Los Angeles in the late ’80s and early '90s was a blur of drugs, celebrities, and, of course, money. So much money. But when "Hollywood Madam" Heidi Fleiss met a secretive and powerful private investigator named Tom Corbally, she was immediately wary, despite the blur.
The way she remembers it, Jack Kent Cooke, the frenetic and fabulously wealthy owner of the Washington Redskins, called Fleiss and said he had someone he wanted her to meet.
Denver Nuggets owner Sidney Shlenker was already at Fleiss’s house when Cooke brought Corbally over. There were also a bunch of women. The plan was to go down to the legendary Hollywood producer Robert Evans' house and watch movies. Or something.
But Fleiss was leery of the handsome, polished, older mystery man hanging out with all these rich guys. Fleiss suspected Corbally might have some sort of secret identity. She raised the alarm with Evans. "I said to Robert Evans, ‘Who the fuck knows who this guy is?’” Fleiss said. "He could be the pool man for all I know."
That comment made it back to Corbally, who sent Fleiss this letter via fax: "Dearest Slut: Fuck me, fuck me, fuck me. Sincerely, The Pool Man."
Fleiss was smitten. "Let me tell you something personal," Fleiss told me during a phone call. "I wanted to have sex with him."
Over the course of their relationship, Corbally would become a client and confidant of the "Hollywood Madam," who ran an escort service for the rich and famous. Later, when Corbally found out Fleiss was snorting crystal meth, he told her to stop — and he set an example with his own sober lifestyle. And after her 1993 arrest for pandering, pimping, and narcotics possession, Corbally gave her tens of thousands of dollars in cash to help Fleiss pay her mounting legal bills. When she was facing jail time, Fleiss turned to Corbally to concoct a desperate plan to flee the country. Corbally instead counseled her to stay and do whatever time she was sentenced to. After all, he said, she was still a young woman with plenty of time ahead of her. Better a few years in prison than a lifetime running from US law enforcement.
Fleiss told me Corbally was "really colorful, good-looking, and enigmatic." Even though he was several decades older, Fleiss — and many, many other women — just completely fell for him. "I think that it was the safety factor, that you felt like you were protected and safe no matter what," she said. "And he could solve any problem." Over time, Fleiss would learn a lot more about the mystery man with the big-money connections.
But not everything. Because nobody ever learned everything about Tom Corbally.
What Fleiss didn’t know is that Corbally was both a private investigator and a con man, an operator who bluffed and intrigued his way through decades, creating his own personal swirl of cocktail parties, nightclubs, and prostitutes.
If journalism is the first rough draft of history, Corbally's life story is the part written in disappearing ink.
Corbally’s story — together with those of his mentors and colleagues — amounts to a secret history of the 20th century. It’s the stuff that doesn’t often make it into the textbooks: Black bag jobs by blackout drunks. Undercover operations for large corporations. The daily deposits and withdrawals from a global favor bank that few people know exists. If journalism is the first rough draft of history, Corbally’s life story is the part written in disappearing ink. It's the part no one wants you to know about.
Heidi Fleiss was right about one thing: Corbally did have a secret identity. In fact, he had lots of them. Over the years, he used those identities as he befriended and worked for some of the most famous people of the day — presidents, prostitutes, movie stars, and corporate chieftains.
In the course of his incredible career, Corbally gathered intelligence for the US government, prominent lawyers, and some of corporate America's biggest names. He befriended members of the British aristocracy and the US political elite. When business moguls found themselves in tricky transactions with billions of dollars on the line, they often turned to Corbally to provide that one piece of hidden information that could tip the deal in their favor.
Mostly, what drove Corbally was the thrill of the chase. He was known to conduct surveillance on wealthy businesspeople, selling the information he found to their competitors and rivals. Later, he could gleefully go to work for the same people he had previously been spying on. He charged enormous fees. He didn’t like to pay taxes. He described the people he targeted as “marks.” He used his attractive female colleagues and friends as bait. But he could be loyal to friends, even protective. He handled his clients’ difficulties in diplomacy, business, and even love. He solved their problems just as easily as he caused trouble for their adversaries.
Corbally didn't play by society's rules, and that meant his rich clients didn't always have to either. That's what they hired him for.
Fair warning: Parts of this tale remain just out of reach, buried beneath layers of false identities and phony stories. But using the Freedom of Information Act, I’ve gotten access to nearly 100 pages of documents on Corbally’s life — detailing for the first time the decades-long Catch Me If You Can dance between the private investigator and federal law enforcement.
I’ve tracked down private investigators across the United States and Europe who still gather to tell old Corbally stories. But as one told me bluntly, “I will deny we ever had this conversation.”
Here is what I know is true: Thomas J. Corbally was born in Newark, New Jersey, on March 25, 1921. His parents, Harry and Loretta Moore Corbally, were both in their early twenties when he was born. As a teenager, he stowed away on cruise liners the way the other kids went to sleep-away camp. The ships represented power and luxury in the midst of a global depression — the freedom to travel the world when most working stiffs were stuck scratching for shift work. Getting on board without getting caught was a challenge and served as the perfect entry-level con for a lifelong con man.
Shipping records show he was captured as a stowaway at least three times: twice to the Caribbean and once to Europe. In August 1939, Corbally, then 18, was found on the Queen of Bermuda during its run from New York to the Caribbean. He was promptly returned to his family as a deportee aboard another luxury vessel, and so found himself on another luxury cruise, this time the Monarch of Bermuda. Together, the Monarch and the Queen were known as “the millionaire’s ships” due to their high-end clientele. Even as a teenager, Corbally was developing exquisite taste.
In the 1990s, Corbally would become entranced by the movie Titanic, and Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jack. Corbally found something familiar about James Cameron’s film, in which Jack, the handsome teenage stowaway on the doomed liner, carries on an intense affair with Rose, a wealthy female passenger.
