A SPY STORY: A Mysterious Cold War Death

I recently discovered—during one of those browses on the Internet that turns up up a silver nugget—a snippet of a documentary about a confrontation between the Dutch and the Chinese during the summer of 1966.

The extract of documentary reports on, and reconstructs, a sinister episode that took place in The Hague, on July 16th, during which a Chinese “welder” was found wounded on the sidewalk of the third secretary of the Chinese diplomatic legation.   The ensuing events—the severely wounded man was later kidnapped from the hospital where he’d been rushed by the Dutch for treatment, and whisked to the home of the Chinese chargé d’affaires, where he died—turned into a months-long stand-off between the Dutch security police and the Chinese.  It was never clear whether Hsu Tzu-tsai had accidentally fallen from an upper story window, had met with foul play, or, whether, as the Chinese maintained, Hsu had been incited by “U.S. secret agents” to defect, and fallen from the building while trying to sneak away.

My father’s job as a covert CIA operative in The Hague was to serve as liaison to the Dutch intelligence service, and his portfolio included work with potential defectors.  What his precise involvement in this tragedy and hot-point in East-West affairs might have been, I can’t know, but I ponder the episode in my book about my covert operative father, Born Under an Assumed Name.   The short documentary-extract is, in any case, a fascinating lens into a moment—one of so many—in the Cold War.  Here is the link:


Originally posted Tuesday, February 28th, 2012

A SPY STORY: A Spy Beholds Himself – I recollect the day my covert operative father saw le Carré’s first film

EntRichard Burton as Alec Leamas in “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold”er a caption

For me, a convention-bound girl, it was a glimmer of something significant.  For my father, it was as if the very first day had dawned.

The year was 1966.  My family was on vacation in Germany—we were posted to The Hague then, I was about twelve—and my father, who I thought was a diplomat, had gone out to see “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold,” the film based on John le Carré’s novel, at a U.S. army post, alone.

My mother, brother and I spent the evening lounging about our Heidelberg hotel room, taking baths and reading after a day of castle-viewing in the wet.  We were all in typical fettle.  I was reading my umpteenth Enid Blyton and begging my mother for a green purse I’d seen in a shop window.  My brother, two years my junior, was gobbling one of his World War II accounts, and my mother was snuggled under her covers with a mystery, grateful, at last, to be warm.

Then, about ten o’clock, my father appeared.  He walked in from out of the drenching German rain, dripping in his Balmacaan raincoat, crossed the threshold, and it was as if the world was stunned.  The bustle stopped.  My father stood there, all joy, illuminated by a Renaissance beam from heaven.

“Well?” my mother said, putting down her book.

“It was very, very good,” he said, his voice full of a hoarse breathiness.

He walked around the room—it was as if he was so abuzz with energy he couldn’t sit down—and then he came over to my brother and me on our beds and gave us big, hard squeezes.  My squeeze was delicious; it thrilled with an exuberance I hadn’t sensed in my father before.  I forgot myself for a moment and watched this new, charged father.

In the film, the washed-up British covert operative, Alec Leamas, played by Richard Burton, pretends to defect to East Germany, and, at the behest of “Control,” the British spy-master,  sacrifices an earnest, truth-telling East German secret serviceman, a would-be whistle-blower, in order to keep in place a ruthless but useful tyrant-traitor, so that he can be further exploited by the British intelligence service.

Leamas has fallen in love with Nancy, the Communist woman he’s used in the operation. When she protests, during their flight along a dark East German road, that he’s killed a good man, he says, “The only rule is expediency. Mundt gives London what it needs, so Mundt lives and Fiedler dies…

“You think spies are moral philosophers measuring everything they do against God or Karl Marx?” he continues.  “They’re seedy, squalid little bastards like me—little men, drunkards, queers, hen-pecked husbands, civil servants playing cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten little lives…It was a filthy operation to save Mundt’s skin.  God save us both.”

Then, taking on Nancy’s belief in the Communists’ purity, hard-bitten Leamas says, “How big does a cause have to be before you kill your friends?  There are a few million bodies on that path.”

I don’t know to what in the film my father most chimed. Perhaps it was the ending, really, in which Leamas dies for love rather than country, that so moved my father.  Or all the complex all of it.

My father was a man who, quite young, had cut himself away from his origins.  Having sipped the elixir of Japan in the army, he’d left his large St. Louis family behind to join the federal government—and not just any arm of government.    He’d joined a club—the covert operations side of the C.I.A.—in which all his activities were secret and those secret activities were fraught with moral quandaries and logistical puzzles of serious consequence for foreign affairs and human lives.  In his daily work he was nameless or falsely-named, engaging in activities he supposedly wasn’t engaging in, invisible.  Neither my brother nor I, nor anyone in the outside world, knew about the underground democrats inside China he lent secret support, the agents he recruited and hid from despots’ torture, the daily work of weighing: Is that worth this?  He often felt un-recognized even at the CIA, where—ironically, but like everywhere—the most visible got the attention and rewards.  Elegant in a khaki suit, kind, a man of thoughts—but misty, my father easily slipped into the backdrop.  He had a talent for “hiding in plain sight.”   The ideal spy in a sense, he was never, literally, seen for who he was.

My father asked for little, and as the years passed, it seemed he cut more and more ground out from under himself, living on less and less.  He believed in living for a higher good.  His ideal was Gandhian renunciation.  But everyone, even a man who can subsist on a couple of sardines and a chunk of carrot, needs affirmation.

