Authors: Lara Prescott
Why would Irina be meeting with Frank? And on her first day? It didn’t take a genius to put it together: Irina hadn’t been hired for her words per minute.
The routine was for the Pool to treat the new gal to a lunch at Ralph’s—to warm her up, and to find out her stats: NW or NE? College or typing school? Single or attached? Sober or fun? Then we’d quiz her on where she got her hair done, what she liked to do on weekends, why she came to the Agency, her thoughts on the new policy of not being allowed to wear flats or sleeveless dresses. But when our lunch hour came and went and Irina still hadn’t returned, we had to settle for a quick bite in the cafeteria without her.
She returned that afternoon carrying a stack of handwritten field reports to type up—her demeanor unchanged. If nothing else, we were professionals. So we didn’t ask how her meeting went or what special skills she must possess or what other duties she might’ve been assigned.
It was four thirty—right about the time our typing would slow and we’d begin filing away our unfinished work and start looking at the clock every three minutes. But Irina was still typing away with gusto. We were pleased to see the new gal had a solid work ethic, in addition to whatever hidden talents she might possess. A weak link in the Pool would only create more work for the rest of us. At five on the dot, we stood and asked Irina to join us at Martin’s.
“Martini? Tom Collins? Singapore Sling?” Judy asked. “What’s your poison?”
“I can’t,” Irina said, gesturing toward a stack of papers. “I have to catch up.”
“Catch up on work?” Linda said when we were finally outside. “On her first day?”
meet with Frank on
first day?” Gail asked.
haven’t met with Frank,” Norma said.
Cold stones of jealousy rattled in our stomachs and we wanted to know more. We wanted to know everything about the new Russian gal.
Irina took to the job quickly. Weeks passed and she never once asked for help. And thank God, as we didn’t have time for handholding. Tensions had increased threefold in SR that November, after news spread of the failed uprising against the Soviet Union in Hungary—and our role in it. Encouraged by Agency propaganda efforts, Hungarian protesters had taken to the streets of Budapest to oppose their Soviet occupiers. They’d been under the impression that reinforcements would come from Western allies. No reinforcements came. The revolution lasted just twelve days before the Soviets put a violent end to it. The number of Hungarians the
reported killed was horrifying, but the number we typed in our reports was even worse. They thought they were doing the right thing, that their well-laid plans would work. Our best men were on it. How could it fail? But the country was in ruins. The Agency
failed. Allen Dulles—the spy chief we’d see only when those of us with high enough clearance were asked to take notes at an important meeting—demanded answers, which the men struggled to provide.
We were asked to work late, to sit in during after-hours meetings. If we stayed past the time the buses and streetcars ran, they’d pay for our taxis home. Going into Thanksgiving, we feared they’d cancel our holiday time. Thankfully, they didn’t.
Those of us whose families were a plane ride away would usually stay in Washington over the holiday, saving our paychecks for Christmas travel. We’d throw a potluck at whoever’s apartment was the largest, or whoever’s roommate was out of town. We’d bring a chair and a covered dish and even though we’d try to plan who brought what, we’d always end up with at least four pumpkin pies and enough turkey to last a week.
Those of us whose families were just a train or a bus ride away would go home. Our parents and siblings always welcomed us back like prodigal daughters. For them, Washington was more than a world away—it was a place where the nightly news was made. We’d be purposefully vague about our job duties, and our families thought our lives to be much more exciting than they were. We’d drop names like Nelson Rockefeller, Adlai Stevenson, and the impossibly handsome senator from Massachusetts, John Kennedy, saying we’d met these movers and shakers at various parties and events, though we were lucky if we knew someone who knew someone who’d met them.
For those of us who’d go back to our hometowns, the night before Thanksgiving always meant a big meet-up at a local bar. The old high school crowd would gather over cocktails and we’d wear our best heels and our softest cashmere and make sure our hair was done and that we had no lipstick on our teeth. Forgetting their wedding rings, the popular boys who’d ignored us in high school would tell us how great it was to see us and that we should come home more often. In D.C., we were part of the throngs of government gals, but in our hometowns, we’d made it.
We’d say our goodbyes to our old classmates with a “See ya next year” and go home, slightly tipsy, to at least one of our parents who’d tried waiting up for us but had fallen asleep on the couch. The next day, we’d cook turkey, then eat turkey, then nap, then eat more turkey, then nap again.
It was good to be home,
we’d tell our aunts and uncles and cousins. But within two days we’d be back on the bus or train to D.C., a turkey sandwich packed in our pocketbook.
