeding ticket while a truck packed with thousands of pounds of pot sailed by at 60 miles an hour.

At the warehouse, where Dave had organized an assembly-line-style repackaging system—every brick was weighed to the gram, bagged, marked with a sticker, and recorded—Lou showed up to inspect the wares. It was a job well done. When everyone got their cut, Fuzzy asked if he could get paid in weed. He had to settle for cash instead. “Well,” he told the others, “I hope I get invited to another barbecue.”

Lou, intent on impressing the Don, decided to deliver his money immediately, in person, without being asked. When Lou and Dave flew to Culiacán, Sinaloa, and, once again surrounded by machine guns, handed over duffel bags containing $3 million in cash—they had carried them on the plane and snuck through customs with swiped inspection tags—the Don smiled. “We owe you a party,” he said. That night, he feted them at a restaurant in Culiacán, where he and Lou arranged the next consignment: another 20 tons.

When they got the shipment into the safety of a warehouse in Santa Cruz, the load was ten feet high.  Ed pulled out some blocks and arranged them into a chair, and they all took turns sitting on the throne of hard-packed kilos. The Coronado Company were now the biggest pot smugglers on the West Coast. What they had done, at their age—Lou, the oldest among them, was just 34, and most of the rest were in their mid-twenties—was without precedent. They were a bunch of young hippies sitting atop an empire. 

Company members pose on top of a shipment of marijuana. (Photo: Courtesy of Gary Kidd)
Company members pose on top of a shipment of marijuana. (Photo: Courtesy of Gary Kidd)

The Insider

1976

People around Coronado told different stories about how exactly it was that Paul wound up talking to the DEA. Some said he just wanted to get back at the Company. Others said he was arrested trying to steal some navigation gear and, jonesing in jail, made a deal. Whichever it was, the moment Paul started talking was the moment that Dunne and the other agents discovered just what they were up against.

They were shocked at the Company’s scale. As far as they knew, smuggling on the West Coast was a haphazard business. And here was Paul telling them how the Company was landing thousands of kilos on a beach with SEAL-like precision not three miles from their office. They were operating at a level far beyond the DEA itself; the agency’s National City office, only a few years old, barely had the budget and personnel to cover San Diego County, much less go toe-to-toe with an organization like the Company.

Paul, meanwhile, had nothing to lose. His money was gone, but his drug habit wasn’t. All he had left was information. Paul might have been excommunicated from the Company, but he was still connected to Lance. Although Lance had moved away from Coronado with the rest of the partners, his girlfriend, Celeste, still lived on the Rock. When he was in town, he hung around with the old crowd, even Paul. Sensing opportunity, Dunne let Paul go, sending him out to gather more information.

Coronado was a natural rumor mill, and word got around quickly that Paul was snitching. But Lance was a chatterbox, and he couldn’t help himself from filling in Paul on the Company’s latest exploits anyway. Back in the DEA office, a picture began to come together. The agents heard about the organization’s humble beginnings, the deal with Roberto Beltrán that pushed the Company into the big time, and, the following year, a trip to Morocco.

That gig started with a meeting at a Black Angus Steakhouse in La Mesa and took them to the Canary Islands, Casablanca, and Tangiers. The idea had come from the younger brother of Lou’s ex-wife, Kathy. He had done some frontier surfing on the edge of the Sahara, the scene of some legendary perfect right breaks, and came back talking about hashish, the potent black tar of the Berbers. The Company found a new captain—Charlie Tuna’s friend, who (no joke) went by the name Danny Tuna—and a new ship, a 70-footer rigged for albacore fishing called the Finback. There were bumps along the way, like Danny running out of money and trying to sell his equipment to confused dockside Canary Islanders. Lance and Ed flew to Tenerife, where they found Danny, drunk, lost, and carousing with British girls on holiday. They got the Finback to Algeciras, at the Strait of Gibraltar, resupplied, and then steamed back in rough weather across the Atlantic and Caribbean.

It turned out that the Finback’s cargo wasn’t actually hash but rather kief, a less valuable precursor product. But the DEA agents understood the operational significance of the mission. These guys had crossed oceans and solved major logistical problems on the fly. No one in the office had ever seen anything like it.

It had been years since Lou had seen Bob Lahodny. Since the two crossed paths as earnest disciples of the meditation guru Bula on the beach in Coronado, the onetime class president and swim champ had gone abroad. He’d bought the Pai Nui, a handsome, teak-decked sailboat, and sailed around the South Pacific. He was in Bali when he fell in with the Brotherhood of Eternal Love. Like-minded expatriates from Southern California, the Laguna Beach–based group was known for proselytizing about the benefits of LSD—they were close associates of Timothy Leary and had once worked with the Weather Underground to help him flee the United States. They also ran a vast drug-smuggling network, manufacturing and distributing acid in the United States and running hashish from Kandahar, Afghanistan. The Brotherhood had connections in Thailand, too, and Bob brought them back to Coronado. “You guys can make the same money from two tons of Thai stick as 20 tons of Mexican pot,” Bob told his old pal Ed when he reappeared in the States.

Thai stick had enjoyed an aura of mystique ever since U.S. soldiers started coming back from Vietnam tours with batches of the extremely powerful varietal knotted around bamboo skewers. It had developed a reputation as the new marijuana gold standard; One Hit Shit, they called it. The DEA at the time believed it to be among the most profitable commodities in existence: a ton bought in Bangkok for $100,000 went for $3.5 million stateside. The hard part was getting it there. Unlike drugs flowing north from Latin America, Thai stick had to come in by boat. And boats happened to be the Company’s specialty.


Bob came on as a partner, bringing in his connections but steering clear of the operation. He was, in Lou’s words, a “good-time Charlie rather than a brass-tacks guy.” Still, the first shipment he brought back aboard that Pai Nui was a multimillion-dollar proof of concept of how Thai stick would revolutionize the Company. When Dave did the math, his eyes widened. The Company could earn more—far more—while being more discreet. It was a smuggler’s dream.

By now, the Company had earned a begrudging respect from its pursuers; the DEA agents in National City regarded Lou and his crew as smart businessmen and tactical geniuses. But Dunne had an idea about how to tighten the screws on their investigation. A veteran agent, he was one of the few people in his office who knew how to write up a conspiracy case. The tactic was mostly unknown in the DEA at the time, but it was a legal tool that would allow for deeper investigative powers and bigger indictments.

Once Dunne and the other agents learned the full magnitude of the Company’s activities, they started laying the groundwork for the case. Using the information that Paul had fed them, the agents began piecing together the facts of a conspiracy. By the spring of 1976, as the Company was contemplating its leap into the Thai trade, Dunne had enough to convince the U.S. attorney in San Diego to convene a grand jury.

Now the DEA’s investigation had a name. Operation CorCo was in full swing.

Freeway All the Way

1977

“You nearly clipped Bambi!”

 Fuzzy pulled up alongside Dave in fourth gear. They were straddling a pair of enduros, off-road motorcycles they’d brought up to the redwoods, where Fuzzy was teaching Dave how to ride. Dave was getting the hang of it, opening up the throttle on the open forest roads, taking in the hum and rattle and the prismatic sun filtering through the canopy. He hadn’t noticed a spotted fawn grazing on the shoulder. Fuzzy saw Dave’s tire brush its bushy white tail. “You’re lucky to be alive!” he said, grinning.

The two had been up there for weeks, cruising the backcountry of the Lost Coast, looking for even more remote loading sites after the success of the Pai Nui. Finding the right spot was an art. Dave constantly studied maps, scoping out prospective landing sites as far north as Alaska. But the empty beaches of the Lost Coast, many of them accessible only by old unpaved logging trails, had the advantage of being conveniently close to San Francisco.

The nimble, long-range enduros, their reach extended by gas cans stashed in the woods, were the best way to negotiate the difficult terrain of one of the country’s most beautiful landscapes. The whole territory was a refuge of dropouts and outlaws: Hells Angels, ex-cons, hippie communes. But the forest was vast enough to swallow all of them, and Dave and Fuzzy would be alone with the trees for hours.

One day, they bumped their way down a road that followed the coastal bluffs of the Sinkyone Wilderness to a small cove. They stopped their bikes, scanning the terrain from above. The cove faced south and kept the roiling Pacific at bay. There was a nice break, but Fuzzy knew there’d be no time for surfing. Dave looked at the map. The cove was marked as Bear Harbor. In the late 19th century it had been used for loading lumber onto ships, but the wharf was long gone. “This is just what we’re looking for,” Dave said.


Sometimes Lou’s story was that he was a trust-funder. Sometimes he was the son of a Texas wildcatter. Once he was mistaken for a member of Kiss, and he let that story linger. Whoever he was, Lou owned it. “I’m in oil,” he’d say. “And if you ask any more questions, I’ll ask you to leave.”

If you wore money well, Lou thought, you could be whoever you wanted. You could live for months at a time at the Beverly Hills Hotel or the Waldorf Astoria in New York, paying $1,500 a night in cash. Maybe you were a movie producer or a chief surgeon somewhere. No one asked questions; the money made you invisible.

Lou made the drug business look like any other business. He would rendezvous with his distributors on tennis courts in Palm Springs, meet in the open, change from a coat and tie into tennis whites, let the other guy win the set, shake hands, and make the deal. There were no rough edges. Nobody in the Company wanted to be a gangster. They wanted to fit in, to live the good life.

Lou had long since traded his VW bus for a Ferrari. In the trunk, he carried a valise full of “fun tickets,” $100 bills to satisfy any whim. He and Ed and Bob bought palatial homes, acquired a taste for antiques. Bob and Ed, who had climbed Machu Picchu together, added Mesoamerican touches to their Asian aesthetic. Lou’s tastes ran toward the eclectic; among other things, he had bought a carved opium bed from China. He would jet to Paris on the Concorde and spend the weekend buying $5,000 worth of shoes. He spent $15,000 on a fake passport under the name Peter Grant, bought a Mercedes as James Benson, shopped at Wilkes Bashford as Richard Malone. This was the name Lou was known by in La Costa and in Lake Tahoe, where the Company liked to vacation. One day, Lou surprised Kerrie with tickets to Jamaica, where they lived for a month on a remote lagoon, disconnected from everything, just snorkeling and reading. It was there, at Dragon Bay, that Kerrie discovered that she was falling in love with him.

In 1976, Lou had bought a place in Tahoe for himself and Kerrie. Dave and Linda moved there as well, to a condo nearby. Dave felt like he was coming into his own in the Company. Lou trusted Dave’s judgment without question, and Dave respected the vision that had gotten them this far. He treated Lou like an adoptive father, and Lou, who had no kids of his own, treated Dave like a favored son. Dave still wasn’t a partner, but he had moved beyond beach master to something like a general manager, with final word on operational decisions.

Tahoe became a refuge for the Company, a place where the couples hung out together and received a steady stream of guests. Lou bought a beautiful vintage Chris-Craft boat called the Rich and Dirty for waterskiing, and he’d spend all day blasting Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours on the eight-track while Kerrie carved a slalom wake behind him. At night, Kerrie would fish for deepwater mackinaw trout and stuff it whole for dinner. Kerrie had grown close to Bob and loved how Ed lived big and laughed all the time. The same style that had caused problems on the beach made Ed the life of the party, the kind of guy who’d walk into a room bellowing, clapping along as Dave and Bob played stoned duets on the piano.

Sometimes they’d invite their investors to the lake, guys Lou brought in to spread the risk. Lou was good at intuiting potential partners. Some of them were already trade insiders, but others were straight: bond brokers and lawyers and other pedigreed people who couldn’t resist the 2- or sometimes 3-to-1 return Lou was offering. The Company had its own accountant, buying properties on its behalf, creating shell companies with names like Mo Ching Trading Co., Tow Tow Ltd., and Ku Won Investment Co., Ltd.

Another frequent guest in Lake Tahoe was Phil DeMassa, a San Diego area criminal defense attorney. Lou had met DeMassa a few years earlier, at one of the birthday bashes Ed liked to throw for himself. DeMassa was known in the drug trade as a high-priced but effective attorney. He was a litigator who liked the fight, worked long hours, and was successful at keeping the government at bay. Lou wanted that kind of firepower and gave DeMassa $300,000 in cash to come aboard. Just don’t deal in anything white, DeMassa advised Lou, and he’d take care of the rest.

There, above the electric blue lake, a thought dawned on Lou: Money is energy. A frictionless medium for amplifying your will. Once, Lou asked Kerrie to come and stand with him in front of $2 million that he had arranged in $10,000 stacks. “Can’t you feel it?” he said, looking at the bundles. With the cash it had on hand, the Company could do whatever its principals dreamt up—“buy the road,” as Ed liked to put it.

On a practical level, that was Ed’s job. His rough style turned out to be good for the dirty work required to run a multinational criminal enterprise: paying off local officials, buying boats in seedy foreign ports, vetting sellers abroad. Others thought those assignments were dangerous, but Ed saw them as adventures. His passport—under the name Kenneth Eugene Cook, Jr.—filled with stamps from India, Switzerland, Hong Kong, Senegal, the Seychelles, and the Panama Canal Zone.

Expansion plans were under way closer to home, too. Word from buyers was that the East Coast was dying for smoke. Switching geography, the Company figured, would help throw off the heat, too. Dave had studied his maps and praised the gods of fractal geometry for giving distant Maine as many miles of coast as California. He purchased a beach house on Dennison Point in Cutler, overlooking Little Machias Bay; an equipment house outside the small town of Freedom; and a communication house near Skowhegan. Across the globe, Ed attended to the maritime details: cargo-ship certifications, port clearances, tonnage certificates. Soon the shipment, seven tons of Thai stick, was on the move.

By now the Company had perfected a cell structure, flexible but tightly organized, bonded by friendship and mutual trust. Company guys lived around the country, under assumed names, and communicated by 800 numbers with answering services, where they’d leave coded messages with callback numbers to pay phones. Everyone always had a bag of quarters. Dave was an early adopter of beepers and used techniques from a class at the Bornstein School of Memory Training to encrypt key numbers onto a chart that crew members could stick to the backs of their watches. You’d get a message—“Burma Christmas”—and know who to call back. With this system the Company could disappear for months at a time and then reemerge at the ready.

Heading up the Maine operation with Dave was Harlan Fincher, the Coronado High basketball team’s former center. Harlan had gone off to school on an athletic scholarship and then returned to Coronado to work as a printer. Since his drunken appearance at the last game of his varsity career, Harlan hadn’t heard from Lou—until, one day at work, he received a call out of the blue. “Hi, Harlan,” a familiar voice said, “long time.”

It was Harlan’s job to transform into reality the elaborate schemes that Dave had dreamed up for the Maine operation. The project had many technical hurdles. The house on Dennison Point sat near the edge of a cliff, looking out over the waters where the first naval battle of the American Revolution was fought. The beach below the cliff was a serious bone patch—rocks everywhere, some the size of VWs—and the tides were huge and fast-changing. This wasn’t like back home in Coronado, with 300 yards of flat sand.

It was Don who came up with the solution: installing a yarder, a five-ton piece of industrial logging equipment, in the house’s garage. The yarder would lower trucks by cable straight down the face of the cliff so they could negotiate the rocks out to the dock the Company had built at the water’s edge. The trucks would be loaded and driven back to the palisade, then winched back up the cliff face and into the garage. It was outrageous but clever, an improvised mechanical marvel.

The rest of the gear was stored in a 19th-century barn, beneath a giant sleigh of similar vintage hanging in the rafters. For months the team worked there, tending to mission preparations. Fuzzy tested the outboards and doused the spark-plug cylinders in starting fluid. (You didn’t want to be out there in the dark pulling cords.) He altered the gravity feeds Dave had bought to move the bales, using his arc welder to make them adjustable.

Elsewhere in the barn were the new Maravias, 35-foot-long Kevlar barges they had bought for towing the pot back from the mothership. Dave had them custom-made; he told the Maravia sales agent that they would be used to transport cattle across the Rhine. Where Dave came up with that, he didn’t know. It was the kind of cover story that just rolled off his tongue by now, the instinctive cloak-and-dagger of a life built on anonymous P.O. boxes and money orders and answering services and forged identities.

The fake IDs were Al Sweeney’s department. Dave brought him in because he remembered from high school that Al could point a camera and print well. Al was the science-club type: quiet, smart, focused. He’d meet with Company guys at the San Francisco Hyatt, carrying a turquoise garment bag that doubled as the backdrop for the California ID photo, which he could reproduce within 48 hours. Even after the DMV instituted a new band of invisible ink, a supposedly unbreakable security measure, Al figured out how to duplicate it.

In addition to being the Company’s master forger, Al had been a ham-radio hobbyist in high school, and with Company money he created a totally secure communications system, installing military-grade crystals in their radios so they could transmit on protected channels. In Maine, he was stationed at the communication house, 110 miles from Machias in Skowhegan, to operate the 60-foot antenna they’d installed to stay in touch with the ship. A lot of juice ran to that 5,000-watt tower; when you turned it on, the lights would dim, the room would hum, and you’d get warm standing next to it, waiting for word to come that the mother ship, code-named Cowboy, was nearing Little Machias Bay.

Cowboy finally arrived in October, negotiating Maine’s difficult inlets at night, guided by the two main towers of the Navy’s submarine communications center, just across Little Machias Bay. The crew motored the Zodiacs out to meet the ship in smuggler’s blackout, beneath a moonless sky.

They dropped chem lights in milk bottles as buoys to mark the way back. The man in the bow of each Zodiac held up a piece of aluminum so the mother ship could pick them up on radar. The crews wore thick black wetsuits; the Zodiac pilots had hockey helmets rigged with radio headsets. They looked ridiculous with six-inch antennae sticking up from their heads, but that’s what Harlan improvised so they could work hands-free. From the beach, Dave monitored their progress with a Starlight night-vision scope he’d seen in the pages of Soldier of Fortune.

The operation went off without a hitch: After traveling 10,000 miles, the Thai stick breezed through the final stretch, from the boat to the beach and up the cliff. It was another flawless operation. And it felt great. While the load was being sorted in the equipment house, Ed brought the investors in for inspection. The equipment was packed and stored, and the stash was loaded into a Dodge van. A Company detachment, all of them dressed in deliverymen’s Dickies, drove down the Eastern Seaboard, the van and a chase car a mile apart, dropping off boxes marked “Generators” in the wee hours. It was $20 million worth of product in all. It seemed just right when Steve Miller came on the van’s radio one night, singing “Take the Money and Run.”

In a suite at the Waldorf Astoria, the partners divided the spoils. One of the investors, Bruce Tanaka, had a lead on some Mercedes 450 SEL 6.9s, which were semi-street-legal and had to be imported from Europe via an underground dealer. Tanaka was taking orders. As a reward for a job well done, Lou and Ed each bought one of the luxury sedans, in complementary colors.

The victory celebration, as usual, was epic. In an age of excess—the idealism of the ’60s had long since given way to the indulgence of the ’70s—the Company could afford to be more excessive than most. “Why settle for a glass of champagne,” Lou would say, “when you can have a magnum?” It was vivid living, surrounded by friends, seeing your champagne flute filled as soon as it was empty, unless you followed Pops’s lead, draining your glass and throwing it into the fireplace. Toasting big, stumbling out to the limos at dawn with a girl on your arm—it felt like you were going to live forever. It’s what Ed meant when he and Al stood looking out at the ocean one day, toward ports east, and he said, “You know what? It’s just freeway all the way.”

Heat

1978

Lou was on the slopes in Vail, Colorado, when he learned about the indictment: eight counts in San Diego’s district court, naming him, Ed, Lance, Bob, and 22 others. The DEA’s Operation CorCo had convinced the grand jury. The indictment hadn’t been unsealed yet, but Phil DeMassa’s office had gotten wind of it early. “The bloom is off the rose,” DeMassa said, after a call came in from his office. Lou frowned, planted his poles, and kept skiing.

Lou figured that if the authorities knew where they were, they’d have been arrested already. He was right—the DEA had no leads on Company members’ whereabouts, and the agents in San Diego lacked the resources to go after fugitives, especially if those fugitives had deep pockets. The agency could gin up indictments, but it lacked what agents called “habeas grabus,” the capacity to make big arrests.

Lou and Dave arranged to meet DeMassa at the Mark Hopkins hotel in San Francisco. As DeMassa walked down Sutter Street, they watched from the eighth floor through binoculars to make sure he wasn’t being followed, then led him through a back entrance into the hotel. “As your attorney, I advise you to turn yourself in,” DeMassa said once they were safely in the room. Then he grinned. “Now, with that out of the way, let’s get down to business.”

Using carefully worded hypotheticals, DeMassa briefed the Company on how to survive as fugitives. He told them to protect their cash and documents in sealed envelopes addressed to him, so they would be shielded by attorney-client privilege and could be opened only with a warrant. He parsed the charges, the felonies and misdemeanors. The three of them agreed that the principals should stay on the run and that some others might surrender and strategically cooperate so as to get light sentences but not give up the goods.

This was a new idea, doing time for the Company. But things were different now, more complicated. Lou would have to turn on the coach charm and tell his team that sacrifice was necessary. The rest of the indictees would show up in court, en masse, on the day the indictment was unsealed. “We can get slaps on the wrist for the underlings,” DeMassa promised. Then he told Lou that he’d spent his latest $300,000 payment already. Lou sent him on his way with another fifty grand in cash.


Hiding in plain sight, the Company’s principals went further upscale, relocating to Santa Barbara. Bob, who was already hanging out with his Brotherhood of Eternal Love friends up there, moved into a huge Spanish-style hacienda. Out back was a tennis court, where he and Lou would have fierce five-hour matches. Ed bought a house near Bob, and both of them took up polo, stabling 20 ponies apiece at the Santa Barbara Polo & Racquet Club. Ed wasn’t great at the game—still the bull in the china shop—but Bob had real finesse. Lou thought he looked beautiful in the saddle.

Bob’s friends called him “Light Show” Lahodny on account of his love of the glamorous life, and he was living up to his nickname in Santa Barbara. People took notice of his good looks and smile; he was Kennedy-esque, they thought, like a ’70s-style, feel-good Bobby. Maybe that was what the members of the local Chamber of Commerce were thinking when they asked him to run for a newly opened state Assembly seat. He politely declined—a wise decision for a drug smuggler living under a false name.

On his visits to Santa Barbara, DeMassa protested half-heartedly about all the public revelry. But the truth was that he was fond of Bob and Ed and liked going to those parties, too. All of them did. Still, it was a dangerous game, being that high profile. Ed was probably the most conspicuous. He couldn’t reinvent himself as a patrician the way Bob and Lou had. The more money he had, the more he looked like a criminal. It was a matter of style: The Company guys all called Ed “the Kid,” because he called everyone else “kid,” as in, “Hey, kid, how about some more wine over here?”—the kind of demeanor that got plenty of second looks at the Polo Club. In many ways, Ed was in fact a big kid, always looking for fun and excitement, and when Lou gave him a Ferrari one Christmas, surprising Ed by leading him, eyes closed, to a baby blue convertible with a big red bow on it, Ed smiled and said: “Damn, kid! You shouldn’t have.” Now Lou agreed that he probably shouldn’t have, watching Ed clock 100 miles per hour down Shoreline Drive or pull drunk donuts in the parking lot of Santa Barbara’s ritziest joint, appropriately called Talk of the Town.

But Ed earned his keep. He ran point on the Thai supply chain, which Lou considered a lion’s den. It was Ed who traveled overseas, connecting with growers, cutting out the middlemen and increasing the Company’s profits—the kind of profits that made it possible to throw money at DeMassa, hold the feds at bay, and keep the Company machine running smoothly, moving product, while the partners played with their ponies. The bigger problem for the Company partners was not in Santa Barbara at all.


Lance claimed that it was his decision to leave the Company. The other partners were under the impression that they’d fired him. He had become too much of a liability, they thought; his showboating had gotten out of control. He may have cut his hair short, but he was still the same old Lance, standing out rather than blending in, opening suitcases full of money wherever he went. Lance’s other nickname was Ensign Hero: the Navy washout who thought he was invincible. In Tahoe, after the indictment came down and they were all on the lam, Lance would be out on the lake, testing the high-powered cigarette boats he’d built, getting yelled at over a police helicopter loudspeaker for speeding.

The real trouble with Lance was his leaking. “We know you’re talking to Paul Acree,” Ed told Lance one day. Lou remembered the day Lance showed up on his bike, like some kind of stoned angel, asking him to get off the ladder and go to Mexico. There would be no Company if not for Lance, he knew. But now he and Bob and Ed had no choice but to buy him out.

They eventually settled on an “exit package” of $400,000. In the spring of 1978, DeMassa met Lance in the parking structure of the Orange County Courthouse, where they chatted briefly. “Stay out of trouble,” DeMassa told him. As he was leaving, he pointed to a briefcase he’d set between them. “Oh,” he said, “I think this is yours.” When he opened the briefcase, Lance felt jilted. It contained $180,000: half the agreed amount, less DeMassa’s “transaction fee.”

Part of the reason everyone moved to Santa Barbara was to ditch Lance. But Lance wouldn’t go away that easily. He had more to lose than Paul. He was named in the indictment along with everyone else. He was a fugitive like them, but he was on his own. Out in the cold, his only value to anyone was what he knew.

Lost At Sea

1978

Success,  Dave knew, was a fragile thing. So many parts of a smuggling operation could go wrong, it was necessary to have not just a Plan B but also a Plan C and a Plan D. Still, even the best risk manager could never make the risk go away entirely.

The first sign of trouble with the latest gig occurred right at the beginning, when Danny Tuna, after being contracted by the Company to bring five tons of hash back from Pakistan, vanished. Danny was a drinker, and he’d gone on a bender and disappeared. Enter Plan B:  Ed flew to Singapore, bought a 130-foot boat called the Tusker, under the auspices of a shell company called Ocean Survey and Studies, Limited (based, naturally, in Beverly Hills), and hired a new captain, Jerry Samsel. The Company had never worked with Samsel before. None of the members of his crew were regulars. And not long after the Tusker left Pakistan bound for Maine, they stopped hearing from him.

Back in Maine,  Al Sweeney listened for the Tusker during their radio appointments but heard nothing but static. Dave was confused. He had supplied the Tusker’s crew with the usual coded Mylar charts to give encrypted positions and provided them with several radio systems: single sideband, VHF, UHF, and CB. What Dave didn’t know was that Samsel had turned paranoid and ordered a total radio blackout. This was in September. The Tusker wasn’t due for 10 weeks. All the Company could do was wait.

Tensions were high.  Fuzzy and Harlan were at each other’s throats. Dave was so frantic one night that Fuzzy slipped opium into his joint to calm him down. And quiet, shy Al was coming undone, getting edgier each day and claiming that he could hear messages from the missing ship coming through the static. Then, one day in October, the feds appeared.

Dave saw them first. Andy, a new hired hand, had picked him up at the airport in Bangor, Maine, and they were driving to the house atop the cliff in Machias when a man sitting in a car by the side of the road did a double take, flipped a U-turn, and started following them. One of the neighbors, it turned out, was a retired cop, and he had grown suspicious about the house’s occupants. He reported the address to the police, who suspected smuggling and contacted the DEA. A title check revealed a mysterious buyer whose only listed address was a P.O. box in Boston. The DEA didn’t know they had stumbled on the Coronado Company fugitives from California. But local agents had been mobilized, and now they were behind Dave and Andy. Dave took a deep breath and stepped on the gas.

The truck Dave was driving happened to be one that Fuzzy had enhanced with lift kits for ground clearance and a “down and dirty” switch that turned off the brake lights and head- and taillights—a feature that came in handy for evasive driving in the backwoods of Maine. At one hairpin turn, Dave slowed, told Andy to take the wheel, jumped out of the truck, and rolled into the woods. The agents sped past. Dave hiked for nine miles to a pay phone, where he called for Fuzzy to pick him up.

Andy was arrested, the Company’s first casualty in action. Dave made it back to the equipment house near Freedom, which remained safe. But the Tusker’s silence had now become a much more serious problem. The Company house was made—and the boat, oblivious and somewhere out on the ocean, was headed right for it.

“Listen, listen,” Al kept saying, handing Dave the radio headset. “They’re talking to us.” Dave heard only squelching, but Al was writing down positions. Fuzzy thought he was going batty. Yet Al was so convinced that sometimes Dave thought he could hear voices, too, off in the distance. Someone was saying something, but you couldn’t understand what. It was spooky, watching Al every night, listening intently, eyes closed, recording the advance of a ghost ship.

Al’s wireless séances didn’t convince Ed, who decided on a daring Plan C: He would go find the Tusker himself, from the sky. He traveled to South Africa, chartered a plane, and began flying a grid pattern over the Atlantic to intercept the Tusker before she steamed into a trap. He spent hours over the ocean, passing back and forth and scanning the surface, ready with a series of messages he’d drop to the ship if he spotted her. It was a desperate measure, but if he could direct the Tusker to an alternate site, disaster would be averted.

The plane never spotted the Tusker, because the boat was already north of Ed’s search area. The miscalculation was not Ed’s fault. Dave had told the ship’s captain he should under no circumstances arrive before Christmas, but Samsel had ignored him and was, in fact, making great time. The Tusker appeared in Little Machias Bay two weeks early, anchored in the private cove by the house, and sent a party ashore. Samsel had left his antenna up in the weather and it had frozen off; now that he wanted to break radio silence, he couldn’t. Two crew members knocked on the Company house door and were confused when no one answered.

The feds were on alert when Dave mobilized Harlan and another hired hand, nicknamed Rabbit, for Plan D: an amphibious intercept. Harlan and Rabbit fired up a Zodiac and approached the cove from the sea. There was the Tusker: a sitting duck, just 50 yards offshore. Harlan radioed an emergency call to Dave, boarded the Tusker, and told the captain to make a break for it. As he and Rabbit sped away in the Zodiac, Harlan could see the blue lights of the Coast Guard boats behind them.

Harlan beached the Zodiac, and he and Rabbit scrambled ashore. They grabbed their emergency kits, which were issued to every Company employee: backpacks stocked with a compass, rations, matches, gloves, some Pemmican beef jerky, and other supplies. What they needed now were the burlap leggings. They had been furnished at the suggestion of a wilderness expert and tracker who worked for the Company out west. If there’s a manhunt, he’d said, the police will have dogs, and burlap on your legs will hide the scent. Harlan sat down on the beach, pulled on two burlap sacks, and ran into the forest.

When Dave stopped hearing from Harlan, he radioed the equipment house, where Fuzzy answered. Dave then sent Fuzzy and another scout to the house—a classic tactical mistake in the fog of war. On their second visit to the house, Fuzzy was pulled over. As the police approached the car, he tore up his fake ID and slipped the pieces into the driver’s-side door panel.

The Tusker didn’t get far before it was boarded by the Coast Guard. At first glance, the guardsmen found nothing. The hash was in a cargo hold only accessible from the exterior of the ship; it was December in the North Atlantic, and the Tusker was so thickly iced over that they missed the hatch cover. The guardsmen instructed the Tusker to follow them into port, then pulled away in their own vessel. En route, the Tusker’s crew axed off the ice, opened the hatch, and started throwing the cargo of sealed cylindrical containers overboard. Arriving at port ahead of the Tusker, the guardsmen were confronted by irate DEA agents and, realizing their mistake, raced back to the Tusker in time to see the crew on the deck pitching the hash into the sea.

The entire crew was taken into custody, as were Rabbit and Harlan, whose burlap leggings did not save them. They all called DeMassa, who called Lou, who authorized $50,000 in defense and hush money for everyone: five grand apiece. Dave avoided capture, left Maine, and reconvened with Lou. Together they worked damage control. It was a heavy blow to the Company, but not a fatal one. The DEA had only arrested the help. They didn’t realize Harlan had a supervisory role, but even if they had, Harlan would never have talked. Five arrests and no one had a thing on them but some sextants, a matchbook from the Ambassador Hotel in Singapore, and Dave’s mysterious little Bornstein School charts. But the fishermen of Little Machias Bay were pulling high-quality hash from their nets for days.

DEA special agent James Conklin, left. (Photo: Courtesy of James Conklin)
DEA special agent James Conklin, left. (Photo: Courtesy of James Conklin)

Fugitives

1978

The code of silence stuck. Fuzzy and Harlan took the fall, pleading guilty to small counts in the indictment. Still, the Company was less than happy. Several million dollars’ worth of product had been tossed from the Tusker. While no one had rolled over on the Company, the seams of the operation had been exposed. And for the first time in its decade of operation, the Company found itself with a management-labor divide.

It hadn’t gone unnoticed that since the indictment had come down, the Company partners had been riding polo ponies and sauntering around Santa Barbara in white V-neck sweaters while their employees went underground. When the Tusker operation fell apart, the partners were a thousand miles away. Lou was safely ensconced at the house he’d bought in Hilton Head, South Carolina, at the Palmetto Dunes Oceanfront Resort. Now that it was all over, even Dave was having doubts. For God’s sake, he thought, I jumped from a car at 20 miles per hour. I watched my friends get arrested.

“Listen, Lou,” Dave said one night over dinner. “It might be time for me to quit. I can’t do this anymore.” The desperado life was starting to wear on him, he said. They’d been fugitives for more than a year. It was enough to make Dave paranoid, always looking in rearview mirrors and store-window reflections. He was gone more than he was home and often couldn’t call his wife, Linda, for weeks at a time. After the indictment came down, the couple had moved to Denver—a city they’d chosen at random—and now Linda was lonesome. She couldn’t see her family. To call his own mother, Dave had to use codes and pay phones. Relations with his sister were even more difficult: She was an assistant district attorney in San Diego, and Dave had to hide his whole life from her.

“I hear you, Dave,” Lou said. “I feel it myself.” Kerrie, too, had become frustrated with their lives, he said, especially once she and Lou moved to Hilton Head. But “the Company needs you,” Lou went on. “I need you. Without you, the Company is nothing.”

So Dave stayed. The money was too good, the work still thrilled, and Dave still wanted to make Pops proud. He liked excelling at something. In spite of everything, he still thought of himself as a Company man.


Intercepting the Tusker had been a lucky break for the DEA. The agency didn’t even realize that they’d stumbled across the same smugglers named in an existing indictment on the West Coast. It was hard for the agency to coordinate nationally, and the CorCo case had lost its office champion when Bobby Dune transferred from San Diego to Boise, Idaho.

Then a special agent named James Conklin picked up the case. Like Lou, Conklin had come west for his own piece of the good life under the sun. The Detroit-raised son of an FBI agent, Conklin had earned a philosophy degree from St. Bonaventure University in upstate New York and then gone to Vietnam, where he served two tours as a Marine Corps captain. The America he came home to in 1969 wasn’t the same one he’d left four years earlier. He worked a couple of regular jobs, but after being in a war zone, the deskbound life felt limp. He sat there thinking: Is this as good as it gets?

As Nixon’s war on drugs escalated it grew less metaphorical, and the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs was actively recruiting military officers fresh from Vietnam. In 1973, when the agency was absorbed into the new DEA, there was a need for staff in San Diego, the new epicenter of border trafficking. Conklin, recently married, was tired of living in New York—the weather, the cost, the chaos. The following year, he and his wife loaded their things into a U-Haul.

By the time Conklin came across the Operation CorCo file in 1978, the case was cold. Despite Dunne’s work and the resulting indictment, the DEA brass had taken little interest in the Coronado Company. They wanted heroin busts. Or maybe coke, which was just starting to make a beachhead. Pot was small potatoes: “Kiddie dope,” they called it. Hell, Conklin figured, half the prosecutors smoked it themselves.

Reviewing the dormant CorCo file, Conklin realized that the sheer scale of the Coronado Company put it in the top tier of smuggling operations. He told his bosses about the tonnage, the tens of millions the smugglers had made. That got the pencil pushers interested, and the San Diego office authorized Conklin to go after the Company partners.

Conklin knew what he was up against. The Company’s leaders were smart, the DEA had run out of leads, and the agency was still poorly funded, working out of derelict federal buildings and borrowing boats from the Coast Guard for naval busts. When Conklin started, his unit had just four cars: two American Motors Javelins, a seized purple Plymouth convertible, and a seized Riviera with bullet holes in it. New agents got guns but no holsters; they wrapped their .38 Specials in rubber bands so they wouldn’t slip out of their waistbands. As late as 1979, when the Company was landing $7 million shipments of Thai stick, there wasn’t a single DEA interdiction agent north of Los Angeles on the West Coast.

But the DEA crew was finding its legs, slowly but surely. The agents were dedicated—married to the job, their ex-wives would say—and they were used to being in the trenches. And the government, Conklin knew, had time on its side. A trafficker, after all, was really just another kind of addict. They couldn’t stop. They loved the rush. The great smugglers could change the odds for a time, but like a blackjack player in a casino, their long-term prospects were dim. The only way to beat the house was by taking your winnings out the door—but smugglers left their chips on the felt. And even the best operation had a lowest common denominator. Somewhere, someone was eventually bound to do something stupid.


 Lance tried to go legit. After parting ways with the Company, he hung around Lake Tahoe, working on developing the ultrafast cigarette boats he hoped to sell. He claimed to have serious interest from the military and potential clients in the Persian Gulf. But his boats—long, thin hydroplanes tricked out with such powerful engines, you could see daylight beneath the hull at top speed—were too fast to be good for anything: fishing, waterskiing, even smuggling. The only buyer for Lance’s boat would have been James Bond, and even Bond wouldn’t want a 30-foot rooster tail flying out the back. He told Fuzzy, with whom he was living at the time, that he was thinking about going to Switzerland. He could hide his money there, hit the autobahn, chase blondes.

Lance felt himself inching further and further out on a limb. Though he remembered Lou’s story, the one from Pepe de Mexicali about pushing troublesome associates out of a plane, he knew that the Company wasn’t his real problem—prison was. He had a bad time in Lompoc after his 1969 bust, being a small, pretty blond and all. He vowed he was never going back there.

The Gamble

1980

 Dave was at 5,000 feet, riding shotgun in a Cessna four-seater, looking down at the vast green wilderness of the Olympic Peninsula, near Seattle. At the controls sat Hugo Butz, a Vietnam chopper pilot turned bush flier who was game for smuggling sorties and aerial surveillance. He had connected Dave with two pals, a pilot and a mechanic with the Air National Guard at nearby Fort Lewis for the Company’s most audacious plan yet: off-loading 10 tons of Thai stick in one of the U.S. military’s own helicopters.

The John L. Winter was another fishing boat the Company contracted for a trans-Pacific smuggling run. The guardsmen were going to “borrow” one of Fort Lewis’s double-rotor Chinooks to lift the load off the deck of the ship in one swift action. There’d be no beach exposure at all. The whole operation would take only a few minutes. Then the ship would be gone, the stash would be deposited in the woods at a secluded clearing, and the Chinook would return to base.

That’s what they were reconnoitering in Butz’s plane now, a nice spot where the Chinook could set down its cargo not far from protected waters. They were all the way at the tip of the peninsula, over the Makah Indian reservation, a nearly unpopulated landscape of forest and salmon streams. From the air, they picked out a cove near Neah Bay: totally isolated, the last stop on the peninsula, and a mile from a flat patch of land clear-cut by loggers. They had found their landing zone.


Lou and Kerrie were spending most of their time in Hilton Head, tanning and playing tennis on the custom clay court at Lou’s beachfront estate. But the game was getting old for her, as was the isolated luxury of Hilton Head. She didn’t want to live like a rich retiree on the lam. It got to you after a while, serving guests with a smile while calling yourself by a fake name. After years living double lives, their only real friends were other people in the Company. In Tahoe or Santa Barbara, at least everyone was together and you could be yourself.

But Lou thought the Company social scene was dangerous. He was in Hilton Head to lay low, away from the conspicuous frolicking in Santa Barbara. He wasn’t exactly out of sight, either, ensconced in a mansion and all, but at least he was keeping quiet. Kerrie had gotten heavy into coke. Ed and Bob were partying hard, too. They were bored with their polo ponies; powder was the only thing that approximated the rush of smuggling.

Lou would indulge a few lines socially, or stick a hot knife into a ball of opium he kept around, inhaling the smoke off the blade to mellow out after a bad day. But he wasn’t the addictive type, and he thought the danger with drugs was getting caught up in the lifestyle. You wound up hanging out with weirdos. And that was how you brought attention to yourself.

For Kerrie, the luster of living with Lou was gone. She felt the years going by; nearing 30, she was thinking about children, a family, a career. In Hilton Head, it hit her hard: This would never be a normal life. Lou was more anxious now, more absorbed in the business. He kept more secrets, and Kerrie started catching him in lies. Maybe they were small ones, but they told a larger story: Once you leave the truth behind, it’s hard to find it again.

When the end came, they didn’t talk much about it. One day, she just packed her things and told him she was going back to La Costa to work as an aerobics instructor.

It was a surprise and yet not surprising. Lou was, in fact, making plans to get out of the business altogether, hiding away money and planning a move to the Bahamas. The islands were beautiful and ran on a dollar economy—a safe haven for illicit cash. They could live like they had in Jamaica. But that feeling had faded, he knew. Five years together and the two of them had never bickered or argued or said an unkind thing to one another. When she left, Kerrie looked back at that beautiful palmetto-ringed house, the only one on that stretch of beach, and knew she’d never see it again.


Lou was too busy to be heartbroken—or at least that was what he told himself. Between the Company’s ongoing legal mess, managing personnel, and planning for the next operation, there was plenty to do. It was getting expensive, keeping the Company together. DeMassa kept asking for more and more money—fifty grand here, forty-five there. It was some consolation that at least Dave could still be counted on.

“Helicopters?” Lou asked, going through the plans for the Neah Bay gig.

“It’s a great idea,” Dave replied. “If it works.”

But Dave was more paranoid than ever. He was having trouble keeping track of the double, triple, quadruple life he was living. Sometimes when he was asked for his name at a sales counter, he would forget who he was supposed to be. Lou tried to talk Dave through it, but he, too, had close calls. On one trip to San Francisco, he left his clutch full of fake IDs in a hotel lobby. When he was summoned by security, he pretended to be a businessman on a gay tryst to explain it.

On top of it all, Dave now had a family to look after; it was a hassle to arrange for his daughter to share his real name instead of his fugitive alias. Dave was torn between his loyalty to the Company and to his family. He felt like the little Dutch boy, plugging holes in the dike. How do you hold back the sea, he wondered, when you run out of fingers? 

