|The Ballad Of Oswald LeSommers|
FEATURE BY Willard Manus
If circumstances lead me, I will find where truth is hid, though it were hid indeed within the centre.
HAMLET, William Shakespeare
"What's your relationship to Oswald LeSommers?"
"He told us he was your roommate," said the detective.
"He crashed here occasionally, but I wouldn't call him a roommate."
The detective asked to see Oswald's room. It took me some time to find the key; the four of us who shared the house never usually locked our bedroom doors, if only because, as students, we didn't have much that was worth stealing.
The detective came back out with an armful of books. "Tell me about these."
The books were stamped with the names of various public libraries in the area; all were long overdue. All were works by major literary figures--the likes of Melville, Mann, Pound, Tolstoy, Shakespeare and Goethe.
"Did you know that he had stolen these books?"
"The room is full of them," said the detective, a tall, boyish-looking chap.
"I've never been in Ozzie's room. And he never talked about stealing from libraries."
"What did you talk about when he was here?"
"Mostly school. We both go to Adelphi College."
"Over in Garden City?"
The detective jotted down something in his notebook.
"Do you know anything about his job at Hempstead Hospital?"
"I know that he works as an orderly, on the night-shift."
The detective asked some more questions and made a few more notes, but left without explaining the reason for his visit. That came out later, when Ozzie went to trial, charged with having impersonated a doctor while working at the hospital.
Actually, there never was a trial, just a preliminary hearing at which Ozzie's lawyer submitted a letter from a psychiatrist vouching that, for the past ten years, she had been treating Ozzie for borderline schizophrenia. His acts at the hospital were delusional, not criminal, in nature.
As for the stealing of library books, that was caused by his incipient kleptomania, another mental condition for which he was undergoing therapy.
So Ozzie beat the rap and celebrated his victory by bringing a sixpack of Schlitz to the house and regaling us with tales about his capers at Hempstead Hospital.
"I stole a doctor's jacket and had a nametag made," he said, brown eyes gleaming with pride. "I started making the rounds, checking out patients and chatting them up."
Ozzie also boasted that he had eventually taken part in several operations.
"I told them that I was there just to observe," he laughed. "That much was true, of course, but I can assure you that, if given the chance, I could do as well as most surgeons, especially when it comes to something as simple as an appendectomy. You just make an incision, snip off the diseased part--it looks like a cocktail sausage--stitch the ends and close the son of a bitch up."
* * *
My girlfriend and I were walking down MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village one Sunday night when came a screech of brakes and an excited shout.
It was Ozzie, leaping out of a taxicab and wrapping me in an embrace. "Guess what," he said, "I just got married--to Standard Oil!"
He jerked a thumb in the direction of the girl he'd left behind in the cab.
We got the whole story later, in the Minetta Taverna, over dinner and wine.
I hadn't seen Ozzie for some time, though I'd heard about him from various mutual friends. Having dropped out of Adelphi soon after the hospital fiasco, he'd been accepted at Berkeley, thanks to the help of an influential professor there, the head of the German Department.
Ozzie, you see, had been born in Vienna to Jewish parents, and spoke high-level German to go with his English. He also claimed to be conversant in Hebrew, Persian, French and "some Urdu." But his abiding interests were literature and poetry.
"I've begun writing some stuff of my own," he said. "I'm not only getting published but I've been offered a fellowship at San Francisco State. They think I'm a budding genius," he laughed, a little too self-consciously.
But right now he and Constance, his bright-eyed bride, were on their way to Venezuela, where her father was head of the Standard Oil operation.
"Will you be teaching there?"
"Nah. Work not necessary."
"My father has offered us a stipend--and a house--for one year," Constance explained.
"Neither of us will have to lift a finger," Ozzie said. "We'll have two maids and a driver."
"What in hell will you do all day long?"
"Stay in bed and fuck our brains out!"
That wasn't quite accurate. Ozzie must have done some work in Venezuela, because just two years later he published his first book, How Europeans View Shakespeare.
It was an academic piece of work, a collection of essays by various European Shakespearean scholars, but Ozzie had written a long and erudite introduction to the book. He'd also translated most of its essays.
