He told unbelievable stories about himself, and as a point of principle I believed them.
He described the Christians as God-botherers, pitched the Soviet menace to customers of a promoter (later jailed) who peddled gold bullion, ran a leftwing bookstore in Washington, canoodled with radicals under an alias or two, reported on them to the FBI, and later, wearing a journalist’s hat, interviewed luminaries such as Jeane Kirkpatrick and prospective GOP candidate Ronald Reagan for a small magazine affiliated with the John Birch Society. His wife worked for the Birchers’ Congressman, Larry McDonald.
He was the last paramour of novelist Grace Metalious, who wrote Peyton Place, and became her heir by a deathbed will.
It’s a favorite pastime of professional uplifters to invite innocents to name the people who have influenced them most: a memorable pastor, a teacher, always a moral example of some sort. John Rees introduced me to my wife and—quite separate from that—taught me the useful term “fuckwit.”
As for his stories: There was one about a wife in England carrying on with a chef for the House of Commons, who squared matters by giving John cooking lessons. The tuition seemed to be limited to roast beef, leg of lamb, Yorkies and Christmas pudding. There was a tale of his having been in Kenya during the Mau-Mau uprising and, in the role of MP, discovering a debasement of the common room sugar tin. The blemish was explained, he said, when he caught a conscript having the barracks kitten lick sugar off his genitals. “What did you do?” I asked. John replied, “Well I beat the shit out of him, of course.”
For many years, John and an Irish-American wife ran a home industry, publishing a small newsletter called Information Digest. Using a network of informants, the publication reported on the activities of many political enthusiasts, from the radical left to the potty right. They got sued, if my fading memory serves, by organizations as diverse as the National Lawyers Guild, the LaRouchies, and Liberty Lobby. Nobody collected. For one thing, the Reeses kept themselves judgment-proof, living comfortably on what John later maintained, in a dispute with the Internal Revenue Service, was the kindness of friends. (The IRS didn’t collect, either.) They avoided suits in other ways. If a particularly juicy fact or insinuation came along, Larry McDonald could be counted on to enter it into the Congressional Record. Thereafter, Information Digest was immune from libel claims, merely reporting what was in the Record.
They served a useful purpose in providing fuller disclosure of mischevious busybodies who preferred to control their narratives. Does it matter that a peace spokesman has had a lifelong romance with Stalinism? Of course it does. Does it matter that people talking liberty out of one side of the mouth fulminate anti-Semitism out of the other? Yes, indeed. Information Digest was a privately produced Consumer Reports on political peddlers of many sorts.
Did John believe in anything? He disliked Communists, perhaps, while finding them, along with almost everything else in life, entertaining. But mostly I think he enjoyed subverting fools, and pulpits and political movements have always been awash in fools. I doubt his conviction went any deeper than that. He would have been embarrassed by a suggestion he was a believer.
His insults could be subtle, but much of his conversation was raw—with a plummy English accent. When I expressed fondness for Edith Piaf, he replied helpfully, “All the homosexuals in the John Birch Society like Edith Piaf.” Subtle enough; it took me a moment. By contrast, when McDonald and Rees were having a dispute over who should call the shots in a political venture—John or a woman known to the Congressman—John demanded, “What has she ever delivered except a wet pussy at midnight?” For a while he was put off at McDonald, a public pietist who liked a little on the side even when it interfered with his cause. Then McDonald was killed when Korean Air Lines flight 007 was shot down, and as a rightwing martyr to Soviet tyranny the Congressman became, for a while, as useful dead as he had been alive.
John’s role as an FBI informant may have been hampered by doubts about how many sides of the street he was playing. After the Newark race riots, he tried to float a scheme in 1968 for the government to fund a $743,000 program that would recruit both white and black radicals to lead a peace patrol. John knew plenty of both. If he’d managed to put them on his payroll and gotten paid by the FBI for informing on them, he’d have sat in the middle of a perfect circle.