Back in Hilton Head, Lou worried, too. He drank his Bordeaux, looking out at the ocean that, every so often, rose up in a storm and took everything with it. Lou recalled how it was when they started back in Coronado. We were all just normal people, he thought. Friends on the Rock, their lives unwritten. He could remember that feeling of promise, when they were young and there wasn’t yet time for tragedy.

Lou Villar’s house at the Palmetto Dunes Oceanfront Resort in Hilton Head, South Carolina. (Photo: Courtesy of Lou Villar)
Lou Villar’s house at the Palmetto Dunes Oceanfront Resort in Hilton Head, South Carolina. (Photo: Courtesy of Lou Villar)

Lucky Break

1980

When  Conklin’s DEA task force busted the low-level street dealer, they quickly realized they had a guy who didn’t want to go to prison. While in custody, the dealer happened to mention crossing paths with “a big-timer up in Santa Barbara.” That big-timer was Ed Otero.

The dealer was reluctant to talk, and Conklin worked him gently. Conklin was as straight as they come—he had never even tried marijuana—but he didn’t judge people. Plenty of his friends smoked pot, and when he went to parties they’d joke with him, call him “the narc.” He had no interest in locking up every street dealer. It made him an outlier in the take-no-prisoners milieu of the DEA, but it also made him good at cultivating informants. “This is a way out for you,” Conklin told the dealer. “You can go back to a regular life and never worry about seeing me again.”

In exchange for leniency, the dealer provided an address. It was the first concrete lead the DEA had gotten on the Company members’ whereabouts. When Conklin’s team checked out the place, it was empty, but a visit to the local post office showed that the mail was forwarded to someone named Bambi Merryweather—Bob’s girlfriend and Lou’s secretary, although Conklin didn’t know it. Conklin ran her name through the DEA’s database and got a hit out of an agency office in Virginia. The local office, Conklin discovered, was already working some information on a suspected drug dealer in Hilton Head, and Bambi Merryweather was mentioned in the file as well. Two building contractors in Hilton Head, Mike and Jerry Agnor, had reported that a man whose mansion they were renovating was a drug smuggler. They didn’t know his real name, but they called him Mr. Thai Pot and mentioned that he had a secretary named Bambi. The name was too unusual to be a coincidence.

Conklin flew the Agnor brothers to San Diego. He had been assembling a book of the entire Thai smuggling scene, from suppliers to traffickers to distributors, and filling it with pictures of the insular, elusive network. He asked the Agnors to flip through it. They immediately picked out Lou Villar.


At Neah Bay, the receiving crew was in place, stashing 500-gallon tanks of aviation fuel at the LZ for the helo, setting up Dave’s custom cargo cage, and bringing in a semi-trailer truck to move the pot. By now more of the regulars were gone. Don had left by mutual agreement; he had managed to save up some money from the gigs to invest in his VW shop in Oregon. The crew was full of new faces: locals, friends of friends. It made Dave nervous, what with all the heat on the Company.

After losing Al Sweeney, Dave hired a guy Harlan knew who worked for a contractor that made surveillance equipment for the CIA. Dave’s paranoia had led to all kinds of purchases, like a voice stress analyzer and audio scramblers, the latter of which became standard issue for Company partners. But now he requested something new: a bug.

One of the new guys on the crew was disappearing alone, every night, at the same time. One night Dave followed him; he was going to a pay phone. Dave planted the bug in the booth’s mouthpiece and began listening in. The mysterious transmissions, he discovered, were just sweet nothings to the guy’s girlfriend.

Dave was relieved, but the bug was still a nifty toy, and he thought he’d have a little fun with it. He planted it under the kitchen table at the Company’s equipment house. Over several days, he listened to the crew chatting, and then casually surprised people in conversation by mentioning bits of what he’d heard. One night Dave came into the kitchen where everyone was assembled, wearing headphones and a big grin. “Gotcha!” Dave said, reaching under the table and pulling out the bug. “Cute, right?”

Harlan didn’t think so. The Company was built on trust, and the very idea of eavesdropping was a slippery slope. He didn’t see Dave’s stunt as a practical joke. What he saw was a bad omen.


No one likes digging through the trash, but you’d be surprised what people throw away. In addition to naming Lou, the Agnor brothers had helped Conklin connect the Company to a San Diego accountant named Andy Willis. Conklin got a search warrant and began accompanying the local garbage crew to Willis’s office, getting up early, riding the side of the truck, and dabbling in waste management.

Willis, it turned out, would’ve benefited from a paper shredder. In his garbage, Conklin found an epistolary trail connecting Willis to Lou, mostly operating under aliases. Soon Conklin had uncovered a whole network of pseudonymous assets, like Bob’s partnership in an oil well in Arcadia Parish, Louisiana, and the bank accounts of the Mo Ching Trading Co., which happened to own coastal properties in sparsely populated areas. “We got gold,” Conklin told his partner Larry McKinney.

As the CorCo case grew more complicated, more agents were brought in to help follow the money, including an expert on loan from the Internal Revenue Service. Thus was formed the financial-asset removal team—acronym: FART—which Conklin hoped would pick up the income trail and fill in the blanks. They began to piece together the Company’s financials, assembling the asset case by showing unclaimed income through expenditure on houses, cars, and other luxury line items. The last time Lou filed a tax return, he was a teacher in Coronado making $7,000 a year. Bob was still filing, as a drywall installer with a $10,000 annual income. He had spent nearly three times that much on tack for his polo ponies in one year alone.

But Conklin couldn’t just start arresting people. Even when he presented his superiors with documentation supporting his estimate that Lou, based on the value of his houses alone, was worth $6 million, it wasn’t enough. The Justice Department wanted more evidence. Conklin was miffed but patient. He and his team had been on Operation CorCo for years now, and, truth be told, they were having a blast. Conklin liked matching wits with the Company. They were worthy adversaries, guys who’d be good at anything, he thought. It just so happened they were really good crooks. 

Code Red

1980

The Company had timed its Neah Bay gig for late summer, when the Pacific Northwest’s legendary gloom usually breaks. But when the John L. Winter arrived on August 23, the coast of the Olympic Peninsula was still shrouded in dense fog. Helicopters couldn’t fly in those conditions at night, and waiting for the fog to lift was a problem. The ship’s captain came onshore; he and his crew didn’t want to wait around out there to get plucked by the Coast Guard. The pilot pointed out that joyriding a military helicopter was tough to reschedule. Dave was pissed—at them, at himself, at the weather. His supremely elegant plan had been spoiled by an unseasonable dew point.

So for the first time in years, Lou showed up on-site. He met the chopper crew at the Tumwater Inn south of Olympia, turned on the charm, and managed to convince the pilot to attempt an even riskier daytime operation. It helped that Lou sweetened the deal, and noted that the pilots were already implicated. If one of them went down, they all went down.

On the day the weather finally turned perfect, however, the Chinook was a no-show. Another helicopter at Fort Lewis had been damaged on takeoff that morning, and the rest were grounded. Or at least that was what the pilot said; Dave suspected he just chickened out. He cursed the smuggling gods and went back to the drawing board.

The Company fetched its classic beach equipment—the Zodiacs, barges, gravity feeds, 4×4 pickups—and hired some locals from the Makah reservation to assist with their fishing boats. By now tempers were short. Offshore, the John L. Winter’s crew was jittery. As the days passed at Neah Bay, there was plenty of time for anxious speculation. Bringing in the Indians at the last minute was a risky move. They were charging $150,000, an exorbitant fee—the kind of deal you strike only in an emergency—and were wild at the wheel, unable or unwilling to get their ships into proper position. On the night the off-load finally commenced, Fuzzy could hear everyone arguing on the radio, blabbering back and forth for hours. It was the opposite of the streamlined command structure the Company was known for.

It was a bad start, hours late, already past midnight. Earlier on the beach, Fuzzy watched tiny waves lap at his feet, but his surfer’s instinct told him—from the mist, the sense of the atmosphere—that these waters would rise. By the time they started work, eight-footers were crashing on the rocks. Fuzzy fought his way out with a Zodiac and one of the Maravia barges, and docked at sea with the John L. Winter. The Indians met him there in their boats. It was raining, and the swells made work difficult, but together they managed to transfer six tons of Thai stick off the ship and onto the barge. Luckily, the high tide allowed a small vessel to shoot the mouth of the tiny Soo River, which emptied into the ocean near Neah Bay, so the Indians started ferrying the stash, 500 pounds at a time, into the shelter of the river.

Dave was positioned on a hill, watching through his night scope as a collection of green figures ran back and forth on the beach, battling the sea. It was a battle the Company was losing. The tide was going out. The boats were scraping the shallows. The hastily hired help was not following orders. When Turk Markishtum, one of the fishermen from the reservation, knocked his hull on a rock, he refused to continue. “I’m worried about my boat,” he said.

“How much does your boat cost?” Dave asked over the radio.

“$125,000,” Markishtum said.

“We’ll buy you two goddamn boats if you keep going,” Dave said. “Just bring the shit in!”

But now the tide was almost all the way out. No boat with a keel could get into the mouth of the river, and there was $10 million worth of Thai stick still sitting out there on the barge. The local fishermen took off. On the horizon, the black of night was giving way to the first pale hint of tomorrow.

“I’m getting that barge!” Fuzzy yelled into the radio. With the scope, Dave watched him break a Zodiac through the pounding surf and race out to sea. He tied the barge to the Zodiac. The Maravia was 35 feet long but flat-bottomed, and even with the bales stacked several feet high on its deck, Fuzzy figured he could tow it into the Soo.

“Go for it, man!” Dave yelled through the radio, watching Fuzzy make for shore with daylight emerging behind him. “Gun it!” Fuzzy couldn’t hear Dave over the whine of the outboard, and could barely see through the ocean spray, but he got the barge close. And then, just as he entered the mouth of the river, Fuzzy felt himself rising.

Dave watched as the monster wave curled up and lifted Fuzzy, his Zodiac, the barge, and the Thai stick 10 feet above the beach. Fuzzy managed to surf the tethered inflatables on the wave momentarily, until the crest toppled. He felt the weight of the barge land on top of the Zodiac, pinning him to the rubber floor—a potentially lethal position, trapped under several tons of cargo, with a million pounds of water behind it. A fatalist, Fuzzy was stoic. The party was over when it was over. And how ironic, he thought, to be killed by my own stash.

The wave started to swamp the Zodiac, and Fuzzy realized that his hand was still on the throttle. He instinctively gave the little motor all the gas, and when the wave shifted, the Zodiac broke free and shot down its face. Seconds later the towline broke and the barge swamped, dumping some of its load into the water. After tumbling through the foam, it came to rest on the beach. The beach crew unloaded what remained on deck and collected the rest of the bales from the river. Dave had come down from the hill and welcomed Fuzzy back onto the beach. “You barely got out of there with your life!” Dave said.

“It’s like I always say,” Fuzzy responded. “When in doubt—punch it!”

Dave and the beach crew scrambled to get the load into a U-Haul truck. First light was upon them. There was only one way in and out of the heavily forested area, the stash house was 10 miles away, and time was running out.

The road out of the forest was slick and canted, and the truck didn’t get very far before it slid off the asphalt. Dave’s nightmare was coming to pass: Everything was going wrong at once. “Leave the truck,” Dave said, now officially panicking. “Transfer the stash to the pickups.” That’s when Fuzzy discovered that the U-Haul’s rear door was jammed. The truck’s whole frame box was warped and wouldn’t open. “Get an axe!” Dave yelled. But there were no axes.

Dave looked around. The crew was losing faith. Birds were singing, announcing the morning. The scale of the disaster was dawning on everyone. “All right, everybody,” Dave said wearily over the radio. “This is a code red.” He had never said those words before. He couldn’t believe he had to give the order to abort. The Tusker was a lot of bad luck, but this was defeat. They had failed.

They had 60 bales in the pickups—a small fraction of the load. The rest they left on the beach, along with the boats and motors, the conveyor belts and generators. Dave instructed everyone to get their emergency kits, which contained oiled rags for clearing fingerprints. “Wipe it all down, boys,” he said. Fleeing the scene in the bed of one of the Company’s pickup trucks, Dave wondered what he would say to Lou.

The recovered bales went to pay back the investors. The rest was a loss. And the Company was already feeling the pinch. Smuggling is speculative and expensive: It had cost a lot to stage this fiasco, a million bucks spent to lose twenty. Dave, ever faithful and feeling guilty, bought Lou a gold Patek Philippe as an apology, even though everyone knew it wasn’t really his fault. At least no one was arrested on his watch, Dave thought. Hours later, Walter Cronkite was reporting on the CBS Evening News about the mysterious drug-trafficking incident on the Olympic Peninsula. The police discovered the entire smuggling operation in situ—the bales in the water, the truck, and all the gear—but they didn’t find a single fingerprint. 

One Last Score

1981

Lou moved back to Santa Barbara, against his better judgment. Spooked by Neah Bay, the Company partners had decided to mount a final mission and then disband. Lou saw his psychic, a common form of business guidance in California at the time—who warned him, “I see bad things on the horizon.” Lou took note but didn’t listen. He and the rest of the Company partners wanted to retire big. The proverbial temptation of the last big score was too great.

Lou took up with a local artist and, somehow, her sister at the same time; they lived together in a house situated on a 100-acre orchid farm. There, the Company organized its final gig: four tons of Thai stick delivered to Bear Harbor, the kind of operation they’d pulled off without incident many times.  Danny Tuna was back in the employ of the Company after promising to clean up his act. He had a new boat, the Robert Wayne, and promoted his first mate, John Engle, to captain it back from Thailand. The idea was to keep it small, easy, and lucrative.

Things seemed to be going fine until, a few months later, a ham-radio operator in the Philippines picked up a distress call from the western Pacific. It was the Robert Wayne; the vessel had been hit by a rogue wave, Engle said. It smashed the windows and swamped the gear, including the radio. Engle had managed to get out an SOS by splicing the CB to a high-gain antenna.

A few days later, the Robert Wayne’s propeller shaft broke. The ship was drifting now, a few hundred miles off the coast of Japan. As the hold was full of drugs, Engle couldn’t exactly call the Coast Guard. Fortuitously for the boat’s crew, it turned out that Danny’s sister was an escort at a Tokyo bar called Maggie’s Revenge, where she was popular with some yakuza men. (Danny’s sister was an exotic girl for a Japanese gangster to have on his arm—six feet tall, blonde, congenitally blind, and, according to Conklin, who later interviewed her, “a total knockout.”) Danny managed to arrange an intervention from the yakuza, who agreed to tow the boat to Yokohama and oversee repairs.

The yakuza wanted $300,000 for their services, on top of $250,000 for the Robert Wayne’s repairs. Ed negotiated a loan from a Company investor and brought the down payment to Chichi-Jima, a tiny island in the Pacific, in a suitcase. As insurance, the yakuza kept Danny Tuna with them “as a guest” until the mission was complete and the rest of the money was delivered.

Incredibly, the Company’s crisis management came through. The Robert Wayne made it to California and the off-load went smoothly. Some of the cargo was converted to cash, and the rest was transported back to Santa Barbara, to be sold in a few days. Lou agreed to store some of the pot and cash at his house—a breach in his usual security protocol, but he figured they’d get it to distributors in a few days. In the meantime, the Company threw a classic victory party at Bob’s place. This score would put everyone over the top, they thought, a couple million each for the partners. It felt good to be together again, everyone smiling, laughing, raising a toast to a clean getaway.


Conklin looked at his watch. It was 11 a.m. on November 5, 1981. He and his team were in position around Santa Barbara, waiting. Then another agent called in an approaching silver four-door Mercedes, license plate 1ATM158. The car turned west on Alston Road and then south on Cima Linda Lane, where other surveillance units made the driver: Ed Morgan, a.k.a. Kenneth Eugene Cook, Jr., a.k.a. Edward Otero.

It was early November, and the DEA had been sitting on the houses of Ed, Bob, and Lou for months now. Lou had no idea his Hilton Head contractors had led the heat to his doorstep on the opposite coast. The Agnors had told the feds that they’d been burned by Lou, stiffed $50,000 for services rendered. (Lou would claim that the money discrepancy was actually their lost investment in Company commerce.) Now Conklin had teams in place. “Let’s do it,” he said.

Ed saw the tail and tried to run, but he didn’t get far. The DEA boxed him in at the wheel of the car he loved so much, less than a mile from his house. Shortly thereafter, DEA agents saw Lou driving his matching Mercedes 6.9 and started following him.

Lou was by himself, heading for Bob’s house. It was a beautiful day, and Lou had just had lunch with the girls at home. He was feeling good, thinking about the pot in his basement and how much it was worth. When he saw that he was being tailed, he turned down the radio. He changed course, but the car followed. After a half-dozen turns, Lou found himself in a cul-de-sac. The cops didn’t even need to flash the lights.

“Keep your hands on the wheel,” Lou heard. Before the feds got a chance to yank him from the leather-lined interior, Lou recalls, one of the agents had pulled his .45 and stuck it in Lou’s mouth. The agent’s hand was shaking, as if he was overwhelmed by finally seeing the man he and his colleagues had been chasing for years. “You will never forget this day,” the agent said. “And your life will never be the same.” Lou knew he was right.

The DEA had caught up with Bob and Dave, too. They happened to be riding in Ed’s car when he was caught. For all his investigative efforts, Conklin didn’t realize who Dave was or the important role he played in the organization. But in Ed’s car, along with $20,000 in cash, the agents found Dave’s valise, which contained two fake IDs, an airline ticket, and several notebooks—all detailed accounting ledgers. It was a phenomenal bit of luck; the DEA had caught the Company principals en route to an accounting meeting.

By the end of the day they were arrested, and Bob’s house was surrounded with yellow tape, its contents tagged as evidence: three safe-deposit keys, photos of landing sites, and records showing payments to ship captains. At Lou’s house, Conklin found $557,829 and 892 pounds of product from the latest shipment, worth about $3 million. In Lou’s enormous safe were envelopes, each containing $25,000 and labeled “Johnny,” “Terry,” and “Fred”—pay for the crew. Lou had never before accepted delivery of pot on the premises. Now, handcuffed in his own living room, he could hear the agents in the basement taking down the secret panels that hid the stash. “Holy fuck,” one of them shouted. “We hit the fucking jackpot!”

It was quite a haul—for Conklin, too. He’d worked for years, with inferior equipment and funding, to put cuffs on these guys. His resources were so thin, in fact, that his agents had nearly run out of gas on the way to Santa Barbara; they were over their fuel budget and had to refill out of pocket to catch their targets. But now the Company’s leadership was all in a cell together, and the DEA had confiscated $12 million in cash, contraband, vehicles, and property from the organization. (To Conklin’s chagrin, he never did find the Duck.) When the news broke, McKinney told reporters that the Company had grossed $96 million over the past decade. At a minimum, Lou thought in his cell.

Private detectives Sanda Sutherland and Jack Palladino, 1979. (Photo: Corbis Images)
Private detectives Sanda Sutherland and Jack Palladino, 1979. (Photo: Corbis Images)

Cat and Mouse

1981

 Fuzzy heard about the arrests on the news. Drug lords busted in upscale Santa Barbara. Sounds familiar, he thought. Then the phone rang. “Hey, Fuzzy, it’s been a while.” Fuzzy would’ve recognized that goofy nasal voice anywhere. “I’m sure you know why I’m calling,” Lance went on. “I got you into this. And now I’m going to get you out.”

Lance had already arranged for Fuzzy to sit down with the DEA. Fuzzy was conflicted, but as he considered the cards he had been dealt, he realized that he had only one to play. “It’s every man for himself,” Lance said.

The DEA loved Lance and Fuzzy from the moment they walked in the door. “You guys were the A-team,”  Conklin said when Fuzzy and Lance sat down in the San Diego DEA offices, a tape recorder in between them. “Light years ahead of everyone else. We want to know how you did it.”

Fuzzy recognized one of the agents who had been on hand when he was arrested in Maine. Another agent, Fuzzy noticed, had pulled into the parking lot in one of Ed’s Corvettes. Fuzzy looked at the DEA team assembled around him, everyone with their notepads and Hawaii 5-0 suits. He rationalized that he would just confirm what they already knew. Besides, he had taken a fall once, and become a convicted felon, in the service of the Company. This time the feds were threatening 30 years. That was a long time away from his motorcycle. So Fuzzy gave them a tape he’d already recorded, describing the information he knew that would be valuable to the DEA. “Hi,” the tape began. “My name is Fuzzy, and I’m going to tell you a story about the Coronado Company.”


At the Metropolitan Correctional Center in San Diego, where the Company members were housed, the higher-ups were still sticking together. Lou was running damage control, even managing collections from jail. At their individual arraignments, the partners gave DeMassa instructions to collect money from distributors, through their attorneys, whom they’d fronted. Some of it DeMassa used to pay the beach crew from the last operation, some he kept, and some he gave to the partners’ girlfriends.

“I need information,” DeMassa told Jack Palladino one night over lobster bisque at the Stanford Court Hotel. Palladino was DeMassa’s trusted private detective, one-half of the husband-and-wife detective agency Palladino & Sutherland; together they’d worked with DeMassa on other major criminal-defense efforts, defending the Hells Angels against the government’s RICO investigation. Jack and Sandra’s job was to gather as much information as possible about the DEA’s case against the Company and how the agents had gotten their evidence; maybe it was coerced or otherwise tainted. Find out what people know, DeMassa told Jack, and how they know it.

But the DEA already had a strong case. With the testimony of Fuzzy and Lance—now known as Confidential Informants SR2820012 and SR2820013, respectively—Conklin was able to issue a second round of indictments with wider scope and more detail, the kind that comes from inside information. DeMassa wanted Jack and Sandra to figure out who’d flipped.

There was no shortage of suspects. Coronado was full of people the Company left behind who had nursed resentments for years. “They burned a lot of bridges,” one early beach-team member told Jack. Any number of disgruntled ex-employees could have dropped a dime. During grand jury testimony, Jack sat in a white van with painted-over windows in front of the courthouse where the jury convened, taking pictures of everyone who walked in, but found no familiar faces.

Having mostly worked in criminal defense, Jack and Sandra had a philosophical opposition to informants. In her office, Sandra kept an original World War II–vintage poster that warned: “Loose Lips Sink Ships.” Their odds-on favorite, of course, was Lance, but nobody had any proof. Meanwhile, Lance was playing his own game. More than once as Sandra traveled around the country talking to Company associates, she found that Lance had gotten to them first, fishing for intel he could use as a bargaining chip with the DEA.

The private detectives met with Lance over a few dinners and meetings, each side hoping the other would slip up. At first everyone involved played coy, pretending they were on the same team. “Who do you think is talking?” Sandra would ask.

“Who do you think is talking?” Lance would reply.

The encounters settled into a routine of I-know-that-you-know-that-I-know-that-you-know-what-you-don’t-know gamesmanship. Jack and Sandra saw these meetings as opportunities to allow Lance, who always talked too much, to impugn his own credibility. They wore wires, hoping he’d put his foot in it. Extortion, for instance, would count him out as a government witness, and Lance had intimated that money might make him “go away.” 

Lance knew they were taping him, and he tried to get around it. At one meeting, at a hotel in Reno, Jack bugged the room. Lance switched rooms at the last minute. He figured (correctly) that Jack was miked anyhow, and to be safe, he walked in with a note announcing that the entire meeting would be conducted on Magic Slates, the children’s writing pads where you pulled up the cellophane flap to make the words disappear. There they were, two private detectives and a drug smuggler, sitting in silence, negotiating on a kid’s toy. Nothing was said or written, and there was no record of their meeting, which Jack thought was very clever.

Lance didn’t like turning on his friends, but all’s fair in love and war, he thought. He felt bad threatening Ed, Bob, Dave, and Lou—they all still had affection for one another—but the Company had screwed him over. Now it was their turn to get screwed.


For months, Lou sat in the San Diego Metropolitan Correctional Center, still waving his scepter against Company foes. With money there was yet power. According to DeMassa, Lou wanted to bribe his way out. Judge, jury members, maybe a congressman if he had to. Ed, Bob, and Dave were all on different floors of the jail. They never talked directly, coordinating instead through DeMassa. Harlan and Dave both started teaching themselves law, to get into the statutes themselves.

Dave faced an “848,” the federal government’s continuing criminal enterprise statute—it was the trafficking equivalent of RICO, dubbed the drug kingpin law, carrying the prospect of decades in prison. Dave wasn’t a kingpin, but a heavy charge was how the government put on the squeeze, looking for cracks in the foundation. The Company felt abused by the inflated charges, but from the DEA’s perspective, it was the sole means of pressing an advantage. When a crew was as successful and as tight as the Company was, the DEA had to find leverage where it could. So the feds wheeled out the 848s, investigated friends and families, and, for good measure, indicted all the Company girlfriends.

Jack and Sandra tried to trace the DEA’s footsteps, looking for evidence that the agents overstepped their bounds. Sandra went around reminding everyone not to talk without a lawyer present and offering protection to people like Ed’s father, a Navy janitor, whose pension the DEA had threatened. At one point, Jack discovered that he was under surveillance himself. A well-known rock photographer let the DEA use his apartment, across the street from the Palladino & Sutherland offices, to spy on them.

There was more than enough resentment to go around. The DEA hated DeMassa; he was, according to Conklin, a “shyster attorney” who used “crooked detectives” to get criminals off. Jack and Sandra thought the DEA took it personally that anyone would dare stand up to the agency. “It wasn’t common to do that,” Jack recalled later. “And we were good at it.”

But the DEA was chipping away at the Company. DeMassa was on the defensive; he knew that the agency was gunning for him as well. Bob eventually chose to go to trial, but DeMassa encouraged Ed and everyone else to plead out. Lou arranged a plea bargain before he could be charged with an 848. The kingpin never faced the kingpin law, but he got 10 years anyway. So did Ed, who struck the same deal. During Lou’s sentencing, he looked up at the judge and told himself that he would never again lose his freedom. When he got out, he vowed, he would change his life, again. Freedom wasn’t worth all that money. But what was it worth?


In 1982, Lou was transferred to the Federal Correctional Institution on Terminal Island, just off Los Angeles Harbor, to “do his dime,” as it was called in the yard. He looked around and thought: I can’t spend 10 years here. In the MCC library, he had met a prisoner who traded homespun legal advice to his fellow inmates for cookies. “Want my advice?” he told Lou. “Get yourself out of here. That’s what all these other motherfuckers are trying to do. And they’re actually supposed to be in here.”

The jailhouse lawyer knew a former U.S. attorney named Kevin McInerny, who talked Lou through becoming an informant. Conklin was shocked when he got the call from McInerny: “Lou Villar wants to talk.” 

The Deal

1982

It was controversial within the DEA whether or not to let Lou turn. He was too high up in the Company, some said—what was the point of rolling up the organization if you were going to let the kingpin walk? But Lou could provide detail on financing, suppliers, and dealers—the entire Thai network that Conklin had in his sights. Conklin had been able to indict a lot of those people based on Lance’s and Fizzy’s testimony, but for convictions he needed someone to take the stand. He also had his eye on a target closer to home. He wanted to go after DeMassa.

Lou already felt cheated by DeMassa. The Company had paid him half a million in fees, and in Lou’s mind all he did with it was negotiate some rather unfavorable plea bargains. Lou asked McInerny to reach out to Dave. Lou knew Dave could get out if he wanted to. So far he’d held firm, even though DEA agents had visited him in prison, stalked his wife, and harassed his sister, the prosecutor. Dave’s family had pleaded with him to turn on the Company. Finally, Conklin came to him and told him he had one last chance. He showed Dave the 848 paperwork with his name on it. “There’s a train leaving the station,” the agent told him. “Do you want to be on it or under it?”

Conklin felt like he was doing Dave and the others a service. In a way, he thought, the Company guys were lucky to get caught now: The days of fun-loving hippie smugglers were giving way to the violence and gangsterism of cocaine culture. Arrest was a way out, informing a path to redemption. “You have a chance to be a regular guy again,” Conklin told Dave. Dave waited until he thought everyone who had worked for him had been dispositioned, so his testimony wouldn’t affect his employees. And then he switched sides.


In his cell at the MCC,  Harlan was still fighting the prosecutors, poring over court documents. He’d been imagining that Pops and the Company might still mount a cavalry charge. Instead, his boss and friends would testify against him.

It was understandable that Lance would turn state’s evidence; he’d been shafted. Maybe Fuzzy, too; he was an outsider, never one of the Coronado boys. But Lou? Lou had been at the center of everything. It was as if the Godfather broke omertà. And that broke Harlan’s heart.

He remembered when he did his first piece in jail, how Lou took him aside and coached him on doing his time. Now it was Lou’s turn, and Lou was skipping out. We were a fucking championship lineup, Harlan thought. And Lou was the coach. Harlan sometimes still felt an echo of remorse from 14 years earlier, when he disappointed Lou on the basketball court. He never imagined then that Lou would disappoint him in return. “We loved him,” Harlan would later tell the journalist Mike Wallace. “And he rolled right over on us.”

On one of Harlan’s trips to the courtroom, he was being led into the elevator when he ran into Lou, accompanied by prosecutors, on his way to testify. Harlan was dressed in corrections orange. Lou was in his civilian clothes, looking sharp as always, with a big smile on his face. “How are you doing?” Lou said. He looked Harlan in the eye and shook his hand. “Don’t worry, kid,” he said, just like in his coaching and Company days. “Hang in there.”

They got off on different floors. Harlan spent six more months on the ninth floor of the MCC and was then transferred to Terminal Island for the rest of his sentence. Lou walked out of the building and into the California sunshine.


The fallout from Lou and the other informants’ testimony was widespread. Many Company members and their associates did time. The Fort Lewis helicopter pilots were court-martialed. The Indians from Neah Bay were arrested. A third indictment came down in 1984, naming more suppliers and distributors; Conklin was disabling the Thai network, just as he had hoped. Eventually, more than one hundred people were indicted. Lou gave up many of them himself, even Kerrie’s brother Kent, who had worked with the Company on the beach. Some people, like Kent, spent just a few months in prison, others years.

The DEA raided DeMassa’s office, taking all his files, and eventually arrested him, charging him with harboring Bob Lahodny as a fugitive and 16 counts as a co-conspirator in the Company case. He went to trial in 1985. Facing 20 years, DeMassa pled guilty to three felonies and served six months in a halfway house.

Bob Lahodny went to trial in 1985. After 10 days—during which Lou, Dave, and Fuzzy all testified—Bob changed his plea to guilty and was sentenced to five years. He got out in 1989 but was arrested again that year, along with Ed Otero, after the two attempted another smuggling gig in Northern California.

Ed was serving his second sentence when he saved the life of a prison guard who was being held hostage by two armed prisoners, and was released early. Seven years in prison was enough to straighten him out. He moved to Palm Springs, started a legitimate—and successful—air-conditioning business, and bought himself a boat with his own hard-earned money.

Dave was released in 1983. He was relieved that he could see his family, but he knew he couldn’t go back to Coronado. He moved away and got into real estate. The first time Dave saw Lou after being arrested was on a plane to Maine, where they had both been subpoenaed to testify in a case related to the Little Machias Bay bust. Dave was still angry at Lou for informing on him before he turned state’s evidence himself. By the end of the flight, however, the two men were cracking tiny bottles of booze and rekindling their friendship. Other relationships, however, couldn’t be recovered. Lou never again saw Bob, Ed, Lance—or Kerrie. “What really hurt,” Kerrie says, “is that Lou never apologized.”

2013

The man who walked into the pizza place was barely recognizable as the tanned playboy I’d seen in pictures and newspaper articles. At age 76, he looked like a retiree, with white hair and a warm smile. “No one else besides the people who lived it has ever heard this story,” Lou Villar said.

Arranging the first meeting had been complicated, requiring the kind of cloak-and-dagger planning that Lou knew from the days of the Coronado Company. I showed up at the restaurant, waited, and was finally approached by Lou after I “checked out.” He was spry, fit, and still sharp as he jumped into a story that hadn’t been told in thirty years.

As I spent time with Lou, I could see the charming and charismatic man who had drawn so many people into his orbit at the Company. But I also saw the tragedy of his story. By the time we met, I had spoken with many who still felt the sting of his betrayal.

Lou himself served nearly two years in prison. After he was released, he was resentenced to a year of unsupervised probation. He managed to hold on to a bit of money, some of his furnishings from Hilton Head, and his wine collection.

Did Lou have regrets? He did. He’d testified against people he cared about. It was an agonizing decision, one he couldn’t rationalize away: “I told my story in exchange for freedom, and I’ll always have to live with that.” He hadn’t spoken to a reporter since 1985, shortly after he got out of prison. At the time, he said he regretted his Company days; they’d affected his family and destroyed most of his friendships. But things looked different to him now, with nearly three decades of perspective. “Those were lessons that had to be learned,” he told me.

He understood why his friends were angry. Still, he told himself, some of them could have taken a deal like he had. They had chosen to stick with honor among thieves, but Lou thought that was just a hollow criminal piety. Maybe that, in turn, was a hollow informant’s piety. But Lou now says that for him, time behind bars was an opportunity to accept defeat and learn how to live a legitimate life again. In his forties, he changed his name and started over. He was successful in his new career, he told me, but it wasn’t the same as the Coronado Company. “Then again,” he says, “what could be?”

When Lou and Dave spend time together now, their wives have forbidden them from talking about the halcyon days of the Company, because it can go on for hours. No matter how nostalgic he gets, Dave says he wouldn’t do it again. Lou says he would. The highs, the lows, the hard lessons—“those are the things,” he says, “that made my life.”

Lou Villar (Photo: Courtesy of Lou Villar)
Lou Villar (Photo: Courtesy of Lou Villar)

Epilogue

2013

 Ed Otero died in January 2013 of a heart attack while fishing for tuna off the coast of Mexico. “Ed rode the wave of life through the ’70s and early ’80s,” his obituary noted, “which included many adventures.”

 Dave Strather divorced, remarried, and raised his daughter. He still has one of the Company’s voice scramblers and can reproduce the Bornstein chart from memory.

 Bob Lahodny moved back to the San Diego area after his second prison term, got married, became a stockbroker, and lived, according to friends, “a festive and happy life” with his wife until they divorced. After that, Bob struggled to find his footing again. He died in 2010, from complications from hepatitis C, which he contracted while traveling in Asia.

 Lance Weber never got his performance-speedboat business off the ground. He moved back to Coronado and met a new girl, Deanna, whom he married a few years later. He invited Jim Conklin and other DEA agents to his wedding, where Conklin presented him with a pair of handcuffs in a shadowbox with an engraved plate reading, “Congratulations on Your Life Sentence!” Lance and Deanna had two children. He died of Lou Gehrig’s disease in 2000.

 Allan “Fuzzy” Logie made it through 10 years of probation without incident. He still rides motorcycles but had to stop surfing after he crashed his bike and injured his back. He remembers every mechanical upgrade he ever made to a vehicle.

 Al Sweeney received five years of probation and moved back to Coronado. He died of a brain hemorrhage in 1985.

 Don Kidd still runs his garage in Oregon, where he still specializes in the impossible. “It gets annoying,” he says. “People always bring me the shit they can’t fix.” He and Harlan Fincher have stayed friends, visiting each other every few years.

Harlan Fincher served four years in prison. When he returned to civilian life, he owed the government tens of thousands of dollars he didn’t have, on account of the IRS asset case against him, which made it hard for him to recover financially. Between that and his felony record, he had difficulty finding work that made use of his many talents. He married in 2006 and manages a ranch.

 Paul Acree disappeared before the initial Coronado Company arrests in 1981. None of the other Company veterans know where he is or if he is still alive.

 Phil DeMassa returned to law after his conviction; the California Bar Association did not pull his license, on the grounds that his crimes did not “involve moral turpitude.” Still, his practice never quite recovered. He died in a scuba-diving accident in 2012.

 James Conklin spent 26 years with the DEA and still admires the ingenuity of the Company. After finishing the CorCo case, he was given a plum assignment in Thailand, where he was tasked with taking on the Company’s supply at the source. He spent four years there, essentially eradicating the entire Thai stick trade. He retired in 2004 and moved to Las Vegas, where he started a private-investigation firm with his son.

 Jack Palladino and Sandra Sutherland are still private investigators and have worked on behalf of many high-profile clients since the Coronado affair, including John DeLorean, the auto executive charged with smuggling cocaine in 1982, Bill and Hillary Clinton during the 1992 presidential campaign, and Jeffrey Wigand, the tobacco-industry whistle-blower portrayed in the film The Insider. They now live and work in San Francisco’s Upper Haight neighborhood and are aided in their investigative efforts by their cat, Tipsy, who likes to sit on the files.

 Kerrie Kavanaugh took a few years to move beyond what she now calls “the follies of the early ’80s” and eventually went back to school to pursue her culinary interests. She worked as a chef on private yachts, where she met her husband, a ship’s captain. They moved to the Pacific Northwest and had a daughter.

Lou Villar hasn’t talked to Kerrie in 35 years, but he kept a copy of the poem he wrote her.

Half-Safe

A story of love, obsession, and history’s most insane around-the-world adventure.

The Atavist Magazine, No. 20


James Nestor has written for OutsideDwellMen’s JournalNational Public RadioThe San Francisco ChronicleThe New York TimesSan Francisco Magazine, and more. He is currently working on a narrative nonfiction science and adventure book tentatively titled Deep: A Sea Odyssey.

Editor: Charles Homans

Producers: Olivia Koski, Gray Beltran

Research and Production: Nadia Wilson

Cover Illustration: Chris Gall

Photos: Courtesy of Guildford Grammar School Archives

Video and Music: From “Its A Small World,” El-Von Productions, Courtesy Guildford Grammar School Archives

Special Thanks: Alex Heard, for invaluable editing assistance; Rosemary Waller, Guildford Grammar School; and Deirdre Carlin, without whom this story could not have been told.

Fact-Checker: Thomas Stackpole

Copy Editor: Sean Cooper

Published in November 2012. Design updated in 2021.

One

The Atlantic Ocean

December 1950

They had spent 14 days in darkness.

Late on the morning of the 15th day, December 2, 1950, light finally peeked through a crack in the curtain that hung over the passenger-side window. Ben lifted the curtain and looked outside. The sky was blue, and the sun, as big as a dinner plate, shone brightly. The storm clouds had retreated to the horizon. Ben took a dirty tissue from his shirt pocket, swabbed his eyes, and lifted himself from behind the steering wheel.

It had been four full months since Ben and his wife, Elinore, steered the tiny amphibious jeep they called Half-Safe into the frigid waters of Halifax Harbor and headed east toward Africa. It was the first time anyone had tried to circumnavigate the world by land and sea in a single vehicle, let alone one that was eight times smaller than any motorized boat that had ever crossed the Atlantic. It was a harebrained scheme, and the Carlins knew it. That was the point.

Adventure for its own sake had first attracted Ben, an engineer from rural Western Australia, to Elinore, an American Red Cross nurse, when the two met in India at the end of World War II. And there could be no more outlandish adventure than an attempt to “drive” across the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific Oceans—and actually drive across the continents in between—in an automobile. Especially this automobile—a converted 1942 GPW (General Purpose Willys) amphibious jeep built by Ford for the U.S. Army. It looked like a cross between a 4×4 and a rowboat, with a stubby pointed front, a square rear end, and a five-by-ten steel box on top. It was half car, half boat, and entirely ridiculous. The GPW amphibious jeeps were designed to putter through shallow streams for a few minutes at a time and usually failed even at that; they had proved so useless in the field that the Army canceled production. They were never intended to be used on the ocean.

Helpless and lost in the middle of 41 million square miles of open water, Ben and Elinore realized that their comic little adventure was quickly becoming a suicide mission. Both were in their thirties but looked as though they had aged decades in just a few weeks. Elinore, famished and vomiting anchovies into a tin mug, had gone from voluptuous to skeletal. Ben looked worse. His skin was pale, a delta of stress lines spread across his forehead, and his eyes were baggy and bloodshot. His face was caked with exhaust soot, engine grease, and sweat.

But now, weeks into their Atlantic crossing, the Carlins had no choice but to suck it up and keep following the compass east, toward the coast of the Spanish colony of Western Sahara, toward solid ground and safety.

Ben squinted out Half-Safe’s back hatch and looked at the deck. The jeep was sitting dangerously low in the water. Waves washed over the windshield and side windows, threatening to swamp the cabin. The cloth sea anchor, designed to drag in the water to stabilize the vehicle, floated behind Half-Safe in tatters, shredded by the storm.

At least the fuel supply—a 10-foot-long floating steel container carrying 280 gallons of gasoline—was intact. As long as the weather stayed calm, Ben figured they had just enough gas to make it to Madeira, a speck of an island 400 miles off the coast of Africa. The only information Ben could get from the radio was that the worst of the storm was still ahead. But the antenna was broken, and he had trouble making voice contact with the world beyond the jeep’s cabin.

Ben returned to the driver’s seat, grabbed his sextant, and hoisted himself onto the roof. He paused to gulp the fresh air, a respite from the funk of mold, sweat, exhaust, and human sewage in the cabin below. He noted the angle of the sun on the horizon and checked his watch.

Above him something caught his eye. A whirlpool of wispy clouds, in the shape of a miniature hurricane, floated calmly above Half-Safe. Ben watched as they passed over him, then floated off. He crawled back into the jeep and steered east. The next half-hour was calm.

Then the rain came, followed by wind and waves. By afternoon, the swells had risen to 30, 40, even 50 feet. There was nothing miniature about the storm, Ben realized. This was a full-on hurricane—and the Carlins were in the middle of it.

The ocean looked as if it were smoldering. The jeep was flung up over the crests of the waves and down the other side so violently that Ben and Elinore were shot from their seats into midair. The fuel tank broke loose; Ben watched as it bobbed in the spindrift and then disappeared into the darkness. He had no other option but to gun the engine and try to run before the storm.

By evening the swells had gotten bigger. It was only a matter of time before the roof collapsed and the cabin flooded. Ben turned to Elinore and made her scream the escape procedure in his ear.

“You shout, ‘Out,’” she yelled, her voice straining above the rain and waves beating on the steel walls of the cabin. “I get out and wait. You follow and grab the gear. I follow you. Keep in contact!”