When we returned the Monday after this particular Thanksgiving, we’d forgotten about Irina and were surprised to see her sitting at Tabitha’s old desk. We were polite, asking what she’d done over the holiday, and she told us that she and her mother didn’t really celebrate Thanksgiving, but that she had picked up two Swanson turkey dinners, and that they were surprisingly good. “My mother ate half my peas and mashed potatoes when I got up to get another glass of wine,” she said. We hadn’t known Irina lived with her mother. And before we could ask any more questions, Anderson came by with bundles of paperwork. “Christmas came early, girls,” he said.
We moaned. We envied our counterparts on Capitol Hill, who enjoyed long breaks when Congress wasn’t in session. We had no such luck; the Agency never slept.
“Lotta work to catch up on, girls. Let’s hop to it, huh?”
“Lotta stuffing you ate last week, huh?” Gail muttered when Anderson walked away.
We eventually got back to work, and the rest of the morning dragged. By eleven, we were already on our fifth cigarette and looking at the clock. By noon, we were practically jumping out of our chair for lunch. Most of us had leftover turkey sandwiches, and Kathy had brought a Thermos of turkey noodle soup. But it was just one of those days when we had to get out of the office. The first day back from vacation, even a short one, was always the worst.
Linda stood first and cracked her knuckles. “Cafeteria?”
“Really?” asked Norma.
“Hot Shoppes?” Norma suggested. “I could go for an Orange Freeze.”
“Too cold out,” Judy said.
” said Kathy.
“La Niçoise?” Linda suggested.
“Not everyone has the luxury of a husband’s salary,” Gail said.
We looked at each other and said it together: “Ralph’s?”
Not only did Ralph’s serve the best damn doughnuts in the District, it also had the most delicious French fries, and ketchup that was made in-house. Plus, the men never lunched there. They preferred the Old Ebbitt Grill, where they could feast on oysters and drink their fill of ten-cent martinis. Sometimes the men would invite us if they were feeling generous or amorous or both. They’d order trays of oysters and rounds of martinis for the table, even though Kathy had a shellfish allergy and Judy refused to eat anything hauled out of the ocean.
We asked Irina if she wanted to join us, because she was finally talking and we wanted to keep her talking. To our surprise, she agreed, even though we’d seen her put a sandwich in the break room fridge that morning.
On our way out, Teddy Helms and Henry Rennet were coming in. We liked Teddy, but Henry was another matter. The men at the Agency thought we were just sitting in the corner typing away quietly. But we weren’t just taking memos—we were also taking names. And Henry’s was at the top of our list. Why Teddy and Henry were friends, we hadn’t a clue. Henry was the kind of man whose confidence, not his looks, got him much in life—too much. Women, a high-ranking job right out of Yale, all the right Washington invites. Teddy was his opposite—someone who thought before he spoke, who was pensive and a little mysterious.
“You haven’t introduced me to the new girl,” Henry started in, even though we’d avoided eye contact with him. Teddy stood beside him, his hands in his pockets, looking sideways at Irina.
“The sharks have already begun to circle,” whispered Kathy.
“Were you expecting an invitation to her coming-out party?” Norma asked, not exactly disguising her disdain for Henry. The previous summer, there’d been a rumor circling SR that he’d slept with Norma after a barbecue at Anderson’s house. In reality, Henry had offered Norma a ride home and, at a stoplight, reached under her skirt and grabbed her. Norma didn’t say a word. She just opened the car door and stepped out into the middle of traffic. Henry yelled out the window for her to stop being stupid and get back in the damn car as other drivers honked for her to get out of the way. She ended up walking the four miles home, and she didn’t tell us for months about the incident.
“Of course,” Henry said. “It’s my business to know everything going on here.”
“Is it?” Judy asked.
“I’m Irina.” She extended her hand and Henry laughed.
“How quaint,” Henry said, shaking her hand in that bone-crushing way of his. “Henry. Pleasure.” He turned to Norma. “Now, that wasn’t too hard, was it?”
“Teddy,” Teddy said, extending his hand to Irina.
“Pleasure to meet you.” It was clear Irina was just being polite, but judging from Teddy’s shuffling schoolboy posture, he seemed smitten from the get-go.
“Well,” Norma said, tapping an invisible watch. “Our lunch hour is now our lunch half hour.”