Cops found him unreliable, but a number were his friends. At his house in Baltimore, the company might include retired CIA and State Department officers, a state policeman or two, a congressional staffer, and occasionally a traveler from France or South Africa with uncertain credentials. He was friends with Arnaud de Borchgrave, then editor of the Washington Times, and Robert Moss, former editor of The Economist’s Foreign Report. He was well-known and loathed by lefty groups such as the Institute for Policy Studies. He was financed in part by Richard Mellon Scaife. For a time he did business with Carl Icahn and Hank Greenberg; on what basis he sold himself to them I’ve no idea.
When Reed Irvine’s Accuracy in Media sent Daniel James and John to Hungary in the mid-’90s, I tagged along at my expense. A center-right government had come to power, the first since the Soviet Union’s collapse, and was purging Communists from the media. This provoked cries of fascism from the international left. John and Dan were supposed to do fact-finding. Dan asked questions. John leapt cheerfully into supporting the purge. So did I, with journalistic credentials that by then were wilted with age. The meals were good, the strip club was dismal, but being accused by a British leftist on Hungarian TV of coming from Langley was priceless.
When John was paying his own bills, he skimped on accommodations. One day in New York, meeting after nights at our respective hotels, he complained of having been kept awake. I asked what had happened. He explained that in the next room, separated by too thin a wall, were two noisy men. He would hear a slap, followed by “Whose little bumsy wumsy is this?” A slap. “Whose little bumsy wumsy is that?” Once again, of course, I asked, “What did you do?” John replied, “I hammered on the wall and shouted, ‘Will you get your assholes sorted out so I can sleep!’”
At times he toted a small Beretta with a tip-up barrel, on the theory "better twelve to try you than six to carry you." It caused consternation when he realized he was approaching airport security without having divested himself. When the thing came into my possession for a short time, during a domestic set-to, and I took it to the range, it was so clogged with pocket lint that I could neither fire it nor drop the magazine.
There had been an England wife, a woman in Newark, a Baltimore wife and, eventually, a Washington wife with whom a knot was tied, if memory serves, in Mombasa. Although the family business continued for a time, there was an inevitable break, sides were chosen, and our friendship ended. I was surprised to get a call in early 2013 inviting me to a memorial service for John at a saloon in New York. The man I heard described was unrecognizable to me: an environmentalist, a mentor to an English grandson, a fellow of honor and purpose. I could only laugh. My friend had reinvented himself again, and found takers.
As I said at the outset, John was a scoundrel. How much damage he did, I’m not sure. Possibly, to some people, a lot.
[I should add to this that I made ready use of John in fiction. Sometimes a few of his traits lay behind a benign and helpful character. Another time, in a Wall Street short story, "Bears in Mind," a Rees-ish Darwin Sneed resembles a country parson who might be diddling an altar boy. The most straightforward portrait appears in "Marley's Relic," written after I attended a memorial service for John.]
April 30 2017
There are a few credible sources on the Internet regarding John Rees. None of the accounts is flattering. An FBI archive that was declassified in 2008 is almost indecipherable because of garbles and redactions. I’ve provided a cleaned-up version of excerpts below.
Excerpts from the FBI files:
“Enclosed for Bureau and Chicago are two copies, and for each other office designated, one copy of a monograph entitled ‘The NGI Report on SDS [garbled] 1968’ dated July 19, 1968, and researched by [redacted but clearly John Rees]. This item was delivered to the Reception Desk of the Newark Office for SA [Special Agent] AUSTIN G. OSBORN on 7/29/68, by a representative of [redacted]. As the Bureau is aware and for information of other offices receiving the enclosure, [redacted] of National Goals, Inc., (NGI), . . . has been the subject of considerable unfavorable publicity in the past, including his involvement, in early 1964, in the estate of GRACE METALIOUS, the deceased author of the novel, ‘Peyton Place’. More recently in June, 1968, a plan he proposed brought fire from varied sources when he proposed utilization of Government funds to make militant leaders of white and Negro organizations paid directors of a 300-man community peace patrol in Newark, NJ. It was opinion of agents whom he has contacted that [redacted] appears to be a ‘name dropper’ and one who would exaggerate to make a point. Accordingly, the Bureau has instructed that NK [presumably the Newark FBI office] . . . should not initiate any future contacts with him. . . .
