Come on now, how many ad men have ever been asked to help decimate the economy of a foreign nation? Three? Four? No more than a half dozen right?
Well, I’m one of them.
It started out, not as an ad man, but as an operator of a Blackjack school. And, it wasn’t as Jack Byrne at first, but as Jack Barnes. And, of course, right away we have to back off to somewhat near the beginning to put this story into perspective.
In 1977, my wife decided to go back into show business, and I was helping her. She opted to produce her own Cabaret Act that would be a prelude to a Las Vegas Opening Act shtick, in itself, a prelude to a Las Vegas Big Room Act.
All of this indicated a growing presence in Las Vegas, Reno, the newly born Atlantic City, the Caribbean and other places where Cabaret, Opening and Big Acts had the most venues of opportunity, where casinos blossomed like cactus flowers.
Now, as an advertising man and as a diver, I had traveled much to Caribbean resorts where gaming existed and to Convention City – Las Vegas. There, over a period of a dozen years or more, I had developed an avocation – playing Blackjack. I enjoyed receiving RFB (room, food and beverage comps) wherever I went. I played to compliments from dealers, floor men, pit bosses and fellow compulsive gamblers, as I appeared to be a “strong player” with lay-it-on-the-line guts. Offsetting the comps and the compliments, was the erosion of my bank account, which struggled to survive nearly every trip.
(See Show Business: The Greatest Impressario)
So, I said to myself; “Jack, if you’re going to be managing a Vegas-type act, you’re going to be playing a lot of Blackjack, and if you do not want to be betting out what is coming in, you had better investigate the means of playing it, if not to win, at least, defensively- that is, so as not to lose”.
I bought a magazine called Gambling Times and read the blackjack training ads, all of which appeared as charlatan-created and a quick way to lose some more by buying books or paying tuitions. Nevertheless, I was compelled to improve so I responded to the biggest ad, which was headlined something like “Earn $500 a day for the rest of your life without ever having a job.”
It was from the Stanley Roberts School of Winning Blackjack that was headquartered in Los Angeles but had a New York branch as well. Since this is not the Blackjack story, I won’t unload some of those fascinating stories here, but I did take the course.
Not only did I take the course, but, afterwards, I won at the game – regularly, consistently, even before Christian’s act went on the road.
The fact is that I did so well, that when, in 1980, an opportunity came to take over the New York School, I did. I recreated myself as Jack Barnes, head of the Jack Barnes’ School of Winning Blackjack and became leader in the NYC subculture of professional Blackjack.
While Jack Byrne continued on in his advertising career and managed entertainer, Christian Cooper, Jack Barnes became teacher, raconteur, and player, functioning as a spy functions, under cover, in the gaming establishments of Las Vegas, Reno, Atlantic City and New York City. (Yes, Virginia, there are gambling halls in New York.)
My student body grew and so did my reputation.* And, when John Stossel of WCBS-TV New York, produced a week-long series on the futility of gambling to win and covered horse racing, sports betting, lotteries, and all games in casinos, he topped the week off with coverage of the one game in which a gambler could get an edge on the house. Friday night’s report would give the WCBS audience a black jack card-counting lesson from Jack Barnes. John Stossel came to my school and taped an interview with a heavily-disguised (3 hours of professional make up) Jack Barnes.
That show was watched by many and by one in particular. *(ALTERNATE IF 1980 BURNING AND 1981 USTON/REASONER ARE CORRECT. In a City the size of New York, word from a few dozen students can soon spread to a few thousand ears attached to a few thousand different interests.)
Shortly after the show’s appearance on Channel 2, (ALTERNATE “In only my third month of business,) I received a call at the School from a gentleman who identified himself as a go-between for very wealthy people of foreign nations and asked if I might ”meet with him for breakfast the next day to discuss a proposition.” (ALTERNATE: Never one to ignore wealth from any origin, I agreed to meet him) I agreed and advised him that my appearance was disguised on the Stossel show and told him what to expect when we met. He said his name was Farhut Amahd.
