A Woman of Mystery : Espionage: Countess Aline Romanones has written no less than three books about her exploits as a spy. But skeptics keep asking: Is she all she says she is?
Aline Romanones is staring her interviewer straight in the kisser and saying she’s not at all sure the other woman is not a spy.
“As I say,” Romanones says with deadly sweetness, between dainty bites of berries and cream, “you could perfectly well be a top agent. You’d be a very good one, because your career enables you to write and ask people questions that other people couldn’t ask.”
Though it is only lunchtime at the Polo Lounge, she’s glittering with rubies, diamonds and emeralds. A diamond-studded zebra chases its tail around her slender wrist. Her Valentino ready-to-wear suit is simple and classic, a pale leaf-colored confection that looks tailor made for the rich forest-green banquette that envelopes her. The effect is unadulterated aristocrat. Indeed, if it takes a spy to suspect one, there’s an even better spy cover than being a journalist.
Being a Spanish countess.
“With that, nobody’s going to think you’re doing anything worthwhile,” says Aline, Countess of Romanones and former spy. Then she hoots. “Well. Except putting on your makeup or something.”
The countess for the CIA was humbly born Aline Griffith, one of six children in Pearl River, N.J., 67 years ago. The model-turned-spy-turned-aristocrat-turned-spy-turned-bestseller writer naturally thinks of herself as a contemporary Cinderella.
Only this Cinderella sometimes packed a gun in her evening bag. She can pick safes and pockets. And while she has tarried a lifetime at the ball with royalty and presidents, it never did turn midnight on the countess, despite several close brushes with that old demon death. Time magazine once gushed that the countess “lived a life of glamour and danger that Ingrid Bergman only played at in ‘Notorious.’ ”
“I always knew I had a good story,” Romanones says with some understatement.
Late last month, Romanones became the vortex of controversy in the New York press over charges that her best-selling memoirs are precisely that--just stories. Women’s Wear Daily said it had retrieved her file from OSS (precursor to the CIA) from the National Archives and learned she had embroidered her exploits as an American spy.
The newspaper reported that early in her spy career--which began in 1943--she was only a code clerk who had worked her way into a low-level intelligence job; she passed on gossip circulating in Spanish society. And the newspaper said there was no mention of her shooting a man who tried to kill her or of her helping the OSS uncover an OSS double agent, as she recounts in her first book, “The Spy Wore Red.”
Romanones defended her three books: “My stories are all based on truth. It’s impossible that whatever details of any mission I did would be in a file.” The CIA declined to comment.
For four decades, Romanones’ best career asset was keeping a secret. Finally, when she had reached that rarefied stage in life where she was long a grandmother (13 times over at last count), Romanones gave up the spy business. Not until 1987 did she publicly blow her cover with a series of memoirs.
And now she’s stumping the country’s better restaurants to promote her latest, “The Spy Wore Silk,” about her role in fending off a coup attempt on the government of Moroccan King Hassan in the early ‘70s. The book picks up the countess’ story in 1971, when she hears of a plot to overthrow Hassan, a friend of the family. “Silk” tracks her on a royal boar-hunting trip in Morocco in which she tries to warn the king--and snares the prize of an important Soviet defector for her trouble.
Her first book, “The Spy Wore Red,” has been optioned for a cable television movie and Broadway musical.
Still, for all the intrigue that enticed her to exotic locales from Madrid to Morocco to Manila, despite the fact that you have to be foreign to have blood the uncommon hue of blue, Romanones sees her story as peculiarly American.
“I think it’s what happens to everybody in America,” Romanones says in all seriousness. “We always feel that we have the opportunity of doing anything we want to do, and this is the big adventure around the corner. You’re born in a very simple, unimportant place, to an unimportant, unknown family and yet the whole world is yours.”
Aline Griffith was born to a large family in Pearl River, a sleepy New Jersey town with 2,000 inhabitants upriver by an hour or so from New York City. Her father worked in her grandfather’s newspaper printing-press factory, while her mother, who claimed ties to the Mayflower, tended to their sizable brood.
An unusually pretty child, Griffith’s upbringing was fairly strict. She was raised to be a lady, schooled near home at the Catholic girls’ College of Mount St. Vincent’s-on-the-Hudson in Riverdale, N. Y. Even when she went on to become a Hattie Carnegie model in New York, she lived at home, but her modest modeling days didn’t last long.
Her course shifted on a blind date. A modeling friend had invited her to a dinner party as the escort of a man from out of town. The visitor happened to work for the Office of Strategic Services, the new federal espionage agency. And it was that most compelling of contexts: Wartime. The year was 1943.
“At dinner, I was saying, ‘I’m so furious,’ ” she says. “The only thing I could think of was getting in that war. Nobody young wanted to miss something like that at that moment. But I couldn’t get into anything because I was 20 years old when I graduated from college, and you had to be 25 to get into something that would take women overseas.
“So I happened to be telling this story at dinner, and this man said: ‘Oh, are you really serious?’ He said: ‘Then you’ll hear from me.’ And I did.”
She was just what the OSS ordered--a charming young woman who could slip through the crevices of Madrid’s Catholic upper crust, which had been pocked by Nazi operatives during World War II.
Griffith was sent to spy school at a private estate the government leased near Langley, Va. (the town where the CIA was later based). American spy school was a new phenomenon since the OSS itself, formed in World War II, was the country’s first formal espionage agency. For three months, Griffith and one other woman joined 30 men to learn the art of espionage. The schedule was grueling by design, a stamina-testing workload that began at 7:30 in the morning and didn’t let up until nearly midnight, with only the occasional weekend off.