Ben steadied himself in the driver’s seat, lit a cigarette, and gripped the steering wheel. Too weak to move, too nervous to speak, Elinore sat silently on the back cot. They felt the sea below their feet inflate like a giant lung. They sat and waited and braced themselves for the next hit.

Around 3 a.m. the following day, the motor sputtered, then stopped. Gas vapor entered the engine compartment. Ben watched as an explosion of orange and red flame appeared through the windshield. He was sure it had blown a hole in the side of the jeep. That meant the next wave that hit would swamp the cabin and drown them. “This is it—out!” he shouted to Elinore.

Another wave hit, knocking Ben to the floor. He stumbled through the rear hatch. The jeep was somehow still afloat; there was no hole. He stood there on the roof, blasted by the wind and rain, dumbfounded. Had the days of sleeplessness finally caught up with him? Was he hallucinating? Elinore stuck her head through the hatch, but Ben shoved her back into the cabin. He returned to the driver’s seat and turned the engine over. It started. He drove blind for the next 24 hours.

The storm worsened. At first the big swells exploded against the jeep every half-hour. Soon they came every 15 minutes. Then every five. Ben turned on the radio above Elinore’s cot and tapped out a message in Morse code: XXX. It meant Important, please listen. The antenna was broken, he knew, but maybe by some miracle the signal would get through. He typed it again. And again.

Another wave hit, then another. Ben pulled the lighter from his shirt pocket and lit another cigarette. Elinore watched the cherry dance in the darkness, wondering which of the waves detonating against Half-Safe’s windshield would be the one to finally burst in. Through the passenger-side curtain, they watched the sky darken. They felt the ocean below them lift the jeep stories high, then launch it into the air. Ben tumbled, his cigarette arcing across the dashboard like a rescue flare shot into a moonless night. The window went black. Half-Safe climbed another wave.

halfsafein1-1394141196-39.jpg
Ben and Elinore Carlin inside Half-Safe, 1950. Photo: Guildford Grammar School Archives

Two

Perth

November 2011

A patchwork of sun-bleached stucco walls, wandering roads, and corrugated-steel roofs flashed past the passenger-car windows along the TransPerth rail line. Soon the train came to a stop and the conductor called out East Guildford Station. I grabbed my bag and followed a group of boys in navy jackets, shorts, and red ties across the pedestrian overpass that led to the back gate of Guildford Grammar School. Behind a white picket fence stood a small brick cottage that housed the school’s archives.

The archive librarian, Rosemary Waller, welcomed me in. Along the back wall of the main reading room were shelves overflowing with antique books, bottles of wine, and a few framed photographs. A hat rack held old pith helmets, cricket jerseys, and army hats festooned with medals. The opposite wall was covered with century-old newspaper clippings, handwritten letters, and photos. One clipping caught my eye. It showed a black-and-white photograph of Ben and Elinore’s amphibious jeep.

“Could you imagine living in that thing?” Waller said. “It must have been just horrible.” She directed me to a wooden desk piled with four stacks of photo albums, manila folders, and white envelopes. Numbering perhaps a thousand pages in all, these were the complete surviving records of Ben Carlin, who died in 1981. Carlin had kept careful notes and scrapbook materials about his circumnavigation attempt, convinced it would make him famous and wealthy. But outside of Guildford, Ben, Elinore, and their jeep were mostly forgotten. Few people had ever seen the photographs, letters, and clippings collected here. There was a stack of sealed envelopes at the edge of the pile that looked untouched.

I had first heard about Carlin and Half-Safe about a decade ago, after my own, less extraordinary misadventure at sea. I was sailing the Golden Gate, the strait spanned by the famous bridge, outside San Francisco with an old friend named Steve, a novice sailor who had just bought a 36-foot boat. We were barely out of the harbor before it became obvious that neither of us knew what we were doing. We had trouble tacking, steering, basically moving. Then the motor broke. Then raw sewage started gurgling up from the toilet belowdecks. “You don’t have to use it, do you?” Steve asked. (I did, but I didn’t say anything.) Then the backup engine went out. Soon we were drifting slowly west, toward the open ocean.

It was my first real taste of being adrift at sea, lost. For six hours, Steve and I felt alternately terrified and oddly bored. By nightfall, Steve had given up and called emergency rescue. As we waited to be towed back into the harbor, he told me about a story he had heard from an Australian traveler he met backpacking in Southeast Asia. It was about a guy named Ben Carlin who spent years in this kind of predicament—years stuck in the five-by-ten cabin of a tricked-out military jeep that was somehow also a boat, trying to make it around the world.

When I got home, I went online and read what I could. The Ben Carlin story seemed too ridiculous to be true—but if it was true, it was the most bizarre adventure tale I’d ever heard. Either way, I had to find out more. There wasn’t much to find, however: a one-line mention on a GeoCities page, a picture of the jeep on a site maintained by Army-vehicle enthusiasts. There was a photo of Carlin on the Guildford website. Undated, it showed him with a smug smile on his face and a cigarette in his mouth, leaning against Half-Safe’s prow, Elinore grinning at his side.

I soon discovered that Carlin had written a book, published in 1955, titled Half-Safe: Across the Atlantic by Jeep, but it had long since gone out of print. The publisher canceled plans for a sequel, but Carlin wrote a manuscript for it anyway, and he later bequeathed it to Guildford along with his life savings and all the records from his expedition. In 1989, Guildford published the book under the title The Other Half of Half-Safe but never bothered to sell it except at the school.

When the copy I requested arrived two months later, I found it almost unreadable: Carlin’s rambling technical descriptions went on for pages, his jokes were odd and forced, and his descriptions of himself were a laborious mash of muscle, misanthropy, and one-upmanship.

And yet, what Carlin had accomplished was undeniably extraordinary. Although his trip lacked the easy shorthand of Amelia Earhart’s attempted around-the-world flight or Ernest Shackleton’s Antarctic survival saga, the Half-Safe voyage was in its own way a more remarkable feat: Carlin had pushed a rejected hunk of military surplus where no machine had ever gone before or would go again. Why had history ignored him? What happened to him?

All that seemed to be left of Carlin’s adventure was a few pictures, a few stories, and perhaps whatever remained of the thousand-odd empty soup cans he had tossed out the driver’s side window of the jeep, on the floors of three oceans and beneath the sand of half a dozen deserts. The more I thought about it, the more I had to know the answer. Which is why I had traveled 9,000 miles from San Francisco to Perth. If there were answers to my questions, they had to be in the Guildford archives. I wiped the dust from the photo album on top of the stack and turned the first page.


Even today, Perth is an isolated place. The nearest major city, Adelaide, is more than 1,600 miles to the southeast, making Perth one of the most remote metropolitan areas on earth. In the early 1900s, it had a population of 276,000, about a sixth of what it is today, much of it dispersed across 100 miles of surrounding desert. Ben was born near there in 1912, 60 miles northeast of the city, in a small town called Northam.

Nothing is known about Ben’s father; his mother died when he was 4, and her absence haunted him his entire life. From age 10 through 17, Ben attended Guildford. He went on to the University of Western Australia and the Kalgoorlie School of Mines, where he trained as a mining engineer. He spent much of his twenties eking out a living in the dust and dirt of Kalgoorlie, a tiny mining outpost some 300 miles east of Perth. Photographs from Kalgoorlie at the time show a desolate landscape of dry shrubs and gaunt men living in white tents.

In 1939, on the eve of World War II, Ben moved to China and took a job as a mining engineer for a British coal company operating in Beijing. A year later, he managed to enlist in the Indian army—then under British command—and served in the Middle East and Italy as a field engineer before being sent to India, where he was stationed at the Kalaikunda Air Force Station in West Bengal. It was there that Ben’s quest began.

One day in March 1946, Ben and his friend Mac Bunting, a squadron leader in the Royal Australian Air Force, were sweating off hangovers in a former U.S. Army Air Forces surplus yard at the base when a small vehicle caught Ben’s eye. It was a 1942 GPW Model Ford that had been converted so that its body looked like a boat hull: an amphibious jeep. Neither Ben nor Mac had seen anything like it.

At the start of the war, the Army had ordered the Ford Motor Company to build jeeps capable of negotiating short expanses of water—streams, lakes, and small bays. Ford engineers worked quickly, using parts from existing vehicles and improvising the rest. The result was one of the strangest-looking automobiles ever built.

It was a quarter-ton jeep, water sealed and wrapped in a thin sheet of metal for buoyancy. At the rear was a second driveshaft attached to a marine propeller and a nailed-on rudder that hung off the back bumper. It looked like a smaller and much sketchier version of the amphibious duck boats used by the Army and, in later years, by novelty-tour operators.

On land, the GPW amphibian worked fine, more or less like a regular jeep, but its performance in water was abysmal. It ran aground easily, was almost impossible to maneuver, and averaged a laughable 2.5 miles per hour at four miles per gallon. Within a year of production, the Army cancelled the line. By war’s end, only a fraction of the 12,978 GPW amphibians remained in service.

None of this deterred Ben. “You know, Mac,” he said. “With a bit of titivation you could go around the world in one of these things.”

Mac scoffed, but Ben persisted. “The more I thought about the idea—and within a few days I was thinking of little else—the more I liked it,” he later wrote. “Quite reasonably possible, it would be difficult enough to be interesting, a nice exercise in technology, masochism, and chance—a form of sport—and it might earn me a few bob.”

Ben thought he could complete the trip in a year, seeing the adventure as “a last flutter before the inevitable relapse into domesticity.” In 1947, when the army finally cut him loose, he went to the United States. He had to find a jeep, and he figured his best chances would be in a U.S.–based Army surplus yard.

During a layover in Hong Kong, Ben dropped in on a friend, Elinore Arone. They had met several months earlier in India, where Elinore, like Ben, had gone in search of a more interesting life. A 27-year-old brunette from Watertown, Massachusetts, she had been working as a bank teller in her hometown when the war broke out, and she joined the American Red Cross. She and Ben had had an on-again, off-again romantic relationship in India, and he was eager to see her.

Ben was more reluctant to explain why he was heading to America. Given Elinore’s appetite for adventure, it was likely she would jump at something as absurd as the amphibious jeep journey, and Ben was convinced that the trip “was no job for a woman.” But during the layover, he couldn’t resist telling her his plans, and Elinore insisted on joining. Ben relented, and the two agreed to meet on the East Coast.

On January 30, 1947, Ben handed $901 to the clerk at the Army surplus auction yard in Aberdeen, Maryland, and the next day drove his 1942 GPW amphibious jeep right off the lot. It was dented, dilapidated, and barely running, and it took Ben more than two days to make it 70 miles north to the Annapolis Yacht Yard, where he’d rented a slip. By the time he pulled in, the jeep was stalling from clogged fuel lines, the gas tank had fallen out, and the exhaust pipe was coughing noxious smoke. This was the craft Ben hoped would take him and Elinore around the world.

Three

Annapolis

October 1947

Ben spent nearly a year retooling the jeep, reinforcing the superstructure, replacing glass with plexiglass, installing a new hull to carry extra fuel, and coating the metal with neoprene, a synthetic rubber developed by DuPont that would later be used in everything from wetsuits to fan belts.

He also built a proper cabin, which made the jeep look like a miniature houseboat on wheels. The interior was a claustrophobic five by ten feet, with the jeep’s driver and passenger seats placed side-by-side in the front and a small cot wedged a few feet behind in the back. Above the cot were a pair of radios and a hatch, the only means of climbing in and out of the vehicle.

By October 1947, in spite of all Ben’s work, the jeep really wasn’t seaworthy—for one thing, he could hardly steer it. But time was running out, and Ben was down to his last $300. Elinore, who had arrived from China five months earlier, was working odd jobs and living with her parents in Boston to save money. Ben decided it was time for a test run from Annapolis to New York City.

A few days before Halloween, Ben climbed into the jeep, started the engine, and set out northeast across Chesapeake Bay. His plan was to drive up to the top of the bay, head east overland until he reached Delaware Bay, follow the bay southeast to the Atlantic, and then travel up the New Jersey coastline to New York. By the third day, Ben was about 50 miles into Delaware Bay when he was stopped cold by howling winds. He spent two nights and a day bouncing against the steel walls of the cabin, trying to keep the jeep from crashing into the rocks. So far, the vehicle was barely managing two miles per hour on the water. At that rate, it would be faster for him to walk to New York.

The morning of the fourth day, the winds died down just enough to proceed. As Ben drove out across the bay, he saw that he was aimed straight at an outcropping of rocks. He tried to steer right, toward open water, but the wheel wouldn’t move. His hands wouldn’t move, either—in fact, he couldn’t even feel them. Soon his arms, feet, and face were numb. Blinding white flashes appeared in front of his eyes. He felt nauseous, as if he was about to pass out.

Ben had felt this way before, 10 years earlier while working in the mine in China. Carbon monoxide was filling the cabin. It was killing him. He dragged himself out the rear hatch and threw himself onto the roof. He flopped onto his back, gasping for air. The jeep rumbled on beneath him; the steering wheel was pinned starboard, and the craft was making sweeping circles around the bay. Ben watched helplessly as each circuit took him closer and closer to the rocks.

Then, with a crash, the jeep jolted to a stop. Ben looked over and saw that he was rammed into a metal piling. The jeep’s hull was punctured, but the engine hadn’t stopped. Still paralyzed, he lay there wondering how big the hole was. If it was too large, the vehicle would sink before he could regain control of his limbs. If it was small, he might survive. He watched, helpless, and waited.

After half an hour, Ben felt tingling in his fingers and toes, then in his hands, feet, and limbs. He sat up, took a deep breath, shook his head clear, and hurried into the cabin to kill the engine. He looked over the side. A bolt from the piling had ripped a foot-long hole just below the waterline on the port side of the jeep’s main gas tank. If the bolt had hit just 18 inches away from where it did, it would have torn open the hull and sent the jeep to the bottom.

Between fits of vomiting—a side effect of carbon monoxide poisoning—Ben held his head in his hands. If he couldn’t make it 300 miles along a sheltered coast, how could he possibly make it across 3,000 miles of open ocean? How could he make it around the world?


The next month, he drove over land to New York. That winter, Ben lived alone in near poverty in a fleabag hotel in Manhattan, while Elinore took a temporary job in Mexico. Broke and without prospects for employment, Ben hounded the British Consul for back pay that he said the Indian army owed him. He had a glass of milk and a buttered roll for breakfast and skipped lunch. Dinner was canned spaghetti warmed in the bedroom washbasin and eaten with two toothbrush handles. He lived this way for four months.

In mid-April, a payment of $1,800 finally arrived from the Indian army, and Ben began prepping the jeep for a trans-Atlantic crossing. When Elinore returned to New York in May, she and Ben made their years-long affair official, marrying at City Hall over lunch. It was a formality that the press agent they’d hired to promote their forthcoming journey had suggested. In the late 1940s, a pair of adventurous newlyweds setting out on a honeymoon across the Atlantic in a jeep would be an easy story to sell.

There were many false starts in the years that followed. During their fourth launch attempt, in August 1948, the Carlins managed to make it roughly 300 miles out to sea from New York before a shaft bearing came loose and the engine died. Ben tried to jury-rig a quick fix while dangling upside down in the ocean. Nothing worked. As the jeep drifted helplessly in the Atlantic, Ben passed the time by stuffing notes inside empty beer bottles that read, “No beer!”

A week and a half later, they were rescued by an oil tanker headed to Montreal. They arrived three days later. Back on land, Ben prepared the jeep for the road while Elinore went out drinking with the ship’s crew. Soon they were on the road heading east to Halifax, Nova Scotia. Ben was determined to give the Atlantic crossing another go that summer, but renovating the jeep was taking too long—winter storms were fast approaching. The Carlins had no choice but to delay another year. Elinore went back to New York while Ben took a job in a machine shop.

In his spare time, and using all of his spare money, Ben took the jeep apart again. He also gave it a name: Half-Safe, taken from a popular radio commercial for Arrid deodorant. Don’t be half-safe—use Arrid to be sure. One year became two, and then, in June 1950, Elinore returned. Ben quit his job. It was time to give their harebrained scheme one last try.

Four

Halifax

July 1950

Ben pushed the hair out of his eyes with a greasy hand and climbed from the dock in Halifax Harbor onto the back of the jeep for a final look-over. Everything was ready. Even the weather had improved in the past 12 hours—a large high-pressure system was approaching from the west. Ben reckoned that if he and Elinore left immediately, they could ride into the Gulf Stream and make passage across 1,800 miles of the Atlantic to the Azores, a sparsely populated chain of islands 1,000 miles west of the Portuguese coast, in less than three weeks.

The final step before leaving was to clear customs. Waiting on the dock above the jeep were two corporals from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Because the jeep was amphibious, it existed in a legal gray area. There were no laws permitting such a craft to set out across Canadian waters—but then, there were no laws prohibiting it, either. The Mounties filled out the customs forms as best they could.

A small group of onlookers and friends cheered as Half-Safe motored out to sea. Among them was Richard Battey, an old friend and one of the few dedicated backers of Ben’s quest. Richard had loaned $1,200 for the jeep’s renovations, which Ben promised to repay once he and Elinore made it England. By that point, Ben and Elinore figured, they would be rich and famous. It seemed inevitable—their quest had already attracted the attention of the editors of Life magazine and Hollywood producers. They just needed to drive across 3,000 miles of ocean first.

As Ben pulled away from the dock, Elinore sat on the back cot and lit a cigarette, looking out the open rear hatch across the water. Behind her, Half-Safe was towing a tank filled with 280 gallons of fuel. Onboard, they carried 30 gallons of water, eight gallons of oil, and enough food for six weeks. A few feet in front of Elinore, Ben sat hunched behind the steering wheel, watching the spherical compass bobbing on the dashboard.

Half-Safe’s windshield and side windows were covered with black canvas to keep out seawater and rain. The canvas also blocked out most natural light. Inside, day was hardly distinguishable from night; Ben and Elinore lived a shadowy twilight of flickering electric bulbs and the occasional phosphorous flame of a struck match.

For Ben,  looking at a window at an unending ocean would have done little good anyway—there were no landmarks to follow. Every few days, when the weather permitted, he would confirm his position with a sextant reading. On overcast days, he had no choice but to drive on blind faith.

Half-Safe was a rough ride. When the engine was running—which was most of the time—the cabin rattled with teeth-chattering violence. The air was spiked with the noxious perfume of exhaust, gasoline, and, occasionally, raw sewage from the marine commode located beneath a cushion on the passenger seat. This was where Ben and Elinore had to relieve themselves, in plain sight of one another, two feet from the driver’s seat. Ben had installed electric fans on each side of the dashboard to combat the smell, but they mostly just distributed it around the cabin.

Then there was the endless back-and-forth roll over the ocean’s swells, the tiny jeep frame bouncing over waves and slamming through wind slop. Through the cracks in the black canvas, occasional flickers and flashes would show the water just below waist level, sometimes above shoulder level.  

In some ways, riding in Half-Safe was like traveling in a motorboat or sailboat, but without any of the benefits—the gusts of wind, the panoramic horizons, the liberating feeling of fast motion. In other ways, it was similar to riding in a car, but one that the driver could never pull over, never stop. It was a claustrophobic and abusive environment, an experience wholly other: at best difficult, at worst miserable. Most of the time, it was somewhere in between.

Half-Safe crept along at its usual four miles per hour. Nevertheless, closing in on the second week at sea, Ben and Elinore had somehow traveled nearly 400 miles, almost a quarter of the way to the Azores. That distance put Half-Safe beyond reach of the thunderstorms that often raked the Atlantic seaboard in late summer. What Ben didn’t take into account, however, were the hurricanes heading into the Gulf Stream from the south. The summer of 1950 was particularly warm, and by July a number of storms were already gestating off the Caribbean. The Carlins, inching toward the Azores, were headed right into their path.

Five

The Atlantic Ocean

August 1950

Ben and Elinore landed on Flores Island in the Azores on August 19, 1950. What Ben had thought would be a two-week journey from Halifax had taken 32 miserable days. Still, the Carlins had managed to avoid hitting any major storms during the crossing, and they were happy to have most of the Atlantic behind them.

They spent the week in Flores, refueled, and, on August 27, set off again on a 160-mile run to the island of Horta. Approaching the breakwater outside the harbor there, they were surprised to see a small armada of local boats coming out to greet them. In her diary that day, Elinore would claim that half the island’s population of 10,000 turned out to celebrate them in town. “Long apprised of our coming,” she wrote, “Horta had simply closed down for the day, proclaiming a ‘Festa do Jeep.’”

For the next three months, Ben and Elinore island-hopped, exhibiting Half-Safe to earn money for repairs and the fuel they would need for the last 1,200-mile leg of the Atlantic crossing. A Life article that appeared in November called their Atlantic crossing “certainly the most foolhardy and possibly the most difficult transatlantic voyage ever made.”

The plan now was to head to Madeira, an island halfway between the Azores and the African coast, where they would refuel before continuing on to Western Sahara. Ben thought the 600-mile trip from the Azores’ São Miguel Island to Madeira would be a “downhill run,” taking a week and a half at most. But by the time they left port, the weather had already gone sour. Northwest winds battered the jeep; Ben continued pushing east, trying to outrun the storm. But after six days, the conditions had become dire. Eleanor became violently seasick. Ben had trouble steering the jeep in the rising swells. Most nights he’d cut the motor and watch as Half-Safe drifted anchorless, deeper into the storm.

Nine days later, things had gone from bad to worse. Everything inside the cabin was wet — the bedroll, blankets, clothes, and pillows — and had been for days. By Saturday, December 2, the seas had risen to 40, even 50 feet. Elinore described their grim daily routine in her journal:

0900: Watched a most beautiful sky at sunrise—seemingly a good omen but has brought nothing but rain & wind.

1000: This is serious. Pitching very badly. Rain beats down. Hope it stops at 1100 when I go topside for a radio transmission…. It’s rather cold in the jeep—getting colder all the time…. Moreover, the bed-roll is so wet that the blanket is too—& my head—& it’s coming thru all my sweaters. Constant headaches.

1530: I’m freezing now so what shall I be tonight? We go up, up, up &—smack, down, down, down.

1700: Used to think it was a exaggeration when people talked of seas 30, 40 & 50 ft. high. I’ve now seen them—when I went topside for [Ben’s] 1600 transmission to Madeira. Bloody huge waves—& the wind she blew like hell.

It seemed impossible that the storm could go on like this, but there was no sign of it letting up.

The next morning, Ben heard a sound that startled him: the engine. For the first time in days, he could actually hear it running. Barely conscious after 67 straight sleepless hours, he peeked outside. The wind had abated to about 50 miles per hour, though the waves were still enormous. He fumbled with the radio—it had been useless during the storm, but perhaps now it would be working again. He tapped out the distress call: XXX.

To his astonishment, an operator from Madeira replied. The man was shocked to get Ben’s signal. The Portuguese navy had given up Ben and Elinore for dead days earlier—nobody, they thought, could survive at sea in a hurricane of that magnitude, especially in a floating jeep. Ben took coordinates for the spot where a Portuguese naval vessel, the Flores, would drop off two tanks of fuel, enough to get Half-Safe to Madeira.

The Flores arrived at 8 a.m. the next morning. Ben hitched Half-Safe to the stern, and he and Elinore were whisked aboard and welcomed by the crew. They ate, drank wine, and took much-needed showers. The Carlins made land in Madeira on December 12. What should have been a 10-day hop ended up an insufferable three-week slog.

Back on land, the Carlins licked their wounds and sold the movie camera Ben had brought along for the money they needed for food and repairs. They hung around Madeira for the next two months before deciding to give the crossing another go. This time the sea was more forgiving, and on February 21—seven months after setting off from Canada—Half-Safe reached Western Sahara. The Carlins had finally crossed the Atlantic.

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Half-Safe crossing the Sahara Desert, March 1951. Photo: Guildford Grammar School Archives

Six

Cape Juby

February 1951

The roads were a challenge from the beginning. Ragged in the best of circumstances, they had a tendency to vanish into 50-foot sand dunes. Half-Safe had lost its only spare wheel on the transatlantic crossing, and there were no replacement parts for Ford jeeps in Morocco. To be cautious, Ben drove at a snail’s pace. Elinore sat on the back cot, watching through the port-side window as nomadic shepherds drove their sheep toward the storm clouds to the north. Shepherds in the Sahara were known to chase the rain for hundreds of miles in search of grass. The Carlins followed them.

A week earlier, Ben and Elinore had made landfall in the small Western Sahara port town of Cape Juby. They were elated. After three years of toil, they had done the impossible: They had beaten the Atlantic. But now there was much more to think about, and on their first night back on land, Ben lay awake and pondered the challenges ahead. If Half-Safe broke down in the Sahara, the trip would be over.

Three days later, on March 4, after some quick repairs to make Half-Safe road ready, Ben and Elinore were finally granted papers and sent on their way, creeping along at less than two miles per hour towards Casablanca, 700 miles to the north. Days were spent driving and occasionally stopping at villages for peppermint tea; nights were spent beneath the stars of the Saharan sky.

Ten days later, they hit Casablanca in a blaze of publicity. Ticket sales from exhibitions of the jeep, plus a $100 advance for Life’s second article on the Half-Safe journey, gave Ben enough money to once again refit the jeep. With few spare parts or materials, he replaced the neoprene seals around the steering wheel with goatskin. But the attention around the Carlins, enormous at first, died as quickly as it started. Ben and Elinore and their journey across the Atlantic proved a fleeting curiosity to the few French colons who paid to see the jeep and meet the Crazy Carlins. Their feat seemed to inspire as much confusion as wonderment: They had made the journey, but why? What was the point?

On April 21, 1951, Ben backed Half-Safe into the Strait of Gibraltar. The jeep, chugging against the incoming tide, took six hours to make the 15-mile crossing to Europa Point, on the southern tip of Gibraltar. Nine months and 4,500 miles after they’d left Montreal, Ben and Elinore had landed on their third continent.

The Carlins’ four-month tour of Western Europe proved a welcome rest from the grueling journey so far. Ben and Elinore motored across Portugal, up through central Spain, and across southern France. Paris, still recovering from the war, turned out to be an unprofitable city for exhibitions, but the English were more interested. While staying in Paris in June, Ben and Elinore were flown to London to meet with editors at The Clarion newspaper, who agreed to pay them a hefty 500 pounds for a monthlong promotional tour in August. Ben and Elinore enthusiastically agreed, and for the first time in nearly a year they rested, soaking in the Parisian sights.

By mid-August, Ben and Elinore were ready for their triumphant sail to England, but The Clarion was not. At the last minute, the newspaper canceled their contract for no apparent reason. The Carlins’ holiday in Paris now looked like a waste of precious time. Their money spent, they would have to get to England on their own to find a new sponsor.

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Ben and Elinore Carlin with Half-Safe in Casablanca, March 1951. Photo: Guildford Grammar School Archives

Seven

Kent

August 1951

The summer night sky exploded with flashbulbs and cheers as Half-Safe lunged up Goodwin Sands on the east coast of Kent  the same landing that Julius Caesar had stormed 2,000 years earlier. Ben and Elinore climbed from the back hatch in front of the crowd of hundreds, who had been awaiting the Carlins for the past few hours. At the corner pub, they were met with a deafening round of applause.

A few days later, Ben called Mac Bunting, the Army buddy who had first helped conceive of the circumnavigation in India in 1947. They hadn’t seen each other in five years and in the past two years hadn’t even exchanged letters. When Mac arrived in Kent and saw the jeep, he was flabbergasted. “By Jove, old boy,” he exclaimed, “you were right!”


Half-Safe: Across the Atlantic by Jeep, which Ben wrote shortly after arriving in England, ends on that triumphant note. Back at the Guildford archives, I closed the cover of the second photo album and reshelved it. There were dozens of photographs Ben had taken during the journey, copies of letters he’d sent from the Azores and throughout Africa, a few receipts. But nothing I found shed light on what kept pushing Ben and Elinore to continue on through failure after failure, year after year—and I couldn’t find anything about what had happened to them after the journey was over.

One possible source of new information was Ben’s only daughter, Deirdre Carlin. I’d heard about her from Rosemary Waller months earlier, when I was arranging my visit to Perth. I knew nothing about her, except that she lived in Perth. I had been trying to reach her for months and finally heard back from her a week and a half before I arrived. Certainly she would know what had happened to Ben, but it would be a few days before I could ask her.


Ben and Elinore believed they’d have it made once they reached England, but by the second day in Kent, reporters stopped calling. There were no new offers to exhibit the jeep and no word from Hollywood. After a few days, the Carlins left for London. Within a week, their savings had dwindled to 50 pounds. They retired to a run-down hostel in the West End and reviewed their options.

After five years, they were just one-fifth of the way around the world, and the worst of the journey was ahead of them: war-ravaged Eastern Europe, roadless expanses of Middle Eastern desert, bandit-ridden Asia, and then the Pacific, the world’s largest ocean. Their plan of making money through exhibitions, magazine articles, and books had failed, and what little funds did trickle in went right back into keeping the jeep running.

Ben was starting to resent the exhibitions in particular and the people who attended them. Nobody really seemed to understand the journey. Many people simply thought the whole thing was a hoax. Meanwhile, Half-Safe had sentenced Ben and Elinore to a life of poverty, and they were growing weary of it.

“Now aged 39,” Ben wrote in August 1951, “I had lived from suitcase or kit-bag for 13 years; the travel urge was long satisfied and I yearned for a permanent hat-peg; a lawnmower, the pit-a-pat of footsies. If beforehand I had been persuaded that the trip would take longer than a year, I would have dropped it; now 5 years later I had barely started.”

If the Carlins were to continue, Ben would have to overhaul Half-Safe yet again—the jeep was literally falling to pieces. The metal superstructure had corroded from months of saltwater exposure, the frame was buckling, and the engine needed to be completely rebuilt.

Ben and Elinore’s marriage wasn’t in much better shape. Two weeks after landing in England, they separated. Whether they were drifting apart for personal or financial reasons isn’t clear. Elinore took a secretarial job with the U.S. Air Force in London, while Ben left for Birmingham to try to raise money. He moved into a boardinghouse room and took a job as a garage mechanic. He made plans to sell Half-Safe. The joke wasn’t funny anymore; the impossible journey seemed to be over.

But it wasn’t.

Ben tried but simply could not quit. In his time off from the garage, he continued plotting, thinking, tinkering. In the garage, he added larger fuel tanks to the jeep, refitted its brakes, and replaced the windshield with tougher tempered glass. The overhaul took two years.

In his letters and The Other Half, Ben gave plenty of reasons not to continue: debt, exhaustion, the near certainty that the jeep would give out entirely before journey’s end. He offered only one justification for trudging on, writing in typically overwrought prose:

Although a sweet-enough aria, Half-Safe’s Atlantic feat was no opera. There’s something peculiarly complete and satisfying about a circumnavigation; a magnum of champagne is manifestly more acceptable than glasses.

It was a psycho-facto that counter-tipped the imbalance: Of my past imbecilities the omissions rankled longer and stronger than the commissions: “If only I had grabbed that opportunity … taken a chance that time in … given that parboiled redhead one more break! Those are the pangs that gnaw in the night. Such an opportunity could never recur, and I’d kick holes in my coffin if I passed it up.

And so on the afternoon of April 20, 1955, Ben and Elinore climbed through Half-Safe’s back hatch once again. Elinore took her place on the cot, and with Ben behind the wheel they set off across the English Channel, past the White Cliffs of Dover toward France, back to the open sea and the open road.

Eight

Calcutta

August 1955

It had been four years since Ben and Elinore were last cooped up inside Half-Safe’s tiny cabin. By the time they landed on the beach at Calais, France, they both knew that four years probably wasn’t long enough. Richard Kaplan, a young documentary filmmaker from California, and John Simmons, a photographer for a London weekly newspaper, had joined them on the trip across the English Channel. Kaplan, who went on to become an Oscar-winning documentarian, told me that even that short trip with the couple was absolute hell. “It was miserable,” he said. “They were arguing the whole time, just yelling at each other. It was so bad, we sat on the roof to get away from them.” The next day, Kaplan and Simmons jumped ship.

Half-Safe rolled through Switzerland, then down to Verona, Italy, and on to Venice, where Ben and Elinore met with a throng of reporters. One asked if the Atlantic crossing had really happened and asked Ben to prove it. Others simply didn’t believe them. The journey was just too long, arduous, and insane to fathom. Half-Safe chugged on through Yugoslavia, and by mid-May the Carlins were in Turkey. This put them on track to cross the deserts of Syria, Iraq, and Iran at the start of summer—another miscalculation by Ben. Soon temperatures inside the cabin were reaching a sauna-like 150 degrees.

Ben pushed on, hoping somehow to outrun the heat, but it only got worse. Cabin temperatures reached 170 and 180 degrees, hot enough that the plastic boxes that held tools and spare parts softened and buckled. Nevertheless, by mid-August the Carlins had traveled 8,550 miles in 86 days. They had made it to India—though at a debilitating cost.

Elinore had lost 30 pounds, her hair was falling out, and she was constantly bedridden with stomach infections. As Half-Safe rolled through Jalandhar in India’s Punjab state, en route to Calcutta, she wrote in her journal, “Everything completely wet from humidity. … Yesterday’s wasp bite has swollen right arm … skin all round lips completely burned away—now peeling—mouth still ugly sight.”

In Calcutta, they settled into a friend of a friend’s apartment. In The Other Half, Ben describes this period of the trip as relatively enjoyable, but the correspondence in the Guildford archives suggests otherwise. Ben had contracted dengue fever and was bedridden for weeks. Elinore had a stomach flu that lasted a month. Broke again, Ben tried to sell the same Half-Safe story to two different magazines. The plan backfired when both editors realized what he had done and voided their contracts with him. In desperation, Ben sold the rights to Half-Safe to an American publisher, in violation of his contract with his English publisher, Andre Deutsch. Deutsch found out and threatened to kill their deal; Ben countered by accusing Deutsch of holding back advance payments for the book.

The Guildford archives contain a number of carbon-copied letters between Ben and a London lawyer named L. A. Morrow that suggest that Ben’s eccentricity was now turning into something darker. Perhaps the stress of the journey was wearing on him; perhaps it was the financial duress or simply the fever. Or perhaps it was a side of him that had been there all along.

Although Ben’s letters began professionally enough, within days they turned delirious and strange. He wrote that Deutsch was “an ambitious, unbridled egotist” with “little or no taste” and threatened him with numerous lawsuits. And this was all two months before Deutsch was to release Ben’s book. Meanwhile, Ben was spending his days obsessively taking apart Half-Safe’s engine and rebuilding it, though he knew it was in fine condition.

It was Deutsch, in fact, who bailed out the Carlins, suggesting that they ship Half-Safe to Australia for a book tour. Ten thousand copies of Half-Safe—a print run that suggested Deutsch’s hopes for a bestseller—were scheduled to hit Australian bookstores in October 1955, with 5,000 more to follow. A promotional tour, in addition to being good for sales, might be just the break that Ben and Elinore needed. Ben agreed, Deutsch sent expense money, and on September 19, Half-Safe set sail for Perth aboard the MS Carpentaria. For the first time in 16 years, Ben was going home.


The Australia tour was a disaster. Ben, Elinore, and Half-Safe made it to Perth in October, but the book did not—as it turned out, most of the bookstores where Ben and Elinore had planned to exhibit the jeep and sign copies never received their shipments. The few reviews that appeared were not favorable.

Ben accused Deutsch of plotting against him. In retaliation, he began charging exorbitant prices for viewings of the jeep and refused to cooperate with booksellers. In an effort to spite his publisher, Ben was sabotaging his own book, in the process throwing away his only real chance at profiting from the Half-Safe trip. His relationship with Elinore, meanwhile, was disintegrating again. By the end of the tour, she announced that she was leaving him. And this time she meant it.

On December 13, 1955, Ben rolled Half-Safe onto the MS Chakdina, a ship headed back to Calcutta. He would never see Elinore again.

Nine

Rangoon

February 1956

According to the British district commissioner in Rangoon, the road between the Burmese capital and the border of Thailand was impassable. “Your famous vehicle has not the slightest chance of covering the road successfully,” the commissioner, a young man in immaculate uniform, told Ben as he sat before his desk in the consulate office. “In plain fact, there is no longer a road. What there was has been destroyed by four monsoons. When I myself covered it last November, I saw two-foot-high boulders in the track. The army does not permit its ordinary jeeps to make the run.… Please turn back.”

Ben stifled a yawn, stood, and thanked the commissioner for his time, then left the office to prepare Half-Safe for the journey. He had no intention of heeding the commissioner’s advice.

The alternate route would involve traversing hundreds of miles of open water across the mouth of the Irrawaddy River, at the southern end of Burma. From there, Half-Safe would have to travel up an uncharted river and cross the Kra Isthmus into Thailand, where Ben would find well-paved roads for the next 300 miles of coastline. But this itinerary would add 500 miles and three months to the trip, an extension Ben couldn’t afford.

Instead, he borrowed maps and began charting his own straight-line path to Thailand. He would sail up the Gyaing River to Kyondo, a British army post west of the border. He would then take a 40-mile military road—the route the commissioner had advised against—from Kyondo over Victoria Point, the southernmost tip of Burma, to the border.

After six years in Half-Safe, Ben had grown numb to the warnings of officials. Elinore might have made him listen to reason, but she’d been gone four months. Just a month earlier, Ben had set out on his first trip alone, from India across the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea. The route required him to spend as many as 20 hours a day, for five days, behind the wheel. “Having done something the hard way (with a crewman), one looks for a still harder way,” he wrote in The Other Half. To stay awake, he took methedrine tablets—first one, then another, then another.

One afternoon during the trip, Ben was staring at the lubber lines on the compass when he saw them twisting, apparently melting in the stifling heat. The compass itself flattened, then formed a sphere again. At its center appeared an image of Saint George, the dragon-slaying Roman soldier of legend. Now the compass lines were twisting and turning into the shapes of animals. Ben saw the face of a Hindu holy man glaring fiercely into his eyes. The man’s face kept expanding until it filled the dashboard. Ben swatted at the air to fend him off. “Damn!” he yelled.

Saint George, the animals, and the holy man disappeared. The compass was once again just a compass. It was the methedrine, Ben realized—he’d taken five tablets the day before and was finishing his 17th straight hour at the wheel. In the thrall of his hallucinations, he’d steered Half-Safe wildly off course. He cut the engine, dropped anchor, and collapsed onto the cot, shivering and sweating.

The Andaman crossing marked an ominous change in Ben’s habits. So far, most of Half-Safe’s travels, however dangerous, had been well planned. But since Elinore left, his judgment had grown erratic and, at times, suicidal.

His financial prospects, meanwhile, had collapsed further. When he reached Rangoon, a letter from Deutsch’s office was waiting for him, informing him that Half-Safe was not selling. Deutsch had ordered an initial print run of 20,000 copies for the English market, but now the publisher projected that no more than 3,000 or 4,000 would be sold. The rest were being dumped to a book club. Ben would see no more royalties.


A few days after Half-Safe reached Rangoon, officials in the southeastern outpost town of Kawkareik invited Ben and his new shipmate, a fellow Australian named Barry Hanley, to a farewell party before they attempted the military road over Victoria Point. The atmosphere was that “of a joyous wake,” Ben later wrote. “[T]he officers’ feeling seemed to be, ‘These boys are real triers. They are about to die on the road tomorrow. We must give them a good send-off.’”

The next morning, 15 Burmese officers escorted Half-Safe to the road in a military truck and watched Ben and Barry head into the jungle. As the road ascended into the foothills, the pavement turned to dirt. Further up the mountain the dirt disappeared, leaving only potholed bedrock. Boulders measuring 30 inches across appeared in the middle of the trail. To get past them, Ben had to balance Half-Safe’s tires on the least-eroded sections of the road for fear of getting permanently stuck between them. In a half-hour he covered only 100 yards. “The going was far worse than anything I had ever seen,” he later wrote. Then it got worse. “[A]ll sense of comparison was gone: beyond hellish and superhellish one’s power of description breaks down.”

Fatigue took over. Ben felt nauseous and drunk; the road began to taunt him. The jungle on both sides was a sheer, impenetrable wall of bamboo, brush, and vines. By afternoon, the temperature inside the cabin had reached 145 degrees. This went on for 10 hours.

The next day, Ben and Barry finally made passage over Victoria Point. Half-Safe had left Burma, and with it the most grueling overland segment of its route. Ahead of them were miles of relatively good roads through Thailand and Vietnam, then an easy crossing of the South China Sea to Hong Kong and on to the southern shore of Japan. They made the 2,500-mile trip to Japan in under five months.

On July 25, Half-Safe pulled into Kagoshima harbor, on the southern tip of the Japanese island of Kyushu. The water was as still as glass, reflecting a sky full of stars and the smoking crater of the Shinmoedake volcano. For Ben, Japan meant he was one step closer to completion; for Barry, it meant he could escape. He jumped ship and went back to Australia. Alone again, Ben was now looking at what he knew was his most serious obstacle: the Pacific Ocean.

Ten

Tokyo

July 1956

For the next nine months, Ben holed up in various cheap accommodations around Tokyo. Journalists would occasionally make pilgrimages to meet him there; among them were reporters from Time and Life, whose magazines had enthusiastically covered Half-Safe’s progress before. But the man they found barely resembled the swashbuckling adventurer who had thrilled their readers half a decade earlier. Ben had been drinking too much, and he seemed not just depressed and embittered but deeply broken.

Elinore was long gone, and she had taken much of the project’s appeal and innocence with her. Ben now seemed too eccentric, too crazy, too dangerously obsessed. Months later, Life canceled its article. The journey was taking too long, and the public, it seemed, had lost interest.

Ben, as always, was trying to scrape together the money for the next leg of the trip and refitting Half-Safe for its final sea voyage. He was back at it with Andre Deutsch, this time suing him for breach of contract over the dismal Australian book tour, during which only 6,149 copies of Half-Safe—barely a third of the 15,000 printed for the tour—had been sold. When Ben wasn’t writing angry letters, he was tinkering with the jeep, ripping its engine apart, rebuilding it over and over, and waiting.

