Wednesday, November 2, 2016

National Security Violations, Murder Cover-Ups, Secret Families and Corruption

If someone mentions genealogy, you probably imagine a family tree filled with the names of people who lived hundreds of years ago.  For me though, genealogy is story-gathering and detective work - it is the compilation of qualitative information about peoples' lives, rather than just names and dates.  Every person has a story and all of them are interesting.  I like to uncover the truth, which is sometimes sensitive and unsavory. Everything about our ancestors – the good and the bad – has shaped who we are today.  Their stories deserve to be heard. 

Ben Plymale
official Boeing portrait, early 1960s
My maternal grandfather – Ben Plymale – was a fascinating man.  He died before I was born, so I never got to meet him myself or hear his stories first-hand.  But, my family did talk about him and I listened when they were talking – he was brilliant and successful and also a little eccentric and abrasive.  Years ago, when I began looking into my family history I began asking questions and doing my own research.  I realized that there was much more to my grandfather’s story than I had ever heard – some of it was purposefully not discussed by my family but much of it was information that nobody even knew about.
In many ways, my grandfather’s life was typical or unremarkable – he had a wholesome upbringing, he was a WWII veteran, he went to college, regularly attended church, had a family, had friends, was financially successful, had a 30-year career with Boeing.  It was his career with Boeing though that brought about most of the events that will be discussed in this post.  His brilliance and aptitude allowed him to advance steadily in the company; he was a low-level executive by the 1960s and a vice president by the 1970s.  It was also his rise in ranks in the company and specialization in defense systems (specifically ballistic missiles) that allowed him to be highly involved with something he was passionate about: politics and the Republican Party.  He had a position as a deputy secretary of defense in the Pentagon under Richard Nixon and remained active in Boeing-US government relations throughout the 1970s. His ultimate achievement occurred when he was hired by Ronald Reagan during his campaign for president in 1980 and worked for him into 1981.  It was while working on Reagan’s team that he wrote Reagan’s original defense spending budget.  Because of his technical and political expertise and level of involvement with defense spending planning, my grandfather was indirectly responsible for much of the US military-industrial complex that happened during the 1970s and 1980s.  That in itself is a little mind-blowing.  (During the Reagan presidency, the US was apparently spending more than $30 million dollars an hour on defense.)
It was during my grandfather’s time as a Boeing executive and Pentagon official that he also became involved with several scandals including: having a secret family, (supposedly) helping to cover up a murder and being involved with a national security breach by stealing a top-secret Pentagon record intended for the President and destroying evidence and impeding official investigations.  Perhaps there was even more that we will never know about.

Ben with my grandmother and their first child, 1950
Ben Plymale was born in 1926 in Oregon.  His father died when he was a baby, and his mother raised him and his sister by herself.  As a result of his upbringing, Ben apparently had a somewhat lonely and independent childhood.  Many have speculated that this brought about much of his later behavior – including his sometimes rough, sarcastic and abrasive behavior towards others.  He was a gifted child: was in the Boy Scouts, took piano lessons, and excelled in school; winning awards for perfect attendance, penmanship and fingerprinting.  He was also a curious and gifted child – he liked to take apart electrical objects just so that he could see how they work.  It was during his youth though that he exhibited some of his future tendencies to do whatever he wanted.  In high school, he was enrolled in an ROTC program, but was kicked out because of a cheating scandal.  He also frequently got in trouble as a youth for petty crimes.  
After high school, he entered the Navy at the tail end of World War II and served for 2 years, and was primarily stationed on Guam.  He returned to Oregon and attended the University of Portland where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Physics and Mathematics.  The same month, he married my grandmother and they moved to Seattle where he began attending graduate school at the University of Washington.  In 1950, he quit graduate school to accept a job offer working as an engineer for Boeing.  It was during his first ten years with Boeing that he helped to develop the Minuteman missile program. 
Ben was a brilliant engineer and “a pioneer in radar, missile guidance and multiple war-head technology” and frequently authored technical works about the subject.  His first research paper ("Nutation of a Free Gyro Subjected to an Impulse") was published in 1955.  Apparently fellow executives “turned to him for advice on budgets and research, praising him as Boeing’s resident Buddha of strategic thinking.” He “could cut through technical bullshit in a matter of seconds.”  His aptitude and reputation enabled his meteoric rise to power within Boeing.

