FRANCIS COLT DE WOLF JR., Washington insurance man, gazed into the distance and recalled the days, more than a decade ago, when Tongsun Park wanted to start a new Washington social club.
"Well, he just started moving around socially in town," recalled de Wolf. "People used to ask me what the heck this kid is doing. He was a rich kid, you know. I just said, "Well, I don't know. Some rich kids like to buy yachts, some like to start clubs . . . In retrospect, I think he had something in mind."
Indeed. According to a federal indictment, Park "set up and operated" Washington's exclusive George Town Club with the aid of Korean Central Intelligence Agency officials as a primary means in an illegal effort to influence U.S. politicians and officials.
With money, boldness and charm for credentials it appears that Park was able to harness for his own use, in part by means of this club, the enormous social energies of a world capital where the cocktail and dinner party is stock-in-trade.
How did he do it?
Interviews with eight of the club's 14 founders, 12 of its 15 present board members and others tell this story.
More than a decade ago, Park contacted a few friends and acquaintances and began putting together a founding group that was in tone predominantly Republican, conservative and social old-guard. At least one founder, the late Marine Gen. Graves B. Erskine, had been closely linked with high-level national intelligence activities.
These founders, in snowball fashion, then contacted their friends to be founding members. The club now has about 330 members and its leadership emphasizes that this group is separate from Park, who, they say, merely owns the club premises and runs and rents it for the members under contract.
According to records and interviews, Park acquired the club premises at 1530 Wisconsin Ave. NW under a lease in 1961, purchasing the property in 1965. The club opened in the spring of 1966.
It appears that what Park did was take advantage of the normal social and professional instincts of at least some of the persons named in this article, who, with one exception, are free of any charges in the case.
Park acquired the lease on the club premises after returning from Korea to resume his studies at Georgetown University. After entering Georgetown as a freshman in 1956, Park had been suspended for "academic deficiencies" and had gone to Seoul in 1960 where, according to a knowledgeable American source, he apparently had made some powerful friends among the men closest to the new South Korean president, Park Chung Hee.
After several years of developing the club premises and preparing to open it - years when Tongsun Park was also engaged in complex worldwide business dealings often allegedly linked to the Korean Central Intelligence Agency - he set out in search of a founding group. His hope was apparently that the club would fly on its own, with no overt link to Korea other than himself.
COLT DE WOLF remembers meeting Park for the first time in 1959 through a relative of his wife's who had roomed with Park at Georgetown University.
"I was a founder of The George Town Club but I didn't know I was a founder," said de Wolf. "Park approached me when he was getting ready to open the club . . . In the back of my mind I said, "I need another club like a hole in the head. I was a member of three clubs already. Basically his approach was, 'Can you help me, help me find prospective members?' I was born and raised in this town, I know this town.
"His secretary would come down and we'd look at lists, the social register and so on, and work up prospective members. Mailings went out. He always did things well: a whole bunch of engraved invitations. Before I knew it, people I met on the street said, 'I see you're a founding member of a new club,' I said, 'I didn't know that.' Then I got the bill."
De Wolf said he never paid and that he was, legally, "never a member." Gradually, de Wolf and his wife cooled in their friendship with Park and stopped inviting him to parties - a move that was reciprocated, de Wolf said.
Another club founder and source of members, according to interviews, was Anna Chennault, the Chinese-born widow of Maj. Gen. Claire Chennault of World War II's Flying Tigers.
A Washington hostess and proponent of U.S. support for the non-Communist Republic of China on Taiwan, Anna Chennault has been characterized in press reports as having introduced Park to many powerful persons in Washington and showing him how to make his views felt.
Chennault was a club founder, according to the list of founders provided by the club manager Norman Larsen, who took that job in the early days of the club, working directly for Park. Larsen, formerly with H.L. Hunt's rightwing educational "Life Line Foundation," said he still reports directly to Park.
