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The Illusionist

Al Seckel has left the country. But the world’s greatest collector of optical illusions left some troubles behind.

Mark Oppenheimer
July 20, 2015
Steve Brodner
Steve Brodner
Steve Brodner
Steve Brodner
This article is part of Tablet Profiles.
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For a 30-year stretch beginning in the early 1980s, one of Los Angeles County’s great hosts was a man called Al Seckel. His parties were not lavish or wild. There was no skinny-dipping, no drugs. There were no ice sculptures, no celebrity caterers, no peacocks strutting about the grounds. There weren’t even grounds, really. From the time he moved to L.A. in 1981 until he left for France about five years ago, Seckel held court in a series of apartments and rental homes, often in the hills of Pasadena and La Cañada Flintridge, save for a stint or two in Malibu. Sometimes his parties were arranged around a main event—Fourth of July fireworks, a magic show. Other times he issued instructions, like “Bring the most interesting person you’ve ever met,” or “Bring a copy of the book that you’ve most enjoyed.” Sometimes Seckel had a wife to co-host with him, other times not. One wife had been an It Girl in London during the 1980s; another, his current wife, had been a co-founder of the early web search engine Magellan.

As in wives, so in party guests: Seckel’s unique genius was his catholicity of taste. Milling around his parties were not only the B- and C-list celebrities requisite in L.A. but Nobel Prize-winning physicists, MacArthur “genius prize” winners, tech entrepreneurs, oddball futurists, and magicians. There were actors, musicians, and fringe entertainment types, plus academics associated with nearby Caltech and the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Catherine Mohr, a noted innovator in surgical robotics and a longtime friend of Seckel’s, met the Nobel laureates Murray Gell-Mann and Francis Crick at Seckel’s parties. “He loves bringing together people of interesting backgrounds and seeing the chemistry of them,” Mohr told me.

John Edwards, a retired Air Force engineer who danced in two Michael Jackson videos and won $100,000 on a short-lived ABC show called Dance Machine, first met Seckel through a Southern California atheists’ group, and for a time the two were close friends. Edwards remembers meeting, at Seckel’s parties, Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk, drone pioneer Paul MacCready, magician and MacArthur Fellow James “Amazing” Randi, and Dudley Moore. “He would bring everyone together the way Hearst would bring people to his castle,” Edwards said. One of the biggest names he met through Seckel was physicist Richard Feynman. Edwards had dinner with Feynman at Seckel’s house, met the two of them for lunch at Caltech, and even went camping with them.

Seckel’s allure was partly his background: People around him understood that he had ties to Caltech, and that at Cornell he had been a teaching assistant in Carl Sagan’s class. But his pedigree did not fully explain his allure, his Death Star tractor-beam pull. I met Seckel once, in 2000, when I interviewed him for a piece on atheist history. He greeted me at the door of the house he was renting in La Cañada, gathered me inside with his arm over my shoulder, and, before I could say a word, guided me toward a painting of an optical illusion, the appearance of which shifted as I approached. He told me that that he was one of the world’s great collectors of optical illusions, that he’d earned a great deal of money in rare books, and that he’d been helping a promising young pop star get a good manager. He was gregarious and loquacious and name-droppy. Seckel gave me the sense that his life was a grand narrative in which I was privileged to have a walk-on part.

But that afternoon was 15 years ago, and when I spoke to him recently, in a series of video conversations from his home in France, I could find no trace of the old charm. He is 56 years old, with shaggy brown hair and rectangular glasses, and he typically greeted me on Skype wearing what looked to be a baggy sweatshirt. He often buried his head in hands in exasperation, or ran his hands through his hair nervously.

Seckel recalled a particularly memorable party he gave, around the time I met him, at a hilltop rental in La Cañada, the one where I’d met him. When I asked who was there, he went into a bit of a trance, nodding as he recounted the details. “All sorts of people, ranging from Francis Crick to Slash, from Guns N’ Roses,” he said. “I’ll never forget the conversation. Francis said to Slash, ‘So what do you do?’ and Slash says, ‘I’m in a band.’ And Francis then said, ‘What’s the name of your band?’ And he said, ‘Guns N’ Roses.’ And then Francis said, ‘Are you thinking of going professional?’”

