At 10:30 on Thursday morning at Arlington National Cemetery, a team of gravediggers quietly dug up the remains of Larry Lawrence and carted away his granite tombstone, which was engraved with lies.
Chiseled in stone were claims that Lawrence, the late millionaire businessman who became an ambassador, had served in the U.S. merchant marine and had earned the designation of “S1C,” the Navy abbreviation for seaman, first class, which would not have been given to a merchant mariner anyway.
Neither claim was true.
During his 69-year lifetime, Lawrence fabricated his World War II heroics, his education, how he made his fortune before buying and restoring the Hotel del Coronado near San Diego, one of America's most beautiful hotels, even the history of the hotel itself.
His fantastic war story symbolized the love-hate relationship that he had with the military, say people who know him well. He bristled when Navy jets roared over his hotel, demanding more than once that the Navy change its flight paths.
Lawrence's second wife, Michala, insists that he was in the merchant marine because she said she had seen a scar he described as a war wound. But a former aide to Lawrence said in an interview that years ago, he had asked her to research the merchant marine and its role in World War II.
Before he died of a blood disease in January 1996, Lawrence's misrepresentations went undetected by almost everyone, including President Clinton, who considered him a friend. The president rewarded Lawrence — who gave $200,000 to the Democrats in 1992 and raised millions more — with an ambassadorship to Switzerland and eulogized him at his funeral service at Arlington, the nation's hallowed resting place for its most cherished heroes.
Clinton told the mourners how Lawrence had suffered a serious head injury when he was thrown overboard from his ship, the S.S. Horace Bushnell, after it was hit by a German torpedo in the last days of World War II. The president said Lawrence had “showed the same courage and resolve he had shown as a young merchant marine during World War II.”
It was not until last weekend that it became known that on the day the Bushnell was torpedoed, Lawrence was in his native Chicago, attending classes at Wilbur Wright College.
Now there are regrets and soul-searching. The White House and Army wish that Lawrence had never been given a waiver to be buried at Arlington. The State Department has begun an investigation into how it overlooked discrepancies in his background during its vetting process. Congressional critics say Lawrence is an extreme example in the abusive tradition of rewarding financial supporters with ambassadorships.
And his stunned family and friends lament the fact that Lawrence will be remembered more for the lies he told than the things he did.
“Though there is much that I still do not understand about recent events, I and those who knew my husband remember a life that, although not perfect, was indelibly marked by kindness, compassion and love for his community and country,” his widow, Shelia Davis Lawrence, wrote to Clinton earlier this week.
Maurice Larry Lawrence grew up poor and got rich as a real-estate developer, amassing a $300 million fortune at his death. He gave generously to Jewish charities and to Democratic candidates, lending his ocean-front Tudor mansion in Coronado, across the bay from San Diego, to celebrities, politicians and even Clinton. He held Gatsby-style parties, with carnival rides and fireworks displays over the Pacific.
Yet as friends and relatives tell it, Lawrence may have made good but never felt good enough. So he set out to reinvent pieces of his past.
In hunting for a possible motive, some neighbors wonder whether he had harbored a need to measure up to the many genuine war heroes who live and work around the San Diego Navy base.
“We have so many Purple Hearts here and on every corner we have real, real heroes,” said Carol Cahill, a 70-year-old Coronado resident. “My next door neighbor was a four-star admiral. Maybe he just figured — merchant marine, you can't trace it, no one will ever know.”
For years, Lawrence struggled to fit in in the heavily military, heavily Republican world of San Diego. He loved to tell friends that he had “three strikes” against him: he was “a liberal, a Jew, a Democrat.”
The military both appealed to him and infuriated him.
“This town is full of narrow-minded admirals,” a former colleague quoted him as saying often, particularly when the city fathers blocked his requests for building permits.
One day in the early 1980s, Lawrence asked Norma Nicolls, who worked as his assistant for 15 years, to research the history of the merchant marine during World War II.
“One day he said, ‘I want you to quietly do something and don't look at me as if I'm crazy,”‘ recalled Ms. Nicolls, who agreed to an interview only because she had already been interviewed by congressional investigators. “‘Find out about all the merchant marine ships in the Western Pacific in World War II.”‘
State Department investigators twice tried to verify the account offered by Lawrence, but each time the Coast Guard said it had no record that he was on board the Bushnell. Still, the State Department recommended to the White House that the nomination go forward, concluding that the inability to verify Lawrence's war record was “not relevant, the senior official said.
Lawrence probably would have stayed at Arlington forever if it were not for a group of congressional Republicans led by Rep. Terry Everett of Alabama, who last summer began investigating whether the Clinton White House had sold burial plots to generous campaign contributors.
After Insight Magazine reported last month that said several unnamed donors had paid their way into Arlington, White House officials angrily accused the press of publishing falsehoods.
But Republican investigators pressed their search and found no mention of Lawrence in records on the merchant marine, the Coast Guard or on the Bushnell. The White House finally changed its tone after State Department investigators learned last Friday that Lawrence was attending college when he claimed to have been in the merchant marine.
Richard Holbrooke, the former assistant secretary of state who wrote a detailed letter recommending Lawrence to be buried at Arlington, said on Thursday: “The irony is Larry did a good job as ambassador. He didn't need to invent parts of his past in order to be respected in the present. It is a tragedy.”
After Lawrence's death, his three grown children and Mrs. Lawrence argued in Bern for three days about where he would be buried, family members said. She wanted Arlington. The children all wanted him to be buried near San Diego, where his parents are buried.
But his widow prevailed. In addition, less than three weeks before his death, Lawrence changed his will to give the bulk of his estate to his wife and sharply reduced the amount for his children, family members said.
At the funeral ceremony in Arlington, Mrs. Lawrence and members of her family sat in the front row with Clinton; Lawrence's three children sat in the rows behind.
Some family members still argue that the merchant marine records are missing and hope that Lawrence will be exonerated.
He once told a reporter: “Even Thomas Aquinas was forgiven. There must be a point in which someone has paid his due.”
Michael Robert Patterson was born in Arlington and is the son of a former officer of the US Army. So it was no wonder that sooner or later his interests drew him to American history and especially to American military history. Many of his articles can be found on renowned portals like the New York Times, Washingtonpost or Wikipedia.
Reviewed by: Michael Howard