Marc Rich & Me

Soon after University I moved to London, England and was lucky enough to find a job shucking oysters and serving champagne at the luxury department store Harrod’s in the posh neighborhood of Knightsbridge.

One day, I enjoyed a conversation with an elderly gentleman and his gorgeous daughter.  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.

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.

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 seems, had been on the F.B.I’s most wanted list for decades, after trading oil with Iran throughout the hostage crisis during the Carter administration.  I rushed to ordered Michael Lewis’ Metal Men, depicting the rich man’s rise.

mar rich

He avoided extradition to the United States in Switzerland, to avoid the 300 years of jail time he would have had to serve for a myriad of charges, including tax evasion – the same thing that brought down Al Capone.  At one point he did pony up some $200 million to the government, but that didn’t clear his name.  Only a controversial pardon from President Clinton on his last day in office could do that.   Clinton later claimed his decision was ‘bad politics’; Marc’s ex-wife made a significant contribution to Mr. Clinton’s library.

Reading up on his life, learning how he had escaped Nazi Germany with his family and had 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 was convinced 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  about his dealings with the F.B.I.  As soon as I said the letters 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.

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 among one thousand people served.

Without hesitation I introduced The Straight Man.  “You guys are neighbors. Both from Switzerland.”  The Straight Man face went white. 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 was 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.

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.

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 did get 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 special skill in observance just to recognize an opportunity.  Further, it takes a reactionary courage to act on a recognized opportunity.  With Mr. Rich I recognized the opportunity and I acted on the opportunity.

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 did not act correctly.  I strangled the opportunity with desperation.

I think now I have a better understanding of how to approach an international fugitive billionaire – should I cross paths with another.  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 selling marked-up and tax-free oil to 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 a sea friendly yodelers in the gorgeous mountain town of 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 month, he died from a stroke in a hospital in Lucerne. He was 78.

About Mark Bethune

Mark Bethune is a writer / director recently returned to Toronto after a number of years in various countries. www.markbethune.com has more of his work. Say hello if you'd like.