The British Secret Intelligence Service – popularly known as MI6 – is the oldest continuously surviving foreign intelligence-gathering organisation in the world. It was founded in October 1909 as the ‘Foreign Section’ of a new Secret Service Bureau, and over its first forty years grew from modest beginnings to a point in the early Cold War years when it had become a valued and permanent branch of the British state, established on a recognisably modern and professional basis. Although for most of this period SIS supervised British signals intelligence operations (most notably the Second World War triumphs at Bletchley Park over the German ‘Enigma’ cyphers), it is primarily a human intelligence agency. While this history traces the organisational development of SIS and its relations with government – essential aspects for an understanding of how and why it operated – its story is essentially one of people, from the brilliant and idiosyncratic first Chief, Mansfield Cumming, and his two successors, Hugh Sinclair and Stewart Menzies, to the staff of the organisation – men and women who served it across the world – and, not least, to its agents, at the sharp end of the work. It is impossible to generalise about this eclectic and cosmopolitan mix of many nationalities. They included aristocrats and factory workers, society ladies and bureaucrats, patriots and traitors. Among them were individuals of high courage, many of whom (especially during the two world wars) paid with their lives for the vital and hazardous intelligence work they did.

SIS did not emerge from a complete intelligence vacuum. For centuries British governments had covertly gathered information on an ad-hoc basis. In the seventeenth century successive English Secretaries of State assembled networks of spies when the country was particularly threatened, and from its establishment in 1782 the Foreign Office, using funding from what became known as the ‘Secret Service Vote’ or the ‘Secret Vote’, annually approved by parliament, employed a variety of clandestine means to acquire information and warning about Britain’s enemies. By the end of the nineteenth century the army and the navy, too, had intelligence-gathering branches, which processed much information acquired relatively openly by naval and military attachés posted to foreign countries. But, after the turn of the twentieth century, with foreign rivals (Germany in particular) posing a growing challenge to national interests, British policy-makers began to look beyond these unsystematic and uncoordinated methods, and, as the Foreign Office worried about the possibility of its diplomatic and consular representatives becoming caught up in (and inevitably embarrassed by) intelligence-gathering, the notion of establishing a dedicated, covert and, above all, deniable agency came to find favour.

The Secret Service Bureau, and the subsequent Secret Intelligence Service, remained publicly unacknowledged by the British government for over eighty years and was given a formal legal basis only by the Intelligence Services Act of 1994. Th e fact that a publicly available history of any sort has been commissioned, let alone one written by an independent professional historian, is an astounding development, bearing in mind the historic British legacy of secrecy and public silence about intelligence matters. It is also an extraordinary once-in-a-lifetime opportunity (and privilege) to be appointed to write this history, though I am well aware that the fact that I have been deemed suitable to undertake it may in some eyes precisely render me unsuitable to produce an independent account of SIS’s history. But of that the reader must judge.

Part of the agreement made on my appointment was that I should have utterly unrestricted access to the Service archives over its first forty years. I am absolutely confident that this has been the case and it has been an unparalleled treat to be let loose in the archive, which is an immensely rich (though in places patchy) treasure-trove of historical materials. In addition to this access, I have also been allowed to read some post-1949 materials bearing on the history of the Service. In general, the SIS attitude to archives was that they should be kept only if they served some clear operational purpose. Certainly, since no one envisaged that a professional history of any sort would be written, let alone one that might be published, there was no imperative to retain materials for historical reasons. When the Service did begin to think historically, which, from the evidence I have seen, was not much before the 1960s, a huge amount of material had already been lost.

Within SIS the practice appears to have been routinely to destroy documents once their immediate relevance or utility had passed. There is plenty of internal evidence indicating this, some of which has occasionally slipped out into the public domain. In a 1935 letter to Valentine Vivian, head of the counter-espionage Section V in SIS, Oswald ‘Jasper’ Harker of MI5 remarked, ‘An old report of yours regarding a Madame Stahl has just come to light – I enclose a copy as I believe your 1920 records have been destroyed.’ Reviewing the work of SIS in the early 1920s, one officer observed that the SIS headquarters ‘receives from its overseas branches over 13,000 different reports per annum, exclusive of correspondence about these reports and administrative matters’. He noted that ‘the mass of papers involved immediately becomes apparent’. In order to keep the volume of material under control, he added that ‘every effort is made to destroy all matter … not needed for reference’. The practice of clearing out old papers has also been powerfully stimulated by the fact that the organisation has moved house on some six occasions during the last century.

Over the years some documents were recognised as having real historical significance and were preserved. One such is the ‘Bethell letter’, from the Director of Naval Intelligence to Mansfield Cumming on 10 August 1909 inviting him to become (as it turned out) the first Chief of the Service. There has, nevertheless, been intermittent, methodical and substantial destruction of records which may, or may not, have been of historical value. But I have found no evidence that the destruction was carried out casually or maliciously, as some sort of cover-up to hide embarrassing facts about SIS’s past or whatever. The destruction has resulted more from a cultural attitude where the retention of documents in general was assessed in the light of their current (and certainly not historical) value to the Service, primarily in operational terms.

The corollary to unrestricted access to the archives has been an extremely painstaking and fastidious disclosure process. From the start (and for obvious reasons) it was laid down that the identity of any agent could not be revealed for the first time in this book. One result of this stipulation is the regrettable need (from the historian’s point of view) to omit some significant and important SIS stories, as it would not be possible to include them without providing at least circumstantial details which could potentially help identify agents. Exceptionally, however, some agents’ names do appear in the book, but each case has been subject to the most careful and rigorous disclosure criteria. Where agents have clearly named themselves (not uncommon for individuals who worked during the world wars), this has been relatively straightforward, but simply arguing that an agent’s name is ‘in the public domain’ is not in itself sufficient, as the ‘public domain’ constitutes a great range of contexts, from unsubstantiated assertions in sensationalist and evanescent publications (what might be called ‘sub-prime intelligence literature’) to serious and scholarly articles by professional historians.

What remains? Quite a lot, despite the fact that immense quantities of documents were destroyed, especially during the period covering the headquarters move from Broadway to Century House in the early 1960s.  The first thing to be said, however, is that (perhaps surprisingly) the archive contains comparatively little actual intelligence. Over the 1909–49 period with which I am concerned SIS was always primarily a collection agency, responding to specific or general requests for information from customer departments, principally its parent department, the Foreign Office, and the armed service ministries. The information requested (if available) was collected and passed on to the relevant department. Little or no analysis was applied to this material within SIS, apart from some outline indication about the reliability, or otherwise, of the source. Once the raw material was passed on to the user department, they processed it and normally destroyed the original documents. Intelligence assessments were the job of the particular desk in the Foreign Office, the Directorate of Military Intelligence and so on, not of SIS.

SIS’s deployment and work, therefore, was principally defined by the priorities and perceptions of external agencies. Between the wars Soviet Communism remained the chief target, and a particular concern with naval matters in the Mediterranean and Far East clearly reflected Admiralty perceptions and intelligence requirements. During the early and mid-1930s SIS resources, in any case constrained by an acute shortage of funding, were not focused on the developing challenge of Nazi Germany as much as (admittedly with the benefit of hindsight) they might have been. Although the Service was, nevertheless, quick off the mark to report German rearmament, there was evidently little demand in London for secret intelligence about internal German political developments. There is, for example, almost nothing in the SIS archives (both for this period and during the Second World War) about the persecution of Jews generally or the Final Solution. A report from Switzerland in January 1939 is a rare exception. An SIS representative had asked an Austrian- Jewish refugee if he could supply ‘any information about people in concentration camps’. The source said that he knew a man in Geneva who had spent nine months in Dachau, ‘but he doubted whether he could get this man to talk. He said German refugees were frightened of saying anything against Germany, because European countries were riddled with Nazi agents and they feared reprisals.’

