"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
In August, I left a message for Jan Pottker at her home in Potomac, Md. She called back the next day to politely say she’d think it over, but doubted she would want to talk.
“Burned once, you know, it’s not my fault,” she said. “Burned twice, it is my fault.”
It’s not difficult to understand why Pottker declined to be interviewed. For eight years, she had been subjected to a bizarre ordeal. A gregarious, prematurely graying man in his late 30s posing as a helpful book packager and promoter had led her on a wild goose chase. While reporting on her every movement, and even thoughts, he steered her toward other projects, feeding her disinformation and generally doing everything in his power to prevent her from publishing anything about Ringling Bros.
The life of a freelance writer can inspire paranoia even at the best of times. Story assignments inexplicably fall through, editors change their minds. But the surreal campaign of dirty tricks endlessly played on Jan Pottker by Ringling Bros. chief Ken Feld and his minions would be enough to persuade even the most stoic freelancer that their career path was being plotted by Franz Kafka.
The excruciating details of Pottker’s travails are annotated in almost 10,000 pages of pretrial complaints, motions, affidavits and depositions filed in the bowels of Superior Court for the District of Columbia. The evidence gathered so far evokes other unfortunate milestones in the annals of corporate espionage, going back to General Motors’ infamous campaign against the young activist Ralph Nader 40 years ago through the mysterious death of Karen Silkwood on an dark Oklahoma highway in 1974.
Pottker’s personal tormentor was an obscure, innocuous-looking, 36-year-old freelance writer and sometime publisher with uncommonly close ties to high-ranking former officials of the CIA. His name was Robert Eringer.
“I met Robert Eringer in the late 1980s,” Clair George said in a deposition on file in Superior Court. “He called me when I still worked for the government, introduced himself as a book agent/publisher and asked me if I would be willing to do a biography.” (George presumably meant “autobiography.”)
A woman who knew him then recalled, “He was very charming. Almost charismatic, I’d say.” Her understanding was that Eringer “worked for the CIA, definitely,” although she says she couldn’t prove it.
At the time, Clair George’s 35-year career with the CIA was coming to an end. The chief of covert operations was under investigation for lying to a congressional committee probing the White House’s secret, arms-for-hostages, Iran-contra caper. Eventually he would be convicted of perjury, and although President Bush gave him a Christmas Eve pardon in 1992, George was left deeply in debt from attorneys’ fees alone, according to a CIA officer who once worked for him.
George and Eringer met at the Georgetown Inn in 1988 and became fast friends, according to both men’s depositions. It’s not clear why the older man took to Eringer, about 25 years younger. Perhaps the patrician-looking ex-spymaster admired Eringer’s friendly interview with legendary CIA dirty trickster Miles Copeland, published in a 1985 issue of Rolling Stone. “Nobody knows more about changing governments, by force or otherwise, than me,” Copeland crowed. Copeland also said he admired Richard Helms, another legendary CIA man who’d held George’s job 20 years earlier before leaping to the top rung, for famously declaring he’d wear a misdemeanor perjury conviction for lying to Congress “like a badge of honor.”
Of all the strange figures that pop up in this murky tale, Robert Eringer may be the most mystifying. Eringer grew up in Beverly Hills, the son of a noted illustrator for Walt Disney who has now retired to Monaco. Despite attending four colleges without getting a degree, he became a fairly prolific author. In addition to a few magazine articles, mostly on espionage-related subjects, he published several nonfiction books, including “The Global Manipulators” (Pentacle, Bristol, England, 1980), an investigation of the so-called Bilderberg Group, a publicity-shy confederacy of top Western industrialists and officials; “Strike for Freedom: Lech Walesa and Polish Solidarity” (Dodd, Mead, 1982); and “The Conspiracy Peddlers” (1981), which one reviewer called an investigation of “researchers beavering away on … activities of the super-rich and the intelligence community.” That, of course, fit Jan Pottker to a T.
Eringer also wrote a handful of spy novels, which were published by an obscure house called National Press Books and other even more obscure publishers in South Carolina linked to NPB. Eringer’s fiction drew no attention except from a few equally obscure reviewers and publicists, at least one of whom was paid to spam the Internet with disingenuous praise for Eringer’s books. (“I have been given permission to distribute an excerpt from a new book …”) But they did carry the endorsement of some big-name spymasters. His most recent novel, “Parallel Truths,” which chronicled the adventures of “spy for hire” Jay Sandak, was praised by Eringer’s pal Clair George. “No one writes a funnier novel about modern day spying than Robert Eringer,” George raved. “It is clear that he understands espionage …”
And Eringer’s 1995 spy caper, “Zubrick’s Rock,” set in Monaco, had a blurb from former CIA director William Colby, who died the following year.