Chennault did not return repeated phone calls. Three other club founders who could not be reach for interviews were:
Thomas G. Corcoran, known as "Tommy the Cork," the former FDR braintruster who is now a widely influential Washington attorney. Corcoran, who did not return phone calls from The Washington Post, was quoted in other press reports as saying that Park called him "Papa Tom," although Corcoran was not associated with Park in business or lobbying. Nevertheless, Corcoran has been characterized in press accounts as having taught Park a good deal about how to operate in Washington. Corcoran has also been an escort of Anna Chennault at social functions.
Air Force Gen. Fred M. Dean, now officially listed as retired. Dean commanded the U.S. Air Task Force on Taiwan from 1957 to 1960, then went on to key staff and command positions in Washington and Europe.
Marine General Erskine, deceased, who commanded the Third Marine Division at Iwo Jimma. From 1953 to 1961 Erskine was assistant for special operations to the Secretary of Defense. "His responsibilities," according to a press release of the period. . . . included the areas of intelligence, counter-intelligence, communications security, CIA relationships and special operations, and psychological warfare operations."
De Wolf recalled that club board meetings were at first held in the office of another founder, Robert K. Gray, who is now president of The George Town Club.
GRAY HEADS the Washington office of the large public relations firm, Hill & Knowlton. A man of influence who likes to keep a low profile, Gray was President Eisenhower's cabinet secretary and has been a noted Republican fund-raiser.
Gray said Park called in 1965 on public relations business and, in the course of their meetings, Park asked how to start a social club - a subject naturally interesting to Gray, who attends several parties a week as a matter of professional duty. (Gray said he and Park never did do business but had a purely social relationship.)
Gray said he suggested that Park pick several people and have them call their friends, and so on. In their discussions, Gray said, the idea developed of having a "cross-section of people" in a club with a "congressional overtone."
Gray said Park suggested Anna Chennault as a founder. He said he himself suggested Geroge Murphy, Clark W. Thompson and Mrs. Robert McCormick. All three became founders.
"I think I was invited for window-dressing," said Murphy, the actor-turned-conservative-politician who was then serving his one term in the Senate. Murphy had met Gray in 1952 when they both worked at the Republican convention that nominated Eisenhower.
Murphy said he was asked to be a club founder by Gray and by Lawrence C. Merthan, who at the time worked for Hill & Knowlton here and who is now with the Carpet and Rug Institute. Merthan, also a club founder, could not be reached for an interview.
Murphy said that at the time he was already a member of the 1925 F Street Club and was unimpressed with plans for The George Town Club but agreed to be a founder anyway. "Then they sent me a bill for $300. I said, 'Please take my name off the scorecard.' I never met the Korean gent [Park]."
After Murphy left the Senate in 1970 he said he worked briefly for Hill & Knowlton here and later established his own PR firm.
Clark W. Thompson was for 22 years a well-known conservative Democrat in the House until his retirement in 1966. He remembers that Gray suggested he become a club founder but can't remember how he met Park.
"I didn't know Park particularly well," said Thompson. "I often wondered why, when he was doing all this rice buying, he never did discuss it with me. He never discussed politics. It was just social." Thompson said his Texas district was a big rice producer and that he was concerned with rice matters in Congress.
According to the indictment, part of the Korean influence-peddling conspiracy involved Park's being designated as the sellers' agent for the purchase of all rice by South Korea from the U.S. Park then used his agent's commissions to pay off congressmen and senators to influence them, the indictment charges. (Thompson was not named in the indictment and has not been connected with the case in any way.)
Mrs. Robert McCormick, wife of the late Chicago Tribune publisher, said she met Park through Anna Chennault. "I liked him, he was very hospitable," said Mrs. McCormick, recalling that Park was sometimes referred to as "the Onassis of the Far East" because of oil tankers he owned.
Mrs. McCormick said that she used to have "a lot of fun" at the club even though there were "an awful lot of tacky politicians in there, mostly Democrats."
Milton G. Nottingham Jr. was another founder. A 1944 graduate of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy who after 1949 held various government marine posts in Korea and the United States, Nottingham then went into the ship chartering and brokerage business. He said he was once "the maritime adviser" to Tongsun Park.