“I am going to fucking sue Jimmy Cameron,” Corbally told a friend. “He stole my idea!” Corbally, who for decades was a regular on the Hollywood party circuit, claimed he told Cameron all about his days as a stowaway. “I was Jack,” Corbally said. “And I fucked my way across the Atlantic when I was 17.” (There is no evidence Cameron stole this idea from Corbally.)
Corbally got something that the fictional Jack never did — another voyage. In January 1941, Corbally was caught again, this time aboard the Oriente, a Ward Line vessel ferrying passengers from New York to Havana, Cuba.
In Havana, the captain of the Oriente placed a telephone call to Newark to ask Tom’s father what should be done with his son. Harry Corbally told the captain to send Tom home immediately and to put him to work on the ship to earn his passage. But Harry Corbally might have been a little more pleased with his son’s jaunts than he let on to the good ship’s captain. Because Harry, too, liked to bend the rules a little.
In the world young Tom Corbally grew up in, private eyes, gangsters, cops, and politicians all circled each other, sometimes at odds, sometimes working together in ways none of them would admit. His paternal grandfather, Thomas Corbally, had been an Irish beat cop in Newark who worked his way up to detective and then founded his own private investigative firm in the early ’20s: the Corbally Detective Agency, where Tom’s uncles and father all worked as private investigators at various points in Tom’s childhood. Bad guys and mobsters swirled around the agency, as did politicians. Tom’s maternal grandfather, Paul Moore, was even elected to Congress as a Democrat, serving a single term from 1927 to 1929.
It was a rough world. Tom was kidnapped by some local toughs when he was just 6 or 7 years old. Harry owed somebody some money, and the kidnapping was the Newark way of letting him know the bill was past due. Tom remembered spending that afternoon sitting in the back of a car, crying that he wanted to go home. The family says Corbally’s uncle enlisted the aid of Gerardo Catena, a New York mobster affiliated with gangsters Charlie “Lucky” Luciano and Meyer Lansky, to return the boy unharmed.
As he grew older, Tom spent many of his teenage years working at the Corbally Detective Agency. He often worked grueling 20- or 30-hour shifts. He learned how to be a street-level operator, combining surveillance and detective work with illicit money and political power.
But while his father and grandfathers mostly plied their trade on the local level, Tom Corbally — the kid who loved to travel the world — would take the family's skills global.
For most of his life, Corbally’s friends and associates assumed the transatlantic private eye had once been some sort of spy. Few believed that he actually held the jobs he said he did. Instead, they seemed like unconvincing covers for a globe-trotting secret agent: He said he worked for a defense contractor; he was once identified as an advertising executive; and in another period, he said he was a European sales representative for the canned-tunes company Muzak. But he never seemed to report to an office or have a boss. Was he an American spy in England? A British spy in New York? No one knew.
Documents from that era finally show an answer to that question.
For Corbally, it began with World War II. He would have happily joined the family business and become another Newark detective. But men born in 1921 didn’t get to decide what they wanted to do with their lives: The government did. The war sucked nearly an entire generation into the military, and Tom Corbally was no exception.
Before Pearl Harbor, America First isolationists were determined to keep the United States out of the raging European war, making any recruitment effort politically sensitive. Corbally, determined to get in the fight, made contact with the Clayton Knight Committee — an unsanctioned operation designed by the Canadian government to bring willing Americans north even as the US government maintained strict official neutrality in the war. Very few people knew the Clayton Knight Committee had its unadvertised headquarters right in the lavish surroundings of the Waldorf Astoria on New York’s Park Avenue.
Twenty-year-old Tom Corbally did, though. He got himself an audience with the British consul in New York and, three months before Pearl Harbor and the US entry into World War II, joined the Royal Canadian Air Force and went to Toronto for training.
Corbally was rebellious, immature, and apparently entirely unsuited for the discipline of military life. From his service record — a summary of which was provided to me by a friendly Canadian military officer — it’s clear the Royal Canadian Air Force just didn’t know what to do with him. In January 1942, he was caught up in “a fray resulting in the destruction of his tunic” at the Royal York hotel.
That spring, a supervisor wrote, “his behaviour has been of such a nature that it has a bad influence on the remainder of the class.” He complained that chronic foot pain made it impossible to march. He repeatedly went AWOL. He was punished with months of floor-mopping duty. He was hospitalized for "venereal disease." Somehow, during this time he also managed to get himself classified as an air gunner. But Corbally’s superiors decided he was making a “deliberate failure” of his military service.
Finally, after a long series of incidents — including one that led him to be confined to barracks for another three days for “knocking off airmen’s hats while marching” — Corbally was discharged from the Canadian service on July 20, 1943. The Canadians concluded: “This man is useless as far as aircrew is concerned.”
Corbally was rebellious, immature, and apparently entirely unsuited for the discipline of military life.
Think about that. In July 1943 it would have been nearly impossible for any 22-year-old in the world to get himself discharged from any military service. Nazi powers had dominion over Europe. The carnage of the Battle of Britain had put an enormous strain on the air force. Britain was fighting for its very survival. Despite all that, the Canadians decided they no longer needed the help of Tom Corbally.
Where next for the young private eye?
He popped up in Germany, where he served as a civilian with the US military occupation until at least June 1949. Officially, Corbally was attached to the Combined Travel Board, which helped determine who could and could not come in and out of Germany after the war.
On one document, Corbally wrote that his title in Germany was “chief clerk.” Intriguingly, he also wrote that a military regulation “precludes a description of several classified phrases [sic] of my employment” with the occupation government. He continued, “However, I feel that the experience gained by my working with [US Army Counterintelligence Corps] and the War Department Detachment in Germany is worthy of note.”
In that sentence, Corbally left an enormous clue about his true role in Germany. The “War Department Detachment” sounds like some bland bureaucratic entity — but a historian at the US Army Center of Military History tells me that it was in fact the cover name used by the CIA in postwar Germany.
It’s difficult to tease out of the limited written record what Corbally’s missions actually were. But a once-classified memo on the CIA website shows that the War Department Detachment was tasked with securing “all available data which you may obtain on political, economic, and sociological developments in other zones of occupied Germany.” The entity had license to roam far outside its borders, including Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Austria.