Holding the book in hand, it was hard to believe that it had been put together by someone who was a petty thief and a con man.
* * *
A letter came from Raphael MacAdams, who had been living and working (for the United Nations) in Paris for the past ten years. Raphael had been one of my college housemates at the time of Ozzie's arrest. An African-American, Raphael went by the nickname of The Moor in those distant student days.
"Ran into Ozzie on the Champs-Elysees the other day. Hardly recognized him. He's lost a lot of hair and he dresses in expensive, handmade suits and shirts instead of filthy jeans and baggy blouses. Guess his Bohemian days are over.
"Never looked me in the eye while we talked; his glance kept dancing around like a knuckleball. Couldn't quite pin him down in conversation. Wouldn't say where he was working, but let it drop that it wasn't in academia any longer. Did admit, though, that his first marriage had broken up and that he was on to number two, with whom he'd had a child, a son. Got the feeling he didn't see much of either of them, though.
"Also got the feeling that he was stranger than ever. He was always on the weird side, of course, but there was always some humor and self-deprecation to the guy, a bit of charm. Now the charm is gone, replaced by something shifty and hidden."
* * *
While reading a well-worn copy of The Observer's Sunday edition--newspapers like The Observer got passed around the entire news-starved foreign colony in the Greek island village of Lindos --I happened across a small item describing the arrest in London of three men who'd been charged with a travel-agency scam. One of the men was "Oswald LeSommers, American, age 39."
I tried to get more details from friends who were living in London, but no one could help. Neither was I able to find a follow-up story in the British press, which is why all thoughts of Ozzie began to once again fade from mind as time went by.
* * *
It was soon after our return to the USA from Greece that Ozzie re-entered our lives again, this time with a phone call.
"It's Ozzie! I'm in Los Angeles for a few days. Can we get together?"
We invited him to dinner. He showed up with flowers for Mavis, a slim volume of his poetry for me (Atoms of Time had been subsidized by some of his wealthy friends and admirers, he said).
Ozzie looked different; not just older and balder but much heavier, more beefy and substantial. He had always carried a lot of weight on his six-foot frame, but in a light-footed, graceful way which had been shaped by his youthful training as a fencer. This was back in Europe where, he swore, he had won numerous medals in Junior competitions. Now there was no grace to him, no lightness.
His neck bulged out over his collar; his movements were slow, ponderous; he spoke and laughed harshly, boorishly. He also wouldn't stop talking, wouldn't let either of us get a word in.
We tried to figure him out as he talked about his adventures in the spy trade. Was he making these things up, trying to impress us with a bunch of lies and bravado? Or had he really become a secret op, a cold-war warrior?
It was hard to tell. We were dealing with a pathological liar, of course. Or were we? Ozzie was older now, less flamboyant, more somber. Maybe therapy had changed him, made him a better man, an honest man.
Or maybe it hadn't. Maybe he was far more twisted, far more duplicitous, than even we could imagine.
"I've been working for the CIA ever since the late 60s," he said. "I was recruited at San Francisco State when I was teaching there."
The Agency had wanted him for his language skills, assigning him to a desk in its Berlin station. But then, as the war in Vietnam had intensified, he was transferred to southeast Asia where he joined the Phoenix Program, a secret team of covert-action specialists.
"We did a lot of dirty jobs, all in the name of winning hearts and minds. We'd blow up houses and kill civilians but make it look like the Viet Cong had done it. Then I joined another group that had been put together after the army discovered the Viet Cong had built a network of connecting tunnels in and around Saigon.
"I came up with a solution to the problem. It came out of my Holocaust knowledge. The Nazis used poison gas to kill Jews in the camps; we used it in Nam, to asphyxiate everyone in those tunnels. I was given a commendation and a promotion by my superiors. Vietnam was very good to me!"
Ozzie, knocking back glass after glass of California wine, continued talking, a little drunkenly and feverishly now. "We could have won in Vietnam if the fucking politicians and peaceniks hadn't pulled the rug out from under us! The Phoenix Program should have been expanded; the CIA should've run the war not the army. It pisses me off just to think of all the mistakes that were made there!"
