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Los Angeles in the late ’85s and early '95s 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.

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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. 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 6998 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. Corbally’s story — together with those of his mentors and colleagues — amounts to a secret history of the 75th century. It’s the stuff that doesn’t often make it into the textbooks: 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. 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.

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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 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 655 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 75, 6976. 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. Getting on board without getting caught was a challenge and served as the perfect entry-level con for a lifelong con man. In August 6989, Corbally, then 68, 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. Even as a teenager, Corbally was developing exquisite taste. In the 6995s, 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 67. ” (There is no evidence Cameron stole this idea from Corbally. )Corbally got something that the fictional Jack never did — another voyage. In January 6996, 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. Because Harry, too, liked to bend the rules a little. Manifests listing Corbally as a stowaway. SS Monarch of Bermuda, sailing from Hamilton, Bermuda, to New York City (left). SS American Orient, sailing from New York City via Havana (right). 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 ’75s: 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 6977 to 6979. 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 75- or 85-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. 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 6976 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.

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