Tom Corbally was a civilian agent gathering intelligence for a covert American entity in a region that was the epicenter of what would become the Cold War. In other words, he was a spy.
The War Department Detachment identified and tracked down top German officials after the war and came in contact with some of the most murderous Nazis, including the infamous Nikolaus "Klaus" Barbie — an SS and Gestapo officer known as “the Butcher of Lyon” for his torture of French prisoners. The Detachment would eventually develop a relationship with Barbie after the war as it recruited German allies to help subvert the growing communist presence in Soviet-controlled East Germany. For his help, US intelligence officials later helped Barbie escape to South America — where he would live undetected until the 1970s.
I don’t know if Corbally met Klaus Barbie in Germany. This is where we enter the realm of Corbally mythmaking. But Corbally himself told a close friend that he was a civilian attached to the US Army, investigating stolen Nazi assets.
Could a fun-loving party boy also be a cold-blooded killer?
Here’s a story I heard: A US Army officer ran into difficulty interrogating captured Germans. The officer called him in and explained the problem before discreetly leaving the room. Corbally coldly surveyed the group and then stepped forward and shot the German officer he thought had the least information. He turned to the others and said in German, “Who wants to go next?” The US Army officer got the information he was looking for.
“That’s what he told me in response to the question ‘Have you ever killed a man?’” the friend said. “I can totally see Tom doing that.”
If he did, had it bothered him? Could a fun-loving party boy also be a cold-blooded killer? Maybe. There are records showing that as he wound down his time in Germany, Corbally contemplated a dramatic lifestyle change: joining a Catholic seminary and training to be a priest. In 1949, he wrote a letter to the Rev. James McNulty in the Archdiocese of Newark expressing interest in coming home for a period of “preliminary studies and further meditation.”
Perhaps this was the real Corbally, in a moment of prayerful reaction to the things he’d seen and done in the war. Corbally wrote that he was working with a priest in Germany and trying “not to think or brood about the terrible sins and stupidities of my past life.” He mentioned his regret about a brief marriage to an actor before the war, which had been quickly annulled.
In the letter, the 28-year-old Corbally comes across as earnest, genuine, and humble. But of course there was a self-serving element to it, too. His theological mission was so urgent that he wanted to join the seminary by August 1949. He told his bosses in Germany they should let him return to the United States as soon as possible. He had things to do back at home.
Surprise: Corbally never became a priest.
Instead, after the war, he found his next true calling as a member of the international jet set, splitting time between New York, London, and more exotic locales.
Friends and enemies alike describe Corbally as impeccably dressed, smooth talking, and smelling wonderfully of cigars and Paco Rabanne cologne. He spoke French and German. He could charm his way into every restaurant, country club, or executive suite in the Western world, using connections, confidence, and a blizzard of lies to get close to the people he targeted. He prowled the 21 Club and the Stork Club when in New York, and Annabel’s and Claridge’s when in London. He loved to talk in his own personal code — giving each location a nickname of his own invention. If he wanted to go to the 21 Club, Corbally would tell pals, “Meet me at Numbers.” He expected them to figure it out.
An even 6 feet tall and always slim, Corbally was so handsome that women were said to go somewhat mad in his presence. He became a staple of the gossip columns in the 1950s and regularly popped up in the powerful, nationally syndicated Walter Winchell column — mostly about who he was dating, often different boldfaced names on consecutive nights.
In 1951, Corbally married a beautiful young woman named Mildred Laird, whose family owned a distillery. That was certainly an appeal to the hard-drinking Corbally — who by this time was downing enormous quantities of alcohol. (For decades, Corbally drank enough to kill a lesser man, but later gave up booze after he mangled an investigation after a drunken bender. Sober, he fixated on his new drink of choice: Diet Coke, which he also consumed in enormous quantities.) The marriage to Laird did not last and was quickly annulled.
In 1956, Corbally got married again — and this time it lasted for a mere three days. Wife number three was “Gorgeous Gussie" Moran, the tennis star who scandalized Wimbledon by wearing lacy panties visible under her short tennis skirt. The marriage was a lark, made even zanier by the fact that Moran had previously been married to Corbally’s best friend. No hard feelings.
Single again, Corbally was so dashing that Look Magazine ran a picture profile of him in the 1960s with the headline "The Handsome American Look."
He knew everyone — or wanted people to think he did. The entertainer Bob Hope was a personal friend. Corbally knew the actor George Hamilton. He was said to have dated actor Faye Dunaway. He flew on corporate jets for vacations with automotive legend Lee Iacocca.
On one occasion, a colleague remembers going to horse races in Paris, only to be whisked into box seats with Middle Eastern royals. Every one of them seemed to know Corbally. Another colleague remembers Corbally at a New York restaurant, spotting the diplomat Henry Kissinger and greeting him as an old pal, saying, “Henry, how the fuck are ya?” Although Kissinger as a young man had served in the US Army Counterintelligence Corps and then as a civilian intelligence officer in Germany at the same time Corbally was there, a spokesperson for Kissinger told me, “Dr. Kissinger does not have any recollection of Mr. Corbally.”
It should be noted here that Corbally had a fabulous memory and refused to take detailed notes. To remind himself of the details of a case, he wrote small one- or two-word scribbles on scraps of paper and planted them around his hotel room. Not names or details, but mnemonic devices to prompt his recall of key facts. His hotel rooms would be nearly covered with tiny scraps toward the end of an operation — and he could get angry with anyone who disturbed them.
This period in the 1950s was also when Corbally grew close to two men who would shape the remainder of his life.
The first of Corbally’s mentors was a secretive and well-connected wiretapper named John G. “Steve” Broady. He was a lawyer by profession and already a veteran investigator by the time Corbally came to work with him. He was a big, powerful man who walked the streets of New York with an electric cattle prod in hand. His client list was astonishing: He’d worked for Winston Churchill in tracking down the British leader’s "wayward daughter" when she threatened to get married to an "unsuitable" American. The millionaire John Jacob Astor was also a client.
