Authors: Lara Prescott
Between her lessons, she’d tell me about her time spent in the OSS—how she first took up with the Old Boys’ Club, how she’d managed to survive it. She told me about the person she’d been—a poor kid from Pittsburgh—and all the people she’d become since: a zookeeper’s assistant, the second cousin of the Duchess of Aosta, an appraiser of Tang Dynasty porcelain, the heiress to the Wrigley’s gum empire, a receptionist. “They got less creative over time,” she said.
“Who do they want me to become?” I asked.
“That’s not for me to decide, honey.”
Sally had gone on a trip. She didn’t tell me where she was going, and when I inquired, she just said “Overseas.”
“Yeah, but where overseas?” I asked.
She couldn’t tell me where she was going, but promised she’d call when she returned. That week dragged on, and when she finally did call, Mama answered. I hissed her away from the receiver as soon as I heard her say “Sally? I don’t know of any Sally.”
Sally skipped the small talk and immediately invited me to a Halloween party. Up to that point, all our contact had been work-related, so the invite caught me off guard. Plus, Halloween had passed. “But Halloween was last week,” I said.
“It’s actually a
When I told her I didn’t have a costume, she said she’d take care of everything. We made plans to meet at a secondhand bookstore in Dupont and go from there.
The bookshop was narrow, with long shelves arranged not by author or genre, but by topic: Spiritualism & the Occult, Flora & Fauna, Elder Issues, Nautical Tales, Mythology & Folklore, Freud, Trains & Railways, Southwestern Photography. The first to arrive, I walked the aisles, looking for the paperback section. “Excuse me, where are the novels?” I asked the bohemian-looking man behind the counter, who pointed toward the back of the store without looking up from his book.
“Do you have the time?”
He looked as if I’d asked him to explain Wittgenstein’s
“I don’t wear a watch.”
To spite him, I asked if he’d open the case of rare books for me. The man sighed. He closed his book, stubbed out his cigarette, and slid off his stool. Before he fished out the key from his pocket, he asked if I was really going to buy something.
“How do I know before I see it?”
“What is it you want to see?”
I panned the shelf and said the first thing I saw:
The Light of Egypt.
“One or two?”
“Volume. One or two?”
“Two,” I said. “Of course.”
Convinced Sally wasn’t going to show, I rambled on about my love for archaeology and the pyramids and hieroglyphics as he went to put on his white gloves to handle the book.
Finally Sally came in, holding two shopping bags. The bookseller slapped his white gloves to his thigh. “Sally,” he said. She presented both cheeks for a kiss. “Where have you been, darling?”
“Here and there,” she said, her eyes directed toward me. “I see you already met my friend.”
“Of course,” he said, his voice taking on a warmer hue. “She has excellent taste.”
“Would I associate with anyone who didn’t?” She held up the shopping bags. “Can we use the little girls’ room?”
He bowed with his hands folded in front of him. It took everything in me not to roll my eyes.
“Thanks, love,” she said. I trailed her into the back room. “Lafitte’s such a pill,” she said as soon as we closed the bathroom door, which doubled as a janitor’s closet.
“Not his real name. He’s from Cleveland, but lets people think he’s from Paris. The type who goes on vacation and comes back with an accent, you know?”
I nodded as if I understood.
“But I still love this place,” Sally continued, handing me one of the shopping bags. “One of my favorite places in this artistically impaired city. Wanna know a secret?”
“My dream is to open a bookshop of my own someday.”
It was hard to picture Sally sitting behind a counter, her head buried in a book, and I wanted to know more about this person who wouldn’t look out of place on a Hollywood red carpet but dreamed of running a bookstore. I wanted to dig into that space between the contradictions.
She placed her shopping bag on the back of the commode and turned around. “Do you mind?” She brushed her red curls away from her neck and I took hold of the zipper, trying to gently ease it down. It didn’t budge. She took a deep breath. “Try now.” The zipper came down and she stepped out of the dress in one motion, not catching her heels on the fabric. She was wearing a black slip, her body an exaggerated version of my own. But I wasn’t jealous in the way other girls in my old high school gym class had made me feel. Their bodies had been something to measure against—we’d disrobe and quickly calculate who had the largest breasts, whose stomach jiggled, whose legs bowed out. Seeing Sally wasn’t like that; it was something different altogether. I wanted another look, but focused on my own undressing. She handed me a shopping bag.