Now let me stop and ask: Does that story sound too good to be true? A representative for Slash told me, in an email, that Slash has no memory of Seckel, or of the party. That doesn’t mean it never happened, of course. Slash, I’ll hazard, goes to a lot of parties, and may have gaps in his party recall, for any number of reasons. And many other guests have testified to the eclectic, electric quality of these events. They’re certainly the kind of parties where one could have seen Crick talking with Slash.

But when you linger for a few moments with Seckel’s stories, they begin, after the initial gasp of wonder, to warp and bleed and swirl. As with optical illusions, something that Seckel has become a famous collector of, the trick is to stare long enough, past the point where you think you know what you are seeing. And maybe, if you are lucky, you will be satisfied that you’ve found something like the truth.


Al Seckel was born in 1958, the youngest of three sons, and raised in New Rochelle, outside New York City. His father, Paul, was a painter; his mother, Ruth Schonthal, a refugee from the Nazis, was a classical-music composer. She died in 2006, according to a New York Times obituary; I could not locate Seckel’s father or two brothers. “I would say it was sort of a normal dysfunctional family,” Seckel told me, from France, via Skype. “I was raised with a sort of European-Jewish mindset, which was very intellectual.” He graduated from New Rochelle High School in 1976 and moved on to Cornell University. During his time at Cornell, Seckel took a class with L. Pearce Williams, a historian of science whom Seckel still calls his first great mentor. Although Seckel studied with Williams, he never graduated from Cornell; according to the school’s alumni office, an Alfred Paul Seckel attended in 1976 and in 1978, but never received a degree.

He soon left for Los Angeles. “California was sun,” Seckel said. “And a chance to be far away from my parents.” When we talked, he was vague about his early years in the region. At some point, he married his first wife, Laura. They had a daughter, Elizabeth, and later divorced. And almost immediately after arriving in California, he fell into the growing, vibrant freethought movement.

In postwar America, there emerged a loose coalition of groups fighting the influence of religion and supernatural thinking. The most famous freethought group is American Atheists, founded in 1963 by the notorious Madalyn Murray O’Hair, who was widely loathed for, among other efforts, her successful court challenge to Bible readings in public schools. (In 1995, she was killed and dismembered by a three-man crew that included one of her former employees; her body was identified by the serial number on her prosthetic hip.) But O’Hair’s hard-core atheism was just one flavor of freethought. In the 1970s, “scientific skeptical” groups arose to combat New Age ideas that were gaining traction—everything from homeopathy, to the “mentalism” of Uri Geller, who claimed that he could bend spoons with his mind, to a growing belief in Bigfoot. Other groups promoted agnosticism, secular humanism, and church/state separation. They all shared a sense that they were the rationalist minority, committed to evidence over superstition, preferring scholars and scientists to preachers, holistic healers, yogis, swamis, and “alternative” types of all kinds.

In the early 1980s, freethought was especially hot in L.A. The city has always appealed to land’s-end, far-horizon dreamers: sci-fi aficionados, futurists, quick-buck schemers (L. Ron Hubbard, who founded Scientology in L.A., was all three). But others take the same tendency toward the extreme and flip it around, into a radically skeptical, debunking mindset. Many magicians—James Randi, Penn and Teller, the sleight-of-hand master Jamy Ian Swiss—are committed atheists and scientific skeptics. And as the home of the postwar defense and aerospace industries, Southern California also attracted legions of scientists who were alarmed by the region’s growing influence in the evangelical movement. Illusionists and scientists, while unalike in many respects, shared a keen interest in how the mind works, and in how this understanding can be used for good and for ill.

While famous scientists like Murray Gell-Mann and Richard Feynman were happy to lend their names to skeptical groups, to appear on the letterheads, they weren’t stuffing the envelopes. The organizing fell to worker bees like Seckel, who founded at least two skeptical groups and belonged to a third and possibly a fourth. He arranged meetings, managed mailing lists, contributed money of his own, did what had to be done. He also had a hand in one of the great publicity coups of freethought, the “Darwin fish” bumper sticker ubiquitous in the 1980s. John Edwards, the engineer and future competitive dancer who came to Seckel’s parties, had come up with an idea for a riff on the Jesus fish symbol: a fish with legs, to connote evolution, with the word “Darwin” inside. According to Edwards, Seckel helped him refine the final design.

