The Wild Purple Heart of Chuck Pfeifer

“I don’t want to jump off a cliff here, but the kids today didn’t go through what I went through, in terms of mode of discipline. They’re all so pampered and spoiled, the men are. They’re kind of born on the couch. They didn’t pay the price in terms of time and money,” Chuck Pfeifer was saying. The silver-haired 6-foot-3 former West Point running back and Green Beret had his feet propped up on a leather ottoman. We were sitting in the “Red Room” of his spacious apartment on East 79th Street and Lexington Avenue. He also has a “Writers’ Room,” lined with photos of Mr. Pfeifer with Norman Mailer, George Plimpton, Terry McDonell; and also a “Cowboy Room” filled with photos of his ranch  in Montana—where Keith Richards and his wife, Patti Hansen, sometimes visit—and his other ranch, in South Dakota. The blood-crimson walls of the Red Room display testaments to the 67-year-old’s life: A North Vietnamese flag; his Silver Star commendation; bronze stars, purple hearts; Mr. Pfeifer, handsome, cigarette in hand, as the Winston Man; and framed magazine profiles he wrote for Interview magazine, including one of Oliver Stone, who wound up putting him in Wall Street.

“Do you want some more soda?” he asked.

“We’re all a bunch of pussies?” I parried, quaffing my sugar-free beverage and carving another slab of Brie. 

“You said it, but I agree with you,” said Mr. Pfeifer.

The son of a wealthy businessman, Charles Pfeifer grew up in a penthouse on 72nd Street and Park Avenue. He remembers the ’50s when men wore hats and women were immaculate. Bang. The first fire came early: Cancer claimed his mother when he was 12. “I got two brothers out of the deal, that’s the way I like to look at it,” he said, referring to the sons of his father’s second wife.

Chuck was shipped off to military prep school, then Dartmouth. The university gave him the boot after a year for having “too much testosterone” (specifically, putting an ax through his door) and so he joined the army, which was a route by which a rogue student could be readmitted into the Ivy League. His prowess on the football field helped him secure a spot at West Point. Then: knee injury. He graduated in 1965 and spent some time doing the army’s bidding by jumping out of planes in Germany and scuba diving with the Greeks. Vietnam interrupted all that. He was assigned to head up a unit tasked with rescuing other units that had gotten into trouble in places Americans weren’t supposed to be, like Laos and Cambodia. After nine months, a mosquito gave him malaria. Two months in a military hospital and 40 pounds lighter, he was reassigned to pushing paper clips. But then, reads his Silver Star commendation, “23, August, ’68. In the early morning darkness, Captain Pfeifer was startled from his sleep when exploding satchel charges rocketed his billet. Some 100 heavily armed Northern Vietnamese were inside his United States base, blowing up billets and machine gunning American soldiers who attempted to reach cover.” An unlucky sapper arrived at Captain Pfeifer’s door; he shot him in the head with the .9mm he kept under his pillow. He proceeded to “rush barefoot through a murderous crossfire to find adjacent buildings demolished and ablaze. Dozens of wounded United States personnel laid in the open or inside their destroyed barracks with little hope of receiving medical aid. Assessing the situation, Captain Pfeifer assembled and led a small fire team methodically attacking and eliminating barracked enemy positions, repeatedly exposing himself to enemy fire and ignoring his own wounds to rescue isolated groups of fellow soldiers. Firing his rifle and tossing more than 15 hand grenades with incredible accuracy.” I was reading it aloud in his apartment, and at this point, Mr. Pfeifer called out, “Go, Chuck!” 

Patched up, he came back to New York. That Christmas Eve, as he and his dad flipped through a book of Vietnam photographs, his game face crumbled.

“All these emotions kind of welled out of me,” he said. “And I broke down into these deep, deep sobs. I’m saying to myself, ‘Here I’m home for Christmas and a lot of kids weren’t home, that didn’t make it, or were really fucked up.’”

He said it wasn’t so much the killing that got to him—he’d capped a few guys in the head just to make sure they were dead—as it was seeing the bodies of his fellow soldiers “stacked up like cordwood.” 

He got himself a shrink and took a job in advertising at Young & Rubicam. His brother, a Harvard man and banker, had turned Chuck’s military paychecks into a tidy fortune, which he quickly went about spending on club memberships and updating his wardrobe.

He soon discovered that handsome-devil–New York society–war-hero status came with perks. “I remember when I first met Chuck in ’71,” said his friend Bill David, who was recently back from Vietnam himself at the time. “Guess who he was with? Jennifer O’Neill! That was his girlfriend!”

The Wild Purple Heart of Chuck Pfeifer