Tennis with Mr. Nice


First Person

My week with the late Howard Marks, drug smuggler and author.

Photo courtesy of the author.

In June 1995, on a magazine assignment that never came to fruition, I flew to Palma, Majorca, to spend a week with Howard Marks. He was just out of prison then, having served seven of a twenty-five year sentence on Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations charges at the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana. Howard’s backstory was well known in the UK, but less so in the U.S., despite a Frontline documentary on his worldwide marijuana smuggling. As a young working-class Welsh philosophy student at Oxford, Howard had started out as a small-time dealer and, in his smart, amiable way, worked his way up the ladder to become a bona-fide drug kingpin, a Robin Hood to stoners across the British Isles. “Mr. Nice,” as one of his aliases had it, dealt only in soft drugs; today he might be an upstanding citizen of Washington or Colorado. To the everlasting chagrin of the British police, he beat the rap once at the Old Bailey—he’d been caught moving fifteen tons of dope from a fishing trawler off the Irish coast onto dry land—by offering the unimpeachable defense that he’d been working for MI6 at the time. He was not a drug smuggler, he said, but a narc. 

It was true that Marks had an Oxford friend who was one of Smiley’s people (I know—Smiley was MI5); and true, this friend had dragooned him into seducing a girl at the Czech embassy; and yes, the dress shop on Oxford’s High Street through which he laundered money had briefly doubled as a letter drop for the same pal. But the tonnage belonged to Howard alone. After the case was over, he fled to Majorca, which had hospitable maritime laws, and set up base there. Things might have gone okay had he not elected to expand his operation to the U.S., transporting his merchandise from Pakistan in crates whose primary cargo was propeller parts destined for a naval base in Alameda, California. Howard also made good use of the back of European rock bands’ amplifiers when they crossed the ocean. The feds came after him, tracked him for a year in Majorca, persuaded one of his accomplices to turn, and, in 1989, got him extradited back to America, where he wasn’t regarded as a folk hero. I’m compressing a long and complicated life of crime here, which wasn’t always so “nice,” as a quick glance at Howard’s Wiki page will confirm.

On the way in from the airport, Howard told me that at Oxford he was the person who had sold Bill Clinton the cannabis that the president had famously tried but not inhaled at the Turf Tavern during his student days. The two men had lived at the same address in Oxford—46 Leckford Road—but a year apart. “Inhaling is irrelevant,” Howard said. “The taste buds on your tongue will do the job.” It seemed to me that the story of the Clinton sale and purchase might be a hard fact to check. He dropped me at my hotel and the next day came over to play tennis and to swim. He had played quite a bit of tennis in Terre Haute (which he called “Club Fed”) mainly with one of the leaders of a Chicago gang who more or less ran things on the inside, deciding which TV channels got watched and so on. He had a photo of them together: six-foot-plus Howard and his six-foot-plus-plus partner on court. After the game, we went to swim, and there Howard got shaken up: the unstable nowhereness of water freaked him out. He said he couldn’t feel his legs; he got out; he wanted the reassuring concrete of the pool’s apron, ground beneath his feet. After that, we drove down to the beach, where he bought dope. Then he felt better.

Marks, left, with the author on a tennis court at the Hotel Son Vida.

For seven days, I taped him: at his home in La Vileta, in restaurants and coffee places, and at one stunningly beautiful bar, Abaco, where baskets of fruit and vegetables covered the floor, a goat wandered around, and baroque rooms abutted ruined stone walls open to the stars. Although Howard talked a lot, he didn’t reveal much. He had already sold his memoir to a British publisher and was clearly holding onto the good stuff for the people who’d paid the big bucks.

Terre Haute, which had only released him six weeks earlier, was clearly on his mind. One night we drove out to the red cliff village of Deia—Robert Graves’s long-term domicile—and had dinner with some British expats: the ex-wife of the drummer from Soft Machine, the poet Brian Patten. They thought I was American (I mean, I was … but I hadn’t been for long) and asked me how much time I spent at the gym. Another day we went to Magaluf, lager-lout central for British tourists, a place of such pubs as the Princess of Wales and the Benny Hill, chip shops, and sunburn. In prison, Howard told me, he had taught philosophy to two Filipino assassins and a Mafia don. At one point, Balliol College, Oxford, had asked him, since he had time on his hands, if he wouldn’t mind editing the college register. The U.S. Bureau of Prisons denied him that opportunity; he wasn’t permitted to “work for a business.” Various high-ups from the college had pleaded with the Bureau; Oxford was a registered charity on both sides of the Atlantic. The Bureau wasn’t persuaded. “They think the English are soft on drugs,” Howard said. “They wanted to teach them, and me, a lesson.” I asked him about his students. He said the Mafia guys never made trouble in prison; they only got exercised about the quality of the pasta.

At his home, back with his wife and son, he appeared relaxed. He showed me his extensive law library and a thick album that held more than forty passports. I asked him why he hadn’t stopped when he was (way) ahead. He said he was like a boxer past his prime who couldn’t stop. It was too much of a thrill to be in Pakistan under one name one day and New York under another the next.

On my last morning in Palma, he came to my hotel. In the middle of the week, he had asked who was paying for the meals we had enjoyed. “The magazine,” I said, “covers my expenses. I present receipts and they reimburse me.” When I met him at the entrance, Howard was holding a thick wad of papers in his hand. “I thought you might be able to use these,” he said. They were random receipts from all over town. “Thanks,” I said, “But it’s okay.” Then he added, “You can use anything I said, but don’t write what I told you about the Mafia guys and the pasta.”

Howard was seductive and charming and, in his own realms of expertise, irresistibly knowledgeable. He loved Elvis. It’s quite clear that, with disastrous results, he drew a number of individuals into a life of crime they would never have otherwise contemplated. Back in England, he wrote books, ran for parliament on a Legalize It ticket, put in celebrity appearances. He died from cancer on April 10.

I have a fax from him dated June 12, 1995. It reads, “RELEASE has asked me to write an article for them on how large-scale supplies of cannabis would be effected if it was legalized. If you know of any American published treatments of this topic and can easily procure copies, I would be very grateful for you to bring them to me.” He concludes, “Can you also get me an issue (any one) of the National Enquirer and a signed photograph of Tina Brown.”

Jonathan Wilson’s work has appeared in The New Yorker, Esquire, the New York Times Magazine, and Best American Short Stories, among other publications. He is the author of eight books, including Kick and Run: Memoir with Soccer Ball. He lives in Massachusetts.