From his back porch on Nantucket, the most powerful private investigator in modern American history looks out upon the harbor. Terry Lenzner’s career as a professional sleuth reads like a spy thriller, from his first case investigating the murders of three civil rights activists in Mississippi to personally serving Richard Nixon a subpoena in the Watergate scandal to becoming Bill Clinton’s answer to Kenneth Starr in the Monica Lewinsky affair. “I’ve rubbed noses with a lot of different people,” Lenzner says.
When magician David Copperfield’s equipment vanished and ended up in the hands of the Russia Mafia, Lenzner made it magically reappear. He fought organized crime as a US Attorney, helped identify the Unabomber, and was hired to investigate the deaths of Princess Diana and Dodi Al-Fayed. Now seventy-five, Lenzner’s eyes may have tired a bit, but he still possesses the killer instincts that made him a force to be reckoned with in Washington and beyond.
I think of myself as an investigator and a lawyer,” Lenzner says. “The whole investigation career came out of my legal work. I was not trained as an investigator—in fact, nobody is trained as an investigator at any law school in the country.” Lenzner attended Phillips Exeter and then Harvard where he studied law and captained the football team. Unlike many of his fellow Harvard Law School grads, Lenzner opted against taking a high-paying job in corporate law to work for Robert Kennedy’s civil rights division of the Justice Department.
Kennedy sent Lenzner down to the Deep South, into the heart of Ku Klux Klan country, to defend the rights of African Americans during the “Freedom Summer” of 1964. He investigated the murders of three civil rights activists, what became infamously known as “Mississippi Burning,” as well as a murder case in Perry County, Mississippi, and the bloody attacks on marchers in Selma, Alabama. When the Civil Rights Act of 1965 passed, Lenzner collaborated with local police to prevent the KKK from attacking black voters. “There were predictions of blood in the streets,” he says. “I was trying to get African Americans to vote in different areas where they had never voted be- fore.” As a twenty-seven-year-old lawyer from New York City defending civil rights in the most racist corners of the country, Lenzner emerged from the South a tough-nosed investigator who was not easily intimidated. This fierce doggedness became his stock-in-trade.
At twenty-nine years old, Lenzner was hired by Donald Rumsfeld, who was working in the Nixon White House. He and Rumsfeld became quick friends: “We were brothers instantly. He was a Princeton wrestler, I was a Harvard football player, and we just clicked.” This friendship, however, didn’t stop the young lawyer from personally handing a subpoena to Rumsfeld’s boss, Richard Nixon, four years later, demanding that the president turn over the Watergate tapes. It was the first time a subpoena had been served to a sitting president in American history. Lenzner was serving as assistant chief council on the Senate Watergate Committee that prompted the president’s resignation. “Watergate was extraordinary in terms of its breadth and depth of inappropriate and improper behavior,” Lenzner says today. “[But] it was probably the best and maybe last nonpartisan committee hearing of any controversial nature that will ever take place in the United States.”
Watergate would be the first in a long list of headline- grabbing cases that made Lenzner one of the most feared men in politics. Right here in Massachusetts, he and his firm, Investigative Group International, which he founded in 1984, were hired by the late Ted Kennedy to investigate his opponent, Mitt Romney, in the 1994 senate election. Lenzner dug up dirt from Romney’s time at Bain Capital, and the rising candidate lost his slim lead and eventually the election. Ironically, when Bain Capital publicly criticized Kennedy for employing “dirty tactics” by hiring a private investigator, the press discovered that Bain had in fact also hired Lenzner’s firm just a few years prior. Of course, the press’s discovery came with a little help from Lenzner himself.
“I have a very clear line that I draw,” Lenzner says. “We are not going to investigate a political candidate from either party if somebody is looking for personal, negative information. In other words, their personal lives, that for me, is off the books.” While some in Washington might argue otherwise, the effectiveness of Lenzner’s time-honed tactics are undeniable. Just ask Bill Clinton whose lawyers hired Lenzner during his impeachment case. Lenzner was hauled in front of a grand jury by Kenneth Starr, but he stonewalled the prosecutor. Today, he says, “Ken Starr was the best thing that happened to the Clintons.” Had his lawyers been facing off against a more competent investigator such as he, Bill Clinton might not have walked away with just a slap on the wrist.
There were times, how- ever, when Lenzner failed to turn up the truth his clients were looking for—such was the case with billionaire Mohamed Al-Fayed. When Princess Diana and her boyfriend, Dodi Al-Fayed, were killed in a car accident in 1997, Lenzner was hired by Al- Fayed’s father to investigate the case. Mohamed Al-Fayed believed his son and Princess Diana were killed in a conspiracy arranged by MI-6 agents, and he hired Lenzner to prove it. When the investigator returned with a report debunking Al-Fayed’s theory, Lenzner was fired.
“I’ve seen a lot of that, very wealthy people thinking that they can rewrite history and buy a reality that never existed,” he says. “My own theory, which I probably shouldn’t be talking about, is that I think Al-Fayed felt so guilty that it was his employee who was drunk at the wheel, that he couldn’t stand the idea of admitting to himself that one of his people caused this horrible accident that own son. So he wanted to change that. He was trying to rewrite history killed his so that he wouldn’t have to live with that.”
As for his life on Nantucket, Lenzner discovered the island in the early seventies during a break in the Watergate hearings. “I grew up in New York City,” he says, “Nantucket was another world to me. I completely fell in love with this place.” He and his wife Margaret eventually bought an “acre of poison ivy” where their summer home now sits.
While Nantucket became Lenzner’s private re- treat, the private eye was not opposed to taking up an investigation on the island every now and again, as was the case when the board of Tyco hired him to investigate its CEO, Dennis Kozlowski. Lenzner’s investigation revealed that much of Kozlowski’s extravagant lifestyle on Nantucket was paid out of Tyco company coffers. Kozlowski ended up serving eight years in prison, and was released this past January.
These days, Terry Lenzner sits on his back porch, watching the sailboats cruise around the harbor and reminiscing about the fast times of his career. Does he miss them? That will just have to be his little secret.