I MET E. HOWARD HUNT soon after arriving in Mexico City in 1951. I was a deep-cover agent for the CIA -- deep-cover describing, I was given to understand, a category whose members were told to take extreme care not to permit any grounds for suspicion that one was in service to the CIA.
The rule was (perhaps it is different now) that on arriving at one’s targeted post, one was informed which single human being in the city knew that you were in the CIA. That person would tell you what to do for the duration of your service in that city; he would answer such questions as you wished to put to him and would concern himself with all aspects of your duty life.
The man I was told to report to (by someone whose real name I did not know) was E. Howard Hunt. He ostensibly was working in the U.S. Embassy as a cultural affairs advisor, if I remember correctly. In any event, I met him in his office and found him greatly agreeable but also sternly concerned with duty. He would here and there give me special minor assignments, but I soon learned that my principal job was to translate from Spanish a huge and important book by defector Eudocio Ravines.
Ravines had been an important member of the Peruvian Communist Party in the ‘40s. He had brought forth a book called “The Road From Yenan,” an autobiographical account of his exciting life in the service of the communist revolution and an extended account of the reasons for his defection.
It was a lazy assignment, in that we were not given a deadline, so the work slogged on during and after visits, averaging one every week, by Ravines to the house that I and my wife had occupied that used to be called San Angel Inn -- post-revolution, Villa Obregon. (We lived and worked at Calero No. 91.) It is a part of Mexico City on the southern slopes, leading now to the university (which back then was in central Mexico City).
It was only a couple of weeks after our meeting that Howard introduced me to his wife, Dorothy, and their first-born child, Lisa. I learned that Howard had graduated from Brown University and was exercised by left-wing activity there, by the faculty, the administration and students. This made him especially interested in what I had to say about my alma mater. My book, “God and Man at Yale,” was published in mid-October 1951, and I shook free for one week’s leave to travel to New York to figure in the promotion.
I persevered in my friendship with the Hunt family. But in early spring of 1952, when the project with Ravines was pretty well completed, I called on Howard to tell him I had decided to quit the agency. I had yielded to the temptation to go into journalism.
Our friendship was firm, and Howard came several times to Stamford, Conn., where my wife and I camped down, and visited. I never knew -- he was very discreet -- what he was up to, but assumed, correctly, that he was continuing his work for the CIA. I was greatly moved by Dorothy’s message to me that she and Howard were joining the Catholic communion, and they asked me to serve as godfather for their children.
Years passed without my seeing Howard. But then came the Watergate scandal -- in which Howard was accused of masterminding the break-in at Democratic Party headquarters, among other things, and was ultimately convicted of burglary, conspiracy and wiretapping -- and the dreadful accident over Midway Airport in Chicago that killed Dorothy in December 1972. I learned of this while watching television with my wife, and it was through television that I also learned that she had named me as personal representative of her estate in the event of her demise.
That terrible event came at a high point in the Watergate affair. Then I had a phone call from Howard, with whom I hadn’t been in touch for several years. He asked to see me.
He startled me by telling me that he intended to disclose to me everything he knew about the Watergate affair, including much that (he said) had not yet been revealed to congressional investigators.
What especially arrested me was his saying that his dedication to the project had included a hypothetical agreement to contrive the assassination of syndicated muckraker Jack Anderson, if the high command at the Nixon White House thought this necessary. I also remember his keen surprise that the White House hadn’t exercised itself to protect and free him and his collaborators arrested in connection with the Watergate enterprise. He simply could not understand this moral default.
It was left that I would take an interest, however remote, in his household of children, now that he was headed for jail. (Neither he nor Dorothy had any brothers or sisters.)
Howard served 33 months. I visited him once. I thought back on the sad contrast between Hunt, E.H., federal prisoner, and Hunt, E.H., special assistant to the U.S. ambassador in Mexico, and his going on to a number of glittering assignments but ultimately making that fateful wrong turn in the service of President Nixon, for which his suffering was prolonged and wretchedly protracted.
I prefer to remember him back in his days as a happy warrior, a productive novelist, an efficient administrator and a wonderful companion.