New York in History and Anecdote
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Category — Frauds & Conmen

The Iconoclast


From New York Press, September 3, 1998

Some years ago, while researching William Cowper Brann, editor of The Iconoclast, a turn-of-the-century Waco, Texas monthly, I encountered the multi-talented New York–born George Graham Rice, one of America’s most successful and unscrupulous promoter-swindlers. This resulted from a natural confusion: one of Rice’s stock market tout sheets was also named The Iconoclast.

Colonel Brann (in those days most Southern editors were addressed formally as “Colonel,” owing perhaps to the degree of violence involved in the profession of journalism in that region), was a village atheist who wrote scintillating prose, supporting his paper with an admirably profitable sideline in pornography (“They were not texts from which a minister could take his lesson,” admitted one biographer). H. L. Mencken praised him as “the Voltaire of the Staked Plains” and “the greatest writer ever born in Toadsuck, Texas.” Like Villemessant of Le Figaro, the Texan believed that if a story didn’t cause a duel or a lawsuit, it wasn’t any good. Alas, while Brann was exposing some sex scandal at Baylor University, an outraged alumnus accosted the Colonel on the street and induced his death by severe lead poisoning, having shot him several times in the back.

Unlike Brann’s, Rice’s prose is utilitarian. He described himself as “a facile man with a pen”—“When news was scarce I could write more about nothing than any man I ever met.”—but his memoirs, written before his fiftieth birthday, mingle paragraphs of audacity with pages of unreadable self-justification. The book is not as much fun as its title: My Adventures With Your Money.

Rice flourished in those last innocent decades before the Securities and Exchange Acts placed restraints on a promoter’s enthusiasms. His admirer, J. S. A. “Alphabet” MacDonald, a/k/a Colonel John R. Stingo, praised him to A. J. Liebling, not as “a thief,” or even “a truly great thief,” but as a pisseur—“an appellation,” Liebling explained, “used for objects of his highest approval, like P. T. Barnum’s Jumbo, Elbert Hubbard, William Randolph Hearst, Boss Croker, or Al Jennings, the bank robber.”

He was born Jacob Simon Herzig in 1870. Disowned by his nice middle-class family after doing time for forgery, he resurfaced under a new name in New Orleans, reporting for the Times Democrat. By coincidence, he was in Galveston, Texas during the great hurricane of September 8, 1900, when the seawall broke and the Gulf laid waste the city. Rice escaped the tidal wave, stole a horse, found a working telegraph office, and—he claimed—was among the first reporters to get out the story.

Being Rice, he double-billed his expenses, was fired, lost his money gambling, and changed careers.


It is there he begins his memoirs, writing, “The place was New York. The time was March, 1901. My age was thirty. My cash capital was $7.30. I was out of a job.” Rice began making book, doing business as Maxim & Gay. (A partnership sounded more respectable than a one-man bookie operation.) He took the first name from a machine gun and the second from a sign he’d seen in the street. Within a year, he was publishing a sprightly racing sheet, Daily America.

Touting the publisher’s own bookmaking firm for its skill and integrity in horse-picking was acceptable, almost traditional. Rice’s flaw, then and throughout his life, was lack of restraint.  As bettors began wagering by the Gospel according to Rice, he began systematically manipulating the odds, day after day, by reporting, not reporting, or inventing stories about the horses, the jockeys, the stables, and the tracks was not.

His competitors lacked a sense of humor about losing money and acted against him in mysterious ways. Rice lost control of his paper to The Daily Racing Form, and was soon broke. He went west.

In 1903, men died of thirst in the desert at the place that would become Tonopah, Nevada. Two years later, Tonopah had come into booming existence as the center of the last great North American gold rush. It was overrun with miners, prospectors, gamblers, vaudeville performers, mining stock promoters, boxers, newspaper reporters, and ladies of frail virtue. Main Street was a two-thousand-foot-long strip of bars, dance halls, and gambling dens, with fandango houses (a euphemism for love store or house of carnal recreation) every fifty feet. “Water was four dollars a barrel,” Rice wrote, “and there was some talk of building a church.”

It was a fast town. Lucius Beebe wrote in Mixed Train Daily of a trigger-happy bad man who descended from a Pullman of the Tonopah & Goldfield Railroad, investigated the resources of the Nose Paint Bar, shot up the Tonopah Bank & Trust Company, and became the unwilling guest of honor at a neck-stretching party, all within three hours. Rice suggests the Bank was better robbed from within: “It was a tin bank, literally and figuratively, being constructed of corrugated tin plate with a false front, and when it went up the flume in 1907, the officers having been informal in their book-keeping, the aggregate cash balance in the safe was eighty cents.”

Rice had barely stepped down from the train when he encountered a former gambling associate who wanted to peddle shares of stock in the Tonopah Home Gold Mine. There was no mine, not even a hole in the ground. The Tonopah Home Gold Mine was merely a claim in an area near a gold strike, and the mining rights were held on a one-year lease. But the corporation had been organized and stock certificates printed up. This important factor eliminated “the delay and expense incident to preparing something for the immediate consumption of the public.”

As a mining stock promoter, Rice believed “having a market is as important as having a mine.” He established a news bureau to provide colorful stories about the mines, the miners, and the gold being found at Tonopah, and the nearby towns of Goldfield, Manhattan, Rawhide, and Bullfrog. He began wiring “reports of gold discoveries, shooting affrays, gamblers’ feuds, stampedes, hold-ups, narrow escapes, murders, and so forth. Some of them were true.”

At his most shameless, he could write a description of an ore sample from the Balloon Hill mine in Rawhide as “gold with a little rock in it,” going on to say, “When a man is broke in Rawhide, he can always eat. All he has to do is go…pan out breakfast money.” He describes concocting a story about an attempted robbery of the Tonopah Home Mine’s manager, complete with gunplay, posses, runaway horses, and dynamite explosions. He regretted only that the pressure of events prevented him from the ultimate touch: “I should have seen to it that the mine manager was actually robbed.”

Eventually, he and other promoters (Rice was not unique: merely more organized than most) even hired workers, leased mining equipment, dug shafts, and ran pumps and machinery night and day, not to search for gold, but to look busy for potential investors and visiting journalists. Just for the fun of it, he arranged a phony strike and riot, complete with torching a mine house, for the unwitting benefit of the wildly successful sex novelist Elinor Glyn, who was writing stories on the West for the Hearst papers.