Outside, we were met with a blast of wind. We tightened our scarves and Irina draped a fringed shawl over her head, then wrapped it around her neck. We wondered just how much of the old country was left in her. We wanted to warn Irina about Henry and also find out what she thought of Teddy right away but, not wanting anyone else to hear, decided to save it for Ralph’s.
Christmas wreaths and garlands on every lamppost had already replaced the last traces of fall. We passed Kann’s and stopped to watch as a young woman put the finishing touches on an elaborate winter wonderland display in the store’s window. She placed individual pieces of silver tinsel on a bare cherry blossom branch, then stood back to admire her work. “So pretty,” Irina said. “I just love Christmas.”
“I thought Russians don’t celebrate Christmas?” Linda asked. “The no religion thing and all?”
We looked at each other, unsure if Irina was offended by the remark. She tightened her shawl around her face, then said in a thick Russian accent, “Well, I was born here, wasn’t I?” She smiled. We laughed, and felt the subtle walls of our group begin to expand.
“Remember the snake?” Walter Anderson asked, balancing his champagne over the railing of the
spilling it into the Potomac. Red-cheeked, more from the booze than from the brisk fall air, Anderson was holding court in front of six people who’d heard the story many times, myself included.
“Who could forget the snake?” I asked.
“Certainly not you, Sally.” He gave me an exaggerated wink.
I loved teasing Anderson, and he loved dishing it right back. We’d both been stationed in Kandy during the war, working Morale Operations to steer the message toward the greater good. In other words, we were propagandists. Back then, he’d given his all to trying to get cozy with me, and when I rebuffed him for the tenth time, he settled into a big brother role.
“Got something in your eye?” I asked. Most people found him obnoxious, but I thought Anderson was harmlessly corny.
The crowd ate it up. It was always like that: any time we all got together, the old stories would start up as the drinking wound down. After the war, most of them had moved on, creating new stories they were forbidden to speak about. So they told the old stories—the stories they’d told a hundred times before. The snake tale was an old standby of Anderson’s. After his time in the OSS, rumor had it he’d attempted to write scripts in Hollywood. We’d heard he’d worked on a series of
Cloak and Dagger
It Came from Outer Space
type treatments that got him some early meetings with producers but never got off the ground. He’d then decided to spend his days perfecting his backswing at the Columbia Country Club, but that got boring, and after a month or two, he knocked on Dulles’s door—his actual door, in Georgetown—and asked for a job at the Agency. In his early fifties, Anderson was given an administrative role, although he’d begged to be put back into the field.
The old gang had gathered to celebrate an anniversary of sorts. Eleven years earlier, we’d left our posts in Ceylon, the war already over. The future of the OSS and American intelligence had remained uncertain. It’d be two years before the Agency would be created—two years before a home would be given to wayward OSS officers who’d grown tired of raking in the dough at their New York law firms and brokerage houses and wanted, even more than to serve their country again, the power that came from being a keeper of secrets. It was a power that some, myself included, found more intoxicating than any drug, sex, or other means of quickening one’s heartbeat. We’d planned on celebrating our tenth anniversary, but it was postponed again and again until someone just set a date.
“Anyway,” Anderson continued. “Honest to God, the fucker was nine meters long.”
“Twenty-nine feet?” one of the younger Agency men piped in.
“That’s right, Henry, my boy. Mark my words, she was a man-eater. Killed half a dozen Burmese by the time I got called in.”
“How do you know she was a
?” I asked.
“Believe me, Sally, only a female could’ve wreaked such havoc. And they needed a man to put her in her place.”
“So why were
called in?” I said.
“Community relations,” he said, straight-faced. “The snake was a menace. I’m telling you, she was something out of a horror flick. That snake still makes the occasional cameo in my nightmares. Just ask Prudy.” He pointed to his wife, a petite woman with large yellow plastic earrings that made her earlobes droop, keeping warm inside the yacht’s saloon with the other wives. She looked out the window and gave a little wave. “Anyway, she wouldn’t come out of her hole—”
“Like this story!” someone yelled from the back of the crowd.
“It was more like a cave than a hole, really,” he continued, ignoring the heckler. “She’d be in there for months. Sleeping, waiting. Then one day, she’d slither out and saddle up next to a cow. Then
!” He clapped his hands for effect. “She’d drag the poor bovine back down the hole without so much as a moo. Really put a hurting on the village’s economy. And we didn’t want that, right?”