"I'd known him a year when he asked me to be a founding member, then to be president," said Nottingham. "I thought it was a short-term matter. I served for a year or so. It was more of an honorary thing than anything else. It didn't call for management decisions . . .
"Like many organizations of a social nature, it was socially a success but not financially. In any event, he got behind in his [financial situation]. One day I received a summons to the Corporation Counsel's office. I explained I had nothing to do with the management of the club. Park appeared with an attorney and agreed with that. At that point in time I thought, "I don't really need this."
ANOTHER FOUNDER was Louise Gore, who was for eight years a member of the Maryland legislature and who in 1974 ran unsuccessfully for governor of Maryland. Gore said she first met Park in the late 1950s when he and another young man called upon her to promote Young Americans for Freedom, a conservative youth group.
Gore remembers hearing at one point that the woodframe townhouse at 1530 Wisconsin Ave., thought by some to be at or near the site of the historic Suter's Tavern that George Washington used to visit, was for sale.
As a history buff, she said, she was interested, but because she was busy opening The Jockey Club restaurant at the time she couldn't do anything about it but try to interest her friends and acquaintances, including Park, in the property.
"I took him by there," she said. "I can't remember when the idea of . . . a club came up, but I used to say Washington is a very transient town and it was too bad there's notsomething that transient people could join . . . The next thing I hear is that [Park] wanted to go ahead with a club."
Later, she said, "Someone called. Tongsun Park or maybe Bob Gray, and asked me to join as a founder." She did, although she was too busy to ever attend a meeting, she said.
Henry Preston Pitts Jr. was also a founder. Pitts, a longtime Washingtonian, had worked for Hill & Knowlton at about the time the club was founded and then as a PR man for a large holding company. He is now a spokesman for the U.S. Information Agency.
"I was introduced to Tongsun at the time of the founding of the club," he said. "Bob (Gray) called me and asked me to have lunch and meet a young Oriental gentleman who was founding a club, and I did, and I liked Tongsun. He's a charming, charming person. Subsequently, when the founding board was being put together, I was invited to be a founder."
It was the job of the founders, Pitts said, to draw up membership lists for the club, to "get the snowball rolling." Club manager Larsen said that the founders suggested most of the original 160 or so club members.
Gray, Gore, Thompson and Pitts are still club officers. All the other living founders continue to be listed as members except Murphy, de Wolf and Mrs. McCormick. Park himself was a founder, according to Larsen, and is still listed as a member.
YEARS BEFORE Park began rounding up founders and launching the new social club, he had prepared an elegant clubhouse. This preparation was the object of an entirely separate operation that had required more than deft socializing. Park had needed money, decorating and construction talent, and legal advice.
This part of the story begins in 1960 with J. Francis Harris III, a Washington real estate broker and builder who was part owner of the townhouse at 1530 Wisconsin Ave.
Harris had wanted to start a tavern there and early in 1960 has set up a corporation called Suter's Tavern Inc. However, as Harris recalled it, the effort did not succeed. His hands were full with construction elsewhere.
Meantime, Harris said, he had met Tongsun Park socially, somehow the idea had hatched of Park taking over the tavern effort, and Harris and his co-owner had leased the place to Park with an option to buy for four years and had then sold it to him.
The record shows the sale of the $90,000 property took place June 22, 1965, with Park obtaining a 15 year, $325,000 mortgage from Philadelphia Life Insurance Co.
Henry A. Meinzer, a private attorney near Philadelphia who was Philadelphia Life's mortgage officer at the time, recalled nothing unusual about the transaction.
The difference betwen $90,000 and $325,000 would have allowed Park to finish work on the club and get it going, Meinzer said. Land records show that security for the mortgage loan included the premises, an insurance policy on Park's life, and "all fixtures and personal property" on the premises.
According to his testimony this June before a congressional subcommittee, ex-KCIA Director Kim Hyung Wook let Park use $3 million in South Korean government funds in 1967 as collateral to help finance the club as a way of gaining access to and influencing U.S. politicians and officials.
If so, then why do so amy people recall Park's financial difficulties during the late 1960s?