He began promoting Tonopah Home at fifteen cents a share. “In my enthusiasm,” he later recalled, “I wrote stories about [the mine] which might have induced the reader to believe that when all the riches of that great treasure house were mined, gold would be demonetized.”

Tonopah Home was the first of many. Rice puffed and promoted the Four Aces, Gold Scepter, Bullfrog Gold Bar, Stray Dog, Jumping Jack, Flying Pig, Red Top, Silver Pick, Inspiration, Nevada Wonder, and dozens more, all for ten,twenty-five, or fifty cents a share. Looking back, he wrote, “It was an orgy in market manipulation and money fleecing that had no parallel in history. As a mining stock boom it was a dizzy bewildering success, full of red fire and explosions to the last curtain climax.”

For example, his syndicate purchased the Tramps Consolidated Gold Mine for $150,000 in notes; sold two million shares at fifty cents each, paying the notes from the proceeds; issued Rice and his associates 500,000 shares as a bonus and puffed the stock up to three dollars on the San Francisco Mining Exchange through dishonest publicity and wash sales, secretly buying and selling the same stock over and over again to generate artificial activity and attract investor interest. Then they unloaded. “Today,” Rice wrote in 1915, “the stock is at three cents a share and has never paid a dividend.”

Rice continued, “The Goldfield Daisy went from fifteen cents to six dollars a share. At one time, its market value was $9 million. It never earned a dime. Great Bend never even opened a mine. Yet it went from ten cents to $2.50 a share.” Pointing to a successful project, the Mohawk of Goldfield, which went from ten cents to $20 a share, Rice argued that “two hundred to one money is more than can be won on a long shot at the races and not so much less than the old Louisiana Lottery.” (Rice does not remind his reader that the old Louisiana Lottery was fixed.)

Over 2,000 mining companies were organized, raising over $200 million from investors, nearly all of which was lost. Rice said, “Far more gold was extracted from the pockets of speculators than from the Nevadan alkali. Stocks boomed up to $1.50 are now selling for five cents, others from one to three cents, and many not at all.”

By 1907, the book was dying. As one adventurer, Waymon Hogue, wrote in his 1932 autobiography, Back Yonder, “The road was full of men going to and coming from the mines. We met many who looked disappointed and dejected. We were stopped by a man wanting a match. He was a middle-aged man, carrying a bundle tied up in a red bandanna handkerchief suspended from a stick which he carried on his shoulder. Tom asked him the distance to the gold diggings.

“T’ey’s not any coldt,” he said. “T’ey toldt you a lie—a cot dam lie. You are a tam fool if you go up t’ere!”

“Wal, mister,” said Tom, “we want work. Do you thank they will give us work?”

“T’ey gif you not’ing,” he said. “T’ey got no work. T’ey got no goldt. It’s all a cot tam lie!” Saying this, he walked on.

By the late 1940s, Lucius Beebe wrote in Highball, “The big hotel at Goldfield was a haunted house, no longer did the glittering roulette wheels spin the Bank Club and the Double Eagle; the Palace and Heritage saloons were a memory and lizards sunned themselves among the cellarage debris of what had once been the glittering Montezuma Club.”

Undaunted, Rice in association with one J. L. “God Bless You” Lindsay began promoting copper mines. Some copper had reportedly been found at Greenwater, Nevada, by Charles M. Schwab’s Greenwater & Death Valley Mining Company. Rice immediately organized and promoted the Greenwater-Death Valley Consolidated Mines (similar corporate names were never a coincidence in Rice’s business), El Capitan Vindicator, Copper Queen, Crackerjack, and other mining companies.

It was all fake. There were surface copper carbonates, but no exploitable ore bodies. To Rice’s disappointment, “The boom busted when only $30 million had been paid in.” But his professional pride reasserts itself: “Greenwater: it exists no more. All mine development work ceased long ago. The ‘mines’ have been dismantled of their machinery and other equipment, and not even a lone watchman remains to point out to the desert wayfarer the spot on which was reared the monumental mining stock swindle of the century. Every dollar invested by the public was lost. The dry, hot winds of the sand-swept desert now chant their requiem.”

After all, there had been gold in Goldfield: creating the copper boom at Greenwater had been a matter of artistry.

The Copper Handbook of 1908, a copper industry almanac  proudly quoted by Rice, commented on the Greenwater-Death Valley Consolidated: “Taking the lowest percentage of ore reported by the company, and the company’s own figures as to the size of its ore-bodies, the first 100 feet in depth on this wonderful property would carry up to 20,000,000 tons of refined copper, worth, at thirteen cents per pound, the comparatively trifling sum of five billion, two hundred million dollars.

“It is indeed lamentable to note that this magnificent mine, which carries, according to the company’s own statements, more copper than all the developed copper mines of the world, is idle and its present office address a mystery.”

Rice later operated bucket shops (a gambling house disguised as a brokerage firm, where customers did not buy stocks but wagered on their fluctuations) as well as promoting still more cheap mining and oil stocks. All involved shameless hype through either bogus news services or a succession of tout sheets masquerading as newspapers, such as the Rawhide Stampede, Mining Financial News, Nevada Mining News, or The Iconoclast. He was imprisoned four times on various charges, including tax evasion. When Liebling interviewed Rice in 1934, the Wayward Pressman described the swindler as a potbellied, white-haired old man with an air of injured innocence. He died in obscurity.

Back in 1998, R. M. Smythe & Company, then at 26 Broadway, both researched obsolescent securities and retailed  old stock certificates to collectors. Whether elegantly framed or filed in the drawers, Smythe had a Golconda of old securities with the intrinsic value of wood pulp (I once wall-papered my dorm room with gaudy certificates for busted companies such as National Telephone, Middle West Utilities, and Amalgamated Copper). Amidst the sheaves of Pierce-Arrow, Packard, and Penn Central is a bright orange certificate for one hundred shares of Rice Oil Company’s common stock. Issued in 1917, signed by Rice, ornately engraved with a heroic bald eagle. At $75 this piece of paper is worth more now than at any time since Rice adventured with other men’s money.


February 13, 2015   No Comments

Conman of the Century

The luxury apartment building at 1155 Park Ave. was brand new in 1915. Among its first tenants was Maude King, a boozy, scatterbrained wealthy widow from Chicago. She rented three neighboring apartments on the tenth floor for $9,000 a year. Mrs. King lived in one, her sister lived in another, and in the third were Mrs. King’s business manager, Gaston B. Means, and his family.