Broady had establishment credentials: He went to Harvard Law School and spoke four languages. But what likely drew Corbally to him was that Broady was another rule breaker, and had been for decades. Back in 1940, he was hauled before a Senate committee in Washington that was investigating wiretapping. “I don’t go in for wiretapping,” he told them. Of course, that was a lie. Broady tapped the phones of large corporations and sold the information he gathered to their opponents. He tapped the phones of the wealthy and famous and sold their information to divorce lawyers and rivals. He tapped the phones of political figures to help his preferred candidates.
Someone who visited Broady’s headquarters in the 1970s described it to me as an eerie experience. “There was the sound of teletype machines going,” the person said. “There were only two chairs in the room, and they were facing each other. I knew from old spy movies that this was a trick to avoid wiretaps — there wasn’t any furniture to hide a bug in.”
The second man who would have an enormous influence on Corbally was the Red-baiting lawyer and former Senate aide Roy Cohn, the young staffer who had been at the center of the McCarthy-era purges of alleged Communists from the federal government. Cohn was already infamous from his role in the McCarthy hearings, but he would go on to further renown as a backroom New York political wheeler-dealer who was ultimately disbarred for unethical conduct.
Cohn would also become a mentor to Donald Trump, as the budding real estate magnate entered the upper ranks of Manhattan high society and fended off government allegations that his apartments excluded black people. Cohn’s nonpublic sexuality and death from complications relating to AIDS would later be fictionalized in the Tony Kushner play Angels in America. Someone who knew them both told me that despite Corbally’s “ultra-conservative” political views, Cohn’s sexual orientation would never have caused him a moment’s concern. To Corbally, people’s sexual practices were their own business — unless he was digging up dirt on them for a client.
Cohn’s law practice, and its seemingly never-ending flow of corporate conflicts, political intrigue, and society maneuvering, provided a steady stream of investigative work for Broady and Corbally. And it was through Cohn that Corbally later met and socialized with future president Donald Trump, who, like Corbally, enjoyed being around beautiful women.
To Corbally, people's sexual practices were their own business — unless he was digging up dirt on them.
But where Broady was private and mostly kept himself holed up in his wiretapping lair, Corbally took after Cohn — embracing the social and political access that his client list brought him.
In January 1962, Corbally was in Palm Beach, Florida, hanging out with an 18-year-old actor named Nancy Czar. Czar was promoting her new beach-blanket movie Wild Guitar and newly single after a relationship with Elvis Presley.
As Czar (now Nancy Bretzfield and living in Los Angeles) remembers it, she, Corbally, and a few friends ended up at the Kennedy compound: the Mediterranean-style mansion on North Ocean Boulevard that the rest of the country knew as the Winter White House. Czar told me that during the party Corbally tried to set her up alone with President Kennedy in the library, even as the first lady entertained guests in another room.
Corbally thought a fling with the president was a great idea: “Just think,” Czar said Corbally told her. “You dated Elvis. Now you can add the president of the United States to your belt!”
But Czar wasn’t comfortable with the idea. She whispered in Corbally’s ear: “I don't want to do this, Tom. I don’t feel comfortable here. We have to go.”
Corbally was amazed that she said no. “You are the only one who has ever turned down the president,” he said as they left.
Did Corbally really try to set Elvis’s ex-girlfriend up with John F. Kennedy? I can’t say for sure. But if he did, it explains a lot about what came next.
By 1963, Corbally was living in London. There, he found himself in the middle of a sex scandal of intercontinental proportions that became known as the “Profumo affair.” The incident has long captured the attention of JFK conspiracy aficionados and is one of the most iconic political sex scandals in modern British history. (The story formed the basis for the 1989 film Scandal.)
It’s a complicated affair, but it was, at its core, about the three things Corbally specialized in: rich people, intrigue, and sex.
The key figure was British Secretary of State for War John Profumo. Back in 1961, the Conservative politician met 19-year-old Christine Keeler, a topless dancer, at a rural estate party. The two had an affair. But Keeler had a secret: She was also seeing another man, who just happened to be Soviet military attaché Yevgeny Ivanov. That was bad news for Profumo, who was both married and entrusted with top British military secrets at the height of the Cold War. If the affair were revealed, it could look as if the Soviet government had a direct line to any of his loose pillow talk. Worse, perhaps the Russians were using Keeler to get Profumo to brag about his knowledge of the most sensitive military technology of all: nuclear weapons.
All of this was of intense interest to Tom Corbally. The private eye was close friends with Dr. Stephen Ward, the middle-aged osteopath who had set up Profumo and Keeler at the party. Ward liked to tell people he had been a back-channel intermediary between the Soviets and the British government during the Cuban missile crisis. “He knew a lot of pretty girls,” Corbally told the author Anthony Summers. “And I like pretty girls. He liked to gossip and talked incessantly about the things he knew … I entertained a lot and Stephen was around my flat a lot.” One of the people Ward brought around to Corbally’s flat was the Russian, Yevgeny Ivanov.
Corbally was one of the first people to sound the alarm within both the British and American governments. In early 1963, he told an official in the US Embassy that Christine Keeler had sold an article to the Sunday Pictorial that would list the men she had slept with and that the British prime minister had already been informed of the impending scandal.
Next, Corbally told a British member of Parliament that Christine Keeler was getting ready to sell her story to the media, and would mention Profumo and Ivanov. The member of Parliament apparently alerted Profumo himself of the impending scandal. Why did Corbally have such detailed inside knowledge of the sex lives of all these prominent Brits? Because he was right in the middle of it.
When the scandal went public in March 1963, Profumo initially denied the relationship with Keeler before Parliament. But his lie was soon exposed, and he was forced to resign. The scandal also set off furious activity in Washington, as officials at the highest levels of the US government scrambled to gather information and expressed dread at where the revelations might lead.
At its core, the "Profumo affair" is about the three things Corbally specialized in: rich people, intrigue, and sex.
