Lillian McCloy was the wife of a deep undercover CIA officer during the Cold War. This is an excerpt from her memoir, Six Car Lengths Behind an Elephant: Undercover & Overwhelmed as a CIA Wife and Mother. Frank in this story is Lillian’s husband.
There were times when Frank needed my help, usually to translate intelligence memos written in Spanish. They could not be translated at the embassy, because there appeared to be no secretaries in the political section who could read and write Spanish. I was unable to help Frank in this way until I had been in Spain for a few years and felt confident about my ability to speak and socialize entirely in Spanish.
Once, there was an intriguing assignment for me. Frank had been meeting with a Spanish-speaking Russian (Boris) who was being highly paid for his information by the CIA. Frank was suspicious that Boris was a double agent, working both sides, as it were, so he asked for my help one evening. The plan was as follows: Boris would have coffee in a small café, taking a seat by the window where Frank could see him. Frank would then drive by the café in a particular Volkswagen. When Boris spotted the car going by, he would walk to a designated corner several blocks away and Frank would pick him up there.
When Boris exited the cafe, I was to walk a discreet distance behind, keeping a keen eye on him. I was to wear a black wig (which I borrowed from a friend “for a costume party”) and an ankle-length brown coat. I would also carry a large, black umbrella, which I would use like a walking stick. If Boris talked to anyone on the street, or made a phone call, I was to open the umbrella to signal Frank. This, of course, was a really sappy piece of drama, in my opinion.
Frank was carrying a German passport and wore a fake mustache and thick glasses, as he did every time he’d met with Boris. When we drove away from our house in the Volkswagen, he said he wasn’t feeling well. I suggested it was just nerves, or perhaps the thick glasses. A few minutes later, Frank shot his head out the window and vomited violently. This was not a good beginning, I thought. Definitely not good.
The cafe where we were to see Boris was on an intimate little street in a residential area. We parked nearby. Frank got out of the car with me and we sat on a bench so he could catch his breath. He threw up again. “Put your head down!” I ordered heartlessly, as though I were annoyed with him. I also ducked my head, thinking one of us might be recognized. I realized I was looking at the puddle of Frank’s upheaval and his mustache was in it. I quickly picked up the mustache and slapped it on Frank’s ashen upper lip, but it wouldn’t stick. Half of it did, but the other half didn’t. It hung down to his chin.
Boris wasn’t by the cafe window yet. I could see a farmacia sign (drug store) across the way, so I bolted across the street, my long brown coat billowing behind me. Mission: adhesive tape. I quickly bought the tape and ran back. Folding the tape over, I was able to jam Frank’s mustache back in place. He was so sick by now that he was trembling. He glanced up and raised his eyebrows. There was Boris in the cafe. Frank stood, staggered over to the Volkswagen and pulled away.
I waited until Boris left the cafe, and then followed at a distance. It was a clear evening, filled with stars; the big, black umbrella was a ludicrous accessory and would look even crazier if I opened it. Boris lit a cigarette and strolled down the street. He spoke to no one. I was not destined to be Mary Poppins tonight. After he got in the Volkswagen with Frank, I hailed a taxi to go home, removing my wig and coat to avoid suspicion when I arrived. The driver seemed to find this only mildly interesting. (We had donned our gay apparel in the garage before we left).
Frank’s plan after picking up Boris was to go to a room in a very large and busy hotel. They would have their discussion there, as they had done on previous occasions. Earlier in the day, after booking the room with his German passport, Frank had rigged a reel-to-reel tape recorder behind the bed. (There was nothing simpler at that time). He later told me that when they got to the hotel room, he was imploding with diarrhea and had to apologize to Boris for his non-stop trips to the bathroom. As he sat on the toilet, he imagined the whir-r-r-r of the tape and the impending doom if it reached an end and began to flap.
There was no way of turning the tape machine off without moving the bed and he was becoming concerned. There was only one thing to do. He had to tell Boris how ill he was and arrange to meet him another time. Luckily, Boris had a written report to give him and didn’t mind rescheduling their discussion. A soon as the door closed behind him, the tape started to flap.
Frank spent the following week in bed with stomach flu and high fever. Shaken, but not stirred.
Lillian McCloy’s memoir was published just after she turned 90 years old, proving that it’s never too late to become a published author. John le Carré calls the book “a charming and unusual portrait of the secret life.” Her book is popular with book clubs and gets 5-star reader ratings on Amazon and Goodreads.
Excerpt from SIX CAR LENGTHS BEHIND AN ELEPHANT: UNDERCOVER & OVERWHELMED AS A CIA WIFE AND MOTHER by Lillian McCloy, copyright © 2016 by Johanna McCloy. Used by permission of Bordertown Publishing. All rights reserved.