Mrs. King had met Means in the spring of 1914. Within a few weeks, Mrs. King placed all her affairs in Means’ hands. He was six feet tall, weighed more than 200 pounds, and was bald, with a round face, dimpled smile, sharp chin, and beaming eyes. Jolly and good-natured, with a smooth Southern style, he was surprisingly attractive to women. Behind his genial facade was an artist–a scam artist, a swindler for the joy of the perfect swindle, proud of his imaginative, plausible lies.

Born in Concord, North Carolina in 1879, he went to New York in 1902 as a salesman for Cannon mills. He lived in a rooming house on West 58th Street and then an apartment at 105th Street and Columbus Avenue. A natural salesman, Means soon earned more than $5,000 a year in salary and commissions at a time when a seven-room apartment on Riverside Drive rented for less than $200 a month and good theater tickets cost less than a dollar. Shortly after meeting Mrs. King, Means quit Cannon mills to work for private detective William J. Burns. Before retiring in 1909 to start his agency, Burns had been chief of the Secret Service. He was tough, skillful, and relentless, and he had no ethics to speak of. He soon realized that Means was just the man for rifling a desk, bribing an informant, or tapping a telephone.

The United States remained neutral at the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. The British government secretly retained Burns to investigate German activities in New York. The Germans, in ignorance, offered Burns a contract to investigate the British. Burns refused their offer but referred them to Means, who became a nominally independent operative merely to handle the German account. Until America entered the war in 1917, Burns and Means played a mutually profitable game, each feeding the other information about his respective client. Means apparently took the Germans for up to $100,000 a year as Secret Agent E-13.

By the spring of 1917, Means had burned through Mrs. King’s ready cash. Mrs. King’s husband had left $10 million in trust to the Northern Trust Company of Chicago to support an old men’s home. Means forged a new will that left the entire estate to Mrs. King and, easily persuading her of its authenticity, submitted it for probate. In late August Mrs. King vacationed with Means and his family in Asheville, North Carolnia. On August 29, Means and Mrs. King went rabbit hunting. He returned carrying her mortally wounded body, claiming that she had accidentally shot herself in the back of the skull.

The local prosecutor, who found this improbable, indicted Means for murder. Unhappily, he then allowed Northern Trust to hire New York lawyers to help prosecute Means. The defense counsel successfully played on local antipathies toward outsiders, winning an acquittal on December 16, 1917. Thereafter, Means boasted of having been accused of every crime in the penal code, from murder on down, and convicted of none. After the phony will was rejected by the courts, Means returned to New York where, having been evicted from 1155 Park Ave., he rented a Staten Island house and worked for Burns.

On March 4, 1921, Warren Gamaliel Harding became president of the United States. Harding’s administration would yield massive scandals: at least two suicides, numerous convictions, three disgraced Cabinet officers, and new revelations and trials for nearly a decade after the president’s sudden death in 1923. Amidst it all, Harding’s mistress, Nan Britton, would publish her memoirs, memorable for the pathetic image of the lovers’ frantic couplings amidst the overshoes in a closet.

Harding’s campaign-manager-turned-attorney-general, Harry M. Daugherty, appointed Burns Director of the Bureau of Investigation. As Francis Russell observes in The Shadow of Blooming Grove, Burns ran the Bureau as he had run his agency. He didn’t care about search and seizure, considered wire-tapping and break-ins all in a day’s work, and freely employed former criminals and men of ill repute.

On November 1, 1921 the Department of Justice hired Gaston B. Means. Now he had a badge, telephone, official stationery, an office, and access to Bureau files. The underworld contacts developed during his years as a detective now became a source of riches. He peddled Justice documents—reports, correspondence, miscellaneous papers—to the persons they concerned. He claimed he could provide protection for bootleggers from enforcement of the Prohibition Act and fix prosecutions and destroy evidence. He said he was the bag man for Burns and Daugherty; sometimes he said the payoffs were going to the Republican National Committee for President Harding’s reelection. Eventually, he claimed to be working directly for the president.

Almost none of this was true. No claim of Gaston Means can be credited without independent evidence. Means met Daugherty once, in a Justice Department hallway. He never met the president or visited the White House. But Means had the sociopath’s genius for intuiting what people wanted to hear. In particular, criminals want to hear that everyone is on the take. Moreover, Burns’s thuggishness and Daugherty’s moral ambiguity—the touch of sleaze that had made him a power in Ohio politics and steered Harding to the presidency—heightened Means’s plausibility.

He also gained the confidence of Daugherty’s closest friend, Jess Smith. One of the Ohio Gang, the coterie of small-time, crooked pols around Daugherty, Smith was a successful retailer, a kindly, slightly absurd, probably homosexual crook. Smith and Daugherty became so intimate that, as most historians of the Harding administration note, Daugherty could not sleep without Smith’s reassuring presence just beyond his bedroom’s open door. Like Means, Smith peddled Daugherty’s influence to bootleggers and other petty criminals. Neither man ever intended to deliver the goods.

For the moment, the cash flow was amazing. Means’s federal salary was seven dollars a day. He and his family lived in a Washington townhouse with three servants and a chauffeured limousine.

Means was suspended in February 1922. He had stolen a huge supply of essential government licenses and permits, many bearing the forged signatures of high-ranking government officials. He sold them even as he continued selling non-existent protection, picking up $50,000 here, $11,500 there, $13,800 somewhere else.

By early 1923, Daugherty was receiving so many private complaints about Means that Burns could no longer protect him. In May 1923, he appointed a special counsel to investigate and prosecute.

Then the president learned of Jess Smith’s remarkably dissolute personal life and informed Daugherty. The attorney general told Smith that he would have to go back to Ohio. On Memorial Day morning, one of Daugherty’s assistants found Smith lying on the floor of the apartment that Smith shared with the attorney general, a revolver in his hand and his brains in a trash can. Now the scandals began to break.

Means was indicted for larceny, conspiracy, and some 100 violations of the Prohibition Act, even as the Senate began investigating Daugherty. One member of the investigating committee, Sen. Burton Wheeler of Montana, spent weeks with Means reviewing his testimony. On March 14, 1924 Means appeared in the committee room with two large accordion cases that, he said, contained his diaries of his government service (these had been concocted during the winter of 1923-24 to document his innocence). He testified that he had collected millions in kickbacks on government contracts for aircraft, war claims settlements, and illegal liquor permits as well as protection money. It all went to Jess Smith for distribution to Daugherty and other Cabinet officers. He was completely at ease, marshalling his stories with utter self-confidence, even fishing papers from the bags and reading them to the committee. It was a masterful performance.