On June 19, Corbally — who had fled to New York to avoid arrest in England on charges of procuring (a genteel description for facilitating or hiring a prostitute) — walked into FBI offices there to brief agents on what he knew. Corbally told them he had been in England as a sales representative for Muzak. (It didn’t seem to fool anyone; FBI documents at the time described Corbally as an American businessman who ran “sex orgies” in his London flat.) He told the agents that rumors about Profumo and various young women had been circulating in high circles for at least two years.
FBI documents also show Corbally provided two other pieces of information that may have alarmed the FBI. He said he had checked out Ward’s claim that he had been an intermediary in the Cuban missile crisis and had been advised that the claim, as wild as it seemed, was accurate. Second, he said rumors were circulating that Prince Philip — the husband of Queen Elizabeth II — had also been involved with the young women at the center of the Profumo scandal. This information raised the stakes of the affair dramatically. If true, Ward was more than a society playboy — he was a high-level diplomatic player with American connections. And if Prince Philip had had his own dalliance, the resulting scandal could threaten the British monarchy.
But even with all that on the line, Corbally was still busy looking out for himself. He told the FBI agents his lawyer advised him not to return to England as long as there was a possibility he could be arrested. He also told them his lawyer was threatening the New York Daily News with a $6 million lawsuit for mentioning Corbally’s name in connection with the scandal.
His lawyer — Corbally made sure to tell the agents several times — was Roy Cohn.
At an all-hands meeting in Washington the very next day, FBI Assistant Director A.H. Belmont was summoned to the office of the secretary of defense, Robert McNamara. CIA Director John McCone was in the room, as was Lt. General Joseph Carroll, head of the Defense Intelligence Agency.
Worried that a remote sex scandal in London could suddenly blow up in the United States, McNamara wanted every scrap of information about the unfolding scandal. “McNamara said he felt like he was sitting on a bomb in this matter,” the FBI wrote. He was told that three US airmen suspected of knowing Keeler in Europe were being flown by the Air Force back to the US that day for interviews.
He had reason to worry: The next shoe would drop nine days later. On June 29, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy expressed concern to the FBI about an article that day in the New York Journal-American that alleged a “high elected American official” was involved in the widening scandal, which the bureau code-named “Bowtie.” And an FBI memo written the next day revealed that concern about the implications of the article went to the very top: “The Attorney General stated the President had expressed concern regarding this matter.”
But in a memo documenting the conversation, the bureau official wrote: “The Attorney General was appreciative of our bringing this matter to his attention personally. He said it did seem preposterous that such a story would be circulated when a presidential candidate during the campaign travels with scores of newspapermen. He added that with the next presidential election now less than 18 months away, he anticipated there would be more similar stories and he would like for us to continue to advise him of any such matters coming to our attention on a personal basis, as he could better defend the family if he knew what was being said.”
Something about the transatlantic sex scandal made John F. Kennedy nervous. And it’s possible Tom Corbally knew exactly what, if anything, the president had to be nervous about.
When the FBI sent me its most recent batch of declassified documents regarding Corbally, the first page on the stack was a 1966 "Airtel" from FBI headquarters to the New York office. It was headed THOMAS JOSEPH CORBALLY and labeled "AR," which is the FBI's abbreviation for anti-racketeering, the law enforcement term for mob work.
The first paragraph said: "Legat, Paris advised on 2/8/66 that an anonymous caller had advised the Embassy subject had registered at the Crillon Hotel, Paris, and has $1,000,000 in bag to turn over to a Swiss bank." The second paragraph has been redacted by FBI censors.
Even heavily redacted, the document reveals a couple of things: In February 1966, Corbally was staying in one of the most lavish hotels in the world, this one at the foot of the Champs-Élysées in Paris. He was engaged in — as usual — mysterious global financial transactions.
The paper trail also shows that a second call came in to the US Customs office in Paris — from an anonymous woman. She said Corbally was transporting money from mafia-controlled casinos in the United States to Swiss banks.
The record shows diplomatic officials alerted the FBI, where the legal attaché — the "Legat" referenced in the memo — immediately passed it on to headquarters. The bureau knew the international influence of organized crime was enormous and depended on the hidden flow of money around the world. The tantalizing phone call represented an opportunity to squash a key piece of that illicit capital flow and maybe make it a lot more difficult for American mobsters to hoard the riches they had stolen. Officials suspected that Corbally was earning a living by keeping a cut of the money he was running to Switzerland.
And so, for the second time in a decade, the FBI opened an investigation of Tom Corbally.
By the next day, investigators in Paris were tracking Corbally’s phone calls from the Hôtel de Crillon, including to an unlisted number in New York, to the Ambassador Hotel in Chicago and to Gstaad and Geneva in Switzerland. They also determined that Corbally was already under surveillance: Although the name of the entity keeping watch on the private eye has been blacked out in FBI documents, it is likely a reference to French intelligence or law enforcement.
Surveillance agents at Crillon learned that Corbally did have property deposited in the hotel’s safe, although they could not get a look inside. They also noted that Corbally had “two women in his hotel room from time to time.” Agents noted that Corbally had made several reservations for travel to Switzerland and the United States over the previous days, canceling each one. It appeared he was awaiting instructions.
With just two hours to spare, FBI agents also learned that Corbally was booked on Pan American Flight 119 to New York, which would land at JFK Airport at 6:30 p.m. local time on Feb. 9, one day after the anonymous call in Paris. US Customs in Paris sent an order to officers at JFK Airport: When Corbally gets off the plane, shake him down.
Upon landing, Corbally was subjected to a rude homecoming. US Customs officials pulled Corbally aside and strip-searched him. They found $15,000 in cash and a list of Corbally’s contacts from around the world.