Ozzie said that he was back working out of the Berlin CIA station again. "I've got a sweet deal going. I was assigned the job of building a network of spies in East Europe. I decided to invent a slew of fictional characters in each of those Iron Curtain countries. It's the toughest, most challenging work I've ever done as a writer, concocting the reports they're obliged to turn in every month!"
"What's in it for you?" I asked.
"What kind of a question is that? I keep the money I'm supposed to be paying them every month, you schmuck! You know how much I've scammed the CIA out of? Four hundred thousand bucks to date! And do you know what I've been doing with the cash--buying art!"
Ozzie explained that, while poking around in the CIA files, he had discovered that an ex-Nazi general was living in Argentina under a psuedonym. He had fled Germany in the last days of WW II with a collection of artworks and artifacts plundered from museums and private collections all across Europe.
"I've always wanted to own some great paintings," Ozzie said. "I'm talking Picasso, Renoir, Degas, the creme de la creme. The Kraut had dozens of canvasses by those artists, hidden away in a bank vault down there. I made a trip to Argentina, met the prick and began to work on him to gain his trust. We spoke in German, of course. It took three visits before he'd agree to sell to me. I take out three, four paintings each time I see him. My collection is growing, it must be worth three or four million bucks. I'm a world-class art collector, man!"
* * *
I forgot all about Ozzie again until four years later, when Raphael MacAdams, now stationed in Africa for the United Nations, sent me a sheaf of zeroxed pages. The first batch was from a book about October Surprise, the covert campaign by the CIA to save the presidential campaign of Ronald Reagan and George Bush. Fearing that a Democrat unsympathetic to the intelligence community might defeat the Republican ticket, the CIA hired a number of operatives to undertake a disinformation scheme designed to smear the Democratic candidate, Jimmy Carter. The CIA also wanted to deflect attention from the clandestine and illegal arms deals it had arranged with Iran, on behalf of the Republican Party.
One of the operatives named in the book was Oswald LeSommers, who claimed to have been offered $40,000 for his work. "He said he used the psuedonym Razin, and refused to be interviewed in person," the author wrote. "Instead, he spoke to reporters only by telephone, offering a few bits and pieces of accurate information laced with fanciful inventions and false leads. His purpose was to throw dust in the air, to invent tantalizing leads that would eventually prove to be false, and thereby to generate so much fruitless commotion that the main story would be discredited and abandoned."
The other pages were from a wellknown literary magazine which, under the heading "Poems of a Superspy," had published four short works by Ozzie.
In an introductory note, the editor remarked that Ozzie's poetry had been praised by the likes of Robert Lowell, Karl Shapiro and Williams Carlos Williams, but that he had disappeared from view when he joined the CIA. "We are pleased to report, though," the editor continued, "that LeSommers has recovered his sanity after more than two decades of what he calls 'rat-fucking' in various parts of the world."
"Ozzie was now living in Europe with his family and takes every opportunity to aggrevate the ulcers of his former employers by revealing what he knows about the secret diplomacy of the U.S. intelligence community."
* * *
Answering machine message:
"Hey, this is Oswald. I'm in California again, but if you want to get together you'll have to come see me this time because..." (Heavy, guilty laugh)..."I'm in prison. Lompoc. I can have visitors, though. Call the prison hotline. Hope you can make it up here. I'd love to see you."
From L.A. the drive up to Lompoc State Prison took about three hours. I made the trip myself, Mavis having declined the opportunity to reconnect with Ozzie. She no longer found him to be fascinating and intriguing, the way I still did.
Lompoc was a Federal penal institution with a reputation as something of a country-club, a home away from home for non-violent, white-collar criminals. Located in the midst of central California's green hills and valleys--a river of wine flowed through the region's veins--Lompoc sat just off the 101 Interstate, a collection of lowrise buildings without impinging guard towers or security fences. Much in evidence were the prison's tennis and basketball courts, even an Olympic-sized swimming pool.
