William Cole and His Fish Stories

Special Report

NEW YORK--The move is meant to deceive. A bridge player pretends to accidentally drop the king of spades, a particularly highranking card, face-up. The player's opponent, thinking an advantage has been won, begins a series of highpercentage plays. The plays, by their nature, lead into a trap. The game is lost.

In a 1991 book about bridge, the man who invented the trick gave it a name. It's called the Fishhead Coup, and those who understand it say the move is the bridge equivalent of a royal flush. To pull it off takes unusual cunning. To invent it, a person would need an even rarer combination of intelligence and guile.

Indeed, the world has few people as brilliant as the move's inventor, William David Cole. The cards he has dropped along the way confirm his intelligence: eight straight semesters on the dean's list at Columbia College; his mastery of five languages; a sterling reputation as a teaching fellow and graduate student at Harvard University. Cole, those who worked with him say, is fascinated by ideas. And he loves literature.

In 1991, Cole earned a Ph.D in French literature in the University's brutally competitive Romance Languages and Literatures department. But as exceptional as he was as a scholar, Cole was an even better teacher. In 1990, he won the highest honor that can be bestowed upon a Harvard teacher: the Levenson Prize for Undergraduate Teaching.

"He was very funny," says Davis J. Wang '97, who had Cole last year for Literature and Arts A-21: "Literary Mind of the Middle Ages."

"He showed an enthusiasm for the material and a very good understanding of the material," Wang says. "He transmitted his enthusiasm and a kind of love for the literature."

Cole made himself a prominent Harvard figure when an article he wrote for the Chronicle of Higher Education in January 1993 sparked a campus-wide debate on grade inflation. The notoriety from the article was such that Cole found himself quoted in national publications.

In those articles, Cole cut a stark figure. The brilliant Harvard instructor was speaking out against the vagaries of exaggerated accomplishments. The importance of standards and truth, he argued, were being lost in a sea of relativism.

"Having embraced this relativism," Cole warned in the Chronicle of Higher Education article, "some faculty members may feel that it is incompatible with making absolute judgments of our students. Giving everyone a good grade becomes the path of least resistance."

What Cole never said then was that he, too, had frequently chosen the easy path. Like a good bridge player, Cole never showed Harvard all his cards.

While students and faculty here respected him, friends and associates paint a portrait of a deeply troubled person with a peculiar habit for lying and getting into trouble.

This summer, Harvard police targeted Cole as part of their investigation into the mutilation of dozens of books in the University's libraries. A search warrant was issued for his Belmont home after police who spoke with him there observed cutting tools and hundreds of prints. Harvard Police Chief Paul E. Johnson indicated last week that the search did not turn up evidence against the teacher.

Johnson now says that Cole is no longer the focus of the investigation. No arrests have been made, and the probe is open and ongoing, he says.

Asked last week if the department is actively investigating Cole, Johnson said: "We're actively looking for information, period."

However the Harvard case is resolved, Cole's legal problems run deeper. In Cape Cod, he faces charges that he stole from and assaulted a rare book dealer in Cotuit, Mass, on June 23 of this year. If convicted on both charges, he faces a maximum of five years in prison.

Cole, who left his Harvard job in the spring, moved to Spain at the end of the summer. He did not agree to be interviewed for this article.

Ten phone calls were made to his Belmont home during the summer, and male and female voices answering the line indicated that he would return messages soon. Cole never did.

That silence was unusual for someone who, friends say, loves to to talk. But little about William Devil Cole is as it seems. Like the Fishhead Coup, Cole's life seems to rest on an assumption--that the good cards one shows will distract others from the less flattering truths one holds closer to the heart.

His Early Years: Growing Up at Dalton

William Cole was born and raised in New York City, but he grew up at the Dalton School. According to school records, he was a student there from the pre-school through high school.

Located on 89th St. in Manhattan's Upper East Side, co-ed Dalton is one of New York's most prestigious private schools. It is a training ground for the children of the city's wealthy elite. This year, tuition ranges from $14,000 for elementary school to $15,600 for the high school grades.

