The Greatest Vendetta on Earth
On a gloomy Veterans Day in 1998, Janice Pottker answered an unexpected knock on the door of her home in Potomac, Md., a woodsy, upscale suburb of Washington. Standing there was a man she never seen before, a private detective who introduced himself as Tim Tieff. Smith, a former top executive with Feld Entertainment, owner of the Ringling Brothers Barnum Bailey Circuses, Disney Shows on Ice, and other subsidiaries that make it the largest live entertainment company in the world.
Smith wanted to see her, he said.
It had to have been startling news for Pottker, who had written a controversial, 11,000 word piece on the circus and its colorful owners, Washington Feld family, for a local business magazine in 1990. Her piece had recounted the Feld family Horatio Alger like story, but it had also exposed some unpleasant secrets about the famously tight lipped Felds such as a bitter feud that had broken out between the two chief heirs, and the bisexuality of the family patriarch, Irvin Feld. The circus had refused to talk to her ever since.
Ever since, Pottker had been trying, and failing, to get a book off the ground about the circus. But nothing had ever seemed to jell. Promising magazine assignments about the circus questionable treatment of its performing children and the care of its animals had been derailed. Congressional and Labor Department interest in the subjects, which she spurred, evaporated. Now, out of the blue, a former top Feld official had sent a message saying he would like to meet with her. Would she agree?
In a New York minute. For years, Smith had been the right hand man of Ken Feld, who had inherited the circus when his entrepreneurial father died in 1984. But Smith had been fired 18 months earlier. Now he was apparently ready to spill the beans.
The next day, Pottker sped off to meet Smith in nearby Chevy Chase. But if she had expectations that the former executive wanted to talk about child acrobats and performing elephants, she was in for an intensely personal shock. Smith was there to talk about what Feld Entertainment had done to her.
Over lunch, Smith recounted a campaign of surveillance and dirty tricks Feld had unleashed on her in the wake of her 1990 magazine piece in the now defunct Regardie magazine. Feld, he said, had hired people to manipulate her whole life over the past eight years. Feld had spent a lot of money on it, he said. He may have even tried to destroy her marriage. In fact, Pottker would eventually learn of a massive dirty tricks operation, involving former CIA officials and operatives, that would target Ringling enemies such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and other groups, not just Pottker.
For proof, he told her to go to federal court in Alexandria, Va., and look at a suit he had filed against Ken Feld. In that suit, she would find an affidavit from a man named Clair George with attachments. Those, he told her, are all about you.
And then Smith left.
The next day, Jan Pottker and her husband went to the Colonial style courthouse in Alexandria and asked for Smith vs. Feld, civil action case number 98 357 A. They opened the files and found the affidavit Smith had described.
name is Clair E. George, it began. was the deputy marc jacobs director for operations (DDO) of the Central Intelligence Agency from July 1984 through December 1987 during which time I was responsible for the CIA covert operations worldwide. In 1990, when Pottker article was published, George declared, he was paid consultant to marc jacobs Feld Entertainment and its affiliates on international issues.
Pottker may not have known it she declined to be interviewed for this story but Clair George had been the CIA third highest ranking official until he was convicted of lying to a congressional committee in 1987. President Bush, the current president father, himself a former CIA chief, had pardoned Clair George on Christmas Eve 1992.
Feld, George affidavit continued, was about Pottker article, and so he set out to find out what else she was up to. Feld and his family by Pottker.
That, according to George affidavit, is how it all began. Over the next eight years, undertook a series of efforts to find out what Pottker was doing and reported on the results of my work to Mr. Feld. I was paid for this work by Feld Entertainment or its affiliates. I prepared my reports in writing and presented them to Mr. Feld in personal meetings.
Spying on her, though, was the least of what George admitted. was assigned to make arrangements with a publishing house to publish a book by Pottker on another subject to divert her from her proposed book on Mr. Feld, George revealed.
Pottker had, in fact, written in Candyland, which was published in 1995 by the tiny and little known National Press Books. It soon disappeared from the shelves.