Seckel gave me the sense that his life was a grand narrative in which I was privileged to have a walk-on part.

For a man like Seckel, L.A. offered more than the weather and the distance from family. In this age before Silicon Valley had captured the geek imagination, Caltech and the surrounding aerospace industry was the frontier of nerd power and glory. At the same time, Pasadena, where many of the players lived and worked, was an attractive bubble of wealth and WASP culture, about as East Coast as California could get. The Caltech campus represented a form of the Ivy League status that Seckel had grasped but then released at Cornell, infused with a West Coast spirit of self-invention and possibility. For a science-minded refugee from New York, it was the city on a hill.

Seckel was never enrolled at Caltech, but he hung out in the labs and had lunch with professors and students, and some people around campus assumed he was a graduate student or a post-doctoral researcher. The myths of his Cornell and Caltech credentials has been persistent; they have trailed him, like toilet paper on a shoe. People I spoke with, former friends and business partners, cited them as one of the reasons they trusted him. The Los Angeles Times referred to Seckel’s Cornell degree at least twice, first in 1985 and again in a 1987 article about the local skeptic community. Seckel, the paper reported, was “an intense graduate of Cornell in physics and math, who took leave from Caltech, where he was a candidate for doctoral degrees” in two fields. Seckel never tried to tell me that he had attended either school, but Denice Lewis, Seckel’s second wife, who sounded as if she loathed him, didn’t believe me when I told her that he had never graduated from Cornell.

At Caltech, Seckel cultivated Richard Feynman, in particular; he told me that Feynman gave him permission to audit one of his classes. Even before the 1985 publication of his mega-selling memoir Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, which made him the most famous physicist in the world, Feynman, who died in 1988, had a high profile at the school. So when he and Seckel grew close, people noticed. He “was known around campus,” Michael Douglas, a physicist at Stony Brook University who’d been at Caltech in 1983, says of Seckel. “We would hang out after Feynman’s class, have lunch with him, listen to his stories.”

Seckel also invited Feynman to dinner parties at his house, precursors to the blowouts he would soon be hosting. “They started as small gatherings,” Seckel remembered. “[Feynman] would come with his wife, Gweneth. Murray would be there”—Murray Gell-Mann, who proposed the idea of the quark, and who had a legendarily competitive relationship with Feynman—“and they’d be sitting on a couch.” It might not have been clear which of the two men Seckel was studying with—perhaps both?—but he was, obviously, an important disciple.


As far as I can tell, Al Seckel has never had a steady employer. Instead, he has made money peddling rare books and papers, often through his social and academic connections. A number of these transactions resulted in accusations and lawsuits. In speaking to former Seckel acquaintances, I kept hearing variations on a scheme Mrs. Pearce Williams believed he perpetrated against her late husband, the man Seckel said was his mentor. Seckel took books and promised money, or he took money and promised a book; but somehow, the promised party lost money.

It is remarkably easy to find people who believe Seckel took their money. Most of them are very shrewd people, people who earn their living by the fine application of their minds: scientists, rare book dealers, a doctoral candidate, a Silicon Valley consultant. “He was charming, erudite, humorous,” said David Gerstel, who used to have a business lending money to book collectors. He sued Seckel in 2002. “I lent him $75,000,” Gerstel said. “When the time came to pay it back, he didn’t want to do it.” To pay him back, Seckel eventually signed over royalties to a book he had written.

Ben Weinstein is a nationally known rare-book dealer who owns Heritage Books, in Beverly Hills. He remembers attending one of Seckel’s parties—a fundraiser for micro-lending, he thinks—and meeting Sharon Stone. He likes Seckel. But he won’t do business with him anymore.

“You know what’s funny,” Weinstein said, “is he happens to be a very nice guy … and he is very bright. But he somehow got mixed up in books.”

“Mixed up?” I asked.

Weinstein told me that about 20 years ago, one of his clients had said that he’d like to buy a book that cost around $10,000. The client said that Seckel, who owed him money, would be paying. Weinstein gave the man the book, but Seckel didn’t pay. It took Weinstein years to get the money out of Seckel, and when he did, it was by buying some other books from Seckel at a reduced price: Seckel deducted the money he owed from Weinstein’s cost for the new books. But in the intervening years, Weinstein had made the mistake of buying other books from Seckel, and that got him sued. According to the lawsuit, Seckel sold Weinstein books that he had purchased with money that he had defrauded from the complainant. Seckel has contacted Weinstein by email since the lawsuit, but Weinstein—once stiffed, then sued, thanks to his dealings with Seckel—did not reply.

