Photo by the author.
I moved to London, England after finishing film school in 2005. My first job in desperation was in the luxury department store Harrods. I was part of their temporary holiday season staff and was placed in their Teddy Bear department.
Somehow, very quickly, I found an opening at the Oyster Bar in the famous Food Halls. I didn’t know how lucky I was at the time, but the four other employees working behind the bar had worked there no less then seven years each. With tips and commission it paid quite well.
It was one of the best paid jobs on the floor and it was also one of the most interesting. The pile of stories and business cards I collected from the six months I spent behind that bar could fill a book of significant girth.
In light of recent events, I won’t share the story of the penthouse in Moscow, the divorcee, the man on top of Harrods, Mohamad Al Fayed’s Viagra, the Daddy’s girl from Monaco, the Japanese Madam or the Bollywood producer.
The story I’d like to tell began on a very busy Friday. I was in my position shucking oysters behind the bar and enjoying the conversation of whoever sat down in front of me. Footballer Wives, Hoteliers, Dame Judi Dench, Pharmaceutical CFOs, Important People.
While working at the counter, I enjoyed a conversation with an elderly gentleman and his beyond gorgeous daughter. The man’s opulent scarf seemed a bit overkill for a casual day of shopping even at Harrods, but who am I to judge. On this particular daddy-daughter day they both carried a calm, confident happiness. It was like they had a secret.
They both had a sharp look in their eye which I found fascinating. The way I met them with the same, almost squinting glare, let me into their lives. From him, the glare meant he knew more than me, that he was wise and hesitant to give away too much information, but with her, perhaps in my naivety, I assumed it had sexual connotations.
She was petite, with jet-black hair and a flawless complexion. Her restrained smile left a lot for me to imagine. Her wedding ring probably effected her gait and could have been the reason she was euphoric, almost giddy. It was like she wanted to tell someone something, but that someone wasn’t going to be me. She had the kind of face you want to get up close to and inspect. Like porcelain. Smiling, malleable porcelain.
We spoke a bit about London and New York--where they were from. I spoke about the financial technical analysis course I was taking because the money I was making was so, so much. (ha!) I also told them about my background in film. The daughter perked up at the mention of filmmaking. The idea seemed so playful to her.
He paid with a worn Black American Express card, a symbol of wealth and exclusivity. I couldn’t help but remember the name on the card: Marc Rich. My name is Mark and I want to be Rich. Easy to remember. I wondered what he did for a living.
They left with friendly smiles, the way everyone usually did, but just before stepping away, Mr. Rich extended his hand and without saying a word he said good-bye, thank you, nice to meet you, and something I’ll never know, all telepathically. He had powerful eyes.
That night I went home and googled the name Marc Rich. I spent the entire night with my jaw on my keyboard reading up on one of largest white collar criminals of all time. Mr. Rich, it seemed, had been on the F.B.I’s most wanted list for decades after trading oil illegally with Iran throughout the hostage crisis during the Carter administration. His company, later renamed Glencore, is now "the biggest company you've never heard of," as Reuters called it. I ordered Michael Lewis’ Metal Men, depicting his rise,and was furious at Amazon over a five-day delivery time. This man was, the Internet told me, responsible for modern oil trading. He was also the world's most sought-after corporate criminal.
In 1983, he fled to Switzerland in an effort to avoid the 300 years in jail he would have had to serve for a myriad of charges which included tax evasion--the same thing which brought down Al Capone. At one point he did settle up some $200 million with the government, but that didn’t clear his name. Only a controversial pardon from President Clinton on his last day in office would come close.
The blowback from that pardon was intense. Rich's singer-ex-wife Denise had made a significant contribution to Mr. Clinton’s library (she would later renounce her own citizenship and become an Austrian, before it was revealed that in 2006 she stashed $144 million in the Cook Islands.) And, it turned out, Marc's lawyer, Jack Quinn, former Chief of Staff to Vice President Al Gore, had talked to then-Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder about Holder getting a position in a future Gore administration. It was Holder who would suggest to Clinton on the eve of his final day in office that a pardon would be just fine.