Inside was a bundle of metallic fabric. “What is it?”
I stepped into the jumpsuit and zipped it up. She handed me a headband with two fuzzy brown triangles glued to the top. Looking in the mirror, I started laughing.
“Wait!” she said, and reached into her bag. “The finishing touch.” She carefully pinned a red CCCP patch over my heart.
“I wanted to use a fishbowl as the helmet, but I couldn’t figure out how to drill holes in it so we wouldn’t suffocate.”
“You made this yourself?”
“I’m pretty handy.” She joined me at the mirror, pulling a compact out of her purse and dabbing the shine off her nose. “You can be Laika if you want. I’ll be one of the nameless dogs who perished among the stars.”
Music spilled from the four-story Victorian row house off Logan Square. It was one of those grand D.C. homes I’d walked by a thousand times but had never been inside—with its iron-railed steps and front-facing bay window, its red bricks and sage-green witch’s hat turret. The windows were open but the curtains drawn, and I could see the silhouettes of people dancing: people I didn’t know and who didn’t know me, people who might think me a bore or not notice me at all. The palms of my hands tingled. Sally must’ve sensed my apprehension. She straightened my fuzzy ears and told me what a gas the party would be now that I was arriving.
A ripple of confidence bolstered me as she reached for the doorbell and buzzed it three times, paused, then buzzed it again. A tall man in a black mask covering half his face opened the door partway.
“Trick or treat!” Sally said.
“Which do you prefer?”
“Neither. I prefer broccoli.”
“Doesn’t everyone?” The man opened the door and ushered us in, locking the door behind us before disappearing back into the crowd.
“Was that a password? Is this a work party?” I asked.
“Quite the opposite.”
Instead of jack-o’-lanterns and apple bobbing, the house was decorated more like a gothic masquerade ball. Antique candelabra with flaming black candles were perched on every available surface. Black velvet drapes covered the built-in bookshelves. The dining room table featured an array of elaborate sequined masks for the taking. A large Siamese cat clad in a collar made from lavender ostrich feathers slunk through the legs of party guests. The first floor was packed with people dancing, smoking, picking at hors d’oeuvres, dipping bread cubes into pots of fondue.
“What’s that green stuff?” I asked.
She laughed. “Leonard goes all out, doesn’t he?”
“The man who answered the door?”
“No.” She pointed to a woman wearing a lacy-necked Southern debutante ball gown with a red belt. “Scarlett O’Hara over there.” Scarlett, or Leonard, saw Sally and waved her over.
“Gorgeous as always,” Sally said, kissing Leonard’s hand. “You’ve really outdone yourself.”
“I try.” Leonard looked Sally over. “Foxy alien?”
“We’re Muttniks, thank you very much.”
“You know me.” She pulled me closer. “This is Irina.”
“Enchanted,” he said, and kissed my hand. “Welcome. Now, I need to see about this appalling music.” He went to the record player and lifted the needle. The crowd groaned. “Patience, my children!” He slipped a new record out of its sleeve and moments later “Sh-Boom” was playing. The crowd groaned again. Undeterred, Leonard led a man dressed as Frankenstein’s monster with two empty thread spools painted black and stuck to his neck to the middle of the floor. Several other couples joined in, and soon the dance floor was going again.
Sally wove her way through the crowd toward the kitchen, and a woman dressed as Annie Oakley caught her hand and spun her once around. Dog ears askew, Sally returned with two glasses of red punch topped with lime sherbet. “How ’bout we get some air?” she asked, handing me a glass.
Except for two women sitting on the porch swing—one dressed as Lucille Ball and the other as Ricky Ricardo—Sally and I were alone in the expansive backyard. We walked out into the grass, the ankles of our jumpsuits soaking through with dew. The yard was decorated with tiny white lights strung up in the towering oak trees and red paper lanterns hanging like ripened fruit from the lower branches. The sky was orange, the moon an almond sliver, and somewhere, someone was burning leaves.
