SF Weekly on the Gemstone File
The Absolutely True, Somewhat Spurious and Totally Impossible
The Gemstone File
While Marks' thorough investigations of MKULTRA earned a place in the historical canon, more "theoretical" conspiracies still strive for legitimacy, such as the findings and extrapolations of a San Franciscan named Bruce Roberts. Encapsulated in a poorly mimeographed 22-page document titled A Skeleton Key to the Gemstone File, which was compiled by conspiracy maven Mae Brussell and her assistant Stephanie Caruana, this 1975 pamphlet portrays Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis as the ultimate global puppeteer.
Roberts' theory is extraordinarily reductionist, like those alleging that the Illuminati, the Freemasons, the Trilateral Commission or some other hyper-secret cabal at the acme of the sociopolitical pyramid controls everything. Reductionist conspiracies don't make much sense unless accompanied by willful suspension of disbelief, and A Skeleton Key is no exception.
A Skeleton Key claims Roberts worked for several years after WWII making faux baubles for Hollywood actresses; he began collecting evidence in the '50s for his own Unified Field Conspiracy Theory after he surmised that the Hughes Corporation, owned by Howard Hughes, stole several of his ersatz rubies to use in the corporation's new invention -- lasers. (Wouldn't it have been a lot simpler to just buy the gems? Rev up your suspended disbelief, it gets stranger.)
Piqued by Hughes' affront, Roberts began a freelance investigation that would consume the rest of his life. Swapping his synthetic gemstones for information, Roberts picked the brains of a loose network of intelligence spooks and diplomatic contacts; he accompanied each gem with a one-page "history" briefly outlining a piece of the enormous underworld puzzle he was constructing.
Roberts allegedly made his contacts at a bar on lower Nob Hill called the Drift Inn at Bush and Taylor, today the site of Yong San Lounge. A Skeleton Key explains that the hootchery was a favorite hangout of the CIA and Naval Intelligence crowd. After a long day of supersecret work, the spies would descend on the joint to swap yarns and talk shop. What Roberts didn't overhear or cajole for himself, the bartender, Al Strom, provided by way of clandestine recordings he was making of the unusual barside banter. (Strom is now deceased -- his son denies any knowledge of his dad taping anyone.)
Roberts wove what he heard into a crazy quilt of conspiratorial skullduggery that "explains" almost every untoward political assassination and scandal of the last 50 years. Some highlights:
A Skeleton Key outlines Onassis' rise from lowly drugrunner to the Gnomes of Zurich's wonderboy thanks to lucrative shipping deals with maritime bigwig Joseph Kennedy. (Onassis agreed to run hooch into Boston for the booze-hound brahmin.) After WWII, movie-mogul Howard Hughes challenged Onassis' power by buying up every politician in sight. Onassis had him kidnapped in 1957, A Skeleton Key asserts, and then assumed control of Hughes' considerable assets -- including a recent acquisition: Vice President Richard Nixon. With Nixon in one pocket and Kennedy in the other, the winner of the 1960 presidential election was really a lusty Greek shipping tycoon.
Ah, but the best-laid plans ... After his stroke in 1961, Joe Kennedy lost control of both his bladder and his newly elected son. Jack and brother Bobby (being the righteous idealists every conspiracy theorist knows they were) clamped down on Onassis. The tycoon countered by wacking JFK in Dallas with mob guns and some CIA help.
Five years later, threatened with the prospect of another Kennedy in the White House, Onassis had a hypnotized dupe named Sirhan Sirhan ice RFK in Los Angeles.
With Bobby dead, Onassis' boy Nixon skated into the White House only to blow it all at the Watergate. A Skeleton Key asserts that during the months preceding the break-in, CIA spook E. Howard Hunt and "plumber" G. Gordon Liddy were regulars at the Drift Inn, where they encountered Bruce Roberts (Liddy would later name his White House domestic espionage scheme the Gemstone Plan). It further asserts that while sitting at the bar, Hunt and Liddy hatched their Watergate plot to retrieve information the Democrats had supposedly collected on Nixon and Onassis, and that barkeep Strom taped the conversations and passed them on to Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham.
A Skeleton Key claims that Graham then set a trap for the burglars with the help of famed San Francisco private detective Hal Lipset, and that Lipset, disguised as a mailman, retaped the door when the burglars returned a second time, ensuring their capture. Graham then fed the story, sans some important details, in the guise of Deep Throat to her own reporters, Woodward and Bernstein.
Today, Lipset laughs at the very mention of the Gemstone caper.
"I was supposed to be working for Graham. I was supposed to be working for Nixon. I did in fact work for the Watergate [Senate] Committee," Lipset says. "Boy, I must have been pretty clever to pull all of that off."
According to A Skeleton Key, Onassis' death in 1975 sent political shockwaves around the globe; Ford, Kissinger and Rockefeller were left "squatting like toads on the corpse of America."
Bruce Roberts died of lung cancer in 1976, shortly after A Skeleton Key to the Gemstone File surfaced. Hustler ran a heavily edited version of it in 1979, revealing that Brussell and Caruana compiled it. Brussell purportedly knew Roberts and possessed several hundred of his gemstone "histories."
More recently, two books -- Jim Keith's The Gemstone File (1992) and Gerald Carroll's Project Seek (1994) -- have explored the veracity of the Skeleton Key.
Since Brussell's death in 1988 (more about that later), her files have been kept in a secret location by KAZU-FM, the Pacific Grove radio station that still broadcasts reruns of her weekly rants. Radio personality and co-host of the station's conspiracy-addled Lighthouse Report, Marilyn Coleman, confirms the presence of Bruce Roberts' Gemstone "histories" in Brussell's files.
"Some of Gemstone may be credible," Coleman says. "But most of it is junk. You should see the Torbitt document."