By inspiring a torrent of book offers, "checkbook journalism," toys, games, auto discounts, plastic ayatollahs and this week a silver commemorative coin promotion, the hostage crisis has proved that America's spirit of enterprise is alive and flourishing, though not always in the best of taste.
After a slump, the "hostage market" has picked up again with a flurry of speculation that the 52 Americans being held in Iran may be released soon.
One enterprise that aroused immediate concern among the hostages' families is the International Gold Bullion Exchange, a Florida-based firm that burst on the scene last Sunday with ads in the Los Angeles Times and four other newspapers. The ads said that for $32 one can buy silver coins commemorating the seizure of American hostages and that $5 of that total will be contributed to a trust fund for the hostages and their families.
None of the firm's partners or attorneys contacted any of the hostages' relatives before undertaking the promotion, according to William Alderdice, president of the year-old firm.
But he is definitely thinking big. "If we can sell enough coins, we can get $50 million for the hostages -- $1 million for each family," he said.
"Being a corporation, of course, I hope to make a quarter or 50 cents on each coin . . . I wouldn't mind making some money on this myself," Alderdice said. His most recent business adventure was a chain of wig stores in Florida.
Katherine Keough, wife of a hostage and president of the organization representing the hostages' families, said that they and their attorneys are "keeping an eye on" this and the other promotions claiming ties to the hostage issue, particularly those that promise to turn over some proceeds for the families' cause. Keough has spent considerable time screening such promoters as family members across the country report them to her.
In the wake of some adverse publicity in California this week, she said, the Gold Bullion Exchange has shown a desire to prove its legitimacy and has been in touch with attorneys for the families' organization.
Asked the families' general policy toward accepting money from such activities, Keough said, "None of us is in dire financial straits."
"It's tacky. It's disgraceful. They should all be put out of business," said Dorothea Morefield of San Diego, wife of consul general Richard Morefield. She is among the most accessible and outspoken of the hostages' relatives and has been approached by a number of promoters.
"I strongly resent it when they say, 'I'm just doing it for the hostages,'" she said.
"Some people would consider this as blood money," one family member said of accepting money, particularly payment from journalists or publishers seeking exclusive rights to stories.
"We're into 'paycheck journalism' in a big way now," Keough said. "People are being offered amounts in four figures. We're talking about thousands of dollars."
Among the offers Dorothea Morefield has received is one from a Boston literary agent named Paul D. Conway. His letter, in which he proposed to represent the Morefields in a bood deal, says in part: "I'd like to propose my way of easing the anxiety and pain of your husband Richard's incarceration. . . . One way of staying sharp is for Richard to keep a record of the various activities he had encountered before, during and after his captivity."
Conway, asked about his idea, initially said "it just seemed like it would be a tremendous book. . . . I felt I was just trying to help them." When told about negative feelings on the part of some family members toward such proposals, he said he preferred to keep his name out of any public discussion. "I will deny anything about this," he said.
One enterprising young American trucked a load of what he claimed was volcanic ash from Washington state's Mount St. Helens all the way to Florida and tried to sell it to "little old ladies on the boardwalks" with the claim that proceeds would benefit the hostages, according to one family member.
Another California firm offered plastic statues of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, recommending the purchasers "hold an ayatollah hostage" and promising $1 from each sale would go to a hostage fund. In Arizona, a bar offered discounts on drinks as "hostage benefits" until a local woman, mother of a hostage, complained.
About 75 percent of the people she screens are "concerned Americans who just want to do something to help," Keough said. She and the lawyers have found that the other kind fold up quietly after a complaint from the hostages' families.