“What do you think of all this?” she asked.
“I had no idea yards like this existed in D.C.”
“I mean, all of
” she said, gesturing toward the house. “Not your average shindig.”
“I love it!” I said, but wanted to say so much more. I knew a world like that existed, but at the same time, I had no idea. And what I had heard was nothing at all like this. It was like stepping inside the wardrobe and emerging in Narnia for the first time. “I mean, I love Halloween.”
“Me too. Even if it
a week late.”
“You can be whoever you want.”
“Exactly. I’m happy Leonard got to have his party after all. It’s a bit of a tradition for him. And he’s not one to waste a good costume. Shame it was canceled on actual Halloween.”
“Why was it?”
“Someone tipped off the police.”
I had so many questions. The secret garden, the secret world—I wanted to know everything, but decided to wait. We were quiet, listening to the sounds of traffic on the other side of the garden wall, the honk of a car horn, the distant wail of a siren. Lucy and Ricky went back into the house, their arms wrapped around each other’s waists. Sally watched as my eyes followed them. “So…Teddy Helms?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said, with a pang of sadness I hadn’t felt before.
“Nine months. No. Eight. No, nine-ish.”
“Are you in love?”
With the exception of Mama, people were never that direct with me. “I don’t know.”
“Honey, if you don’t know by now…”
“I do like him. I mean, I really like him. He’s funny. Smart. So smart. And kind.”
“Sounds like you’re reading from his obituary.”
“No,” I said. “I didn’t mean—”
“I’m only kidding.” She poked me in the ribs.
“What about his friend? Henry Rennet? What’s he like?”
“I don’t know him that well.” I didn’t tell her he seemed like a jackass and that I had no idea why Teddy was even friends with him. “Are you interested in him?” I envisioned a double date—me and Teddy, Sally and Henry—and the thought made my stomach flip.
“Darling.” She reached for my hand and gave it a squeeze. “No.” She held on, and something inside me, from a location hard to pinpoint, bloomed.
She was no mole—I was sure of that. A few months prior, Frank had asked me to suss out Irina and ensure her naïveté was not a put-on. It wasn’t, I’d told him. “Good,” he said. “We want her on the book project. Train her up, Sally. You know the drill.”
Befriending Irina may have been a setup and training her part of the job, but it had turned into something else—something I could’ve put my finger on but wasn’t about to just yet.
The Tuesday after Leonard’s party—my own test of sorts—I stopped by her desk and asked if she wanted to see
that night. I’d planned on asking her to a Sunday matinee a few days earlier but lost my nerve mid-dial and hung up.
We walked to the Georgetown Theater after work, stopping at Magruder’s for some candy to sneak in—Irina’s idea. I rarely ate candy other than chocolates, but decided to get a box of Jujubes just for the hell of it. Irina picked up two boxes of Boston Baked Beans, and we got in line to pay. “Hold my place for a second?” she asked.
She came back a minute later carrying a large bouquet of beets.
“Interesting snack choice.”
“They’re for my mother. She makes a vat of borscht once a month and asked me to pick some up at Eastern Market. She’s convinced the beets sold by this elderly Russian man are superior to the beets sold at a regular store.” She held up a finger. “It’s worth the extra nickel for the quality,” she said in a Russian accent.
I laughed. “Can she really tell the difference?”
“No! I always get them at Safeway and just take them out of the bag before I get home.”
We paid for our movie contraband and Irina stuck the beets inside her purse with the green ends sticking out. After purchasing two tickets, we made our way into the theater.
Seeing a picture was one of my greatest pleasures, and one I almost always chose to do alone. If I had the money to spare, I’d take myself to the movies once or twice a week. Sometimes I’d see the same movie two or three times, sitting in the balcony’s front row, where I could lean against the gold railing and rest my chin atop my hands.
