“Have you heard about Chuck Ashman?” Who? “The guy who wrote those Waldheim stories for us last year, then disappeared. Very interesting. Very mysterious. Apparently we hired a detective.”

We thanked our Sun-Times informant and set out in pursuit of the mystery. Which is infinitely less significant, of course, than the mystery of Kurt Waldheim. Onetime Wehrmacht lieutenant of no consequence? Or participant in the deportation of tens of thousands of Jews from Greece and Yugoslavia to death camps, and in the execution of Allied prisoners?

Who knows? Though Chuck Ashman had his suspicions.

The American government came to its conclusion last April. The Justice Department placed Waldheim on the “watch list” of unwelcome foreigners. In rebuttal, Austria released a 300-page “white book,” Kurt Waldheim’s Wartime Years.

Now an international commission of military historians is wrapping up its own investigation of Austria’s president. The great mystery might be dispelled beyond reasonable doubt.

Leaving the affair of Chuck Ashman.

We wish we could be more precise about this. However Ashman said little, and that not for attribution, and Chicago Sun-Times officials either would say nothing on or even off the record or would not return phone calls. We know that Chuck Ashman and the publisher of the Sun-Times got together last year; and Ashman–who’s been selling himself all his life–sold the Sun-Times the American rights to the juicy articles he was already writing each week for the London Sunday Express.

Ashman, who writes out of New York, entered the pages of the Sun-Times last September identified as the paper’s UN correspondent. He’s Bob Page’s man, a curious staff was given to understand, and executive editor Ken Towers tried to drum up enthusiasm. He failed. To a lot of people Ashman’s copy seemed hyperbolic, selective in its facts. And why wasn’t Ashman in the union? The Newspaper Guild filed a grievance.

Almost every Sunday paper from September 13 to December 6 carried an Ashman story, most on Waldheim and rich in references to long-hidden UN files, a suppressed CIA memorandum, a “secret cable.” Then Ashman disappeared. Editors didn’t return his phone calls. The grievance was dropped. And the story spread about a detective . . .

Meanwhile, the Austrian government had also reacted to the Ashman articles. It had compiled a dossier on the author. The dossier’s facts were sketchy, but Austria corralled enough of them to make its point. Mr. Ashman, as the local consul general informed us, is “not without specks on his credentials.”

Who was Charles Ashman?

The best place to ask is at the Riverside Press-Enterprise in California. Librarians there tell us a private investigator showed up late last year, identified her client as the Sun-Times, and began xeroxing.

The key article was written in 1971, when Ashman, then 35, was dean of an unaccredited law school at a local university. The article painted Ashman’s domain as a cheesy operation given to the flamboyant gesture: for example, Melvin Belli, who had never taught there, much less retired from there, was installed as “dean emeritus” after locating his new International Court of Last Resort at the law school; on the other hand, the school looked for a law professor by running a want ad in the Press-Enterprise.

The article painted Ashman as a habitual embellisher of reality, among whose many spurious claims were a law degree from the University of Tennessee and postgraduate study at Oxford University, schools that told the Press-Enterprise they had no record of him.

Most tellingly, the paper examined his past. At the age of 21, when an aide to Senator George Smathers, he’d been named the Miami Beach Jaycees’ outstanding young man of the year. But in 1964, seven years later, he was convicted of three counts of passing fraudulent checks. He avoided prison by pleading insanity and undergoing two years’ confinement in a Florida state mental hospital.

Senator Smathers, who eventually fired Ashman, remembered him as a “bright but pushy young man [who] was not able to regulate himself.” The dean of Cumberland Law School in Tennessee, where Ashman did pick up a degree in 1960, told the Press-Enterprise that Ashman “had some pretty grandiose ideas. He had a lot of ability if he could have kept himself under control.”

Soon after the 1971 Press-Enterprise article appeared, the law school folded and Ashman left town. He showed up in Saint Louis in early 1973 as a drive-time talk show host on CBS-owned KMOX radio. Ashman took the town by storm, but before spring was out he’d been fired.