Eringer’s ties to the CIA don’t end there. Former CIA director Richard Helms just happened to be Eringer’s backyard neighbor in Foxhall, arguably the poshest part of Washington, until Eringer moved to California last June.
If CIA honchos seemed to know who Eringer was, the same can’t be said for the small, close-knit community of writers who specialize in espionage. The number of reputable writers working this subject can be counted on two hands, and they closely follow each other’s work. But none of them knew anything about Eringer.
Eringer hardly leads the lifestyle of a little-known writer. He buys and sells homes just about every other year, according to his deposition. In 1998 Eringer and his wife, Elizabeth, purchased their home on Hawthorne Street Northwest in Washington for $1.55 million, according to city listings. By last June, when the house was sold for a profit of $325,000, Robert had transferred the deed to his wife. City records indicate he still owns title to an empty, 2,200-square-foot lot, assessed at $45,000, on 49th Street Northwest.
Salon was unable to contact Eringer using the phone number in California that he left with the court. A reverse-directory check on the number in Santa Barbara, moreover, doesn’t match the address he gave to the court.
It isn’t clear exactly when Eringer began working for Clair George. But clearly he was on Feld’s payroll, with orders to obstruct Pottker’s planned book about the circus, by 1990. At that time, Eringer was running a small publishing operation called Enigma Books, on Georgia Avenue in suburban Silver Spring, Md. He befriended David Cutler, a Washington literary agent who was representing Pottker, and offered to help him market her proposal for a book on the Feld family. Cutler supplied Eringer with a copy of the proposal, which Eringer gave to George.
“Did you know he worked for the circus?” Pottker’s lawyer, Roger Simmons, asked Eringer under oath.
“Yes,” Eringer said. About the same time, he also admitted, he was secretly helping George develop “an authorized” book on the circus, paid for by Feld Entertainment subsidiaries to the tune of $3,000 a week. At the same time, according to court files, Feld was sending checks to Post Office Box addresses at three separate Mailboxes, Etc. stores in northwest Washington and Bethesda. The checks were often made out to entities such as The Pitcairn Group, Admiralty Consultants, and Equator Associates — names evidently inspired by “The Mutiny on the Bounty.”
Pottker was totally in the dark about these activities, of course. Eventually she tired of Cutler’s ineffectual efforts to market her proposal and found a new agent. That’s when George and Eringer kicked off a new operation to derail her book, “Project Preempt.”
On the night of April 26, 1993 — nearly three years after Pottker’s initial magazine story on the Feld family had caused such a commotion — Robert Eringer attended a presentation on family dynasties that Pottker was giving at a local library. When she finished, Eringer introduced himself, said he liked her ideas, and wanted to help her get some books published.
Like any writer, Pottker was flattered. She’d gotten “several” nibbles from book publishers after her Regardie’s piece, she told him. She also confided that she’d just sent a piece about child abuse at the circus to Mirabella (a now-defunct women’s glossy). She’d love to work with Eringer if he could help, she told him. They agreed to meet again soon.
So began one of the strangest campaigns ever waged against a writer, freelance or otherwise. It would become a convoluted, drawn-out saga that seems at once tragic and ridiculous. Ridiculous, because it’s unclear at times exactly what Feld was getting for his money. Although they tried, there is no direct evidence that Eringer or George succeeded in causing any book publishers or magazines to reject Pottker’s proposals — although they may very well have. By their own testimony, however, they admit that they ran an eight-year-long operation to divert her into different projects.
Eringer promptly reported on his easy seduction of Pottker to Clair George, especially the important detail on her piece for Mirabella, “which was finished but not edited,” according to their undated “Memo No. 1″ to Feld. “It is our intention to monitor Pottker closely.”
But spying on her wasn’t enough. They needed to distract her as well. “To this end, we need a hook,” they wrote to Feld. They planned to commission a book on the Rockefellers, which, they wrote, “will side-track Pottker for many months to come — probably a couple of years.” Since book advances are customarily paid out in thirds, they explained, “if we agree to an advance of $35,000 we will need only $11,666 up front.”
There was an additional benefit, Eringer reported. “It will give me the opportunity, as Pottger’s [sic] ‘editor,’ to monitor her work closely and, incidental to the (book project), collect intelligence on her sources and methods pertaining to her interest in Ringling Bros.”
