Charles Merrill Mount, describing himself as "a perfectly normal Edwardian gentleman," said yesterday that he did not steal rare letters and other government and historic documents found in his possession and that he expects the "hysteria" over his recent arrests to subside once he gets the chance to tell his side of the story.
Though federal authorities have accused him of possessing stolen documents from the National Archives and the Library of Congress, the 59-year-old artist and author was a portrait of calm as he discussed his circumstances in an interview at his Capitol Hill rooming house.
"All this is just hysteria . . . . The whole thing has been blown out of proportion," Mount said. The rare letters and other historical material, he asserted, "were always mine and had been in my possession for 25 years."
Mount has been arrested and jailed twice in the past week after FBI agents discovered more than 200 historic documents, including letters of Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill and Henry James, in Mount's possession here and in Boston. The items allegedly were stolen from the National Archives and the Library of Congress. Yesterday, a day after his release from jail here, he declined to discuss specific allegations against him, citing the advice of his attorneys.
The Brooklyn-born former Sherman Suchow did, however, want to set a few things straight about himself, such as his English accent, the reason he changed his name, his possession of a painting by Claude Monet, the safe deposit boxes he maintained under different names, previous criminal convictions and his mysterious comings and goings abroad.
Sitting in his tiny room, amid an eclectic clutter of art prints, books, household goods and Civil War-era memorabilia, Mount said he took special umbrage at news media descriptions of him as eccentric.
"I'm not eccentric, everyone else is," Mount said. "I'm just a perfectly normal Edwardian gentleman."
Most of all, he said, he wants the world to know that he is neither dapper nor a dandy, though he has been called both since his awkward leap into notoriety.
Discussing his handsomely attired appearance, Mount said he buys his clothes -- including the tastefully striped shirt, gray print slacks and blue-and-gray-striped Yves Saint Laurent tie he wore yesterday -- from a thrift store.
"I am the most distinguished figure ever to be dressed by the Salvation Army," he said. His "YSL" ties, he said, cost 50 cents; his three-piece suits, $25. Only an English bowler, which he bought in Paris a long time ago, remains as "the last vestige of my wealth."
"I got it several years ago from a friend who owed me a lot of money," Mount said, noting that the painting was seized from his room by the FBI. "Is it real? I suppose so."
The $18,400 that the FBI found in one of his bank safe deposit boxes?
"I don't have a bank account in this country," he explained. "It's all I have -- I pay cash for everything."
Mount thinks the reason he changed his name from Sherman Suchow to Charles Merrill Mount should be obvious: "I was going into the business world, and I wanted a name people could pronounce and remember, and my old name was neither."
His English accent is not put on either, according to Mount. Since childhood, he said, he has traveled extensively in Europe, first with his parents, then as a Guggenheim fellow and, later, as a historian.
"For five years I spoke nothing but French," Mount said. Then in 1961 he moved to Ireland, "and when I started to talk, it came out like this."
Mount described his time in Ireland, where he said he married and fathered four children during the 1960s, as the happiest years of his life.
"Home is Ireland," Mount said. "I was born in Dublin in 1961 at the age of 33."
But he has a sad, wistful feeling about the country now, he said. In 1971, he said, his wife left him during a stay in New York and just "disappeared." He thinks she returned to Ireland, and for 16 years, he said, he has traveled there under various assumed names to look for her.
"To get to Ireland unseen and unknown is the thing," said Mount, adding that his wife's family has tried to thwart the relationship because he was married previously. "For 16 years, I have failed to find her. I've run out of strength, and I've run out of money."
There is nothing "sinister" about the aliases he has used on passports and on the two bank safe deposit boxes searched by the FBI. "All of this is involved with my domestic affairs, and nothing else," Mount said.
The FBI, he complained, made much of his conviction for car theft in England and the time he served in prison after being convicted of making threatening telephone calls to his mother. The car theft charge, according to Mount, was a misunderstanding, the result of his leasing a car, taking sick and keeping it longer than had been expected.
The calls to his mother were another matter; mention of the 1981 incident evoked the only angry outburst of the interview.
"My son was kidnaped, and I made calls to my mother telling her to bring him back," Mount said. "He was only 16; he was living with me in my custody, and I know she paid to have him kidnaped. But the police didn't do anything except to accuse me of making threatening phone calls."
Mount said he began collecting autographs and other rare and historic materials in 1954, and stopped collecting in 1969. He said he never paid more than about $30 for any item and that many of the more valuable materials were given to him by friends.
An art historian, he has written three biographies, one of American artist John Singer Sargent in 1957; one of portrait artist Gilbert Stuart, and another of Monet. In the late 1970s, Mount donated all his research materials from these works to the Library of Congress.
"After that, they were very nice to me," said Mount, whose will stipulates that his more recent research materials be donated to the library after his death.
He was given his own work space in the library's administrative offices. He moved in his files and typewriter and spent two years there, until July, writing a second Sargent biography. The new work, he stressed, will include "completely new material."
Mount said he did not use the library's collection all that much, relying instead on his own material. And he doesn't put much stock in the library's contention that materials he checked out have now disappeared.
"They're a little muddled," he said of library officials. "They don't know what they've got."
Mount's priority now is to make money. "I'm desperate. My attorney gave me $5 to get home yesterday," he said. "I want to do a Donna Rice and tell my story -- but I will not pose nude. I will give my exclusive to someone, maybe People."
Whatever happens next, Mount said, he has decided that all the fuss over his habits, clothes and so-called foreign ways means only one thing: "I don't belong in America."