Clinton later said his decision was ‘bad politics.’ Rich, who had become obsessed with getting pardoned so he could return to New York, was at the time on a number of wanted lists: the Interagency International Fugitive List listed him as WANTED by the U.S. Marshal Service, the U.S. Customs Service and the FBI. He was an "international fugitive" on the Justice Department's website. There, it was noted that the U.S. "will pay a reward for information that leads to the arrest of Marc David Rich," and even the IRS had offered a half-million dollar reward for his capture. Like Julian Assange today, Interpol listed Rich on its "Red Alert" list. Tragically, while in exile, Marc was unable to visit his second daughter Gabrielle, who was in New York when she died of leukemia in 1996, at the age of 27
The following day--it must have been mid-December--was one of my busiest and most memorable days behind the bar. The lead singer of The Darkness came in, The Man from Gibraltar was in town for a concert, Elizabeth my lover-to-be visited with some friends. Never a dull moment.
I went into work that Saturday excited with anticipation for who might step up to the bar. Instantly, meeting Mr. Rich changed my view of the world. Having grown up in Small Town Canada exposure to London itself felt like the most diverse place on the planet, but meeting Mr. Rich made so much more seem possible. Reading up on his life, learning how he had escaped Nazi Germany with his family and become one of the most successful commodity traders (regardless of the legality) really exposed me to real world James Bond shit. It made billionaires seem real. It made a billion dollars seem tangible. On my way into work the next day, I had a good feeling I was about to become a billionaire.
I remember a queue forming off one end of the bar, but in my corner an empty stool stood waiting for a party of one. Beside the vacant seat, I began to speak with a well postured man who clearly wasn’t interested in conversation. I was able to get from him that he was from Switzerland.
“Oh, you’re from Switzerland.” I said. “We had an interesting man in here yesterday from Zug.” He straightened up further.
“I am from Zug.” He said.
“Perhaps you’re familiar with a man named Marc Rich.” I mentioned.
He blushed. “I know who Marc Rich is.” He looked over his shoulder.
I went back to work shucking away, talking about how interesting Marc Rich was and his dealings with the F.B.I. As soon as I said the word’s F.B.I. I looked up again--speak of the devil and he will appear--Marc Rich was sitting on the no-longer empty stool.
Photo by Harry Lawford
I immediately froze locked in Mr. Rich’s eyes. I blinked. The straight man noticed the change in my expression and snapped a look at his new neighbor.
“Hello Sir.” I said to Mr. Rich. “Back again?” I’m not sure if he replied, but he smiled a friendly smirk. “Same as yesterday?” Irish Native oysters and a glass of merlot. It is not common practice to drink red wine with oysters. In fact, he was the only person to do so in the one thousand plus people I served.
A wave of sweat ran down my back. Did he have some kind personal secret service listening to what I was saying? If so, what were they going to do to me and the six-hundred pounds I had made in the stock market? From what I read about Mr. Rich the previous night and his manipulation of the aluminum market, he definitely had experience in… influencing things.
Without hesitation I introduced The Straight Man. “You guys are neighbors. Both from Switzerland.” The Straight Man almost wet himself. I guess he didn’t want to be roped into Mr.Rich’s web of international oil trading fugitives.
As they spoke Mr. Rich began to hunch over further and further. I couldn’t hear what they were saying as I had to attend to other customers, but I started to think The Straight Man was perhaps an accomplice and they were plotting a new phase to Mr. Rich’s manipulation of the world’s value. The more Mr. Rich hunched, the more powerful he grew, I imagined.
Out of the corner of my eye, while pouring champagne for someone insignificant, I noticed Mr. Rich had disappeared as quickly as he came. There was a folded 50 pound note under his wine glass.
I immediately stopped the flow of champagne, mid pour and sprinted out from behind the bar. I looked left. Looked right. I saw his slow bounce gliding between the people in the crowded Food Hall.
I ran up to him and reached out for his arm. I grabbed his elbow and immediately scolded myself “Don’t grab billionaires.”
“Excuse me Mr. Rich.” He turned around and smiled, recognizing my face and almost nodded approval for me to speak. He was a man of few words.
Unrehearsed, I spoke. “From what I understand, you’ve lead a very interesting life, and I think I could learn a great deal from you. If I fly to Switzerland, may I buy you dinner and pick your brain?”
He smiled, lifted his head a bit, and kept his glare on me. He said a few things that pulled out what I was doing for the holidays. Perhaps digging to see if I were Jewish. I mentioned I wouldn’t be home for Christmas that year. But as we ended our quick chat he said, “If you come to Switzerland, I will teach you what I know.”
He gave me his business card. “Sharon is my secretary.” He smiled. Enough said. We shook hands and he slipped into the masses. I returned to the glass of champagne I had started pouring and was shaking so much the bottle was bouncing off the lip of the glass.
I kept pulling out his business card, like it was a famous Honus Wagner 1909 baseball card. I went home, read Metal Men and my mind filled with possibilities.