Still, Weinstein sees Seckel more as a wayward soul than as a criminal. “He seems like a nice guy,” Weinstein said again. “He has a doctorate in physics or math”—Seckel told him so—“and he was teaching—I believe he said at UCLA—so he had good credentials. He seemed like he had potential to do wonderful things.”

Other people who say Seckel owes them money include a graduate student whom he allegedly stiffed for after she did some writing for a book he was working on; an MIT professor who says he never got his money back after a book deal didn’t come to fruition; and an old high school friend of Seckel’s who says he found her on Facebook and persuaded her to lend him and Isabel Maxwell, his current wife, $15,000. (In a show of faith in Seckel, the high school friend, Valerie Gardner, told me that she fully expects that Seckel will repay her when he can.) In the Los Angeles Superior Court database, there are more than 25 cases involving Al Seckel or his various companies, as both plaintiff and defendant, from 1992 to the present. They involve small claims, breach of contract, contractual fraud, breach of rental/lease, one dissolution of marriage—his first, in 2001—and so forth. When I asked Maxwell why she thought her husband had been sued so many times, she told me, “He is successful and he is out there, and people don’t like smart people.”

Seckel claims that the suits were fomented by Tom McIver, a 63-year-old reference librarian from Cleveland who crossed Seckel by editing his Wikipedia page in a manner that Seckel did not appreciate; in 2007, the two men settled a libel lawsuit brought by Seckel, agreeing not to disclose the terms and never to speak of each other publicly again (an agreement that both men have violated, with gusto, trashing each other in conversations with me). Seckel told me that McIver writes to people Seckel knows and “gets them worked up.” In late March, Seckel also told me in an e-mail that he now has in his possession “proof and testimony” that McIver “has been trying to pay people to say defamatory things” to me. When I asked for the proof, he did not provide it. McIver, for his part, told me that it is absolutely false that he has ever paid anyone to speak ill of Seckel.

When I reached out to Nicholas Hornberger, Seckel’s lawyer in his suit against McIver, Hornberger confirmed that he’d reached a settlement for the case, a favorable one, he said. Hornberger added that Seckel has still not paid him for his services.

And then there was Seckel’s relationship with Pearce Williams, the Cornell professor whom Seckel claims as an early mentor. Williams died of Alzheimer’s disease in February, but I was able to reach his widow. Sylvia Williams sounded pleased to hear from me, glad that somebody would listen to what had happened to her. She told me that for a time Seckel “haunted” her husband, sometimes calling him “two or three times a day.” She also said that when her husband died, Seckel owed him money, the result of a convoluted deal Seckel made to sell some of Williams’ library.

“He is not very close to us now, because he owes us money,” Mrs. Williams said, estimating the debt at $11,000. “Al traded Pearce’s books for one book—which must have been quite a book!—to a Canadian, and he never got the book from the Canadian, which was worth the money, so we never got it. He had promised us $20,000, and he paid $9,000, and he said to me, ‘I paid that out of my own money!’ And I thought, ‘You know what? Everybody’s money is his ‘own money.’ ”

I included a question about Sylvia Williams’ allegation in an interrogatory that I prepared for Seckel as I neared the end of my reporting, along with many other questions that had arisen since Seckel broke off contact with me, after our last call, in December. But Seckel told me that he would refuse to answer any more questions, and he referred me to his lawyer. His lawyer was Patricia Glaser, a Los Angeles power attorney who has represented, among many others, Frank Gehry and Miley Cyrus. I resubmitted an expanded list of questions to Glaser, asking if Seckel would reply within a week. After a week, she wrote to ask for more time. Through Tablet’s lawyer, I offered her two more weeks, but I never heard back, either from Seckel or from his lawyer.


By the late 1980s, Seckel had mostly moved away from the freethought movement. Perhaps he was just ready for other things. “He seemed to have some kind of a deal going with practically everyone he came into contact with,” said a coworker of Seckel’s from the freethought movement in the 1980s, who, afraid of Seckel, insisted on anonymity. “I almost got punched in the face once. I was at a party and didn’t know this guy had invested with him, so I made some comment about not trusting Seckel with a nickel for a parking meter. This guy was obviously suspicious his money was long gone. His face turned purple.”