Secret Family
In the mid-1960s, my grandparents had been married for over 15 years and had a family of four children and lived together in a house in the Mount Baker neighborhood in Seattle.  They had known each other since high school and apparently had a relatively happy marriage. They had also helped support each other through difficult times, including the death of two children as babies and financial strain in the early years of marriage.  It was during the 1960s though that Ben began to stray from the marriage.  As a manager at Boeing, Ben had his own secretary and soon began to have an affair with her – a young woman who I will call “Margaret”.  Things became more complicated though when she got pregnant, in early 1964.  Their daughter was born in October 1964.
newspaper article about the car accident that brought
Ben's secret family out into the open, January 1966
Because of her pregnancy, Margaret quit her job at Boeing. Ben began supporting her and the child.  According to her, she had no idea he was married [although I don’t know how that’s possible] and considered herself his wife in all but name.  Because he was gone so often for his job, he was able to keep his two families secret from one another, and spent time with both of them.  My grandmother and my mom and her siblings had no idea that anything was going on. 
Meanwhile, after Margaret quit her job as his secretary, Ben began having an affair with her replacement – Susan.  Coincidentally, Susan and Margaret knew each other – they had grown up together in a small town in Montana.  Somehow though, he was able to compartmentalize his life and was able to keep his wife and two girlfriends secret from each other – for a little while.  Then the s**t hit the fan in January 1966.  Ben and Susan attended a late night party together and decided to drive home after perhaps having a little too much to drink.  They were in a serious car accident late that night on January 8, 1966.  Luckily, nobody was seriously injured but they were both hospitalized and an article about the escapade somehow made the newspaper. 
It was as a result of the car accident that all three women found out about each other.  The story is that the EMTs and the hospitals assumed that Susan was his wife, and was thus Mrs. Plymale.  When my grandmother and Margaret were informed of the accident, they both rushed to the hospital and both introduced themselves as Mrs. Plymale [Margaret considered herself his wife]. After some confusion at the hospital, they all apparently found out what was going on and my grandfather’s infidelities came out in the open.  My heartbroken grandmother made the decision to file for divorce – it was eventually finalized in January 1968. Ben decided to marry his girlfriend from the car accident, Susan.  He and Susan were married 6 days after his divorce was finalized.  They remained married until his death.
Although my grandmother found out everything, they managed to keep the secret family from their children.  My mom and her siblings had no idea they had a half-sister until Ben died and his obituary mentioned the other mystery child.

Murder Cover-Up?
newspaper article about the death
of Mary Lou Paisley, May 1968
Ben’s best friend was Melvyn Paisley, a colleague and fellow executive at Boeing.  In the late 1960s, Melvyn lived on a farm in Kent, Washington and was married to his second wife, a younger woman named Mary Lou who enjoyed painting as a hobby.  Then on May 8, 1968, Mary Lou’s dead body was discovered in their home in suspicious circumstances.  She was found in the bathroom, lying face down and her head was surrounded by towels laced with carbon tetrachloride, a toxic cleaning fluid that she used to clean her paint brushes.  The story that Melvyn gave was that she had gotten drunk and she took sleeping pills the night before and then accidentally asphyxiated herself with the cleaning fluid.  There was a police investigation and an investigation by the coroner.  Her death was officially ruled an accident and the matter was officially dropped. 
Despite the cause of death ruling, the matter was not dropped entirely; mostly because Mary Lou’s sister didn't believe the official version of events.  It became clear that there was more to the story, and the possibility of a cover-up and a murder became plausible.  Twenty years later, when Melvyn was being investigated for separate corruption charges while working in the Pentagon, the case was reopened by King County.  It became clear that there were many inconsistencies and inaccuracies with the autopsy report, including the fact that the report found no traces of alcohol or sleeping pills in her system and the fact that the coroner who performed the report also worked for Boeing and somehow kept the report from review by his boss, the head coroner.  There was also the revelation that not long before her death, Mary Lou had discovered or speculated that Melvyn was having an affair and had hired a private investigator to follow her husband.  (Seven months later, Melvyn married the woman he was having an affair with.)
Also damning was that – according to phone records – after Melvyn discovered his wife’s body, the police was not the first number he called.  The first number he called was his attorney and the second was his best friend, Ben Plymale.  Then that morning, my grandfather’s wife Susan went over to their house to clean it before the county authorities arrived.  Susan apparently cleaned or threw away what the investigators assumed was vital evidence.  That afternoon the investigators also noted that a fire was burning in the fireplace, which they remarked as unusual because it was May and not cold outside.  The inference was that some evidence was probably incinerated in the fire. 
Although the investigation was reopened in 1988, no additional charges were ever filed and Mary Lou’s death still remains classified as an accident.  However, given the circumstantial evidence, it is likely that there was more to the story. Was Mary Lou Paisley was murdered? If so, my grandfather and his wife were directly involved with covering up the crime.  Interestingly, for decades after the fact, the case of Mary Lou Paisley was used an example by the King County Sheriff’s Office as an example of how not to investigate a crime scene.


