The Absolutely True, Somewhat Spurious and Totally Impossible


After his retirement in 1965, White wrote a letter to MKULTRA leader Sid Gottlieb that explained his 10-year assignment in Operation Midnight Climax (as the experiment was code-named): "I was a very minor missionary, actually a heretic, but I toiled wholeheartedly in the vineyards because it was fun, fun, fun. Where else could a red-blooded American boy lie, kill, cheat, steal, rape and pillage with the sanction and blessing of the All-Highest?"

What the CIA learned from Operation Midnight Climax is open for debate. Thanks to an all-night shredding orgy in 1973, most of the CIA documents concerning MKULTRA no longer exist. But the fact remains -- a decade before the first hippies crawled out from under a rock in the Haight, the CIA was on the psychedelic scene in San Francisco, slipping whorehouse patrons acid and watching them fuck. The love may not have been free, but the drugs were great.

The Gemstone File
While Marks' thorough investigations of MKULTRA earned a place in the historical canon, more "theoretical" conspiracies still strive for legitimacy, such as the findings and extrapolations of a San Franciscan named Bruce Roberts. Encapsulated in a poorly mimeographed 22-page document titled A Skeleton Key to the Gemstone File, which was compiled by conspiracy maven Mae Brussell and her assistant Stephanie Caruana, this 1975 pamphlet portrays Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis as the ultimate global puppeteer.

Roberts' theory is extraordinarily reductionist, like those alleging that the Illuminati, the Freemasons, the Trilateral Commission or some other hyper-secret cabal at the acme of the sociopolitical pyramid controls everything. Reductionist conspiracies don't make much sense unless accompanied by willful suspension of disbelief, and A Skeleton Key is no exception.

A Skeleton Key claims Roberts worked for several years after WWII making faux baubles for Hollywood actresses; he began collecting evidence in the '50s for his own Unified Field Conspiracy Theory after he surmised that the Hughes Corporation, owned by Howard Hughes, stole several of his ersatz rubies to use in the corporation's new invention -- lasers. (Wouldn't it have been a lot simpler to just buy the gems? Rev up your suspended disbelief, it gets stranger.)

Piqued by Hughes' affront, Roberts began a freelance investigation that would consume the rest of his life. Swapping his synthetic gemstones for information, Roberts picked the brains of a loose network of intelligence spooks and diplomatic contacts; he accompanied each gem with a one-page "history" briefly outlining a piece of the enormous underworld puzzle he was constructing.

Roberts allegedly made his contacts at a bar on lower Nob Hill called the Drift Inn at Bush and Taylor, today the site of Yong San Lounge. A Skeleton Key explains that the hootchery was a favorite hangout of the CIA and Naval Intelligence crowd. After a long day of supersecret work, the spies would descend on the joint to swap yarns and talk shop. What Roberts didn't overhear or cajole for himself, the bartender, Al Strom, provided by way of clandestine recordings he was making of the unusual barside banter. (Strom is now deceased -- his son denies any knowledge of his dad taping anyone.)

Roberts wove what he heard into a crazy quilt of conspiratorial skullduggery that "explains" almost every untoward political assassination and scandal of the last 50 years. Some highlights:

A Skeleton Key outlines Onassis' rise from lowly drugrunner to the Gnomes of Zurich's wonderboy thanks to lucrative shipping deals with maritime bigwig Joseph Kennedy. (Onassis agreed to run hooch into Boston for the booze-hound brahmin.) After WWII, movie-mogul Howard Hughes challenged Onassis' power by buying up every politician in sight. Onassis had him kidnapped in 1957, A Skeleton Key asserts, and then assumed control of Hughes' considerable assets -- including a recent acquisition: Vice President Richard Nixon. With Nixon in one pocket and Kennedy in the other, the winner of the 1960 presidential election was really a lusty Greek shipping tycoon.

Ah, but the best-laid plans ... After his stroke in 1961, Joe Kennedy lost control of both his bladder and his newly elected son. Jack and brother Bobby (being the righteous idealists every conspiracy theorist knows they were) clamped down on Onassis. The tycoon countered by wacking JFK in Dallas with mob guns and some CIA help.

Five years later, threatened with the prospect of another Kennedy in the White House, Onassis had a hypnotized dupe named Sirhan Sirhan ice RFK in Los Angeles.

With Bobby dead, Onassis' boy Nixon skated into the White House only to blow it all at the Watergate. A Skeleton Key asserts that during the months preceding the break-in, CIA spook E. Howard Hunt and "plumber" G. Gordon Liddy were regulars at the Drift Inn, where they encountered Bruce Roberts (Liddy would later name his White House domestic espionage scheme the Gemstone Plan). It further asserts that while sitting at the bar, Hunt and Liddy hatched their Watergate plot to retrieve information the Democrats had supposedly collected on Nixon and Onassis, and that barkeep Strom taped the conversations and passed them on to Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham.

A Skeleton Key claims that Graham then set a trap for the burglars with the help of famed San Francisco private detective Hal Lipset, and that Lipset, disguised as a mailman, retaped the door when the burglars returned a second time, ensuring their capture. Graham then fed the story, sans some important details, in the guise of Deep Throat to her own reporters, Woodward and Bernstein.

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