Corbally told the Customs officials there was a simple explanation for the large amount of cash: He had earned it all on a trip to the Bahamas, where he sold a Coca-Cola plant in St. Croix to an executive in Nassau. Corbally explained that the money he carried represented his profits from that deal, plus the proceeds of a check he had cashed at a bank in Switzerland. He said his plans were to stay in New York for a couple days, then head down to Miami, where he would stay at the Palm Bay Club, before traveling to Geneva. In his luggage, agents found two expensive Cartier watches that Corbally had not declared — one of which Corbally told the agents was intended as a gift for Roy Cohn.
Orders went out to the bureau’s far-flung network of special agents: Headquarters sent telegrams to the New York, Chicago, and Washington field offices. Agents in Chicago were told to develop information on “any hoodlum contacts or associates.” New York was told to reach out to US Customs. G-men in Washington were ordered to dig up Corbally’s passport records.
Within a month of the shakedown, agents had done a deep dive into Corbally's background and uncovered the Corbally family’s secret: The Corbally Detective Agency, opened in Newark in the 1920s by Tom’s grandfather, had deep connections to New Jersey underworld figures. During Prohibition, the Corballys had worked with the rum runners and against federal agents. What’s more, Tom’s father, Harry, had been indicted in 1937 for attempting to bribe a juror.
The agents found evidence that Tom’s grandfather had traveled to Europe in 1933 with Joseph Stacher of Newark — the guy who ran gambling operations for mob boss Abner “Longie” Zwillman, and was also connected to the powerful gangster Meyer Lansky. Tom’s father had his own share of secrets. Officially, Harry Corbally worked as a clerk at the Weights and Measures Division of the Newark Department of Parks and Public Buildings. He may have collected a city paycheck, but Harry was into just about every sketchy business in town. He was “associated with race horses and numbers racketeers in Newark,” FBI agents wrote. He was the alleged “fixer” for anyone who became involved with the police department. And if the cases couldn’t be fixed, Harry was conveniently also in the bail bonds business.
Eventually, the FBI came to believe that Harry Corbally had been the man who put up money to finance some of the biggest illegal liquor stills in the area during Prohibition. FBI agents learned that bootleggers used the Corbally Detective Agency to shadow local officers of the Alcohol Tax Unit, the same agency that employed the famous lawman Eliot Ness.
The discovery that Corbally came from a family of mobbed-up private eyes who snooped on federal agents for a living seemed to confirm the FBI’s suspicion that he could be working as some sort of global bagman funneling mob money to Swiss banks.
Over the months that followed, the FBI continued to keep tabs on Corbally, developing information from a number of secret informants, and at one point tracking him to a “sanitarium” in Switzerland where he appeared to be suffering from alcohol withdrawal. They tapped sources, worked leads from Miami to Chicago, and received confidential information from officials whose names are redacted from FBI documents.
But they couldn’t uncover everything they wanted to know. Corbally was a veteran spy, and very good at what he did. Importantly, despite the anonymous phone call about Corbally’s Crillon stay, the FBI could not determine if he ever actually had the $1 million in his satchel in Paris, or why he even would in the first place. After months of fruitless back-and-forth between the FBI and US attorneys, the federal government dropped the case.
Once again, Tom Corbally was free to go.
By the end of the 1970s and early 1980s, as Wall Street was hitting its peak, Corbally and his wiretapping mentor Broady found a new opportunity. Corbally became part of an operation that would help bring private investigators right into the heart of corporate America, and used his skills for some of the most powerful and famous companies in the world.
The private investigative firm Kroll, founded by former Manhattan assistant district attorney Jules Kroll in 1972, was one of the first to make it respectable for a company to hire a private investigator. The firm really took off in the go-go ’80s as Wall Street players battled for information in an exploding market for mergers and acquisitions — and fought to defend themselves against charges of insider trading.
Kroll had a soft spot for Tom Corbally. As someone who could bring in big-name clients, teach intelligence tradecraft, and supply a stupendous Rolodex of connections, many of the early Kroll employees felt the firm could never have achieved the success it did without Corbally’s early input. (Jules Kroll declined to comment for this article.)
Still, the firm had a certain wariness about him. At various points, he had use of an office at the firm’s headquarters, but he is most often described as an independent contractor. And it appears that he often conducted operations on his own, without Kroll’s knowledge. By the 1980s, Corbally was something of a throwback — a figure who brought the ghosts of Longie Zwillman, occupied Germany, and Swinging London straight into the corporate boardroom.
But Kroll was moving away from all that. While the firm drilled into its investigators that they must never do anything that could embarrass a client, or conduct an operation that would look bad on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, Corbally didn’t follow the corporate rulebook. He often shocked Kroll investigators by suggesting techniques they thought were far beyond the pale. There were some at the firm who thought the sixtysomething PI was bad news, and others who got tired of “so much Corbally bullshit,” as one former colleague put it to me.
At one point, when a new burst of publicity about the Profumo affair (presumably from the release of the film Scandal) prompted several reporters to call Kroll looking for Corbally, executives at the firm posted a notice at the front desk saying “We don’t know Tom Corbally” as a reminder for the receptionists.
But for the most part, his former colleagues loved Corbally — with a wink and tap of his cigar, he brought a bit of mystique, even romance, into their lives. To this day, there are Corbally acolytes working in corporate investigative firms around the world.
Kroll was a good fit for a guy who liked to tell tales. He and other Kroll operatives used “pretexting,” or pretending to be someone they were not, in an era in which that was standard practice in the investigative industry. To do that, Kroll legally incorporated several phony companies, including firms named “Blue Chip Trading” and “Abingdon Trading.” Kroll operatives could carry business cards from these companies in order to impersonate executives as they made their inquiries. The fake companies had real phone numbers, which were routed through Kroll and answered with the fake company’s name.
Corbally introduced Kroll operatives to French Resistance and intelligence veterans in Paris, and explained how the Vatican Bank was used by the mafia to launder money in Italy. One time, he set up a seemingly promising meeting with an aristocratic British judge at the fabulous Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong, with its rows of gleaming Rolls-Royces lining the driveway — only for the poor Kroll investigator to find out that what the posh judge really wanted was a Newark-style bribe.