The next day at Hanrahan’s in the New York Hilton, I met Farhut. (He expressed delight over the effectiveness of the disguise I had worn on TV and said he was glad that I was more mature than the disguise had indicated.) My caller was a dark-bearded young man, somewhat heavy set, but very authoritative and quick in his words and in the progress of his thoughts.
Farhut said he was, among other things, a licensed arms dealer for the United States and his largest customers were located in the Middle East. He was concerned about the plight of many of his Sheik customers and their entrepreneurial Arab friends, who though making millions in very short periods of time, saw a good deal of it go to London and Monte Carlo casinos, also in a very short time, via the hands of their playboy princes.
The sons of the super-rich Sheiks loved nothing more than to test their skills at Chemin de Fer or Rouge et Noir or Baccarat or Vingt-et-un in those private clubs where single bets could be placed at $100,000 (A $3.5 million payoff on a single number on the Rouge et Noir table.)
The Princess and The Pauper.
(After watching the Stossel coverage, he had had an idea.) He felt that he could encourage the Sheiks to force their sons to attend a school directed at improving their skills at gaming so as to stem their rate of loss. He believed this would win him additional favor from his clients. When I asked why they did not simply cut off their sons’ allowances, he explained that they were much too indulgent of their offspring and much too proud amongst their peers to cut off their apparent generosity.
I commended Farhut on his acumen and said I assumed the courses would be conducted privately at home in the Middle East. He said, yes, and that he believed that no less than 30 student princes would attend my classes at a cost per prince of $25,000 or more.
Although Jack Barnes students paid $475 for a 16-hour course, I found those numbers easy to multiply and asked what his percentage of the $750,000 might be. He assured me he was not in this for personal gain but simply providing a much-needed service to his friends. Therefore, his compensation did not matter; perhaps a mere 20% cut would take care of his out of pockets and time.
I said, he was certainly entitled to that modest request and I would hope that, if his expenses should run higher than expected, that he would not hesitate to advise me.
His $150,000 share would still leave me $600,000.
I asked who would provide travel and accommodations.
“The Sheiks, of course. They are the world’s most considerate hosts. They will send a plane for you and your entourage and you would be guests in one or another of their palatial homes.”
He also assured me that, if we asked for anything less for our fees for what might be a week to ten days work, they would be embarrassed and suspect our skills were less than claimed. He pointed many of my prospective students receive allowances of a half million to a million dollars a week.
I said,” Of course. The price is fair…even if it saves them but a single lost bet.”
He said, “Of course”.
I said, “Of course.”
Being a creative man with vision, I saw myself becoming a sort of benevolent consultant to the Sheiks and princes, available for follow up instructions, monitoring play, perhaps even playing their “bankrolls” at times for a small 50% cut of the winnings. Or, perhaps, simply for a fee of no more than a child’s allowance or two. Thank God, Jack Barnes would get Jack Byrne out of the uncertain world of advertising.
For weeks following, I received status reports from my new partner, mostly establishing why, “this was not a good week to approach the Sheiks” (a religious holiday, an OPEC crisis, troubles with Israelis, a desert storm, etc.). I was not surprised. By 1980, I had been through a score or more of “make-a-million” deals. Mostly they followed a common path … downhill.
But wait! There’s more!
Then, another opportunity arose. I had a call from Asha Sanghavi, a self-proclaimed Indian princess who I had recently met. Asha had come with an invited guest to one of Jack and Christian Byrne’s New York parties. Attending were a number of substantial business people and more than the average New Yorker’s gathering of “celebrities”. Three world boxing champions were there; Roger Grimsby and the entire Eyewitness News Team from Channel 7 was there; Andy Warhol was there; Bobby Short was there. Enough known people were there to give ambitious Asha the feeling as she expressed it to me that “Jack Byrne knows everyone of means and power in America”. Asha called me to see if I could help her and her friends find funds to assist in their purchase of the “Leonardo da Vinci”, an aged Italian cruise liner, awaiting upgrading in a dry dock at the ship building port of La Spezia, Italy. They intended to re-outfit the vessel to function as a gambling resort at sea. They had $3 million but needed $20 million more to close the deal. I said, I would call some friends.
