Tuesday, June 16, 2020


Painting: Papa Duke

Flashback to January 22nd, 1988, the lobby of the Georgetown Inn, Washington D.C.  

A figure with a tan Burberry raincoat draped over his arm sits waiting to meet me. He stands and smiles broadly when I enter; we shake hands and enter the restaurant for a chat over lunch.

Clair George, then 57 years old, was in the process of leaving the Central Intelligence Agency.  

He had worked in the CIA's clandestine division for over 30 years and risen to its most coveted top job as Deputy Director for Operations.

Drawing: Ida Libby Dengrove

I was a 33 year-old literary agent; my specialty, packaging books by Washington insiders.  

(I had found Clair through Jack Smith, a former CIA Deputy Director for Intelligence, who in retirement had turned to penning novels.)

Clair had recently been in the news in connection with the Iran-Contra scandal; his marginal involvement in that arms-for-hostages operation had cost him his job.  

You’d see photos of Oliver North and Richard Secord in The Washington Post, but Clair’s picture would always be a generic silhouette, as if to confirm the authenticity of his profession. 

The mystery photo now had a face:  

Bland doughy facial features, with a nose and mouth that resembled Marshall Matt Dillon (James Arness) from TV’s Gunsmoke; graying red hair, ruddy features and sparkling blue eyes.  (A decade later, those eyes, which had seen so much, would dull from macular degeneration.)  

Clair was about 5’9” and had the air of a man who could fit in anywhere without being noticed, unless he chose to be.

Naturally curious, Clair was willing to meet me. He wanted to know all about my involvement in the book publishing business, and what, specifically, I had in mind for him.  He was funny, charming, and disarming.

I later learned that the only reason he met me was because my pitch had amused his wife, Mary, who acted as his shield during the first Iran-Contra news frenzy.  She was his telephone call screener and front door gatekeeper.  A couple of national security correspondents from major news organizations had even reduced themselves to threats when she would not allow them through:  cooperate with me, they told her, or else.

Mary gave them short shrift as only Mary could.  Clair rarely spoke with the media.  Period.

But my pitch was this:  

How about writing a Spy’s Guide to Europe?

Mary thought my idea was charming.  The gate opened.

Mary and Clair had met at CIA headquarters, where, as a young woman, she had worked as a secretary.  He was immediately smitten by her, and barged into her office to say, “I need to talk to you about this report.  Over lunch.”

Mary left the CIA upon marrying Clair; some of their happiest years were spent in Paris, France, to which Clair was posted as a young CIA officer.

I explained to Clair how book packaging worked:  

I would help him write a detailed proposal, which I would submit to editors that specialized in the nonfiction espionage genre at five big publishing houses.  We would, I was confident, be offered a contract, and Clair would write a book.  If he needed a ghostwriter, this could be arranged.

Clair said he would think about it.

Many months later, we met again, this time for lunch at the swank Hay-Adams Hotel on Lafayette Square across from the White House. 

It was a good meeting, as Clair was fine company, with an easy laugh and a great sense of humor.  

But it seemed he would never produce a tell-any, let alone a tell-all.  Self-promotion was anathema to Clair.  He truly was the perfect spy. 

I was about to move to Monaco, on the French Riviera, in search of new adventure, so it hardly mattered to me anymore; I was happy just to have made the acquaintance of this legendary spymaster.

In time, we would travel to Europe together, on over twenty occasions, often aboard Concorde, on assignment for our clients.  

On every trip, whether during the coldest of winters, or once, to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where it was 80 degrees and sunny, Clair always took his Burberry trench coat.

Clair George eschewed shopping.  He certainly was not self-indulgent—except when it came to Scotch whiskey, red wine and bacon-cheeseburgers—and he may well have been the least materialistic person I ever met, aside from my father.  He did not wear jewelry, not even a wedding band; to tell the time he wore a cheap, large-faced round quartz wristwatch.

As far as I can tell, Clair never stepped foot into any shopping mall in the Greater Washington Area.  If he needed a new garment, he probably got it as a Christmas or birthday gift from his wife.  And if he desperately needed new togs, he had but one destination:  Brooks Brothers, which, conveniently, had a shop in Chevy Chase, a mile away from the George residence.

Although born in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, and raised in Pittsburgh, Clair became a creature of Washington D.C.  He wore the uniform:  button-down shirt (white or blue), khaki trousers, and navy blue blazer, anchored with cordovan loafers.  

There was nothing pretentious or fancy about his dress; he didn’t place a hankie in his blazer pocket.  Clair once told me that, in all his life, he’d never worn a pair of jeans.  And he was forever proud that he had once, between postings, driven his family (wife and two young daughters) across the United States in an old Volkswagen Beetle.

During our travels in Europe, Clair would window shop, if only because I window-shopped, while walking to and from hotels and meetings.  I once got him to join me in the purchase of bespoke shoes at Foster & Son on Jermyn Street in London.  We had just landed a billionaire client and we felt good about ourselves.  It was the only self-indulgent purchase I ever saw him make and, truth be known, I pushed him into it.

The beautiful calfskin wingtips took three months and three fittings to cobble, at a cost of about $1500.  When Clair finally got these spectacular shoes home to his modest Westgate neighborhood in Bethesda, Maryland, he was so ashamed of himself over what they’d cost, he told no one of their existence and never wore them; instead, he hid them on a shelf inside his closet.  

Clair never forgot his humble roots, hailing from a poor coalmining town.  He lost his father suddenly when he was a boy, and always remembered the moment he and his sister were awakened by their mother and told their dad had died.  She raised them by herself.  

Clair became a jazz drummer, joined the army, and trained at language school in Monterey, California.  

The Korean War ended just before he was scheduled to ship out and commence interrogation duty.

So instead, Clair joined the Central Intelligence Agency, which was, in the mid 1950s, still in its infancy.

It would not have been an easy ride for him, as the agency had become home to mostly silver-spooned Ivy-Leaguers.

Aston Rowant, Oxfordshire, 1986
Photo: Erik Russell

My old friend Miles Copeland, an old boy from Alabama, once told me the reason he left the agency soon after joining it on the heels of service in its wartime predecessor, the Office of Strategic Services, was because he felt insecure and out of place surrounded by Yankees from Harvard and Yale.

But Clair persevered and adapted to the ways of the privileged class, whose ranks so vastly outnumbered him.   

At CIA, he found his niche.  

Innately secretive, with self-taught charisma, Clair was born to be a spy and a spymaster.  

As he rose through the bureaucracy, proving his abilities again and again (and his courage, serving as station chief in Athens after his predecessor Richard Welch was assassinated), he lived by this creed:  

“Keep them laughing half the time, scared of you the other half, and always keep them guessing.”

Politically, Clair was a Democrat, and mostly liberal.  

But he was also a professional.  

Intelligence is apolitical, if occasionally corrupted by leaders who demand policy-oriented intelligence to complement their political views and bolster their objectives.  

And he was a master of obfuscation.  

If pressured on a topic he preferred not to discuss, he’d throw out his arms and say, “It’s very complicated.” 

And that would kill it dead.