“Wouldn’t be a horrible way to go,” Frank Wisner said, joining the group. The circle split so the boss could take a front-row seat for Anderson’s story. Frank was the one who’d paid for the boat we were standing on, the alcohol we were drinking, and the shrimp cocktail we were eating. “Wouldn’t know it was comin’,” he continued in his Mississippi lilt. “Just standing in a grassy field somewhere, chewin’ on some cud, perhaps contemplating whether to go down to the stream for a drink, and then—”
“Don’ be morbid, Frank,” Anderson said. “Jesus.”
Anderson had started slurring his words—and when he slurred his words, the words he did manage to get out usually got him in trouble. With the boss in the mix now, I motioned for him to hurry up and finish the goddamn story.
“I oversaw the whole operation.”
“Operation Kaa?” my friend Beverly asked. She half-laughed, half-hiccuped, and the crowd tittered.
“For the love of God, can I please go on?”
“No one’s holding you back,” Bev said, her voice high and throaty, indicating she was one too many glasses of bubbly over her limit. She was wearing a black Givenchy sack dress, bought on a recent trip to Paris. After the war, Bev had married an oil lobbyist, who kept her dressed in the latest fashions as long as she turned her head when he came home smelling like bourbon and knock-off Chanel No. 5. She hated the guy’s guts, so she made sure the trade was as even as possible by buying everything as soon as it stepped off the runway, not to mention having the occasional dalliance of her own with her old OSS beaux. The sack dress did nothing to flatter her figure, but I gave her credit for attempting it.
Someone handed Anderson a flask. He took a swig and coughed. “Anyway. I brought ten men with me to the cave, hole, whatever you call it. Plan was to smoke her out, then bag her.”
“What kind of bag’s gonna hold a thirty-foot snake?” Frank asked. He was smiling, egging Anderson on. They’d entered the OSS together, but Frank had risen to the top while Anderson stayed stuck in the middle. Frank was still handsome, still maintained the physique of the college track star he’d been thirty years earlier. He was the kind of man who believed anything was possible—especially with himself at the helm. But there was something off about him that night. Twice I’d seen him standing apart from the guests, looking out over the slowly churning Potomac. I wondered if the rumors were true that he’d suffered a breakdown after the Soviets put an end to the Hungarian uprising he’d helped orchestrate.
Anderson took another swig from the flask and cleared his throat. “Good question, boss. We sewed a bunch of burlap sacks together, then rigged a giant zipper down the middle.”
Frank grinned. He already knew the ending, of course. “And it held?”
Anderson took another swig. “I had five guys holding the bag, two to zip it up when the snake came out, two standing by with pistols, and me supervising—just in case something went wrong.”
“What could go wrong?” I asked.
“What couldn’t?” Frank said, and the crowd laughed louder than the boss’s joke warranted.
“I’ll tell you!” Anderson answered. But before he could continue, the
lurched and the engine stopped. Someone went to ask the captain what was going on and found him not on the bridge, but enjoying a drink in the saloon surrounded by the wives. The captain went to check with the engineer, who confirmed that a fuse had blown and said he’d call the marina for a tow back to the dock. Frank told the captain to wait another hour before calling, and the party continued, unmoored.
As we bobbed along, Anderson continued. He said they smoked the snake out of its hole with a tear gas canister and when the snake came out, they zipped her up in the bag, but the snake, a fighter, busted out within minutes. But not to worry, Anderson was standing by with his pistol. “Right between the eyes,” he concluded.
“Poor thing,” I said.
“Bullshit,” Frank said.
Anderson placed his hand over his heart. “Swear to God.”
Fact was, Anderson’s wife, Prudy, had corroborated the story the first time I heard it—over a steak dinner at the Colony—confirming that the snakeskin was indeed stored away in their basement, slowly disintegrating in an old refrigerator box. “Why he ever brought that nasty thing home, I have no idea,” she’d told me.
I squeezed Anderson’s arm and excused myself and joined Bev on the stern.
She leaned in and lit my cigarette. “Hey, stranger,” she said. “Story over yet?”
The Jefferson Memorial was lit up in the distance, the District asleep behind it. Under the orange night sky, the city looked peaceful, the power plays and constant angling at rest for the night.
“This isn’t so bad, is it?” Bev asked.
“Not bad at all, Bev.” I’d surprised myself by actually having a good time. After the war, I’d come back to Washington with the promise that I could land a job at the State Department. And I did. But instead of a cushy job at State with my own office, they stuck me in the basement sorting records. I could only take it for six months before I quit, after which I distanced myself from the old boys’ club.