National Security Scandal
part of a 1979 newspaper article about the national security breach
that Ben was involved in
Ben Plymale was highly independent and often did exactly what he wanted.  He had what others described as a rather “cavalier view of the law”.  This became more of an issue for him when his job became even more high profile and he had access to more privileged information.  Ben worked in the Pentagon as a deputy secretary of defense for strategic weapons from 1968 to 1972.  After that ended, he returned to his Boeing VP job in Seattle, but he retained his government contacts and sources, and his top-secret security clearance at the Pentagon.  He remained a political player and often served as Boeing’s liaison with the US government as a sort of lobbyist/consultant and had “a reputation as an ingenious salesman and consummate power broker in Washington, D.C.”  He was especially adept at getting information from the Pentagon that could be used to Boeing’s advantage; especially information about which programs were likely to fare best in the Pentagon.  He had “unrestricted access to the Pentagon’s innermost secrets, from confidential budget projections to top-secret performance reports on specific weapons.” Eventually this is what got him in trouble.  

In March 1978, Ben got his hands on a top-secret memo about US missile operations that was intended for the President.  Part of the process to get the memo to Boeing was transmitting it over a telephone fax line; which was especially dangerous because apparently the Soviets were at the time routinely monitoring US telephone lines to and from US-defense contractors. 
In this case, it was Ben’s own boastfulness that got him in trouble.  In a meeting with a Pentagon official who helped draft the memo, he discussed the memo in such great detail that it immediately set off red flags.  An investigation was opened and Ben and five others were investigated for the national security breach. 
In addition to the breach itself, Ben and others were also implicated in trying to cover up the crime and impede official investigations.  Specifically, Ben was implicated in lying, destroying evidence, planting fake evidence, and not cooperating with investigators.

Amazingly, there were no formal charges ever filed and nobody was ever prosecuted for what was surely criminal activity.  My grandfather though did lose his security clearance and was demoted from his job at Boeing (although they eventually gave him his old job back and reinstated his security clearance).



Ben (right) meeting with newly-elected Congressman Norm Dicks (left)
and another Boeing executive (center), 1977
Ben was a staunch Republican and remained involved with Boeing-US relations, even after his security breach scandal in 1978.  In spite of his past, he remained a key nationwide expert in strategic defense systems and many relied on his expertise.  Then after the presidential election of 1980, Ben was hired by Ronald Reagan’s team to work on the transition team and later for his administration.  He was specifically hired by Reagan to identify where additional defense dollars should go. According to some, Reagan’s decision to hire my grandfather was a perfect example of many of the ethical problems with the Reagan presidency.  There were also other examples of how my grandfather was involved with corruption at Boeing and at the Pentagon. For example, in 1977 a former Boeing employee came to Ben with evidence that other employees were using Boeing funds for prostitution and other illegal activities.  Ben purposefully turned a blind eye to this information, destroyed the evidence given to him, and took no action to root out the corruption. 
From 1980 to 1981, Ben took a leave from Boeing to work on Reagan’s transition team as the deputy head at the Defense Department [Pentagon].  His primary role during that time was as co-chairman of Reagan's Defense Budget Committee.  Ben’s crowning achievement during that time was writing Reagan’s original defense budget.  Then in early 1981, to Ben’s disappointment, he was not chosen to continue serving on Reagan’s administration and he returned home to Boeing where he was once again appointed as a Boeing vice president.  He was in that role when he died several months later.

