Authors: Joan Didion
The Last Thing He Wanted
“A moral thriller on the order of one of Graham Greene’s.”
Los Angeles Times
“She is of that small group of great living writers whom readers can be said to love.”
“Stunning…. It is a meditation on power and memory, on truth and consequences, and on the heartbreaking need for a magic equation that will make sense of our confusing world.”
“Even nonfans will have a hard time letting go of
The Last Thing He Wanted
until they’ve raced through to the last page.”
“She writes taut and sharp. Her disquieting novels are short but never light. And they are all too few and far between.”
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“The marvelous gifts of observation and rendering that make her nonfiction so telling and alive are working in this book.”
Minneapolis Star Tribune
“Didion is one of our true stylists. Her sentences have the … precision of a Wodehouse or a Waugh.”
This book is for Quintana
and for John.
ome real things have happened lately. For a while we felt rich and then we didn’t. For a while we thought time was money, find the time and the money comes with it. Make money for example by flying the Concorde. Moving fast. Get the big suite, the multi-line telephones, get room service on one, get the valet on two, premium service, out by nine back by one. Download all data. Uplink Prague, get some conference calls going. Sell Allied Signal, buy Cypress Minerals, work the management plays. Plug into this news cycle, get the wires raw, nod out on the noise.
Get me audio,
someone was always saying in the nod where we were.
Agence Presse is moving this story.
Somewhere in the nod we were dropping cargo. Somewhere in the nod we were losing infrastructure, losing redundant systems, losing specific gravity. Weightlessness seemed at the time the safer mode. Weightlessness seemed at the time the mode in which we could beat both the clock and affect itself, but I see now that it was not. I see now that the clock was ticking. I see now that we were experiencing not weightlessness but what is interestingly described on page 1513 of the
(Fifteenth Edition) as a sustained reactive depression, a bereavement reaction to the leaving of familiar environments. I see now that the environment we were leaving was that of feeling rich. I see now that there will be no Resolution Trust to do the workout on this particular default, but I did not see it then.
Not that I shouldn’t have.
There were hints all along, clues we should have registered, processed, sifted for their application to the general condition. Try the day we noticed that the banks had called in the paper on all the malls, try the day we noticed that somebody had called in the paper on all the banks. Try the day we noticed that when we pressed 800 to do some business in Los Angeles or New York we were no longer talking to Los Angeles or New York but to Orlando or Tucson or Greensboro, North Carolina. Try the day we noticed (this will touch a nerve with frequent fliers) the new necessity for changes of equipment at Denver, Raleigh-Durham, St. Louis. Try, as long as we are changing equipment in St. Louis, the unfinished but already bankrupt Gateway Airport Tower there, its boutiques boarded up, its oyster bar shuttered, no more terry-cloth robes in the empty cabanas and no more amenity kits in the not quite terrazzo bathrooms: this should have alerted us, should have been processed, but we were moving fast. We were traveling light. We were younger. So was she.
or the record this is me talking.
You know me, or think you do.
The not quite omniscient author.
No longer moving fast.
No longer traveling light.
When I resolved in 1994 to finally tell this story, register the clues I had missed ten years before, process the information before it vanished altogether, I considered reinventing myself as PAO at the embassy in question, a career foreign service officer operating under the USICA umbrella. “Lilianne Owen” was my name in that construct, a strategy I ultimately jettisoned as limiting, small-scale, an artifice to no point.
She told me later,
Lilianne Owen would have had to keep saying, and
I learned this after the fact.
As Lilianne Owen I was unconvincing even to myself. As Lilianne Owen I could not have told you half of what I knew.
I wanted to come at this straight.
I wanted to bring my own baggage and unpack it in front of you.
When I first heard this story there were elements
that seemed to me questionable, details I did not trust. The facts of Elena McMahon’s life did not quite hang together. They lacked coherence. Logical connections were missing, cause and effect. I wanted the connections to materialize for you as they eventually did for me. The best story I ever told was a reef dream. This is something different.
