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Daniel Ammann

Daniel Ammann

Posted: November 23, 2009 03:36 PM

How I Met the Biggest Devil

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Just before Christmas, two years ago, I waited at the Suvretta ski lift in St. Moritz, the world's oldest and most glamorous ski resort. It was one of the coldest mornings of the year, eight degrees below zero Fahrenheit, and my breath hanged before me in a cloud of mist. We had agreed to meet at eight thirty, and not a minute later an unimposing green Subaru Legacy, that has seen quite a few years, pulled up. The Biggest Devil climbed out and greeted me with a soft voice.

It was the exact term that Marc Rich, the most-wanted white-collar criminal in U.S. history until his highly controversial pardon by President Bill Clinton, used to describe himself. "I was painted as the biggest devil," Rich had said to me without the least bit of self-pity during one of our conversations. Then all of a sudden, so as to change the subject, he had challenged me: "Show me how good you ski."

So it came that a few days later I went skiing with the man, who is considered the most secretive, the most powerful and the most infamous oil trader. These three days in the Swiss Alps proved to be invaluable. Marc Rich, who had systematically avoided reporters and had given his last interview of significant length over twenty years ago, finally opened up and freely talked about his businesses and about his private life.

Being a business journalist in Switzerland, I had always been intrigued by Marc Rich. As a young Jewish boy in Belgium, he barely escaped certain death in the Holocaust. Penniless and unable to speak a word of English, he fled with his parents to the United States and made himself into the most successful -- and wealthiest -- commodities trader of his time: "The King of Oil," as one of his longtime business partners would later put it to me.

Rich then ran so afoul of the law that he landed on the FBI's Most Wanted list and absconded to Switzerland. The US Government chased him all over the world for "the largest tax evasion ever" (in the words of then-prosecutor Rudy Giuliani), for racketeering and for trading with the enemy Iran during the hostage crisis. The billionaire trader succeeded to evade the agents of the most powerful nation for almost twenty years before he got a presidential pardon.

What a life story, I thought. A story, all the more, which had not been written yet. So in 2000 I wrote my first letter to the office of Marc Rich + Company asking for an interview. My request was flatly denied. For years and years, I routinely sent faxes and e-mails, but the answers would always be the same: "No interviews."

This all changed in December 2006 when I wrote yet another letter and boldly explained that I was about to write a biography. In all truth, I did not expect a positive response. So I was surprised when Marc Rich finally agreed to a meeting. It came as an even greater surprise when he accepted my demands for total control over the contents of the book since I did not want to write an "authorized account" but also cover the things that he might not wish to read.

Researching and writing The King of Oil: The Secret Lives of Marc Rich became one of the most fascinating and most instructive experiences of my life. I talked to his family, friends and foes, from
ex-wife Denise Rich and the trader's first secretary, a Spanish Marquesa, to former prosecutor Morris "Sandy" Weinberg and US Marshal Ken Hill, who for fourteen years secretly sought to detain -- and even kidnap -- Rich. A former officer of the Israeli intelligence service, Mossad, provided insight into Rich's very special relationship to Israel and the crucial services he provided to the Jewish state. I interviewed dozens of traders from the five continents.

My many long conversations with Rich, more than 30 hours, were an important source of information. For the first time ever, he discussed his international business dealings -- even the most controversial ones. He openly and without remorse talked about Ayatollah Khomeini's Iran, his most important supplier of oil, with whom he maintained a much more intensive business relationship than was previously known. He admitted that he did his "most important and most profitable" by breaking international embargoes and doing business with apartheid South Africa. He commented on his trades with Fidel Castro's Cuba and with Marxist Angola and the Nicaraguan Sandinistas. He talked about Bill Clinton's pardon and revealed that he will never set foot in the United States again. And he explained why he thinks it is perfectly right to do business with corrupt, violent, and racist governments.

After our last interview I asked him why he ultimately spilled his secrets, after what seemed liked eternal secrecy. "Age and maturity," the Biggest Devil answered and gave me a sphinx-like smile.

Daniel Ammann is the author of The King of Oil: The Secret Lives of Marc Rich. St. Martin's Press.