"Like any new business it took a long time to get in the black," said Lawrence D. Huntsman, an attorney who represented Park during the late 1960s. "I know of no $3 million or heavy financing from the outside. Everything came from leasing companies, banks, the life insurance company . . . club membership grew and patronage grew, the leases were negotiated and renegotiated. Each time a default would build up we'd say, 'You're businessmen and we're businessmen and if you pull out the equipment (you won't get paid).' Finally everyone got paid.I'm telling you, it was nip and tuck for a long time."
On the other hand, there was widespread impression that Park was getting a lot of money from somewhere and sinking it into the club. "He spent an awful lot of money," said Mrs. McCormick. De Wolf thought Park must have spent about $600,000 redoing the building.
"There were times when we couldn't pay the rent and Tongsun didn't throw us out," said one club officer who asked not to be identified.
"It was generally perceived," said another club officer, "that he had a lot of money behind him, much of which he didn't have his hands on." This same person, who also asked for anonymity, conceded that there were times when it was said that the club's cook paid for food with his own money because Park couldn't come up with operating cash.
"In the early days of the club it was quite obvious to all of us that it was not a financial success for [Park] at all," said Gray. "At one point I've heard he had $500,000 in it . . . Knowing what we paid, we knew it didn't balance out at all. He seemed to have all kinds of personal funds - so far as I know they were personal funds.I believe that those early monies were his own. It was very easy not to notice the financial end of it because it was to our benefit."
IN 1976 PARK was able to purchase the adjoining properties at 1532 and 1534 Wisconsin for $300,000. The five year mortgage for $225,000 is held by Montgomery Federal Savings and Loan, according to records. Much of this space had been rented by Park previously. Its purchase allowed for renovation and expansion, according to Larsen.
At one point before the club opened, the office of International Youth Federation for Freedom, a nonprofit anti-Communist group of whicn Park was an incorporator, a director and the president, had moved into part of this space. In those early days, Larsen took over the management of IYFF, which from time to time was visited by CIA officials who wanted to check on its activities, according to two of Park's former IYFF associates. Larsen said he played no substantive role other than to preside over IYFF's dying days.
City records show that Park and others had become th directors and officers of Suter's Tavern Inc., apparently taking it over from Harris and his associates, during the four years they leased the premises.
The others associated with Park in developing the club appear to have been, on the basis of available records and interviews, only peripherally involved.
During most of the time Park was working to open the club and then to keep it open he was, as has been previously reported in The Washington Post, simultaneously engaged in activities as an "agent of influence" for the Korean CIA.
For example, at a time when Park was listed as a director and vice president of Suter's Tavern Inc., he was helping plan the October, 1962, visit to Washington by KCIA chief Kim Jong Pil, the strongman who had helped put President Park Chung Hee in power in a 1961 coup d'etat.
In 1969, Tongsun Park was receiving cabled instructions from a senior official on President Park's staff - instructions which, at least once, were coordinated with the head of the KCIA, Lee Hu Rak.
IT WAS NOT LONG after the club opened before the Republican, conservative, somewhat old-guardish tone set by the founding group gave way to broader-based activity.
In the summer of 1966, just months after the club opened, Luci Johnson's wedding rehearsal dinner was held there. (Bess Abell, White House social secretary at the time, said recently that a routine selection process would have been used to select the club. She could recall little beyond this. A society page item at the time said the Johnson "catering plum" fell to the club because older clubs were booked).
Park sponsored many lavish parties at the club in the years that followed. Guests included such prominent politicians as then-House Speaker Carl Albert (D-Okla.) then-Majority Leader Thomas P. ((Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.), scores of other representatives and senators and administration leaders such as former Secretary of Defense Melvin R. Laird, Attorney General William B. Saxbe and then-Vice President Gerald R. Ford.
A club member who asked not to be identified recalled these affairs:
"Other members gave parties and had 10 or 12 people. Mr. Park would take over the entire club - the whole place was filled with 75 or 80 people. There were interesting people, not a lot of Koreans. It was never, never a Korea night . . .
