Burlington journalists Gerard Colby and Charlotte Dennett take on evil empire-builders
Their lives seem ripped from the pages of a Graham Greene novel or an Indiana Jones screenplay. Writers Gerard Colby and Charlotte Dennett are seasoned investigative reporters living in Burlington who have tangled with assassins to alligators -- while gathering information in some of the planet's most perilous places.
Many Vermonters will recognize this married couple as highly visible supporters of U.S. Congressman Bernie Sanders, leaders of a local National Writers Union chapter or hosts of the weekly television cable-access program, "Where Do You Stand?" And where do they stand? Dennett, who is an attorney, and Colby see themselves as truth-seekers.
Their journalism, whether for periodicals or intensively researched tomes, has taken them into some fabled hearts of darkness. During the mid-1970s in Latin America, they scoured the Amazon for evidence of the massacres of indigenous tribes and plundering of their oil-rich land. On a subsequent journey to South Africa, the determined duo posed as big-game hunters in order to sniff out the illegal movement of arms and troops into neighboring Rhodesia.
These are people who tend to experience larger-than-life tropical adventures in the idealistic pursuit of a good scoop. While recently recounting such stories from their cluttered but cozy South Willard Street apartment, however, Colby and Dennett -- now 57 and 56, respectively -- also reveal a more everyday human dimension.
Skippy, their golden Lab puppy, is chewing everything in sight. They admit they're broke, with maxed-out credit cards. Dennett's freelance legal work doesn't pay all the bills. The generous advance they received for a book-in-progress is long gone. Nonetheless, an August deadline looms for delivering the new manuscript to the publisher, Harper Collins.
The current project -- tentatively titled The Kingdom and the Power -- is derived from Dennett's own history. Her father, ostensibly a Lebanon-based U.S. diplomat, died in a 1947 plane crash under somewhat suspicious circumstances. Daniel Dennett was on a top-secret mission to determine the final route of the Trans-Arabian Pipeline.
His youngest daughter Charlotte, who was six months old at the time, has only recently begun to understand the implications of that fatal assignment. "In the Middle East, both Arabs and Jews have been screwed and set against each other -- for oil," says Dennett. "Once you get into pipelines, the whole world starts to look different."
Despite uncovering some egregious U.S. politics and ploys on foreign soil -- and at a time when even the wishy-washy word "liberal" has been denigrated by the nation's right wing -- Dennett contends they are "patriotic Americans."
Colby, who displays the flag on the Fourth of July, cites Jesus, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Kennedys as his key influences. "I believe in democracy and social justice," he explains. "I don't believe in corporations."
Rep. Sanders appreciates these allies. "What I respect most about them is their total commitment to progressive causes over the years," he says. "They're extremely knowledgeable folks who have really dedicated their lives to making this world a better place. Charlotte and Gerry play an active role in the local community, but their writing has international significance."
Charlotte Dennett's first glimpse of the world was in Beirut. When her father died, the family, which includes an older brother and sister, returned to the house where Daniel Dennett had grown up in Winchester, Massachusetts.
At 16, his daughter returned to Lebanon for her junior and senior years of high school. "Beirut casts a spell on any expatriate," she suggests. "It was once known as the Paris of the Middle East. And from there, my mother and I visited Syria, Jordan, Jerusalem."
Back in New England, Dennett attended Wheaton College as an art history major. After graduating in 1969, she headed for Italy to pursue a Master's degree in Florence. "My mother died of a stroke while I was finishing my thesis," Dennett says. "I was on my own. I went back to Lebanon and wrote for an English-language magazine, The Middle East Sketch."
Dennett was sent to places like Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain and Iran to interview city planners, oil ministers and monarchs. Expected to produce puff pieces, she kept a folder full of ideas labeled "What Charlotte Couldn't Write." To pursue more substantive stories, she got a job with the Beirut Daily Star that launched her political reporting career.
One day, she was caught in the crossfire between Palestinians and a pro-Israeli Christian militia. Taking shelter in a school, she escaped thanks to a man who had come to rescue his niece. They dodged bullets while fleeing in his car.