Finally, in April 1957, he got a break: the Standard-Vacuum Oil Company agreed to fuel Half-Safe for the North Pacific crossing to Alaska in exchange for an 18-day promotional tour of Japan. Ben prepared to start his final overseas journey the following month, and he took on a new shipmate by the name of Boyé De Mente, an American magazine editor who had been living in Tokyo for several years.

De Mente later published his own book about his time aboard Half-Safe, called Once a Fool! From Japan to Alaska by Amphibious Jeep! His account, though not confirmed elsewhere, presents the most disturbing picture on record of Ben’s behavior. According to De Mente, Ben resented taking orders from his new oil-company sponsor. He started acting crazy, getting blind drunk and going on all-night rampages in the Japanese towns they visited.

De Mente recalled being awakened one night in a hotel room he shared with Ben. Someone was falling over him. The lights came on, and De Mente saw Ben, drunk, standing in the middle of the room wearing nothing but a kimono. Beside him was a woman in her late teens or early twenties, also in a kimono. Ben had thrown her on top of De Mente.

“It’s your turn now, mate!” Ben yelled, according to De Mente. De Mente begged off, saying the girl didn’t look like she was in the mood. Ben said that it didn’t matter, then opened the kimono to show off his bruised knees. The woman tried to run, but Ben pushed her back on the bed. Finally, hotel maids arrived and rescued her. De Mente looked over at Ben, who was passed out, dead to the world. Scenes like this played out every night for weeks.

Finally, on June 12, 1957, there were no more women, no more bars, no more hotel rooms—just Half-Safe’s little cabin, with Ben at the wheel, De Mente on the back cot, and the cold, gray Sea of Okhotsk ahead of them. They launched off the dock in Wakkanai, the northernmost city in Japan, and headed northeast. Half-Safe was at last underway across the Pacific.

It took only five days for the problems to begin. Half-Safe’s fuel supply was now kept in a large steel tank towed behind the jeep, and the rope connecting the two had become hopelessly knotted, pulling them close together. When the wind came up, the jeep and the tank began crashing into each other. Ben feared that if he didn’t unravel the rope, the tank might puncture Half-Safe’s belly and possibly sink the vehicle. The only way to clear the rope was to swim under the tank and remove it. So Ben dove overboard.

Even in summer, the water in the Sea of Okhotsk was about 30 degrees. Pawing at the rope, Ben quickly lost all sensation in his extremities. One of his fingernails caught on the rope, split, then peeled back entirely; he bit down on it and ripped it off at the quick. When he pulled himself onto the deck, his entire body was covered with red and blue splotches. He got back in the cabin, started the engine, and headed east.

Ten days later, in the middle of the North Pacific heading toward the Aleutian Islands, Half-Safe again stalled. Ben had driven the vehicle over a Japanese fishing boat’s net and knotted it around the propeller. The only way to free it was to once again jump in and do it by hand. Ben stripped and dove overboard, a knife clenched between his teeth. His hands went numb instantly, and he slashed wildly at the net, unable to feel whether he was connecting with his target. The fishing boat was about 100 yards away, hauling in a net full of salmon. Ben swam toward the vessel and climbed up the net. The crew lifted him out of the water with the day’s catch and deposited him on the deck, slick with fish blood.

Ben was naked and paralyzed by the cold. The fishermen tried to slap him back to life. They dumped more coal into the galley stove and poured diesel fuel over the embers, then pushed Ben toward the flames, wrapping him in a fur coat and urging him to warm himself with an enormous bottle of sake. Ben shivered and shook and slowly came to. Lifting his eyes, he saw Half-Safe in the distance, drifting away from him. The propeller was still not clear; to free it, Ben would have to swim back out and try again. He drank a liter of sake, grabbed one of the crewmen’s knives, and dove in. When he reached Half-Safe, he sawed everything in sight, finally cutting the propeller loose.

Ben pulled himself aboard and into the cabin. He sat on the cot, shaking as though he were electrified. He was unable to speak or move. Once he warmed up, he pulled his clothes on, urinated in a can beside the driver’s seat, shut his bloodshot eyes, and went to sleep. He woke up four hours later, yelled at De Mente for urinating in the can, kicked him out of the driver’s seat, and drove onward into the night toward Alaska.

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Half-Safe crossing the North Pacific Ocean, 1957. Photo: Guildford Grammar School Archives
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Ben Carlin aboard Half-Safe in the North Pacific Ocean, 1957. Photo: Guildford Grammar School Archives

Eleven

Anchorage

September 1957

As far-fetched as the fishing-boat incident seems, it appears in both The Other Half and De Mente’s book. By this point, De Mente wrote, Ben had lost his hold on the world outside of Half-Safe, outside of the journey. He was imagining arguments that never took place, demanding that De Mente follow his orders and then chastising him when he did.

Half-Safe reached Anchorage on September 3. De Mente quit as soon as he was on dry land. Alone again, Ben set off across Alaska. At long last, he was conquering the fifth and final continent of his journey. Having waited years for this moment, he expected elation. Instead, he became terribly depressed. “With no more oceans to cross,” he later wrote, “my life was ended.”

The little world contained within Half-Safe’s steel walls had become a refuge from relationships, responsibilities, jobs, other people—and now it was on the verge of disappearing. If Ben made it back to Montreal, he’d have to start playing by other people’s rules again. “I faced return to the jungle of life as a civilian—servilisation; I would have to learn to be polite to painful numbies and to either rhapsodize or lament over the ever tiny thing,” he wrote. For years he had worried that he would never complete his odyssey; now he worried that he would.

For eight months, Ben traveled alone around the U.S., though there is little record of where he went. From his correspondence in the Guildford archives, I learned that he spent a month in Hollywood working on a film deal that never materialized, then crashed Half-Safe in a ditch after a night drinking at a friend’s house in San Francisco. He zigzagged from California to Texas to Missouri. One afternoon in Detroit, he stopped by the Ford Motor Company’s headquarters to show off what he called “the most extraordinary automobile (judged on performance) that Ford or any other manufacturer had ever produced.” The company’s public relations chief didn’t even bother to step outside and look at Half-Safe.

Ben wandered on, driving through Ohio and upstate New York. In Buffalo, an attendant at a service station became engrossed in the map of Half-Safe’s travels that Ben had painted on the jeep’s exterior. Had Ben actually been to any of those places? he wanted to know. Still, nobody seemed to believe him. He drove on, up to Canada, as if he couldn’t bring himself to finish the journey.

Finally, on May 13, 1958—seven years and 10 months after he set out across the Atlantic—Ben drove west toward Montreal, where he and Elinore had stopped in 1948. He was older now, 45, gray in the beard, and heavier. Over the past decade, Ben had traveled 39,000 miles over land and 11,000 miles over water. He had crossed four oceans and five continents to become the only person in history to circumnavigate the globe by both land and sea in the same vehicle—a distinction he still holds.

It had been a decade of planning, rebuilding, marriage, divorce, dysentery, dementia, abject poverty. Eight years of driving, breaking down, and driving some more, across sun-scorched deserts and hurricane-ripped seas, through bouts of insanity and back again. But Ben had somehow made it. He had lodged himself in one of the wilder corners of history.

As the jeep rumbled into town, there was no parade, no press, no applause to greet him. Not even the Batteys, Mac, or Elinore had shown up to welcome him. Ben was totally alone. He turned off the engine and started walking, with no particular place to go.

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Ben Carlin in the1960s. Photo: Guildford Grammar School Archives

Twelve

Perth

November 2011

Although there were hundreds of photos from Ben’s circumnavigation in the Guildford archives, there were only a few of his life during the years that followed. It was as if he had simply stopped existing after he arrived back in Montreal. The picture on the last page of the last photo album showed a much older man, overweight, sitting in a chair with a pipe in his mouth, a forced smile on his face. It took me a moment to realize it was Ben.

Ben died in 1981, Elinore in 1996. The correspondence between them after the circumnavigation was nasty. In July 1961, Ben tried to convince her to give up all the rights to the Half-Safe story; her remaining share of them, he believed, was preventing him from selling his second book. In one letter to her lawyer, he rehashed romantic arguments from their earliest days in India, and he insisted that “never did I as much as tell her that I loved her.”

Elinore returned fire, writing in a letter later that month: “I don’t propose to have any correspondence with you. What little is necessary I trust you can take part in a sane and more polite manner. I do regret that you seem to have lost all sense of proportion and humor.” She would later marry an airline pilot she and Ben had met during their stopover in Madeira.

The only living link to the Carlins that I’d found was Deirdre, Ben’s daughter, who had agreed to meet on my last day in town. She was living in Perth, working downtown as an administrative assistant at an investment firm. If I stopped by her office, she said, she would be happy to talk.

When she stepped out of the elevator and into the lobby, I had no trouble recognizing her. She was tall, with Ben’s strong chin, brown eyes, and sardonic smile. I was full of questions. In particular, I was curious about Ben’s whereabouts from the end of his trip to his death. Deirdre smiled. “Oh, so am I,” she said. “The book is basically all I knew about my father.”

Deirdre was born in 1964, when Ben was 52 and her mother, a woman named Cynthia Henderson—Carlin’s third wife—was 21. The family was living in Arlington, Virginia, but Cynthia left Ben before Deirdre was born. As far as Deirdre could remember, he never visited. The first time Deirdre heard from him was in 1978, when she was 14 and studying at a boarding school in England, and received a letter from Perth. “Dear Deirdre,” it began:

This is a strange way for us to meet after so many years.

Five years ago I retired to Western Australia. A little under three years ago, when I was about to return to the States, I was hit by a stroke which paralyzed my left side. When I was in hospital a second stroke knocked out my ability to write with my right hand.

By Christmas 1976 I had just about recovered when a third stroke paralyzed my right side; this time there was to be no nearly complete recovery. In July 1967 [sic] I went to the States expecting to recover largely. But there was no more major recovery; nor will there ever be. I cannot talk intelligibly except to those who know me. I cannot walk without crutches. I cannot write or direct my hands properly. I cannot cook.

Ben tried moving into a nursing home, but “after two days there I decided it was no place for me; I returned to my still unsold flat.” He rarely left the apartment, living off of Meals on Wheels deliveries and food donations from a neighbor. The previous August, in 1977, he suffered a fourth stroke. “I am pretty useless,” he wrote.

Sweetheart, There is a great deal to tell you but I want to be sure that what I have to tell you reaches you; I SHALL NOT EMPLOY ANY TRICKS TO REACH YOU. Everything will be quite above board, and nobody can call me a liar. There is no way of your ever seeing me unless you come here or to the States. If your mother doubts my abilities or intentions she should write to me. Have the Social Security cheques been reaching you? I have two things connected with the registration of your birth that you should have and I have for you some photographs, the manuscript of a second book, and the names and addresses of two relatives.

And I shall not die penniless.

Your loving father,

Ben

Deirdre put the letter in a drawer. Every few months, she would unfold it, read it, and put it away again. In January 1981, when she was 17, she decided to write Ben back. She was about to leave boarding school; it was time to meet her father.

Three months later, she got a response from Perth. “Oh God, I was just so excited,” she told me, smiling at the memory. “Can you just imagine? I was going to meet him, I was finally going to see my father! I just had so many plans.”

The letter was written on Ben’s typewriter and stationery, but it wasn’t from him. It was from his neighbor, writing to inform her that Ben had died of a stroke a month earlier. He died alone, without any knowledge that his daughter knew he existed. After a decade of waiting to hear from her, Deirdre’s letter to him had arrived two weeks too late.

In 1987, David Malcolm, the president of Guildford, called to invite Deirdre, who was then living in London, to come to Perth. Guildford had decided to publish Ben’s manuscript for The Other Half of Half-Safe, and Malcolm wanted Deirdre’s help editing it.

On the Guildford campus, the headmaster led Deirdre to a curious machine—it appeared to be half jeep and half boat. In hand-painted script on the port side was a name: Half-Safe.

The vehicle had been rusting away in a barn in Ohio, where Ben had abandoned it 20 years earlier after reaching Montreal. Guildford had located the jeep in 1984 and had it brought back to the school, where it would be kept on permanent display.

This was the first that Deirdre had heard about her father’s extraordinary journey, and she was dumbfounded. Her mother had never mentioned it. Now she was surrounded by artifacts of a family history she’d never known.

Ben’s friends around Perth took Deirdre in. They told her stories of Ben’s wild sense of humor and his wilder sense of adventure. And they gave her one of his battered briefcases. In it she found a collection of visas he had gathered on the Half-Safe voyage. “Just gorgeous things,” she told me, “the way they used to do them back in those days, handwritten and elegant.”

Beneath the visas was a carbon copy of a letter that she recognized immediately: It was the letter he’d sent when she was 14. There were several others, too, all addressed to Deirdre, that she had never received. Ben had been sending her letters her entire life, since she was a baby. They’d never gotten to her, apparently intercepted by her mother until she left home for boarding school.

At the bottom of the briefcase was a photographer’s contact sheet, a grid of tiny portraits. Deirdre was shocked: They were photographs of herself, at age 4, posed in a green velvet party dress, holding a beach ball, with a broken front tooth. They had been taken at the request of a man whom she was told was her uncle Fred. They had spent a single day together in London, visiting the zoo and Selfridges department store. Though she didn’t know it, it was the only day she would ever spend with her father. Ben had carried the pictures with him for the rest of his life.


It seemed as if the two halves of Ben’s adult life were, in a way, sad reflections of each other: a failed quest for the world’s affection followed by a failed quest for his daughter’s. Although Deirdre had read Ben’s books and seen the jeep, she had never actually looked through the archives, never seen the photographs and letters I had just spent a week poring over. It was a strange feeling to be sitting there, telling her the details of his forgotten life. After an hour, we said good-bye. I walked out in the pouring rain back to my hotel room and mulled over what I had learned in the past week.

Ben never made it into the canon of the 20th century’s great adventurers; it wasn’t where he belonged anyway. His quest was a send-up of the earnest heroes of his age—the peak baggers, the continent explorers, the gender-barrier busters. “By nature I am an ornery SOB in that I cannot bear to follow the mob.” he wrote. “So, when men go to sea in ships, I take a vehicle; when they tackle continents in automobiles, I prefer a boat.”

Ben was weird, and his quest was weird, which is perhaps why it didn’t resonate in the 1950s and exactly why it resonated so strongly with me. He was a deeply flawed, obsessive contrarian—and a postmodern hero ahead of his time. He took a well-worn category of adventure—a circumnavigation—and subverted it so completely that it seemed new again. In this he was perhaps a grandfather to those of us who were born too late to discover the Arctic but might be the first to try surfing it.

Of all the discoveries I made in Guildford, none baffled me more than a letter I found from 1968, sent to Ben by a woman in Perth named Gwen Hall. In it Hall related that her husband had been on a fishing trip with a friend along the north coast of Perth when they found “half a cuttlefish with some printing on it” on the beach. On the shell was written “1948 Ben Carlin Half-Safe.”

Ben, then living in Washington, D.C., wrote back almost immediately. He recalled drifting helplessly 300 miles off the coast of New York in the summer of 1948, during Half-Safe’s fourth failed attempt to cross the Atlantic. He admitted having no recollection of writing his name on a cuttlefish shell, but if it happened, he recalled, it would have happened at this time. That would mean the shell had traveled some 20,000 miles across two oceans, in defiance of their currents, over two decades, to land 200 miles from Ben’s birthplace of Northam. A totally implausible journey—but, then again, so was driving a jeep around the world.

Ben never shied away from his own mythmaking; he relished it. Despite his jokes and self-mockery, there was little doubt that he, too, wanted to matter the way the great explorers mattered—to make his mark on history. Digging through the archives, it was clear that he took this dream to his deathbed. He had scrupulously catalogued his letters, photographs, even receipts from his years aboard the jeep. It was as if he was stuffing his whole story into a bottle and casting it out to sea, hoping that it might reach someone someday who would care. 

Angel Killer

A true story of cannibalism, crime fighting, and insanity in New York City.

The Atavist Magazine, No. 18


Deborah Blum is a Pulitzer Prize–winning science writer and the author of five books, most recently The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York. A professor of journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, she has written for Scientific American, Slate, Tin House, The Wall Street Journal, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. She is currently working on a book about the history of poisonous food.

Editor: Charles Homans
Producers: Olivia Koski, Gray Beltran
Research and Production: Nadia Wilson
Fact Checker: Alex Carp
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Footage: Edited from Manhattan (1921), courtesy of the Internet Archive
Music: “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody”, written by Irving Berlin, performed by John Steel (recorded 1919)
Special Thanks: the New York Public Library



Published in September 2012. Design updated in 2021.

One

He listened for the angel. It was out there, he knew. He knew the brush of its wings, its warm whisper. He could almost see the air change, that seep of blood red as it floated away. A man could learn to like that color.

The ferry docked in Port Richmond on Staten Island, and the Gray Man stepped out into the bustle of fishing boats and factory workers. He walked through the waterfront business district, down the wide avenues framed by 19th-century mansions. It was all wrong here: The sun shone too brightly, the sky gleamed like clear blue glass. So he kept going. He wanted the shadows for his work.

He was hunting out of his usual habitat that afternoon of July 14, 1924, away from the Manhattan alleys and tenements he knew so well. He kept walking, looking for the right place. A mile went by, then a few more, until he found himself amid a clutter of working-class wood-frame homes, shaded against the sunlight by leafy plane trees.

Walking down the long stretch of Decker Avenue, the Gray Man hesitated in front of a  house where a little boy played on the front porch in view of his mother, who saw the stranger pause. Anna McDonnell was a policeman’s wife, wary of strangers. But the man in his shabby jacket looked harmless enough, smiling slightly. He tipped his hat and walked on.

There was a moment, as he walked away, when she felt a shock of nerves. His hands were squeezing open and shut as he walked, she would recount later, and he seemed to be exchanging bitter words with the summer air. She hesitated. But the man moved on, and she turned away and went into the house.

She didn’t see the stranger return. By now her 8-year-old son Francis had joined a ball game down the street, and the stranger walked over to the boys, calling out a question. Francis, always friendly, came over to answer. A neighbor later saw the little boy walking toward a nearby wooded lot, trailed by a grizzled older man—just a drifter, perhaps, looking for a place where he could spend the night.

Francis had not come home by suppertime, and his father, Arthur, still wearing his blue patrolman’s uniform, went out to look for him. But the boy couldn’t be found. McDonnell called his colleagues at the police station, alerting them to his missing child. By morning a panicked search had commenced, with police, neighbors, local businessmen, even Boy Scouts fanning out across Staten Island looking for the boy.

A trio of Boy Scouts, tramping through the wooded lot near where the boy had last been seen, made the discovery. Francis McDonnell’s body lay under a pile of branches and leaves. The child had been stripped below the waist, beaten, and finally strangled with his suspenders.

The hunt for Francis’s killer continued for weeks, then months. It was Anna McDonnell, meeting with reporters, who gave him his name. “Help us catch the monster who murdered our little boy,” she begged. “Help us find the gray man.”

But the Gray Man knew they wouldn’t find him. He would vanish as he always did, a smudge in the air, blown away on the wind.

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Two

“If I catch the killer,” Arthur McDonnell promised after joining the search, “I’ll not harm a hair on his head.” The detectives in charge of the case might have wondered whether an angry, grieving father was the best choice for the search team, but at the moment they had bigger problems. “It looks like a long job because of the absence of clues,” Captain Ernest Van Wagner, chief of the New York Police Department detective bureau on Staten Island, told The New York Times. “It is one of the most difficult cases in my experience of police work.”

The police did what they could. They followed up on letters and phone calls from local residents, searched cellars and wood sheds, interrogated the vagrants known to drift through town parks. Van Wagner sent his men to investigate the nearby city poor houses, hoping that the killer had seeped out from somewhere in those collections of human flotsam and jetsam.

Such a manhunt might have caught a more conventional killer, one with some connection to his victim, or to Staten Island. But the Gray Man was something different altogether. He had learned not to repeat himself, not to linger in one place. His methods, his motives, and the sheer horror of his crimes would reveal to New Yorkers how little they knew not just of murder but of the human mind.

In 1924, no standard term existed to describe those who killed with no apparent motive except perhaps the pleasure of the act. Newspaper journalists had been trying out the description thrill killer. Police and students of the developing field of criminology preferred a less sensational description, but one that also recognized the essential coldness of such murderers. The term that was beginning to take shape in criminal justice circles was stranger killers.

Stranger killers operated so far out of the normal scope of murderous behavior that they often eluded police detection for years; this was an era, after all, in which even major urban police departments like New York’s lacked tools as basic as a centralized fingerprint database. Well-known examples included Chicago’s H. H. Holmes, executed after murdering and dismembering more than 27 people during the 1890s, and Belle Gunness, who vanished in 1908 after killing some 40 people and reputedly feeding pieces of their remains to the hogs on her Indiana farm. For many, the official terminology still failed to capture the basic horror of their stories. These were killers known to the public as monsters out of mythology: Holmes, the Arch-Fiend; Gunness, the Female Bluebeard; Peter Kürten, the Vampire of Düsseldorf, who slaughtered more than 20 people in the 1920s with weapons ranging from scissors to axes and then drank their blood.

Multiple murderers were nothing new, of course. The legend of Bluebeard, the mythical multiple wife killer, was supposedly inspired by the deeds of a French nobleman, Gilles de Rais, who was hanged in 1440 after being convicted of luring more than 100 young boys to their deaths in the well-protected privacy of his estates. But the formal study of the criminal mind was new, dating back only to late–19th century Europe. (In the United States, the first professional periodical on the subject, The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, started publication in 1910.) The new criminologists warned that modern urban life—with its impersonal factories, impoverished ghettos, and isolated existences—created new opportunities for stranger killers. They urged more preventive measures, from increased police patrols to the treatment of society’s “moral degenerates.” And they worked to assemble a rough portrait of the killers who were never satisfied with just one victim.

The murderers were mostly white males—women like Gunness were a rare exception—and underachievers. They tended to do poorly in school and struggled to hold jobs. They often grew up in troubled homes, the children of alcoholics, of vicious mothers or abusive fathers. Mental illness coiled through their family histories, in the form of brothers, uncles, or parents who’d been locked away in lunatic asylums.

Some of them, like Holmes, seemed chilled to the core. Others blazed with hate, in the way of Carl Panzram. Gang-raped as a child, shuttled from home to institution, the Minnesota-born Panzram described his life plan in six words: “steal, lie, hate, burn, and kill.” He proudly admitted to 21 murders in the 1920s, a litany of children and adults who had annoyed him. As he awaited execution in 1930, Panzram mocked his own hangman: “Hurry it up, you Hoosier bastard. I could hang a dozen men while you’re fooling around.”

But Panzram, who simply killed when the mood took him, was unusual. Most stranger killers obsessed over their own special kind of victim—women or men, boys or girls—with a peculiar intensity. The Gray Man dreamed of his dead. And they were always, always children.

Three

On good days, he could even see the angels. He could see Christ sometimes, too, floating nearby in the kitchen, emerging from a closet, a shimmer of gold and light. He could hear the holy voices whispering in empty rooms, muttering their incantations of blood and children, children and blood.

The weather on the afternoon of February 11, 1927 had turned cold, so 4-year-old Billy Gaffney and his friend Bill Beaton, a year younger, brought their games inside. Both their families lived in an old eight-apartment tenement house at 99 15th Street in Brooklyn. The boys’ happy racket drew a neighbor boy out of his own apartment, hoping to join the fun. When he arrived, however, he found only an empty hallway.

When the building residents went looking for the boys, they found that a trapdoor to the roof, usually blocked shut, had been left open. Billy Beaton stood alone by the opening. He and his friend had been up on the roof, he told the searchers, when “the boogeyman” took Billy Gaffney away.

“All children talk about the boogeyman,” the detective in charge of the case shrugged. But eventually the child offered a description of this phantom. It was an old man with a gray mustache. A trolley car conductor on the line that stopped two blocks from the Gaffneys’ apartment remembered an older man and a little boy boarding his car that evening. The boy was sobbing, in spite of the man’s attempts to hush him. That was what the conductor remembered: the crying child. The man himself was nothing special. Just a mustached stranger faded to gray, he said, wrapped in an old coat.

The man had asked about ferries to Staten Island, the conductor said. But when he got off the car, he was “half dragging, half carrying” the little boy down Sackett Street, away from the pier. The police searched Staten Island anyway, and parts of New Jersey. They searched through the dump sites, apartments, factories, and churches of western Brooklyn, swept ash piles, dug up cellars, even dragged the nearby Gowanus Canal.

Three weeks after the disappearance, the body of a small boy turned up in a dump in Palmer, Massachusetts, stuffed in a wine cask. Billy’s father, Edmund, went with dread to the morgue to take a look. But it was another murdered child, not his own. And although no one but the Gray Man knew it at the time, there was a good reason that the searchers would never find a trace of the Gaffney child. His killer had decided that leaving a whole body behind was a waste of good flesh.

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Four

The girl was moving toward the house, blossoms spilling over her small hands. She was almost translucent in the summer light, and he thought for a moment that he could hear the angel—wait, wait—calling him back. But no. He was alone in the abandoned house.

It was a little more than 15 months after Billy Gaffney’s disappearance that Eddie Budd placed his one-line ad in the Situations Wanted section of the New York World. It ran in the May 27 Sunday edition and read: “Young man, 18, wishes position in country.” If the spring of 1928 had been sweltering on Manhattan’s sidewalks, it was oven-hot in the Budd family’s apartment in the Chelsea neighborhood, with two parents and five children crammed into its small rooms. Eddie was hoping for a summer job outside the city.

The next afternoon, a slightly built older man knocked on the Budds’ front door. He introduced himself as Frank Howard, the owner of a small Long Island farm. He was looking to replace a hired man who had recently quit, he said. He wanted someone young and strong. “I ain’t afraid of hard work,” Eddie told him. Howard agreed to hire the Budd boy and one of his friends.

Six days later, on a late Sunday morning, Howard returned bearing gifts, a pail of crumbly pot cheese and a basket of strawberries. He promised to pick Eddie and his friend up for work the next day, then handed them a couple dollars to go see a movie. Howard himself stayed for lunch, playing with the younger children. By early afternoon, the Budds were thoroughly charmed.

The family had a pretty 10-year-old daughter named Grace, thin and tenement pale, with big dark eyes and dark hair. Would she like a treat? Howard asked. He was going uptown to a niece’s birthday party. He’d be happy to take her to share in the fun. He promised to bring her back by nightfall—with her parents’ permission, of course.

Albert and Delia Budd would turn that moment over and over. The visitor’s gentle invitation, the mother’s hesitation, the father’s indulgent response: let her go, poor kid, she doesn’t see many good times. Their daughter walking down the sidewalk in her Sunday best with the elderly stranger in a dark suit, a felt hat on his silvery head.

In the initial furor over Grace Budd’s disappearance, the police assigned a posse of detectives to the case. Months, then years passed without progress, and in time almost all of them abandoned the search. The only one who did not was a detective named William F. King.

King was a tall, ruggedly built man with a fondness for tailored suits. He was middle-aged, and his dark hair was receding, so he kept it short and slicked back. He had first joined the NYPD in 1907 after working as a locomotive fireman. He’d left to fight in the Great War and returned afterward to serve in the NYPD’s Bureau of Missing Persons. At the time of Grace’s disappearance, he was a detective lieutenant in the bureau. It wasn’t a job that would make him rich—he was paid $3,200 a year—but it suited him. He had earned a reputation on the force for bullheaded determination. And he was determined not to give up on Grace.

The Budds had received dozens of letters claiming knowledge of Grace’s whereabouts. King went through them methodically, taking time out from his other assignments to chase down leads. Twice he thought he’d found the kidnapper only to see the case fall apart. One suspect was a nearby building superintendent who, it turned it out, had been set up by a vengeful estranged wife. The other was a known confidence man who liked to prey on young girls and had recently used the last name Howard for his schemes; King tracked him down in Florida, only to find that the man had an airtight alibi.

After several years and more than 40,000 miles of wild goose chases, King returned to the theory that his suspect was still in town. If that were true, maybe the answer was to bait him into the open. He persuaded some of the city’s newspaper columnists to occasionally drop hints, short items that reminded readers of the case. Even columnist Walter Winchell, of William Randolph Hearst’s powerful New York Daily Mirror, indulged King’s obsession from time to time.

“I checked on the Grace Budd mystery,” Winchell wrote in his November 2, 1934 column, “And it is safe to tell you that the Dep’t. of Missing Persons will break the case, or they expect to, in four weeks. They are holding a ‘cokie’”—a cocaine addict—“now at Randall’s Island, who is said to know most about the crime. Grace is supposed to have been done away with in lime, but another legend is that her skeleton is buried in a local spot. More anon.”

Winchell had made the entire story up, not that he ever admitted it. After all, in the weeks that followed, he would get credit for having exceptional police sources—and possibly clairvoyant talents. Because just nine days later, Grace Budd’s mother received a letter in the mail.

Five

The letter began cryptically with the story of a traveler—an alleged friend of the letter’s author—who had sailed from San Francisco to Hong Kong in 1894 as a deckhand aboard a steamer. Once ashore, the sailor had gotten drunk and returned late to the harbor to find his ship gone and himself stranded in Hong Kong, a city then in the depths of a famine. Conditions were so dire, the author wrote, that people had taken to eating the meat of young children—and the stranded traveler “staid there so long he acquired a taste for human flesh.”

Upon his return to New York, the letter continued, the sailor kidnapped two boys—a 7-year-old and an 11-year-old—and, after keeping them tied up in his closet for a time, killed and ate them. “He told me so often how good Human flesh was,” the writer added, and “I made up my mind to taste it.”

On Sunday June the 3, 1928, I called on you at 406 W 15 St. Brought you pot cheese—strawberries. We had lunch. Grace sat in my lap and kissed me. I made up my mind to eat her. On the pretense of taking her to a party. You said Yes she could go.

I took her to an empty house in Westchester I had already picked out. When we got there, I told her to remain outside. She picked wildflowers. I went upstairs and stripped all my clothes off. I knew if I did not I would get her blood on them. When all was ready I went to the window and Called her. Then I hid in a closet until she was in the room.

She’d struggled with him, the killer wrote; she’d fought him until he choked her to death. And then, he carefully explained to her mother, he’d butchered the body. He’d taken the best pieces away with him, left the bits and bones behind. “How sweet and tender” she was, he wrote. It had taken him nine days to eat her.

Delia Budd couldn’t read well, and she handed the letter to Eddie. As he read it, the color washed out of his face. He ran for the police station to find Detective King.

King had grown accustomed to crackpot letters in the six years since Grace had disappeared, but this one had the feel of actual knowledge. King had one sample of the kidnapper’s handwriting, a photostat of a note that “Frank Howard” had sent to the Budds regarding the job for Eddie. He pulled it out of the file. The handwriting was identical.

The sender had left the letter unsigned, but he had tucked it into an envelope with a return address imprinted in the corner. Though it was half scratched out with a pen, King could still discern a hexagonal design and the initials NYPCBA: the New York Private Chauffeur’s Benevolent Association.

At the association headquarters, the staff to a man denied any knowledge of the letter. The detective demanded a meeting of everyone who worked in the building, anyone who might have taken a few pieces of stationary. Finally, a janitor reluctantly confessed to taking some envelopes for his personal use. He’d kept them on the wall shelf above his bed in the old rooming house where he stayed.

King went to the rooming house, a tidy brownstone on East 52nd Street. The janitor’s former room was empty, the landlady said; the tenant who had taken it after the janitor moved out had packed up and gone just a few days earlier without leaving a forwarding address. But he was waiting for a check to arrive by mail, she went on, and she expected him to return at some point to collect it. King had been tracking his quarry for six years already; he was prepared to wait as long as it took for him to return.

In fact, it was barely four weeks later that the landlady called King to say her former boarder had indeed come for the check. King grabbed a precinct squad car and hurtled across town. He found his man in the rooming-house parlor. King hesitated at the door. Surely this frail, grandfatherly man in his faded suit wasn’t the killer he’d been chasing all these years.

The detective stepped forward and the visitor stood up. The Gray Man put down his teacup and pulled a straight razor from his pocket.

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Albert Fish (Photo: Getty)

Six

His given name was Hamilton Howard Fish, and he was born in Washington, D.C., on May 19, 1870. He liked to claim that he was related to another Hamilton Fish, the one who had been Secretary of State when he was born. But as a child, he’d started insisting on being called Albert, he said, because other children found the name Hamilton hilarious; he was sick of being called “Ham and Eggs” Fish.

His father, Randall Fish, was a former riverboat captain. At age 75, he’d already had three children by the time Albert was born. The elder Fish died five years later, leaving his widow, Ellen, struggling to support herself and their four children. And young Albert was a problem. He became a bed wetter; he occasionally ran away. At wit’s end, she placed him in Saint John’s Orphanage, a children’s home run by the Episcopal Church in the city’s Foggy Bottom neighborhood. “I was there ’til I was nearly nine,” Fish said once in a jailhouse interview. “And there’s where I got started wrong.”

The orphanage ran by the spare-the-rod-spoil-the-child rule. “We were unmercifully whipped,” Fish recalled. One teacher liked to add public humiliation to the corporal punishment, forcing the children to strip bare and stand before the class. With repetition, Fish found that he enjoyed the experience. The sting of the rod against his skin stimulated him. Watching the other children suffer aroused him sexually. There were days, looking back, when he blamed the orphanage for all his troubles, claiming it had “ruined his mind.” Or perhaps he had been somehow born wrong. “I always had a desire to inflict pain on others,” he explained to a psychiatrist who met with him after his arrest, “and to have others inflict pain on me.”

Instability did run in his family. A half-brother died in a lunatic asylum. So did an uncle, institutionalized for religious delusions. One of his younger brothers was diagnosed as feeble-minded, a 19-century term for people considered mentally deficient. Another brother was an alcoholic; a sister had a “mental affliction.” His mother suffered from hallucinations.

Despite her peculiarities, by the time Fish was nine, his mother had found a steady job and retrieved him from the orphanage. By then, however, he was a changed boy. He’d become a sexual voyeur and began spending his spare time visiting public baths so that he could watch other children undress. By his late teens, he’d started stalking children. He learned how to lure his victims with pocket change and candy. He learned how to take advantage of old buildings and dark alleys. “It never came out,” he told a psychiatrist. “Children don’t seem to tell.”

After he finished high school, Fish drifted through odd jobs. He traveled the country and pieced together a living, all the while hunting, sexually assaulting, and—when he was in the mood—killing children. By age 24, he’d settled in New York, where he found enough work to get by, mostly as a housepainter and handyman. He rented an apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and moved his mother north from Washington to stay with him.

He married in 1898, and his time with his wife, Anna, marked the beginning of the most stable period of his life. They had six children together, and his sons and daughters swore that until 1917, the year their mother ran away with another man, their lives seemed normal enough. After Anna left, their father tried to hold the family together. He’d always struggled to hold onto jobs, but now he took whatever work came his way.

He also began to disappear more often into the city’s shadows. He quit trying to hide his obsessions. Once, he rolled himself in a carpet, insisting that John the Apostle had ordered him to do so. Other evenings he’d stand before his children, whipping himself with a board studded with nails, dancing with delight as the blood ran down his legs.

And there was that memorable night in 1922. They’d rented a bungalow, near the small town of Greenburgh in rural Westchester County, where Fish had been hired to paint the exterior of a church. He worked hard during the day, his sons helping him with the job. But at night, his children watched him run naked through the fields around the house, raising his fists and screaming, “I am Christ!” He was crazy, they thought, and getting crazier.

Still, they were as shocked as everyone else when, after King had subdued him in the boardinghouse parlor, Fish led police back to that same small town, to an isolated little house called Wisteria Cottage. Night had fallen by the time they arrived. The house sat amid a tangle of weeds and bare trees, illuminated by the glare of police lights. Fish walked straight to a crumbling stone wall that curved along the hillside behind the cottage. It took only minutes of digging to uncover Grace’s small, dirt-encrusted skull.

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Wisteria Cottage. (Photo: Getty)

Later, police would find a startling collection of bone fragments in the basement of the house, leading newspapers to speculate that the bodies of dozens of children were buried there. Experts working with the police identified them as animal bones, but the question of how many children Fish had killed continued to bedevil the authorities. He confessed to stalking, torturing, and assaulting 400 children while traveling the country. But although he was a suspect in a long list of child killings—including nearly ten in the New York area alone—he turned silent and tearful when questioned about them. Hadn’t he done plenty already by telling them the story of Grace Budd? “You know as well as I,” Fish wrote from his cell in a letter to King, “that if I had not written that letter to Mrs. Budd I would not be in Jail. Had I not lead you to the spot no bones would have been found and I could only be tried for kidnapping. It was a fate to me for my wrongs.”

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Seven

The words came to him more clearly now. He could hear the angel murmuring its promises if he only obeyed. Be happy, the voice told him. Happy is he that taketh thy little ones and dasheth their heads against the stones.

In mid-February 1935, Fredric Wertham, 39, a thin, bespectacled, German-born psychiatrist, sat down to talk with the Gray Man. Wertham had been hired by Albert Fish’s defense attorney, who planned to fight for his notorious client’s life with an insanity defense.

At the time, psychiatrists like Wertham who worked with the mentally ill, especially within the legal system, were still known as alienists—from the French word aliéné, “insane.” The etymology traced back further, to the Latin of the middle ages, alienare, “to deprive of reason.” The term held another meaning, however, beneath its scholarly surface. There was a sense that alienists studied aliens, denizens of some separate community of craziness. No person, of course, was completely free of shadows, as Sigmund Freud had observed in his influential 1901 treatise on psychoanalysis, The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. But few reached a place where they were so alienated from the rest of society—by rage, madness, circumstance—that they slid into murder, much less took the path of the stranger killer.

Wertham was just starting to make a name for himself as an expert in the science of murderous behavior. Born Fredric Wertheimer in Nuremberg in 1895, he’d studied medicine in Britain and his native Germany before earning a medical degree in 1921. The following year, he moved to the United States, working first at a Massachusetts mental hospital and then in the psychiatric clinic at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. In 1927, he became an American citizen and shortened his name to Wertham.

He moved to New York City five years later to become senior psychiatrist in the Department of Hospitals, where he organized and directed a clinic that screened convicted felons for the city courts. It was that expertise that attracted Fish’s defense attorney, James Dempsey. A former prosecutor with a hard-charging reputation, Dempsey had been appointed by the court to represent the killer. He was the kind of man who took such appointments seriously, and he had put considerable thought into choosing his expert witness.

Wertham was known for his sympathy for the disadvantaged. While at Johns Hopkins, he had done pro bono work for impoverished African-American clients represented by the crusading lawyer Clarence Darrow. Now Dempsey was asking him to take on an unprecedented challenge: He was asking Wertham if he could testify in favor of keeping a now legendary child-murdering cannibal alive.

He went to meet Fish at the Westchester County jail in Eastview, where Fish had been moved in preparation for his trial. By now, the killer was known to the press not only as the Gray Man but as the Brooklyn Vampire, the Werewolf of Wisteria, and—thanks to a rumor that he did his best work by moonlight—the Moon Maniac. Although Wertham should have known better from his years studying criminals, he was somehow expecting a monster, a shimmer of visible evil.

Instead, the prisoner who was led in to meet him “looked like a meek and innocuous little old man,” Wertham wrote in his 1948 book The Show of Violence. “Gentle and benevolent, friendly and polite. If you wanted someone to entrust your children to, he would be the one you would choose.”

This harmless persona came naturally to Fish. He knew how to put it on for strangers. And he wasn’t all that impressed with his earnest interlocutor. “Some doctor came and asked me 1,000,000 questions,” he wrote in a letter to his daughter after his first meeting with Wertham. But Wertham kept coming back, again and again, spending some 12 hours in increasingly intimate conversations with the prisoner. And over the hours, Fish started to talk. “I am not insane,” he told Wertham. “I am just queer. I don’t understand it myself. It is up to you to find out what is wrong with me.”

He talked about the children he’d assaulted in his endless pursuit of pain. Sometimes the children didn’t satisfy him, so he’d find women willing to use a whip. When that wasn’t enough, he lashed himself. When that wasn’t enough, he’d eat his own feces, drink his urine. Sometimes that wasn’t enough either. So he’d burn himself by lighting alcohol-soaked cotton balls on fire in his rectum. And when even that wasn’t enough, he’d drive needles into his body, mostly deep into his groin.

He’d lost count of the needles, too—perhaps there were five still embedded in his flesh, he said. His disbelieving doctor ordered X-rays. Twenty-seven needles showed up on the first scan, two more on a second. They were large, small, some in fragments, some still perfectly intact. Sometimes the pain made him scream. Always the children screamed. Sometimes he wanted that; sometimes he gagged them.

“There was no known perversion that he did not practice and practice frequently,” Wertham later wrote. But as the alienist came to realize, that deeply deviant history—or perhaps Fish’s desire to atone for it—had been contorted into a justification for murder. Fish never forgot the brutal lessons of his old Episcopal orphanage: that all sinners must seek redemption. “I had sort of an idea through Abraham offering his son Isaac as a sacrifice,” Fish explained. “It always seemed to me that I had to offer a child for sacrifice, to purge myself of iniquities, sins, and abominations in the sight of God.”

He told Wertham that he always listened to the angels who came to visit him. They brought him instructions from God. He recited some of them to the alienist, their demands that he beat children with whips or batter them with stones. In the case of Grace, he said, he knew she was a daughter of Babylon and “that I should sacrifice her in order to prevent her further outrage.”

In a cruel way, Grace’s own youthful guilelessness had helped sentence her to death. As Fish disembarked with her from the train in Westchester County, he forgot on his seat a bundle he had carried with him, his “implements of hell,” as he described them to Wertham: a knife, a saw, and a butcher’s cleaver concealed in a cloth. It was Grace who remembered it as she was about to jump from the train. “You have forgotten your package!” she exclaimed, and ran back to the seat to retrieve it. If she hadn’t done so, Fish told Wertham, “the child would now be in her home and I would not be where I am.”