Dalton prides itself on producing community-oriented students who aren't afraid to speak their minds, and the campus has a nerdy sort of earnestness about it. On a recent weekday, a visitor could watch the student government debate the senior class's annual joke resolution with the tenscity of the U.S. Senate discussing health care reform. (Among other things, the proposal called for Dalton's first-year student to "refer to any area where a group of seniors has gathered as Mt. Olympus").

In some ways, William Cole, a curious boy from a well-educated family, fit right in.

"I remember him in the library....I remember a positive spirit, kind of an off-best look," says Marilyn H. Moss, Dalton's librarian.

"He put his face to the side," Moss recalls as she glances at his picture in the 1980 yearbook. "I remember a lot of hair and a lot of smiles."

He wasn't always that way. Cole was born into what appears to have been a happy family with enough money to send young "Billy," as he was called, to Dalton.

But after he turned six, his life changed. His father Richard, according to Cole's uncle and records on file at the Dalton School, died in a car crash. Cole, who was in the car, hurt his ankles but escaped permanent injury, says the uncle, New York City prints dealers Sylvan Cole.

A year later, in 1970, his mother, Deborah M. Cole, remarried. Her new husband was Jack Greenberg, a renowned lawyer who spent 23 years as director and counsel of the NAACP's Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Greenberg, a former dean of Columbia College who serves on the Columbia law faculty, also spent a year as a lecturer at Harvard Law School.

Cole's mother was a lawyer who taught at Columbia for some time, according to Sylvan Cole. The well-off couple lived in the city, and they currently reside in a Riverside Drive apartment overlooking the Hudson, worth between $680,000 and $750,000.

Together, the couple raised what friends and teachers say was a very difficult, if unusually intelligent, child.

Dalton's reservations about Cole are reflected in the letter of recommendation the school sent to colleges where he applied.

The letter was signed by the school's college counselor and the director of Dalton's high school. A copy reviewed by The Crimson says that "Billy has had peer relationship difficulties" but adds that he "is striving to ameliorate his social" skills.

"I guess you might say he was the big man on campus--the big negative man on campus," says the then-chair of Dalton's student-faculty discipline committee, Margot L. Gumport.

Some teachers at the school share similarly unflattering memories of the student, who graduated in 1980. He was fierce and prone to troublemaking, but at the same time inspired such loyalty and fear that few students in the school ever dared to tell faculty what he was up to.

Still, after an incident during his senior year, Cole flirted seriously with expulsion, a punishment so rare at image-conscious Dalton that Gumport recalls only "two or three" cases during her 35-year career at the school.

As a senior, Cole led a group of Dalton students who traveled to Harvard's Model United Nations conference at the Sheraton Hotel in Boston. Once there, Dalton students burned a rug in one room. Sheraton personnel were "furious," according to Gumport.

So top off the weekend, two Dalton students constructed a flaming device from toilet paper, paper bags and matches. Then they hrew the concoction out of one of the Sheraton's 23rd floor windows, according to the student newspaper.

"It should sort of shoot out over Boylston St.," recalls one of the two students, Michael A. Waxenberg '85. "It was some thermodynamic thing."

Dalton officials identified Cole and Waxenberg as being primarily responsible for the fire bells. While a dozen boys appear to have been involved in, the mayhem, Cole and Waxenberg were the only ones sent home early after the incident.

Dalton officials say they seriously considered expelling Cole, even though Waxenberg says he himself organised the destructive activity on the 23rd floor.

Cole was punished because he "showed little remorse, he wasn't cooperative," Waxenberg says. "I was definite more responsible for what went on."

"[Cole] was rude, insolent, uncooperative," says James Stewart, who taught history at Dalton and chaperoned the Boston trip.

Waxenberg was punished, out Cole, who had what Gumport refers to only as "a reputation," came in for sterner discipline.

"Billy was counting on being bright to excuse everything," Gumport says. "He said we infracted (sic) on his civil liberties."

Ultimately, Cole was suspended for more than a month and was placed on probation so strict that he would have been automatically expelled for any further violations of school rules. Dalton officials also required Cole to work in a burn treatment center for six hours each week.

Guinness Book

At Dalton, Cole made two good friends. He grew so close to one, Jon Heller, that they shared a page in their high school year-book.

Cole and Heller didn't always get along. Heller calls his high school friend "a very difficult person." But they seem to have shared a desire to beat the system. With the Guinness Book of World Records, they saw an opportunity.