They learned to fire machine guns and revolvers. They parachuted from planes and mastered codes and disguises. They “practiced” suicide, chomping down on placebos with their back molars in a dress rehearsal for using the “L pill"--poison pills they were allotted in case they were captured and tortured.
Once in Madrid, Griffith was one of a dozen agents posing as employees of the American Oil Mission, which sold oil to Spain. Her real mission, she says, was to code and decode messages that passed through the office and to recruit women for intelligence “chains"--groups of charwomen, hairdressers and hotel clerks who would keep tabs on Nazi suspects. Those days are recounted in “The Spy Wore Red” (many names and identifying characteristics are changed in all her books).
She also circulated among high-level Nazis at Madrid’s posh parties, which could be a dangerous diversion. She says she was leaving a ball at the Puerta de Hierro, a Madrid country club, in 1944, when a double agent nearly engineered her demise.
“At the last moment,” she says, “he found an excuse not to take me back and put me in the car with this driver. I didn’t know he was a mole. (The driver) tried to kill me. He pulled the car to the side of the road, and I jumped out, and he started running after me and he grabbed me. I had high-heeled shoes on.
“That’s when I had that gun in my bag and I shot him. He fell on top of me, and I didn’t know whether I killed him or not. I suppose I did. The next day (my bosses) told me, first that I’d killed him, and then they told me I had not. I had to leave him there, and naturally I didn’t wait to take his pulse.”
Fortunately, Romanones also had better nights. It was while riding the society rails that she met her future husband, Luis Figueroa y Perez de Guzman El Bueno, the count of Quintanilla, later the count of Romanones. The pro-American count was certainly no Nazi. Still, neither of them quite knew what they were getting into when they joined forces.
The spy didn’t realize quite how grand was her grandee, in part because he drove a 10-year-old car--the most recent vintage vehicle available in wartime Spain.
When the count proposed, she says, she finally confessed that she was a spy. But he didn’t believe her--until their honeymoon, when they dined in New York with “Wild Bill” Donovan, the man who created the OSS. Donovan regaled the count with stories about her exploits. He believed her. And he told her to stop.
She did for the first five or six years of her marriage. Then in the mid-'50s, Archibald Roosevelt, a grandson of Theodore and head of the CIA in Spain, recruited her again, figuring the U.S. could mine her vast high-level contacts for its intelligence operations, she says.
It certainly helped that the countess is charming, poised and a woman.
The countess demonstrates. “Being a woman gives you that extra little touch of smile,” she says, her mouth taking on a graceful curve. “And a compliment here and there. Especially for getting information from a man.”
Her eyebrows arch suggestively. “I think it’s easier for a woman to get information out of a man than vice versa. We’re more--maybe not reliable in keeping a secret, but when we want to keep something secret, we’re very devious about it.”
“I think the female wiles have a lot to do with it,” says Tom Moon, a former OSS agent in Asia and the author of “This Grim and Savage Game” about OSS activities around the world. “She knew how to use wit combined with her beauty, and charm and she had the ability to be disarming.”
“She was extremely popular,” says John Gates, a portfolio manager who worked in publishing in Madrid during the ‘50s. “There’s an awful lot in Madrid that was done on a social level. She was probably very effective in being able to move around. She’s very open and very upbeat. She has a great sense of humor and she’s drop-dead beautiful.”
In 1966, the countess used her social aplomb to recruit her good friend Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor, another American who had married into the aristocracy. Their mission, detailed in her second book, “The Spy Went Dancing,” was to uncover a highly placed NATO mole working for the KGB. “I was used to inform this fellow who was a mole who could have killed me at any moment--and he was very attractive, too--to give him the wrong information. And although he killed other people, he could have killed me, but he didn’t. I was lucky. But anyhow.”
The countess needed the duchess to invite suspected moles to dinner so that Romanones could grill them.
“She said: ‘Who would you like me to have for the dinner when you and Luis come next week?’ I said: ‘Not anybody I know but there are a few Americans. . . .’ She said: ‘This is very fishy. Don’t tell me you’re still doing that sort of thing for the country.’ I said: ‘Well, now and then, I usually help out.’
“She said: ‘I’ll help you. Nothing could be more fascinating. But don’t let David know.’ David was the duke.”
Ultimately, the mole was uncovered, although he escaped. And the search for the double-agent also happened to set her on another quest, for art treasures that had been looted by the Nazis and left in Spain before they could be shipped to South America.
Women’s Wear Daily quoted an anonymous former intelligence officer who complained that the countess gives the misleading impression that she and the duchess alone found the mole when “it took the whole CIA two years and about 200 people to do it.”
Responds Romanones: “I did not pretend to do it single-handedly. I explained clearly that they only came to us when they couldn’t find him.”
Despite her husband’s recurring entreaties to her to stop, the countess found espionage to be a hard habit to break. It was partly the lure of knowing that she was doing something important for her country, which she still regarded as the U.S. despite four decades abroad. (These days, she spends most of the year in a one-bedroom apartment in New York, where she writes and sells by telephone sheep from her 2,000-year-old ranch in Spain.)
It was also the sheer thrill of it all. “If I had a choice between going on a vacation and going on a dangerous espionage mission,” she says, “I’d prefer the dangerous espionage mission any day than to go sit on a beach for two weeks--and I love beaches and I like to swim.”
For the longest time, she knew that the other side could kill her, “but you don’t think you’re going to get it.”
And then, when she finally came around, it wasn’t the trained killers or the guns or the double crosses that forced her to face the fact of her mortality. It was the death of her husband in 1987.
“All of us feel immortal until a certain moment,” she says. “The fact that we don’t think about the fact that we’re going to die is that we think we’re immortal, and we think we’re going to go on and on and on.
“Something brings it home to you,” she says, and then her eyes glint with delight. “If you live long enough.”