In 1950, Carol Dorothy abandoned her husband and two small children to help her lover and next-door neighbor escape from the FBI.
Over the next three decades, he became a star of Soviet microelectronics. She became an Iron Curtain housewife. She had four more children.
Then she came back.
For a woman who left with only an overnight case and $100 tucked in her purse for the return ticket, it was a 42-year journey home that even she can hardly believe.
“It’s fantastic, that’s what it is,” she said. “I said I would come back. Well, I did, eventually, but not when I wanted to.”
At 75, white-haired and a grandmother many times over, Dorothy is not much given to musing over what might have been. In an interview at the San Francisco home where she now lives with a daughter, she reserved much of her enthusiasm for the present--a new grandson, an upcoming reunion.
But she talked about the past, too, about how she gave up everything to follow Al Sarant in an international saga that, to her, is just a story of ordinary people caught in extraordinary circumstances.
“We never felt like we were defecting,” she said. “We never felt like we weren’t Americans.”
Dorothy’s journey began when she was Carol Dayton, wife of physicist Bruce Dayton, a man she married when both were students at UC Berkeley. After the war, they moved to Ithaca, N.Y., living next door to their close friends Sarant, a blacklisted engineer who had taken up house painting, and his wife and two children.
In 1950, the day after atom spy Julius Rosenberg was arrested, FBI agents came looking for Sarant. They wanted to know why he had shared a New York apartment with a man called Joel Barr, a friend of the Rosenbergs who had left the country in 1948.
Dorothy said Sarant was not a close friend of Rosenberg’s, but the questioning intensified until “Al decided he just can’t stand it, he’s going to get out.”
Dorothy, who had fallen in love with “about the funniest person I ever saw,” decided to go with him.
Driving day and night they got to Mexico City and then wandered around, trying to decide what to do next. Scared they were being followed by the FBI, they didn’t dare try the Soviet Embassy. Instead, they headed for a Polish government office on a back street.
“We told them, ‘We want to build socialism,’ ” Dorothy recalled, laughing at their naive approach. “And they said, ‘Why Poland?’ and we said, ‘Well, we didn’t know where to go and this is the place we found.’ ”
Waiting in Mexico, Dorothy was still torn between two worlds. Sarant missed his children, too. On one expedition, “we bought four little Mexican hats, trying to figure out the sizes,” she said.
Then came the day Dorothy pulled out her $100 ticket money.
Sarant was “terribly upset. He just lay on the bed face down all day. I cried. All day.” Then, their Polish contact backed Sarant up with newspaper articles showing the FBI was looking for Dorothy, “so, that’s the way it was.”
From Mexico City, they drove south, waded across a river to Guatemala--where a coup was in progress--then flew to Warsaw via Africa and Spain. Six months later they reached Moscow, where they were surprised to find Joel Barr. He had gone to Czechoslovakia and taken the identity of Joe Berg of South Africa.
Dorothy and Sarant took on new identities, too, becoming Phil and Anna Staros, from Greece and Canada. They never married.
Barr and Sarant, meanwhile, became a crack engineering team, working first in Czechoslovakia and then getting a 1955 transfer to Leningrad where they ran a design bureau that was visited by Nikita S. Khrushchev. Barr and Sarant presented the Soviet leader with a blueprint for a city, Zelenograd, devoted to studying microelectronics.
“They were quite important,” said Mark Kuchment, a fellow at Harvard’s Russian Research Center, who discovered in the early 1980s that Soviet whizzes Berg and Staros were actually Barr and Sarant.
But rivals began pushing for the foreigners’ ouster and by the time Khrushchev fell in 1964, Barr and Sarant were on the way out, although Sarant was named a Soviet state prize laureate in 1969.
Dorothy, meanwhile, was “pretty busy having children.” By 1956, she had her last child, daughter Antonia, but with Sarant always busy at work and the couple forbidden to speak English to strangers, it was a lonely existence.
There were the good days, like the Khrushchev visit, Dorothy says, pulling out a snapshot of Sarant with the Soviet leader.
And there were the not-so-good days, like the fifth of April when, each year, she celebrated the birthday of her absent daughter.
Back in the United States, she later learned, daughter Derry had trouble adjusting to a motherless life until ex-husband Bruce Dayton resolved the conflict by telling her, “I don’t know where she is, so don’t wait. Let’s not wait for her.”
Always more interested in the personal than the political, Dorothy said she didn’t have much time for politics in Leningrad, although Sarant became a party member for business reasons and she was signed up as his spouse.
“I went to a party meeting or two . . . It was so boring,” she said. It was a long way from prewar Berkeley, where the Daytons had shocked friends by knowing a full-fledged Communist, days when “I guess you would call us pink,” said Dorothy.
As for Sarant’s work for Soviet military technology, she said simply, “It wasn’t anything like that . . . it was his work.”
Kuchment notes the military was the only outfit doing advanced computer technology then, so “it’s not that they had the choice.”
And then, there’s glasnost, he said.
“Maybe a healthy attitude would be not to concentrate on whether they were or were not Soviet spies 40 years ago, but whether it’s a useful bridge between the two societies,” he said.
In 1974, Sarant and Dorothy made one last move, to Vladivostok. There, Sarant started a new laboratory and relaxed a little, hosting musical evenings that sometimes featured that contraband group, The Beatles.
Dorothy started translation work and became the host, along with daughter Christina, of a television program called “Do You Speak English?” They became minor celebrities.
In 1979, the romance that had taken Dorothy across the world ended when Sarant died of a heart attack. Numbed, Dorothy plunged into a big job translating for a Pacific Rim conference.
Then came the first, small efforts to break her long silence.
First, she was allowed to write Sarant’s family. Next she asked to visit her 95-year-old mother. The Soviets said no, but she persisted, writing a letter to Bruce Dayton, the man whose ring she still wears.
Although he had been blacklisted for nine years and spent many more regaining a foothold in academia, Dayton accepted the overture, forwarding the letters to their children in Canada.
Soviet officials approved a rendezvous in Prague and in 1981, Dorothy saw her children, Derry and Eric, for the first time in 30 years. In many ways, it was a meeting of strangers. Her little girl was 39 years old, her little boy a philosophy professor.
But, somehow, they made contact in the 11-day visit, communication that has since been bolstered with an exchange of photographs that Dorothy sifts through like any proud grandmother.
Meanwhile, Dorothy’s Russian children wanted to find out more about their American ties. They began encouraging her to try crossing the crumbling barriers of Communism.
In 1989, she approached the U.S. Embassy, meeting polite incredulity as she produced a battered California driver’s license. After several meetings, the FBI was contacted.
Success came on Aug. 20, 1991, when she got a passport. In November she flew to California, where she now lives with daughter Antonia. Next month, a reunion of the Dayton family that was, along with Bruce’s second wife and child, is planned.