"The guest list would be old Washington society, several attractive young ladies, single men, people from government, say two or three senators and two or three congressmen. Congressman Hanna was nearly always there [Former Rep. Richard T. Hanna (D-Calif.) was indicted Friday on federal charges of bribery, conspiracy and failure to register an agent of the Korean government. The indictment charged that as part of the alleged conspiracy to influence U.S. officials. Hanna "did assist Tongsun Park in the development, operation and financing of the Georiga Town Club," and that Park paid Hanna's initiation fee and the costs of a 1969 fun-raising dinner for Hanna at the club] . . .
"There would be a long, embassy-type French menu . . . Tongsun would talk, tell some jokes. Congressman Hanna would sing in his dismal tenor voice. Tommy the Cork would tell some stories. He was usually there with Anna Chennault. Then it would drag on, and end."
THE SCANDAL, Park's flight to London last fall, the indictment - all this has left many members of the club dazed and realizing they may not have known Park very well at all.
Park, they point out, merely rents the building, staffs it with 19 employees, and runs it through manager Larsen. Club officers said they are taking further steps to give the club "a new face," to "restructure" it in order to "get out from under the criticism that it's a Tongsun Park club."
Club treasurer Frank Spinetta, who is head of Colonial Mortgage Corp., said he spoked by telephone with Park in London and worked out a "verbal agreement" for sale of the club premises to the members.
Spinetta would not discuss the tentative sale price, and said the issues would be presented to the membership.
Spinetta and others said that the scandal has not hurt the club, that revenues are high and that there is a long waiting list for membership.
At one time, Spinetta said, as many as eight congressmen and senators were members. Now there is only one, Rep. Fortney Stark (D-Calif.). Club officials said the decline in such membership has nothing to do with the scandal, but was the natural result of retirements.
"I probably should resign," said Stark, "then I could tell you I resigned. My staff thinks I should."
Stark said he joined the club, which he uses only a few times a year, about four years ago. "I just picked it out of a list of clubs that allow minorities," he said.
The club had a policy. Spinetta said, of extending honorary memberships to the President, Vice President, cabinet officers and - in the past three years - members of the Supreme Court. The policy has now been discontinued, he said. While it was in effect those offered honorary memberships could either accept or decline, and no response was taken as a declination. Spinetta said.
However, it appears that there remains some confusion on the point.
"He's not a member, doesn't pay any dues and he's never been in the club," said the secretary of Supreme Court Justice William J. Brenna Jr., whose name appears on the most recent membership list.
Justice Harry A. Blackmun is also listed as a member. "He has never joined the club, never been inside the place and has no expectation of going," said his secretary.
Justice Potter Stewart is also listed, and his secretary said that Stewart, extended an honorary invitation in 1973, had said he would be glad to accept on the understanding that he couldn't use the club frequently. He never has used it, the secretary said.
A spot check of other names on the list, including ambassadors from several countries, showed that they were dues-paying members.
Club dues are $450 annually for married couples and $350 for single persons. Spinetta said. The initiation fees for new members are $800 and $600 respectively, he said.
Besides Gray, Gore, Thompson, Pitts and Spinetta, current members of the board of governors are listed in the most current club bulletin as: Marion H. Smoak, an attorney who was formerly the State Department's chief of protocol; the socially prominent Mrs. James McS. Wimsatt; stockbroker Kenneth M. Crosby; builder Antonio M. Marinelli; attorney Edward L. Merrigan; Georgetown University professor John H. McDonough; attorney William F. Ragan; Robert L. Shafer, Washington vice president of Pfizer Inc.; Lucien J. Sichel, retired former vice president of Abbott Laboratories, and attorney Hobart Taylor Jr.
Although Park is still listed as a member, Spinetta said he is "not exactly" a member. "We wouldn't throw him out if he walked in," said Spinetta.
"I think very few people really knew Tongsun Park." mused one club officer who asked not to be identified. "I often wonder if we had treated him differently if things would have turned out the way they did. It's like the Great Gatsby in a way: if we could have sort of pierced the veil . . ."