One of the things I had hoped to do in this history was find instances when I could track the process from the acquisition of a specific piece of intelligence to its actual use, but in the absence of much of the raw material I have found this quite difficult (though in some cases not impossible) to achieve. I might remark that the situation is quite different with regard to signals intelligence where a considerable volume of the raw (or rawish) product survives and can readily be used, as in Sir Harry Hinsley’s magisterial volumes, to estimate ‘its influence on strategy and operations’, as his sub-title promises. During the First World War, nevertheless, I have for example been able to trace the use of human intelligence from the ‘Dame Blanche’ organisation in occupied Belgium, as well as the ready and informative response of the German naval spy TR/16 to requests for details of German losses in the Battle of Jutland in 1916. In the mid-1930s (though it was not always taken as seriously as it should have been) SIS reporting was used to inform British assessments of German rearmament. In the Second World War, specific SIS intelligence underpinned the important Bruneval raid in February 1942 and provided early indications of the German V-weapons development programme.

But, on the whole, the story of human intelligence is not generally one of fiendishly clever master-spies, or Mata-Hari-like seductresses (though in this volume the keen-eyed reader will find one or two possible examples of these types), achieving fantastic, war-winning intelligence coups. It is more like a pointillist painting, containing tiny fragments of information, gathered by many thousands of individual men and women in circumstances fraught with danger, which need to be collected together to provide the big picture. Watchers along the Norwegian coast in the Second World War, for example, provided precious information about enemy ship movements. These individuals had to get to what were inevitably exposed situations; once there they had not only to collect their intelligence unobserved, but also to communicate it quickly back to London; and at each stage of the process the penalty for discovery was almost certain death. In both world wars, ordinary men and women in enemy-occupied Europe ran similar risks, for example train-watching, carefully logging the movements of railway trains and their cargoes and endeavouring to identify the military units they carried. We ought not to pass over in silence the astonishingly brave actions of these numberless, and for the most part nameless, people, few of whom were the kind of spies so beloved of film and fiction, but many of whom contributed to the successes of British intelligence during the first half of the twentieth century.

The material which survives in the SIS archive is more abundant on the process and administration of acquiring intelligence than on the intelligence itself. ‘Sources and methods’, the most sensitive of all aspects of intelligence work, are embedded in this material: names of officers, agents, sources, helpers, organisations, commercial companies, operational techniques, various sorts of technical expertise and the rest. While some of these no longer pose any security risk – for example there seems little danger that national security may now be jeopardised by revealing 1940s wireless technology – documents relating to agents and their activities have the potential to jeopardise them and their families even long after they may have ceased working for SIS. A typical agent file, for instance, may, without giving very much detail, note that she (or he) produced ‘much valuable intelligence’. The  bulk of the documents may thereafter contain details for years afterwards of the agent’s address (say in some foreign city), pension payments and perhaps reports of visits by an SIS welfare officer, bearing a Christmas bottle of whisky or some other suitable gift. This is exactly the kind of material which the Service rightly believes can never be released.

This history, written as it were from headquarters, reflects the surviving SIS documentation upon which it is primarily based. This means that it has sometimes been difficult to recreate the personal relationships between case-officers and agents which lie at the heart of human intelligence work. Busy case-officers did not often have the time to write reflective notes on their agents’ personalities or motivations, though some hints of these fascinating matters have, happily, survived, and are included in my narrative. I have in general used memoir material very sparingly. Although often revealing on the personal side, the recollection of events and emotions, sometimes many years after, presents critical problems of interpretation and assessment for the historian, particularly in the matter of espionage and other covert activities, which are not infrequently cloaked about with a melodramatic air of secrecy, conspiracy, conjecture and invention. This is not to say that such things do not exist – indeed examples of each might be found in this book – and I have drawn on secondary sources in cases where they seem to be particularly illuminating. Nevertheless, my primary objective has been to base the narrative as closely as possible on the surviving contemporaneous documentary record. If this approach risks some loss of vividness, then it does so expressly for the purposes of historical accuracy.

As will be apparent from the reference notes, I have also had privileged access to relevant but closed documents held by other British government departments. These have been especially useful in helping place SIS in its wider bureaucratic context. With a very small number of exceptions, all other primary source materials (including some extremely valuable sources in foreign archives) are fully open to the public.

Quotations from documents in closed and open archives are reproduced exactly as originally written with the following exceptions: proper names rendered in most official papers in block capitals have been given in title case, with agent and operation code-names in quotation marks; numbering or lettering of individual paragraphs in cables and other documents has not been reproduced; in communications where names of people, places and organisations were given letter codes (‘A’, ‘B’, ‘C’ and so on), the key being transmitted separately, the correct name has been substituted for the code-letter. Queried words in deciphered messages are as in the original (for example, ‘reliable’). In a few cases punctuation has been silently adjusted for the sake of clarity. Since records from the SIS archive are not released into the public domain, no individual source references are provided to them. In this case I have followed the precedent set by past British official histories. Calculations of current value of historical sums of money are based on the Retail Price Index, as indicated in www.measuringworth.com, which has also been used for exchange-rate information.

This account of SIS’s history finishes in 1949, at a moment when the Service had moved from being a tiny, one-man outfit to a recognisably modern and professional organisation. After forty years’ existence, SIS was on the threshold of four decades when the Cold War challenge of Soviet Communism would dominate its activities. But these are matters which I leave to my successor, if there is one.

You are the first independent historian who has ever been allowed inside the MI6 archives, how were you chosen for the task?

The procedure was part-head-hunt and part conventional job-application. I’ve been working on aspects of military and intelligence history for nearly 30 years and was just completing a biography of Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson, a flamboyant and controversial First World War general who was (among other things) head of British Military Intelligence before 1914, when I was asked if I might be interested in ‘doing something historical’ to mark the centenary of the foundation of the Secret Intelligence Service (or MI6, as it is popularly known). Since I was assured that this would involve privileged access to the secret SIS archive, the offer was too attractive to refuse. I was not the only person sounded out, and, after I had been asked to prepare a scheme for a history of SIS’s first 40 years—from 1909 to 1949—which passed some sort of test, the process developed into a job-interview situation. I was not the only person interviewed, but, again, I passed the test and was offered the commission.

What was it like being inside archives that may never see the light of day again?

The SIS archive is the Holy Grail of British government records. None of SIS’s own papers are released to the National Archives, nor is it envisaged that any will ever be so released. The whole lot are also completely exempt from UK Freedom of Information legislation. As a result, when I actually got access to the papers, it was like being a kid in a candy store. The records themselves are not physically very different from other government documents of a similar age. I’ve been working for years in national and other archives—including, for example, the US archives at College Park Maryland—with ‘Top Secret’ military, political and intelligence papers, and the SIS papers are very similar in type. But there is obviously a tremendous thrill in being an outsider seeing classified materials for the first time. I was also acutely aware that there were (and are) no plans to let any other historian into the archive, and that I had only this one go at writing the history, so I had to get it right first time—or as right as possible. So, no pressure there!

Did you discover anything that shocked you?

What shocked me most of all was the sheer human cost of intelligence work. Working undercover and having to keep secrets for all of one’s life, while doing sometimes extremely hazardous work, is immensely hard. In wartime especially, many officers and agents paid with their lives. Of course we know intellectually that war is dangerous, and that people die. But when you find yet another agent ‘murdered at Buchenwald’ (for example), or stumble on the grainy individual circumstances of real people’s deaths captured in the apparently dryasdust documents on your desk, it gives one pause, and made me reflect (as it must anyone) on what I might have done in such circumstances.

What are the revelations in your book?

The chief revelation of the book is, in fact, the book itself, and the utterly counter-intuitive action of the most secret department of the British government actually commissioning a history for open publication, to be written by an independent professional historian. Of course, for the very first time, the structure and organisation of the agency, and its development over the first 40 years of its life, is reliably and authoritatively laid out. For the first time, too, the names of over 150 officers are named with the authority of the Service itself. But the history is also ‘warts and all’; failures are faced as well as successes.

There are never-before-told operations which include SIS work against the USA between the wars, focusing on American naval and military targets (the Royal Navy was, for example, particularly anxious to know about US naval construction), as well as American left-wing political groups and Irish nationalists. There is much detail about work against Soviet Russia in the post-revolutionary period, including operations in Romania in the 1930s, where the SIS head of station’s over-trusting attitude led to the loss of agents working in the Soviet Union, and also in Bulgaria, where the head of station got into trouble over money. Details of  SIS operations in Latin America in the Second World War have never before been told, including ship-watching for German commerce raiders; a telephone-tapping operation working from the basement of the Santiago embassy; tracking down of Nazi agents across the continent; and unsatisfactory agents (among whom were a French morphine addict and a ‘Chillian Irishman’). The book contains detailed coverage of the Service’s most successful interwar agent, Jonny de Graff, a Comintern officer who came over to SIS in 1933 and supplied a wealth of information about Soviet activities in Britain and across the world, as well as helping to foil a leftwing revolution in Brazil in 1935.