Careless Health and Dramatic Death

Ben was something of a hedonist and did not take care of his own health.  He was a notoriously heavy drinker and a chain smoker.  During his DC days, he was often known for meeting colleagues for what he called a “gin lunch”, when he would drink 4 or 5 glasses of gin before going back to his office to work on some report.  His habits caught up with him as he suffered from a heart attack and contracted lung cancer. Yet Ben was persistent and successful at most everything he did.  He stopped drinking, started eating healthy and began jogging regularly.  After having one of his lungs removed, he had also beaten lung cancer.  

One of Ben’s greatest passions was fishing.  In August 1981, Ben went on a fishing trip to rural British Columbia, Canada.  In true form to his cavalier attitude towards life, he neglected to take his required oxygen supplies with him.  His single lung began filling with fluid and he realized he was dying.  After a dramatic helicopter ride, he died on the steps of the tiny hospital in Bella Bella, BC.  He was 55 years old. 

Some have speculated that if Ben had not died when he did, he would have eventually wound up in prison.  Later during the 1980s, much of the corruption in the Pentagon came to light and many were eventually prosecuted – including his close friend and coworker Melvyn Paisley who served 4 years in prison. 
As mentioned above, Ben died before I was born, but my family frequently talked about him.  My family though did not know about or pay attention to the more notorious parts of his life, instead focusing on him as a family man.  In late 1989, when I was entering kindergarten, my grandfather’s Boeing records were being subpoenaed and reviewed by a federal grand jury investigation into Pentagon corruption.

Much of the above comes from the 1995 book When the Pentagon Was For Sale by Andy Pasztor, in which Ben features prominently. 

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Crazy Cat Lady

As a cat owner, I get a lot of flack from other people - most of whom are dog owners. So when I found out about this particular person I am related to, I couldn't help but laugh. Doris Bryant was something of a (crazy) cat lady.  Perhaps more than that though, she was THE cat lady.  And I just happen to be related to her. As a divorcĂ©e living in New York City, she was one of the world's leading cat experts in the mid-Twentieth Century. 
Doris from her 1915 yearbook at Franklin High School in Seattle. And one of her prize-winning Siamese cats, Mee Zee, from a 1932 newspaper article. 

Doris was the second cousin of my maternal grandfather.  (Her grandmother, Lucinda Merriman Prather, was the sister of my great-great-grandfather, George Merriman).  Doris was born in 1896 in Ohio.  She was raised in Montana. After her mother died when she was 9, she moved to Seattle to live with relatives.  She attended Annie Wright School in Tacoma and then Franklin High School in Seattle.   After high school, she continued living by herself in Seattle (she lived in an apartment at Olive and Harvard on Capitol Hill) and worked as a stenographer.  Eventually though, she grew tired of Seattle and decided to move on to a bigger city. 
In about 1920, Doris moved by herself to Manhattan, New York.  There, she married Willard McHargue in 1921.  Doris and Willard lived together in Greenwich Village in Manhattan.  Throughout the 1920s, they were quite wealthy.  Willard was a vice president of an advertising agency in New York.  It was during that time as a wealthy housewife that Doris became involved with her hobby that developed into her passion: cats.  She quickly became a breeder of Siamese cats.    