Another newspaper article that had raked up his past wasn’t the half of it. A KMOX source told the Saint Louis Journalism Review, “He was a tremendous disruptive influence. He rubbed everyone the wrong way.”

On the other hand, a colleague marveled at how he’d decided to go to the Kentucky Derby, made a call, and wound up in the governor’s box.

Ashman has demonstrated an astonishing ability to talk himself into high-powered jobs that he doesn’t keep long. He’s been executive vice-president of Polygram Pictures, president of 20th Century-Fox’s licensing and merchandising division; he’s run the licensing division of the McGregor/Faberge Corporation . . .

“One of the best salesmen I ever met,” remembered someone at Faberge, where Ashman put in about a year before resigning in 1985. “He’s a genius but he’s a maniac in some ways. I think maybe he was just a little too flamboyant for this business.”

As president of the music division at Fox, Herb Eiseman had the office next to Ashman’s. “He had this very very bizarre personality,” Eiseman told us. “Whenever I played music he’d come ranting and raving in. He couldn’t concentrate, which I can understand, but he had to realize that was my area of operation. Finally he left and things were OK.”

Ashman has found time to write numerous breezy books with catchy titles: like Connally: The Adventures of Big Bad John, Kissinger: The Adventures of Super-Kraut, The Gospel According to Billy [Graham], and Martha [Mitchell]: The Mouth That Roared. The last book was Diplomatic Crime, a survey of abuses of diplomatic immunity. He’s sensational on tour.

“He’s a super media person, he’s wonderful on TV,” said someone who’s worked closely with Ashman. “He’s a very powerful person to work with. But yet he also has another side to him that gets out of control and he can be the most vicious, demeaning person you’ve ever talked to.”

Henry Macrory, news editor of the London Sunday Express, doesn’t see where a touch of the manic presents a problem, not in Ashman’s present trade: investigative journalism. And claiming to be vaguely aware of it, Macrory dismisses Ashman’s past. “Plenty of people have skeletons in their closets and this does sound like it happened a long time ago.”

The Sunday Express has blazed Ashman’s choicest dispatches across its pages. “We’ve been publishing his stories for two years,” Macrory said, “and we’ve never had any complaints about accuracy”–the Austrian government the obvious exception. “We feel everything Chuck has written about Waldheim could be vindicated in the near future. The wind is blowing his way.”

Also vouching for Ashman is his collaborator of the moment, Washington-based columnist Bob Wagman. The two of them are working up a book, The Nazi Hunters, which will be out later this year. “I have the highest regard for him,” Wagman said. “His work is very professional and thorough. He’s gotten some terrific stuff. He’s always right on the money.”

But Wagman is puzzled. “Chuck’s background has never been anything he’s hidden. I would have suspected that Page was well aware of it.” He recalled having dinner with Ashman and Page last autumn. “Page was thrilled. When Chuck was on the Today show he was keyed as ‘Chuck Ashman, Chicago Sun-Times.’

“I do know,” Wagman added, “there’s been a lot of pressure from the Austrians.”

Yes. Clemens Coreth, the Austrian consul general in Chicago, wrote the Sun-Times accusing Ashman of “misrepresentation” and “malicious” insinuations. And Coreth hand delivered a copy of the “white book” to Krishna Gaur, the editorial page editor.

“President Waldheim is a very sensitive issue in United States papers,” Coreth told us the other day in his corner office in the Wrigley Building. A portrait of Kurt Waldheim hung on the far wall. “But I think it is a totally overblown story. I think we have been treated very unfairly, that our president has been put on the watch list. To judge a president of another country is illegal by international law.”

Coreth referred often to the “white book,” to the Ashman dossier, and to various other papers stacked on a coffee table as he made a case for his chief of state.

“I think Mr. Chuck Ashman–certainly he’s the sort of reporter that we would call not objective and not according to the standards and ethics of the American press. Which we cherish,” Coreth informed us.

We wondered how his government had pulled its dossier together. “From people who read his articles and said, well, we’ve known that guy,” Coreth explained. “We certainly don’t have the funds to put a detective on Chuck Ashman.”

Nor would Austria deign to. “Chuck Ashman,” said the consul general with a sniff, “is not an interesting person.”