No longer spending as much time at Caltech, Seckel found a variety of curious ways to pass the time. He was, for example, a “consultant” on NBC’s 2006 reality show Treasure Hunters. In 2007, one of Seckel’s websites,, boasted that Seckel was doing “research in conjunction with my colleagues in Stephen Kosslyn’s laboratory at Harvard University.” I emailed Kosslyn, a Harvard neuroscientist, who wrote back to tell me that he had never met Seckel. He directed me to a colleague, Giorgio Ganis, who he thought might have had some contact with Seckel. Ganis replied, in an email, “I may have exchanged an email or two with Al Seckel, years ago. I definitely never met this person though, and we did not collaborate on a project.”

But for the past two decades Seckel’s principal vocation has been not academic but curatorial, as a collector of optical illusions. We all know this sort of image: the M.C. Escher dorm-room posters, the ducks morphing into fish, the staircase that goes up or down depending on how you luck at it. Stuff that’s entertaining anytime, mind-blowing if you’re stoned.

When Seckel and I spoke, he told me that Richard Feynman had pointed him toward illusions. “I was not particularly keen on the direction of physics at that time, which was the string theory,” Seckel said. “So I wanted to go to a different area. And what is the brain primarily concerned with? Well, it’s concerned with vision. And, um, I remembered what Dick said” —Dick Feynman—“he said, ‘You look at the quirky areas.’ So I took the toolbox that he gave me, and others gave me, in a way that hadn’t been done before. And I thought to myself, ‘What’s the quirky area of vision? It’s not normal perceptual processing, it’s visual illusions.’”

Al Seckel in 2009 (Joi Ito/flickr)
Al Seckel in 2009 (Joi Ito/flickr)

Seckel says he was the first person to use the computing power available in the early 1990s to “manipulate images” in a way that would help people understand how illusions worked. It’s not clear what computer work he did; he seems never to have done original research on the neuroscience of illusions, or to have published scholarly papers. But he did become a leading collector and popularizer. He began gathering illusions on paper, on computer files, on web sites, and in books. Seckel’s book The Art of Optical Illusions was released by Carlton Publishing in 2000; he followed it with More Optical Illusions, Amazing Optical Illusions, The Great Book of Optical Illusions, and The Ultimate Book of Optical Illusions, as well as translations into German and reprint editions. (These books are richly illustrated and delightful.) With his mind-bending slides (in due course, PowerPoint) and winning showman’s patter, Seckel was an engaging lecturer and a hit with schoolchildren, at industry conventions, and at universities, where he was occasionally invited to speak. In what must have seemed like some sort of victory, Seckel gave his lecture on optical illusions at both Cornell and, eventually, Caltech.

Eventually, Feynman died and Gell-Mann became less active, not to mention more skeptical of Seckel. “He wasn’t a student of anybody,” the now-retired Gell-Mann told me, speaking from his home in New Mexico. “He pretended to be.” So at some point Seckel began building relationships with two younger Caltech professors, who seemed not to know that Seckel had a past on campus. Seckel first sought out Christof Koch, a neuroscientist who now leads the Allen Institute for Brain Science, the research center founded by Microsoft’s Paul Allen. Koch was studying visual perception, and agreed to collaborate with Seckel on a CD-ROM of illusions. “And then, off and on, we sort of had a relationship where he came to the lab,” Koch told me.

Their CD-ROM never materialized, but Seckel had also become friendly with Shinsuke Shimojo, a biologist who was also interested in visual perception, and who can’t quite remember how they met. “Somebody introduced him to me, because that person said we had common interests,” Shimojo says. “He had been a great collector of illusions, and at that time I thought he was a scientist studying illusion. There was even the possibility of writing a book together, which never happened. But he had ideas for collaboration.”

Both Koch and Shimojo remember Seckel as having had some sort of quasi-official status. “I think he had a guest appointment, which doesn’t really mean a lot,” Koch said. As of 2006, Seckel had an email address associated with Koch’s lab—and is still listed on its website as an alumnus—although a Caltech spokesperson said that the university never paid him.

