'Start With Bait': D.C.'s Social Ponzi Scheme Explained

Washington D.C. is a weird city that keeps giving us bizarre, extreme examples of what Franklin Foer referred to in this week's New York Times Magazine as the "social Ponzi scheme."

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Washington D.C. is a weird city that keeps giving us bizarre, extreme examples of what Franklin Foer referred to in this week's New York Times Magazine as the "social Ponzi scheme." Foer's piece looks deep into the case of Albrecht Muth, a Georgetown resident charged with murdering his wife Viola Drath, who was 44 years his senior, in 2011. At the heart of the story is an unusual relationship—The Times Magazine calls it "The Worst Marriage in Georgetown"—full of enough intrigue for a whole season Law and Order episodes, what with its absurd set-up and winding twists. Foer uses an example to show how Muth and Drath, a couple without wealth or particularly notable résumés, managed to entertain prominent journalists and D.C. figures in their home so often over the years:

In 2005, Muth sent a flattering e-mail to Arun Gandhi, the grandson of Mahatma, who runs a center promoting nonviolence in Rochester. "He gave me the impression that he was highly connected, throwing names around like Kofi Annan, like they were buddies," Gandhi recalls. Although he knew next to nothing about Muth, Gandhi accepted his offer to pay for a flight to Washington and to put him "in touch with important people." When Muth arranged for Gandhi to speak at the National Press Club, one reporter from a "small unheard-of newspaper" attended the event, as Gandhi puts it. But that hardly seemed Muth’s goal. He had used Gandhi as the headline attraction for a dinner attended by "high-society people."

Muth, in other words, perfected the methodology for his social Ponzi scheme. For parties, he would start with bait.

The "social Ponzi scheme" doesn't feel like a particularly new or novel method for inserting oneself into a social group, especially not in Washington. It's just that we usually get a glimpse of the most extreme or outrageous practitioners of the method only once they make news for, oh we don't know, murdering their wives.

Washington, in fact, seems like a breeding ground for social Ponzi schemers, and Foer points to several other Washington characters that have pulled off a Great Gatsby-like feat of self-invention. He points, in particular, to Craig Spence, a "would be power broker" whom Time once called "Washington's man from nowhere." Writing in the magazine in 1989, Hays Gorey and Margaret Carlson opened:

"Hang a lamb chop in the window," was the advice legendary hostess Perle Mesta gave those who wanted to make a place for themselves in the capital....

Before long, the man from nowhere ... had reportedly been host to John Mitchell and William Casey, journalists Ted Koppel and William Safire, and several Congressmen. By 1982 he had served enough lamb chops to merit a profile in the New York Times. The story trumpeted his ability to open doors all over town, even though the paper could not quite put its finger on who he was. It called him an international business consultant, party host, foreign agent and research journalist.

"Hanging a lamb chop" sounds like a familiar method. As with Muth, scandal gave Spence's ways a wider audience. He killed himself after revelations about his involvement with Washington call boys.

Meanwhile, Jerry Zipkin friend to Nancy Reagan, provided the '80s with a less scandalous and more specific coinage: a "walker." Writing about Zipkin, a New York cover on social climbing (what else?) by Henry Post described it this way:

Walkers now, are a special breed of pilot fish -- entertaining male escorts who are usually sexually unthreatening to the husbands of the women they 'walk' to social events. After years of filling in for the busy husbands, the walker finally becomes a part of society.

Truman Capote told Post, "Jerry Zipkin! He's been doing this number with Nancy Reagan -- who is really very nice -- for almost twenty years. And he's in seventh heaven now! He's really just a 'walker' for old ladies!"

These are, of course, extreme examples of a phenomenon that any 12-year-old girl could tell you exists. Get Regina George to come to your birthday and soon, so will the other kids. Nor is it exclusive to Washington. We recall a great piece by Alan Feuer in the New York Times about a guy he met only because they shared a name, a man from New York who returned from a tour in Vietnam and reinvented himself as a society gentleman.

But each of these stories does give clues about why D.C., not West Egg, might be the best breeding ground for a wannabe Gatsbies. "A city that remakes itself every four years is perfect for a Gatsbyesque creature like Spence, with a past he is unwilling to talk about and a present that consists of convincing mysterious clients that he has plenty of influence," Gorey and Carlson wrote in Time. The city, they mean to say, receives a new influx of so-called elites with every new administration who are apparently confused and easy to lure into your dinner parties.

"To score a big-name dinner guest or a favor from a V.I.P. in Washington, there was no point messing around with official channels or wasting time with midlevel functionaries," Foer writes. As a result, "there's an unexpected naïveté among the truly powerful; they assume that anyone who has arrived at their desk has survived the scrutiny of handlers." Muth seems to have understood this, and thanks to his bizarre story, we, too, have been provided with a very readable lesson in extreme social climbing.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.