In 1980, Cole reported that he pitched an egg 350 feet to Heller, who caught it without cracking the shell. That figure smashed the existing record and was forwarded to the Guinness Book, which published it in the appendix to its 1980 edition. The two appeared in three subsequent editions of the world record book.

It was a tremendous achievement, with only one drawback.

"It never occurred," Heller says.

Heller says he and Cole decided to see if they could lie their way into the Guinness Book. By 1984, Guinness had apparently figured out the fraud. The official world record for egg throwing now stands at 318 feet.

At first glance, Cole's attempt to break into Guinness might seem like a harmless teenage prank. But, curiously, Cole bragged about the world record for years.

In fact, he took credit for the world record in an autobiography he submitted for the World Bridge Encyclopedia in 1991--more than seven years after Guinness withdrew the record.

At Columbia, Interest Turns to Bridge

The Manhattan Bridge Club sits in the penthouse of the Hotel Olcott on West 72nd St. here in New York City.

It's not the same place Cole frequented as a Columbia student during the early 1980s. Today, bridge players step out of the elevator to find a three-foot-high cardboard figure of the Queen of Hearts. The queen is pointing at an image of the White Rabbit, mounted 10 feet away on the same wall.

The clientele has changed, too. Few bridge players there today were around 10 years ago; even fewer remember a young, bush-haired college kid named Bill Cole. Those who do say Cole's expansive self-confidence sticks out in their memories.

"He was very brash, very cocky, very sure, certainly a strong developing player," recalls Jeff M. Bayonne, owner of the club.

Some who played with him charge that Cole would cheat in tournament bridge play. Bayonne, however, dismisses that notion. "When you're real brash, that sometimes is taken for poor ethics," he says.

Heller, Cole's high school friend who also attended Columbia, says the two played bridge together for a while. But after a time, Heller says, "I had to stop."

"I didn't think he brought any honor to the game," Heller says. "I consider myself an ethical player, and I wasn't comfortable [playing with him]."

Bridge was challenging, but, at college, success seemed to come easily. Cole made the dean's list, which requires a B+ average or better, all eight semesters he was there. He published a 34-page book on human rights in Pakistan. In his spare time, he worked on his language skills. Friends say he speaks fluent French, German, Italian and Spanish and that he has a working knowledge of Chinese.

"He is one of the brightest people I've ever met," says Waxenberg, who has known Cole since high school and is an assistant vice president for the investment bank Kidder, Peabody and Co. "His verbal skills and his math skills are first-rate across the board. We're talking about a guy who could do anything he wanted to."

"He could do my job in two days," Waxenberg adds. "He'd just be bored with it."

Bridge wasn't boring, and Cole had natural talent for the game.

But, bridge players say, he was never as good as he thought he was.

"He was a peppy young kid with a chip on his shoulder," says Arjun Ray a computer consultant and professional bridge player who played with Cole. "He vastly overrated his skills."

In fact, Cole exaggerated not only his skills but also his accomplishments in bridge. In the entry next to his picture in the 1984 Columbia yearbook, Cole claims to have won "6 National Bridge Championships; 4 World Championship."

The entry is fiction.

Cole's name does not appear on the American Contract Bridge League's official lists of champions for any of the 13 national bridge events. In a 1991 application for entry into the Bridge Encyclopedia, Cole himself acknowledged that he had no world championships and no national championships (aside from a 1990 collegiate title won while he was a graduate student member of the Harvard Bridge Club).

Bridge: Cole Plays, Write on the Game

After graduating from Columbia, Cole took a year off to play bridge professionally. In 1985, he began his graduate studies at Harvard, but remained active in the bridge community.

Having attained the rank of life master--a designation held by about a quarter of the American Contract Bridge League's 180,000 members--be won an important intercollegiate bridge title in 1990 (graduate students are eligible for intercollegiate competitions). In 1991, Cole published a 144-page books Fishheads, in which he described, among other things, the Fishhead Coup.

During the years after college, Cole became well-known among the country's top bridge players--though not always for winning performances.

Bobby Wolf, the president of the World Bridge Federation, has long harbored, ill feelings toward Cole. He says Cole was not an ethical bridge player.