Metal Men spoke of how Mr. Rich and Pincus Green would groom young 25 year old men like myself into fearless traders who acted with instinct and without thought. The book described lavish parties of red wine drooling savages with European whores on their arms. It was not a pretty picture. But it was quite an opportunity for a kid from Small Town anywhere.
I didn’t exactly know how to make the next step. Over the holidays, I began to plot my life as Mr.Rich’s understudy in Zug. I would sit silently beside him and learn the rehearsed glare only to watch oil tycoons crumble, leaving behind crates of gold bars which we would melt in a hellish pit behind us. Never laughing. Never speaking. Glaring.
I composed a letter and sent it to the address I had. It was the first letter I’d written to a billionaire and I wasn’t quite sure how it should sound. I didn’t want to come across as the dipshit, no-nothing, naive kid from Small Town Canada that I was.
I should have simply called and made an appointment with Sharon. This was just too important. I wanted him to get an articulate letter showing exactly how valuable I could be to him. If I would have called and made the appointment it would be in his book and I’d be on my way.
But instead I wrote a letter. It probably came across like some oyster bar server trying to big himself up and almost beg for an opportunity to prove himself.
I did end up calling a week or so into the new year, and Sharon told me he was away until the 9th. I called back and he was traveling; he had received my letter but couldn’t schedule anything at this time. I had come on too strong. Story of my life. I could feel the opportunity being sucked out the other end of the phone.
In life, I have come to learn it takes something special just to recognize an opportunity. It is another thing to act on a recognized opportunity. Both of these things I did extremely well in the situation with Mr. Rich. I recognized and I acted.
That pounding in your chest when you know something is happening in front of you and this will be the only chance you have to make it permanent. Approaching a beautiful stranger, arguing with someone ignorant, are both examples of times when it is important to say and do the right thing at the right time. Otherwise you will be reliving the limitless improved conversation possibilities for the rest of your self-loathing life.
I did well, tracking him down after he left, speaking confidently about my interest in learning from him, but the third layer of opportunity is the ability to not just act, but act correctly. With Mr. Rich I strangled the opportunity with desperation.
I think now I have a better understanding of how to approach an international fugitive billionaire. The most startling thing is that at no time did I question the morality of wanting to learn from this man who clearly profited by breaking UN sanctions and selling marked up and tax free oil to the white minority in apartheid South Africa, countries on the wrong side of wars, and not to mention Iran during the hostage crisis. None of that registered with me. I just wanted to be involved in his crazy world of secrecy. If Lex Luthor himself invited me down into the subway, I would have gladly joined him. Wouldn’t you? Just to check it out.
I did get to Switzerland that summer. I spent the weekend in Zurich and took a train to Lucerne only to find out the International Yodeling Festival was in town. I had half planned on making my way to Zug just to snoop around (read stalk) but I got so caught up in all the yodeling and the Lederhosen and a summery, beautiful woman named Camille at the end of the lake with her feet cooling in the mountain water.
We watched the world’s greatest fireworks display over a lake and in between the mountains that ended with 10,000 yodelers yodeling some famous yodel that everyone apart from us knew. It rose up like a confusing feedback, but eventually grew into a beautiful emotive chorus which lifted me in the air and brought me closer to 10,000 friendly yodelers in the gorgeous mountain town of Lucerne. If you can't get invited to Lex Luthor's hideout try to make it to the yodeling festival in Lucerne.
Camille and I slept on the grass beside the lake that night and I couldn’t help but wonder if world manipulator, Marc Rich, planted her there as a distraction. Or maybe he staged the yodeling festival to clog the roads and make sure I didn’t make it to Zug. I went back to Zurich happy and satisfied with my trip to Lucerne the next morning.
Mr. Rich never returned to the Oyster Bar in the few months I continued to work there. I sent him an invitation to invest in a 3D IMAX short film I wanted to make but Sharon was no longer his secretary and the lady who answered the phone didn’t seem sincere in her apology for not being able to put Mr. Rich on the phone. Last week, he died from a stroke in a hospital in Lucerne. He was 78.
His gorgeous daughter showed up at the Oyster Bar one day. She was walking by with a tall woman in a fur coat. She stopped to say hello. I was thrilled she remembered me and took the time to wave. She still had that sexual look in her eye and her restrained smile was less restrained when she said. “This is my mom.” Her mom smiled like she was on display. “Pleasure to meet you.” I said, and they walked away like friends I would see again someday.