As Doris became more and more obsessed with her cats, she realized that although there were plenty of dog toys and supplies, there were none specifically for cats.  So she set about making her own cats toys.  Eventually, there became a demand for her cat toys and she decided to open a cat shop.  It was while this was happening that the Stock Market Crash of 1929 hit and the Great Depression began.  Her husband quickly lost his lucrative job and Doris’ cat shop began supporting their family.  (In addition, her husband began creating small pastry cups filled with hamburger meat that he sold to speakeasies during Prohibition). The financial issues must have put a strain on their marriage and they were soon divorced.

One of the editions (1953) of one of her books. 
After her divorce (when she was about 36), Doris reverted to her maiden name.  She continued living by herself (with her cats) in Greenwich Village in Manhattan.  Luckily, her cat business became very successful.  She first began selling cats toys and supplies (including imitation snakes, balls made out of cellophane wrap, scratching posts, catnip balls, litter pans, etc.).  Eventually though, she also realized that the market was also woefully lacking in cat medicines.  She worked with a local veterinarian, Dr. Louis Camuti, to develop the world’s first known cat medicines.  Doris sold all of Dr. Camuti’s medicines in her store.  They had a symbiotic relationship where they referred customers to each other’s businesses.  He was apparently the only cats-only veterinarian in the country and she had the only cat drug store in the country.  Others suggested she had the only cat shop in the world. 

Doris’ shop – called Doris Bryant’s Emporium – in Greenwich Village was very successful.  Because it was so unique, she apparently had customers across the world.  She did much of her business by mail.  Eventually, Doris put her self-promoted expertise to use and decided to write books about cat care.  Her first book was published in 1936.  She eventually wrote and published at least three more books; all of which went through several revisions. 

Doris operated her cat shop in Greenwich Village for over 30 years.  By the 1960s, Doris was acknowledged as a veterinarian herself, even though she had never been educated as a veterinarian. 

Over the years of her cat business, Doris had many famous customers.  They included Clare Luce (US congresswoman and writer), Selena Royale (actress), Beth Merrill (actress), Sophie Kerr (writer), and Doris Duke (socialite/heiress). Perhaps her most famous customer though was Ernest Hemingway, who was a noted cat lover. Apparently Ernest kept one of Doris' cat care books next to his bed and read from it every night. 
Excerpt from a 1935 newspaper article discussing
Doris' shop and cat advice
In 1936, Doris had 5 cats of her own (in her apartment in Greenwich Village) - coincidentally the same amount of cats I've had before.  She died in 1978. 

In 1980, her old colleague Dr. Camuti wrote the following description of her:
Doris was always very pale. Her skin had the look of alabaster to it. She seemed like a delicate statue come to life. In fact, she resembled - at least, to me - the large ceramic Siamese cat that stood in her pet-supply shop window. But there was nothing of the cold statute about Doris Bryant. She was a warm, outgoing person and a bit of a character. Cat lovers came to her from all over the city, and she usually was very helpful to a customer. But if someone came in that she didn't take to, Doris had no hesitation throwing him out. "That's not for you," she'd say, or more bluntly, "You don't like cats well enough, get out!"
Some excerpts from Doris' 1944 book The Care and Handling of Cats, A Manual for Modern Cat Owners (the same book kept on Hemingway's nightstand):
"Getting a certain kind of pet because it is pedigreed or is a smart breed at the moment is the worst possible reason; we should get our pets because we love them - not to exploit them."

"A cat refuses to flatter and he is never servile. He is capable of deep devotion, but his devotion depends upon his approval; his utter lack of flattery makes his devotion something worth cherishing."

"Some cats have become so vicious that it was necessary to have them put to sleep. This is deplorable, since it was not their fault that they developed as they did, but rather the fault of the people who mismanaged them."

"Cats are not suitable pets for children and most cats are not happy in households where they are children."

"When a woman has a well-loved cat, there is no reason for disposing of it just because she has a baby."

"Any two cats living together will have their little quarrels, or one may temporarily be annoyed with the other. People have their differences of opinion too, and cats are little people."

"If your cat "will not do a single thing you want him to" you should be ashamed to admit it; the fault lies in the way the cat has been handled - by you, or by previous owners."