One of the most sensational stories in the book covers ‘Operation Embarrass’ and is as close as you’ll ever get in real life to an espionage thriller. Occurring in 1947–8, it was aimed to disrupt illegal Jewish emigration into Palestine and included direct action with limpet mines to disable potential refugee ships in port (including the vessel which became the famous Exodus); a black propaganda campaign from a bogus Arab organisation, among other thing sending forged letters to the British Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary; and planting disinformation documents on Soviets in a Vienna night club.

Another operation with the air of a thriller was ‘Climber’ in 1948–9 to penetrate the Soviet Union across the Caucasus mountains, but it also illustrates how human frailty could bring serious risks. The Georgian agents jeopardised security by returning to London ‘with their suitcases bulging with every sort of Turkish delicacy’ and ‘a large number of female garments which they were conveying from mutual friends’ in Istanbul for émigrés in Paris. We presume the famous traitor Kim Philby, then Head of Station at Istanbul, also betrayed the operation.

What espionage techniques did you discover which surprised you?

I was intrigued (as was the Service Chief, Mansfield Cumming) by the discovery during the First World War that semen made a usable secret ink for invisible writing. Apparently the SIS representative in Copenhagen stocked the substance in a bottle ‘for his letters stank to high heaven’, and he had to be told that ‘a fresh operation’ was necessary for each message. I was also impressed by the ingenuity displayed in concealing devices, to smuggle sensitive documents or other materials past security checkpoints. It was reported that in Italy during the Second World War a false horse penis had been manufactured and used.

Who is your favourite person in the book and why?

It has to be the first Chief, Mansfield Cumming, without whom the Service would not exist today. From a standing start in October 1909, he created an impressively functioning organisation which made a significant contribution to Allied intelligence work during the First World War. He fell in love with the ‘business’ of espionage—what came to be known as ‘tradecraft’—secrecy, disguises, cutting-edge technology and so on. He was also stoical and brave and was the subject of many extraordinary stories, including that he cut off his own leg with a penknife after a motor accident in 1914 which left his only son fatally injured. He was clearly a most attractive personality, much loved by his staff, though he was not without frailties, which included a keen eye for the ladies and a penchant for Edwardian pornography.

What was the most interesting thing you unearthed about a well known character?

That the novelist Graham Greene, recruited in the summer of 1941 to work for SIS in West Africa with cover as an army officer, was so physically incompetent and unco-ordinated that he had to be sent to a military training course in Oxford solely to be ‘given the most elementary instruction in soldiering’, in order to ‘wear battledress without embarrassment’.

Who was the most interesting new figure uncovered?

There are so many, but one of the best was agent ‘Ecclesiastic’, a glamorous 22-year-old Central European woman living in Lisbon, where she was the mistress of a German Abwehr (Military Intelligence) officer. Taken on by SIS, she became a double-agent, feeding carefully-collated disinformation to the Germans. This successful operation is unusually well recorded, including revealing reports from her flirtatious case-office, ‘Klop’ Ustinov (father of the actor Peter Ustinov), as well as a unique image of Ecclesiastic at work taking photographs of documents which she had purportedly taken from the Anglo-Portuguese Air Liaison office where she worked. Her German lover took the photograph as insurance against Ecclesiastic betraying him, and gave her a copy to confirm his hold over her. But she promptly passed it on to  her case officer and it survives in the SIS archive to this day.

The world’s most famous MI6 operative, albeit fictional, is James Bond. How does the real work of MI6 compare to that depicted by Ian Fleming?

The real work of MI6 is much more interesting, and much more grimly realistic than the fictional. James Bond is terrific entertainment (or at least the best movies are), but, in the end, he is not much more than a kind of cartoon character, who manages ‘with one bound’ (or so) to get free from the clutches of whatever evil genius he has taken on. Since the real James Bonds are real people, they do not have quite the indiarubber qualities of the fictional one. When they are knocked down they sometimes, alas, stay down. They are, moreover, frequently better trained and prepared than Ian Fleming’s fictional creation, who, for example, does not appear to speak any language other than English (though, arguably, Sean Connery can speak Scottish). But one of the prerequisites for a genuine MI6 officer is a facility with languages. Ian Fleming, who worked in British Naval Intelligence during the Second World War clearly knew a lot about intelligence work and people, and there are suggestions that James Bond might in part have been modeled on a debonair SIS officer called Biffy Dunderdale, who was Head of the SIS Station in Paris during the 1930s. Some other stories seem familiar from the Bond oeuvre, for example, the Dutch agent put ashore in November 1940 on the beach near the Casino at Scheveningen, wearing a tuxedo protected by a specially-designed rubber oversuit. To strengthen his party-goer’s image, his minders sprinkled some drops of Hennessy XO brandy on him before setting him ashore.

There is an enduring fascination with intelligence work. How do the actions of 1909–49 relate to modern intelligence?

There are obvious differences between today’s intelligence environment and that of sixty years ago and before, with technology perhaps being the greatest change, but the essentials of successful intelligence work are amply demonstrated in the 1909–49 history of SIS. At the heart of all intelligence work is trust, not just between case officers and their agents, but also between the agency and its government masters. This is as true of 2011 as of 1911. There were moments in the 1920s and 1930s when SIS, under the ambitious and empire-building leadership of Admiral Hugh Sinclair, got a bit ‘big for its boots’, trespassing, for example, into domestic security work for which it was ill-suited and which dangerously threatened to jeopardise its reputation.

From the very start, Mansfield Cumming recognised the varying motivations of agents: money, patriotism, ideology, revenge. Not much changes in this world. Another constant is the important subject of liaison with foreign security and intelligence agencies. SIS has had to cosy up to potential rival organisations—French Intelligence in the 1920s; the Gestapo in the 1930s—in order to target common enemies—the Italians and Communists in the two examples just cited. Spying against friends and/or potential allies can be problematic, as demonstrated with British operations against the USA in the 1930s. In this case, friendly co-operation and the abandoning of those operations (though not before they had systematically been evaluated) proved to be more productive than keeping them on. One difficulty with a distinctly modern resonance is the experience of the SIS officer who visited Palestine in December 1939. Here the British administration of the territory told him they wanted information about the Jewish Agency, and especially about their support of illegal Jewish immigration. The next day, a contact in the Jewish Agency, in turn, offered their assistance in intelligence-gathering.

Another dimension with a remarkably contemporary feel is the assessment of potential bio-warfare threats to London drawn up by an SIS committee in August 1939. Reflecting on the possibility of anthrax or foot-and-mouth disease attacks on agricultural targets, it also asked if ‘one hundred Nazi agents supplied with bacteriological material and operating in the London Underground Railways during the rush hours, [could] start a serious epidemic in London’. Even on the technology side, many of the changes are purely of scale rather than kind. The pioneering portable suitcase radio developed by SIS’s engineers during the late 1930s is the Second World War equivalent of today’s cell phone, and the careful protocols for using those wartime radios securely remind us, today as much as ever, that any method of communication is liable to be vulnerable if not properly used.

Did you have to leave a lot out of your book at the request of MI6?

This is a really important question, since it reflects on my status as an independent historian. While I was granted complete and free access to the SIS archives for the period of the book (and this was a potential deal-breaker if I had found my access in any way restricted), and that the history should be ‘warts and all’, the corollary to this was that my final text would be reviewed in-house for what were described as ‘necessary national security requirements’. The most significant dimension of this concerned the naming of agents. SIS’s line, which I accepted, is that it will itself never reveal the name of an agent. In general, only if an agent has ‘outed’ him- or herself, can their name be revealed. This point of principle obviously makes very good sense, and goes to the heart of the relationship of trust between the Service and its agents. If, for example, you are a German hired by the British to spy against Nazi Germany in the 1930s, SIS will say: ‘Your secret is safe with us, in perpetuity’. (One analogy is with an investigative journalist, who may go to jail before revealing his sources.) But after 1945, for example, that German agent might be very glad to have her story told, and may even publish memoirs revealing this. In that case, and in some other cases where the identity of an agent is authoritatively revealed in publicly-available official documents in an archive or museum, I was permitted to name names. Even in those cases where I couldn’t reveal names, I could still tell the stories using cover-names or numbers (which is, after all, what cover-names are for).