In addition to welcoming Seckel into their labs, Koch and Shimojo attended Seckel’s parties, which he was still hosting. But when they learned that he was not, in fact, a credentialed scientist, Koch and Shimojo cooled on him. David Baltimore, the Nobel laureate who was then serving as Caltech’s president—and who, of course, had also partied at Seckel’s house—was at one point pulled into a conversation about the Seckel situation.

“It was hard to tell if he was nefarious or just unusual,” Baltimore said. But he, or somebody, soon decided that enough was enough. “Caltech decided not to have an official relationship” with him, Shimojo says, “and we warned him not to use my name or Koch’s name in any official publication. And partly he listened, and partly he didn’t.”

Seckel claims that McIver, his old enemy from the skeptics’ community, had written to Shimojo and Baltimore, “spreading his usual defamatory material.” But when I asked Shimojo about such a letter, he had no idea what I was talking about. “I’ve never seen this letter, nor any form of letter about Al in my recollection,” he wrote, noting that it was “possible” that McIver had written to Caltech. “Instead, I did receive multiple warnings from multiple directions, including a few external people and Caltech officials (Baltimore, Biology) and Koch.”

Estranged from Caltech, Seckel’s ambitions grew. In 2010, he hosted a private scientific conference on a Caribbean island owned by Jeffrey Epstein, a shadowy financier, and sex criminal, who had been the subject of a Vanity Fair profile. To be clear, unlike Epstein, neither Seckel nor any of his guests has been accused, let alone convicted, of using the island for sexual trysts with underage girls; they were taking a free trip and a chance for good conversation. Gell-Mann confirmed that he was there with Seckel, but, now quite aged, could not remember why (“It was just a little island,” he said). So were the physicist Leonard Mlodinow, Stephen Hawking’s co-author, who did not reply to my inquiry, and Gerald Sussman of MIT, who confirmed that he was there. “I don’t really remember very much,” Sussman said. “We had scientific discussions, talked about various things.” Only afterward, he said, did he even learn that Epstein had served time for having sex with an underage prostitute. “I got invited, I said, ‘Gee that’s interesting, I know nothing about Mr. Epstein or anything else. But if a rich man wants to talk about science, why not just get on a plane and go?’” When asked if he had ever given money to Seckel, Sussman got testy. “I have had some dealings with him. I don’t want to say what it’s about, because I don’t feel good about it, OK?”

In 2004, Seckel gave an early TED talk, on optical illusions. In the video, which is still online and has been viewed more than 1.5 million times, he shows a series of illusions, including the famous one in which a naked man holding a naked woman can, seen another way, be interpreted as a group of dolphins. It’s an engaging talk—Seckel is confident and energetic, cracking the audience up with a joke about how Caltech students always see the dolphins. On TED’s website, Seckel is identified as a “cognitive neuroscientist.”

In 2011, Seckel spoke at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on a panel called “Art and Illusion: Is Seeing Believing?” On the World Economic Forum’s website, he’s listed as “Founder, Super Smart Consulting Network,” “President and Founder, IllusionWorks,” “Co-Founder, Blue World Alliance,” and “Co-Founder, Mindshift, an educational company teaching thinking skills and pleasure of finding things out to young adults.” None of these organizations exists now, although some still have websites, and important people lent their names. Catherine Mohr, the surgical robotics innovator, joined the board of Blue World Alliance, which had something to do with the environment. Mohr told me she’s a “longtime friend” of Seckel and Isabel Maxwell. In our talk, she chose her words carefully, but insisted that Seckel was, if nothing else, “a remarkable connector of people.”


Seckel first met Isabel Maxwell on a blind date. They married around 2007—“I don’t keep the dates in my head,” he told me—in Malibu. She is the daughter of Robert Maxwell, the English press baron who drowned in the Atlantic Ocean in 1991, after falling off (or jumping from) his yacht. She is also the sister of Ghislaine Maxwell, who is a close friend of Jeffrey Epstein and the woman alleged to have procured girls for him (hence, it would seem, the connection between Seckel and Epstein’s island). Although the Maxwells’ father had been a billionaire, at the time of his death he was facing severe financial hardships, which were gleefully covered in the newspapers of his archrival, Rupert Murdoch. Isabel and Ghislaine are two of his nine children. In addition to co-founding Magellan, the early web search engine, Isabel has been a film producer and an advisor to Muhammad Yunus, the microfinance guru.