I’d been many things, but I was no record keeper. I couldn’t even pretend. I’d been a nurse, a waitress, an heiress. I once posed as a librarian. I’d been someone’s wife, someone’s mistress, fiancée, lover. I’d been Russian, French, and British. I’d been from Pittsburgh, Palm Springs, and Winnipeg. I could become just about anyone. I had one of those faces—the wide eyes, the ready smile that suggested I was an open book, someone who had no secrets to keep, and if she did, wouldn’t be able to keep them anyway. That and, with the rise in popularity of actresses with more generous waistlines like Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield, my figure, which I’d attempted to diet away as a teenager, worked to my advantage in prying secrets out of powerful men.
I walked right out of there with my head held high, then rallied the girls for drinks followed by dancing at Café Trinidad until closing—which, in D.C., was unfortunately at midnight. But the next day, after I nursed my hangover with a cold compress and a Bloody Mary, I had a minor breakdown at the realization I had no job, no income, and no savings. The latter due to one of my blessings and curses: a heightened appreciation for beautiful things. The blessing was that my innate sense of style made people think I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth in a place like Grosse Point or Greenwich, and not a clapboard row house in Pittsburgh’s Little Italy. The curse was that my good eye often exceeded my means.
I knew I needed to formulate a plan before my bank account dwindled to Code Red level. There was no running to Mommy or Daddy, as some of my friends had the luxury of doing when times got tough. That evening, I’d flipped through my little black book and set up a stream of dates with the D.C. lobbyist and lawyer set, an occasional diplomat, and one or two congressmen. The dates were tedious and exhausting, but at the end of the day, the rent was paid on my Georgetown apartment, I’d gotten some nice dinners out of them, and the men whose company I’d pretended to enjoy kept me in couture that rivaled Bev’s. I was not attracted to them, and yet how easy it had been to convince them that I was.
That line of work suited me fine. But after a while, I grew bored with the taxi, dinner, hotel, taxi, dinner, hotel rotation. That and the high level of personal upkeep were wearing me out. The brushing, tweezing, plucking, dyeing, waxing, bleaching, squeezing—even the endless shopping—were beginning to take their toll.
I thought of becoming a stewardess. For one, I’d look great in Pan Am’s signature blue. Plus, I loved to travel. It’s what I liked most during the war—the possibility of being uprooted to a new place every few months. But they’d take one look at my age—thirty-two if I was being honest or thirty-six if I was
honest—and say I was “overqualified” for the position.
The truth was, I missed intelligence work, missed being in the know. So when Bev rang one last time to beg me to go to the party, I said yes.
“So many familiar faces,” Bev said, scanning the crowd. The music had started up again and people were dancing and spilling their gin fizzes on one another. I spotted Jim Roberts across the deck, breathing down some poor girl’s neck. Jim had once cornered me at an embassy party in Shanghai, putting his hands around my waist and saying he wasn’t going to let me go until I gave him a smile. I did smile, then I kneed him in the groin.
“Maybe a few too many familiar faces.”
“I’ll toast to that,” she said. Bev leaned over the rail and brushed a piece of her dark brown hair out of her face. Bev was the kind of woman whose beauty came late, passing over her high school years, college years, and early twenties entirely, only to arrive in her late twenties and not reach its full glory until her thirties. Bev had had many Jim Roberts experiences herself. “But still,” she continued. “I wish all the girls could’ve been here.”
“Me too.” Bev and I were the only two of our old crew still living in Washington. Julia was in France with her new husband, Jane was in Jakarta with someone else’s husband, and Anna was in either Venice or Madrid, depending on what mood she was in that month. Our group had first met on the
a former luxury liner recommissioned to shuttle GIs to the front line. The only women on board, we shared a cramped cabin outfitted with metal bunks, one toilet, and a tub that sputtered cold salt water. Despite the camp-like conditions and the seasickness, we all got along famously. We were in our early twenties and ready to take on the world. We were the kind of girls who’d grown up reading
then graduated to H. Rider Haggard’s
in high school. We bonded over the belief that a life of adventure wasn’t reserved for men, and we set out to claim our piece of it.
Most important, we shared a similar sense of humor, which went a long way when sharing one toilet with questionable flushing abilities—especially when the ship hit rougher seas. Julia loved to play pranks and once started a rumor that we were a group of Catholic nuns headed to Calcutta. The men, who’d been catcalling us any chance they could get, became reverent when passing us in the corridors. One soldier had even asked if we’d pray for his sick dog. I made the sign of the cross and Bev burst out laughing.