And he took Daugherty down. After all, Means had been the Bureau director’s right-hand man. On March 28, 1924, after Daugherty refused to open Justice files to the Senate committee, President Coolidge demanded his resignation.

The committee was concerned that Means’ testimony was verified only by his documents, which they had never seen. Means stalled handing them over. He claimed that his files had been taken by men claiming to be assistant sergeants at arms of the Senate. No one believed this. The Senate then learned the Bureau had staked out Means’s house on the night in question. The agents saw no one entering or leaving except Means and a newspaper reporter, who had each been empty-handed.

On June 17, 1924 Means went on trial. He was convicted and sentenced to two years; subsequent trials added two more years; even the IRS came after him for non-payment of income taxes on the graft he claimed to have handled.

While in the Atlanta federal penitentiary, Means met May Dixon Thacker, the sister of novelist Thomas Dixon, whose The Klansman had been transformed by D.W. Griffith into The Birth of a Nation. Mrs. Thacker, whose literary outlet was True Confessions, promised to help Means tell his story. After his release, Means spent day after day dictating to her. Every night, after Mrs. Thacker went home, Means and his wife roared with laughter over the lies he’d invented.

The Strange Death of President Harding was among the best-selling books of 1930. With the same accumulation of detail that had lent plausibility to his cons, Means claimed to have served as Mrs. Harding’s private investigator, breaking into Nan Britton’s apartment to steal her diaries and Harding’s love letters. Mrs. Harding was madly jealous of Britton; moreover, she knew of the Ohio Gang’s machinations. Coming to believe that only death could spare her husband shame and dishonor, Means claimed that Mrs. Harding had poisoned her husband.

Means raised some interesting points. The president died during a nationwide speaking tour. Supposedly, his illness stemmed from ptomaine poisoning after eating crabmeat. No one else in the presidential party, including the aide who ate the crab with him, became ill. The only person with the president when he died was Mrs. Harding. Finally, the physicians’ verdict of apoplexy was no more than an opinion, as the president was not autopsied.

Despite his literary success, Means still needed more money. When the Lindbergh baby was kidnapped in March 1932, Means persuaded Evalyn Walsh McLean, a wealthy heiress whom he had known back in Harding’s time, that he was in contact with the kidnappers and could recover the child for $100,000 ransom. She gave him the money. He never delivered. Means was arrested in Washington, DC, on May 5, 1932. He claimed that the Lindbergh baby was still alive. This took audacity, especially after Col. Lindbergh had identified the child’s corpse. Means got 15 years, serving most of his sentence at the federal penitentiary in Leavenworth. Increasingly desperate for attention, he was claiming to have killed the Lindbergh baby by the end. On December 12, 1938, still in prison, he died of a heart attack.

New York Press, July 2, 2003

February 7, 2015   No Comments

Wilson Mizner, Champion Wiseacre

Much to my embarrassment,” Wilson Mizner admitted, “I was born in bed with a lady.” His second passion was theft. One of his few heroes, Jefferson Randolph “Soapy” Smith, the criminal boss of Skagway during the Gold Rush of 1898, observed, “When I see anyone looking in a jewelry store window thinking how they would like to get away with the diamonds, an irresistible desire comes over me to skin them.” Mizner never resisted such desires.

His third passion was the wisecrack. Mencken called him “the sharpest wit in America since Mark Twain” and said that he spun off more jests, as casually as a man tossing away a cigarette butt, than any other citizen of the United States. Our loss is that, as John Burke, one of his biographers, wrote, “many of his best quips vanished into a bellow of laughter…and a swirl of cigar smoke and whiskey fumes.”

Still, a few survived:

“I respect faith, but doubt is what gets you an education.”

“A fellow who tells you that he’s no fool usually has his suspicions.”

“If you copy from one author, it’s plagiarism. If you copy from two, it’s research.”

“A dramatic critic is a guy who surprises the playwright by informing him what he meant.”

“The difference between talking out of turn and a faux pas depends on the kind of bar you’re in.”

“I hate careless flattery, the kind that exhausts you in your effort to believe it.”

“I can judge a man by what he laughs at.”

“I never saw a mob rush across town to do a good deed.”

“Hollywood almost made a good picture once, but they caught it just in time.”

Mizner had great presence: he was six feet, three inches tall, over two hundred pounds, and impeccably tailored (he patronized Bullock & Jones of San Francisco, whom he stiffed). He had left home at seventeen, twelve years before his 1905 arrival in New York. After playing piano in a whorehouse, he landed in the medicine show business. Dr. Silas Slocum, creator of Doc Slocum’s Elixir, needed a talker to reel off learned-sounding phrases in Latin. “Let’s hear you speak a piece of it,” Slocum commanded. Mizner thundered a string of Spanish curses and obscenities, picked up while his father was American minister to Guatemala. “You’re hired,” the doctor declared.

In 1898, Mizner headed for the Klondike with his girlfriend, Rena Fargo. A brunette singer and dancer, Rena proved useful among a horde of men deprived of female company. Guys would do things for her that they wouldn’t do for Wilson.

Mizner went to Alaska to prospect among the miners’ pockets. He believed the providers of essential services such as whores, pimps, dive keepers, madams, and gamblers, were far more likely to strike it rich. He became a faro dealer. He knew something about cards. (An assistant district attorney once asked how long he had been playing chemin de fer. “Since infancy,” Mizner replied.) Rena, pretending to be a stranger, had amazing runs of luck at his table.

“Once,” Mizner said, “I dealt the coldest of decks involving just fifty-two aces and I have never set eye on a more larceny-haunted set of faces than those before me when they picked up their cards. They were like gents with an uncomfortable chaw of tobacco at a funeral. Each one began a mental race to determine how to keep calm and get rid of the extra ace…Each one figured it was an imperfect pack, but the only interest was not in correcting it, but in making it work, once.” They all bet furiously then one-by-one discarded and drew. “As each one discovered he had drawn an ace,” Mizner continued, “I was afraid my appendix would burst, but I did not move a line of my conniving face. Every one of them believed he had picked up his own discard. Hope would not die.” They laughed—a little too heartily—when they realized they had been had.

Eventually, the time came to depart from the North: the local paper now had a society column and the red lights no longer blazed like fireflies on a July night. Lace curtains had gone up and signs like Ye Olde Whore Shoppe had come down.