I called Farhut and told him of the opportunity. We met and he showed me three typewritten sheets of paper; each contained a single spaced list of loans and investments supposedly related to his customers. Names from every middle-eastern nation were included, with amounts ranging from five million to nearly a billion dollars. He advised me that most of these private transactions were conducted at zero interest to the borrower due to religious beliefs that money should be kept in circulation but money should not earn money. Their profit would come from the borrower’s profit. We both agreed that his customers might find this one way to reap some benefit from an industry that was milking their progeny.We would reap 10% finder’s fee from Asha’s group.
Within a week, with the help of Asha and her associates, I had prepared a pro forma business plan for Farhut to present. The arms dealer took it with him a week later on a weapons marketing trip to the Middle East.
Guess what! While he was gone, on 4th of July 1980, the ship burned for four days and capsized in the La Spezia harbor. Was it an accident? Was it for insurance? Was it communist sabotage? An act of God? I had no answers. I knew only that it was no longer a casino-at-sea to be. And, it wasn’t a deal.
But wait! There’s no more!
When Farhut returned form his mission, he phoned and reported that he had had the funds virtually in hand when he learned, in a Cairo newspaper, of the disaster in the Mediterranean harbor. “But,” he said with great intensity, “for you and me the floating casino was no more than a pimple on a camel’s ass. We must meet, a matter of far greater importance to us has arisen.”
But wait! There’s Much more!
I wondered what size pimple he was thinking about. I had figured my finder’s fee at 2.5% of $20 million or $500,000. Other than teaching Blackjack to Arab Princes, I didn’t know of any opportunities facing Jack Byrne for this kind of Crane’s wallpaper.
I was to meet Farhut in “his offices” in the Pan Am Building at 46th and Park Avenue. He gave me a number on the 3rd floor that proved to be the East Wing Suite.
The receptionist escorted me to the conference room and brought in a tray with a coffee serving for two. Farhut came in and immediately conducted a tour of his “corporate offices”. He took me from the conference room and led me around a U-shaped hallway and pointed at the closed doors while naming the secretive functions which were operating silently behind them; “Heavy Armament”, “Air Defense”, “Light Armament”, “OPEC Relations”, “Government Relations”, “Billing and Administration”, “Middle-East Intelligence”, “Purchasing” … fourteen offices were passed and named. At the last, we had completed a circle and entered a door to the conference room opposite from the one we had exited for the tour.
Farhut closed the door.Then, locked it. He put his index finger to his lips advising me to be silent. Then, he went to the opposite door and locked it, too. Next, he prowled around the room peering into the ceiling’s spot light sockets, lifting ash trays to look under them, pulling picture frames from the wall to look behind them, lifting and looking under every chair and finally, crawling under the conference table and scanning its underpinnings.
He got off his knees and spoke at last…”It’s swept every day but in this case one can not be too careful.”
I waited with my best air of apparent agreement to the need for utmost secrecy for regarding whatever it was we were about to discuss. I suspected clandestine operations that might reach further into the darkness than charging princes $25,000 each for a pauper’s $500 blackjack course.
I was, I will admit, not ready for the depth of the darkness my black-bearded friend had in mind.
Farhut opened two buttons on his shirt and reached into what appeared to be a secret pocket inside. He drew out a thin silver case, not more than an eighth of an inch in thickness and the dimensions of a large bank note.
In response to pressure from his thumb, the case sprung open to reveal a rather oversized and most colorful currency, the origin of which I could not immediately tell, since I had never seen its like before and since it was printed in Arabic. He took out the bill and handed it to me.