The first time Treat Morrison ever saw Elena McMahon she was sitting alone in the coffee shop at the Intercon. He had flown down from Washington on the American that landed at ten a.m. and the embassy driver had dropped him at the Intercon to leave his bag and there was this American woman, he did not think a reporter (he knew most of the reporters who covered this part of the world, the reporters stayed close to where they believed the story was, that was the beauty of operating on an island where the story had not yet appeared on the screen), an American woman wearing a white dress and reading the classified page of the local paper and sitting alone at a round table set for eight. Something about this woman had bothered him. In the first place he did not know what she was doing there. He had known she was an American because he recognized in her voice when she spoke to a waiter the slight flat drawl of the American Southwest, but the American women left on the island were embassy or the very occasional reporter, and neither would be sitting at apparent loose ends in the Intercon coffee shop. In the second place this American woman was eating, very slowly and methodically, first a bite of one and then a bite of the other, a chocolate parfait and
bacon. The chocolate parfait and bacon had definitely bothered him.
At the time Treat Morrison saw Elena McMahon eating the parfait and bacon in the coffee shop at the Intercon she had been staying not at the Intercon but out on the windward side of the island, in two adjoining rooms with an efficiency kitchen at a place called the Surfrider. When she first came to the Surfrider, in July of that summer, it had been as assistant manager, hired to be in charge of booking return flights and baby-sitters and day tours (the sugar mill plus the harbor plus the island’s single Palladian Revival great house) for the young Canadian families who had until recently favored the place because it was cheap and because its Olympic-length pool was deeper at no point than three feet. She had been introduced to the manager of the Surfrider by the man who ran the car-rental agency at the Intercon. Experience in the travel industry was mandatory, the manager of the Surfrider had said, and she had faked it, faked the story and the supporting letters of reference about the three years as social director on the Swedish cruise ship later re-flagged (this was the inspired invention, the detail that rendered the references uncheckable) by Robert Vesco. At the time she was hired the island was still getting occasional misguided tourists, not rich tourists, not the kind who required villas with swimming pools and pink sand beaches and butlers and laundresses and multiple telephone lines and fax machines and instant access to Federal Express, but tourists nonetheless, mostly depressed young American couples with backpacks
and retired day-trippers from the occasional cruise ship that still put in: those less acutely able to consider time so valuable that they would spend it only in the world’s most perfect places. After the first State Department advisory the cruise ships had stopped, and after the second and more urgent advisory a week later (which coincided with the baggage handlers’ strike and the withdrawal of two of the four international air carriers with routes to the island) even the backpackers had migrated to less demonstrably imperfect destinations. The Surfrider’s Olympic-length pool had been drained. Whatever need there had been for an assistant manager had contracted, then evaporated. Elena McMahon had pointed this out to the manager but he had reasonably suggested that since her rooms would be empty in any case she might just as well stay on, and she had. She liked the place empty. She liked the way the shutters had started losing their slats. She liked the low clouds, the glitter on the sea, the pervasive smell of mildew and bananas. She liked to walk up the road from the parking lot and hear the voices from the Pentecostal church there. She liked to stand on the beach in front of the hotel and know that there was no solid land between her and Africa. “Tourism—Recolonialization by Any Other Name?” was the wishful topic at the noon brown-bag AID symposium the day Treat Morrison arrived at the embassy.
f you remember 1984, which I notice fewer and fewer of us care to do, you already know some of what happened to Elena McMahon that summer. You know the context, you remember the names,
Theodore Shackley Clair George Dewey Clarridge Richard Secord Alan Fiers Felix Rodriguez aka “Max Gomez” John Hull Southern Air Lake Resources Stanford Technology Donald Gregg Aguacate Elliott Abrams Robert Owen aka “T.C.” Ilopango aka “Cincinnati,”
all swimming together in the glare off the C-123 that fell from the sky into Nicaragua. Not many women got caught in this glare. There was one, the blonde, the shredder, the one who transposed the numbers of the account at the Credit Suisse (the account at the Credit Suisse into which the Sultan of Brunei was to transfer the ten million dollars, in case you have forgotten the minor plays), but she had only a bit part, day work, a broadly comic but not in the end a featured role.
Elena McMahon was different.
Elena McMahon got caught, but not in the glare.
If you wanted to see how she got caught you would probably begin with the documents.
There are documents, more than you might think.
Depositions, testimony, cable traffic, some of it not yet declassified but much in the public record.
You could pick up a thread or two in the usual libraries: Congress of course. The Foreign Policy Institute at Hopkins, the Center for Strategic and International Studies at Georgetown. The Sterling at Yale for the Brokaw correspondence. The Bancroft at Berkeley, where Treat Morrison’s papers went after his death.