On vacation in Europe just as Lebanon's full-scale civil war began in 1973, Dennett received a warning not to return to Beirut. Colby says now that she was "marked."
So was her father three decades earlier, according to Dennett. She suspects the plane crash involved some sort of sabotage because his diplomatic job was a cover for the clandestine work he did for the OSS, a precursor of the CIA.
"I always knew he was a spy and I always thought that was cool," says Dennett. "When Gerry and I were at the National Archives in the mid-1980s, we found my father mentioned in a history of the OSS. His code name was 'Carat.' His designation was X2, the highest level of espionage. That got me wondering: Could there be some other explanation for his death?"
Perhaps it was communists, in a Cold War competition for Middle East hegemony. Colby thinks Daniel Dennett may have been betrayed by the notorious Kim Philby, a senior British Secret Intelligence Services officer later caught spying for the Soviet Union. But there's no proof, and a visit to Russia to hunt through declassified KGB files is not possible — yet.
Dennett's just-the-facts professionalism is balanced by a private fascination with mystical matters. On the advice of a Ouija board, she and a British colleague went to Petra, a Bedouin city in Jordan renowned for its ancient ruins and red sandstone hills. Despite the otherworldly origin of their travel plans, the visit was unremarkable. "I really wanted to spend the night in a cave, which tourists can do, but we didn't have enough time," Dennett says.
Later, while looking through old scrapbooks at the family home in Winchester, she came upon a 1946 letter from her parents: "It said, 'We just had a vacation in Petra and spent the night in a cave.'" Then Dennett noticed the date: "exactly 9 months before I was born."
Dennett's peripatetic youth stands in sharp contrast to the formative years of Gerry Colby, who was raised as a conservative Catholic in Bayside, Queens. As a teen, he even belonged to a gang that "rumbled," he recalls. Luckily, Colby had greater aspirations. "I always wanted to be a writer," he says. "I even wrote a novel [unpublished] at 15."
When his father died in 1965, Colby dropped out of St. John's University in New York and planned to enlist in the Air Force. "I wanted to fight for freedom," he explains. "My mother intervened. She told the draft board I was her sole means of support. But she actually begged me to go back to school."
At the State University of New York in Oneonta, he was a right-leaning Republican. Colby edited the campus newspaper and participated in the debating club. Although he had been gung-ho about the Vietnam War, his views began to evolve in 1967 when one friend was killed in battle and another lost an arm. "That shook me up," Colby says. "I started to research the history of our involvement in Southeast Asia and wrote a three-part series for the paper about it. Suddenly, I was the darling of the left."
He went "Clean for Gene" by joining Demo-cratic Senator Eugene McCarthy's presidential campaign, although he later switched allegiance to Robert Kennedy. Colby protested against the war. When faced with the draft, he was prepared to join the Army to work for the cause from the inside. However, he flunked his induction physical because of asthma.
Colby and his first wife Sarah eventually moved south to Wilmington, Delaware, where the Du Pont dynasty reigns. He started looking into the all-powerful family, whose self-described "science company" manufactures everything from chemicals to carpets.
Colby's Du Pont: Behind the Nylon Curtain was published by Prentice-Hall in 1974, but the industrial clan apparently felt threatened. The dirty tricks began just as Colby's marriage was crumbling. He made the mistake of befriending a fellow journalist supposedly doing a Du Pont-related story for Ramparts magazine. The guy turned out to be a paid infiltrator.
Behind the Nylon Curtain was dropped as a Book-of-the-Month Club selection only 24 hours after it had been chosen. A positive story in Time magazine was similarly spiked. Even though Nylon Curtain ranked among the country's top 50 best-sellers, Colby's publisher slashed the print run by one-third. When a New York Times critic deemed the work "something of a miracle," readers had a hard time finding copies.
Colby filed a multi-million-dollar lawsuit against Prentice-Hall and Du Pont that dragged on for six years through appeals until the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear it. He wound up with virtually no compensation and plenty of legal expenses. By that time, though, he had teamed up with Dennett for an intellectually and emotionally thrilling — albeit financially unrewarding — existence.