"You name it, he did it," Wolf says.

In 1991, Cole got into trouble with the American Contract Bridge League (ACBL) after the preliminary heats of one intercollegiate competition.

Alan J. Miller, who was overseeing heats in the tournament, says he noticed "a score that was achieved at Harvard that was a very, very, very high score." A patters of unusually high scores had been coming out of the University's bridge team for several years, Miller says.

So Miller, who owns a new York bridge club where Cole played during college, find a complaint.

"Given the parties involved, [and since] I had heard rumors from people at Harvard. I said to the ACBL, 'you know, there might by a problem. Don't you think there might be a problem?" Miller says.

In bridge, according to Wolf, wining about 57 or 58 percent of the tricks is usually enough to win a game. Wolf, a nine-times world champion, says the best score he's ever attained is 81 percent.

But Cole, who has never won a major national championship, reported a score of percent in the 1991 tournament, Wolf says.

After an investigation, the ACBL concluded that Cole had developed a finger-signaling system with a number of different bridge partners, "would change scores on the score sheets" and was "very unethical at the table," Wolf says.

Citing infractions going back to his college days, the league suspended Cole for six months and put him on probation for two years, officials said.

Such a penalty is unusual. In a typical year, 15 members of the bridge league are suspended, but only "one or two" of those suspensions are for cheating as Cole's was, according to Wolf.

Cole was not present at his ACBL hearing, and he sold several members of the Harvard bridge community--as well as friends such as Heller--that he was only suspended because of that absence.

For his part, Wolf, who chaired the committee that suspended the Harvard graduate student, says he sent Cole a letter informing him of the hearing. Wolf says Cole signed for the letter, but after the suspension was handed down, Cole claimed his girlfriend had forged his signature.

Cole appealed for a new trial and the chance to defend himself. But Wolf denied the request, and Cole was forced to sit out for half a year.

Those sympathetic to Cole say his problems with the bridge community likely stem from his failure to show proper deference.

"My impression from what I'd heard from Bill was that a lot of it was a result of his lack of respect for the aura of the game," Waxenberg says.

But the suspension did not appear to sour Cole on bridge, or tame his desire to win.

Two sources in the Harvard bridge community say Cole admitted to playing in bridge tournaments under fake names in order to compete in lower-level competitions.

Unlike chess ratings, which group players relative to each other, bridge rankings represent a measure of absolute accomplishment.

Over the years, bridge players in the ACBL, accumulate master points by winning tournaments. Eventually, they reach various plateaus and become life masters, bronze life master, silver life masters, and so on.

Once a player reaches a certain level, he or she is unable to play in tournaments at a lower level. One Harvard Bridge Club member says Cole allegedly sought to circumvent what he considered a silly system.

So he registered fake names with the ACBL, members say. This enabled him to spread his master points over several accounts, maintain his eligibility for low-level tournaments and receive money for his participation in those compeititions.

Cole was aggressive about promoting his triumphs in the bridge world. Henry G. Francis, executive editor of the ACBL. Bulletin, says Cole has exaggerated the number of tournaments he won.

"We have a very low opinion of Mr. Cole in the office," Francis says. "He has claimed more victories than we've been able to find."

Cole was extraordinarily image conscious as well. In the ACBL. Bulletin's June 1992 edition, Brent Manley wrote a four-paragraph review of Fishheads. Manley concluded that while the book is "often silly," the tactics described in the text are "interesting and fun--a decent collection for those who appreciate such artistry."

That wasn't enough praise for Cole, Manley says. Later, the author wrote a letter to the editor demanding that a new review be printed.

The Harvard Years: Winning Praise

Cole's students and colleagues at Harvard knew little, if anything, of all of this. Students and faculty say he was the rarest of combinations--a scholar who can teach in a dynamic way.

"I remember one lecture [Cole gave] on the 33rd Canto of Dante's Inferno," Cameron E. Half '97 says. "He just went through a few times pointing out different elements of the story each time through. He did a wonderful job bringing forth meaning that had not been readily apparent."

Half says it's easy for a student to read that text and feel as if he got a lot from it. But Cole, Half says, was able to bring the class further.