As it turned out, the Rockefeller book would never happen, but a book on the Mars candy family would — with many problems from the moment it was published. And for years to come, Pottker would face one perplexing hurdle after another, unaware that her career was being monitored, prodded and shaped by a group of spies.
In late 1991 Eringer was busily insinuating himself into Pottker’s life, as friend, book partner, confidant. They met regularly at restaurants and talked constantly on the telephone. One day she told him she was distressed to learn that an editor at Mirabella, who had at first received her circus piece enthusiastically, now wanted a “new direction,” which could take months. She wasn’t sure why, but, as Eringer wrote, she had noticed that the magazine “is now owned by [Rupert] Murdoch,” the right-wing media baron not reticent about using his publications for partisan ends. She’d also heard from her editor that an attorney from the Feld company had called Mirabella to disparage her as “a tabloid writer with no credibility.” Eringer reported this, too.
George and Eringer’s next two reports to Feld relayed intimate details of Pottker’s dogged attempt to track down and interview hard-to-find former circus employees, per Mirabella’s instructions. She’d given their names to Eringer. She then turned in a new draft, but months passed without word from the magazine. George reported to Feld that “other matters discussed” with Pottker “were purely operational, based on book projects with which we plan to divert Pottker’s attention.”
The next memo to Feld was nearly gleeful: Mirabella had rejected Pottker’s article on the circus. She had “no quotes from Kenneth Feld” or “children working at Ringling Bros.” But Pottker wouldn’t give up. She planned to try to sell the article to Redbook or Hard Copy, George warned.
Months later, however, there was no word from Redbook. She confided to Eringer that her new literary agent at William Morris had tired of trying to help her place a magazine piece, in which there was little profit, and “won’t be of much further help to her on this front.”
“Pottker is thinking up other ways to publish her circus story and asked my advice and guidance,” said the next, unsigned memo, presumably from Eringer. “I told her I would think about it.”
But there was a tone of alarm to Memo No. 9: Ohio Sen. Howard Metzenbaum, “incited by Pottker, has decided to pursue the ‘circus problem’ and may include her findings in hearings on child labor … later this year,” George reported. In addition, “Larry King Live had phoned Pottker again about booking her … with Metzenbaum.”
But meanwhile, she couldn’t catch a break with a magazine. Redbook had rejected her child labor piece, George reported, with the excuse that it wasn’t “broad enough.” [She's] going to try USA Today’s “Money” section next, he said. “Pottker continues her contact with Howard Metzenbaum’s office,” he added. She had also confided that Christopher Dodd, the Democratic senator from Connecticut, was interested in the issue, as well as “Larry King Live,” he said. But “Pottker’s in a race against time,” he concluded, because the circus season ended in November.
Next, George reported that USA Today had rejected her piece as “too investigative.” “She feels the story slipping away,” he wrote.
Pottker confided to Eringer that she was thinking of calling a friend who knew a producer at ABC News — apparently forgetting, or underestimating the importance of, the fact that the network was owned by Disney, a partner of Ken Feld’s in “Disney’s Shows on Ice.” A report went to Feld.
Meanwhile, the plan to redirect her energies was starting to work. “Pottker has refocused time and energy into projects I have given her,” Eringer reported. “Her enthusiasm for exposing Ringling Bros has been redirected to exposing others.” Meanwhile, Eringer offered her a shoulder to cry on. He listened sympathetically when she castigated herself for clinging to an exposé of the circus.
“Pottker and I have discussed other authors and how tragic it is when they become obsessed by their stories and cannot move on,” he reported in Memo No. 11. “We agreed that there are more good stories in the world and that if one doesn’t work, an author should let it go and tackle other stories.”
In fact, although Pottker hadn’t quite thrown in the towel on Feld yet, Eringer managed to interest her in another project — an investigative book on the Mars candy family. He reported that she had written a letter to People magazine about doing a piece on the plight of circus children, but after two weeks, there had been no word back from the magazine. “It is our judgment that People magazine will not show any interest,” George reported confidently to Feld.
Now they had to make sure that someone showed interest in the Mars book.
In 1994 Pottker began research on a book about the Mars family. Eringer, her dutiful “book packager,” helped arrange for it to be published by Joel Joseph, the proprietor of National Press Books, a little-known entity in Bethesda. He told the circus that he would need $25,000 for Pottker’s advance, according to his deposition.