Around the time he saw the film, I later learned, my father was liaison to Dutch intelligence during a murky episode in Dutch-American-Chinese relations in which a Chinese “welder,” possibly a would-be defector to the West, fell to his eventual death from the upper story window of the The Hague row house of the Third Secretary of the Communist Chinese diplomatic mission, under very suspicious circumstances.

I have no idea what my father’s specific involvement might have been, nor what he thought of the affair.  What I do know, from my father’s rapt face that rainy night in Heidelberg, is that, to see Alex Leamas–caught up in morally dubious schemes, engaged in relationships behind the Iron Curtain wherein people are supported and used and sacrificed in the name of national security — must have been like seeing himself.  All the passions and perplexities of his own life, usually cached in his mind, there to behold, flashing before his very eyes.  At last: here I am.  I exist.  I am not just a phantom slipping into mist.  What relief, what gladness—even, or especially, to see the hardest and most troubling things.  Oh the joy in my father’s face—at beholding his reflection.

There is something so deeply human–and urgent–about the need for confirmation: to see one’s experience shown, concretized, reflected back.  This is what movies provide, and art, and books, and friends:  They allow one to see oneself, in essence, in action in the world, bulking around.  To a mirror, the heart trills.  And for the spy, whose life is hidden away, how much more powerful such a reflection must be.

But what was it, I wonder, that made this particular moment stick in a self-absorbed twelve year-old girl’s mind?  I knew nothing, at the time, about the true nature of my father’s work.  I think it was simply the experience of seeing my father in a new light: standing tall, apart from me, elated.  Usually, in his daily life, he was intent and hard-working, always attending to the home- or work-related crisis at hand.  His brow knotted behind his horn-rimmed glasses as he tended to multitudinous needs, ever endeavoring to be someone for others.  He was the opposite of unfettered and free.  But in this moment, in that hotel room in Heidelberg, I saw a man on his own, cut loose on his own raft—affirmed and completely joyous.

What I absorbed, as a young girl on the cusp of adolescence that evening in Heidelberg, was a picture of my father as he seldom seemed.  To put beside the busy, buffeted, burdened man, invisible but giving himself away drop by drop: here was a man easy inside his own skin, buoyant with happiness.  And this gave me a kind of permission: to not just bend to demand, but to look out for a sort of cut-loose joy.

Originally published Sunday, January 15th, 2012

Lisbon Book Launch

It seemed both needlessly grand, and yet somehow fitting, for Lisbon to be the place I should launch my new book, set my newest baby in its paper boat out to sea.  As it happened, this was how things came to pass, and it was my great luck and privilege that they did.

I was invited, in November, to give a couple of workshops and a reading from my new book, Born Under an Assumed Name: The Memoir of a cold War Spy’s Daughter, at the Portugal meeting of the European Council for International Schools.  This is a yearly event at which teachers from around the world gather, in a rich and festive atmosphere, to share tricks of the instructional trade as well as the emissions of their bright, curious and adventurous minds.  Yes.  Bright, curious, adventurous: this was my impression of school teachers, of whose company, it turns out, I have been too long deprived.  Teachers of the young, it seems, are an exceptionally interesting, hospitable, polymathic and world-gobbling breed. As they graciously greeted my suggestions for drawing writing from their students, and warmly welcomed into their midst my young book—as I imagine they greet the young beings who fetch up in their classrooms—I spent my time soaking in their zest for the world.  I am immensely appreciative of this rare treat.

As for my impressions of Lisbon, the site in which all this eager exchange was taking place:  This former empire, a place of once-gleaming tiled abodes and grand palaces, seemed down at heel—and somehow, spectral.  (Aren’t we all, perhaps, from our imperial babyhoods onward, and in the end, former empires?  And on the broader canvas, and in the end, and especially now, aren’t all countries headed that way?)  At the same time, it seemed a place where the best things are available: meals of fish, potatoes and olives, rides in tiny, old wooden trolleys, and warm people, with nothing to prove. Simple, delicious.


I would like to share with you, in photographic form, my two strongest impressions of the place. This first image shows the Monument to the Discoveries, a massive, stone, peopled prow which honors Henry the Navigator, Magellan, Vasco de Gama, and others who opened up sea routes through the world during Portugal’s Age of Conquest.

This second image shows just a few of the winged cherubs that seem to pop out—laughing and cavorting and generally creating mischief—from alley niches, cathedral alcoves, and, indeed, atop serving tureens, turning Lisbon to a celebration and festoon of romping babies.

It occurs to me that this is how we should all take up life: with the grand vision of a Portuguese explorer and the unself-conscious chortle of a baby.

My Eyewitness Lisbon guide reads, “Although the Hindu ruler of Calicut, who received him wearing diamond and ruby rings, was not impressed by his humble offerings of cloth and wash basins, da Gama returned to Portugal with a cargo of spices.”  In Lisbon, I launched—with trepidation, gulping for bravery–my little prow, my book, my humble offering of personal perspectives.  Perspectives on: what it is to grow up the daughter of a spy; what it means to live with secrets; how it is to traipse across the world, discovering other cultures but in a pitched battle for identity; how it is to watch a father and a spy engage in secret activities and grow increasingly dismayed; and what it means to be an American in this world.  I returned from that still-grand city with a cargo of spices.

In this periodic blog, it is my plan to offer my cloth and wash basins: my thoughts on writing, global nomad adventures, spies, and other clandestine and miscellaneous affairs.   I will try to make the missives shorter than this one.  Perhaps you will share your spices with me.

Originally posted Thursday, December 29th, 2011