His brother, Addison, had broken into New York society as a fashionable architect. Harry K. Thaw’s murder of Stanford White left a place Addison hoped to fill. (Addison himself was no slouch in the field of carnal recreation, and at least commentator observed, “Thaw shot the wrong architect.”) At a horse show, Wilson found Addison amid his friends from the Four Hundred.

“Where are you stopping, now that you’re in town?” Addison asked.

“In a cathouse at Broadway and Forty-second Street,” Wilson boomed truthfully. “I just sit there all day reading my beloved books and smoking opium.”

Wilson met Myra Yerkes, the estranged wife of Charles Tyson Yerkes, the traction magnate. Thanks to peroxide, she was still blonde. Her mansion, modeled after a Roman villa, was furnished in Imperial Bad Taste. She had the social style of a steam calliope.

Mr. Yerkes died in December 1905 before he could divorce Myra, and she married Wilson in January 1906. It lasted six months. Addison called to find Wilson lying on a rococo bed once owned by King Ludwig of Bavaria, wearing long woolen underwear and rolling a brown paper cigarette. “Why did you do it?” Addison inquired. “The service is good here,” said Wilson. He rang a bell and his valet, a former Barbary Coast bouncer, entered bearing a silver salver. On it were two whiskies, one for Addison and one for the valet, and a loaded hypodermic containing a soupcon of morphine to ease the pain of being a rich woman’s consort.

Myra paid Wilson’s bills but refused him folding money. She even hired detectives to keep him from stealing. (“It’s a damned unpleasant experience to be stopped by two Pinkertons when you’re walking out of your own house with a lard can full of jewels.”).

Yerkes had left his paintings to the city of New York. The city government, aware of Mizner’s reputation, let him know he would be personally responsible for any missing paintings. Mizner understood New Yorkers couldn’t resist a bargain in hot merchandise. After putting a small army of starving artists to work copying the masterpieces in Yerkes’s collection, Mizner set up the Old Masters’ Art Society at 431 Fifth Avenue. Then he circulated the rumor that “a bargain in genuine old masters was available to anyone who didn’t mind owning something which nitpickers might classify as stolen property.”

He never claimed the works on sale in his gallery were originals. Only his confidential manner, conspiratorial tone, and frequent glances out the shop window indicated the purchaser was joining a plot against the city treasury. He even managed to sell several copies of the Mona Lisa. A few years later, he would revive the gallery, but by then there was too much competition. He was outraged when forced to sell Leonardo’s The Last Supper for $65. (“I’ll be damned if I sell it for less than five dollars a plate.”)

After his divorce, he managed the Rand Hotel, which catered to crooks, whores, pimps, kept women and their keepers, and the card sharps working the Atlantic liners.

The card sharps were extraordinary. Even Mizner couldn’t beat them. Once, he spread out a hand containing four queens, “which had come into his possession by no accident.” His opponent, of whom Damon Runyon later said, “If you give him a box of soda crackers he can deal you four of a kind,” displayed four kings. “You win,” Mizner said, “but those are not the cards I dealt you.”

Mizner required his guests to observe a few simple rules: “No opium smoking in the elevators…Guests must carry out their own dead…Guests jumping out of windows will try to land in the net placed around the third floor.” A story in the New York Morning Telegraph said, “If a man named Butler or Francis subscribed himself as ‘Harrison’ on the register, Mr. Mizner never gruffly called his attention to the error, but with the courtliness of the old school affected not to notice it.”

Mizner then worked on Broadway. In 1909, with George Bronson Howard, he created The Only Law, perhaps the first hard-boiled play. A year later, he met Paul Armstrong, another graphomaniac. They squabbled over Mizner’s work habits and Armstrong’s plagiarism (after listening to the eulogy at Armstrong’s funeral, Mizner said, “If Paul was up and about, he’d say that speech was his.”) Yet their creations, The Deep Purple, The Ocean Greyhound, and Alias Jimmy Valentine, were all highly profitable.

Mizner’s companions created a number of informal societies out of their friendships. These included the Correspondence School of Drinking—which had as its slogan, “Learn to Cirrhose Your Liver in Six Easy Lessons”—and the Forty-second Street Country Club, where lifting a shot glass or a sucker’s wallet was an athletic event. Mizner claimed that the Club had nine holes. The first hole was an iron drive into the back room of George Considine’s Buffet. There were succeeding holes at Rector’s, Shanley’s, and Churchill’s, with the long fifth up to Pabst’s at Columbus Circle, where a flag was tied to the cash register, followed by a short pitch to Reisenweber’s, a magnificent straightaway to the Plaza bar, a dog’s-leg to Roger’s Restaurant on Sixth Avenue, and a short ninth into Jack’s, at Sixth Avenue and Forty-Third Street. Few finished the course, but a couple of foursomes started off every week.

He was fond of the Hong Kong flute, i.e. the opium pipe. In 1900, you could buy narcotics without a prescription over the counter of a drug store. Patent medicines containing opiates in some form were offered for relief of headaches, female troubles, general aches, various pains, and “that tired feeling.” Famously, even Coca Cola had a little cocaine blended in the original, true recipe. Mizner also used other poppy by-products. One winter’s night, when he was presiding over a faro game in a hotel, a newcomer entered, shaking the snow off his fur collar. Mizner turned to the bellhop. “Boy,” he said, “take my nose and hang it out the window.”

Later, he graced the Florida real estate boom, where, in the litigation that followed its collapse, he testified: “I did not tell this man that he could grow nuts on that land,” Mizner explained, “I told him he could go nuts on that land.”

And, when the time came to make like the faithful and depart, taking his ancient Packard limousine, he went to Hollywood, where he became a non-writing screenwriter.

He collaborated on Little Caesar and 20,000 Years in Sing Sing. When Anita Loos, who loved him, wrote the screenplay for San Francisco, she based the antihero Blackie, played by Clark Gable, on Mizner and his “insouciance and illicit charm.”

He became the resident wit at the Brown Derby, “touching the cigarette of wit to the thin skins of the self-impressed.”

According to Edward Dean Sullivan’s The Fabulous Wilson Mizner, Wilson once appeared at a floodlit premiere driving a battered and rachitic Model T. “What shall I do with your, uh, car, sir?” asked one of the magnificently clad doormen. Mizner handed him a bill of sale. “Do with it?” Wilson bellowed. “That’s not my car. It’s yours. I’m giving it to you. And you can do with it whatever you like.”