Corbally introduced Kroll operatives to French Resistance and intelligence veterans in Paris, and explained how the Vatican Bank was used by the mafia to launder money in Italy.
Corbally operated deep inside some of the most high-profile corporate battles of the era. He conducted investigations in a long-running fight between the families who had founded the Guess and Jordache jeans companies. He also worked on the investigation into the insider trading scandal around Wall Street financier Ivan Boesky. And on the divorce case of the celebrity artist Jeff Koons, who was ending his marriage to the Italian porn star and politician known as La Cicciolina.
Corbally also brought in clients for Kroll, including a Long Island brokerage firm called Stratton Oakmont, which went on to infamy in the movie The Wolf of Wall Street. Corbally knew the father of the owner, Jordan Belfort. Kroll was hired by Stratton Oakmont to do “compliance” work — which meant guiding the brokers on how to stay inside the lines of securities law. But the firm blew up anyway.
Kathleen Coughlan, a spokeswoman for the Kroll firm, issued a statement for this article: “Kroll has been in business for 45 years and maintains strict policies on compliance with the law in every jurisdiction in which we work. In the conduct of our business we use a variety of investigative strategies, always in accordance with applicable laws.”
As for Corbally, she said, “Tom Corbally worked on his own and as an independent contractor for various clients throughout his career. More than 15 years ago, he served at times as an independent contractor to Kroll. He was not an employee of Kroll and his relationship with Kroll was non exclusive.”
Around this time, Corbally also found personal happiness. In 1982, he married for a final time, and found a match that would last. Renee Lucidi was beautiful, decades younger, and lived in the same building on Central Park South. She knew Tom was a notorious ladies' man and resisted him at first, but his persistence paid off and they had a whirlwind romance. They married in Paris in 1982, with future French president Jacques Chirac performing the service.
“Everybody said it was not going to last six months,” Renee Corbally told me with a laugh. “I had every girl in New York hating me.” Renee would be at Corbally’s side for the rest of his life.
Then, in his early ’70s, Corbally met the infamous "Hollywood Madam" Heidi Fleiss, and took on a new case.
To Heidi Fleiss, Corbally was the perfect client: He always paid his bills and the girls always had a good time. “It’s always good when I’m happy, the girls are happy, and the guys are happy,” Fleiss told me. “It was a lot of fun, actually.”
After decades of jet-setting, Corbally seemed to know more about Fleiss’s profession than she did. He told her stories about Madame Claude, the famous brothel keeper who had reportedly been an agent for the French Resistance during World War II. Like Fleiss, Claude had catered to the super high end, maintaining her bordello in the luxury 16th arrondissement of Paris. And for a couple of years, everything was great. The money was rolling in. Fleiss told me one client sent her a pallet of silver bars for Christmas; another sent $10,000 in $500 bills — as a tip. “I had really good relationships with the people I did business with,” Fleiss said. “I dealt with the top, top, top.”
In 1993, everything went haywire. Fleiss was arrested that June, and began a three-year legal odyssey and onslaught of tabloid publicity. The media went wild for the story of the “Hollywood Madam.”
When she was at her most vulnerable — even contemplating suicide — Corbally came forward with much-needed cash to help Fleiss’s legal defense. One payment to her law firm was as much as $20,000. But it was delivered with a stern message: Heidi must not name names. Her wealthy, powerful clients had to be protected.
Fleiss was offended at the idea she would ever rat anyone out. She didn’t operate that way, and it annoyed her that Corbally would think she even needed to be told. “Telling people’s private life or ruining someone’s life … it wouldn’t occur to me,” Fleiss said.
Clearly, Corbally had fumbled his delivery. “He went around it in a sleazy way somehow,” Fleiss remembers. “It was just very untactful, which was very surprising to me because there was no reason for it.” Fleiss said she remained loyal to her clients. “I protected every single person,” she told me. “The only reason Charlie Sheen’s name is out is because when I was arrested I had his traveler’s checks in my purse. Otherwise his name never would have come out.”
Of course, Corbally’s clients didn’t know if Fleiss would protect them or not. And Corbally would have been in a position to charge them large fees to get Fleiss to do something she says she would have done anyway. He was always one to look out for himself, after all. Though Corbally tried to smooth things over between them, Fleiss felt she’d seen another side of her friend, one that she hadn’t known was there.
Corbally wanted one more big score to retire on. And that's when he made a crucial mistake.
“I can imagine him when he was younger being very cold,” she said. “Desperate people — he was living off them, and he had to do it.”
Corbally was reaching the tail end of his career. He was no saver and had burned through more money than most people ever see. He wouldn’t have a 401(k) or a pension for his old age, and it was possible that he wouldn’t be able to provide for his wife Renee. Friends say he was losing his edge, no longer the man who could solve any problem — for his clients or for himself.
Naturally, he wanted one more big score to retire on. And that’s when he made a crucial mistake.
In his eagerness to leap into another case, Corbally allowed himself to get sucked into running a scam alongside one of the biggest financial fraudsters of the 20th century: a man named Marty Frankel — or, depending on the alias he was using at the time, James Spencer, David Rosse, or Mike King.
Frankel concocted an old-fashioned insurance scam dressed up as a 1990s-era high-tech investment operation, with Corbally on hand to provide establishment introductions and tactical advice. Corbally even set up a key meeting with Washington power broker Bob Strauss. To Corbally, Martin Frankel appeared to be the kind of tycoon who could make the people around him vastly wealthy — and Corbally freely admitted he was in it for the money. He later said he calculated that his take from the operation could amount to as much as $1 billion. Finally, Corbally would be as rich as the clients he had spent his life serving.
Corbally recruited Thomas Quinn, a veteran stock swindler, and the two formed a company with Frankel; they traveled the country looking to buy smaller insurance firms. This gig had everything Corbally liked about an operation: Frankel's corporate jet, dinners at Cipriani, and an American Express card with all bills paid by Frankel. Striking out in the United States, they headed to Nicaragua to negotiate the purchase of a government-owned insurance company. They also dipped into Corbally's Rolodex of British business associates.