There still remains the reasonable suspicion on the part of skeptics that I, having been found suitable by SIS to write its history, might be precisely the wrong person to do an independent and properly-critical job. All I can say to that, is (a) the opportunity (of a lifetime) to be the only historian allowed access to the SIS archives was too great to resist; (b) even if it might be seen as a kind of Faustian Pact with an immensely powerful and seductive organisation, the risk was worth taking; (c) as a senior academic historian with a high reputation to protect, and much to lose if I did only a partial job, I hope my professionalism has enabled me to get the story as right as possible; (d) in practice, while I was prevented from including some details of names etc, I was not restricted from including material about bungled operations and inadequate personnel which was not to the credit of SIS; and (e) in the last resort the ‘proof of the pudding [etc]’ will lie in the text itself, and for that the discerning reader must make up his or her own mind.

What do you think is the enduring importance of your work?

My book has been called ‘definitive’, a flattering description but one with which I have some worries. Whether it is already definitive or not, I very much hope that the book becomes definitive, and really only time will tell, as it might take five or ten years for this to be so. The book certainly has been written to stand the test of time. It is authoritative, and, since it is the only work based on access to the SIS archives, will, at the very least and for many years to come (if not for ever), remain the only reliable source for the real story of SIS. If it becomes definitive, I shall be well content. Like any author, my chief hope is that the book will be widely read and bring pleasure as well as conveying information. In the meantime, however, it is an indispensable source for anyone interested in ‘grown-up’ history, particularly that of the most famous intelligence organisation in the world.

When my family moved to The Free Territory of Trieste, it was a time when people did not fly across the ocean. Flying was prohibitively expensive and rare. No one really believed that airplanes made with all that heavy metal could actually fly safely when they were full of people. It was counterintuitive. I personally still have trouble believing that those enormous things get off the ground at all. (And don’t even get me started on those helicopters from the mosquito family!)  Back then, everyone had the same reservations. We sailed across the ocean to FTT on the Saturnia. I suppose that if I had thought about it, I also would have questioned how a ship made out of metal that should obviously sink, could float. I’m glad I didn’t think about that at the time, or I would have worried my way all across the ocean.

We rented the bottom floor of a fabulous villa belonging to General and Mrs. Santi. My dad was a gifted Marine Engineer. He knew everything about ships and ports. With the benefit of hindsight, it is pretty clear that my dad was a spy. Dad knew all kinds of sketchy military types and nebulous characters you couldn’t really figure out. They were in and out of the house all the time. My dad was unavailable behind The Iron Curtain most of the time. I rarely saw him during those years.

While I lived there, I went to a Convent school about a mile away from the villa. I loved it there. I believed myself to be a typical little Italian girl. My father later told me that I won all sorts of awards for being super cool and the smartest of all, (and why would he lie?) Plus the class was full of kids I could play with after school.

I’m the second girl from the Nun in this photo.

In the picture below, my dad wrote I.M. next to my head. (Irene Marie.)

A stone pedestal stood in the garden. It was the ideal launching place for me to practice my flying. I was very light and had no metal on me. It made perfect sense. I was certain that I would be able to fly if I only practiced often enough and hard enough. It was simply a matter of stick-to-itiveness. I would climb up on the pedestal and leap off flapping my arms wildly, over and over and over, every day. I was convinced that I was getting incrementally better. I had so thoroughly persuaded myself in my abilities that I convinced all my friends to come over after school for flying lessons. My flying lessons were well attended. I never even considered charging for them. I thought anyone who worked that hard to fly should just have a right to it. It was a public service.

I had my first dog there. Her name was Trixie. She wasn’t allowed in the house, but then, neither was I most of the time. My mother liked her house to herself. My brother didn’t live there during the school year, since he went to school in Switzerland. My mom cleaned all the time. Nothing was ever clean enough for her. Therefore, neither my dog nor I were welcome in the house. We made things messy. I was invited in for meals and to go to bed. This was okay with me, since I was committed to polishing my flying and I had my green wooden swing hanging from ropes on our enormous horse chestnut tree and I could read outside and I had my totally fabulous dog. Why would I want to go inside?

We sailed back home on the Andrea Doria in 1955, a year before it collided with The Stockholm, and sank off the coast of Massachusetts. (And we thought airplanes were dangerous!) My dad was somewhere secret and wasn’t with us. My mom and my brother were really seasick and stayed in the cabin a lot, so I sort of had the run of the ship. I remember having a blast playing with all the kids. Michael Douglas was one of the kids with us on the Andrea Doria. He was older than I, my brother’s age. To this day it sticks in my craw that I can’t remember which boy Michael Douglas was. You probably all think of him as an old guy, and I guess he sort of is now.  To me, he’s still a great actor and a handsome man, but I’m about his age. If you saw him back in the 1970s, he was acting in a TV show with Carl Malden called: The Streets of San Francisco, and even you young people would think he was hot!

This picture was taken on the Andrea Doria. Michael Douglas is one of these little boys.  If you think you know which one, I’d love to know. I’m the first kid on the right holding what looks like a stuffed Tazmanian Devil. My mom is standing behind me and my brother is the second kid on the left.  It is apparent from our somber faces that the photographer did not tell us to say “cheese.”

Zara just found this photo to me.  I think it’s clear now which boy is little Michael Douglas.

When we sailed home to Brooklyn, my mother would not allow me to bring my dog. In retaliation, I refused to speak anything but Italian for quite awhile. My family totally ignored my plan to get sent back to Italy. Things were weird at Public School 102, what with my pretending I could only speak Italian. The teachers just assumed I was an immigrant and expected that eventually I would learn English. After about six months I realized my tactic wasn’t working, so I reverted to English. The day I switched over, it probably surprised them. Although, I remember answering English questions on tests and school work with the correct answer in Italian. When it came my turn to read aloud, I would simply translate what I was reading into Italian. I suppose that would have given them a clue, had they any knowledge of Italian.

A few years ago, in our travels, Victor and I went to Trieste to see if any place was still standing that I might remember. My brother remembered the address of the villa. He told me it was a pipe dream to expect it to be still there. He said I was going all the way to Northeastern Italy and there was probably an apartment building or a shopping mall where the villa used to be. I guess he was trying to keep me from being disappointed.

We traveled there anyway and my unwarranted optimism paid off. The villa was still there. We rang the bell at the gate at the bottom of five flights of stairs. A woman, older than I, came out. I no longer spoke Italian, but luckily this woman spoke English. She was actually the daughter of General and Mrs. Santi and remembered me. How’s that for weird?  She lived in the villa alone now. It was too immense a building to live in alone. That became obvious when we went inside.

The villa was dilapidated. The walls were crumbling and damp.

The gorgeous mosaic marble was piled high with junk.

She showed us all the rooms I had recalled. She served us wine. We walked into the yard and my flying pedestal was still there. It was just a bit crooked.

I asked General Santi’s daughter what had happened to Trixie.

She told me that Trixie became their dog after we left; that she was the best dog they ever had. For decades I had assumed that my mother had arranged to have my dog killed. After all, my Easter Chicks had gone to live at the farm at “The Old Sailors’ Home” when they grew into actual chickens. My Easter Bunny, Eliot Ness, also went to live on the same farm, when he grew up to be a full-fledged rabbit. It was years before I picked up on that scam. I was already in college before my father finally owned up to the truth. My Easter Chickens and Easter Bunny became dinner for those old sailors. My dad was feeling guilty that I still believed in the deception after all those years.

Go ahead and tell me a lie. I believe everything. Ask my kids.

After leaving my old home, we walked to the Convent School with only memory as my guide. I hadn’t remembered the name of the school. When we found it, we were startled and laughed at its prophetic name.

(Do you hear the music from “The Twilight Zone” too?)