George continued, the result of diverting Pottker for a period from further efforts to publish materials that were of concern to Mr. Feld. Feld, to be published should Pottker succeed, despite George efforts, to get her own book on the circus published. It turned out to be unnecessary.
The final paragraph of George affidavit was a stunner, too. It suggested Feld had set up a special unit, much like the Watergate to destroy anyone who threatened the image of the circus as wholesome fun for the whole family, not to mention a conscientious custodian of animals and circus children. I marc jacobs t was headed by one Richard Froemming, one of Feld executive vice presidents, George swore. His main target was People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), and similar groups that had annoyed Feld with charges that the Ringling Bros. elephants were badly cared for.
part of my work for Feld Entertainment, George wrote, was also asked to review reports from Richard Froemming and his organizations based on their surveillance of, and efforts to counter, the activities of various animal rights groups. I have discussed these reports in meetings in which Mr. Feld was present.
The former CIA spy master concluded by stating, swear under penalty of perjury that the foregoing is true and correct. In Washington, where her husband wound up as a senior official at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), she began work as a sociologist in the Department of Education Office for Civil Rights. She didn leave her concerns behind in the office, either: Galled by a local dry cleaner double standard of charging women $2.25 to clean blouses that were similar to the shirts that men paid only 95 cents to have cleaned, she joined with another woman to file complaints with the local county human rights commission. Their protest was written up in the Washington Post. In 1987 she published Ann, Dear Abby, on the two sisters who became renowned advice columnists. The book sold 200,000 copies. Family dynasties intrigued her. She began profiling them for a book she would call to Power, which eventually included a chapter on the Felds, adapted from her magazine story.
In that article, Pottker wove what was, for the most part, an inspiring tale of Irvin Feld origins as a little boy in the 1920s selling nickel bottles of snake oil at two for a dollar at traveling carnivals in rural Maryland, through the mid 1980s, when his global entertainment company employed 2,500 people, including Siegfried and Roy, with revenues approaching $260 million a year. The feisty entrepreneur had cracked the Forbes 400.
Feld knack for making serious money blossomed early, when he and his brother Israel came to Washington in 1938 and opened a novelty store in a predominately black part of the city. Two years later Irvin plunked down $500 to open the Super Cut Rate Drugstore downtown, and hung speakers outside to blare pop tunes and gospel songs at passersby. knew blacks liked music and records, he was quoted as saying.
But that was only the beginning. The drug store was soon followed by record stores, and then his own recording company, which specialized in black acts. The budding impresario then originated the idea of outdoor summer concerts, and later indoor concerts with air conditioning, to promote his recording acts, showing up to take charge in his trademark crimson jackets and garish ties, and screaming orders with his ever present cigar and diamond pinkie ring fluttering in the air. Soon, Feld was booking acts from Chubby Checker to the Big marc jacobs Bopper to a teenage Paul Anka in all kinds of major venues. Then, in 1956, he finally got his lifelong wish: buying a share of the near bankrupt Ringling Bros. circus. In 1967, for $8 million, he got it all.
In 1984, after dramatic ups and downs including his forced sale of the circus to Mattel for two years, one of the greatest showmen on earth died in his sleep. The headline in the New York Times called him, Man Who Saved the Circus.
Overall, Jan Pottker crafted a moving story arc out of Irvin Feld and spills. But there were dark passages, too.
Irvin Feld, she reported, had made little effort to conceal his homosexual affairs. His wife Adele, evidently blaming herself for her husband lack of affection, had committed suicide in 1958. blamed herself for Feld inattention; if she were prettier or sexier, she reasoned, he be happy and their marital problems would be solved, Pottker wrote, keeping her sources for this information hidden from the reader. faking a marriage for a dozen years, she realized that there was only one way out.
The two Feld kids, Ken and Karen, had been shlepped off to live with an aunt while their father traveled the world. Meanwhile, their father continued an open relationship with a man until 1981 when, according to Pottker, bullet had lodged in the spine of his longtime companion and company assistant after a shooting outside a gay bar on P Street.