Oh, That Country!
The dominant visual on the currency was the face of a man who I gathered was a nation’s leader. It was a youthful face, even a pretty face, with feature’s so soft and gentle as to be effeminate. The leader was wearing a round and flat multi-colored hat. After a few seconds, recognition came to me; this was the infamous Colonel Muammar el Qaddafi, ruler of Libya, protector of terrorists.
I had followed Qaddafi’s colorful career as much as Time Magazine saw fit. He’d taken control of the country after the overthrow of King Idris in 1969 by a military junta. The religion of his country was primarily Sunni Moslems. One dinar in the early 80s equaled about $3.00US. The 20 dinar bill I was looking at was worth about $60. In the mid-seventies, Libya helped arm violent revolutionary groups in Egypt and Sudan and he had been sugar daddy to dedicated terrorists without prejudice as to their nationality. The Soviet Union maintained close ties and apparently sold Libya advanced armament for its defense.
Mummar had closed US bases in Libya around 1970 and had generally nationalized (read confiscated) Jewish and Italian properties within its borders. I remembered Egypt and Libya had fought several air and land battles along their border in July of 1977. Libya’s per capita income at the time was probably four or five times that of Nasser’s Egypt.
Farhut announced,” Jack, you are the first and only person in America or any part of the Western world to see this currency – other than myself, of course. It is not even released in its own nation and will not be for more than a month.”
I will tell you now that I was more than intrigued by the way things had developed. His office tour had not had its desired effect on me for I had known from its commencement that we were circling offices of individuals who rent space for phone and mail services under the East Wing name and that either only one or none of these offices were really Farhut’s. So I had been thinking, “a scam is coming and I am the target.”
But, the contents of the thin metal case put this scam, if that were what it was to be, on a higher plane than most.
“This is the new currency of this nation and it can have a great bearing on our lives, yours and mine. We have the opportunity to share a significant role in the balance of power in the Middle East.”
Before I could respond with anything more than a raised eyebrow, he suddenly took back the bill, placed it flat in the case, snapped the case closed and handed the case to me.
“Put this away, we have discussed enough here. There is much more. Come we will choose a quiet place for lunch.” Somewhat confused, I slipped the case into my jacket pocket.
We made a hasty departure, and saying nothing to one another, walked to a nearby, undistinguished diner.
He chose seating amidst a noisy group of tables. Once we had ordered, he reopened the conversation, looking me directly in the eye, speaking in great confidentiality while radiating great confidence.
“Jack, what I tell you now, I will tell you but once. I will not repeat it and once told to you, I will deny ever having said it to you to anyone who asks forever in the future. And, whatever you tell me in response and whatever you do in response, I expect, will be handled in the same way.”
“We have the opportunity, you and I, and no one else to serve as covert instruments of a most important international matter directed towards destabilizing the economy of a potentially dangerous nation and erasing the credibility of its volatile and unstable leader.”
“The stakes in this service are very high. Very high. You and I, under properly covered identities will open a bank, our bank, yours and mine. We will open it in Monaco or a similar friendly nation. Each month, a number of millions of dollars will be deposited in that bank as part of its operating capital and equity. Within a year, we will be wealthy beyond your wildest dreams and, more significantly, beyond my wildest dreams.”
Farhut knew how to get a guy’s attention.
“When our task is done, we will split our millions and go our separate ways. You will have never met anyone on my side of the arrangement and I will never have met anyone on your side.”
“The situation is this. A large Middle Eastern nation is led by a moderate, peace loving man of great religious conviction who foresees a middle-east that functions in harmony within and throughout the world. This Great Man is distraught by the potential havoc to world harmony and relationships between the western world and the Middle East that can be instigated by the irresponsible and, indeed, “Madman” like actions of the leader of one nation in North Eastern Africa.”