Pottker had no idea, of course, that her book was secretly being funded by the circus. But the operation was right out of a CIA playbook. As George admitted in his deposition, the checks “came from … a Ringling Bros. bank in Texas or Oklahoma or … North Carolina or someplace,” addressed to various mailboxes he and Eringer had rented. In espionage parlance, these are called an “accommodation address,” as Eringer put it in his own deposition; they’re used to obscure connections between spymasters and their agents. After depositing the money in accounts at the Chevy Chase Bank and Madison National Bank, they issued their own checks to National Press Books, which in turn made out its own checks to Pottker, according to the testimony of Eringer and George and evidence on file in the court.
Joel Joseph wasn’t entirely witting about the operation, the agents assured Ken Feld in a memo. “The Washington publisher will never know the source of monies put up for Pottker’s advance.” He did, of course, know that he wasn’t paying the advance — Robert Eringer was.
Joseph denies knowing what George and Eringer were up to. “There may have been a conspiracy by the other defendants,” Joseph wrote to the judge, “but … National Press Books and Joel D. Joseph was not part of the conspiracy.”
Feld’s agents, meanwhile, had grudgingly come to admire Pottker’s reporting, especially her “eye for detail,” one memo reported. She had discovered, for example, that Mars had been lobbying the government to extend Daylight Savings Time one week, past Halloween, because it could mean an extra million dollars in candy sales. The two spooks also enjoyed her anecdote about how Mars once secretly funded a “research institute” in Princeton, N.J., that ginned up a study saying “chocolate is good for teeth.” She was also working on an idea for a book about celebrity homes in Washington, they reported. Fine, Eringer told her: Let’s do it together.
“When talk turned to the circus,” they reported to Feld, “Pottker had very little to say. Why? She has no time to even think about Ringling Bros. Our projects have effectively diverted her from new investigations into Ringling Bros and from marketing her unpublished story on circus children.”
Eventually, the Mars book was published. It got good reviews and a fair amount of attention, especially in Washington. But it was hard to find — and it became much harder to find when National Press Books refused to honor a mere $300 invoice from a photographer who had supplied pictures for the book. Pottker begged them to pay it, and finally paid it herself, but it was too late: The photographer had gotten a court order to pull the books off the shelves. The publisher didn’t fight it. The book was effectively killed.
A similar chain of events happened with Pottker’s book “Celebrity Washington: Who They are, Where They Live and Why They’re Famous.” Eringer and Pottker launched the project as a “joint venture,” according to court files. But as time went on, Pottker found Eringer’s work unsatisfactory. She decided to drop him and publish the book on her own. “Eringer’s apparent incompetence was in fact deliberate,” her suit charges.
George and Eringer seemed ready to declare victory by the mid-1990s, having entangled Pottker in other ventures. But their next memo reported ominously that Pottker had “joined an organization called Investigative Reporters and Editors.” The national organization of crusading journalists was founded in 1975 and gained recognition after the 1976 car-bombing murder of reporter Don Bolles by Arizona mobsters, but Feld’s spies didn’t know anything about it. “We will try to find out what that organization may be,” they wrote. “Will keep you advised.”
Then, there was more bad news, the spies reported: Pottker had a new idea for an article or book comparing Ringling Bros. to the Clyde Beatty circus, which she thought was a better-run outfit. More distressing: She had also been in contact with animal rights groups.
On Sept. 4, 1996, Feld’s men reported that Pottker had been musing about doing a book on Estee Lauder, but she still hadn’t dropped the circus idea. Her new twist was to compare the Felds’ stewardship of Ringling Bros. with that of their predecessor, J.R. North. And now, they reported, she planned to ask for help from Ken’s sister Karen Feld, as well as Alan Bloom, who began working for the circus at age 11 in 1947.
Clair George’s latest news no doubt sent Ken Feld right out of his chair. Now Feld’s operatives began scrambling for more information on what Karen Feld was up to. George hand-wrote a memo to Eringer headed “TOP SECRET,” and beneath that, “Project Preempt.”
“Karen is not cooperating at this point,” he reported.
After surviving the triple traumas of her mother’s suicide, her father’s eccentric behavior, and her own brother’s effort to evict her, Karen had finally achieved a foothold on emotional stability. She still had the Georgetown house. She had her syndicated column, “Capital Connections,” and a Web site, which not only made her a regular in the city’s media-and-politics social whirl, but got her picture taken with Barbara Bush, and then with the Clintons. But close friends knew that she had long mulled the idea of her own book on the family enterprise.
It’s not readily clear how George and Eringer found out what was on her mind, although Karen knew that her brother was employing the ex-CIA man. “She said Ken had hired him to spy on her,” claims a friend in whom she confided.