Fish’s account flickered between an odd sense of nobility—his conviction that he’d saved the girl from falling into inevitable sins—and a grisly fixation on the details of her death. He dwelled on the way he’d suffocated and dismembered Grace in the empty house, wrapped and packed the parts of the body he wanted to eat, and buried the rest. Then he’d cooked her piece by piece in the kitchen of his Manhattan apartment, experimenting with onions and bacon, herbs and spices. He sounded, Wertham wrote, “like a housewife describing her favorite methods of cooking.”

The story shifted like a blown flame. Fish spoke of his crime as if it were variously a prayer, an ecstatic thrill, an exceptional dinner. The alienist across the table kept taking notes. “I said to myself,” he later recalled, “However you define the medical and legal borders of sanity, this certainly is beyond that border.”

Fish was by turns open and sly, cooperative and cagey. He would later admit to the murder of Frances McDonnell without hesitation. The story of Billy Gaffney he told only in a letter he sent to his defense attorney, written with the same precision as the Budd letter. Fish explained that he’d taken the sobbing child to a mostly deserted street near a city dump, to an empty house he’d discovered while working on a painting crew:

I took the G boy there. Stripped him naked and tied his hands and feet and gagged him with a piece of dirty rag I picked out of the dump. Then I burned his clothes. Threw his shoes in the dump. Then I walked back and took trolley to 59 St. at 2 A.M. and walked from there home.

Next day about 2 P.M., I took tools, a good heavy cat-of-nine tails. Home made. Short handle. Cut one of my belts in half, slit these half in six strips about 8 in. long. I whipped his bare behind till the blood ran from his legs. I cut off his ears—nose—slit his mouth from ear to ear. Gouged out his eyes. He was dead then. I stuck the knife in his belly and held my mouth to his body and drank his blood. I picked up four old potato sacks and gathered a pile of stones. Then I cut him up.

Detective King and his colleagues had already collected evidence that Fish’s interest in cannibalism long predated the murder of Grace Budd. The old man had treasured a collection of Edgar Allen Poe’s works that included The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, Poe’s 1838 novel of a sea voyage gone wrong. The novel’s pages howled with bitter storms on ruthless seas, ships carrying rotting corpses, and sailors surviving by cannibalism. Fish had bookmarked it with a packet of needles.

He’d also carried in his pocket newspaper clippings about the German stranger killer Fritz Haarmann, known as the Vampire of Hanover. Between 1920 and 1924, Haarmann had killed and butchered between 27 and 50 young men and boys, slicing them up, eating his favorite parts and selling the rest on the black market, passed off as less ghoulish varieties of meat. Before he was beheaded in 1925, he’d written a public confession explaining how much he had enjoyed all of it.

Fish’s letter about Billy Gaffney rang with a similar glee. He explained in loving detail how he’d cut the little boy into pieces, scattering them in roadside pools of water and muck, keeping the parts he wanted to cook. “I never ate any roast turkey that tasted half as good,” he wrote. “I ate every bit of the meat in about four days.”

In the eight years since her son had disappeared, Elizabeth Gaffney had never given up hope. She set a place for him at the table every Christmas. “I know in my heart and soul that Billy will come back to me,” she confided to reporters. After Fish wrote the letter, the police took her to meet the confessed killer. But for all the bravado in his writing, Fish wouldn’t look at her. He wouldn’t speak to her. He wept and paced and refused to answer her questions. After two hours, she left shaking her head. She would never believe that her son had died that way anyway.

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Eight

On the day before his murder trial, Fish was served a bowl of chicken soup for lunch. Finding several bones in his serving, he sharpened one to a razor-sharp point on the concrete floor of his cell and began slicing himself across the chest and abdomen. The guards rushed to take the improvised implements away, and the bandages didn’t show under his familiar blue shirt and gray suit when he arrived at the Westchester County courthouse on the morning of March 11, 1935 for the first day of proceedings.

The imposing stone building in White Plains was usually the image of judicial dignity; on the opening day of Fish’s trial, it was a carnival. The entrances were mobbed with spectators hoping to see the Gray Man, the werewolf, their local vampire. They jostled for space with the reporters and photographers. More than 250 people jammed into the second-floor courtroom hoping to see the prisoner in the dock. Justice Frederick Close ordered a dozen sheriff’s deputies to guard the doors. He wanted order, he said, and he would only allow as many people into the courtroom as could sit on the benches.

To no one’s surprise, the Westchester County District Attorney’s Office was seeking the death penalty for Albert Fish. Dempsey had been just as clear about his intentions to counter with an insanity plea. It was an approach that had gained in popularity in the previous decades—aided by the rise of alienists such as Wertham who specialized in criminal behavior—but it remained a legal gamble.

The U.S. legal standards for criminal insanity traced back to earlier British law, which itself dated back to the 13th century, when all-powerful kings occasionally pardoned murderers on the basis of madness. The practice was formalized in 1843, when the House of Lords established a legal standard known as the M’Naghten Rule. The rule was named after a Scottish wood worker, Daniel M’Naghten, who killed the secretary of Prime Minster Robert Peel during a failed attempt to murder the minister himself.

M’Naghten, who had complained loudly of persecution by imaginary spies, was acquitted in an insanity verdict. The rule based on his name was inspired by a public outcry against such perceived leniency. It added some legal clarity to the matter, spelling out a basic standard of criminal lunacy: “At the time of the committing of the act, the party accused was laboring under such a defect of reason, from disease of the mind, as to not know the nature and quality of the act he was doing or if he did know it, that he did not know he was doing what was wrong.” And it made clear that the burden of proving insanity rested with the defense.

Whether Albert Fish had killed while in the kind of mental fugue that met this legal standard was the central question of his murder trial. There was, after all, no question that he’d kidnapped, murdered and eaten Grace Budd—he’d signed six confessions to that effect while in jail. But these acts in and of themselves didn’t necessarily reach the standard of the M’Naghten rule. For that, Dempsey had to show that Fish had no sense of the moral wrongness of his actions at the time.

In Fish’s confessions and correspondence, prosecutors thought they’d found evidence to counter that. In his letter to King, for instance, Fish had talked about his “wrongs” catching up with him, an obvious indication that he knew the moral weight of his deeds. The defense in turn argued that the way Fish defined “wrong” was in itself insane. “His test,” Wertham would explain later, “was that if it had been wrong he would have been stopped, as Abraham was stopped, by an angel.”

For Wertham, proving Fish legally insane mattered for reasons reaching far beyond the courtroom in White Plains. Having encountered the poor and otherwise marginalized often in his work, the profile of the typical victims of killers like Fish and Haarmann was not lost on him: They were usually culled from the most unlucky and vulnerable corners of society—the urban poor, minorities, and orphans who were least likely to be missed. If behavior of the sort that Fish had exhibited in the years before his capture could be established as grounds for commitment and treatment, then alienists like Wertham could do real good—they could study and learn how to treat these killers, and thus learn how to protect society from its most deeply troubled members.

Where Wertham saw an opportunity, however, Westchester County Chief Assistant District Attorney Elbert T. Gallagher saw only weakness. To Gallagher, Fish was simply a stranger killer who needed to be stopped, a murderer who would only set down his knives when he was dead. Fish’s attorney might call him insane, but Gallagher wasn’t fooled. He knew evil when it stood in front of him. And he meant to see to it that Fish went not to the asylum, but to the electric chair.

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Albert Fish at the courthouse. (Photo: Getty)

Nine

It was the Gray Man whom Gallagher evoked as he opened the proceedings for the prosecution—the false grandfather who calculated his killings, who knew when to step out of the light and into the sheltering shadows. There was too much cunning in these crimes, Gallagher said, for some hapless lunatic to have carried them out. The killer had used a fake name and invented a story to trick Grace Budd’s parents. He had found an empty house, a safely isolated place where he could take the child. “Don’t put any stock, gentlemen, in this divine-command business,” Gallagher told the jury.

Gallagher had brought a cardboard carton with him to the courthouse. It contained Grace’s splintered bones, and he shook it—the dry rattling reminder of a dead child—to drive home his argument. The nonsense about angels and Christ and the echoing voices in an empty room: That was “merely a smokescreen,” a cover-up, he told the jury. There was no madness here. There was only cold and deliberate method.

To underscore this point, Gallagher paraded four alienists through the witness stand to testify that the accused, while perhaps a little strange, knew perfectly well what he was doing. Foremost among them was Menas Gregory, who, given his past history with this particular killer, could hardly have been expected to say otherwise.

Gregory was the former director of the psychiatric ward at New York’s venerable Bellevue Hospital. The old brick building overflowed with inmates, from the criminal to the suicidal to the merely peculiar. Amid the throng, nobody, Gregory included, had taken any particular notice of one Albert Fish, who was admitted into the ward, observed, and released—diagnosed as abnormal but harmless, troubled but sane.

Fish went to Bellevue on December 15, 1930—less than two years after the murder of Grace Budd. It was a court-ordered evaluation, requested by his daughter, who’d reported that he was showing signs of mental disturbance. Gregory oversaw the evaluation at Bellevue, where Fish stayed under observation for a month. He reportedly startled the nurses by climbing into the bathtub to pray. But, as Gregory admitted during the trial, he and his staff did not spend much time exploring the old man’s religious compulsions. The alienists decided he was definitely off—“psychopathic personality; sexual type”—but sane and safe to set free.

In the summer of 1931, Fish was back in a psychiatric unit, this time at Kings County Hospital, following an arrest. During the previous years—as the police would later realize to their chagrin—he’d been picked up several times on minor grifting charges ranging from embezzlement to theft. The latest arrest followed a complaint about sending obscene letters. When the police arrived at the hotel where Fish then worked for room and board, they found a homemade cat-o’-nine-tails in his room. As the arresting officer later explained, there was just something about the man—he looked so “very, very weird” at the moment of discovery.

The police sent Fish to the hospital, where he stayed for two apparently uneventful weeks. Not once was he asked about the cat-o’-nine tails, though he’d admitted to police that he liked to whip himself with it. None of that appeared in the hospital report. He was “quiet,” the clinic noted: a “cooperative, oriented” old man who, his caretakers concluded a second time, posed no danger to anyone. Not only had Fish—at a time when he’d already proved himself a cannibal killer—been declared a low-risk patient, but he was also now a suspect in at least four child killings that had occurred after his release from the hospitals.

From his seat in the witness stand, Gregory was rigidly defensive about Bellevue’s handling of Fish. His determination to admit no mistake on behalf of himself or his hospital rang through his testimony, sometimes ludicrously. “Do you call a man who drinks urine and eats human excretion sane or insane?” Dempsey asked him during his cross-examination.

“Well, we don’t call them mentally sick,” Gregory replied.

“That man is perfectly all right?”

“Not perfectly all right. But he is socially perfectly all right.”

Dempsey marveled at how little evidence the Bellevue reports contained of time spent with the patient or analysis of him and demanded to know how this could qualify as enough to determine Fish’s sanity. “Since he is not an insane person, the record is not voluminous,” Gregory replied.

“But is there anything about his family background?” snapped the lawyer.

“I can’t find anything here,” Gregory replied, leafing through the papers.

“When do you make a careful inquiry?” Dempsey inquired.

Only when he saw signs of insanity, Gregory replied. Bellevue had to evaluate some 50 patients a day. Its harried staff didn’t have time for careful evaluation of those, like Albert Fish, who showed only average mental stress. “The city does not provide sufficient help to make a complete examination in every case,” he said.

It was a theme picked up by the other state witnesses. One prosecution expert, Dr. Charles Lambert, assured the jury that although Fish had undoubtedly assaulted hundreds of children, and although he definitely had “a psychopathic personality,” he was not actually suffering from any psychosis.

“Doctor,” Dempsey said, “assume that this man not only killed this girl but took her flesh to eat it. Will you state that that man could for nine days eat that flesh and still not have a psychosis and not have any mental diseases?”

“There is no accounting for taste,” Lambert said.

Ten

As the trial entered its second week, the jury gave nicknames to the two attorneys battling over Fish’s fate. They called Gallagher “Bones,” for his habit of shaking that ghastly cardboard carton. They nicknamed Dempsey “I-Object,” because of his perpetual outrage, his jack-in-the-box propensity to leap up to challenge the psychiatric testimony.

But protest alone wasn’t enough to prevail. Dempsey’s witnesses had to be better. They had to compel understanding and, perhaps, even forgiveness for a man who had done so many unforgivable things.

Wertham took the stand first. He did not try to paint a pretty picture of Fish. “This man has roamed around in basements and cellars for 50 years,” he said. “There were so many innumerable instances that I can’t begin to give you how many there are. But I believe to the best of my knowledge that he has raped 100 children. At least.”

And of course there were the murders. The police were still trying to tally the victims. But it seemed, Wertham said, that in his mind his longtime obsession with pain had become entwined with religion. He saw angels, heard saints like John the Baptist giving him orders, listened as their voices translated the teachings of the Bible into blood. He heard instructions to beat and torture: “Blessed is the man who correcteth his son.” And when he drank Grace Budd’s blood and ate her flesh, Wertham said, to him it was something sacred, “associated with the idea of Holy Communion.”

Wertham’s analysis was echoed by the other two alienists called by Dempsey, both well-respected practitioners: Dr. Smith Ely Jelliffe, former president of the New York Psychiatric Association, and Dr. Henry A. Riley, a professor of neurology at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. All three had been struck by the force and power of Fish’s religious delusions. His interactions with his angels were so influential, Jelliffe testified, that the “whole killing of the Budd girl took on the character of a religious ritual.” He talked to a Christ he thought he could see dripping with blood, Riley said. And Christ told him that he needed to protect the girl from “becoming a harlot.” Her death, Riley said, was essentially a virgin sacrifice.

Fish had no rules or sense of right and wrong grounded in anything other than craziness, the alienists argued. He’d been an unbalanced child, deformed sexually by his brutal orphanage experiences. He had a moral compass, but one that rested on hallucinations of vengeful angels, Biblical teachings warped beyond recognition. However that compass spun, it moved in a way that was completely detached from the mores of society—and reality. To a man, all three psychiatrists agreed that here was a deviant, terrible killer—and a man who met every criterion of legal insanity.

“Every maniac, every insane person plans and connives,” Dempsey told the jury. “Every animal, gentlemen, plans and connives. … The fact that a man can connive and plan an outrageous, dastardly, fiendish crime like this is no indication of the fact that a man is in his right mind.” The legal standard of sanity demanded a clear awareness of right and wrong; a man waiting on the dispensation of vengeful angels had no hope of such clarity. “Do you believe before God that Albert Fish was sane on June 3, 1928? Do you believe on that day he knew the distinction between right and wrong? Unless you believe that, gentlemen, if you later find him guilty, it will be on mere breath, not upon evidence.”

By this point in the trial, Fish—whom Dempsey had decided to keep off the stand—looked less like a vampire than like the victim of one. Huddled in his baggy suit, he had grown paler and more transparent by the day. He looked, one journalist wrote, like “a corpse insecurely propped in a chair.” But by the end of Dempsey’s closing arguments, on the morning of March 22, he was in tears.

Gallagher was second to make his closing argument before the jury, and he began by mocking Dempsey’s portrait of Fish, helpless in the grip of his madness. Instead, he called on the jury to “remember the defenseless little innocent Grace Budd,” dying at the hands of a villain of supernatural proportions in a strange and lonely place, calling for her mother.

The criticisms of Bellevue were just a distraction, Gallagher insisted, the tales of divine commandments only more of the same. Dempsey was right to bring up the idea of planning and conniving—because that was just what Fish had done in the kidnapping and murder of this child. From his use of a fake name to his choice of isolated Wisteria Cottage, he had plotted this crime. Gallagher was willing to concede that the old man had sexual abnormalities, but none of them rose to the level of guilt-absolving insanity.

Grace had died in a premeditated crime, a kidnap and murder in the interests of sexual gratification. And the man who planned it did not deserve to live out his days in an asylum. “Do the right thing,” Gallagher concluded, calling on the jury to send Fish where he belonged: the electric chair at Sing Sing Prison.

Eleven

Even the jaded crime reporters at the trial found themselves wrestling with the question of what exactly that right thing was in Fish’s case. They took a vote and found themselves agreed that Fish was legally insane. That afternoon, after the closing arguments, the judge sent the alternate juror home; he, too, told the reporters that he thought Fish was insane.

The 12 remaining men were sent to deliberate at 3 p.m. on Friday, March 22. They broke briefly for dinner at a nearby hotel and then returned to the jury room. At 8:27 p.m. they entered the courtroom, unsmiling, to read the verdict. Fish was guilty of the charges of kidnapping and first-degree murder. In subsequent interviews, the jurors would admit that, like the reporters, they believed Fish to be off-the-charts crazy. But they couldn’t bring themselves to send this kind of killer to a merciful end in an asylum.

Fish sat quietly in his chair as reporters stampeded out of the room in search of telephones. He’d always been good at projecting the image of his choice. His response to the verdict, after the initial jolt, was pallid indifference. He wasn’t afraid of pain, he said; this would be a new way of experiencing it. “I have no particular desire to live,” he had told Wertham.

But if Fish had publicly lost interest in the fight, his champions had not. The proceedings, the shoddy expert testimony, had offended Dempsey’s sense of human decency. He appealed the conviction to New York governor Herbert Lehman, and when he went to meet with him in Albany he brought with him the equally outraged Wertham. In their judgment, Dempsey argued to Lehman, the jury had acted out of fear, not dispassionate justice. It was similar to the superstitious horror of the infamous Salem witch trials, he said. Fish’s conviction “proves merely that we still burn witches in America.”

Wertham, who was accustomed to dealing with the lower reaches of government—public-health bureaucrats, policemen, prison guards—had never before spoken to so lofty an official as Lehman. Going into the meeting, he had in his mind the image of the emperors and kings of old, with whose prerogative the idea of acquitting the insane had originated—the kind of ruler who “had to sit in his capacity as a human being, using his personal judgment to listen and decide,” he later wrote.

“It is not as an expert that I am appealing to you,” he told Lehman, according to his account in The Show of Violence, “because if you had all the facts assembled, including the other murders committed by this defendant, and their circumstances, you would not need an expert. I am not appealing to you for clemency. I am appealing to you as a statesman. In this case all the hairsplitting about legal definitions was just a covering up of a social default. I am asking you to commute the death sentence to lifelong detention in an institution for the criminal insane—and to make this case an example and a starting point for a real scrutiny not of individuals nor individual institutions, but of the whole haphazard and bureaucratic chaos of the psychiatric prevention of violent crimes.”

As he spoke, Wertham glanced at the governor’s counsel, who was sitting beside Lehman; the man nodded, smiling, even, at the alienist’s argument. But Lehman himself sat expressionless. He had no interest in commuting the death sentence of a sexually deviant, cannibalistic child killer. As Wertham recalled the meeting, it was easy enough to tell that they’d lost. The governor looked down at his desk, at the papers outlining Fish’s murderous history. And throughout the meeting, Lehman’s face remained as cold and blank as a stone wall.

The Gray Man went to the Sing Sing electric chair on January 16, 1936. There were those who thought he’d finally fulfilled his destiny, faded completely away into the dust. He walked quietly to the platform where the black chair stood and sat patiently in the apparatus as the executioner buckled the straps and fitted the helmet over his head. “Do you have any last words?” the executioner asked. “I don’t even know why I’m here,” Fish replied softly.

But Fish had also written Dempsey one last letter, a statement that he wanted read as a final farewell. The attorney called the reporters gathered at the prison to describe it. “I will never show it to anyone,” he said. “It was the most filthy string of obscenities that I ever read.” He locked them away, all those pages bubbling with the rage that the killer had kept carefully hidden, even to the end.

Dempsey never did share the letter. But there were days when he could still hear its words, the last echo of a madman’s voice. It drifted like smoke in the air, then blew away.

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Epilogue

Two years after Fish’s execution, the famed psychoanalyst Gregory Zilboorg—therapist to the writer Lillian Hellman, the composer George Gershwin, and the playwright Moss Hart, among others—brought up the killer’s trial in a talk before the New York Neurological Society. By then, the trial and the ethical questions that shadowed it had prompted some serious soul-searching in the psychiatric community. In his speech, titled “Misconceptions of Legal Insanity,” Zilboorg noted the shoddy behavior of many of his colleagues who had testified for the prosecution in the trial. The problem, he argued, was that the psychiatrists had allowed society’s instinct to execute its worst killers cloud their professional judgment of mental illness.

“The issue,” Zilboorg went on, “is fundamentally not between the basic intent of the law and psychiatry, but between a revengeful, suspicious and instinctive hatred of the criminal … and that scientific humility which knows that man is human.” For true justice to be done, he insisted, the two sides needed to be brought to a more common understanding of justice in the case of the truly mentally ill.

The Fish case still echoes through debates over how to navigate the borderland between scientific knowledge and criminal justice. In 2005, forensic psychologist Katherine Ramsland argued in her history of serial killers, The Human Predator, that Fish had been put to death “despite his obvious insanity.” But as Ramsland also pointed out, the criminal insanity defense has never been particularly successful. That was true in Fish’s time and it remains true today. Defense attorneys attempt an insanity defense in barely 1 percent of all violent crime cases for exactly that reason; by one estimate, at most a fourth of such defenses actually succeed.

This remains the case even though the law has been updated several times in the past century to allow for a broader definition of criminal insanity than existed at the time of Fish’s trial. Most insanity pleas that succeed, Ramsland notes, involve plea bargains in which psychosis appears obvious to a judge. It’s more often juries, she suggests, that convict “people who are genuinely psychotic.” In 1992, for instance, the Milwaukee cannibal killer Jeffrey Dahmer, who killed and ate more than 17 people, was found sane at trial.

The best explanation for this is the tension that Zilboorg described in 1938: the extent to which the imperatives of science are at odds with the natural human need to define the most terrifying criminals as the personification of evil. “The problem with calling an act evil rather than considering it an illness is that it often overlaps with the insanity issue and taints it,” Ramsland writes. “If people decide that some behavior is ‘evil,’ they don’t want to believe that a mental defect was responsible; they want the evil person to be supremely punished.”

James Dempsey believed that it was this need to punish “evil” that had complicated the Fish verdict, and he was haunted by the case for the rest of his life. Although he spent many decades as a successful defense attorney, he kept his Fish files and his sense of outrage, eventually sharing the documents with Harold Schechter, a professor of literature and culture at New York’s Queens College. The result was a 1990 book called Deranged: The Shocking True Story of America’s Most Fiendish Killer!

In the years after the Fish trial, Fredric Wertham rose to prominence as one of the country’s best-known criminal psychiatrists, consulting in numerous murder trials. He became a public figure—praised by some and reviled by others—in the 1950s, when he wrote a provocative book called Seduction of the Innocent, on the power of violent images, such as those found in comic books and television shows, to influence violence behavior.

Like Dempsey, Wertham could never quite let go of the Fish case. In a 1966 book, A Sign for Cain, he repeated his conviction that Fish had been wrongly executed and that science had thus lost an opportunity to learn. “Our knowledge [of murderers] is limited,” he wrote, “because we know the psychology only of the unsuccessful murderers.”

Detective William King, too, was intent on learning something from the Fish case. Two years after Fish was executed, he testified before the state legislature, using the Gray Man story to urge new laws requiring a centralized database of fingerprints for known sexual predators. (The state of records in law enforcement in the 1920s and ’30s was such that, at the time of Francis McDonnell’s murder, a 20-year-old mugshot of Fish—looking distinguished in a bowler hat—was on file in the NYPD’s records but wholly unknown to the detectives pursuing the case.)

To this day, the full extent of Albert Fish’s murderous history remains unknown. Credible assessments at the time implicated him in somewhere between five and fifteen killings, though many suspected those numbers to be low. Not long after Fish’s execution, one of the murderer’s relatives paid a visit to Wertham. After they had talked for a while, Wertham asked the man if he had any sense of how many children Fish had killed. His visitor hesitated. “You know, Doctor,” he finally replied, “there were plenty of old, abandoned places.”


Source Notes

This story was recreated from numerous newspaper accounts, court and police documents, papers in law and psychology journals, and earlier tellings of the Albert Fish story in books and magazines. For much of the information on the atmosphere of New York City at the time, I consulted documents that I had gathered for my own book, The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York. I am especially grateful for the thorough work of Harold Schechter in his book Deranged, cited in my epilogue, which is the definitive reference on the story. Other invaluable resources included the books of Katherine Ramsland, who teaches forensic psychology at DeSales University, in Center Valley, Pennsylvania—particularly her studies of serial killers in history, such as The Human Predator and The Devil’s Dozen, and her terrific book on forensic psychology, The Criminal Mind. For further perspective on Albert Fish, I consulted Colin Wilson and Donald Seaman’s fascinating book The Serial Killers, which looks at the history of sex-related murder; Colin and Damon Wilson’s Written in Blood: A History of Forensic Detection; and Louis Cohen’s 1954 book, Murder, Madness and the Law. I’m also grateful for the eloquent writings of Fredric Wertham, including his account of the Fish story in two books, The Show of Violence (1948) and A Sign for Cain (1966). Finally, I’d like to acknowledge the many biographies and original documents concerning Fish available on true-crime and serial-killer websites, such as Troy Taylor’s story in the Dead Men Do Tell Tales series on Prairie Ghosts and Marilyn Bardsley’s version at Crime Library.

D for Deception

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D for Deception

Dennis Wheatley’s spy novels thrilled wartime Britain. His real-life espionage lured Hitler to defeat.

By Tina Rosenberg

The Atavist Magazine, No. 16


Tina Rosenberg is the author of Children of Cain: Violence and the Violent in Latin America and The Haunted Land: Facing Europe’s Ghosts After Communism,which won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. She is a former editorial writer for The New York Times and is coauthor of the Fixes column on NYTimes.com. She is a contributing writer at The New York Times Magazineand has written for The New YorkerThe AtlanticRolling Stone, and other publications. Her most recent book is Join the Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World.

Editor: Alissa Quart

Producers: Olivia Koski, Gray Beltran

Illustrations and Research: Camille Rogine

Fact Checker: Spencer Woodman

Copy Editor: Sean Cooper

D-Day Footage: Courtesy of the U.S. Army/Department of Defense

Winston Churchill’s “Their Finest Hour” Speech: Courtesy of the Internet Archive

Recording of “All Things Bright and Beautiful,” by William Henry Book: Courtesy of the Hi-Fi Hymn Book  

Special Thanks: The Dennis Wheatley (Virtual) Museum


Published in June 2012. Design updated in 2021.

The airport official stood up and said to Gregory, “I won’t ask your name, but this is Flight Lieutenant Charlton, who is going to fly you to Germany.”“I’m afraid you’ve been left in for a rotten job on my account,” Gregory smiled as he took the pilot’s hand.Charlton shrugged. “Nothing like as dangerous as the sort of thing you’re apparently going to do.”Gregory’s mission had begun in real earnest now. He was a lone wolf without food or refuge and only his wits could save him from being torn to pieces by the ferocious enemy pack now that he was hunting in their territory.

The Scarlet Impostor, 1940

1. Double Deception

At the moment when Dennis Wheatley began to wage World War II from inside Winston Churchill’s bunker, he had already been fighting it for years in the pages of his books. The most popular prewar thriller writer in England, Wheatley wrote a series of novels that featured British secret agent Gregory Sallust. Sallust is daring, handsome, and ruthless. He speaks German like a native. His girlfriend, the anti-Nazi Erika von Epp, is the second most beautiful woman in Germany. He knows his way around a magnum of 1920 Louis Roederer brut. Before there was James Bond, there was Gregory Sallust.

Throughout the books, Sallust is locked in constant battle with SS Gruppenführer Grauber, the chief of the Gestapo’s foreign section. Grauber—diabolical, sadistic, with an eye patch, a makeup-wearing boyfriend, and a Peter Lorre voice—becomes Sallust’s archenemy and an all-purpose villain throughout the series.

Sallust repeatedly poses as a German officer and inserts himself into the key events of the war. It is Sallust who fools Hitler into invading Russia, whose deceit saves Moscow, who steals a key document from the safe of Hermann Goering that keeps Britain from surrender in its darkest days. The spy meets and invariably impresses a variety of historical figures with his dazzling military assessments. His knowledge is encyclopedic, his strategic analysis brilliant. He is a master of deception.

Wheatley put Sallust, von Epp, and Sallust’s confederate, Russian defector Stefan Kuperovitch, through a truly exhausting gauntlet of danger. But their adventures were set against a backdrop of events that were not only real but, because Wheatley wrote so quickly, virtually up-to-the-minute. The Black Baroness, which ends with Winston Churchill’s speech on June 17, 1940, the day of France’s surrender to the Nazis,  was written and published by October, four months later. It was not the first time that a fiction writer inserted his characters into real events, of course, but it was possibly the first time those events threatened to crash through the ceiling into a reader’s living room even as he held the book in his lap.

Rather than sending Sallust into battle, however, what Wheatley really wanted was to be fighting himself.

Dennis Wheatley was, like the character he invented, debonair—a man of high tastes. He had a prominent chin and thick dark hair he wore parted in the middle. He sometimes fancied a smoking jacket. But when Britain entered the war he was 42, too old to be called to combat.  He was the only member of his family not to join the war effort.  His wife, Joan, loved cars and knew how much gasoline different makes used, and she soon became MI5’s petrol queen, allocating scarce gasoline for British intelligence. She also worked as a driver, using her own car.

Wheatley spent his time attacking another kind of enemy: the ration board. It was no contest. Wheatley bought provisions for his household, which included four Wheatleys and three maids, for a month. He bought a stock of cigars from Benson & Hedges: Cigars were the only vice he didn’t have, but he expected guests. He went to Justerini’s in Pall Mall and bought—on credit—the maximum amount of wines and liqueurs they would sell him.

His own entertainment taken care of, he concentrated on the war career of his protagonist Sallust, providing much needed diversion for a tense nation. Keeping Sallust in mortal peril required collecting and synthesizing everything about the war that was available without a security clearance: understanding how the Nazis fought, learning about the neutral countries, assessing the political and military forces on all sides, analyzing strategy, predicting next moves. Wheatley read voraciously, followed the news in minute detail, and lunched frequently with friends whose work put them in a position to know things.

In May 1940, Joan was chauffeuring one Captain Hubert Stringer. He confided in her that the war was going badly and it looked like Hitler might soon invade Britain. He had been asked to come up with countermeasures for resisting a German invasion, but he couldn’t think of much. “Why don’t you try my husband?” Joan said. Stringer agreed.

Wheatley was thrilled to be doing something useful. He worked through the night. Fourteen hours later, he had written a 7,000-word paper called “Resistance to Invasion.” His secretary typed it, and Joan gave it to Stringer. Two evenings later, Stringer came to the Wheatleys’ house for a drink. He told Wheatley the paper was very good—in fact, a lot of its suggestions should be carried out immediately. But, he said, it could be weeks before any of his higher-ups paid attention.

Encouraged, Wheatley asked Stringer if he could send the paper to friends high in the military services. Soon after Wheatley sent it around, Colonel Charles Balfour-Davey, a friend in the War Office, called Wheatley and asked him to come in for a meeting, at midnight. “You have certainly produced a number of ideas that have never occurred to us,” Balfour-Davey said, promising to pass the paper up the line.

Another friend to whom Wheatley had sent his paper asked him to lunch with two other men: an arms manufacturer important to the war effort, and Lawrence Darvall, a wing commander in the Royal Air Force. Some of his ideas were completely impractical, the group told him. But many were not. Most of all, the men were impressed that Wheatley hadn’t suggested building a Maginot line around London or using a thousand tanks that didn’t exist.

“The war is 10 months old, and I am still unemployed in it,” Wheatley said. “Can you suggest any way in which I could make myself useful?” Darvall gave him a new assignment: Imagine himself a member of the Nazi High Command and produce a plan for the invasion of England. He was to send it to Darvall at a curious address: “Mr. Rance’s room at the Office of Works.” Wheatley would later find out that this was the cover name for the Joint Planning Staff’s rooms in the Ministry of Defense.

On the way home from the lunch, Wheatley bought two maps of the British Isles, one geographic and one showing population density. He hung them on his library wall and sat down to think like a Nazi. Over the next 48 hours he wrote 15,000 words, taking only two short breaks. To keep himself going, he smoked over 200 cigarettes and drank three magnums of champagne.

“Britain is the Enemy. France, by comparison is an honourable foe,” began Wheatley’s paper “The Invasion and Conquest of Britain.” He laid out the case for showing Britain no mercy. “British hypocrisy, duplicity and greed” had starved German women and children to death. The World War I peace terms inspired by Britain wished to cripple Germany for all time. His first recommendations: poison gas and bacteriological warfare.

He listed 16 ways German troops could land on British soil and the precise preparations required. His charts showed how many men would be needed for each step in the invasion and how many Germany could expect to lose. He provided a day-by-day invasion schedule. A half-million German casualties were a small price to pay, he announced, as “the conquest of Britain means the conquest of the world.” All in all, it was a remarkably detailed and assured manual of how to bomb, torch, machine-gun, poison, infect, and starve Britain.

The paper was based on how the Nazis had treated the Poles and on his Sallust research. “Gregory and I had been looking pretty closely at the Nazis for quite a while,” he told a journalist later.

Darvall and his colleagues were quite shaken by the paper—“particularly by its sheer swinishness,” wrote Phil Baker, author of the Wheatley biography The Devil Is a Gentleman. Whether Navy, Army, or Air Force, they had all been taught at their Staff colleges to regard war as a matter having definite rules, like cricket. Wheatley’s work pointed up a fact that would soon become obvious: Adolf Hitler was no cricketer. Wheatley later found out that the paper had persuaded the War Office to change its predictions about how Hitler would invade.

After that, Wheatley wrote more papers—20 of them between May 1940 and August 1941, most of them completed in a sleepless frenzy of champagne and cigarettes. Their readers were a small group: the Joint Planning Staff, members of the War Cabinet, Churchill, and the King.

Then, in the fall of 1941, Churchill authorized the creation of a unit to formulate strategic deception plans for the European theater. A novelist who could think like the enemy turned out to be just what was needed. Dennis Wheatley was about to step into the pages of his own fiction.

“Car’s at the door but we’ve got a few minutes still. Always keep a bottle on the ice—or would you prefer something stronger?”

“No thanks. Champagne’s my favourite tipple and God knows when I’ll taste it again.”

When the under-butler had brought the bottle and emptied its contents into two silver tankards, Gregory said: “What about your people having seen me in this kit? I suppose they’re safe?”

“Safe as the grave, my boy. All picked men. Isn’t one of them who hasn’t been tested and proved completely trustworthy. I can’t afford to have servants in this house who might talk.”

“Of course. Silly of me to have asked such a question. Well, here we go!”

Gregory picked up his tankard. Raising his, Sir Pellinore drew himself up to his full six feet four as he proposed: “Success to your enterprise and confusion to our enemies!”

Having drunk the toast they lingered over the wine for a moment or two; then Gregory put on the heavy field-grey greatcoat that had been provided for him, slipped his own automatic into the pistol holder at his belt and followed Sir Pellinore out of the house.

The Scarlet Impostor, 1940

2. Thrillers

Wheatley had always loved to tell stories. At school he entertained his dorm mates with nightly installments of a serial he invented as he went along, like One Thousand and One Nights’ Scheherazade, only Wheatley was staving off not execution but loneliness.

The rest of what marked him—the expensive taste in food, wine, clothing, art, and women—was acquired as an adult.  It was the result of years of studied effort; Dennis Wheatley worked hard to become high-born. The Wheatley he wanted people to see was the version on the back cover of later reprints of his books: a man sitting at a desk in a smoking jacket, pad of paper in front of him, holding a pencil. Next to his right hand is a glass of port and a cigarette.

In reality, Wheatley was raised middle-class. He grew up in the London suburb of Streatham, the son of a wine-store owner. Although he loved to read, Wheatley was not a scholar. After he was expelled from school at age 12, his father sent him first to work on a naval training ship and then, when he was 16, to Germany for a year to apprentice at a winery. In Germany, he developed a taste for large quantities of German wines—the hock and kümmel that Gregory Sallust would later love as well.

Wheatley arrived home in time to enlist for World War I but was kept in England until 1917, his principal contributions to victory being reading and improving the morale of British women. Wheatley was not tall—he was just five foot eight—but he was handsome, with a strong chin.

In Britain, Wheatley fell sick with the bronchitis that would dog him for life. In the hospital, however, he would meet a character who seemed so straight out of fiction that he inspired Wheatley’s own. The model for Gregory Sallust was a tall, thin, well-dressed man whose surname was Tombe. He was only a few years older than Wheatley, had an intelligent, lined face, and walked with a limp. He preached the philosophy of living in the moment, calling himself a “conscious hedonist.” He convinced Wheatley to read widely in history, the classics, world religions, and philosophy. “In mental development I owe more to him than to any other person who has entered my life,” Wheatley wrote later.

Finally, in 1917, Lieutenant Wheatley made it to France. His optimism and sunny conviviality made him popular with his men, but in all it was a boring war for Wheatley; although he was shelled and gassed, he spent a good deal of his time in charge of an ammunition dump. Then, in the spring of 1918, bronchitis brought him home.

When Wheatley returned from the war, he again fell in with Tombe, who was no less charismatic as a civilian. Tombe’s business was white-collar fraud, but he also burned down a building so a friend could collect the insurance money. Wheatley provided alibis and offered a sort of London headquarters for Tombe, taking care of bits of his business while Tombe was away with a girlfriend.

In April 1922, Tombe was murdered by the friend who had collected the insurance money. Wheatley was devastated—he didn’t speak of it for the rest of his life.

Wheatley rejoined the family business, taking it over upon his father’s death. Wheatley and Son was a very successful Mayfair wine store, and Dennis, a born salesman and marketer, made it even more so. He bought a cellar of old brandies and had special bottles made, with fancy seals and Napoleonic crests. He poured in the brandy and hung medals around the bottlenecks, sprinkling dust on top for verisimilitude. The brandy sold out right away and inspired others to copy it with liquor that had seen much less of life than the bottles that held it.

He began to collect rare books. He took to wearing Savile Row suits during the day and white tie, tails, and a monocle at night. His middle-class birth seemed safely behind him.

But when the Depression hit, it was suddenly a very bad idea to be a wine merchant. Wheatley had always spent beyond his means, and now both he and the business were in debt. Three friends saved him from bankruptcy by buying the shop. Wheatley became a junior director with very little to do.

Throughout the 1920s, he was married to Nancy Robinson, a beautiful blond heiress to a boot-polish fortune. They had a son, Anthony. But Wheatley found fatherhood difficult, and he and his first wife had very different interests—hers were dancing and tennis, his books and wine. They both took up with others. Wheatley resumed his womanizing. In 1929, though, he met the woman he would spend the rest of his life with: Joan Younger, the sister of one of his employees. They married in 1931.

Joan had divorced her first husband, was widowed by her second, and had four children. She was handsome rather than beautiful, with large features. She was of aristocratic lineage and had a modest private income. She enjoyed her comforts and her social station, but she was also practical and competent at most everything. Wheatley was honest with her about his financial problems. Joan’s response was resourceful: She suggested he write a book.

In 1933, Wheatley began his professional writing career by publishing The Forbidden Territory, which featured a group of four friends in the style of The Three Musketeers. The Duke de Richleau, the leader, was Athos, and the Wheatley stand-in was D’Artagnan. The novel sent the group deep into the Soviet Union in January 1933. A small press printed 1,500 copies and, when these sold out, produced more—seven printings in seven weeks.

By December 1934, he published his fifth book, The Devil Rides Out. It is still his best-selling novel and the most famous of the kind of work Wheatley is best known for—novels about black magic. In 1938, Wheatley earned £12,467, more than $1 million today. He became, along with Agatha Christie, the best-selling author in Britain.

By 1940, alongside his pulp fiction for the masses, he would be writing something else, gripping papers meant only for a small group of elite readers: politicians, officers, and royalty—the men in charge of the war.

“That’s a deal. If I can prove to you that I’m worth listening to I get a straight bullet, but if you consider that I’ve wasted your time you hand me over to your thugs to do what they like with me.”

“Do you understand what you may be letting yourself in for?”

“I’ve got a pretty shrewd idea.”

Goering sighed to the guards. “You may go. Now, Sallust, I’m ready to let you teach one of the leading statesmen of Europe his business—if you can.”

Gregory relaxed, physically but not mentally. He knew that he was up against it as he had never been in his life before. Helping himself to another of the big Turkish cigarettes, he said, “May I have a map of Europe and another drink?”

Faked Passports, 1940

3. The War Papers

The first paper Wheatley composed for the British government in May of 1940, “Resistance to Invasion,” displayed the knowledge and confidence of a military planner and far more creativity. Wheatley divides the British coastline into zones: water, shore, and up to five miles inland. A typical passage reads:

Zone 2: The sole but all-important function of all obstacles and Forces in Zone 2 is to delay-delay-delay the enemy in his attempt to get a secure foothold on land, so as to give ample time for G.H.Q. [General Headquarters] to get a clear picture of the situation and to find out which, out of perhaps a hundred simultaneous attempts to land at different points, are feints and which are really dangerous threats.

He describes some 40 methods civilians can use to repel Nazi invaders: Lay a barrier of mined fishing nets two miles offshore. Barbwire the coast. Spread flaming oil on the water. Build thousands of beach bonfires to deny the enemy the cover of darkness. Dig shallow trenches in front of gunner positions, fill them with oil, and, when needed, set them on fire to give cover for retreats. Pour water into the gasoline at gas stations. Remove signboards bearing the names of inns and railway stations, all of which would help the enemy know where he was. Park trains outside railway junctions, which are natural targets for bombing. Dump highly flammable material into forests so they can be set on fire in the face of an advancing enemy.

Wheatley’s war papers overlap considerably with the Sallust novels written at the same time: his obsessions with Turkey’s independence and the strategic value of invading Sardinia, of all subjects, feature in both, among other topics. In the papers, Wheatley micromanages village defense. (“The service should open with a cheerful hymn—perhaps ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful.’”) He goes on to discuss how to boost public morale and how to protect Britain from aerial warfare. Then he moves outward, writing about grand strategy on the continent and how to take advantage of the Soviet Union’s entry into the war.

Many of his ideas were useful. Britain did, in fact, remove signage that could orient an invader; the King did establish a medal for civilian bravery. His strategic thinking was taken seriously by war planners. At one point, the directors of plans wanted to discuss a Wheatley paper but found that they had only one copy. They phoned the palace: would the King send his copy over? He would. He put it in an envelope and wrote “Personal and Urgent” on it.