“On April 16, 1965 Detective Joseph Trainor of the New Jersey State Police personally requested information concerning the SUBJECT of this file. The file was obtained and the contents thereof were relayed to Trainor. Trainer indicated that the State Police was conducting an investigation of the SUBJECT and of the organization which he presently heads. This organization is known as National Goals Inc. and has its headquarters in the Hallmark Apartments in Newark. Trainor stated that the organization concerns itself with anti-riot training of police departments and some government agencies . . . on a contract basis. He said that certain individuals who are connected with Rees have criminal records and leave much to be desired in terms of being 'desirable businessmen.’ Trainor stated that Rees is very close to the Commissioner of Police, Dominick Spina, and to Mayor Addonizio of Newark and does, in fact, have free access to their office, sits in on their council meetings and can obtain information which many other people in official capacities cannot get. In addition to the interest of State Police the local office of the [missing] [ha]s an interest in the SUBJECT; his activities and his organisation plus the fact that they are curious about the entree into City Hall and city activities. Both agencies are concerned with Rees because of his accomplices and because they are not sure of the true aims and purpose of his organization. Col. David Kelly, Director New Jersey State Police Department, is himself vitally interested. In the course of conversation Trainor mentioned the name HERB ROMERSTEIN whom the writer has known for years. Romerstein is a former member of the Communist Party and was an informant for the New York District of this Service and the New York State Police for many years.
“At the request of Detective Trainor the writer telephonically contacted Romerstein who came to the office voluntarily. Romerstein indicated that he is still employed by the House Committee on Un-American Activities and is in fact investigating the Newark riots of July last, as a preliminary step to the HCUA hearings which are to be held in Newark concerning Newark in the very near future. Romerstein indicated that he knows Rees, very well and that Rees, a former Royal Air Force man who claims to have had ten years of service with the RAF and who further claims to have been a bodyguard to a member of the British Royal Family, is a former British Intelligence Officer. He said that National Goals Inc. is a part of Applied Electronics in Metuchen, New Jersey, which is owned in part by David Wilentz, former Attorney General for the State of New Jersey. He said that Rees is a highly intelligent individual and he mentioned the latter connection with Grace Metalious, the author of ‘Peyton Place,’ clippings about which are contained in the file. Rees is presently married or lives with a mulatto girl and her children and Romerstein was not sure about the details of a formal marriage. He stated that the girl’s former husband was a notorious hoodlum in the Brooklyn area but he claimed not to know the former husband's name. The wife's first name is Marianne.
“Romerstein indicated that National Goals has one man working on a full-time basis in Washington, D.C. and presently has one man assigned to the Essex County Sheriff's Office. He said that the purpose of the organization is to provide riot training and guidance to whomever contracts for such assistance. He further indicated that this is a private non-profit organization which is not, to the best of his knowledge, financed by any government organization.
“[The] Investigation into the activities of SUBJECT and of National Goals Inc. is being continued by the New Jersey State Police. It does not appear at this time that there is any basis for Service action but arrangements have been made for information to be relayed to the Service as it develops. Rees presently resides at 10 Hill Street, Apt. 8R, Newark, New Jersey, (Hallmark Apartments). Robert E. Ford, Chief Special Investigations” . . .
“National Goals last spring drew up $743,741 proposal to hire black and white militants for a ‘community peace patrol.’ The plan was rejected by the Justice Department and denounced by [New Jersey] Gov. Hughes. The U.S. Department of Labor is still attempting to recover $7,597 that was paid by the city to Rees as research director of the federally financed New Careers training program. Rees resigned last spring after auditors questioned the amount of time he was spending on the job. The Labor Department has also blocked payment of $12,100 for a training firm for which Rees is a consultant. A department spokesman said federal auditors have now authorized payment of $4,900 to the firm.”