Scandals’s origins

image Blame The Solomon Scandals on my lack of ESP. Oh, to have read the minds of the people whose lives and deeds helped inspire the novel!

Just why did the late Sen. Abraham Ribicoff end up in the 1960s with a $20,000 investment in a building that the CIA moved into? What were Ribicoff and friends really thinking and doing in private, and how much did he know? Why didn’t the GSA lease list the partners in the building as required by law?  And how come his name was hidden from the public? Was it really because of the fear that people would bother a senator about about leaky faucets?

Damn if I knew the full story. A novel seemed the right medium, then—a chance to fill in the gaps even though I normally wrote nonfiction.

Yes, hints abounded in documents and careful public statements. I recalled some tantalizing facts about Ribicoff’s friend Charles Smith—the king of the GSA landlords, whose companies held $150 million in government office leases in 1975. Smith was not just any old real estate tycoon. He had a number of famous friends and investors in government or nongovernment projects. They ranged from Art Buchwald to at least several federal judges and exes, including former Supreme Court Justices Abe Fortas and Arthur Goldberg. But for the most part, the names on the partnership papers were just that, nothing more. They didn’t tell me anything about the parties or family celebrations or other occasions where Smith might have hooked up with his friends. While I could guess what mainly drew Smith and Ribicoff together—both were ambitious self-made men, Ribicoff having even worked in a zipper and buckle factory at one time—that was far from a complete explanation.

Early on I wrote somewhat in a new journalism vein, but the results fell short of what I wanted, because I lacked the requisite information about the Smith-Ribicoff crowd and their actual thoughts, along with other details. The result was that I saw this not just as a conventional investigation but also a novel, with an opportunity to imagine, in fiction identified as such.

The possibilities grew more intriguing after I learned, through Jim Polk, the investigative journalist, that the Ribicoff-linked Key Building had housed some CIA offices. A scenario occurred to me. In part, couldn’t Sy Solomon’s real estate empire be a vehicle for agency-related investments? Perhaps along the way his people could obligingly plant hidden microphones in his buildings to let the CIA spy on other bureaucracies. As a novelist, I could even cook up some murderous rivalries among different factions of spookish business people.

Nothing against new journalism, truly well executed—in fact, it’s more arduous than conventional reporting. But in this case fiction seemed the best way to go in writing up the human side of the story for a thriller. While I published news articles, I was also looking ahead to fiction.

I wrote the novel, on and off, over a period of more than 30 years. The title, originally The Golden Lease, evolved into The Cover-Up, then The Solomon Scandals. Back in the 1980s I had a near-sale to Warner Books, but luckily Warner turned me down, giving me time to do extensive rewrites and add a framing device. That is, the main plot of the book is presented between the foreword and afterword written in the late 21st century by the director of the Institute for Study of Previrtual Media.

Working on Scandals, I felt thoroughly time-warpy; I bounced back and forth as if I were Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse-Five. My writing tools changed over the years from an old electric typewriter to a Kaypro II, then a whole series of other gizmos, leading up to my present system, a cheapie Hewlett-Packard desktop with many times the computing power of my first machine.

Luckily for my novel’s relevance but unluckily for the country, Washington so far has remained reliably corrupt. How many other towns have even had scandals tours over the years? Ideally The Solomon Scandals can help you understand the scoundrels whose deeds and misdeeds inspired the tours.

Addendum, April 22, 2023: A reader asked me earlier this year for the back story of The Solomon Scandals. I forgot about this ten-year-old posting–maybe the nearest thing to it. May I emphasize again that despite certain overlaps, the corrupt Washington Telegram is not the Washington Post? Despite its shortcomings, the Post has done far more good than harm, most recently in its exposes of Donald Trump and friends. Not to mention Nixon and Watergate earlier! As for Seymore Solomon, he never existed, either, regardless of whether I knew about real estate people with overlapping characteristics. Here’s one example of an invention for the novel. Sy Solomon’s father was a Jewish tax collector in Russia who dumped ice on the bedding of deadbeats. In real life, my great-grandfather did exactly that–presumably forced to by the Tsar. While actual real estate people did invite powerful judges and others into their real estate partnerships in Washington, I’ll more or less repeat what I wrote earlier. I can’t read minds about anyone’s motives.

Addendum, Oct. 27, 2023: The second edition of Scandals is out now with some 8,500 words on the back story and more, including a comparison between old corruption and the ongoing Clarence Thomas variety. Via online research tools, I made new discoveries. For example, I ran across a Miami Herald article where Ribicoff described Charles Smith as his closest friend. Smith was the only witness when the widowed Ribicoff remarried.

Image credit: Creative Commons-licensed photo from Gruntzooki, aka Cory Doctorow. The caption reads, “ESP off button disables precog powers in rental Volkswagen, London, UK.”

Related: Scandals’ origins as discussed in a Writing Show interview with Paula Berinstein in June 2009.


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David Rothman

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