But some of Wheatley’s ideas were considered utterly daft. He suggested that Britain construct convoys of 100 unsinkable log sailing rafts linked together, to bear grain and other cargo across the Atlantic to Britain on the Gulf Stream. Wheatley thought it a way to ship goods without fear of U-boats: the Admiralty politely told him it was impractical. Wheatley also proposed that a British submarine pose as a U-boat and sink the ship of a neutral country to bring it into the war. He was, of course, referring to America. He did not seem to consider the consequences if the British were caught.

Ingenious or crazy, very few of Wheatley’s ideas would have occurred to the military planners—being an outsider was his great value. He was approached by an air commodore, who had read the Sallust novels, to see if he would work with him to interpret Germany’s military plans. “You can get in the head of the enemy,” he told Wheatley. Wheatley was elated, but the project never got off the ground.

But Wheatley didn’t remain an outsider for much longer. Soon he would be recruited to do his most important work. No longer just a spy novelist, he would now be a real spy.

When Madeleine heard the news she exclaimed: “But why should Hitler have attacked Russia? He really must be crazy.”

Stefan smiled as he took her hands. “You didn’t tumble, then, to what we’ve been up to all these weeks?”

“Surely,” Gregory laughed, “the report of Hitler’s speech at the time he launched the attack, which I’ve just given you, must have provided you with the clue.” 

V for Vengeance, 1942        

4. Telling the Story

The unit that Wheatley would join was created largely at the urging of Dudley Clarke, a lieutenant colonel in Britain’s Middle East command in Cairo with a genius for deception. In his own battles, Clarke had established the value of what came to be known as order-of-battle deception: making the Germans believe that the Allied military forces were far larger than they really were. He invented entire divisions and armies. German intelligence agents—who in reality were double agents, controlled by the British—reported the movements of these fictional forces back to Hitler. The British set up fields of dummy tanks—almost perfectly camouflaged—designed to appear real to reconnaissance planes, which flew at 8,000 feet. They simulated the noise and smell of military units and even sprinkled bleach on fields to make them look trampled.

Clarke’s order-of-battle deception was extremely effective. In the spring of 1944, the Germans believed that the Allies had 14 divisions in Egypt and Libya. In fact there were three, none of them worthy of battle.

Order-of-battle deception forced the Germans to tie up troops to defend against these fictional armies; a successful deception plan could be as valuable as hundreds of thousands of real soldiers. But Clarke’s genius lay with the conclusion that order-of-battle deception was also the foundation for every other ruse—an investment that would pay off for years. If your enemy believes your exaggerations about your military might, then nearly every threat becomes plausible.

Deception, of course, is as old as war, but it had always been tactical—dreamt up and carried out as part of an operation. On a visit home in 1941, Clarke convinced London that it needed something brand-new—a centralized staff that would plan and coordinate deceptions for all its operations in Europe.

When Wheatley signed on with the military’s Joint Planning Staff, he had also, in a way, spent years pondering strategic deception. His character Sallust had carried out a classic piece of it in V for Vengeance, written in 1941. In that book, Sallust and Kuperovitch book, create a trail of documents leading the Germans to “discover” a massive plot by the Soviet Union—at that time in a nonaggression pact with Hitler—to mobilize its sympathizers in Europe to sabotage and revolt against Germany. The false evidence convinces Hitler that Russia is about to stab Germany in the back, and he invades the Soviet Union.

Deception was familiar to Wheatley on a different level as well. Deception involves first choosing a story—story is actually the term of art—that will be your cover plan. Then you break that story into tiny pieces and draw up a schedule for spooning it bit by bit into the maw of the enemy: which morsel fed by what channel on what date. The story can’t be too obvious; the enemy must make the connections himself. A key rule of deception: intelligence easily obtained is intelligence that will not be trusted.

That is how to write a deception plan. It is also how to write a novel. The cliché goes that spies make natural writers: After all, John le Carré, Somerset Maugham, John Buchan, and Ian Fleming were all spies before they started writing spy fiction. But Wheatley was out to prove that writers made natural spies. Deception work, especially, is in its essence the writing of stories. But for the Joint Planning Staff, Wheatley had to write with far more restraint than he did in his novels. The clues had to be so subtle that no one would suspect that they were clues.

Wheatley’s job, then, was to continue to write fiction—this time aimed not at millions of readers but at only one: Adolf Hitler.

Next second there was a blinding flash in the darkness. A bullet whistled over their heads and angry orders were shouted in Norwegian. Several men had sprung out of the other car and were running towards them brandishing revolvers. One man yelled in German as he ran: “We saw you ruddy Nazis signaling to that plane when we were three miles away. Hands up, both of you! Hands up!”

The appearance of the newcomers had been so startlingly swift that neither von Ziegler nor Gregory had had time to draw their guns. As they raised their hands above their heads the horrid thought flashed into Gregory’s mind that the next few moments might see him shot—as a German spy.

The Black Baroness, 1940

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5. Deception Rising

The Joint Planning Staff was a military organization, but the newest recruit to its deception team was a civilian. Not for long: Wheatley was stuffed into a two-week officer training course, and on December 31, 1941, Pilot Officer Wheatley reported for duty. The deception staff was headed by Colonel Oliver Stanley, and it had two members: Fritz Lumby, an army lieutenant colonel and former head of the army intelligence school, and Wheatley, who now held the most junior commissioned post in the Royal Air Force, the most junior service.

Wheatley’s awe at his new surroundings was tempered by the fact that he had nothing to do. Strategic deception depended on the cooperation of military services, but they couldn’t cooperate with something they didn’t know about. Part of the problem was that Wheatley and Lumby were not allowed to explain it: Their work was so secret that they were not even permitted to talk about it with the rest of the Joint Planning Staff. Since none of the women in the typing pool were cleared to know about deception—even though they typed the real plans—Wheatley and Lumby had to do their own typing.

Lumby did a lot of crossword puzzles. Wheatley had long liquid lunches, sometimes chased by a nap.

After a few days, Wheatley decided he might as well spend his time writing more papers. He eventually wrote 14 in all, the most important of which was titled “The Basic Principles of Enemy Deception.” There was no military manual for guidance on how to execute strategic deception, so Wheatley decided to make one. His paper outlined some general, relatively unsophisticated lessons. “Deception plans should be within the scope of the resources that the enemy believes us to possess,” he wrote. “No measure, short of definitively hampering our genuine war activities, should be neglected which would be taken were we actually going to carry out the deception plan.” Then he listed 49 specific tactics for fooling the enemy. The paper—later redrafted by his new chief into approved military form—was sent out to Britain’s deception planners around the world and became the bible of deception.

In mid-January 1942, Stanley finally gave his men their first assignment: persuade the Germans that Britain was planning to invade Norway in the beginning of May.

Wheatley knew this terrain. He had set a novel, The Black Baroness, in Norway during the Nazi invasion. Several times in the book, Sallust saves the King of Norway from kidnap and murder by the Nazis. Throughout the story, Sallust clings to the belief that the British will come in to repel the Nazis, repeatedly arguing that it is well within Britain’s capabilities to invade. Sallust grows more and more bitter as the weeks pass; a token trickle of British forces finally arrive and are quickly routed.

Now Wheatley had a second chance to not invade Norway. The first time, in Sallust’s world, the events were real. In Wheatley’s world, they would be fictional.

Wheatley browsed through the list of available cover names and chose Hardboiled. He and Lumby created a plan for an attack on Stavanger, in southern Norway. Scottish forces would be trained and supplied for an invasion, which at the last minute would be postponed.

Wheatley and Lumby couldn’t train or supply anyone, of course. They had to convince the military commanders in Scotland to do that. They had an easy time with most of the officers, who, lacking the clearances to know about deception, were told the plan was real. Senior officers, however, did know it was a feint, and they didn’t like it. They needed all their men and resources for real military operations. Why should they commit them to fake ones?

In the end, the exercise designed to give credibility to Hardboiled never happened. Hardboiled was postponed several times, and then the only plausible unit—the Royal Marine Division, which was trained in mountain warfare—was sent to seize Madagascar  instead.

But Hardboiled was carried out through other channels. The British printed maps of the Stavanger region, called for Norwegian translators, printed requisition forms in Norwegian, “lost” an important map of Norway (and sent people to look for it), and asked diplomats in neutral countries if they had any Norwegian contacts. Wheatley himself got in on the fun. He borrowed a more senior RAF officer’s uniform and questioned Norwegian refugees in Britain about places an airplane could land, in the hope that they would be indiscreet.

Rumors of impending invasion circled the globe. Hitler, convinced that invasion was imminent, sent 50,000 troops to reinforce the 100,000 already there.

Was this Hardboiled’s doing? It was hard to tell—and therein lay one of the key lessons of the operation: the importance of putting yourself inside your enemy’s head. Deception worked best, Wheatley and his colleagues realized, if the cover story was one the enemy already worried about. It didn’t have to be plausible—what mattered was that the enemy believed it was. Thinking as the enemy thinks meant appreciating his preconceived notions. The enemy will go out of his way to find evidence supporting these notions and, when presented with it, will be more likely to believe it. In other words, with a little help the enemy will deceive itself.

In the case of Germany, the only beliefs that counted belonged to Hitler. Germany did not have a coordinated system of filtering intelligence up to decision makers, and when information did reach the top it was often ignored. Hitler made decisions about German military strategy largely by instinct. He paid the most attention to intelligence that supported the views he already held.

But knowing Hitler’s fears and strategic eccentricities, Britain’s deceivers could choose cover plans that fed them—and Hitler was obsessed with keeping Norway under Nazi command. “The fate of the war will be decided in Norway,” he said in January 1942.

It is likely that Wheatley and Lumby’s mischief meant that 50,000 Nazi troops who didn’t need to be in Norway were now not available elsewhere. Norway was a feint Wheatley would come back to again and again. By the latter part of the war, Germany had tied up 300,000 troops in Norway—three times what would have sufficed to keep the country under German control—until it was too late to use them elsewhere. Hardboiled was the first of many times the deceivers exploited Hitler’s irrationality.

Despite Hardboiled’s outcome, for Wheatley and Lumby it had been frustrating to depend entirely on commanders who had no interest in what they were doing. And afterward the assignments dried up. Wheatley was sometimes still asked to write papers. When he wasn’t, he wrote them anyway. Things got so bad that Stanley, aware of Wheatley’s black-magic novels, asked him for a paper that assumed he had performed some black-magic rite that gave him a supernatural preview of The Times the day the war ended.

Lumby, demoralized by the idleness of their days, obtained a transfer. Stanley took leave to be with his dying wife, and then he, too, got a transfer. Wheatley stayed; even with no work, it was a far more interesting job than he could get anywhere else. But he was now alone. It looked like the idea of coordinated strategic deception was dead.

“Now do you see what I’m driving at?” Gregory said grimly. “This is not only the outline of the German plan to put the whole of Europe in her pocket; and having achieved that, to secure world dominion; it shows how she intends to do it.… That is why this document has got to be placed in the hands of my old friend, Sir Pellinore Gwain-Cust, who will put it before the Cabinet and the Allied War Council.… It must reach them at the earliest possible moment. Therefore, I intend to leave for England tomorrow.”

Faked Passports, 1940

6. In the Bunker

Perhaps Lumby transferred too soon. At the end of May, 1942, Lieutenant Colonel John Bevan became head of the newly dubbed London Controlling Section—the deliberately vague cover name for the deception section—and things started to change radically. Bevan was a wealthy stockbroker—deception, like other espionage, was a gentlemen’s game. He was also smooth, forceful, well connected, and wily. He wrote himself a charter giving London Control sweeping powers to formulate strategic deception policy and specific deception plans, and to coordinate the implementation of those plans.

Strategic deception began its transformation from a “position of near impotence,” as Wheatley grumbled, into a keystone of Allied strategy. The journalist and historian of espionage Anthony Cave Brown later wrote that the London Controlling Section was Churchill’s “greatest single contribution to military theory and practice.”

Bevan and Wheatley moved from aboveground offices into cubicles in Churchill’s bunker, the underground warren where the War Cabinet, including Churchill himself, worked—and, when necessary, ate and slept. The bunker resembled the lower deck of a battleship. It had a four-foot-thick layer of concrete over the ceiling, phone lines to military commands around Britain, and a hotline from which Churchill could speak directly to President Franklin Roosevelt. It was stocked with provisions for three months. If Germany ever occupied London, the bunker could be sealed off and Churchill and his officials could continue to wage war.

Within two months of taking over, Bevan was given an enormous task: keep the Germans away from the planned Allied invasion of North Africa, Operation Torch. The plan for Torch was to sail convoys from America to land in three places in Morocco, and from Britain through the Straits of Gibraltar to the Algerian cities of Oran and Algiers. Bevan and Wheatley now had the job of writing and coordinating a deception plan to cover the largest amphibious operation since the Spanish Armada.

They designed eight different plans to deceive the Germans. Four covered the convoys to North Africa. First, the story held that the troops were sailing for the Middle East. Then, once they entered the Mediterranean (it was going to be hard to get through the Straits of Gibraltar unobserved), a new story kicked in: They were heading for Sicily and Malta.

Two other plans were intended to convince the Germans that General Dwight Eisenhower, who was commanding the expedition, was actually in Washington. Away from the Mediterranean, another plan aimed to make Germany think the Allies were planning an invasion of Pas de Calais, in northern France, so the Germans would tie up troops there. And finally, there was an old friend: once again, Britain was not going to invade Norway.

This was rather a lot for three people—there was now also a secretary—and Bevan hired three more. Major Ronald Wingate became Bevan’s deputy. Harold Petavel was responsible for intelligence. A naval officer, James Arbuthnott, joined Wheatley to write the deception plans and coordinate their implementation with the services. Wheatley was also chairman of a committee with members of the intelligence services whose job was to think up creative new channels for deceiving the enemy.

Wheatley drew up a large chart for Torch showing every deception move, every day, until the expedition sailed. The amount of detail to be tracked was staggering. Wheatley had gone from micromanaging village defense to micromanaging massive invasions—at one point he was begging the War Office, unsuccessfully, to supply some Scottish units with mules. The fact that these invasions were fictional didn’t make the job much easier.

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With a shrewd glance at his guest Goering said: “I see you’re a connoisseur,” and turning to the butler he ordered: “have a couple of bottles of my Marcobrunner Cabinet 1900 sent up.”

“1900!” murmured Gregory. “By Jove! I didn’t know that there were any 1900 hocks still in existence.”

Faked Passports, 1940

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7. Wheatley’s Secret Weapon

Wheatley’s celebrity, his conviviality, and his bank account were almost as valuable to the London Controlling Section as his creativity. Now that the military commanders were allowed to know about deception plans, it fell to Wheatley to explain them and to convince the commanders of their value. His weapon was lunch—always an area of strength for Wheatley. “Eating for Victory,” he called it.

He started the practice as a guest of Major Eddie Combe, before the war a wealthy stockbroker, at a restaurant called Rules. Those lunches began with two or three Pimm’s, then an absinthe cocktail. A good bottle of red or white wine accompanied a meal, and port or kümmel followed. They would eat smoked salmon or potted shrimp, then a Dover sole, jugged hare, salmon or game, and a Welsh rarebit to wind up. Wartime rationing was not welcome at their table.

These lunches were invaluable to Wheatley. He could call almost anyone and say, “I met you at lunch with Eddie Combe.”

Combe’s social scene encompassed a large cross-section of the London espionage world. At one party, thrown by an Eddie Combe contact, Wheatley’s wife, Joan, was nearly killed. She had taken a White Lady cocktail off a tray and a few minutes later went green in the face and passed out. They later found out what happened: Joan took the wrong drink. A guest at the party, a Polish officer, was suspected of double-crossing the British. The White Lady had been aimed at the Pole, designed to disorient him before interrogation.

Wheatley put this incident to use: In Come Into My Parlour, Sallust switches brandy-and-soda glasses with Soviet Marshal Kliment Voroshilov, who is commanding Leningrad during the siege. Voroshilov drinks truth serum he meant to give Sallust and ultimately gives Sallust critical information about Soviet military strategy.

After numerous lunches with Combe, Wheatley resumed the role that came naturally to him, that of host. His social strategy was to begin with rigidly correct behavior. On being shown into the room of an admiral, general, or air marshal, he would stand at attention until addressed. This usually resulted in a smile or an invitation to sit down and the offer of a cigarette. After the meeting, as he got up to leave, Wheatley would say: “I wonder, sir, if you have a day free to lunch with me?”

Such an invitation would have been scandalous from any other very junior officer. But many of the generals had read Wheatley’s books. After slight hesitation, they nearly always accepted. And at lunch, Wheatley would then ask them to dinner.

Then he passed his new friends along to Bevan. “I was able to introduce Johnny on the ‘old boy’ level to all these people,” he wrote. “And he took swift advantage of it.”

Wheatley himself held a permanent table at the Hungaria restaurant—an establishment familiar to readers of the Sallust books; Wheatley liked to advertise for his friends. He and Joan gave lavish dinner parties in their flat at Chatsworth Court. On New Year’s Eve 1943, they rented out the restaurant in the basement of their building and treated more than 100 people to champagne, foie gras, and other food and drink that during the war had become a distant memory.

Wheatley kept lists of his important lunch and dinner guests. One of the guests was a Naval Intelligence officer with whom Wheatley occasionally worked named Fleming. Ian Fleming. Fleming was not yet a writer, but he was interested in becoming one. He could well have learned from Wheatley about writing popular spy novels. It is more than possible that Fleming learned from Gregory Sallust.

Wheatley also took advantage of his fame as an author to add to the deception in the Mediterranean. Bevan had sent an intelligence offer to travel to Gibraltar, Malta, and Cairo to brief officials there about the cover plans for Torch. Wheatley had a friend in Cairo, Henry Hopkinson, and he gave Bevan’s envoy an autographed copy of his just published V for Vengeance to take to Hopkinson. He slipped a chatty letter on Cabinet Office stationery into the book, introducing the envoy. In the letter was a casual reference to the possibility of the British coming to the aid of Malta. London Control knew that any British officer staying in a Gibraltar hotel would have his luggage searched and any documents copied by German agents.

It was one of several mini-deceptions perpetrated by Wheatley himself. In the spring of 1943, the Allies were selling the story that they were going to invade France, to draw German troops away from the Mediterranean. Bevan ordered the printing of some banknotes with “British Army of Occupation in France” printed in bold letters. All the deceivers carried a few of them in their wallets. Whenever Wheatley paid a taxi driver or shop clerk, he used one. Then, once the bill had been noticed, he would quickly pull it back and substitute an ordinary pound note.

The uncertainty in Grauber’s eye deepened. “When,” he said slowly, “when did you find out about Einholtz?”

“The very first night I met him,” Gregory replied amiably.

“So!” exclaimed the Gruppenfuhrer. “And you talked to him about Russia?’

“I did. I told him every single thing I knew, and—er—just a little more.”

“Zum Donnerwetter!” Grauber roared, smashing his fist down on the table. For a second he paused, white-faced and trembling, then he swung round to his adjutant. “Kohler! Get me on to the Fuhrer’s Headquarters. At once! Instantly! Use the highest priority! Clear all lines!”

As the adjutant dashed from the room Gregory laughed and said: “So Einholtz did pass on that false information I gave him about the impending counter-offensive from south-east Moscow. And you passed it on to the Werhmacht, eh? I wonder if they acted on it? If they did I’ll have killed a hundred thousand of you filthy swine before Christmas, and saved Moscow! My God! If Erika and I have to die, that will be something worth dying for.”

“Oh darling!” Erika cried, clasping his arm. “Oh darling! What an amazing feat!”

Come Into My Parlour, 1946

8. Special Means

By the end of 1942, strategic deception had acquired a new prestige. The deception plans to protect Operation Torch were a complete success. The Germans removed no troops from Norway and reinforced their defenses in Northern France, thus wasting troops that might otherwise have gone to North Africa. Most important, the enemy was completely deceived about the convoys’ targets. The British convoys arrived in Oran and Algiers without the loss of a single ship or man. They caught the Germans and Italians napping, literally—the Italian chiefs were seized in their hotel, in pajamas. Algiers fell to the Allies the first day and Oran the third.

Strategic deception was now reliably misleading the Germans. “We see the possible Allied plans being discussed round the [German intelligence] council table,” Wingate wrote in his official history of World War II deception against Germany. “The resemblance of these discussions to a morning meeting of the London Controlling Section almost approaches the ludicrous.”

London Control owed its achievements to several factors. One was the nature of the war at the time. Since there was little direct engagement, both Britain and Germany were heavily dependent on non-operational intelligence to find out what the enemy was planning and what it could do. For Germany, even aerial observation was limited; by 1943, the RAF had near total control of the skies over Britain. German knowledge about enemy plans and capabilities had to be deduced from reports of what was going on in enemy ports, arms and airplane factories, and military bases. This made deception both possible and useful. And with the development of wireless communication, manipulation could respond quickly to events. A crucial message sent by a top agent could land on Hitler’s desk within 30 minutes of transmission.

Britain had the huge advantage of being able to understand enemy communication. The Germans thought their Enigma machine ciphers were unbreakable, but British and Polish codebreakers proved them wrong, famously deciphering the Enigma code. Their furious effort began to pay off in 1941. Among their many decisive contributions, these intercepts provided instant feedback on how well British deception strategy was working and constant updates on how to tailor deception. Did the Germans accept the stories London Control was putting out? What did the enemy believe? What did it fear? London didn’t have to guess.

But sheer luck was also a factor. British deception succeeded in part because the Axis’s intelligence services were shockingly poor. The Abwehr—the German military intelligence service—was both badly run and corrupt. Some officers pocketed the money that was supposed to go to their agents, filling the resulting information gap by making things up. The Abwehr also suffered from the typical disease of intelligence services: agent inflation. Officers competed to run the largest number of agents, which means that they had little incentive to doubt anything an agent told them. Gullibility was rewarded.

Perhaps most important was a new channel for deception at London Control’s disposal, known as “special means”: the double agents. Britain knew that it controlled many of the spies Germany had sent to infiltrate the country. But until the spring of 1942, these double agents had performed limited tasks. MI5 used them to assess what the Germans knew, getting clues from the questions their German handlers posed. The agents’ encrypted messages held secrets about German codes.

What they weren’t being used for was strategic deception. They did pass on isolated pieces of tactical misinformation. But with anything bigger, the British worried that real German agents would contradict the fake agents’ lies and blow the whole network.

In June 1942, it dawned on the British that, incredibly, they controlled every German agent in Britain. The British knew of every agent who transmitted radio reports, sent mail to Abwehr addresses, or received pay through the usual channels. Every single one of them had been doubled. That meant they could use the agents to deceive the German High Command without fear of contradiction. The information the agents reported to their German handlers was chosen by the XX Committee—referred to as the Twenty Committee, but XX also meant double-cross. Now their reports would include the stories invented by London Control.

The single most important channel for conveying the deceptions of London Control to the Germans—indeed, the most important spy of World War II—was a man who never spied on a soul. His code name was Garbo, and he was, in essence, a fiction writer himself. If Wheatley was the first link in the chain of deception, Garbo was the last. He took the plots outlined by Wheatley, Arbuthnott, and Neil Gordon Clark, their new colleague in the deception plans department, and spun their tales in his own language and his own florid style. Tomás Harris, his case officer, was his editor.

Garbo—the Germans called him Arabel—was a  short, balding, bespectacled Catalan named Juan Pujol. Pujol had offered his services to the British consulate in Madrid as a spy and had been turned down. Then he volunteered to work for the Germans—in order to go back to the British, now with more interesting wares to peddle. The Germans accepted, supplied him with invisible ink and codes, and thought they were sending him to England. In fact, he moved to Portugal, where he became a one-man freelance deception team.

Garbo had, in fact, never been to Britain. He relied on a Baedeker tourist guide to England, a Bradshaw’s railway timetable, a large map, and a heroic imagination to write a constant stream of lies plausible to the Abwehr. Before long he was making an impact: After he reported that a convoy had sailed from Liverpool to Malta, the Germans sent reconnaissance planes to find the convoy. They failed.

The British discovered Pujol’s existence right after they broke the Abwehr codes. They were mystified. The England this spy was describing was not a country they recognized. The military units he talked about didn’t exist. He even got the weather wrong—embassies did not flee London in the summer because of the heat—and seemed confused by pounds and shillings. Yet he was a writer persuasive enough that he could get the Germans to jump with a single report. In April 1942, the British smuggled him to England, vetted him, and decided he was the real thing. They dubbed him Garbo, the greatest actor in the world. He told his German contact that he had been given political-refugee status and was now freelancing for the BBC and the information ministry. The Abwehr was thrilled.

Wheatley, as a planner, was not cleared to know about secret intelligence activities. He wasn’t supposed to know about this fellow master of fiction, a writer whose baroque style gave life to the bare-bones plots that Wheatley wrote. But he did know—Garbo was too juicy to stay a secret, at least inside the bunker. And he was the bunker’s most prolific conduit to the enemy.

The ideas that Wheatley and the other planners sketched out in a few paragraphs would feed through the XX Committee down through MI5’s case officers to Garbo, who would craft from them long, flowery messages in Spanish to the Abwehr’s Madrid office. By letter—and, later, by Morse code through wireless transmission—Garbo sent thousands of these reports about the goings-on in British ports, factories, and military bases. He claimed to have gathered his information from a network of spies he had assembled of various nationalities, jobs, and locations, including several anti-British Welsh nationalists, a Venezuelan businessman in Glasgow, an Indian poet in Brighton, and the poet’s mistress in the Women’s Royal Navy Service. Some in Garbo’s network, he claimed, were unaware that their information was being used, and at least one thought he was spying for the Soviet Union. Garbo’s sub-agents, he told his German handlers, had sub-agents of their own.

The Germans trusted him enough to take action based on his word alone; when they changed their codes, they sent Garbo the new ones. He was the perfect spy: prolific, each report exhaustive, able to rely on a vast network of agents in strategic locations across Britain. In July 1944, the Germans awarded Garbo the Iron Cross.

In reality, Garbo spent his days with Harris, his Spanish-speaking case officer, in a small office near the headquarters of MI5. His network was entirely imaginary. He was able to endow his characters and their adventures with enough verisimilitude that Germany trusted them completely—remarkable, given that their job was to get every single important thing catastrophically wrong. This required ingenious plotting by London Control and the XX Committee, but it also took Garbo’s literary virtuosity: the telling detail, foreshadowing, and writerly misdirection that every good novel requires.

A popular thriller writer, Wheatley drew on his imagination to produce cover plans for Allied operations. His work included a plan, code named ‘Bodyguard,’ to deceive the Germans about the place and date of the Allied ‘D-Day’ invasion of Europe.

—Caption accompanying a photo of Dennis Wheatley at the Churchill War Rooms Museum

9. The Final Chapter

The fictional Gregory Sallust may have been able to win World War II by himself. Dennis Wheatley could not.  By 1943, the year before the Allied invasion of Europe, the London Controlling Section had grown to seven full-time employees. London Control had designed and coordinated the implementation of dozens of deceptions, all leading up to one final job. Their task: to ensure that when Allied forces landed in France, no Germans would be there to meet them.

The deception plan, code-named Bodyguard—so called because Churchill had told Stalin, “In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies”—would be on an order of complexity with the invasion itself. The group’s initial paper, titled “First Thoughts,” was a grim document—hardly surprising, given that the deception task seemed impossible. When it was presented to the chiefs of staff of the Allied command, the reaction, according to Bevan’s deputy Wingate, was “more despairing than unfavorable.”

Hitler, after all, knew the Allies were preparing to invade Northern France. Doing so would require preparation on a massive scale—the Germans could not possibly fail to notice. And landing in France was just the beginning: Even if Hitler was fooled about the exact location, German forces would be sitting close enough to be able to smash the Allied expedition in a few days.

The task for London Control, then, was to hide something huge that the Germans were already looking for—and that the Germans knew the Allies would do everything possible to hide. After the operation began, moreover, it had to stay hidden. The problem stumped London Control through many drafts. At Christmas in 1943, Bevan’s latest was so qualified by counterarguments that Wheatley implored him to hide all the negatives in an appendix that no one would read—or else the chiefs would sack them all and perhaps abandon the idea of deception entirely.

Finally, in February 1944, the answer came in the elegant form of a double bluff. Preparations for the invasion couldn’t be hidden—but they could be used to hide something else. They would make the Germans believe that the landing in Normandy was itself a feint, designed to draw German troops away from the real invasion, which would take place in Pas de Calais some weeks later.

This story exploited several of Britain’s great deception coups. The Germans had a greatly exaggerated notion of the strength of the forces the Allies could turn on France. A week before D-Day, Hitler thought the Allies could command more than 80 divisions in Britain, when in fact there were only 52. That overestimation added credibility to the idea that the Allies could follow up the Normandy landing with a much larger one in Pas de Calais. So instead of hiding the force buildup and the influx of troops from America and Canada, London Control exaggerated it. A bare-bones United States First Army Group already existed in Britain. Now it was stocked with a million imaginary men and a fearsome commander: George Patton. Patton’s ghost army would become the threat that would keep the Germans pinned down in Pas de Calais.

The other great coup was Britain’s information monopoly. The Germans could listen to radio traffic from inside Britain, and through triangulation they could pinpoint where it was coming from. But they could not see inside, thanks to British control of Germany’s agents and the RAF’s domination of the skies.

Carefully prepared scripts simulating all the normal traffic of an army group—hundreds of messages a day—were drawn up and transmitted. The Admiralty did the same to simulate amphibious assault divisions. It also put out 255 inflatable landing craft, just in case the Germans managed to put some planes in the air to see them. And, most important, the double agents supplied countless reports confirming the Pas de Calais landing. Garbo alone would send and receive more than 500 messages between January 1944 and D-Day.

Bodyguard was actually made up of 36 separate plans, all coordinated by London Control. Even Churchill’s own speeches were run through Bevan and his colleagues.

Meanwhile, through the fall of 1943, Wheatley had been writing a paper he gave the working title “Essorbee,” which stood for “shit or bust.” “Essorbee” outlined the many ways Wheatley developed to draw enemy forces around Europe away from Northern France. A lot of his ideas involved threatening neutral countries, which the Foreign Office didn’t like. But a few were included in Bodyguard, including a plan to use Sweden to convince the Germans that yet another invasion of Norway was in the works. Intelligence decrypts showed that the Germans bought it. It already had 17 divisions in Norway but now reinforced them.

As 1944 rolled on, the hour approached that would put Bodyguard, and the Allies themselves, to the final test. If the invasion of Normandy lacked the advantage of the unexpected, it would fail. If it failed, Britain, having spent its forces, would likely have no choice but to offer Hitler its surrender.

Momentarily Gregory had forgotten that he was in German uniform. With sudden horror he realized that he was in a most ghastly fix. He could not kill the Frenchman who was glaring at him and in the split second that it would have taken to pistol the fellow had he been a German he saw the man’s finger crook itself round the trigger of his rifle.

The Scarlet Impostor, 1940

10. Armageddon

The first wave of aircraft flying into France, and into history, began taking off from the Royal Air Force base at Harwell, headquarters of the Sixth British Airborne Division, at 11:03 p.m. Over the next few minutes, 13 more planes left, precise to the second. It was June 5, 1944, one hour before D-Day.

The planes were carrying paratroopers or pulling gliders behind them. Their mission was to drop men and materials into Normandy, to protect the eastern flank of the marine invasion that would come at dawn. Once on the ground, the men would destroy German artillery and capture or blow up bridges to block German reinforcements from joining the battle.

Among the men smoking and pacing through the night in Harwell was Wheatley. He had come to watch the liberation of Europe begin. He had wanted to go with the pilots into France, to watch his deception play out in action, but he was barred. His superiors decided that he knew too much.

So he watched.

At 2:15 a.m, the first pilots out began arriving back at Harwell. One by one they came to the briefing room to give their report to the base commanders. The first pilot said that all had gone smoothly. They had dropped their paratroopers right on the mark. “No flak, nothing to see, no excitement,” the pilot said. “It might have been just one of the practice night droppings.” The pilot seemed disappointed that no one had bothered to shoot at him: He had spearheaded the invasion of Normandy, and it felt like nothing.

Wheatley was jubilant at the pilot’s report. We have achieved the dream of all commanders, Wheatley thought to himself: complete tactical surprise.

Over the course of D-Day, 160,000 Allied troops landed in France. The German Seventh Army, stationed in Normandy, had not gone on alert. General Erwin Rommel, commander of the German forces on the Channel coast, was on leave to celebrate his wife’s birthday. Hitler’s men believed the news of Normandy landings insufficient to wake the Führer until 10 a.m. on June 6, nearly 10 hours after the airborne infiltration and three and a half hours after the marine assault had begun.

Allied soldiers faced deadly opposition, especially on Omaha Beach, which was defended by the Germans’ best division in northwestern France. But no troops had been sent to reinforce them for a sustained assault. The invasion was a complete surprise.

Hitler held steadfast to his belief that Normandy was a feint. By mid-July, the Allies had brought 30 divisions ashore in Normandy, but there were still 22 German divisions sitting in Pas de Calais, waiting for General Patton and the “real” invasion. Hitler did not begin to release them until July 27.

The British use of strategic deception had no precedent in military history; Wingate, the historian, called it “almost a new weapon.” It won the war. June 6, 1944 was Armageddon. London Control had ensured that only one side showed up.

Coming to a halt, Gregory waved the torch from side to side, then shone it into the impenetrable murk ahead. What they saw filled them with consternation. There was not a ripple on the water but it stretched from one side of the tunnel to the other and as far before them as the beam of light carried. Apparently, unless they were prepared to swim, it barred their further progress completely, and in its absolute stillness there was something vaguely menacing.Gregory flicked the torch out. Instantly the darkness closed in upon them like a pall.

Traitor’s Gate, 1958

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11. The Legacy

Dennis Wheatley’s World War II ended on December 22, 1944. He had spent three years as a deceiver. The war was largely won by then, and the most important deception was emerging from General Eisenhower’s headquarters in France.

Paper, like everything else, had been rationed during the war, so Wheatley’s books were not being reprinted. And as he had never been good at living within his means, particularly the means of an air force wing commander, Wheatley asked to go home and back to his writing.

A spy story would have been the obvious choice when Wheatley returned to his craft. After all, Gregory Sallust’s activities had stopped in 1941, and he had the rest of the war to win. But there was a problem: By now, Wheatley knew too much fact to safely write spy fiction; the Official Secrets Act loomed. Instead, he turned one of the more eccentric schemes of his war papers—a convoy of log rafts sailing the Gulf Stream—into fiction. It was a book about two people whose raft drifts down to Antarctica. He entitled it The Man Who Missed the War. The Sallust series resumed in 1946; in three  more books, Sallust saves the Soviet Union and, later, infiltrates Hitler’s bunker to convince the Führer to commit suicide.

Sallust’s lasting influence can be seen in the career of his true heir, James Bond. In 1953, Ian Fleming, Wheatley’s Naval Intelligence colleague, published Casino Royale, his first novel.

Although Bond lives on, he and Gregory Sallust seem like emissaries from the past. Today, the world of spy fiction—a world defined largely by John le Carré—is one of moral relativism and shades of gray, populated by weary men weighed down by existential doubt. Sallust and Bond, by contrast, are the debonair, ruthless, elegant, steely connoisseurs of luxurious goods and luxurious women. They are called in the most dangerous times; the most pivotal events turn around them. Their world is black and white, good vs. evil.

It is a caricature—but one that also describes the world of Sallust’s creator. Wheatley’s world, too, was black and white, good vs. evil. He was part of a small group of men who had a hand in nearly everything that mattered. Some of the deception coups Wheatley worked on—in a major role for the invasion of North Africa, as part of a larger group for D-Day—were as remarkable as anything he could dream up for Sallust. The espionage of Gregory Sallust did not stand the test of time. Only the espionage of Dennis Wheatley endures. 

Goodbye Surfing, Hello God!

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Goodbye Surfing, Hello God!

In 1966, Brian Wilson entered the studio to compose Smile, a Beach Boys album that he believed would change the band, and perhaps the face of popular music, forever. What happened next became legend.

By Jules Siegel

The Atavist Magazine, No. 08


Jules Siegel (1935-2012) was a writer and graphic designer whose work appeared over the years in Playboy, Best American Short Stories, Library of America’s Writing Los Angeles, and many other publications. His articles about Brian Wilson, Bob Dylan, Thomas Pynchon, and other prominent Americans are primary (and often unique) sources of information based on his personal acquaintance and extensive direct interviews with the subjects. He was also active in the field of book art, with works in the Artist Books Collection of the Museum of Modern Art and other institutional and private collections.

Cover Illustration: John R. Drury

Sound/Video Editor: Olivia Koski

Designer: Jefferson Rabb

Brian Wilson Photos: Michael Ochs and Ray Avery/Redferns, used with permission from Getty Images

The Smile Sessions Box Set, released by EMI Music, includes five CDs, two LPs, and two seven-inch singles of remastered Smile recordings, along with an incredible collection of archival material related to Smile. It is available in record stores and online.

Smile session music and conversation outtakes were originally recorded by the Beach Boys for Capitol Records and Brother Records. The video clip of Brian Wilson playing portions of “Surf’s Up” is from “Inside Pop: The Rock Revolution” appeared on CBS News in 1967.



Published in October 2011. Design updated in 2021.

This article originally ran in Cheetah magazine in 1967.

1.

It was just another day of greatness at Gold Star Recording Studios on Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood. In the morning four long-haired kids had knocked out two hours of sound for a record plugger who was trying to curry favor with a disc jockey friend of theirs in San Jose. Nobody knew it at the moment, but out of that two hours there were about three minutes that would hit the top of the charts in a few weeks, and the record plugger, the disc jockey and the kids would all be hailed as geniuses, but geniuses with a very small g.

Now, however, in the very same studio a Genius with a very large capital G was going to produce a hit. There was no doubt it would be a hit because this Genius was Brian Wilson. In four years of recording for Capitol Records, he and his group, the Beach Boys, had made surfing music a national craze, sold 16 million singles and earned gold records for 10 of their 12 albums.

Not only was Brian going to produce a hit, but also, one gathered, he was going to show everybody in the music business exactly where it was at; and where it was at, it seemed, was that Brian Wilson was not merely a Genius—which is to say a steady commercial success—but rather, like Bob Dylan and John Lennon, a GENIUS—which is to say a steady commercial success and hip besides.

Until now, though, there were not too many hip people who would have considered Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys hip, even though he had produced one very hip record, “Good Vibrations,” which had sold more than a million copies, and a super-hip album, Pet Sounds, which didn’t do very well at all—by previous Beach Boys sales standards. Among the hip people he was still on trial, and the question discussed earnestly among the recognized authorities on what is and what is not hip was whether or not Brian Wilson was hip, semi-hip or square.

But walking into the control room with the answers to all questions such as this was Brian Wilson himself, wearing a competition-stripe surfer’s T-shirt, tight white duck pants, pale green bowling shoes and a red plastic fireman’s helmet.

Everybody was wearing identical red plastic toy fireman’s helmets. Brian’s cousin and production assistant, Steve Korthoff was wearing one; his wife, Marilyn, and her sister, Diane Rovelle—Brian’s secretary—were also wearing them, and so was a once dignified writer from The Saturday Evening Post who had been following Brian around for two months.

Out in the studio, the musicians for the session were unpacking their instruments. In sport shirts and slacks, they looked like insurance salesmen and used-car dealers, except for one blond female percussionist who might have been stamped out by a special machine that supplied plastic mannequin housewives for detergent commercials.

Controlled, a little bored after 20 years or so of nicely paid anonymity, these were the professionals of the popular music business, hired guns who did their jobs expertly and efficiently and then went home to the suburbs. If you wanted swing, they gave you swing. A little movie-track lushness? Fine, here comes movie-track lushness. Now it’s rock and roll? Perfect rock and roll, down the chute.

“Steve,” Brian called out, “where are the rest of those fire hats? I want everybody to wear fire hats. We’ve really got to get into this thing.” Out to the Rolls-Royce went Steve and within a few minutes all of the musicians were wearing fire hats, silly grins beginning to crack their professional dignity.

“All right, let’s go,” said Brian. Then, using a variety of techniques ranging from vocal demonstration to actually playing the instruments, he taught each musician his part. A gigantic fire howled out of the massive studio speakers in a pounding crash of pictorial music that summoned up visions of roaring, windstorm flames, falling timbers, mournful sirens and sweating firemen, building into a peak and crackling off into fading embers as a single drum turned into a collapsing wall and the fire-engine cellos dissolved and disappeared.

“When did he write this?” asked an astonished pop music producer who had wandered into the studio. “This is really fantastic! Man, this is unbelievable! How long has he been working on it?”

“About an hour,” answered one of Brian’s friends.

“I don’t believe it. I just can’t believe what I’m hearing,” said the producer and fell into a stone glazed silence as the fire music began again.

For the next three hours, Brian Wilson recorded and re-recorded, take after take, changing the sound balance, adding echo, experimenting with a sound effects track of a real fire.

“Let me hear that again.” “Drums, I think you’re a little slow in that last part. Let’s get right on it.” “That was really good. Now, one more time, the whole thing.” “All right, let me hear the cellos alone.” “Great. Really great. Now let’s do it!”

With 23 takes on tape and the entire operation responding to his touch like the black knobs on the control board, sweat glistening down his long, reddish hair onto his freckled face, the control room a litter of dead cigarette butts, Chicken Delight boxes, crumpled napkins, Coke bottles and all the accumulated trash of the physical end of the creative process, Brian stood at the board as the four speakers blasted the music into the room.

For the 24th time, the drum crashed and the sound effects crackle faded and stopped.

“Thank you,” said Brian into the control room mic. “Let me hear that back.” Feet shifting, his body still, eyes closed, head moving seal-like to his music, he stood under the speakers and listened. “Let me hear that one more time.” Again the fire roared. “Everybody come out and listen to this,” Brian said to the musicians. They came into the room and listened to what they had made.

“What do you think?” Brian asked.

“It’s incredible, incredible,” whispered one of the musicians, a man in his fifties wearing a Hawaiian shirt and iridescent trousers and pointed black Italian shoes. “Absolutely incredible.”