Comment by Ben |Edit This
2009-10-17 08:21:03

Everything you write about your youth makes Kate envious. I, on the other hand, thank God every day that I grew up in modern America.

Being born any time before 1970 and being raised anywhere but here just seems like life giving you a really terrible consolation prize.

Better you than me, I always say.

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-10-17 11:17:18

Kate is just romantic about far-away places. It’s sweet! It’s what girls do. Fantasy doesn’t always play out the way you think it might, though. Better to stay with the fantasy and not test it out too much.

I agree with you, Ben. Growing up here is best. Growing up now is best, unless you can figure out how to grow up later when things are even more modern.

Comment by ksw |Edit This
2009-10-17 10:30:30

you are a true kunte kinte….

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-10-17 11:18:24

Yeah, telling my family history here.
(Victor thought kunte kinte was kaiser sose. HA! That would change things, eh?)

Comment by Stephanie |Edit This
2009-10-17 10:31:13

I am so jealous. You have by far the most interest life, Irene. It’s incredible.

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-10-17 11:19:58

I think everyone has an interesting life. Some people notice it and some don’t. Ask your mom some questions and don’t let her wriggle out of the answers. You’ll see.

Comment by Lisa |Edit This
2009-10-17 11:00:25

Excuse me, but you have both flipper people AND spies in your not-too-distant family history? That is by far the coolest thing ever.

The baby still isn’t here so now I need another story to read, please.

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-10-17 11:21:30

I am REALLY trying to forget about the flipper people swimming next to the Mayflower on the way to the new land.
Only Lenore thinks that’s cool. I’m totally weirded out.

Comment by cecile lebenson |Edit This
2009-10-17 11:17:23

Your early years never seemed so interesting when you told it in Champaign. Maybe you were still angry then because your mother never let you in. But it is a great story with the visuals as well. There is a lot more than meets the eye when one meets Irene Zion. Just finished viewing the you tube bit from Chicago. You are by far my most intersting and unpredictable friend.

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-10-17 11:29:16

I was carrying my certifiable mom on my back for ten years in Champaign.
Things just weren’t funny.
Driving with only my mom in the car were the only times in my life when I actually had to fight speeding headlong into the side of the viaduct or a bridge abutment simply to shut her up.
As the opportunity to end her endless bitching arose, I had to have some serious self-control to continue driving on the road instead.
Oh but it was so tempting….

Comment by Zara Potts |Edit This
2009-10-17 11:34:18

You tell a delightful story, Irene.
I could almost see you flying.
I love the lines that are almost throwaway, like you were ‘invited in for dinner and to go to bed.’ Perfectly rendered!
I’m glad Trixie made it. We had a dog that was sent to live on ‘The Rabbit Farm.’ We really believed there was such a thing.
Molto bene, bella signora!

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-10-17 11:39:59

I BELIEVED I could fly. I felt very happy about it. It made all my friends happy too, since I was so positive we were all getting better every day.
I miss flying.
The Old Sailors really did have lots of land. They just ate my pets instead of letting them run free as I thought. I guess the old sailors have to eat.
Were there really old sailors?
Was there really an “Old Sailors Home?”
Now I don’t know what to believe.

Comment by Adam |Edit This
2009-10-17 12:19:18

I really enjoyed Michael Douglas in Falling Down. Or maybe I just really enjoyed Falling Down. Probably both.

I’m reasonably convinced that he is the child nearest you in the photo.

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-10-17 12:43:02

That’s what I think. He’s older and he has that Kirk Douglas chin thing going on. (But I can’t be sure.)
I like him in just about every acting role he’s had. Of course, I always thought he was great.

Comment by Frank |Edit This
2009-10-17 12:29:41

Sion, Zion, What’s In a Name…?

Careless moi, I see The Gator playing the Razorbacks in The Swamp, and figured Urban’s Legends would do in Bobby’s Boys toot sweet so deserted the wide screen in the living room to retire to the 27″ “regular” TV (remember when those were pretty big stuff a few scant years ago…???) in the back room, turning the game on to act as background for me to read your latest, which Sally announced after spending some time online before coming back into the living room where I’m madly flipping among the NCAA offerings on an increasingly pleasant Saturday afternoon in The Grove. (1)

I read and thoroughly enjoyed your most recent Nervous contribution, Irene. I was particularly intrigued by many aspects of the story as they coincided with some still starkly etched memories of that era I carry around in my head. In particular, while chuckling at your attempts at flying, and moreso at your sequential incomprehension of Bernoulli’s and Archimedes’ Principles, I was struck that you’d actually not only been ON BOARD the Andrea Doria, but that you’d actually booked -and most surprisingly -MADE! -passage on the ship. I remember vividly the front page headlines and stark black-and-white photos of the collision of the ill-fated bloody-nosed Stockholm and iller-fated Andrea Doria and the riveting story of not only the crash, and the gashed bow section of the Scandanavian ship, and the sorrowful smoking list, roll, and drop of the Italian ship over the course of the next day or so into the grey, cold watersv of the Atlantic off the east coast those many years ago.

What a memory…

And then as I read about you and Victor doing the Trieste trudge, I was intrigued by the sign over the school, especially because you noted that after leaving your old home, you walked to the Convent School with only your memory as your guide, and that while you hadn’t remembered the name of the school, per se, that when you had indeed found it, you were startled and laughed at its prophetic name.

So what was this prophetic name? Not having had the benefit of being raised Italian, or even IN Italy (tho’ I -like you and Victor, weren’t all THAT far from LITTLE Italy) I was obliged to visit several freebie online translation services to derive a logical meaning for those inscribed words upon the old plaque…

“Our Lady of Sion Nursery School”

So why is this startling, amusing, or prophetic? I wasn’t really at all sure, save that you raised a passel of kids, whose sole purpose seems to have given you much interesting/startling/shocking/funny/hilarious/etc. grist for your most creative and interesting mill, and perhaps one could imagine you riding herd on a nursery school of sorts. Buit I rather think not.

So I did a little research… on, as paul Harvey might say, “the REST of the story…!”.

The Sion connection.

Sion, Zion, what’s in a name…? I’ll tell you, and I quote:

“Our Lady of Sion

Founded 1843 at Paris, France, by Reverend Alphonse Ratisbonne
(1814-1884) and his brother Reverend Marie Theodore Ratisbonne
(1802-1884) to promote understanding between Christians and Jews
and to bring about the conversion of the Jews. Ratisbonne experienced
a miraculous conversion (20 January 1842) after a vision of the Blessed
Virgin Mary in the church of Saint Andrea delle Fratte (Rome, italy),
and was baptized two weeks later.26o Alphonse became a Jesuit and
remained in the Society for eleven years until released by a papal brief
allowing him to leave and work with his brother Theodore for the
conversion of Jews through the communities they had founded.

Pax Nostra, a lay group has also developed from this institute. (See
6.1-FRA.852.0.)261 (Generalate: via Garibaldi, 28; 00153 Rome, Italy.)”

So, is this the conclusion and completion of the circle of your Trieste journey & story?

A warm, strange one, Irene, but most entertaining in a nice comfortable way.


(1) Translation: The University of Florida, head coach Urban Meyer (sp?) is contesting an American football game against the University of Arkansas, head coach Bobby Petrino, at the University of Florida stadium and field. Florida is heavily favored -by 13-1/2 points. It’s about the equivalent of giving someone a 60-yard head start in a 100-yard dash. Florida is playing poorly and losing at the half to Arkansas. I scoffed at the idea of Florida folding, Arkansas triumphing. Maybe not so much, now…

Comment by Greg Olear |Edit This
2009-10-17 14:09:20

What a great story! You continue to be fascinating. Spies? Trieste? Italian? The Andrea Doria? Michael Douglas? Sheesh.

The junk piled in the old building reminded me of “Grey Gardens,” which we just watched. I’m glad that your dog lived a happy life.


Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-10-17 15:49:25

Oh Greg,
I was so happy when I found that out! I burst into tears and probably scared the poor lady to death. I really thought my mom had had her killed. Why my parents didn’t tell me she was going to stay living there, I will never understand. My dad was still always gone in the beginning in Brooklyn, but my mom was there. She knew that I could speak English if I wanted to, but she just ignored me. I really thought they would give in and let me go back to Trieste and my dog. Kids. I guess you never know what they are really thinking.
You remember the Andrea Doria? I didn’t think anyone on TNB would know about it. It wasn’t as big a tragedy as the Titanic and, I guess, they also didn’t make a movie about it. That’s why I hyperlinked it. I hoped people would read the history.
Yeah. My pal Michael Douglas. I don’t even know if his dad was on the trip. I was too young to be impressed by it, or even understand it. He was just one of the kids to play with on the ship. (I’m pretty sure he doesn’t remember me….)

Comment by Don Mitchell |Edit This
2009-10-17 14:56:12

Irene – this is great stuff. Did your Dad eventually say anything about his spying?

I’m amazed at your finding the pedestal still there. You could see yourself on it, I’m sure.

I remember the Andrea Doria sinking.

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-10-17 15:52:57

My dad never said anything about anything.
On my dad’s side everything was a secret. Even stuff that isn’t remotely secret material.
I think my brother found out at some point.
We’re almost positive that he was also a spy for many years before his stroke.
Yet another story….
I’m glad you remember the Andrea Doria. That makes two from TNB. It was really dramatic and many people died and more people were saved. They should make a movie about it.

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-10-17 15:55:11

Sorry, Don, I forgot to mention that I also burst out crying when I saw my flying pedestal. It did get a bit tipped in close to 50 years, but it was still there.
A lot of kids learned to fly on that pedestal!
What’s true is what you believe is true.

Comment by Mary |Edit This
2009-10-17 16:32:18

Irene, pretty much everything you write makes me want to hug you, but in this sortof odd way that you also want to hug your favorite musicians, and yet you know in the back of your mind that they would find it creepy and uncomfortable. Because they probably have strangers wanting to hug them all the time. Do you have that happen? Like at the grocery store and stuff?

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-10-18 04:05:22

Oh Mary,
You have it all wrong. I’m always hugging people inappropriately. I virtually want to hug everyone who says anything remotely upsetting. People tell me things that they are no longer upset about, and I start crying. Really, I’m a mess.
Actually I want to hug people who tell me happy things too.
I frequently get the weird “where did you get the idea you could touch me?” look.
My kids are always trying to head me off if they see it coming.
I’m the greatest humiliation to them.
I’m married to the king of the “Hug and Shove” too.

Comment by Becky |Edit This
2009-10-17 16:39:47

I’m too bowled over to know what to say, so I’m just going to guess on the game.

I say first boy in on the right. Next to you.

Mostly because of the similarity in profile to the 19 year-old Mike Douglas at the link below (scroll down, it’s there) but also because he’s the only one who looks the same age as you–which in boy/girl growing-up patterns means he was probably older.


Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-10-18 04:07:15

WOW! I see what you mean, Becky!
How did you find so many young pictures of Michael Douglas? Obviously you are more adept at the internet than I.
I always thought that was MD, but never knew.

Comment by Becky |Edit This
2009-10-18 05:53:45

I googled “michael douglas young.”

It was harrowing. ;D

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Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-10-18 06:35:24

I really should have thought of that!
I tried to make the picture bigger so we could see the kids better, but it didn’t work.

Comment by Becky |Edit This
2009-10-17 16:53:41

Consensus continues to pile up: Called the husband in here to make a guess; without seeing the 19 year-old Douglas picture and with no prompting from me, he guessed the kid next to you, for the same reasons as everyone else: Chin, nose, age.

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-10-18 04:09:39

HA! This is great.
I’ll have to take out the slanderous part of my description of him and try to send him this story. He’d probably like to see the picture of himself on the Andrea Doria.
I don’t think you can actually get a story to a real star though. They probably get thousands of letters a day.

Comment by Becky |Edit This
2009-10-18 05:51:04

No harm in trying.

Shouldn’t be too difficult to get his agent and/or publicist’s address, which I suspect would be the appropriate, non-crazy-fan way of doing things. I guess I don’t know. The last famous person I wrote a letter to was God, and I buried that in the back yard. I was also 8 years old.

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Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-10-18 06:37:08

I wrote a letter to God at the Wailing Wall.
I also wrote to him in a Croatian church carved out of a rock mountain.
I’ll write to God anywhere.
I’m not proud.

2009-10-17 17:31:13

That’s a great story and some adorable pictures, Irene. Really beautiful. I’m jealous that you have a memory capable of recalling these things.

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-10-18 04:17:48

It’s funny that you say that, David. Actually I have a really selective memory. Most of the stuff I should remember I don’t.
Someone says have you seen this or that movie and I say no, but I have just lost it.
We are in a group and a state or city comes up and I say I’d love to go there and then Victor tells me we have been there.
I remember things in pictures in my head, but I don’t know how my brain selects the pictures it wants to save and those it ejects.
What I do remember I remember completely. I see everything there. I can feel the breeze I make pumping on my swing in the yard in Trieste.
I can smell the horse chestnut blooms.
It’s as though I’m there again.
Am I making sense?

Comment by Mitchell |Edit This
2009-10-17 17:41:37

What a gem, I need to get the updates to check out the latest.

You should REALLY consider making a podcast out of one of these. Better carbon cost than schlepping to Chicago, etc., NOT that you can’t do that…it would just be more exciting ) I could most certainly provide some assist…I hear it now, with a bit of piano, maybe a touch of some ambient scene sounds…think of the ultimate, This American Life-style…you should listen to a bit of my friend Lesley…she is actually featured on NPR quite a bit.

http://lesleyspencer.com/CDs.html#moments <PS, you can sample her stuff right on the page

I really enjoyed the windows you open about yourself, I feel inspired -) And the fact you reference Keyser Soze, you’re alright by me ;) Good evening…

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-10-18 04:26:05

The video came out from Chicago.
My dry mouth makes it look like I have Tourettes with the contortions I go through trying to open my mouth to speak.
It’s cool that you have a friend whose music is featured on NPR. I’ll listen to it when Victor isn’t sitting right here. It’s his birthday and we’re only doing things he wants today.

(I wish I had googled Keyser Soze so I could’ve spelled his name correctly. Lesson learned.)

You know, Mitchell, you have stories. You should tell them. Your kids will be happy to have them one day.

Comment by jmb |Edit This
2009-10-17 17:49:40

I love your pictures
I love your story
I love you

all dogs wait
on the shores of Jordan
where the daughters of Zion

come let us dance
let us feast
by the River
let us make a joyful

Comment by Mary |Edit This
2009-10-17 18:08:32

What a lovely comment. -D You people give me such joy sometimes… I swear.

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-10-18 04:29:49

jmb is both a poet and a muse.
No one doesn’t love him.

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Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-10-18 06:55:59


by virtue
of your
link with

there is
perception of

almost touch

there is
the smell of

there is
hope for

Comment by jmb |Edit This
2009-10-19 04:38:38

hope for bliss
hope for bliss
…hope for bliss

t’will be my theme in Glory.

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Comment by Lenore |Edit This
2009-10-17 22:10:44

uh…michael douglas is fucking cool and very sophisticated and he’s a fine looking older gentleman. i would totally marry him and let him take me on vacation. you have terrible taste in men, with the exception of dad.

seriously, i really like michael douglas.

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-10-18 04:32:41

Le no ore!
I like him too. I just thought that all you young people would think of him as too old and maybe a bit creepy for marrying a younger woman. I guess I was wrong. My generation still thinks he’s hot.
You’d go with anyone who would take you on a great vacation, anyhow. That’s no test.

Comment by Cayt |Edit This
2009-10-18 00:47:40

Irene, your mother was crazy and I’m astonished at your mental fortitude that you managed to come through your childhood with her and be a smart functional person.

You’re a survivor!

And I love that you tried to get sent back to be with your dog.

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-10-18 04:38:29

Everyone has things that aren’t perfect in his life.
You learn to deal and overcome.
I’m dyslectic, but it’s never held me back for a minute.
You choose who you want to be with your actions.
No one can choose for you by his actions.
Only if you let him.

I REALLY wanted to go back to FTT to be with Trixie again. I really tried. Finding out 50 years later that she had a good life, even if it was without me in it, removed a long-standing and deep pain in my chest.