It came as a shock, seeing Ozzie after all these years. He'd put on a pile of weight, maybe fifty pounds, and now resembled a baby hippopotamus.
"What in hell happened to you?" I couldn't help blurting.
"It's all Lompoc's fault--the good life here."
As Ozzie explained, he'd been taken up by the half-dozen-odd Mafia chiefs who were incarcerated here. Reason being, he had convinced them that he was an ex-brigadier general who'd been busted for trying to defraud the U.S. government out of millions of dollars. To show their appreciation of his admirable criminal endeavors, they'd invited him to hang out and dine with them.
"They're allowed to take over the kitchen after the other prisoners have been fed," Ozzie said. "They have food delivered from the best Italian restaurants in the area. I've never eaten so much and so well in my life. I know I'm becoming obese, but I can't help myself, I'm hooked on Italian food and can't get enough of it!"
I asked him what he was in jail for. He said that two years ago he was arrested in a massive drug-smuggling scheme. "I teamed up with another rogue CIA pal whose cousin was a U.S. custom's officer. Together we were going to smuggle a ton of ephedrine from Germany into the USA."
"The base chemical used in the manufacture of methamphetamine. Ephedrine's on the restricted list in the USA. Every meth lab in the country was ready to buy from us. We would have copped something like ten million bucks, free and clear."
"All systems were go," Ozzie said, "but then that cocksucking custom's officer got cold feet and sold us out."
Ozzie had been sentenced to ten years in prison. He'd served only two years thus far, but felt confident that he'd be discharged "very soon."
He reminded me that he'd beat every rap he'd ever been charged with over the years, going back to Hempstead and then London (where his travel-agency swindle had been dismissed for lack of evidence).
"I know too much," Ozzie boasted. "I know where all the CIA bodies are buried. I'll tell the world about it, too, if those spooks don't spring me from this prison."
Ozzie also swore that he had influential friends on the outside who were pressuring the authorities to show him clemency.
He dug into his shirt pocket for a letter on University of Chicago stationery. It was addressed to the judge who was about to sentence him to prison.
"I know very little about the nature of Mr LeSommers' offense, but I would be sorry to hear that a heavy sentence had been imposed on him. Oswald is a gentle but driven creature who thinks that he has to act like a poete maudit. I don't know why in late middle age he must carry on so inappropriately, like a Rimbaud or a Verlaine. He is personally charming and good-natured, nothing of the criminal psychopath about him. He simply suffers from a serious misunderstanding of what is appropriate in the career of a literary man. Such misunderstanding is already a sort of punishment. He simply got everything wrong, and his life resembles a jigsaw puzzle which cannot be put together.
"Sincerely yours, Professor Saul Bellow."
* * *
Just as he predicted, Ozzie walked out of Lompoc a few months later, a free man. He returned to Germany and, not long after, married "a hot young fraulein." The union produced a child, his fourth by four different wives, he proudly reported in an e-mail.
The marriage ended in divorce a year later; his ex took the child with her.
"Don't cry for me, Argentina," wrote Ozzie in a subsequent message. "I married the ex's younger sister, who's even more beautiful, sexy...and obedient."
He also said that he was writing a book, an autobiographical novel about his drug-running scam, called Ton.
"I have a publisher who wants it, but the truth is, I don't have the patience, the zitzfleisch, to tackle such a big project. I wish you were here, because then I could just dictate things and you could write them up. I'll split the take with you. We'll make big bucks, I swear it."
After I declined his offer, I didn't hear from Ozzie again for the longest time, when his name turned up in the newspapers, in connection with the Princess Diana story.
The Princess, who had chafed under the disapproving and repressive regimen of the British royal family when she was married to Prince Phillip, began a love affair with a Egyptian-born playboy named Dodi Fayed. (This was after her divorce from Phillip).
That Dodi's father, Mohamed Al Fayed, was one of the richest men in the world counted for nothing with the Queen and her consorts, who continually went out of their way to snub and denigrate him.
Then came the sad, tragic night in Paris when Dodi's chauffeur, Henri Paul, crashed the Mercedes he was driving at high speed, killing not only himself but Dodi and Diana as well.