"I was very excited about that particular lecture," Half says. "I went out still thinking about Dante's words, about what I originally read versus what Dr. Cole said."

While his personal relations with old classmates and bridge players were strained, those who knew him here found him caring, personable and engaging.

"He was an excellent teacher," says Nina Cannizzaro-Byrne, who taught with Cole in Literature and Arts A-21 in the fall of 1993. "His relations with students were really wonderful."

"He encouraged class discussions," she adds. "He was adept at formulating questions that would get students to speak."

Cole's teaching performance was such that he could be invited back to campus as an instructor in the future. He left his teaching job, according to director of the core curriculum Susan Lewis, only after Babbitt Professor of Comparative Literature Dante Della Terza retired during the past academic year and his course, Literature and Arts A-21, was eliminated. Recently, Harvard considered Cole for a job as assistant dean of freshmen.

Cole also was valued for his contribution to discussions about curricular issues. In fact, some of Cole's recommendations in his Chronicle of Higher Education article--such as reporting the mean grades for all courses on students' transcripts in order to curb grade inflation--have been considered by the Faculty Council.

But even as he rose in Harvard circles, he told the outside world a story about his life here that did not always match the facts.

For example, in his entry in the encyclopedia of bridge, Cole claimed that he founded the Harvard Bridge Team in 1985. But according to bridge community sources, Dean of Students Archie C. Epps III and newspaper clippings on file in the University archives, the Harvard Bridge Club has fielded teams in intercollegiate competitions since the 1950s.

In Cape Cod, Cole Faces Legal Trouble

In the small Cape Cod town of Cotuit (pop. 3000), a man with "lots of curly black hair" entered the Isaiah Thomas Books and Prints store on the morning of June 23. From behind the counter, the store's owner, James A. Visbeck, eyed the stranger.

As Visbeck later told police, the man, carrying a black brief case, picked up three of the store's rare books, with a total value of about $250. First, he brought the books into the front room near the cash register. Then he transported them to a marble display case, and, says Visbeck, covered them over with one of the books on display.

Then they vanished into the briefcase, according to the store owner's account to police.

Before the man, later identified as William D. Cole, could leave, Visbeck confronted him, according to his account.

"You want to tell me about the books you have?" Visbeck asked.

"What books?"

"The books you have in your case. Let's see. Open your case."

"I usually don't let people look in my case."

Impatient, Visbeck grabbed the top of the case out of the man's hand, opened it and removed the three books, according to a police report. The owner then put his body between Cole and the door.

A struggle--each man has claimed the other started it--ensued. According to Visbeck's account, Cole shoved Visbeck out of the way and made a run for the door.

Visbeck managed to grab the case again, but Cole didn't let him hold on. Instead, the Harvard Ph.D opened his mouth and bit Visbeck's left thumb, drawing blood. Visbeck let go, and Cole drove away.

In subsequent interviews, Cole told a Harvard police investigator and Barnstable County Police Det. Mark Delaney that he had bitten Visbeck. But he said he did so only after Visbeck assaulted him. He denied taking any books, according to police reports.

The case is now before a judge. On July 11, Cole pleaded not guilty to two felonies: larceny inside a building as well as assault and battery with a deadly weapon--his teeth.

Jonathan Shapiro, the Boston attorney representing Cole, says the charges are meritless, and he has filed a motion to dismiss them. In one brief, he argues that the assault charge is inappropriate because of a court decision holding that body parts cannot be considered dangerous weapons. Shapiro also says the alleged crime does not constitute larceny.

According to prosecuting attorney Ursula A. Knight, a decision on Shapiro's dismissal motion should come by December 8.

Sliced Books

At about the same time that Visbeck was telling Barnstable County police about the incident, Harvard Police Lt. John F. Rooney talked to an official at the Boston Public Library. A man had come to the library and was suspected of cutting a print out of a book. The man's name was William Cole.

The Boston library's account troubled Rooney, sources say, because it closely resembled one in a series of rare book mutilations reported to University police by a Widener Library official in late May. In those incidents, a person used a knife or razor to slice out pages of text, prints and plates. The person then left the book bindings in the library, discarding some at random locations and reshelving others.