Comment by Ben Loory |Edit This
2009-10-18 03:59:00

“I’m the second girl from the Nun in this photo.”

i didn’t even see the nun until i read that. nuns are scary! it looks like the grim reaper! why don’t religious people wear flowery berets or something? lollipop dresses, big red rubber shoes? the world’s spiritual life would be greatly uplifted.

Comment by Becky |Edit This
2009-10-18 04:06:44

But people with clown phobias wouldn’t even have God to save them.

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-10-18 04:59:23

AHA! Becky,
I feel the same way.
Now two of us have explained why nuns can’t wear red rubber shoes to Ben.

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Comment by Ben Loory |Edit This
2009-10-18 12:49:26

what about light blue jumpsuits and orange wizard hats? anyone got a fear of those?

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-10-18 13:15:01

Ben, that would totally work.
The color is just as important as the outfit.
Who wouldn’t believe the advice of a nice woman wearing such clothes?

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-10-18 04:58:05

Well, Ben, at least in this country, Nuns dress like regular people.
They work regular jobs and things are different from how they were.
It may be that in the hyper-Roman Catholic countries they still dress in a habit. I kind of think they do, but I don’t know that.
When I was growing up the Catholic schools all had Nuns dressed in habits.
I like your ideas of flowery berets or lollipop dresses, though.
You’d want to talk to a person dressed like that.
(At least I would.)
Clowns really scare me though, so the big red rubber shoes are out.
We have a lot of prison art that Victor bought that mostly consists of skulls and clowns.
That alone tells me that clowns are not safe if prisoners have them on their minds.

Comment by Ben Loory |Edit This
2009-10-18 12:51:02

why is victor buying prison art? is i think the next logical question.

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Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-10-18 13:17:12

Oh Lordy, Ben, you would never believe the art in our house.
Every square inch is covered on the walls.
We have to warn people who go into the library not to look up unless they have strong hearts.
We have to explain that there is something in the corner of the family room, but it is NOT real.
We have unusual taste.
You should come to see.

2009-10-18 05:21:41

I love how you refused to speak anything but Italian when you returned to Brooklyn! What an amazing piece of your life!

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-10-18 05:53:34

I really thought that it would get me sent back to my dog!
It was very disappointing.
My mom didn’t even notice!
God knows what my teachers thought.

Comment by Melissa |Edit This
2009-10-18 06:46:00

When is the hardcover book of your short stories coming out?

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-10-18 10:24:32

As if!
I think someone that represents writers has to notice you first.
Still waiting….

(Nice of you to say that, though.)

Comment by Christine W. |Edit This
2009-10-18 08:13:13

Irene, this is my favorite story OF ALL TIME. I retell it, albeit without your magical and vision-inducing descriptions, but it never fails to bring smiles. I’m going to print this! ) Love you!

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-10-18 10:26:24

Hi Christine I and Christine II,

Did you decide on which little boy was Michael Douglas?

Comment by George |Edit This
2009-10-18 11:15:32

You should collect your stories and publish them in a book. Perhaps our Lady of Zion will work in the background to help you get them published. They are delightful.

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-10-18 11:50:34

I didn’t think of that, George,
Our Lady of Zion was my first teacher, after all.
If I were, in fact, really good as my dad said, she might give me a hand….

Comment by Megan DiLullo |Edit This
2009-10-18 11:53:34

I love your stories, Mama Z.

It’s magical to get a glimpse of your world as a child. And I love that you have all these pictures.

Your life has been so adventurous, I feel like you need wear pirate gear or something.

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-10-18 13:06:01

You know, Megan, if I had been given the opportunity, I would have been a pirate.
But not the kind that hurt people or steal things.
The fantasy kind that is sailing the seas for adventure, finding riches buried under an X on a secret map.
That would’ve been me.

Comment by Jeremy Resnick |Edit This
2009-10-18 12:15:28

Irene, I loved reading this. What an adventure…. And I can totally see the ways in which Lenore takes after you. Super-smart, full of imagination, and stubborn as hell. I can imagine how heartbreaking it was to leave Trixie behind. At least now you know she lived a good life after you left.

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-10-18 13:09:42

Yeah, Lenore.
She hates me, but she loves me.
You know how it is.
We’re too much alike, although she would violently disagree.
She’s glorious, eh?
I hate time.
I wish we could have been young together.

Murdered and then risen from the dead.
What joy!

Comment by Matt |Edit This
2009-10-18 12:22:42

Ah, what great reading for my Sunday afternoon. Spies and nuns and sinking ships and Cold War Europe; it’s like a Graham Greene novel featuring the mother of someone I know!

Seriously, though, this is a great piece. Really enjoyed it. Like you, I had a flying pedestal. Ecept instead of “pedestal” you would say “roof of our house” and instead of holding out my arms I was wearing a my homemade Superman cape and leaping off. A lot.

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-10-18 13:12:09

Holy mackerel, Matt,
How high was your roof?
Did you get hurt?
Did you have followers?
Did it work?
I never thought of a cape.
I had never read a comic book, so I didn’t know about super heroes.
I’ll bet a lot of kids tried to fly.
We should take a poll.

Comment by Matt |Edit This
2009-10-18 13:36:43

I’m pretty sure I never *thought* I could fly, I just liked the leaping off of stuff. Our house at the time was only a single-storey, so it wasn’t that high up, but I seem to remember that moment of being suspended in the air before the drop as just a little bit of magic. My school friends and I used to get our swings up as high as they’d go and then launch ourselves into the air, landing in all sorts of positions. And this was when schoolyards were covered in actual asphalt blacktop, not that namby-pamby rubbery stuff they have now. Somehow, despite doing things like this, I have made it 30 years on the planet without ever breaking a bone.

And alas, I remain without my well-deserved cult of followers.

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Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-10-18 13:48:23

I was a swing aficionado myself, but I never, ever thought of jumping off.
My goal was to stand and swing so hard that I would swing around the pole 360 degrees.
I tried forever, but, alas, was never able to do it.
We had asphalt too.
Wasn’t so bad.
Only broke my arm once as a kid and that wasn’t at the park.
It was skating in the street and avoiding getting hit by a car.
It WAS Brooklyn.
Drivers didn’t much like kids skating in the street.
But there was nowhere else to skate or ride your bike then.

Comment by ksw |Edit This
2009-10-18 13:32:36

am not sure which is the clearer picture when you paint or write! Thank you for sharing the BV (before Victor) time. I never attempted to fly but did talk my brother into it.( however fearing trouble from my grandmother I did tie a rope around him first love you caw P.S. Michael Douglas was the boy staring at the camera DUH!

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-10-18 13:52:22

With the checkered shirt? No one has guessed him yet.
The other one staring at the camera on the left is my brother.
He was never a Hollywood star.

I can’t believe you did that to your brother! It’s not like you at all!
Where did you have him try to fly?
What good would a rope do, with little you holding onto the end?

There was a good deal of BV time.
A lot of stories.

Comment by Amy |Edit This
2009-10-18 17:04:59

I also thought the boy sitting next to you is Michael Douglas before I even read what everyone else wrote. It’s amazing to see how we each interpret our childhood, good or bad, it’s all fascinating! Each story I read reveals more about you that surprises me, flying, what were you thinking!

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-10-19 01:51:05

Well, Amy, I was thinking I would be able to fly if I practiced hard enough.
(I never said I was rational.)

2009-10-18 18:56:01

Irene, was your dad Ian Fleming?

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-10-19 01:56:44

Well, Simon,
I think Ian Fleming was a tall guy. My dad was just as dapper, but short. My dad was from a poor family and didn’t have the nutrition to grow tall when he was growing up.
I’ve been wondering about my grandfather now. He was in the same marine engineer line of work. I wonder if he started the spying thing and passed his contacts down to my dad, who then passed them down to my brother.

Comment by Aaron Dietz |Edit This
2009-10-18 21:31:23

I hate to fixate on the first part of this story when the rest of the story is captivating, but…sometimes I think that the only reason those gigantic jets take off is because most or all of the people in the plane BELIEVE they will take off. Belief is powerful. Excellent post!

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-10-19 01:59:02

I completely agree with you.
I actually think that when I’m on a plane taking off.
What if not enough people believe in this plane’s ability to fly?
What if it is a plane full of doubters like me?