“Yeah,” said Brian on the way home, an acetate trial copy or “dub” of the tape in his hands, the red plastic fire helmet still on his head. “Yeah, I’m going to call this ‘Mrs. O’Leary’s Fire’ and I think it might just scare a whole lot of people.”

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Brian Wilson, wearing a fireman’s helmet, directs a cameraman in a scene from a 1968 Beach Boys movie. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

2.

As it turns out, however, Brian Wilson’s magic fire music is not going to scare anybody—because nobody other than the few people who heard it in the studio will ever get to listen to it. A few days after the record was finished, a building across the street from the studio burned down and, according to Brian, there was also an unusually large number of fires in Los Angeles. Afraid that his music might in fact turn out to be magic fire music, Wilson destroyed the master.

“I don’t have to do a big scary fire like that,” he later said. “I can do a candle and it’s still a fire. That would have been a really bad vibration to let out on the world, that Chicago fire. The next one is going to be a candle.”

A person who thinks of himself as understanding would probably interpret this episode as an example of perhaps too-excessive artistic perfectionism. One with psychiatric inclinations would hear all this stuff about someone who actually believed music could cause fires and start using words such as “neurosis” and maybe even “psychosis.” A true student of spoken hip, however, would say “hang-up,” which covers all of the above.

As far as Brian’s pretensions toward hipness are concerned, no label could do him worse harm. In the hip world, there is a widespread idea that really hip people don’t have hang-ups, which gives rise to the unspoken rule (unspoken because there is also the widespread idea that really hip people don’t make any rules) that no one who wants to be thought of as hip ever reveals his hang-ups, except maybe to his guru, and in the strictest of privacy.

In any case, whatever his talent, Brian Wilson’s attempt to win a hip following and reputation foundered for many months in an obsessive cycle of creation and destruction that threatened not only his career and his future but also his marriage, his friendships, his relationship with the Beach Boys and, some of his closest friends worried, his mind.

For a boy who used to be known in adolescence as a lover of sweets, the whole thing must have begun to taste very sour; yet, this particular phase of Brian’s drive toward whatever his goal of supreme success might be began on a rising tide that at first looked as if it would carry him and the Beach Boys beyond the Beatles, who had started just about the same time they did, into the number-one position in the international pop music fame-and-power competition.

“About a year ago I had what I consider a very religious experience,” Wilson told Los Angeles writer Tom Nolan in 1966. “I took LSD, a full dose of LSD, and later, another time, I took a smaller dose. And I learned a lot of things, like patience, understanding. I can’t teach you or tell you what I learned from taking it, but I consider it a very religious experience.”

A short time after his LSD experience, Wilson began work on the record that was to establish him right along with the Beatles as one of the most important innovators in modern popular music. It was called “Good Vibrations,” and it took more than six months, 90 hours of tape and 11 complete versions before a three-minute-and-thirty-five-second final master tape satisfied him. Among the instruments on “Good Vibrations” was an electronic device called a theremin, which had its debut in the soundtrack of the movie Spellbound, back in the forties. To some people, “Good Vibrations” was considerably crazier than Gregory Peck had been in the movie, but to others Brian Wilson’s new record, along with his somewhat earlier LP release Pet Sounds, marked the beginning of a new era in pop music.

“They’ve Found the New Sound at Last!” shrieked the headline over a London Sunday Express review as “Good Vibrations” hit the English charts at number six and leaped to number one the following week. Within a few weeks, the Beach Boys had pushed the Beatles out of first place in England’s New Musical Express’ annual poll. In America, “Good Vibrations” sold nearly 400,000 copies in four days before reaching number one several weeks later and earning a gold record within another month when it hit the one-million sale mark.

In America, where there is none of the Beach Boys’ California mystique that adds a special touch of romance to their records and appearances in Europe and England, the news had not really reached all of the people whose opinion can turn popularity into fashionability. With the exception of a professor of show business (right, professor of show business; in California such a thing is not considered unusual) who turned up one night to interview Brian, and a few young writers (such as the Village Voice’s Richard Goldstein, Paul Williams of Crawdaddy!, and Lawrence Dietz of New York magazine), not too many opinion makers were prepared to accept the Beach Boys into the mainstream of the culture industry.

 “Listen man,” said San Francisco music critic Ralph Gleason, who had only recently graduated from jazz into Bob Dylan and was apparently not yet ready for any more violent twists, “I recognize the L.A. hype when I hear it. I know all about the Beach Boys and I think I liked them better before, if only for sociological reasons, if you understand what I mean.”

“As for the Beach Boys,” an editor of The Saturday Evening Post chided his writer, who had filed the world’s longest Western Union telegram of a story, “I want you to understand that as an individual you can feel that Brian Wilson is the greatest musician of our time, and maybe the greatest human being, but as a reporter you have got to maintain your objectivity.”

“They want me to put him down,” the writer complained. “That’s their idea of objectivity—the put-down.”

“It has to do with this idea that it’s not hip to be sincere,” he continued, “and they really want to be hip. What they don’t understand is that last year hip was sardonic—camp, they called it. This year hip is sincere.

“When somebody as corny as Brian Wilson starts singing right out front about God and I start writing it—very sincerely, you understand—it puts them very uptight.

“I think it’s because it reminds them of all those terribly sincere hymns and sermons they used to have to listen to in church when they were kids in Iowa or Ohio.

“Who knows? Maybe they’re right. I mean, who needs all this goddamn intense sincerity all the time?”

What all this meant, of course, was that everybody agreed that Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys were still too square. It would take more than “Good Vibrations” and Pet Sounds to erase three-and-a-half years of “Little Deuce Coupe”—a lot more if you counted in those J. C. Penney–style custom-tailored, candy-striped sport shirts they insisted on wearing on stage.

3.

Brian, however, had not yet heard the news, it appeared, and was steadily going about the business of trying to become hip. The Beach Boys, who have toured without him ever since he broke down during one particularly wearing trip, were now in England and Europe, phoning back daily reports of enthusiastic fan hysteria—screaming little girls tearing at their flesh, wild press conferences, private chats with the Rolling Stones. Washed in the heat of a kind of attention they had never received in the United States even at the height of their commercial success, three Beach Boys—Brian’s brothers, Dennis and Carl, and his cousin, Mike Love—walked into a London Rolls-Royce showroom and bought four Phantom VII limousines, one for each of them and a fourth for Brian. Al Jardine and Bruce Johnston, the Beach Boys who are not corporate members of the Beach Boys’ enterprises, sent their best regards and bought themselves some new clothing.

“I think this London thing has really helped,” said Brian with satisfaction after he had made the color selection on his $32,000 toy—a ducal-burgundy lacquered status symbol ordinarily reserved for heads of state. “That’s just what the boys needed, a little attention to jack up their confidence.” Then, learning that he wouldn’t be able to have his new car for three months, he went out and bought an interim Rolls-Royce for $20,000 from Mamas and Papas producer Lou Adler, taking possession of the automobile just in time to meet his group at the airport as they returned home.

“It’s a great environment for conducting business,” he explained as his friend and former road manager, Terry Sachen, hastily pressed into service as interim chauffeur for the interim Rolls-Royce, informally uniformed in his usual fringed deer-skins and moccasins, drove the car through Hollywood and to one of Brian’s favorite eating places, the Pioneer Chicken drive-in on Sunset Boulevard.

“This car is really out of sight,” said Brian, filling up on fried shrimp in the basket. “Next time we go up to Capitol, I’m going to drive up in my Rolls-Royce limo. You’ve got to do those things with a little style. It’s not just an ordinary visit that way—it’s an arrival, right? Wow! That’s really great—an arrival, in my limo. It’ll blow their minds!”

Whether or not the interim Rolls-Royce actually ever blew the minds of the hard-nosed executives who run Capitol Records is something to speculate on, but no one in the record industry with a sense of history could have failed to note that this very same limousine had once belonged to John Lennon; and in the closing months of 1966, with the Beach Boys home in Los Angeles, Brian rode the “Good Vibrations” high, driving forward in bursts of enormous energy that seemed destined before long to earn him the throne of the international empire of pop music still ruled by John Lennon and the Beatles.

At the time, it looked as if the Beatles were ready to step down. Their summer concerts in America had been only moderately successful at best, compared to earlier years. There were 10,000 empty seats at Shea Stadium in New York and 11 lonely fans at the airport in Seattle. Mass media, underground press, music-industry trade papers and the fan magazines were filled with fears that the Beatles were finished, that the group was breaking up. Lennon was off acting in a movie; McCartney was walking around London alone, said to be carrying a giant torch for his sometime girlfriend, Jane Asher; George Harrison was getting deeper and deeper into a mystical Indian thing under the instruction of sitar master Ravi Shankar; and Ringo was collecting material for a Beatles museum.

In Los Angeles, Brian Wilson was riding around in the Rolls-Royce that had once belonged to John Lennon, pouring a deluge of new sounds onto miles of stereo tape in three different recording studios booked day and night for him in month-solid blocks, holding court nightly at his $240,000 Beverly Hills Babylonian-modern home, and, after guests left, sitting at his grand piano until dawn, writing new material.

The work in progress was an album called Smile.

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The Beach Boys in Los Angeles, 1967. Clockwise from top left: Dennis Wilson, Al Jardine, Carl Wilson, Brian Wilson, and Mike Love. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
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Wilson in the studio, 1966. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

4.

“I’m writing a teenage symphony to God,” Brian told dinner guests on an October evening. He then played for them the collection of black acetate trial records that lay piled on the floor of his red-imitation-velvet-wallpapered bedroom with its leopard-print bedspread. In the bathroom, above the washbasin, there was a plastic color picture of Jesus Christ with trick-effect eyes that appeared to open and close when you moved your head. Sophisticate newcomers pointed it out to each other and laughed slyly, almost hoping to find a Keane painting among decorations ranging from lava lamps to a department store rack of dozens of dolls, each still in its plastic bubble container, the whole display trembling like a space-age Christmas tree to the music flowing out into the living room.

Brian shuffled through the acetates, most of which were unlabeled, identifying each by subtle differences in the patterns of the grooves. He had played them so often he knew the special look of each record the way you know the key to your front door by the shape of its teeth. Most were instrumental tracks, cut while the Beach Boys were in Europe, and for these Brian supplied the vocal in a high sound that seemed to come out of his head rather than his throat as he somehow managed to create complicated four- and five-part harmonies with only his own voice.

“Rock, rock, Plymouth rock and roll over,” Brian sang. “Bicycle rider, see what you done done to the church of the native American Indian… Over and over the crow cries uncover the cornfields. … Who ran the Iron Horse? … Out in the farmyard the cook is chopping lumber; out in the barnyard the chickens do their number. … Bicycle rider see what you done done…”

A panorama of American history filled the room as the music shifted from theme to theme; the tinkling harpsichord sounds of the bicycle rider pushed sad Indian sounds across the continent; the Iron Horse pounded across the plains in a wide-open rolling rhythm that summoned up visions of the Old West; civilized chickens bobbed up and down in a tiny ballet of comic barnyard melody; the inexorable bicycle music, cold and charming as an infinitely talented music box, reappeared and faded away.

Like medieval choirboys, the voices of the Beach Boys pealed out in wordless prayer from the last acetate, thirty seconds of chorale that reached upward to the vaulted stone ceilings of an empty cathedral lit by thousands of tiny votive candles melting at last into one small, pure pool that whispered a universal amen in a sigh without words.

Brian’s private radio show was finished. In the dining room a candlelit table with a dark blue cloth was set for ten persons. In the kitchen, Marilyn Wilson was trying to get the meal organized and served, aided and hindered by the chattering suggestions of the guests’ wives and girlfriends. When everyone was seated and waiting for the food, Brian tapped his knife idly on a white china plate.

“Listen to that,” he said. “That’s really great!” Everybody listened as Brian played the plate. “Come on, let’s get something going here,” he ordered. “Michael—do this. David—you do this.” A plate-and-spoon musicale began to develop as each guest played a distinctly different technique, rhythm and melody under Brian’s enthusiastic direction.

“That’s absolutely unbelievable!” said Brian. “Isn’t that unbelievable? That’s so unbelievable I’m going to put it on the album. Michael, I want you to get a sound system up here tomorrow and I want everyone to be here tomorrow night. We’re going to get this on tape.” Brian Wilson’s plate-and-spoon musicale never did reach the public, but only because he forgot about it. Other sounds equally strange have found their way onto his records. On Pet Sounds, for example, on some tracks there is an odd, soft, hollow percussion effect that most musicians assume is some kind of electronically transmuted drum sound—a conga drum played with a stick perhaps, or an Indian tom-tom. Actually, it’s drummer Hal Blaine playing the bottom of a plastic jug that once contained Sparklettes spring water. And, of course, at the end of the record there is the strangely affecting track of a train roaring through a lonely railroad crossing as a bell clangs and Brian’s dog, Banana, a beagle, and Louie, a dark brown Weimaraner, bark after it.

More significant, perhaps, to those who that night heard the original instrumental tracks for both Smile and the Beach Boys’ new single, “Heroes and Villains,” is that entire sequences of extraordinary power and beauty are missing in the finished version of the single, and will undoubtedly be missing as well from Smile—victims of Brian’s obsessive tinkering and, more importantly, sacrifices to the same strange combination of superstitious fear and God-like conviction of his own power he displayed when he destroyed the fire music.

The night of the dining table concerto, it was the God-like confidence Brian must have been feeling as he put his guests on his trip, but the fear was soon to take over. At his house that night, he had assembled a new set of players to introduce into his life game, each of whom was to perform a specific role in the grander game he was playing with the world.

Earlier in the summer, Brian had hired Van Dyke Parks, a super-sophisticated young songwriter and composer, to collaborate with him on the lyrics for Smile. With Van Dyke working for him, he had a fighting chance against John Lennon, whose literary skill and Liverpudlian wit had been one of the most important factors in making the Beatles the darlings of the hip intelligentsia.

With that flank covered, Brian was ready to deal with some of the other problems of trying to become hip, the most important of which was how he was going to get in touch with some really hip people. In effect, the dinner party at the house was his first hip social event, and the star of the evening, so far as Brian was concerned, was Van Dyke Parks’s manager, David Anderle, who showed up with a whole group of very hip people.

Elegant, cool and impossibly cunning, Anderle was an artist who somehow found himself in the record business as an executive for MGM Records, where he had earned himself a reputation as a genius by purportedly thinking up the million-dollar movie-TV-record offer that briefly lured Bob Dylan to MGM from Columbia until everybody had a change of heart and Dylan decided to go back home to Columbia.

Anderle had skipped back and forth between painting and the record business, with mixed results in both. Right now he was doing a little personal management and thinking about painting a lot. His appeal to Brian was simple: everybody recognized David Anderle as one of the hippest people in Los Angeles. In fact, he was something like the mayor of hipness as far as some people were concerned. And not only that, he was a genius.

Within six weeks, he was working for the Beach Boys; everything that Brian wanted seemed at last to be in reach. Like a magic genie, David Anderle produced miracles for him. A new Beach Boys record company was set up, Brother Records, with David Anderle at its head and, simultaneously, the Beach Boys sued Capitol Records in a move to force a renegotiation of their contract with the company.

The house was full of underground press writers. Anderle’s friend Michael Vosse was on the Brother Records payroll out scouting TV contacts and performing other odd jobs. Another of Anderle’s friends was writing the story on Brian for The Saturday Evening Post and a film crew from CBS TV was up at the house for a documentary to be narrated by Leonard Bernstein. The Beach Boys were having meetings once or twice a week with teams of experts briefing them on corporate policy, drawing complicated chalk patterns as they described the millions of dollars everyone was going to earn out of all this.

As 1967 opened it seemed as though Brian and the Beach Boys were assured of a new world of success; yet something was going wrong. As the corporate activity reached a peak of intensity, Brian was becoming less and less productive and more and more erratic. Smile, which was to have been released for the Christmas season, remained unfinished. “Heroes and Villains,” which was virtually complete, remained in the can, as Brian kept working out new little pieces and then scrapping them.

Van Dyke Parks had left and come back and would leave again, tired of being constantly dominated by Brian. Marilyn Wilson was having headaches and Dennis Wilson was leaving his wife. Session after session was canceled. One night a studio full of violinists waited while Brian tried to decide whether or not the vibrations were friendly or hostile. The answer was hostile and the session was canceled, at a cost of some $3,000. Everything seemed to be going wrong. Even the Post story fell through.

5.

Brian seemed to be filled with secret fear. One night at the house, it began to surface. Marilyn sat nervously painting her fingernails as Brian stalked up and down, his face tight and his eyes small and red.

“What’s the matter, Brian? You’re really strung out,” a friend asked.

“Yeah, I’m really strung out. Look, I mean I really feel strange. A really strange thing happened to me tonight. Did you see this picture, Seconds?”

“No, but I know what it’s about; I read the book.”

“Look, come into the kitchen; I really have to talk about this.” In the kitchen they sat down in the black-and-white houndstooth-check wallpapered dinette area. A striped window shade clashed with the checks and the whole room vibrated like some kind of op art painting. Ordinarily, Brian wouldn’t sit for more than a minute in it, but now he seemed to be unaware of anything except what he wanted to say.

“I walked into that movie,” he said in a tense, high-pitched voice, “and the first thing that happened was a voice from the screen said ‘Hello, Mr. Wilson.’ It completely blew my mind. You’ve got to admit that’s pretty spooky, right?”

 “Maybe.”

“That’s not all. Then the whole thing was there. I mean my whole life. Birth and death and rebirth. The whole thing. Even the beach was in it, a whole thing about the beach. It was my whole life right there on the screen.”

“It’s just a coincidence, man. What are you getting all excited about?”

“Well, what if it isn’t a coincidence? What if it’s real? You know there’s mind gangsters these days. There could be mind gangsters, couldn’t there? I mean look at Spector, he could be involved in it, couldn’t he? He’s going into films. How hard would it be for him to set up something like that?”

“Brian, Phil Spector is not about to make a million-dollar movie just to scare you. Come on, stop trying to be so dramatic.”

“All right, all right. I was just a little bit nervous about it.”

Brian said, after some more back-and-forth about the possibility that Phil Spector, the record producer, had somehow influenced the making of Seconds to disturb Brian Wilson’s tranquility. “I just had to get it out of my system. You can see where something like that could scare someone, can’t you?”

They went into Brian’s den, a small room papered in psychedelic orange, blue, yellow and red wall fabric with rounded corners. At the end of the room there was a jukebox filled with Beach Boys singles and Phil Spector hits. Brian punched a button and Spector’s “Be My Baby” began to pour out at top volume.

“Spector has always been a big thing with me, you know. I mean I heard that song three and a half years ago and I knew that it was between him and me. I knew exactly where he was at and now I’ve gone beyond him. You can understand how that movie might get someone upset under those circumstances, can’t you?”

Brian sat down at his desk and began to draw a little diagram on a piece of printed stationery with his name at the top in the kind of large fat script printers of charitable-dinner journals use when the customer asks for a hand-lettered look. With a felt-tip pen, Brian drew a close approximation of a growth curve. “Spector started the whole thing,” he said, dividing the curve into periods. “He was the first one to use the studio. But I’ve gone beyond him now. I’m doing the spiritual sound, a white spiritual sound. Religious music. Did you hear the Beatles album? Religious, right? That’s the whole movement. That’s where I’m going. It’s going to scare a lot of people.

“Yeah,” Brian said, hitting his fist on the desk with a slap that sent the parakeets in the large cage facing him squalling and whistling. “Yeah,” he said and smiled for the first time all evening. “That’s where I’m going and it’s going to scare a lot of people when I get there.”

As the year drew deeper into winter, Brian’s rate of activity grew more and more frantic, but nothing seemed to be accomplished. He tore the house apart and half redecorated it. One section of the living room was filled with a full-size Arabian tent, and the dining room, where the grand piano stood, was filled with sand to a depth of a foot or so and draped with nursery curtains. He had had his windows stained gray and put a sauna bath in the bedroom. He battled with his father and complained that his brothers weren’t trying hard enough. He accused Mike Love of making too much money.

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Phil Spector (foreground, with vest) with Brian Wilson and other members of the Beach Boys and Righteous Brothers, at Gold Star Studios in 1965. (Photo by Ray Avery/Redferns)

6.

One by one, he canceled out the friends he had collected, sometimes for the strangest reasons. An acquaintance of several months who thought he had become extremely close with Brian showed up at a record session and found a guard barring the door. Michael Vosse came out to explain.

“Hey man, this is really terrible,” said Vosse, smiling under a broad-brimmed straw hat. “It’s not you, it’s your chick. Brian says she’s a witch and she’s messing with his brain so bad by ESP that he can’t work. It’s like the Spector thing. You know how he is. Say, I’m really sorry.” A couple of months later, Vosse was gone. Then, in the late spring, Anderle left. The game was over.

Several months later, the last move in Brian’s attempt to win the hip community was played out. On July 15, the Beach Boys were scheduled to appear at the Monterey International Pop Music Festival, a kind of summit of rock music with the emphasis on love, flowers and youth. Although Brian was a member of the board of this nonprofit event, the Beach Boys canceled their commitment to perform. The official reason was that their negotiations with Capitol Records were at a crucial stage and they had to get “Heroes and Villains” out right away. The second official reason was that Carl, who had been arrested for refusing to report for induction into the Army (he was later cleared in court), was so upset that he wouldn’t be able to sing.

Whatever the merit in these reasons, the real one may have been closer to something Monterey board member John Phillips of the Mamas and Papas suggested: “Brian was afraid that the hippies from San Francisco would think the Beach Boys were square and boo them.”

But maybe Brian was right. “Those candy-striped shirts just wouldn’t have made it at Monterey, man,” said David Anderle.

Whatever the case, at the end of the summer, “Heroes and Villains” was released in sharply edited form and Smile was reported to be on its way. In the meantime, however, the Beatles had released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and John Lennon was riding about London in a bright yellow Phantom VII Rolls-Royce painted with flowers on the sides and his zodiac symbol on the top. In Life magazine, Paul McCartney came out openly for LSD and in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco George Harrison walked through the streets blessing the hippies. Ringo was still collecting material for a Beatles museum. However good Smile might turn out to be, it seemed somehow that once more the Beatles had outdistanced the Beach Boys.

Back during that wonderful period in the fall of 1966 when everybody seemed to be his friend and plans were being laid for Brother Records and all kinds of fine things, Brian had gone on a brief visit to Michigan to hear a Beach Boys concert. The evening of his return, each of his friends and important acquaintances received a call asking everyone to please come to the airport to meet Brian, it was very important. When they gathered at the airport, Brian had a photographer on hand to take a series of group pictures. For a long time, a huge mounted blow-up of the best of the photographs hung on the living room wall, with some 30 people staring out—everyone from Van Dyke Parks and David Anderle to Michael Vosse and Terry Sachen. In the foreground was The Saturday Evening Post writer looking sourly out at the world.

The picture is no longer on Brian’s wall and most of the people in it are no longer his friends. One by one each of them has either stepped out of the picture or been forced out of it. The whole cycle has returned to its beginning. Brian, who started out in Hawthorne, California, with his two brothers and a cousin, once more has surrounded himself with relatives. The house in Beverly Hills is empty. Brian and Marilyn are living in their new Spanish Mission estate in Bel-Air, cheek by jowl with the Mamas and Papas’ Cass Elliott.

What remains, of course, is “Heroes and Villains.” And there is also a spectacular peak, a song called “Surf’s Up” that Brian recorded for the first time in December in Columbia Records Studio A for a CBS TV pop music documentary. Earlier in the evening the film crew had covered a Beach Boys vocal session that had gone very badly. Now, at midnight, the Beach Boys had gone home and Brian was sitting in the back of his car, smoking a joint.

In the dark car, he breathed heavily, his hands in his lap, eyes staring nowhere.

“All right,” he said at last. “Let’s just sit here and see if we can get into something positive, but without any words. Let’s just get into something quiet and positive on a nonverbal level.” There was a long silence.

“OK, let’s go,” he said, and then, quickly, he was in the studio rehearsing, spotlighted in the center of the huge dark room, the cameramen moving about him invisibly outside the light.

“Let’s do it,” he announced, and the tape began to roll. In the control room no one moved.

7.

David Oppenheim, the TV producer, fortyish, handsome, usually studiously detached and professional, lay on the floor, hands behind his head, eyes closed. For three minutes and 27 seconds, Wilson played with delicate intensity, speaking moodily through the piano. Then he was finished. Oppenheim, whose last documentary had been a study of Stravinsky, lay motionless.

“That’s it,” Wilson said as the tape continued to whirl. The mood broke. As if awakening from heavy sleep the people stirred and shook their heads.

“I’d like to hear that,” Wilson said. As his music replayed, he sang the lyrics in a high, almost falsetto voice, the cameras on him every second.

“The diamond necklace played the pawn,” Wilson sang. “A blind class aristocracy, back through the opera glass you see the pit and the pendulum drawn.

“Columnated ruins domino,” his voice reached upward; the piano faltered a set of falling chords.

In a slow series of impressionistic images the song moved to its ending:

I heard the word:
Wonderful thing!
A children’s song!

On the last word Brian’s voice rose and fell, like the ending of that prayer chorale he had played so many months before.

“That’s really special,” someone said.

“Special, that’s right,” said Wilson quietly. “Van Dyke and I really kind of thought we had done something special when we finished that one.” He went back into the studio, put on the earphones and sang the song again for his audience in the control room, for the revolving tape recorder and for the cameras that relentlessly followed as he struggled to make manifest what still only existed as a perfect, incommunicable sound in his head.

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Brian and Marilyn Wilson, 1965. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

8.

At home, as the black acetate dub turned on his bedroom hi-fi set, Wilson tried to explain the words.

“It’s a man at a concert,” he said. “All around him there’s the audience, playing their roles, dressed up in fancy clothes, looking through opera glasses, but so far away from the drama, from life—‘Back through the opera glass you see the pit and the pendulum drawn.’”

“The music begins to take over. ‘Columnated ruins domino.’ Empires, ideas, lives, institutions—everything has to fall, tumbling like dominoes.

“He begins to awaken to the music; sees the pretentiousness of everything. ‘The music hall a costly bow.’ Then even the music is gone, turned into a trumpeter swan, into what the music really is.

“‘Canvas the town and brush the backdrop.’ He’s off in his vision, on a trip. Reality is gone; he’s creating it like a dream. ‘Dove-nested towers.’ Europe, a long time ago. ‘The laughs come hard in Auld Lang Syne.’ The poor people in the cellar taverns, trying to make themselves happy by singing.

“Then there’s the parties, the drinking, trying to forget the wars, the battles at sea. ‘While at port adieu or die.’ Ships in the harbor, battling it out. A kind of Roman empire thing.

“‘A choke of grief.’ At his own sorrow and the emptiness of his life, because he can’t even cry for the suffering in the world, for his own suffering.

“And then, hope. ‘Surf ’s up! . . . Come about hard and join the once and often spring you gave.’ Go back to the kids, to the beach, to childhood.

“‘I heard the word’—of God; ‘Wonderful thing’—the joy of enlightenment, of seeing God. And what is it? ‘A children’s song!’ And then there’s the song itself, the song of children, the song of the universe rising and falling in wave after wave, the song of God, hiding the love from us, but always letting us find it again, like a mother singing to her children.”

The record was over. Wilson went into the kitchen and squirted Reddi-wip direct from the can into his mouth, made himself a chocolate Great Shake, and ate a couple of candy bars.

“Of course that’s a very intellectual explanation,” he said. “But maybe sometimes you have to do an intellectual thing. If they don’t get the words, they’ll get the music. You can get hung up in words, you know. Maybe they work; I don’t know.” He fidgeted with a telescope.

“This thing is so bad,” he complained. “So Mickey Mouse. It just won’t work smoothly. I was really freaked out on astronomy when I was a kid. Baseball, too. I guess I went through a lot of phases. A lot of changes, too. But you can really get into things through the stars. And swimming. A lot of swimming. It’s physical; really Zen, right? The whole spiritual thing is very physical. Swimming really does it sometimes.” He sprawled on the couch and continued in a very small voice.

“So that’s what I’m doing. Spiritual music.”

“Brian,” Marilyn called as she came into the room wearing a quilted bathrobe, “do you want me to get you anything, honey? I’m going to sleep.”

“No, Mar,” he answered, rising to kiss his wife good night. “You go on to bed. I want to work for a while.”

“C’mon kids,” Marilyn yelled to the dogs as she padded off to bed. “Time for bed. Louie! Banana! Come to bed. Good night, Brian. Good night, everybody.”

Wilson paced. He went to the piano and began to play. His guests moved toward the door. From the piano, his feet shuffling in the sand, he called a perfunctory goodbye and continued to play, a melody beginning to take shape. Outside, the piano spoke from the house. Brian Wilson’s guests stood for a moment, listening. As they got into their car, the melancholy piano moaned.

“Here’s one that’s really outasight from the fantabulous Beach Boys!” screamed a local early morning Top 40 deejay from the car radio on the way home, a little hysterical as usual, his voice drowning out the sobbing introduction to the song.

“We’re sending this one out for Bob and Carol in Pomona. They’ve been going steady now for six months. Happy six months, kids, and dig! ‘Good Vibrations’! The Beach Boys! Outasight!”

Piano Demon

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Piano Demon

The globetrotting, gin-soaked, too-short life of Teddy Weatherford, the Chicago jazzman who conquered Asia.

By Brendan I. Koerner

The Atavist Magazine, No. 01


Brendan I. Koerner is an award-winning journalist and the author of Now the Hell Will Start: One Soldier’s Flight From the Greatest Manhunt of World War II (Penguin, 2008), which he is currently adapting for Spike Lee. He is also a contributing editor at Wired whose work regularly appears in The New York Times, Slate, and many other publications. Find him at www.microkhan.com or on Twitter @brendankoerner.

Editor: Evan Ratliff
Designer: Jefferson Rabb
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Special Thanks: Susheel Kurien, who is currently working on a documentary about the Calcutta jazz scene; Naresh Fernandes, author of a forthcoming book about jazz and Bollywood; Jehangir Dalal, who generously shared his Weatherford-related correspondence; Amba Kak, our Calcutta correspondent; Bradley Shope of the University of North Texas; Peter Darke and Ralph Gulliver of Storyville; the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts; the University of Missouri-Kansas City Library; the Chicago Public Library; the William P. Gottlieb Collection at the Library of Congress; and Ta-Nehisi Coates.

Published in January 2011. Design updated in 2021.

1. Calcutta, 1945

The man they called the Seagull was lost in a thunderous solo, his vast hands skipping across the piano keys as his rhythm section strained to keep pace. Sweat pooled around the collar of his white sharkskin suit, but Asia’s greatest jazz star was too juiced on highballs to mind the monsoon broil. He just rocked back and forth on his three-legged stool, attacking the tune.

Beneath the unadorned stage at the Winter Garden, an open-air nightclub at Calcutta’s Grand Hotel, hundreds of young bodies moved to the music. There were American GIs in crisp tan uniforms, British Tommies blotto on gin, and Anglo-Indian girls looking for love, all illuminated by lanterns strung from the columns and arches that ringed the dance floor. Waiters in starched red jackets darted between the whirling patrons, carting off the remnants of chicken dinners and baked Alaskas.

But one American soldier wasn’t joining in the mirth. He stood motionless at the foot of the stage,  snarling. By his side was his unusual pet, recently liberated from the forests of Assam, more than 500 miles to the northeast: a young sloth bear the size of a Siberian husky, with a heavy chain draped around its neck.

The soldier had a problem with the color of the pianist’s skin. And he decided to make his opinion known by turning his pet into a missile.

“Here, Teddy!” he shouted as he chucked the bear toward the stage. “Here’s your brother!”

The bear slammed into Teddy “Seagull” Weatherford and, startled by its sudden flight, sank its claws into the pianist’s coat. Scraps of fabric flew about the stage like confetti as the dancers froze and gawked.

The bear continued tearing its way through Weatherford’s clothes until the thickset pianist finally cast off his ursine assailant. Weatherford was tempted to leap into the crowd and pummel the jerk who’d tossed the poor beast, but he kept his cool. Such loutish behavior would be unbecoming for a man of his status.

And so despite his tattered coat and lacerated flesh, Weatherford sat back down at his piano and resumed playing. Dancers grabbed their partners and trays of drinks made the rounds as if the bear attack had only been a dream. No racist son of a bitch was going to make Weatherford look the fool in Calcutta.

This was his town. Calcutta belonged to Teddy.

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Teddy Weatherford (right) aboard the SS President Hoover with violinist Joe McCutchin.

2. The Count Basie of the Far East

The Lower Circular Road Cemetery in Calcutta, where esteemed British soldiers and diplomats were once laid to rest, is in appalling shape. Cracked tombstones lie hidden beneath clumps of scraggly vines, and piles of pulverized red brick litter the muddy ground. Genealogists who scour the plots for an ancestor’s grave often discover that it has vanished entirely, lost to decades of neglect.

In one of the cemetery’s most forsaken corners, a large crypt shows traces of having been ransacked by thieves. Its granite lid has been pried loose, allowing armies of insects free passage in and out of the vessel. The marble headstone is overgrown with weeds, which must be hacked away in order to read the inscription:

In loving remembrance of TEDDY WEATHERFORD Died 25th April 1945 A WONDERFUL PIANIST AND FRIEND. May his soul rest in peace.

Weatherford usually receives no more than a skeletal paragraph in jazz histories. His Wikipedia entry is thinly sourced and error-ridden; his music is almost entirely absent from the Internet. He is the sort of figure whom scholars typically dismiss with a single, damning noun: footnote.

But in his heyday, Weatherford was a giant of American music, a singular artist who was revered on both sides of the Pacific even before the advent of jet travel. When he died in the waning days of World War II, 40,000 grieving Calcuttans lined the city’s streets to watch his flower-strewn casket pass. Back in the U.S., the nation’s leading black newspaper, the Chicago Defender, mourned the untimely demise of the man they called the Count Basie of the Far East:

Well known throughout the Far East where he had spent the last 20 years, Teddy came to Calcutta from Shanghai, China shortly after the Jap invasion there. Since the outbreak of the Pacific war, resulting in thousands of American troops being stationed here, Weatherford had become a byword among GIs. Nightly both white and colored soldiers accompanied by the Anglo-Indian version of the bobby socks girls crowded the dance floor at the Wintergardens, for Teddy’s band produced the best jitterbug music out here. Tall, dark with a thick head of bushy hair he also presented one of the most colorful spectacles in this city of many races as he and his attractive Anglo-Indian wife moved from place to place.

Weatherford was more than just a romantic troubadour. He was the quintessential embodiment of the American dream: Born into desperate circumstances, Weatherford leveraged an innate talent and an appetite for risk into a kind of success that his forebears could never have imagined. But to find it, he would have to abandon his native land and seek his fortune a world away.

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3. Millionaire Town

In the earliest years of the 20th century, there were few places in America more outwardly prosperous than Pocahontas, Virginia. The town’s streets were lined with elegant homes boasting ornate metal facades custom-manufactured in the foundries of St. Louis. An opera house played host to traveling Broadway productions and the very best in vaudeville entertainment. A few miles away, just across the West Virginia state line, lay the Victorian mansions of Bramwell, an enclave so affluent that it was known nationwide as Millionaire Town.

The money flowed thanks to the abundance of coal, mined in Pocahontas and hauled off to power the textile mills of the Carolinas, the steel plants of Ohio, and the giant excavating machines just beginning to dig through the Isthmus of Panama. The local mine had opened in 1882 and was purchased in 1891 by the Norfolk & Western Railway, of which the Pocahontas Coal and Coke Company was a subsidiary. The company specialized in a strong-arm business tactic: purchasing coal from the region’s other mines at heavily discounted prices. Mines that refused to play along were denied access to the Norfolk & Western’s routes to key markets such as Cincinnati; Durham, North Carolina; and the bustling ports of eastern Virginia. It was a supremely profitable racket for the men atop the railway’s hierarchy.

The men who actually liberated the coal from the earth, by contrast, risked life and limb for the slimmest rewards. Central European immigrants and African-Americans worked side by side in the Pocahontas mines, harvesting fuel with pickaxes and sticks of dynamite. They were paid in scrip redeemable only at the overpriced company store and treated to a single communal bath each week. Their homes were wooden hovels located on the town’s rural outskirts, where hungry panthers occasionally preyed on small children.

To transport the coal from the mine’s bowels to the surface, miners piled it onto tramcars that wobbled toward the iron doors separating the pitch-black tunnels from the outside world. Stationed just inside these doors were trapper boys, sometimes just four or five years old. Their job was to open the doors to let the trams pass, as well as bring some much-needed ventilation into the mines. They worked 12-hour shifts in near total darkness for roughly seven cents a day. Among their ranks was an African-American boy named Theodore Weatherford.

Weatherford was born in Pocahontas in 1902 or 1903, in the kitchen of the shack owned by his father, Jack, a veteran miner and the son of slaves. Sent to work as a trapper boy when he was barely old enough to speak in full sentences, Teddy exhibited early affinities for both music and mischief. “He was musically inclined from the start, and he wouldn’t stay at home,” one of his brothers, Sam Weatherford, would recall years later. “We never knew where he was. He worked on the tramway up to the mine, all the boys did, but he got the boys in a band to play music. Then he started playing himself.”

The Pocahontas mines where the Weatherford males toiled were notoriously lethal. In 1884 the town was the site of what remains one of America’s worst mining disasters, an explosion that claimed the lives of all 114 men on duty. Despite the ensuing cry for stricter safety measures, fatal accidents occurred with alarming regularity. In one 1901 incident, at least 13 men were killed and 25 severely injured by fire and poisonous fumes. Eight of the dead were mine officials who rushed into the tunnels to assist with the rescues, only to be overcome by blackdamp gas and then eaten by giant rats. Five years later, another 21 men were incinerated in a massive explosion that caused the earth to tremble miles away.

A similar tragedy, though, may actually have saved Teddy from a life belowground. In 1907, Jack Weatherford was nearly killed in a mine explosion. The accident left him blind and deaf, unable to provide for his family. So young Teddy was sent across the state line to Bluefield, West Virginia, to live with his much older sister, Lovie Poindexter. Fortunately for Teddy, Lovie’s husband was not a miner but a train brakeman for the Norfolk & Western—a relatively lucrative job for African-Americans at the time—which meant that Teddy could be spared further labor in the mines. His new home, located near the Bluefield rail station, contained an upright piano, and Lovie gave him his first formal lessons. It didn’t take long for the pupil to eclipse the teacher; Teddy, as it turned out, was blessed with the ability to play by ear.

Weatherford sharpened his skills by striking up a friendship with an older boy named Maceo Pinkard, with whom he spent countless hours trading piano riffs. (Pinkard would later move to New York and become famous for penning the classic tune “Sweet Georgia Brown.”) In his teens, Weatherford also briefly attended the Bluefield Colored Institute, where he learned the basics of music theory before dropping out and joining a popular Bluefield dance band. Playing gigs above a local pharmacy, the band developed a following among the town’s ragtime lovers, who thrilled to the percussive style of play Weatherford had developed. “Teddy didn’t have to have no band around him,” recalled one of the pianist’s childhood friends. “He could make as much music with just a drummer or a saxophone player as any 12- or 15-piece band.”

Weatherford soon earned a promotion to a traveling band headed by a saxophonist named Ben Harris. The group was a so-called territory band, an outfit whose circuit primarily consisted of minor and midsize towns starved for decent music. Weatherford’s first foray out of Virginia’s coal country took him west, to the banks of the Illinois River, as the band wended its way north through the dance halls of Peoria—and, in 1920 up to the cultural mecca of Chicago.

There, the budding pianist’s fortunes took another unexpected turn. Harris took gravely ill upon hitting town, and his band disintegrated. At 17, Teddy Weatherford suddenly found himself in America’s second largest city, unemployed, friendless, and 500 miles from home.

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A young Teddy Weatherford. “Teddy didn’t need to have no band around him,” a friend recalled.

4. Chicago

Chicagoans who concerned themselves with matters of moral hygiene believed that Prohibition would kill the city’s jazz scene, thereby saving countless young girls from the scourges of psychosis and sexual degeneracy. In 1921 an organization called the Illinois Vigilance Association reported that no fewer than 1,000 Chicago girls had been driven to prostitution through their exposure to jazz music. The group highlighted one particularly sordid tale of an innocent girl gone wrong:

She was born in Chicago of good parents who exhausted every resource on her behalf. Although but 18 years old when brought into court, she had been frequenting jazz dances for over three years. Beginning when less than 15 years of age in the more expensive dance palaces of the north side she gradually drifted down to rougher ones on the west side. The same type of music was played in all the halls. This sex-infuriating music, combined with other conditions, led to her first indiscretion. This was followed by a life of promiscuity, the act often taking place in the halls and corridor of the building in which the dance was held. She finally met a man at a certain hall, ran away with him, and was subsequently deserted. When arrested she was living in a disorderly flat with Negroes.

Other anti-jazz activists characterized the music as Bolshevik in nature, likely to expose Chicago’s youth to the toxic ideals of Communism. But once the clubs were deprived of their ability to profit from the sale of booze, the moralists hoped, the jazz fad would be replaced by more wholesome entertainments. “The brainless messes of jazz which have so frequently been served up to us in the past could only, as we have always felt, appeal to jagged [drunk] patrons,” declared a Chicago Daily Tribune editorial in August 1920. “There is a connection stronger than alliteration between jag and jazz. If the producers have come to a realization of the fact, we can look forward to the theatrical future with a stronger hope than ever before.”

Yet the moral renaissance was not to be, as Mayor William “Big Bill” Thompson ceded the city’s nightlife to the rum-dealing underworld in exchange for bribes. The Republican mayor also enjoyed cozy relations with Chicago’s growing African-American community, which had helped him win election in 1919, after the city had been scarred by a bloody race riot. Thompson had every reason to avoid upsetting his electoral base, so he turned a blind eye to the rapid proliferation of Prohibition-bending jazz clubs around State Street, Washington Park, and other South Side neighborhoods.