Sometime about five years ago, Maxwell and Seckel moved to the south of France to care for her ailing mother, who died in 2013. They have stayed in France, and Seckel told me he doesn’t miss California. “Where I live now, there is less emphasis on appearance,” he said. “No one cares about … how great a house I live in, what kind of clothes I have, what kind of car I drive, that kind of stuff.” But the lawsuits reach him, even overseas. One suit, brought by Ensign Consulting Ltd., a firm based in the Virgin Islands, accused Seckel and Maxwell of perpetrating a fraud involving “the purchase of antique rare books and a portrait of Sir Isaac Newton painted in 1689.” The details involve an allegedly false promise by Seckel that, if Ensign lent him the money to acquire this painting, he would re-sell it to Nathan P. Myhrvold, the former Microsoft executive. Ensign accused Seckel of absconding with over half a million dollars of the firm’s money. Myhrvold did not respond to a request for comment, and in March 2014 Ensign dropped the case. The files have been sealed by the court, and the only trace of them in the public record is a news article by a web service, which has seen been taken down.

Lately Seckel has been trying to sell the papers of Robert Maxwell, his late father-in-law, but so far he hasn’t found a buyer. He seems to have plenty of time, and in our Skype encounters last year, before he grew suspicious of me, he was a prodigious talker. Sometimes he floated a new story, a new bit of grandiosity, as if I were the mirror and he was trying to see if the story fit him. Did I know, he asked me, that he was the one who first gave Richard Dawkins the idea to attack creationism? Did I know that he gave Peter Diamandis the idea to fund James Cameron’s underwater exploration? (“I met Al Seckel many years ago, I think in San Diego and in the company of Francis Crick,” Dawkins told me in an email. “I’m afraid I have no recollection of our conversation except that he did a conjuring trick.”)

Seckel repeatedly mentioned a theory he calls “core belief systems,” which sounds similar to what social scientists call confirmation bias: interpreting new evidence to support one’s prior convictions. “I have a core set of beliefs,” Seckel told me, “and the information that comes in to me gets mapped according to my core belief system, even if that information is contradictory, impossible, or inconsistent with my core belief system.” That’s why, he explained as an example, free-market devotees resist the evidence for climate change: to accept it might force them to reevaluate their beliefs about the virtues of pure capitalism.

Seckel did get me thinking about my own core beliefs, and the core beliefs of others who fancy themselves too smart to be conned. One of those beliefs is that society’s laws and institutions are sound and reliable. This faith is especially important for scientists and academics, who build upon the work of other scholars, which they can’t always verify; they rely on certain signifiers to indicate that a person or an idea is legitimate. We know some people exaggerate and mislead—but we have to proceed every day as if it rarely happens.

When it does happen, we ask why. In Seckel’s case, the illusion is driven, I think, principally by a fantasy of the intellectual salon, of being at the center of a vibrant conversation among great brains. He no longer lingers over lunch with Feynman, but he never wanted to let me sign off our calls. He had things to convince me of, not least of which was the importance of the man telling me what was important.

Laura, Seckel’s first wife, would not speak with me. I could not reach Alice Klarke, Seckel’s third wife, whose marriage to Seckel was dissolved in 2007. But I did talk to his second wife, Denice Lewis, a former model; she was once a cover girl for Tatler and Town and Country. They met on a dating site and married, in Las Vegas, in 2004. When I called over the summer, she asked why I wanted to talk with her.

“Because you were married to Al Seckel,” I said.

She paused, laughed, then went silent.

“We’re still married,” Lewis said.

I asked Seckel about this, and he denied it—he admitted marrying Lewis, but claimed “the paperwork was never filed.” Their marriage certificate, however, issued by Clark County, Nevada, can still be found online.

“I met him, and he had all these pie-in-the-sky promises and hopes and dreams,” Lewis told me. “And he was really sweet, and I enjoyed talking with him a lot. He’s really intelligent. He’s just a liar.”

Mark Oppenheimer is a Senior Editor at Tablet. He hosts the podcast Unorthodox. He has contributed to Slate and Mother Jones, among many other publications. He is the author, most recently, of Squirrel Hill: The Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting and the Soul of a Neighborhood. He will be hosting a discussion forum about this article on his newsletter, where you can subscribe for free and submit comments.