Comment by Marni Grossman |Edit This
2009-10-18 22:35:56

I think that Michael Douglas is the first boy on the left. I’d be willing to swear to it.

But you! You are too adorable for words! And Stephanie’s right. You have had- thus far- the most incredible life. And you tell it so well. Matter-of-factly. As though everyone lived at a villa in Trieste for a while while their father engaged in espionage.

I think I see a hint of Lenore in that story about flying…

Oh, Irene. You’re the best!

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-10-19 02:04:29

Oh, now Marni, now I’m blushing!
You are too sweet.

You are the first to guess the first boy on the left. The only problem is that that kid is my brother.
So he, and the girls, are the only ones excluded from the game.

I wish we could get the real MD to chime in and just tell us which kid he was.

Everyone’s life is matter-of-fact because it is what is normal to him.

Yeah, we’re related, Lenore and I.

2009-10-19 04:19:50

Sorry I’m so late in weighing in here, Irene. Such a wonderful life you have, and as always, such amazing photos to document the experience.

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-10-19 05:48:51

Thanks, Rich,
If you could only put it to rhyme….

Comment by Erika Rae |Edit This
2009-10-19 04:38:53

What a story, Irene! I love the flying pedestal and I love this line:
She wasn’t allowed in the house, but then, neither was I most of the time.
It made me laugh and want to cry.
Your pictures make me almost smell the vegetation in them. What vivid memories you must have.

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-10-19 05:52:36

Yeah, Erika Rae,
Things were a bit off at my house, but I still had a great childhood that I made for myself.
Victor and I have that in common. We are both the creators of what we are. No parents involved.
As I said above, although I have seriously vivid memories of some things, other things are gone from my brain. I don’t know how my brain decides what to keep and what to flush.

Comment by Erika Rae |Edit This
2009-10-20 05:52:28

I like that immensely. You are the creators of what you are.

I posted you to Face Stories today:


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Comment by Tim |Edit This
2009-10-19 05:06:49

Did your mother put the I.M.? Seems like something she’d do.

And I’m with Ben: Other countries suck.

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-10-19 06:06:11

No, my mom would only be interested in recording my brother.
That was my dad who wrote that.
You know, there’s a funny thing about that.
My dad only printed and only in capital letters.

He never, ever wrote anything in cursive or used lower case printed letters.
Neat as a pin, his writing was.

You two are just comfortable being where you are. there’s a whole world of wonderous things to see and experience out there. When you get more “mature,” you’ll get the wanderlust. I guarantee.

Comment by Ed |Edit This
2009-10-19 17:09:01

Another great story. So much for growing up in middle America.

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-10-20 01:58:05

Thanks for reading, Ed.

My kids grew up in middle America.
When I got back from FTT, I was a Brooklyn girl through and through.

Comment by Ben Loory |Edit This
2009-10-20 02:51:45

where do i get a couch like kirk douglas’s????

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-10-20 08:25:03

Ben, I KNOW! It’s like a huge red teddy bear just ready to hug you!

Comment by D.R. Haney |Edit This
2009-10-20 05:09:56

Speaking of the streets of San Francisco, I just returned from the very same — sick. That’s why it’s taken me a while to comment, and after I do, I’m going to lie on the sofa and die, thanks very much.

At any rate:

Like you, as a child, I had a dog named Trixie. There was never any guessing as to what became of her, however; she died in my arms. I also owned two rabbits, but neither was eaten by sailors; they expired of natural causes and were buried in my yard. I trust that someone will do something similar for me after I die on the sofa.

Didn’t Lenore also have designs of flight as a child? Or did she simply propose to grow wings? No matter; it’s a lovely post, Irene, and I’m glad to have read it as I prepare to die on the sofa.

Why does the cold virus love me so? Ah, well. I suppose it’s nice to be loved by something.

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-10-20 08:29:09

Oh poor Duke!
I’m so sorry you’re so sick. You need to drink lots of liquids and get lots of sleep.
Tell Lenore to buy some home-made chicken soup and bring it over.
I’d tell you to have her make it, but she refuses to learn how to cook.
I’d make it for you, but I’m 3,000 miles away.
Wow. You had a dog named Trixie too. That’s cool.
Is your sofa as comfy as Kirk Douglas’?
I hope so.

Comment by Marcia (former next-door neighbor in Illinois and frequent visitor to Florida) |Edit This
2009-10-20 05:21:53

I’m so happy about your dog. I’m thinking your dad maybe didn’t know what happened to her and was afraid to bring up the subject just in case it was bad. I think it’s creepy that you sailed on the Andrea Doria, even with Michael Douglas. You ought to take an Italian class and see what comes back to you. I bet it’s a lot!

Comment by Marcia (former next-door neighbor in Illinois and frequent visitor to Florida) |Edit This
2009-10-20 05:24:30

Forgot to say– the printing is an old (pre-computer for you younger folks) engineering/drafting thing. My dad did it, too, except when he wrote checks. How many of you know what a slide rule is? How many of you can actually use one?

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-10-20 08:35:11

I didn’t know that was an engineering thing. I never knew why before. It is so great to finally learn that. Thanks!
I can answer the last couple of questions.
Probably no one under 40 knows what a slide rule is and probably no one under 65 knows how to use one.
(I have a collection here of my dad’s and Victor’s dad’s.)

As to the first comment: I remember being really scared when the Andrea Doria sank. It didn’t ever occur to me that they could sink. I think over 400 people died in that tragedy. On the other hand, many hundreds were saved, which was a pretty big difference from the Titanic.
I do wish I had realized how cool it was to have Michael Douglas as a playmate. I don’t even know if his dad was on board.

Comment by keiko |Edit This
2009-10-20 10:16:44

I don’t think that thing you are holding looks like a stuffed tazmanian devil, just a cat, but not a very cute one.

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-10-20 16:46:03

I don’t actually remember it, Keiko. I would rather it were a Tazmanian Devil, though.

Comment by Ursula |Edit This
2009-10-20 13:06:42

Hi my famous friend! We watched you on youtube, you were great, a natural comedic actress reading your own material, congratulations.
As to your story, what is so amazing is that it is based on your real experiences. I wonder if Michael Douglas might have the same photograph of the children around the table on the Andrea Doria. Your knowledge of Italian might be stored somewhere in the crevices of your brain and a refresher course might bring it all back to you. Also going back to the villa were you lived, what memories must have come back to you and how sad to see the deterioration of the place. Did you try to fly off the “pedestal” again?

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-10-20 16:48:12

I look like I have Tourettes in that video! I couldn’t open my mouth to speak, it was so dry from anxiety!

I didn’t try to fly when I went back. I was crying too hard. I tend to be kind of emotional.

Comment by mary shideler |Edit This
2009-10-20 16:28:43

beautiful story! i love to go back to such places, and to hear about others who have had success going back to old childhood memory spots.

do you still give flying lessons? i’m game for a lesson. i have had no real success on my own. but i keep trying. lately i have tried using my bike like the old wright brothers did. there were two of them and just one of me…..i remain on terra firma.


Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-10-20 16:49:11

Don’t give up.
It just takes stick-to-itiveness!

Comment by Laurie |Edit This
2009-10-21 04:26:44


Loved the photos –glad you found Michael!


Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-10-22 05:54:19

Hi Laurie,
Thanks for reading.
Yeah, after all these years I finally found out which one he was!

Comment by Kathy Powell |Edit This
2009-10-21 05:19:40

Irene, I love your stories……it’s so weird how they help me remember things about my childhood because I don’t remember much!!
I can’t believe you were sitting next to MD and didn’t know it. His dad was hot too…..any memories of Kirk running around without a shirt on? I saw him (Kirk) at a book signing in Chicago
25 years ago and he was HOT. But we all know I like old men…..ha…..
Thanks for sharing!!!

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-10-22 05:57:52

I find the same thing happens to me, Kathy. I read something about someone else and it sparks a memory in me.

I KNEW I played with him on the Andrea Doria, I just didn’t remember which one he was.

Unfortunately, his father just would have been any ordinary father to me. I didn’t have the knowledge I needed to be impressed at the time. I don’t even know if his parents were on board, although I assume at least on of them was there.

Yeah, old men. I have one of my own!

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