However they found out, Clair George reported to Feld that “Karen vehemently insists” she hasn’t helped Pottker, according to another of his memos in the court file. “I’m a writer,” he quoted her as saying. “Why should I tell my stories to another writer? When I’m ready, I’ll write them myself.”
“Karen claims her book on the Feld family would be explosive,” the memo continued. It said she’d had problems defining the book. It went on to further describe her vacation house in Maine, which she calls “a writer’s hideaway — a place to write her book one day.” Karen also claimed to have many sources inside the Feld organization, according to the report.
“Whenever someone is fired,” George reported her saying, “they call me.” (So far, Karen Feld has yet to publish anything on her family.)
It was one of their last reports. In March 1997, Feld fired Chuck Smith, his vice president and go-to guy for dirty tricks and espionage, after the secret videotapes he’d made of his girlfriend fell into her hands and he was arrested by the police. With Smith’s abrupt exit Clair George, Robert Eringer and the soon-to-be repentant wiretapper Joel Kaplan were also cut loose. The spying operation was about to crash and burn.
“I told Chuck …” said Alan Bloom, who worked a half century for the circus before Feld let him go, after one suit had led to another like a row of dominoes, “tinkering with the press was a bad — a bad thing to do, that it shouldn’t be done.” “Chuck loved to deal in … espionage,” Bloom added in his deposition. “I think he had delusions about his involvement with — whether it be the FBI or CIA or whatever.” (Smith in fact once worked for the FBI, but not as an agent.) “I mean, he told me so many stories that I just threw them off after a while. Very paranoid man.”
It would seem that Smith and Feld believed that they could control the media through friends in high places. Certainly the inexplicable press silence that followed Pottker’s lawsuit seemed to give credence to their faith. After two years, despite court files swelling with riveting tales of corporate spying and dirty tricks; despite the curious involvement of a brand-name CIA agent with a member of the Forbes 400, who happens to own the world’s largest, best known live-entertainment company; despite two suits filed by major animal rights groups; and despite the elaborate, nearly decade-long harassment of a writer swirling under the nose of the national media in Washington, not a word of her suit appeared in print or on the air.
It wasn’t for lack of trying, however. Bob Keating, the ABC producer who was a friend of a friend of Jan Pottker, started to pursue the story last year, according to knowledgeable sources. He worked on it for months, then presented it to his bosses. After they refused to go with it, Keating, who would not return repeated calls for comment, left the network. ABC, of course, is owned by Feld’s partner Disney.
A spokesman for ABC News, insisting on anonymity, said, “There is no connection between his leaving and any story.” He added that Keating “worked a full year on the story … about the circus, I guess, but it’s my understanding that it wasn’t much of a story.”
“Some stories stick, and some stories don’t,” he said, adding, “ABC has a strong record of doing stories critical of Disney.”
Eringer did not respond to several messages left at his telephone in California. According to Clair George, they were still in business a year ago. One can only wonder what new projects they’ve cooked up.
Pottker’s book remains unwritten. Her hopes for exposing the real life of the circus now lie with the courts.
It has been nearly two years since she filed her suit, in which she and her husband allege that they suffered grievous psychological damage from eight years of spying and harassment at the hands of Ken Feld and his operatives. (Contesting that, Feld’s lawyers are examining the Pottkers’ private medical records, which the Pottkers turned over to them.) The case is still in the discovery stage.
The circus isn’t talking outside of court. Catherine Ort-Mabry, spokeswoman for Feld Enterprises, stated, “It’s an ongoing legal matter and we’re not going to comment.” But Judge Leonard Braman has rejected several motions by Feld et al. to dismiss the case. And by the looks of Pottker’s “proposed list of fact witnesses,” the last chapter of her saga hasn’t even opened, much less been written. Among the 346 names on the her list are several more former CIA agents, as well as the top editors at magazines and publishing houses where Pottker’s proposals were derailed.
The 15 volumes in the basement of Superior Court are also littered with photocopies of checks that George and Eringer issued and received, not only in connection with Pottker, but in what looks like a wide spectrum of activities. All the while, they were dining out on other people’s money at the Chevy Chase Club and other exclusive haunts.
Several hundreds of thousands of dollars passed through their accounts in the 1990s alone, the records show, many bearing the names of several intriguing but as-yet unidentified individuals and entities.
The full story of the greatest vendetta on earth, it would appear, remains to be told.
Jeff Stein is the coauthor, with Khidhir Hamza, of "Saddam's Bombmaker: The Daring Escape of the Man Who Built Iraq's Secret Weapon." He writes frequently for Salon on national security issues from Washington.More Jeff Stein.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)