Soon after that, various rumours about the accident began to circulate. One of them held that because Princess Diana was pregnant with Dodi's child, the royal family decided that she and her Muslim lover must die. With the collusion of M16, the British equivalent of the CIA, a Fiat driven by a paid thug rammed the Mercedes, causing it to smash head-on into the tunnel wall at Pont de L'Alma.
Soon after, Mohamed Al Fayed announced that he believed the conspiracy theory to be true. He had been given proof by certain former British and American intelligence agents--one of whom was my erstwhile old friend, Oswald LeSommers.
* * *
The next time I heard from Ozzie was a few years later, when a letter came with the news that he was now living in Lisbon--and loving it.
"It's beautiful and cheap here and I'm treated like a literary lion," he wrote.
Ozzie had published a book about his dealings with Mohamed Al Fayed. The book had become a bestseller, making him, as he put it, "world-famous in Portugal."
He didn't send me a copy of the book, just some of its laudatory reviews. From them I learned that Ozzie had sold to Al Fayed what he claimed was a secret M16 file pertaining to Princess Di's murder. Selling price, one million pounds.
Armed with this information, Fayed had then launched his angry attack on the British establishment.
As time went by, subsequent independent investigations failed to find proof of a conspiracy. Not only was Princess Di not pregnant at the time of her death, she hadn't been murdered by M16 or anyone else, but was simply the unfortunate victim of an accident caused by Dodi's reckless, drunken chauffeur.
Fayed still stuck to his story, though. Why? Was he just a stubborn, spiteful old man? Or was the file authentic after all? Fayed was rich and cunning; he was surrounded by lawyers; how could Ozzie have pulled a fast one and sold him a fraudulent bill of goods?
Ozzie insisted that the M16 file was legit. "If it weren't, the Portuguese would never have published my book," he said. Not only that, they wouldn't have given him sanctuary from M16.
More questions came to mind.
Why hadn't that powerful organization gone after him? Even if the Portuguese had refused to arrest Ozzie and extradict him to the U.K., why hadn't M16 taken covert steps to punish Oswald? Why hadn't the Brits tried to silence him? Kidnap him?
Did Oswald have something on M16, the way he had claimed, back in Lompoc, to have something on the CIA? Or was some other bizarre, convoluted scenario being played out here?
Bottom line was, Ozzie had wriggled his way out of yet another jail cell. He was living the good life in Portugal, he said, enjoying his young wife, his paintings, his five minutes of fame.
"I'm interviewed on television, asked to write editorials in the newspapers and speak at book fairs," Ozzie boasted. "After all these years of being treated like an eccentric, a pariah, in my own country, I am taken seriously here, paid the respect I deserve.
"Come and see this for yourself. Come to Lisbon as soon as you can!"
* * *
Three years later came news, from Ozzie's firstborn son, who was now married and living in Palm Springs, that his father had died in Lisbon of a heart attack.
A week later, a letter from Ozzie arrived. It was dated a few days before his death and it contained a copy of his latest, and last, poem. It went like this:
"A RETURN TO THE WINGED LION
Or poserai per sempre,
Stanco mio cor. Peri l'inganno estremo,
Ch'eterno io mi credei.
"In Venice there is no yesterday and no tomorrow.
It's always now, the moment of a memory;
of being seven, walking along the shore beside
my father. Too old to be held, I trace the invisible
footsteps of Tonio Kroger, and listen to the madrigals
Monteverdi, interred on the island, composed.
My present never changes, it is the sky
in a painting by Titian, who lounges on the clouds
above Vecelio, his last home, in sight of the bright
fires of Murano, where artisans with nimble fingers
fashion Canova's Psyche with Butterfly in millefiori
for the tourist shops on the Ponte di Rialto.
"What is timeless in a heap of bones? These stone
markers on the island named for the apostle
who gave Venice its lion with wings, also a symbol
for Him with whom he supped in a garden,
have names engraved on them that can last longer
than dust or a mass of ossa bleached by ages
of sunlight: Stravinsky, Pound and Serge Diaghileff:
finished as flesh, unknown in bone, riddles on stone."