Colby and Dennett initially disliked each other when they met in 1975. Both were trying to land interviews with Yasser Arafat, who was at the United Nations in New York to give a speech. The Palestinian leader never did meet with either of them, but the intrepid journalists decided to work together on a developing story south of the border.
It took six difficult months in the jungles of Central and South America for love to blossom. "We fought like cats and dogs down there," acknowledges Dennett, who had traded the tribulations of Beirut for a treacherous trek through the Amazon. "What kept us together was our mission: uncovering genocide."
Their spats punctuated encounters with smugglers, informers, drug kingpins, Bible-thumpers, double agents and rumors about a secret cache of Nazi gold. Indian tribes were being wiped out and the rain forest raped, in part to support the gas-guzzling Yankee lifestyle up north. Colby and Dennett just can't seem to escape the geopolitics of petroleum products.
They wrote about their investigation in Thy Will Be Done, the Conquest of the Amazon: Nelson Rockefeller and Evangelism in the Age of Oil. The 960-page book, published by HarperCollins in 1995, details the exploits of Christian fundamentalist missionaries and Rockefeller's "vast business empire" in the region.
Among a plethora of amazing incidents in the Amazon basin, two of the most terrifying moments now amuse Colby and Dennett. "I was detained in Guatemala for photographing a government soldier outside a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant," he explains. "Charlotte saw me being taken away, ran back to the pensione and hid our notes. When they let me go, I figured my hair was too long [to be safe in the repressive country]. So I went to a barber..."
Dennett picks up the narrative: "...And there I am, frantic, thinking Gerry was being tortured — but he was just getting a haircut."
The pair faced another potentially dangerous situation in Ecuador, where the guide who had promised to ferry them across a river full of piranhas never showed up. It was getting dark. Local tribes were rumored to be former headhunters. "All we had were rubber boots and a couple of knives. I started to panic; Gerry remained calm," Dennett says.
"I thought if we followed the river, we were bound to find civilization," adds Colby. "Then we spotted a cow and heard children giggling. They paddled over and took us across — for money."
After tackling the Amazon cast of characters in 1975, it was four years before they realized the connection to Nelson Rockefeller — which meant taking on another American corporate family. "It's not like we set out to go after them," muses Colby. "That's where the facts took us."
In 1978 their anti-apartheid sentiments took them to the South African veldt. He had an assignment for The Nation; she was writing for a magazine called New Africa. Together, they embarked on the safari that allowed them a first-hand look at military shenanigans.
Although they were still trying to finish Thy Will Be Done, in 1984 Colby and Dennett came to Vermont to make a documentary about Bernie Sanders, then mayor of Burlington. When the project fell through, they decided to stay put in a place that appeared compatible with their progressive views.
But they discovered, of course, that opinions vary. As a resident of rural Fairfield, Colby ran for the state Senate as an independent in 1988 and 1990. "We'd find dead animals in our mailbox," he says. "A squirrel, a rabbit, a bird."
He lost the election, but went on to direct Sanders' 1992 congressional campaign in Franklin County. Dennett worked as a paralegal in a law firm, passed the bar exam in 1996 and was Vermont chair of the National Organization for Women. He is now president of the Champlain Valley Labor Council, an AFL-CIO group for which she is the "director of volunteers in politics."
How they find time to write is anybody's guess. And how they survive the labyrinth of contemporary publishing is also worth telling. A chronicle of their literary nightmares is Colby's lead essay in Into the Buzzsaw: Leading Journalists Expose the Myth of a Free Press. This collection of 18 such horror stories — which was picked as one of the top 20 books of 2002 by the New York Public Library a few months ago — will be honored on July 13 with a National Press Club Award in Washington, D.C.
Colby will attend the event, but Dennett may not. There's the imminent deadline and that money problem, not to mention Skippy's behavioral training.
Whatever the obstacles, the couple is determined to remain at the forefront of the honorable muckraking tradition in an era when news is fast becoming entertainment. "We're not conspiracy theorists," Colby insists when asked what fuels their passion. "It undermines the work of investigative journalists to spout theories not backed by fact.