“Through a select group of advisors, he has consulted with others and determined that the greatest way to nip future disaster in the bud would be through weakening the beast’s legs before it springs. He fears that any direct show of force against this nation could potentially lead to a conflict that could reach global proportions.”
“It would be better to deprive the beast of its sources of nourishment, the dedication of its followers. They’re dedication is the food which nourishes the country and him. They, in turn, share far higher income per capita than those living in less richly endowed neighboring nations.”
“To put it in simple American terms, Jack, you and I are being given the opportunity to wreck the economy of this potentially dangerous nation.”
“By…” I queried, but already I was a bit afraid I knew the answer.
“By flooding it and the world with its own currency, far more than the government issued, far more than the economy could stand- creating a man-made inflationary spiral within a year or less.”
“Man-made, huh?” I brightly sprung back, and then added the sentence I knew he could finish.” You mean, my role, for my piece of the bank, is to take this note in the nice silver case and have…”
“Copies made.” He nodded, smiling, as though he was proud of my quickness to understand.
“Lots of copies.” I added. “Thousands upon thousands of copies.”
“Millions upon millions of copies,” he expanded. “That’s why the people I represent are willing to pay millions upon millions of dollars for them.”
“You have certain qualities, a rare combination. You are an outstanding advertising man with a high dedication to quality.”
“As Jack Byrne, you are.” That caught my attention, I had never presented myself to Farhut as other than Jack Barnes, head of a blackjack school. Although, I was no “Cardinal of the Kremlin”, I thought I had operated quite covertly. This was obviously not your garden variety of con man.
“Which means?” I said, not paying tribute to his discovery of my other self.
“You know the best quality engravers and printers. And, they know you…and trust you.”
“Are you sure? Jack Byrne Advertising went belly up?” I had decided to see what else he knew about me.
“Point two. You are brilliant but a bit broke. You can see the significance of this project to your future comfort and that of your family.”
“Any other points?”
“Oh yes. You are flexible, highly resourceful, have showed your ability to function under cover and with totally sealed lips in your thousands of hours of gaming in casinos as a card counter. And, you have, through that role in life a way of laundering funds so that your apparent wealth will not be so surprising to those who know you or to the press.”
“Also, you are not caught up in hypocritical moralities. You know a lot of people and are respected by them all, Saints and Sinners. That’s because you respect them for what they are and ask no more of them than that.”
I was beginning to like this guy.
“You’re a one man show. You can get a job done without any assistance, guidance, direction or reassurance.”
“We also know that you have served time in U.S. Army Intelligence and the Counter Intelligence Corps which, though brief, earned you some commendations.”
“How do you know that?”
“There’s one thing I will tell you once but I am not saying it and I don’t mean it and I am just making it up. Our country, yours and mine is very much in support of the objective of this project and may even have had a creative role in its development.”
“You mean, privately this has the U.S. Seal of Approval?”
“I never said that!” his face changed to anger. “The United States has nothing in the least to do with this. It’s intra-mural in the Middle East and your ass will be in the Federal slammer forever if Washington finds you messing with some other nation’s currency.”
“Enough said; I have no interest in pursuing this discussion for another minute.” I took the case from my right inside suit pocket and slipped it into the left. “If you have any other matters you wish to discuss, fine. But, this one just was scratched off the agenda.”
“I have nothing else to discuss”, he replied. “This was only a test exercise to see how much I could trust you with the princes and the Sheiks. If anything of true import arises, I will call you.”
“And, I the same,” I said, rising as he signaled the waiter for the check. “Only one question is left to me.”
“Fire away,” he answered in the expression of his trade.
“Why did you run me through the East Wing Suite and pretend that those offices were yours?”
He didn’t bat an eye or catch a breath.
“Simple, you may some day be pressured to tell others where the mess you got into started and who was involved. I gave you your story, but it would evaporate upon investigation. We have no offices, officially, in this country. We have many in the Middle East. I have never given you any right names, or any means by which you can trace me down should I not want you to.”