"A page being cut and placed next to the binding is similar to the way one of the mutilated books (Giuseppe Macali's Antichi Monumenti Per Servire All' opera Inititolata I'Italia Avanti il Dominio Dei Romani, 1810) from the Widener Library was found on May 24, 1994," Rooney said in a sworn affidavit he wrote to request a search warrant. A copy of the affidavit was obtained by The Crimson.

At the Boston Public Library, Cole had allegedly requested a book from a librarian, who inspected it before giving it to him. When he returned the book, the librarian found that one of the pages had been sliced and moved from its original position to the back of the text, according to Rooney's affidavit.

The Boston library tried to contact Cole by using a phone number he provided when he requested the book. But that didn't work--Cole had switched some of the digits in his phone number around.

Acting on those leads, Rooney and Sgt. Kathleen Stanford visited Cole in his Belmont home, the affidavit says.

Once there, Rooney saw several prints in the dining room that had been matted and framed. As Rooney and Stanford looked around the house with his permission, Cole told them the prints were gifts from his mother, and he denied having any interest in prints.

He changed his story, however, when the police entered his study, Rooney charged in the affidavit. There, Rooney and Stanford observed a stack of "hundreds" of prints--some matted, others encased in bindings. At that point, Cole "denied his earlier claim that he had no interest in plates and claimed to have purchased those present," Rooney wrote.

In addition to the prints, the police observed a number of cutting instruments, such as "small, commercial-style razors and a long cutting tool," according to Rooney's affidavit.

The police asked Cole whether he used Harvard's libraries. At first, Cole "denied ever using the stacks [at Widener] and claimed he had no reason to be in there," Rooney wrote. But Cole later admitted that he'd been in Widener at least once in the previous two months. Widener Library checkers interviewed by The Crimson say they remember Cole as a regular visitor to the stacks, both before and after he left his Harvard job in the spring.

According to the affidavit, Cole told police that he owned "a reasonable number of prints." He said he had bought prints from a New York flea market and a North Shore antique shop, and did not think any of his prints were taken from books. The morning after Rooney and Stanford's visit to his home, Cole called the lieutenant to inform him about the incidents at the Boston Public Library and in Cape Cod. Cole told Rooney he wanted "to clear himself of any wrongdoing."

Later in the summer, police banned Cole from the Harvard libraries--the very places where he spent years in research for a University Ph.D. Investigators also circulated a letter featuring a color photograph of Cole and a warning that checkers "need not deal with him directly but should contact the Harvard University Police immediately."

Such letters are issued less than once a year, library security official John Reilly said in July.

Sources give conflicting accounts of what has happened in the case since the summer. Court documents obtained by The Crimson indicate that Rooney--accompanied by Roger Stoddard, curator of the Harvard College Library Rare Book Collection--returned to Cole's home with a search warrant. Neither Rooney nor Stoddard will comment on the investigation, and Chief Johnson says the probe remains open. But Shapiro, Cole's attorney, says that, as far as he knows, "that matter is closed."

Yesterday, Johnson confirmed that Cole remains banned from the libraries. But the chief has also indicated there is no substantial evidence against Cole or anybody else in the case.

"If he had done something wrong that we could prove, he would be the focus of the investigation," Johnson says.

But three police sources charge that the main problem in the investigation was that application for the search warrant was "botched." They declined to explain further.

Asked last week if the police had made errors in obtaining the search warrant, Johnson said" "Nothing was found. The search warrant was not productive....The intent of the search warrant was not fulfilled."

A Deep Desire To Beat the System

Cole's friends say that while they know a lot about him, they don't really know him. But one constant throughout their friend's life, they note, is a rebellious streak.

"You know how banks hire people like computer hackers to beat the system?" says Waxenberg, who has known Cole since high school. "Bill's got the perfect mentality for that. Bill likes to beat the system just to show the system can be beat."

"If you try to find a common thread," Waxenberg adds, "I think you'll find that a recurrent one."

In that context, nearly all of Cole's actions make sense, Waxenberg and others say. The Fishhead Coup, after all, was a piece of technical genius that satisfies the mind but is almost impossible to employ in a real game.

In high school, in college, in bridge, Cole has always pushed at limits. Sometimes he's just pushed too hard.

"If you met him," Waxenberg says, "I think you'd like him."Crimson