As a result, when Teddy Weatherford was cut loose in Chicago, he had no trouble finding piano work in a series of seedy cabarets. Drunken patrons sometimes lunged at each other with butcher knives, but the teenage Weatherford got the chance to earn some money and hone his skills. He quickly gained minor renown not only for his playing, but also for his oversize personality; an inveterate prankster with a love for hooch, Weatherford was a magnet for attention. He soon caught the eye of the trumpeter Jimmy Wade, who was putting together an orchestra to play the recently opened Moulin Rouge Café on South Wabash Avenue, and who had already recruited a star violinist named Eddie South. Located in an old chop-suey joint and owned by a mobbed-up Frenchman, the Moulin Rouge evoked the bordello feel of its Parisian namesake: walls lined with red velvet wallpaper, balconies flecked with gold leaf. Its tuxedoed staff was known for its tolerance of hip flasks and for generously providing covert tipplers with glasses of soda or tonic.

Though located in a decidedly white part of town, the Moulin Rouge was eager to hire black musicians, the better to attract a large mixed-race crowd. Weatherford was soon hailed as one of Chicago’s top pianists, alongside Earl Hines and a mysterious virtuoso who went only by the name Toothpick. When the legendary Jelly Roll Morton arrived in town in 1923, he was said to be floored by the young Weatherford’s skill.

The fortunes of Wade’s band were tied to those of the Moulin Rouge, which often made for rough times. The café was temporarily shuttered after a raid by federal liquor agents in 1922. Two years later, its facade was destroyed in a firebombing blamed on a rivalry with competing clubs. So when a bandleader named Erskine Tate came to poach Weatherford in 1925, the pianist was happy to shake free of the troubled joint.

Tate’s orchestra had a steady gig at a 1,300-seat movie palace called the Vendome Theater. It was the city’s foremost black cinema, having been installed in a former German-American cultural center for the exorbitant sum of $250,000. The Vendome anchored a four-block stretch of  State Street known as the Negro Great White Way for its surfeit of popular clubs, the fame of which spread so far that many Southern blacks arriving in the Great Migration were convinced that, as one put it, “State Street would be heaven itself.”

Unlike the raucous clubs where Weatherford had made his name, the Vendome catered to an upscale black clientele—doctors, lawyers, and businessmen who were guided to their private boxes by finely attired usherettes and who puffed on Cuban stogies inside the theater’s oak-lined smoking room. As the Vendome’s house orchestra, Tate’s group was responsible for providing live accompaniment for the theater’s silent movies and for keeping the patrons entertained during intermission. The 10-piece orchestra was considered among Chicago’s best. Weatherford had been chosen right around the same time as an equally lauded up-and-comer, a young New Orleans–born cornetist named Louis Armstrong.

Weatherford and Armstrong played together under Tate’s direction for a year, during which the orchestra cut two sides for an early jazz label called Vocalion Records: “Static Strut” and “Stomp Off, Let’s Go.” The former includes a hard-driving solo by Weatherford that, even at a mere 15 seconds, is enough to reveal his prodigious talent.

Things were moving fast for the pianist, who had yet to celebrate his 23rd birthday. Weatherford even tried his hand at songwriting, usually opting for tunes that revealed his bawdy sense of humor: One of his best-known songs was titled “Oh Gee, Oh Gosh, I’m Married But I’m Loving Some Other Girl.”

Still, Weatherford was getting restless. Armstrong, growing in musical stature, soon left the Tate band for a spot at the Sunset Café, one of Al Capone’s main joints. And Weatherford, for all his success in the competitive world of Chicago jazz, began to feel he wasn’t receiving his proper due. As his bandmate Preston Jackson would later recall, Weatherford had a powerful thirst for recognition, one that could never be sated until he was considered a pianist without peer. He also possessed a curiosity about the world, and he was envious of his friend Earl Hines’s travels out to Los Angeles as part of a barnstorming Dixieland band.

So when Weatherford met a smooth-talking bandleader named Jack Carter in 1926, he was open to suggestions for an alternate career path. And Carter offered up an option that Weatherford had probably never imagined: the Far East.

Since 1924, Carter had been leading a cabaret show in Shanghai—a mixture of song, dance, and comedy, all performed by African-Americans like himself. The Shanghai audiences loved it, and now Carter was preparing to take the show on the road to Southeast Asia. He had come to Chicago in search of fresh talent. Carter assured Weatherford that he would be treated like a king as the band sailed from port to port throughout the South China Sea.

To the chagrin of Chicago jazz fans, the former child coal miner decided to indulge his taste for adventure. “Teddy Weatherford has flown the Vendome nest and his destination is China,” the Chicago Defender’s music columnist announced in September 1926. “Teddy, old boy, you fronted us, but they all come back.”

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Weatherford (at piano) playing with Jimmy Wade’s Syncopators, the house band at Chicago’s Moulin Rouge Café.

5. Piano Demon

Critics and compatriots rarely stinted on superlatives when describing Weatherford’s talent. “A hell of a pianist… I hear Fats Waller and I tell you it’s Weatherford,” raved the New York Amsterdam News. The Chicago Defender dubbed him “the piano demon,” while Louis Armstrong lauded his former bandmate as “awful good.” Others described him with phrases like “Champ of the ivories,” “an immediate sensation,” or “the world’s greatest jazz pianist.”

Any discussion of Weatherford’s much-admired musicianship began with his most valuable asset: his gargantuan hands, which earned him the nickname Seagull owing to their winglike dimensions. Big hands can be a jazzman’s curse. While it is obviously beneficial to be able to stretch across a great many keys, meaty fingers tend to be clumsy fingers. But Weatherford combined reach with precision; even when sprinting across the entire keyboard, he never got sloppy. Each note rang full and true.

Those mammoth hands also enabled Weatherford to develop a uniquely physical style of playing. When he first hit Chicago, stride piano was just beginning to supplant ragtime. Stride relied on the left hand to alternate between a walking bass and chords, leaving the right hand free to dazzle with melodic flourishes copped from multiple genres: the rapid arpeggios of classical, the soulful licks of blues. Weatherford was an early master of stride, and he used his powerful hands to lean into the tunes, pounding the keys with a nimble ferocity normally reserved for drummers. The result was a sound often mistaken for the work of two pianists playing in tandem. Legions of admirers tried to imitate Weatherford’s aggressiveness, with mixed results—it was his particular genius to play with both gusto and grace.

Weatherford was also a showman, having cultivated a flair for drama while playing small-time joints in Bluefield. Those territorial audiences expected to hear standards they knew and loved, so it was up to each band to make popular songs like “Memphis Blues” and “King Porter Stomp” its own without messing up the good-time vibe. Over six feet tall and built like a tank, Weatherford was a commanding presence. He could lay back in the cut and build a little tension before bursting forth with a Paganini-like display of virtuosity. Whether playing alongside scantily clad cabaret dancers or in front of swanky diners eating by candlelight, he always made the crowd feel as if it had gotten its money’s worth. That gift for performance would soon turn Weatherford into an international star.

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Teddy Weatherford at the keys.

6. The Imperial Circuit

When Weatherford finally landed in Shanghai in the autumn of 1926, having sailed across the Pacific Ocean from San Francisco aboard the SS Tango Maru, the Chinese metropolis was on the verge of a bloodbath. Chiang Kai-shek, head of the military forces of China’s ruling Kuomintang (KMT), was attempting to solidify his control of the nation by laying siege to Shanghai, then under the rule of the warlord Sun Chuan-fang. At the behest of Communist Party officials, the city’s trade unionists had decided to support the KMT, which they believed was interested in ridding China of foreign influence and bettering the peasantry’s sad lot. 

Desperate to hang on to the jewel of their small realm, Sun and his generals resorted to a campaign of terror against Shanghai residents suspected of KMT sympathies. “The executions have been terrifyingly informal,” an English journalist wrote. “Pickets and agitators, including ignorant coolies and spectacled students, are quickly beheaded wherever they are found intimidating shopkeepers or scattering Cantonese leaflets. A runner is sent to summon the execution patrol, which comes up with the headsman swinging his bared blade. The culprit is forced to his knees as the soldiers keep the crowd back. A moment later his head is being fastened to a wooden cage, which always is ready, and nailed to a pole for the contemplation of the populace.”

When the city’s defenses finally broke in the spring of 1927, Chiang wasted no time betraying the trade unionists. Paramilitaries allied with the KMT massacred thousands of civilians suspected of Communist ties, and strikers were gunned down indiscriminately as they took to the streets. Shanghai became a police state, and political rabble-rousers frequently disappeared.

Yet the tens of thousands of foreigners who called the city home—and for whose entertainment the Jack Carter Orchestra, with Teddy Weatherford on piano, had been imported—caroused right through the violence. Cloistered in sections of the city reserved for non-Chinese and protected by thousands of American and British troops, these American and European expatriates enjoyed lives of supreme comfort, awash not in blood but in money generated by any number of shadowy schemes, notably the burgeoning opium trade.

Shanghai abounded with leisure opportunities for the fortunate denizens of the international precincts. Elegant dinners and dances were a nightly ritual, often followed by bouts of slumming. An American journalist with a racist streak and a taste for vice described some of the entertainments available to the foreign residents, commonly known as Shanghailanders:

You drifted into one of those cabarets, an hour or so before midnight, you chose your table not too far from the floor, and you looked them over: the pretty Chinese girls in their slit silk dresses and with too much rouge on their soft cheeks; the glorious Russians with their décoletté evening gowns—Chanel and Molineux models, if you did not look too closely…. And you bought your ticket and danced with them, and if you invited one of them to your table, you had to pay something extra and the girl had apple cider that turned into champagne on your chit. But if you wanted to go home with her, she would have to ask the management first…. And you might wind up in “Blood Alley,” where you went to get as much local color as possible, among the drunken soldiers and sailors of the armies and navies of the world.

Obsessed with hipness and style, the Shanghailanders fetishized black jazz musicians. The Jack Carter Orchestra thus commanded a handsome price for its show, which provided a slickly packaged taste of African-American culture—or, more accurately, what foreigners expected African-American culture to be. The show’s star attraction was Valaida Snow, a 22-year-old Tennessean trumpeter and singer who was widely considered the female Louis Armstrong. After belting out a version of “Ol’ Man River,” she would be joined onstage by a comedian named Bo Diddly, who would sling jokes before dueting with Snow on a song called “Black Bottom.” Snow would then cap the evening with an early version of crowd surfing: at the end of a manic tap-dancing number, she would leap onto the dance floor, fall to her knees, and wriggle her way through the stunned audience. The routine rarely failed to bring down the house.

Teddy Weatherford was supposed to be a minor player in the revue, but music aficionados couldn’t ignore the tall, powerfully built young man who elicited such full-throated chords from his instrument. Fellow musicians were enraptured by his skill at the ivories, even though he had but a single solo in the Jack Carter show. Word of Weatherford’s prowess quickly spread.

The band’s Shanghai engagement was scheduled to last just ten weeks, but it wound up stretching well into 1927. Then the ensemble set off for Batavia, the capital of the Dutch East Indies, where they’d booked a stand at the Oost Java Restaurant, an open-air club on the city’s main square. It was the first time an African-American group had played Batavia, to the immense delight of the city’s young Dutch jazz fans, who had previously had to make do by playing scratchy ceramic cylinders on beat-up Victrolas. They descended on the Oost Java for the Jack Carter show only to discover that, for the first time ever, the club would be charging a hefty cover fee. To add salt to the wound, the club erected a bamboo fence along its perimeter to prevent nonpaying spectators from catching a glimpse of the Americans.

But some brave fans would not be denied their first exposure to authentic live jazz. They clambered up the square’s trees and watched Weatherford’s piano magic from afar. They swung so hard to the band’s hot sound that several nearly tumbled to their deaths.

After rocking the Dutch youth, the Jack Carter Orchestra sailed north to Singapore, where it headlined at the fortress-like Adelphi Hotel. Wealthy British merchants and the women who loved them went bonkers over the show, leading the local English-language newspaper to ponder the band’s appeal:

What is the secret of these coloured artists’ success? Surely it is that they are entirely un-selfconscious. While white performers may be worrying as to whether they are “getting over,” the originators of jazz just let themselves go. It is said that these artists never offer a dance in just the same way two nights running.

The Jack Carter Orchestra traveled up the Malay Peninsula and finally wrapped up its Southeast Asian barnstorming in 1929. Carter and Snow decided to return to the United States, but Weatherford declined a ticket home. There was still money to be made in China.

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The Canidrome, a large dog track and casino in Shanghai, where Weatherford played to crowds of international revelers.

7. Paris of the Orient

By the time he arrived in Shanghai in the summer of 1933, Langston Hughes was already a seasoned traveler. The esteemed writer had spent much of the previous year trekking across Central Asia after an ill-fated attempt to make a movie in Moscow. He had spent nights in sheepskin yurts on the Eurasian steppe, communed with Jewish poets in the Uzbek city of Bukhara, and gotten tipsy on cognac with oversexed Tajik soldiers. If nothing else, Hughes was certainly a fair bit tougher than the typical man of letters.

But the chaos of Depression-era Shanghai startled Hughes. He was shocked by the degradation and vice on display at every turn—the haggard streetwalkers angling for johns, the beggars mutilating themselves to bolster their earning power, the heavy carts pulled by coolies in lieu of oxen, the constant kidnappings of anyone who looked capable of shelling out a few yuan for ransom. Yet amid all the criminality flourished an artistic culture like no other in the world, one that embraced both ancient opera and the hottest jazz.

Hughes needed a Virgil to guide him through the highs and lows of Shanghai. Teddy Weatherford was more than happy to oblige.

The Seagull’s star had risen considerably in the four years since the Jack Carter Orchestra disbanded. “Stiff-necked Britishers and Old China Hands from Bombay to the Yellow river swore by his music,” the starry-eyed Hughes would later write. “A big, genial, dark man, something of a clown, Teddy could walk into almost any public place in the Orient and folks would break into applause.”

At the time of Hughes’s visit, Weatherford was the main attraction at the Canidrome, a colossal dog track and casino located in the French-controlled quadrant of Shanghai’s International Settlement. The Shanghai police had cracked down on the import and sale of opium in the early 1920s, a move that only pushed the enterprise into the French Concession, where Chinese authorities held little sway. The city’s Mafia, the powerful Green Gang, controlled this narcotics trade through a front business called the Three Prosperities Company. The gang’s head honchos, Pockmarked Huang and Big-Eared Du, split the company’s $50 million annual revenues with the various foreigners who helped smuggle and store their addictive merchandise.

The Canidrome, the main attraction in the French Concession, was owned by the Tung Vong Company, a partnership between the millionaires Mr. Tung (the fat one) and Mr. Vong (the skinny one). The ruling KMT had long maneuvered to shutter the place as an affront to Chinese morals, since so many native-born gamblers blew their meager savings on the Canidrome’s greyhound races and nightly lottery. But the Green Gang made sure that vice remained on offer in their territory, to the joy of jazz fans, who flocked to the Canidrome’s baroque ballroom to hear Weatherford play.

Weatherford drove Hughes around Shanghai in his car to let him see for himself why the city was known as the Paris of the Orient. They cruised up and down the Bund, the bustling district along the Huangpu River where European-style edifices loomed over stately waterfront parks. Hughes would occasionally jump out to explore the grimy alleys that echoed with the sounds of clattering mah-jongg tiles and caged fighting crickets.

But Hughes seemed less impressed with Shanghai than with his chauffeur. “Sitting beside the big, dark, hulking musician in the car, I thought how fascinating it must be to be a band leader like Weatherford, making music all around the world,” he would later recall. “If I were a performer, I thought, and could play or sing or dance my way to Hong Kong and Singapore and Calcutta and Bombay, I would never go home at all.

“But I was not a performer,” Hughes lamented, “only a writer.”

Hughes also caught a glimpse of Weatherford’s sybaritic lifestyle, with its deluge of alcohol and gorgeous groupies of various races. Among Shanghai’s biggest jazz fans were young White Russians who’d fled their homeland a decade earlier after the Bolshevik revolution. Occupying the bottom rung of Shanghai’s expatriate pecking order, these exiles took the jobs no other whites would. The women, in particular, often wound up staffing the city’s numerous houses of ill repute, where 8,000 Russians provided sexual services for paying clients. But a few girls avoided this fate by latching onto the American jazzmen they worshipped. Weatherford collected Russian girlfriends with ease, as did various other musicians who passed through his Canidrome band. Their sexual abandon had predictable consequences: Band members paid frequent visits to one Dr. Borovika, a former German fighter pilot turned physician who was a master of treating venereal diseases.

The musicians and their women, both wives and groupies, formed a bohemian community amid the colonial elegance of 1930s Shanghai. Hughes recounted the typically boisterous scene at the house of one of Weatherford’s sidemen, which he visited just four hours before he was scheduled to depart for Japan:

It was eleven o’clock when we got there. Other musicians with their White Russian girls or Japanese wives were gathered by that time, having highballs and awaiting us. The one Negro woman in the group, wife of one of the bandboys from Harlem, said that fried chicken wouldn’t amount to anything without hot biscuits, so she went into the kitchen to make some.…

I could smell the chicken cooking in the kitchen where the colored wife was busy with the biscuits, and assorted Japanese and White Russian females were all cooking too, drinking and chattering away like mad. Everyone was in high spirits, so it took quite a little time to get anything done. Anyhow, the chicken certainly did smell good! But I looked at the clock and both hands were past high noon.…

“Teddy, man, I’m gonna have to go.”


“Asaki, how about that bird?” Teddy bawled. “Shenshi, Kiki, Tamara, what you-all doing out there? This man is hungry!”

The girls started setting tables—a big table and two or three smaller ones in the front rooms, as there were more than a dozen people. Said Teddy, “If I had me a piano, I would beat out some blues.” But there was no piano, so Teddy and the rest of the folks just kept on mixing highballs and um-ummmm-mm-m-ing at the wonderful smells of chicken frying in the kitchen….

At half past one there on the far edge of Shanghai, Teddy and I were climbing into his car, each of us with a sizzling drumstick and a buttered biscuit, on the way to my hotel, miles off near the Bund.… With greasy hands I rushed up the stairs of the hotel and started throwing things into my bags. Teddy gathered up my typewriter, books and such items and took them down to the car, then came rocking jovially back to see if he could be of further help. It was then about two-thirty P.M. I still had to pay my bill! When I stumbled panting into the car with a string of ties and two pairs of shoes in my hands, and we headed at top speed for the pier, I just barely caught the last lighter going out to the ship anchored offshore in the Huangpoo, flags flying and steam up for sailing. I left Teddy waving on the docks with the whole backdrop of Shanghai behind him.

A few months after Hughes departed, Mr. Tung and Mr. Vong sent Weatherford on a recruiting mission to America. Like Jack Carter before him, Weatherford was charged with finding more black musicians willing to satiate the Shanghailanders’ appetite for African-American culture.

Weatherford arrived in Los Angeles on January 6, 1934, where he met a trumpeter named Buck Clayton, leader of a crackerjack band that was desperate for work. (They had recently concluded a disastrous gig at Club Ebony, during which their crooked manager had gambled away all of their wages.) Sweetening the pot was Clayton’s girlfriend, Derby, a beautiful dancer who’d appeared in such Hollywood musicals as Roman Scandals and Murder at the Vanities. She was eager to come to China and join the show.

Weatherford signed up Buck Clayton and His Harlem Gentlemen for the Canidrome and booked passage back to China on the SS President Hoover. Days before the ship set sail, Buck and Derby married at a ceremony hosted by Duke Ellington and held on the Paramount Studios lot.

Clayton’s band was an instant hit in Shanghai, attracting Madame Chiang Kai-shek and her entourage of silk-clad beauties on opening night. (Madame Chiang’s sister later insisted on taking tap-dance lessons from the group’s trombonist.) The show began as patrons wrapped up a 17-course meal, and it included Derby’s interpretation of a traditional Russian peasant dance.

Weatherford, meanwhile, took clever advantage of his new situation. “Teddy was playing four different nightclubs each night, so he could only play with us on one number before he would have to leave for another club to be in time for his show there,” Clayton would later recall. “He would play one half hour in each club, running from one club to the next, but at the end of the week he had four salaries coming to him.”

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Weatherford depicted in his trademark white suit.

8. Harlem Gentlemen

One night in November 1934, as Clayton milled about the Canidrome between sets, a Russian girl approached him for an autograph. As he leaned down to sign her piece of paper, she grabbed the monogrammed handkerchief from his coat pocket and ran off. Clayton thought nothing of the matter until the following evening, when he spied the girl at one of the ballroom’s tables. She was accompanied by a large, rough-looking American who refused to sit down as the show began. As he led his band through its first number, Clayton couldn’t help but glance at the standing man.

“Turn your eyes the other way, you black son of a bitch!” the American yelled over the swelling music.

Clayton descended from the stage to confront the man. Moments later, the bandleader was on the floor, having been sucker-punched in the face. A melee ensued as the rest of the band converged on the American instigator, a Marine- turned- gangster named Jack Riley. The plumpest of the Harlem Gentlemen sat on Riley’s chest while the rest of the band rained down blows. All the while, the band’s pianist remained onstage and kept playing, making some in the audience think that the brawl was part of the show.

The Harlem Gentlemen’s beat-down of Riley turned out to be a Pyrrhic victory: The next morning, Mr. Tung and Mr. Vong received a telegram from a contingent of American expats threatening to attack the Canidrome with machine guns if Buck Clayton and His Harlem Gentlemen were allowed to return. Neither they nor their patron Weatherford would ever play the ballroom again.

The Canidrome brouhaha occurred just as Shanghai’s freewheeling Jazz Age began drawing to a close. The Japanese had bombed the city in 1932, allegedly in response to anti-Japanese rioting. Tens of thousands of Chinese had been killed, and the ensuing cease-fire, brokered by the League of Nations, allowed several Japanese army units to be stationed in the city. Those units had since kept busy harassing Shanghai’s Chinese residents, and everyone knew that the Japanese were angling for a casus belli. The Japanese in the city frequently complained about minor slights to their national honor, such as stones tossed at Japanese schoolchildren. It was only a matter of time before they hit upon an excuse to invade.

How a Japanese conquest might affect the city’s nightlife was anyone’s guess, so American musicians were faced with a tough choice: Stay and risk imprisonment or worse once hostilities commenced, or abandon the city they’d come to love.

Harlem-bred trombonist Ernest “Slick” Clark, a frequent Weatherford sideman, elected to stick it out. He went on to become a bandleader at the Paramount Club, a job he held onto even after the Japanese assumed control of the city in 1937. But after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Japanese decided to send Shanghai’s American residents to internment camps. Clark spent the next two years subsisting on cracked wheat and enduring regular beatings, until he was allowed to sail home aboard a Swedish passenger ship.

The Seagull, however, glimpsed the clouds on Shanghai’s horizon. Soon after the Canidrome fight, he packed up and left China for good.

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Weatherford in Paris, where he dazzled attendees at the 1937 International Exposition.

9. Springtime in Paris

Weatherford may have lost his cushy Shanghai gig and his White Russian groupies, but as an artist and a showman, he was just approaching his peak. He’d had a taste of celebrity in China, and now he was looking for a new place that would appreciate his sizeable talents. His first stop was Singapore, where he crossed paths with a saxophonist named Roy “the Reverend” Butler.

A teetotaling Chicagoan who had also been globetrotting for years—first through Brazil and Argentina, then to Paris—Butler had eventually settled in Bombay, where he played in a band called Crickett Smith’s Symphonians. The band was touring through Singapore in the summer of 1935 when its pianist suddenly quit. Desperate for a replacement, Butler followed up on a bit of local gossip regarding a spectacular pianist who was wowing crowds at the palatial Raffles Hotel. When Butler went to check out the show, he was elated to discover that Weatherford, an old friend from Chicago, was the buzzed-about musician.  Butler asked his acquaintance to join the Symphonians on their forthcoming trip to the Dutch East Indies. Lured by the promise of higher wages, Weatherford readily agreed. The reconfigured Symphonians did a brief stint in Java and then returned to Bombay with Weatherford in tow to begin a fresh season at the jewel of the city’s nightlife: the Taj Mahal Hotel, located by the temple-like Gateway of India arch on the waterfront.

The Taj had two venues where patrons could hear live music: the upstairs ballroom, where tuxedoed orchestras entertained diners who consumed dishes like Filet de Beckti Cecil Rhodes, and the downstairs Harbour Bar, which attracted a rougher clientele hungry for hot jazz. Always keen to earn multiple paychecks, the inexhaustible Weatherford shuttled between the two, playing with the Symphonians in the early evening and closing out the bar at night. Before long, he was packing the house wherever he played.

Weatherford honed his showmanship in the Harbour Bar, entertaining British soldiers and sailors who craved good times before they set off for distant malarial outposts. To impress these men, Weatherford would sip a drink with one hand while playing with the other, never skipping a beat or losing a decibel’s worth of volume. Such were the benefits of having been blessed with hands the size of gull wings.

Weatherford also adopted a uniform that would become his trademark: a white sharkskin suit, usually accompanied by a broad-brimmed hat. It was a dandy look, one that might seem ill-advised for a man of Weatherford’s considerable girth, but it turned out to have an odd charm.

Weatherford was once again a star attraction, and word of his talent crossed continents. In early 1937, he was invited to perform at the International Exposition, to be held in Paris that spring and summer. He set sail for Marseilles in April, taking with him one of his most prized possessions: a piano accordion that had set him back a reported $1,000.

Parisians had fallen madly in love with jazz in the ’20s, and numerous African-American musicians had since settled in the bohemian Montmartre neighborhood. The expo brought over scores more jazzmen, enough to fill the city’s clubs with joyous sound for weeks on end. “I have just spent a week in Harlem—but it only took me a few hours to get there and back,” the British jazz critic Leonard Feather wrote that summer in the jazz fanzine Melody Maker. “Lenox Avenue was called the Rue Pigalle and the bands worked for francs instead of dollars.”

When Weatherford arrived in town, he was whisked from party to party, playing his accordion for the likes of the fabulously wealthy Rothschild clan. He met a cartoonishly rotund jazz lover named Hugues Panassié who owned a small record label called Swing. A longtime champion of Weatherford’s old bandmate Louis Armstrong, Panassié was instantly smitten with the pianist’s skill and begged him to record some sides for Swing. Weatherford, momentarily abandoning his entrepreneurial instincts, agreed to do so for free and spent two summer days in the studio with Panassié, playing solo.

The resulting cuts, a selection of standards like “My Blue Heaven” and “Tea for Two,” reveal an artist in top form. Weatherford plays with his typically heavy touch, yanking out a torrent of sound from his piano—it occasionally seems as if Panassié had added a second piano track. But there is also something undeniably mournful about those Swing recordings, as if Weatherford had developed a pensive streak after so many years as a highly paid vagabond.

Not content to simply commit Weatherford’s genius to wax, Panassié also used his clout as founder of a jazz appreciation society, the Hot Club de France, to secure his hero a solo concert at the prestigious École Normale de Musique de Paris:

Smiling in his characteristically modest manner Weatherford seated himself before the keyboard and my what a delightful treat the capacity crowd of 800 music lovers were in for. Weatherford’s ease and grace, skill, technique and versatility is extraordinary. His superb executions of classics, of the old masters, and modern jazz music was simply divine. His attentive and appreciative audience was spellbound while he played and prolonged applause rocked the auditorium at the termination of each composition.

When Weatherford returned to Bombay, his international stardom was too great to be wasted on a mere sideman. And so Crickett Smith’s Symphonians was transformed into Teddy Weatherford and His Band, featuring exactly the same personnel.

10. The Wizard We All Know

Weatherford was accorded the royal treatment in Bombay. He was given lavish quarters at the Taj Mahal, with all meals included, and the considerable money he earned performing could be spent on whatever luxuries struck his fancy. Maids and butlers could be hired for a pittance, and expert tailors created exquisite garments for next to nothing. Roy Butler referred to the band’s life in Bombay as “a millionaire’s vacation with pay and passage.”

Weatherford was prepared to live it up for as long as he could. But a saintly Indian hero was about to ruin his fun: Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.

In 1935, in response to the strengthening Indian independence movement, the British Parliament passed the Government of India Act. The act gave India’s individual provinces much greater political autonomy than ever before. Unfortunately for Bombay’s tipplers, the provincial government that ran the city was deeply sympathetic to Gandhi’s dim view of liquor: “Those who take to drinking ruin themselves and ruin their people,” the Mahatma had written. By 1939, prohibition had descended upon Bombay, to the great detriment of the Taj Mahal’s coffers.

Unlike the Moulin Rouge during Prohibition, Bombay’s most venerable hot spots abided by the liquor ban. With the Harbour Bar dry and the ballroom’s meals stripped of their accompanying claret and scotch, Weatherford decided to take his act on the road. The band headed down to Colombo, the capital of the island of  Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), to play a long engagement at the Galle Face Hotel.

Ceylon’s leisure class had a deeply chauvinistic vision of African-American culture, which visiting black musicians were expected to live up to. Weatherford was already accustomed to tingeing his band’s show with racial stereotypes: At the Taj, the musicians’ stage patter was patterned after the exaggerated slang of Stepin Fetchit. But the Colombo audiences wanted Weatherford to provide even more minstrelsy. And so the opening-night party at the Galle Face Hotel, held on July 29, 1939, was called Plantation Night; the invitation featured Sambo-style caricatures wearing overalls and picking banjos. To flesh out the show’s racist theme, Weatherford led a number in which he and three bandmates dressed like those caricatures and sang spirituals as the Plantation Quartet. It was an undignified venture for a man whose music had recently enthralled the cream of Parisian society, but Weatherford didn’t seem to care as long as the hotel paid him on time. The love of money had always been his major weakness as an artist; he usually chose pleasing crowds over taking risks.

Weatherford returned to Bombay and the Taj Mahal Hotel in January 1940, to tremendous acclaim. The evening’s program for his comeback concert lauded him as “The Wizard we all know,” and the kitchen honored the man by adding Poires Glace Weatherford to the menu. The Taj Mahal’s owners seemed to hope that Weatherford would see the wisdom in sticking close to Bombay, which appeared to be safe from Japanese attack.

But the band decamped for Colombo once again, though this time its stay was brief. While performing at the Galle Face Hotel, Weatherford received a telegram containing an irresistible job offer: a slot as musical director of Calcutta’s Grand Hotel.

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Weatherford and the “Deep South Boys,” a routine he felt compelled to develop in Ceylon. 

11. The Winter Garden

Passengers arriving at Calcutta’s main train station in 1943 often witnessed a disturbing sight: hordes of emaciated men, women, and children stooped over at the waist, carefully inspecting the ground alongside the tracks. Every now and then, one of these gleaners would reach down to pluck a few errant grains of rice from the mud. With great luck, a person could find just enough food to sustain himself for another day. But such luck was hard to come by in the midst of the Bengal famine of 1943, which would eventually claim 3 million lives.

Like so many famines throughout history, the catastrophe in Bengal was largely man-made. Prior to the start of World War II, the vast majority of the Indian province’s food came from Burma, one of the breadbaskets of the British Raj. But when the Japanese conquered Burma in 1942, eliminating Bengal’s grain supply, the British had no emergency plan in place.

The inhabitants of rural villages perished in droves, and the survivors were often too weak to bury the dead. Those with the strength to flee headed for Calcutta in the hope of finding relief. But anyone expecting salvation in the big city was quickly disappointed. There were few government handouts to be had, and the rice available on the black market had been marked up 500 percent. All the newcomers could do was forage, beg, or steal. Otherwise they died on the Calcutta sidewalks, their rotting bodies an ever-present obstacle for pedestrians throughout 1943.

Yet for the city’s elite, for whom life revolved around whiskey and cricket, the famine had little impact. The American journalist Eric Sevareid, who passed through Calcutta as a war correspondent, was disgusted by the great disparity between the city’s haves and have-nots:

In the Calcutta stock exchange, enormously fat brokers dozed in their deep leather chairs, surfeited with their heavy lunches; they sprawled out with their feet apart, their snoring mouths wide open. You went down the stairs and sidestepped to avoid a totally naked Hindu who was foraging with his head in the garbage pail. You stepped over the frail, white-swathed bodies of women who lay on the sidewalk in front of your hotel, dying quietly with their babies clutched to their breasts.

From his penthouse suite at the Grand Hotel, Teddy Weatherford was one of those comfortably isolated from the horrors of Calcuttan street life. He regularly held court in his lavish quarters, where he kept a piano to entertain guests who were served highball after highball by a coterie of hangers-on.

The years were starting to catch up with Weatherford, however: He was nearing 40 when he first arrived in Calcutta. He had spent most of his adult life chasing pretty young things and romancing the various female singers who passed through his band. Soon after he came to Calcutta, though, he finally met a woman he wanted to settle down with: an olive-skinned Anglo-Indian beauty named Pansy Hill.

She might have been a patron at the Grand Hotel’s Winter Garden club one night and found herself smitten by the large black man in the white sharkskin suit. Or maybe they met at one of the elegant teas or cocktail parties that dotted the city’s social calendar—Hill’s father was a prominent university professor, and so his offspring would have been expected to make the rounds from parlor to parlor. Whatever the story behind the crossing of Weatherford’s and Hill’s paths, however, their courtship was brief. On April 9, 1942, the two were wed at the Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus on Dharmatala Street. Weatherford had only been in the city for about six months.

Back in the U.S., such a marriage would likely have been a legal impossibility, given the prevalence of anti-miscegenation laws. But interracial couplings were the norm in Calcutta, where Englishmen often took up with Bengali women. Beyond that, the city’s music scene was dominated by artists with biracial ancestries—Anglo-Indians, of course, but also Goans, who typically carry large dollops of Portuguese blood. In such an environment, no one batted an eye at Weatherford’s blackness—he was simply an American. When asked whether his Calcuttan hosts ever exhibited racial prejudice, Weatherford replied with a quip: “They treat us white folks fine.”

Weatherford returned the favor by employing a multiracial band. The war had curtailed the supply of African-American musicians, so Weatherford started hiring from the city’s pool of Asian talent. His best sideman at the Grand Hotel was a Burmese guitarist named Cedric West, who had escaped from Rangoon just before the Japanese took the city in March 1942. He hired a Nepalese trumpeter named Pushkar Bahadur Buddhaprithi; to spare audiences the embarrassment of trying to pronounce that name, Weatherford had the young man play under the pseudonym George Banks.

Weatherford also tapped passing American servicemen to sit in with the band. Roughly 15,000 African-American GIs had been sent to South Asia to build the Ledo Road, a 465-mile military highway that stretched from Assam to the China-Burma border town of Wanting. When these soldiers wanted to go on leave, their only option was to head for Calcutta: Though there were 11 American R&R camps throughout India, the Calcutta complex was the single one set aside for blacks. It was located in Howrah, just across the Hooghly River from Calcutta proper, and it was an absolute dump—a collection of canvas tents perched atop mud, within spitting distance of the bloated corpses that regularly floated down the river during the famine. Black soldiers did everything they could to avoid spending time there, and that meant passing their vacation hours at the Winter Garden.

Those who could sing or play were welcome to come onstage with Weatherford, and occasionally the Seagull would unearth a future star. The great blues singer Jimmy Witherspoon got his start in this manner, filling the open-air club with his melancholy baritone. And the saxophonist Paul Gonsalves, who would later become a mainstay of Duke Ellington’s band, recorded several numbers with Weatherford while serving in the Army.

But the scene at the Winter Garden wasn’t always pleasant. Unlike in Bombay, cheap liquor was everywhere in Calcutta, and soldiers had few compunctions about getting blind drunk while on leave. Bloody dance-floor fights were commonplace, as the Goan saxophonist Ruben Solomon recalled:

Americans had more money to spend on the girls, so all the girls would be with the American soldiers and none with the British tommies. As soon as a set of Americans would come in the British would watch them, then suddenly, for no apparent reason, there would be a free-for-all, bottles, chairs, the lot. We would be ducking and Teddy would stand and shout, “Okay boys, fighting music!” And we would go into something very two-beat—tarah, tarah, crash, bang—as long as we could. Suddenly you would hear the MP’s’ whistles and everyone would converge on the dance floor. A few bodies would be taken out.

The Grand Hotel band played constantly, and not just at the Winter Garden. It was also featured on regular broadcasts hosted by the Armed Forces Radio Service, which transmitted Weatherford’s music to listeners throughout India. In towns and villages hundreds of miles west of Calcutta, many residents heard their first strains of jazz thanks to Weatherford’s radio work. Many who fell in love with the genre would always credit the Seagull.

Yet as he basked in the limelight, Weatherford’s music took a turn for the worse. Happily married, handsomely paid, and frequently inebriated, he found his creative energy flagging. The crowds of soldiers and party girls who packed the Winter Garden each night demanded feel-good hits, and Weatherford obliged by having his band deliver faithful renditions of mainstream fare: Frank Sinatra, Glenn Miller. At the same time, Weatherford and his band produced dozens of records for an Indian label that had a manufacturing plant just outside Calcutta. To critics, these songs sounded lazy and uninspired—nothing more than quick cash-ins on Weatherford’s fame. Jazz connoisseurs who were familiar with Weatherford’s earlier recordings passed harsh judgment on these lackluster sides: Where the Seagull had once sounded like a man ahead of his time, they remarked, he now sounded years behind.

Perhaps the drop in creativity could be attributed to mere fatigue: Weatherford was now more than a decade older than the new generation of jazz trailblazers back in the U.S. Sensing that he couldn’t keep playing forever, he had started making plans to fade away gracefully. Despite having been a star in Asia for nearly two decades, Weatherford intended to return home one day. He told one of his trumpeters that he planned on saving some money to open up a snack bar. At the rate he was raking it in at the Grand Hotel, it wouldn’t take long.

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Calcutta’s Grand Hotel

12. Home

Weatherford had certainly done plenty to earn an early retirement. More than just a musical talent, he was a brilliant entrepreneur, an artist who cleverly capitalized on the world’s first crush on African-American culture. Time and again, he had uprooted his life for a chance at better pay and greater renown. In that way, Weatherford was a forerunner not just of the global march of Americana, but also of the millions of highly skilled knowledge workers of today who bounce between capitals as if borders scarcely exist. Back in the States, his old pals Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines had shaped the future of American music, paving the way for budding jazz giants like Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and Thelonious Monk. But Weatherford had opted for a life of adventure abroad rather than one of influence at home.

Though he was born into abject poverty, the Seagull traveled the world inside a cocoon of utmost privilege. He entertained a colonial elite that retreated into decadence as Asia disintegrated around them. Holed up in ballrooms packed with gin-soaked Brits in ascots or white satin gloves, Weatherford was largely shielded from the suffering of the continent’s masses—people with whom he’d once had much in common. He provided the soundtrack for the last gasp of empire.

Now that the colonial era was finally coming to its inevitable end, it was time for Weatherford to reinvent himself again—as a family man and restaurateur back in his native land. But carelessness would doom those idyllic plans.

Though the Grand Hotel was a high-class establishment, guidebooks warned visitors not to consume the tap water in the hotel’s rooms. Weatherford was apt to ignore those instructions when drunk, however. And he was drunk quite often.

On April 20, 1945, Weatherford complained of feeling ill with abdominal pains and diarrhea. He was immediately rushed to Presidency General Hospital, where his symptoms worsened over the ensuing days. As he fought for his life, news emerged that Calcutta was in the early stages of a cholera epidemic, rumored to have been caused by the disposal of diseased cats in the Hooghly River. Antibiotics had entered the medical arsenal a few years earlier, but Presidency apparently had none on hand. Without them, Weatherford stood little chance: He passed away on the morning of April 25, 1945.

The funeral procession for Asia’s most beloved jazzman took place the next day. Tens of thousands of Calcuttans of all races turned out to watch Weatherford’s funeral cortege as the Seagull’s body was transported from the hospital to Lower Circular Road Cemetery. His death pushed the war news off the front pages of Indian newspapers.

Yet, for all the adulation Weatherford received in death, it didn’t take long for his legacy to fade. The piano from his Grand Hotel suite was allegedly passed between Calcuttan musicians, who considered the instrument a sacred reminder of the man who had spread the gospel of jazz. But it eventually disappeared, and it may well have ended up as kindling.

Shanghai’s jazz scene, meanwhile, was virtually extinguished during the Japanese occupation, and the Red Army’s 1949 triumph guaranteed that it would never be revived. And as the European colonial empires crumbled, so too did the decadent expatriate culture that had embraced Weatherford and his music. Jazz survived in Colombo, Calcutta, and Bombay, but American musicians essentially disappeared from those cities’ club scenes. They were succeeded by the Goans and Anglo-Indians who’d learned their craft from Weatherford and his cohorts. Many of these artists would eventually ply their trade in Bollywood, infusing the Indian film industry’s soundtracks with the subtle strains of American jazz.

As for Pansy Weatherford, there were rumors that Teddy had left her some property in Bluefield, West Virginia, and that she moved there after the war, along with her sister and brother-in-law, a former American soldier. But no one could say for sure what had become of her.

In 1970, an Indian jazz lover named Jehangir Dalal set about trying to piece together part of Weatherford’s fading legacy. He placed a classified ad in the Calcutta Statesman:

Teddy Weatherford—Would friends of Teddy’s and musicians associated with him please urgently contact Jehangir Dalal, c/o M.N. Dastur, 12/3 Ballygunge Park Road, Calcutta-19.

Dalal received numerous letters from acquaintances of Weatherford’s, though few were able to provide meaningful details about the Seagull’s career in India. Many wrote just to express the love and admiration they had felt for “good ol’ Teddy.”

A month after placing the ad, however, Dalal received a brief letter from the northwest London neighborhood of Harlesden. “Dear sir,” it read:

I have just received a letter from a friend of mine enclosing a cutting of yours from the Statesman regarding my late husband Teddy Weatherford.

Will you please let me know what you want to know about my late husband.… I would be very much obliged if you would reply to me as I am anxious to know what you want to know.

Yours faithfully,

Mrs. Pansy Weatherford

Dalal wrote back immediately, explaining that he was a historian keen to ensure that Teddy’s story would not be forgotten by future generations of jazz fans. He simply wished to know more about Weatherford’s travels throughout Asia, about the various musicians, both minor and famous, who had passed through the Seagull’s bands. Would she be so kind as to share her recollections of the great man—and perhaps shed some light on how she had spent the past quarter century?

Pansy Weatherford never replied.