Corbally became increasingly involved in the scheme: He set up a meeting at a monastery in Florence to persuade a priest to accept a $50 million charitable donation to facilitate the purchase of insurance companies. He flew his old friend Lee Iacocca on a Gulfstream jet from Los Angeles to Milan in an effort to bring him into the plan. (Iacocca resisted the entreaties.) He brought in Roy Cohn's law partner Tom Bolan — who had a long relationship with the Archdiocese of New York — as a legal adviser. Corbally and Bolan then made inroads at the Vatican, persuading priests to get involved in the insurance effort. Eventually, a Vatican-connected group set up a firm called the St. Francis of Assisi Foundation, which would work to buy American insurance companies.
Corbally told the New York Times he was mesmerized by Frankel. "I heard about this reclusive multibillionaire who made $100 million a day trading stock," he told the newspaper. Corbally said Frankel's plan was to grow his insurance empire to $100 billion in assets. "This was a business prospect for me, and I wasn't indifferent," he explained. Corbally, the man who always had the inside scoop, now claimed that he was the one who had been bamboozled. "I had no idea Frankel was a crook," he said.
The FBI, concerned that as much as $300 million had been sucked out of insurance companies by the schemers, opened yet another investigation of Corbally. Firing off a subpoena, agents demanded Corbally's records from the Kroll offices.
For Corbally, it was a devastating moment. After the scandal broke, he said he was in free fall. "This is the shock of my life," he told the Times. "It is destroying relationships that I built up over 30 years."
His lawyer deployed defense tactic after defense tactic, but Corbally was facing serious consequences, even jail time. His friends started avoiding him. Executives at Kroll finally cut ties.
And then, his health took a turn for the worse — Corbally was dying.
Corbally was an indifferent Catholic. But in his final months, he turned back to the Catholic faith of his childhood — the same faith that drove him to ever so briefly consider the seminary after World War II. He told a friend he didn't really believe in God, but added, "You never know, and you always have to hedge your bets." As he neared the end, he sought out a Franciscan priest in order to make his final confession.
This wasn't going to be simple. Corbally began a regular weekly meeting with a priest at Saint Francis of Assisi in New York. "I went to a Franciscan because they hear everything," Corbally told his friend.
The sessions ran long as Corbally laid out his sins in chronological order — his twenties and thirties would take a very long time to get through, the friend told me. At one point Corbally missed a meeting with his attorney because of a lengthy turn in the confessional. Corbally initially intended to detail only his mortal sins, but Corbally's confessor had other ideas. "I got some Boy Scout," Corbally complained. "He asks all sorts of questions and it's taking quite a bit of time to explain everything."
Of course, Corbally grew suspicious that the priest had another angle: "I think he's getting off on it," he said.
The Catholic Church teaches that even the most titillating of sins can be forgiven, and Corbally finally finished his marathon confession.
Spiritually, he was at peace. But not legally.
On the last night of his life, 83-year-old Tom Corbally sat in his apartment at 502 Park Avenue, hooked up to an oxygen tank and watching the movie Casablanca on TV. He was feeling terrible, and he knew the end was coming. Even so, the US attorney was bearing down on him. Corbally knew he could be indicted at any time for his role in the Frankel case, and he called his attorney, Edward Little, to come over and keep him company. Little arrived to find Corbally sitting in a brown leather Barcalounger in white underpants, wearing several gold chains around his neck that he used as good luck charms. Corbally was in a sour mood, and he was barking at Renee to bring drinks from the kitchen.
"Jesus, don't let them indict me. It would be embarrassing to have that in my obituary."
“I'm in bad shape,” he told Little, in his gravelly voice. “It's not gonna be long.”
But then he brightened. “Jesus, don't let them indict me,” Corbally told his lawyer with a smile. “It would be embarrassing to have that in my obituary.”
Corbally died the next day: April 15, 2004. He was never indicted.
Little called the US attorney to tell him that Corbally was dead. After all these decades, the feds would not be getting their man. On the other end of the line, the prosecutor was incredulous. His case was evaporating. The US attorney, suspicious of another bit of Corbally sleight of hand, demanded a death certificate. Little knew he was under no legal obligation to provide anything.
He said, “Well, I know what Tom would want me to say. He would want me to tell you to go fuck yourself.”
Later, as Renee began clearing out Corbally’s things, she found something odd.
He had left some belongings in a safe-deposit box at Claridge’s, in London. She asked a close friend in London to go there, unlock the box, and find out what was inside.
The friend was curious — it could be anything. Photos of President Kennedy? Blackmail on someone famous? Roy Cohn’s final confession? You never knew with Corbally.
There were three things inside the box: a packet of coffee creamer, a fake passport, and a key. It appeared to be an escape package — a prestaged way for Corbally to get out of town in a hurry if he ever needed to.
There was nothing hidden inside the creamer. Maybe this was one of Corbally’s mnemonics, a trigger to remember something else. Or maybe he just wanted something to put in his coffee. The passport was a British document with Corbally’s picture and a phony name — even though he was, of course, an American. And the key looked as if it would fit another safe-deposit box. But it wasn’t like any key the friend had ever seen; it didn’t match any known bank in England. The friend showed it to experts. As far and wide as they searched, Corbally’s friends could not figure out where it belonged.
And that’s how the story ends, as far as I know: with an unsolved mystery. Somewhere out there, gathering dust in a small bank box, could be the last remaining secrets of the most amazing private investigator of the 20th century.
Nobody ever learned everything about Tom Corbally. ●
Clarification: A previous version of the article relied on documents from the federal government listing the marriage of Harry and Loretta Moore Corbally as occurring in June of 1921. A marriage certificate of the couple, provided after publication, lists the date of marriage as June 17, 1920.
Eamon Javers is a Washington Correspondent for CNBC, where he covers the Trump White House and the intersection of business and politics. He is the author of "Broker, Trader, Lawyer, Spy: The Secret World of Corporate Espionage."