On his deathbed in 1933, asked if he wanted a priest, Mizner replied, “Bring me a priest, a minister, and a rabbi. I want to hedge my bets.”

To this day, people are still stealing his best lines. He would have enjoyed that.

New York Press, January 6, 1999

January 30, 2015   No Comments

Diploma Mill Redux

I have a long-time love affair with the underworld of diploma mills which, in a society overawed by credentials, is an unending source of amusement and entertaining copy.

So I was unsurprised to learn that, as recently as February 2007, the New York City Department of Investigation reported that fourteen city firefighters had used bogus diplomas, purchased from St. Regis University (an on-line institution, supposedly located in Liberia) to seek promotion to officer positions such as deputy chief, battalion chief, and captain. This stemmed from a relatively new Departmental policy requiring college credits as well as practical firefighting experience to gain promotion.

Four of the fourteen were actually promoted on the strength of these counterfeit credentials, including Daniel O’Gara, who was advanced to Battalion Chief after obtaining a St. Regis baccalaureate for $550.

At the end of the scandal, the fourteen paid fines totaling some $136,000.  According to the New York Post, those who had been promoted kept their jobs because they had all, since their promotions, obtained enough legitimate credits to qualify for their new jobs.

June 14, 2009   No Comments

Education by Degrees

Bears’ Guide to Earning Degrees by Distance Learning, Ten Speed Press, PO Box 7123, Berkeley, CA 94707, $29.95,

I first heard of John Bear in 1990, when a man from Michigan named Bob Adams told me about the Ethiopian ear-pickers. In 1966, Southern Methodist University gave Bob Hope an honorary doctorate after the entertainer gave it a substantial donation. Up at Michigan State University, John Bear was earning his doctorate the hard way. Bear resented this. He knew that President Fillmore refused all honorary doctorates, even from Oxford. Bear then founded the Millard Fillmore Institute to honor the 13th president’s memory. The Institute awarded doctorates with ornately engraved diplomas on genuine imitation parchment that read, “By virtue of powers which we have invented…” granting “the honorary and meretricious” doctorate “magna cum grano salis”—with a big grain of salt.

Six years later, while studying in London, he tried the same thing on a larger scale. He and some friends created the London Institute for Applied Research and ran advertisements in American publications: “Phony honorary doctorates for sale, $25.” Several hundred were sold, presumably keeping the promoters in whiskey and cigars. As Bear wrote, half the world’s academic establishment thought L.I.A.R. was a great gag. The other half felt it threatened life as we knew it. After wearing out the joke, Bear traded the remaining diplomas to a Dutchman for 100 pounds of metal crosses and Ethiopian ear-pickers. (The Dutchman is still selling them—for $100 a piece.)

With this kind of experience, Bear first published Bear’s Guide, his profoundly serious and wildly funny guide to alternative higher education, more than a quarter-century ago. The latest edition, the 14th, crossed my desk last week. This is probably the best available practical guide to obtaining legitimate college degrees without full-time attendance in a conventional college setting, whether through correspondence, independent study, college credit through examination or life-experience learning, or the Internet. As Bear notes, in 1970, if one wanted to earn a degree without sitting in a classroom for three or four years and wanted to remain in North America, one had two choices: the Universities of London and of South Africa. Today, one has more than 1000 options.

I loved my completely traditional undergraduate experience, down to the last mug of beer. But that was a quarter-century ago, when one could pay a year’s tuition with the money one earned over the summer as a dishwasher. That isn’t the case anymore.

Also, American college education is more about obtaining a credential than inheriting the intellectual legacy of the West. I regret this; so, I sense, does Bear. This is part of a phenomenon that might be called “credentialism.” One might define it as a false objectivity in personnel decisions by substituting credentials—particularly academic diplomas—for the analysis of character, intelligence, and ability or even the intelligent exercise of judgment in hiring, firing, and promoting.

Bear argues that an academic degree is more useful to one’s career than practical knowledge. Whether this is good for society is immaterial. He illustrates this point with an anecdote about a telephone call from the man in charge of sawing off tree limbs for a Midwestern city. The city government had decreed that all agency heads must have baccalaureates. The head sawyer didn’t have one. If he didn’t earn a degree within two years, he would lose the job he had competently performed for two decades. The reality of his competence was immaterial to someone else’s need for false objectivity.

We in New York are not immune from this. The city government now requires applicants for the police examinations to have sixty college credits. Yet no one who has attended college would argue that accumulating credits raises barriers to brutality or provides a sure test of intelligence, industry, courage, and character.

To Bear, traditional education awards degrees for time served and credit earned, pursuant to a medieval formula combining generalized and specialized education in a classroom on a campus. The kind of nontraditional education emphasized by his book awards degrees on the basis of “competencies” and “performance skills,” using “methodologies” that cultivate self-direction and independence through planned independent study, generally off campus.

Granted, nontraditional routes are now radically less expensive. One can obtain a bachelor’s degree from New York’s Excelsior College (formerly Regents College) or New Jersey’s Thomas Edison State College without stepping into a classroom. For example, Excelsior awards degrees to persons who have accumulated sufficient credits through various means, including noncollege learning experience such as corporate training programs, military training and professional licenses; equivalency examintions such as the College-Level Examination Program (CLEP), the Defense Activity for Non-Traditional Education Support (DANTES), the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE); its own nationally recognized examination program; and even educational portfolios evaluated through its partnerships with other institutions, such as Ohio University.

However, in a world that cheapens the humanities to a mere credential and refuses to evaluate intelligence, experience, and common sense, it’s a short step to advancing one’s career through exaggeration and even downright deceit. Remember that a diploma is merely a document evidencing the holder’s completion of a particular course of study.

Even the once-sacred transcript, the official record of the work one has done to earn a degree, is no longer written in stone. Creative use has been made of color copiers and laser printers to alter records; college computer systems have been hacked into–in some instances for fun and in others in order to alter records for profit.

Actually, it would seem that finagling has always been part of the American doctoral tradition. Bear reports that the first American doctorate came about in the following way.

In the beginning, only someone with a doctorate could bestow one on another person. At the end of the 17th century, however, Harvard’s faculty had no instructors with doctorates. Its president, Increase Mather, belonged to a religious sect that was anathema to the Church of England and hence legally ineligible to receive a doctoral degree from any English university. Harvard’s faculty, which then consisted of two people, solved this problem by unanimously agreeing to award Mather an honorary doctorate. Mather, in turn, conferred doctorates upon his instructors. And they began doctoring their students.