“Great. And I’m as exposed as a Coney Island duck.”
“Momentarily true, but when you find it advantageous, I’ll wager you can disappear with the best of them.”
“That’s what I’m doing now.”
And I did.
Have you ever kept a secret?
Little ones are hard to keep.
This one was easy.
My wife, to whom I had always told all, I told none. I didn’t even muse out loud. The thing was, if I were to get into this thing, it had to be on a basis of a level of discretion that was heretofore untested in my environment.
Was it for God and Country?
Could it bring Wealth and Power?
Or, was it naught but a scam and should I let it go stage by stage to see how that works.
Or was it an entrapment. Of me? Of someone else?
I thought about the bright side.
My own bank?
Scores of millions of dollars?
The ability to help destroy a world problem?
Or, was I sure who were the good guys and the bad?
Perhaps the leader himself had set this up to have more currency for his private cache.
Who could I trust?
My alter ego, the other side of the deal?
I knew I didn’t have Farhut’s real name. I knew he could disappear in a nanosecond from the World as I know it.
Or when the deal was done, perhaps the assassination might trammel up, not only the consequence. but me as well.
What if the bank disappears?
What if the FBI appears?
What if it proves to be an anti-United States government scam?
Could I really see all the ramifications?
What if it worked as presented and the blow toppled the nation and its government? What is the punishment for destroying a nation…or its emperor? Would revenge not cross the sea? How many of them would be against one of me?
Sure, I said. Everything has risks. If not, Washington would still be on the other side of the Delaware.
Not just money…a bank full of money.
I visited a certain acquaintance.
A person I knew would be able to advise. A person I knew would never reveal a confidence. A person who seemed to know people who knew how to get things done. He was my image of a tough guy even though he was very sweet and tender, a friend of Rocky Graziano’s and appeared as a fight manager in a commercial I did for Lee Myles. He owned the El Morroco and its spin off restaurant, Elmer’s. I went to Elmer’s and invited myself to sit down with the owner.
I sat down by his side at the table and even before the drinks arrived, I got right to the point. How does stuff get printed? Stuff you spend, you know?
He leapt back from me as though I had AIDS and a nosebleed. His chair scraped the floor; his back hit the mirror behind him.
“Are you fucking crazy? That’s a Fed! You’re talking to me about a Fed! That’s 50 years! What the fuck you trying to do to me talking about shit like that?”
I said, “Hey, I just remembered I was meeting my Mom at the hairdresser. Gosh, I hope I’m not late.”
” I hope you’re not dead!” He was talking to my back.
WELL, I thought, striding down the street, this is certainly a sensitive subject.
A few days later at response to my call, my friend hurried to meet me in front of the Pan Am Building, 43rd Street entrance.
As he arrived, I removed the thin case from my jacket, handed it to him and said, “I forgot to give you this when I said I’d have no part of it.”
He took the case in the same motion that turned him on his heels and he strode off into the crowd. He never even nodded or waved goodbye.
I’ve had no word from him since.
On October 6, 1981, Sadat, the President of Egypt, was assassinated at a public function. Most say it was at the hands of disgruntled Muslim fundamentalists within the Egyptian army. A few say the fundamentalists were in the hands of the “madman” himself, in which case, it would seem that Farhut had the plot right.
One day, when US planes dropped a few explosives on the Colonel’s compound killing his adopted daughter, I recalled that time when I was not sure I was part of a personal scam or an international scheme and wished that I could be sure that the United States was on my side.
In recent years, Colonel Qaddafi’s image has taken on many colors sometimes encouraging, sometimes discouraging the West.
The way things turned out, perhaps, just perhaps, things could have been better for the good guys and me if I had opened that bank in Monaco. It’s not everyday one gets a chance to topple a nation. They say such opportunity only knocks once.
But, if it knocks one more time, I might run to the door.