Yale awarded America’s first professional doctorate when Daniel Turner, a British physician, gave Yale some fifty medical textbooks. Yale awarded him an M.D. in absentia. (Turner never set foot in America). Some, according to Bear, suggested that the M.D. must stand for multum donavit (“he gave a lot”).

As one might expect, Bear also discusses  the anomaly of the honorary degree. In a country whose government is forbidden from granting titles of nobility, higher education fills the gap with honorary doctorates, which are simply titles bestowed for various reasons upon various individuals. Bear suggests an analogy to an army granting the honorary rank of general to a civilian who may then use it in everyday life.

Of course there are doctorates and there are doctorates. My alma mater grants honorary doctorates to a few distinguished men and women every year. Among them, invariably, is the chief executive of some corporation whose foundation has made a substantial contribution to the college’s endowment. The Rev. Kirby Hensley’s renowned Universal Life Church, which awards an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree to anyone who ponies up $30 (it used to be only $5), merely takes this to its logical extreme.

My favorite chapters in Bear’s book discuss phony degrees and diploma mills, some of which operate wildly beyond the law. In 1978, one diploma mill proprietor was arrested as Mike Wallace was interviewing him for 60 Minutes. Usually unaccredited, usually operating in one of the handful of states that barely regulate private higher education (currently Hawaii seems the happy hunting ground of the degree mill), such institutions flourish because people want to avoid the work involved in getting a real degree. After 60 Minutes aired its program, the network received thousands of telephone calls and letters from people who wanted the addresses and telephone numbers of the diploma mills exposed by the program.

And who can blame them? In some states, a doctorate from a one-room Bible school is sufficient to set up practice as a marriage counselor and psychotherapist. At least one major figure in the New York City Parking Violations Bureau scandals had been a marriage counselor on the strength of his advanced degrees from the College of St. Thomas in Montreal, Canada. This was a theological seminary sponsored by an Old Catholic church whose archbishop, a retired plumber (I met him once: his weakness for lace on his episcopal finery left me cold), operated the college from His Excellency’s apartment. Quebec did not regulate religious seminaries, and this allowed the archbishop to claim—accurately—that the degrees were lawful and valid. They were also worthless.

As Bear notes, in Hawaii and Louisiana the one-man church founded yesterday may sponsor a university today that will grant a doctorate in nuclear physics tomorrow. One Louisiana diploma mill successfully argued that as God created everything, all subjects were the study of God and therefore a religious degree. This may be theologically sound, but if I learned my physician held his M.D. from this school, I would get a referral.

As long as people value others more for whatever pieces of paper they can produce than for their qualities of mind and character, the diploma mill will flourish. But the intelligent careerist will use common sense and the guides of John Bear.

New York Press, September 24, 2002

February 13, 2009   Comments Off on Education by Degrees

The Unsubtle Knife

Several recent obituaries of June Carter Cash referred to her early years as part of the Carter Family, singing over XER, a border blaster, one of the extraordinarily powerful radio stations broadcasting to U.S. audiences from south of the Rio Grande. XER was founded in 1931 by Dr. John R. Brinkley, whose scalpel made, as one admirer said, “the dead bough quicken and turn green again.” Brinkley took roughly $12 million between 1917 and 1942 from aging men who wanted to be “sweetly dangerous among the ladies once more.” His secret: goat glands transplanted into the scrota of some 16,000 men.

As early as the 1840s, according to David M. Friedman’s A Mind of Its Own: A Cultural History of the Penis, German physiologist Arnold Berthold was experimenting with transplanting rooster testicles. Shortly after World War I, Russian surgeon Serge Voronoff began transplanting testicles obtained from apes into elderly men who reported “renewed vigor.” He eventually performed more than 1,000 procedures at $5,000 a pop.

Gene Fowler, the Hearst journalist who organized the first known American monkey gland transplant as a publicity stunt to increase his newspaper’s circulation, had feared being unable to find “a man who [would] permit a doctor with a knife in his hand to start fooling around with his swinging trinkets.” Thousands of limp and flaccid men soon proved him wrong.

Though aspects of his autobiography varied from telling to telling, John Romulus Brinkley consistently claimed a birthday of July 8, 1885. He reported having been born in a log cabin and graduated from high school in Tuckasiegee, North Carolina. In 1908, while a Western Union telegrapher in Chicago, he began attending Bennett Medical College. He dropped out before his senior year. Four years later, Brinkley obtained a Tennessee license to practice medicine as an “undergraduate physician”—apparently some kind of learner’s permit.

He worked for one Dr. Burke, who was a “men’s specialist,” his office decorated with papier-mâché models of male organs that illustrated the wages of indiscretion. Once a prospect had been terrified by the prospect of tertiary syphilis, selling him a treatment was easy. Then Brinkley opened a medical office in Greenville, South Carolina. He advertised in the local daily, asking “Are You a Manly Man Full of Vigor?” The suckers came in droves. Brinkley gave them injections directly into the hip at $25 a shot. He claimed it was salvarsan or neo-salvarsan; it was really distilled water. Two months later, Brinkley skipped town, stiffing both landlord and newspaper.

In June 1913, Brinkley resurfaced in St. Louis, Missouri, where he received an M.D. from a diploma mill, the National University of Arts and Sciences, for a few hundred in cash. It fooled Arkansas, which licensed him as a physician; the Arkansas license, in turn, persuaded Kansas to license him too. Brinkley later obtained a second M.D. from the Eclectic Medical University of Kansas City, Missouri, whose proprietor, Professor Date R. Alexander, once rebuked a reporter for printing that he sold medical diplomas for $200. (“That’s a deadly insult,” Alexander complained. “I never sold one for less than $500.”)

Brinkley’s career in World War I was brief: one month and five days on duty and one month and three days in hospital, followed by release as unfit, partially due to multiple rectal fistulas. The former lieutenant drifted to Milford, Kansas, which had no sidewalks, electric lights, or water system. But he was down to his last twenty-three bucks, so he rented an old drugstore for $8 a month and began a general practice.

One night a man came in, a self-described “flat tire” who complained of being “All in. No pep.” Somehow, the subject of goats came up. “You wouldn’t have any trouble if you had a pair of those buck glands in you,” Brinkley said.

“Well, why don’t you put ’em in?” the man replied affably.

Brinkley performed the operation in his back room. The procedure involved administering a local anesthetic, opening the scrotum by incision from both sides, and—as he later wrote—“[placing] the glands of a three weeks’ old male goat…upon the non-functioning glands of a man, within twenty minutes of the time they are removed from the goat.” Within two weeks, his first patient had “regained his pep.” Within a year, the man and his wife had a healthy child, named Billy to honor the goat. Then another man came in, with a … kidney problem. Brinkley whetted his scalpel, and the second patient reported complete rejuvenation. Thousands would follow. Brinkley had found his niche.

The medical establishment held that a recipient’s immune system would either encapsulate or entirely reject animal glands. Nonetheless, Brinkley firmly maintained that goat glands renewed their recipients’ physical and mental vigor; indeed, he eventually asserted that his procedure transformed its beneficiary into “the-ram-that-am-with-every-lamb” while also curing insanity, acne, influenza, and high blood pressure. Numerous patients publicly swore the procedure worked. Soon, the Doc was charging $750—in advance—and the patient selected his own goat.

By 1923, Brinkley was also running a radio station—KFKB (Kansas First, Kansas Best)—that broadcast weather reports and live country music as well as “Medical Question Box,” in which Brinkley himself read letters from listeners, mostly women, on their ailments and complaints. The medications he prescribed over the air were coded (e.g., “Dr. Brinkley’s No. 101”) and could only be filled by druggists who carried Brinkley’s products, kicking back $1 to the Doc for each prescription. With a warm, down-home voice and a knack for providing listeners with the answers they wanted to hear, he was perfect for radio.

Despite his affability, the Doc was amazingly vain. Sadie Luck, one of Milford’s public librarians, later recalled:  “He autographed everything with his initials. I counted them on his Cadillac once and, hubcaps and all, his initials were on that car seventeen times!” In 1928, vanity finally overcame common sense. Hygeia, the American Medical Association’s magazine, called him a quack. Brinkley sued for libel and lost. The AMA then denounced him to the Kansas Board of Medical Registration and Examination, which revoked his medical license for immorality and unprofessional conduct.

Worse, the Federal Radio Commission yanked his broadcast license after a hearing on June 20-22, 1930, holding that his operations were not serving the public interest. Some argued that Brinkley’s candor about sex had been fatal; others noted that the politically influential Kansas City Star‘s radio station was losing advertisers to KFKB. Of course, the commission might simply have thought Brinkley a fraud and swindler.

Still, KFKB had made Brinkley famous. He believed his licenses might be regained through political influence. Although only forty-two days remained until election day, and it was too late to have his name printed on the ballots, Brinkley announced his write-in candidacy for governor of Kansas. As his attorneys had appealed the commission’s decision to the federal courts, the actual suspension was delayed until the appeal could be heard. Thus, he stayed on the air throughout his campaign.

The Democrats and Republicans thought him absurd. His name wasn’t even on the ballot and his platform promised something for everyone: free school books, free auto tags, lower taxes, better times for the working people, lakes in every county, and increased rainfall. But Brinkley was a great salesman, with a knack for anti-establishment rhetoric in a state sliding into the Great Depression.

Every day, after several hours on the radio, he would stump the state in his sixteen-cylinder Cadillac limousine and his private plane. He drew enormous crowds to mass gatherings that mixed “elements of a fundamentalist revival meeting with the mood of a state fair.” One witness wrote, “The man glittered. Standing on the platform with the sun shining on his white beard, his gold-rimmed spectacles, his rings, watch-fobs, cuff-links and tie-pins, he seemed to glow, wink and twinkle like a…Christmas tree. And, could he talk… We hung on every word, our mouths agape… The man was magical, and his words were wonderful. I didn’t understand any of it.”

In the last days of the campaign, the state attorney general ruled that only ballots bearing precisely the words J.R. Brinkley would be counted for the doctor. This saved Kansas for the system. On Election Day 1930, as many as 50,000 ballots bearing variations on his name, such as Dr. Brinkley or John Brinkly, were discarded. Even so, the vote was Woodring (Dem.), 217,171; Haucke (Rep.), 216,920; and Brinkley, 183,278.

Brinkley relocated to Del Rio, Texas, just on the Rio Grande. In the neighboring town of Villa Acuna, Mexico, Brinkley built a transmitter with towers some 300 feet tall. XER (“The Station Between the Nations”) went on the air with 100,000 watts on October 21, 1931. Soon, thanks to Brinkley’s lobbyists in Mexico City, the station began using 500,000 watts, then one million watts. (The most powerful U.S. stations were limited to 50,000 watts. ) XER thus blanketed North America, unrestrained by U.S. regulations.

XER broadcast folksy lectures from Doc Brinkley, who answered questions from listeners about anything from astronomy to religion. Brinkley held forth on his special “x-ray and microscopical as well as chemical examinations” designed to diagnose properly “the disease that’s in your body, the disease that’s destroying your earning power, the disease that’s causing you to keep your nose to the grindstone and spend every dollar that you can rake and scrape.” He pleaded with those listening, “You men, why are you holding back? You know you’re sick, you know your prostate’s infected and diseased… Well, why do you hold back? Why do you twist and squirm around on the old cocklebur…when I am offering you these low rates, this easy work, this lifetime-guarantee-of-service plan? Come at once to the Brinkley Hospital before it is everlastingly too late.”

XER had Bible-thumping preachers and astrologers. Entrepreneurs pitched get-rich-quick schemes: oil wells, real estate deals, lottery tickets, all spectacular opportunities for enrichment, and 100 percent guaranteed. Frank the Diamond Man sold genuine simulated diamond rings. There was The Lord’s Last Supper Tablecloth, the man who sold false teeth by mail, and the cures for hemorrhoids, flatulence, and that tormenting rectal itch. XER was also the first major national radio station to broadcast country music, from the Carter Family to Hank Williams.

During the late 1930s, Brinkley, who increasingly blamed his legal troubles on Jewish doctors, began broadcasting rabble-rousing anti-Semites such as Father Charles Coughlin and Rev. Gerald Winrod, the Kansas Hitler. In 1938, while staying at the Waldorf-Astoria, Brinkley met William Dudley Pelley, chief of the fascist Silver Shirt Legion of America, and gave him $5,000.

During the early days of World War II, he opened a flight school. Its XER advertisements claimed untruthfully that its students would receive draft deferments. Hustling to the end, Brinkley died on May 26, 1942. He was only fifty-six. One of his patients summed him up: “I knowed he was bilking me, but that’s okay. You see, I liked him anyway.”

New York Press, May 28, 2003

May 28, 2003   Comments Off on The Unsubtle Knife