I loved everything about it: the Georgetown’s neon sign glowing red, waiting in line for the person in the glass booth to hand you your ticket, the smell of popcorn, the sticky floors, the ushers directing you to your seat with their small flashlights. I even had a habit of singing “Let’s All Go to the Lobby” in the shower. But my favorite part has always been the space between when the lights go down and the film begins to flicker—that brief moment when the whole world feels like it’s on the verge of something.
I wanted to share all this with Irina. I wanted to find out if she, too, felt on the verge of something. The lights dimmed, and when she looked at me with wide eyes after the MGM lion roared, I knew she did.
I don’t remember much about the movie. But I do remember that about a quarter of the way through, Irina opened her purse and poked around the beets to find her Boston Baked Beans. The candy rattled and she cursed when the beets fell to the floor. She made such a commotion that a man smoking a cigar turned around to shush us. I found it charming.
And when Fred Astaire stomped on his top hat at the end of his “Ritz Roll and Rock” number, Irina gasped and touched my hand. She removed it right away, but the feeling lingered until the lights came back on.
When we left the theater, it was raining. We stood under the awning watching water pour off in sheets.
“Should we wait it out?” I asked. “We could run across the street and get a hot toddy.”
“I better brave it.” She patted her purse. “Mama’s expecting her beets.”
I laughed but felt a stab of sadness. “Rain check, then?”
Irina ran out to the turquoise-and-white streetcar idling on the corner. She boarded and I watched as it turned the corner and disappeared from view. The sky opened up with a crack of lightning. I leaned against a movie poster for
and it started to pour.
In the weeks following the movie, I took Irina to my favorite bookstores, going over each shop’s pros and cons and what I’d do differently if I owned it. We saw the
West Side Story
premiere at the National and sang “I Feel Pretty” at the top of our lungs the entire walk home. We went to the zoo but left after Irina saw a lion who’d paced so long in her cage she’d worn a narrow path alongside the bars. “It’s a crime,” she said.
In all that time, we hadn’t so much as let a hug linger a second too long, but it didn’t matter. It had been so long that I didn’t recognize it at first. Not since my Kandy days had I let someone get so close so fast. I’d built up a wall after Jane—a Navy Corps nurse with Shirley Temple hair and teeth white as soap—broke my heart.
Really, more than the heart breaks. When Jane told me our “special friendship” would be over as soon as we stepped back onto American soil and chalked it up to just one of those things that happened during the war, my chest felt as if it was caving in and my legs, my arms, the top of my head, even my teeth hurt. I vowed never to put myself in harm’s way like that again, and I had been relatively successful.
Plus, I knew there was no path that wouldn’t dead-end. I’d had friends who were picked up during their late-night walks in Lafayette Square, locked up, their names printed in the newspaper. I’d had friends who were fired from their government jobs, their reputations destroyed, disowned by their families. I’d had friends who convinced themselves the only way out was to step off a chair, a noose wrapped around their neck. The Red Scare had dwindled, but a new one had taken its place.
And yet I kept going. I kept asking her to grab lunch at Ferranti’s, or check out the new Korean art exhibit at the National Gallery, or try on hats and fascinators at Rizik’s.
I kept seeing how far I could go before needing to step back.
So when Frank asked me for another favor, I told myself that work would be a good distraction, a necessary distraction.
The night before I left for my next job, I put on a Fats Domino record and felt a jolt of happiness every time I placed an item inside my mint-green Lady Baltimore luggage. After years of last-minute jaunts, I’d learned the art of packing light: one black pencil skirt, one white blouse, one nude bra and panty set, one cashmere wrap for the flight, black silk hose, my Tiffany cigarette case, toothbrush, toothpaste, Camay rose soap, Crème Simon face cream, deodorant, razor, Tabac Blond, notebook, pen, my favorite Hermès scarf, and Revlon lipstick—in Original Red. The gown I’d wear to the book party would be waiting for me when I arrived. After years away, it felt good to be back in the game, to know secrets, to be useful.
I arrived the next evening at the Grand Hotel Continental Milano, just hours before the party started. Minutes after I entered my hotel suite, there was a knock on the door and a bellhop brought in my gown. I pointed for him to lay it on the bed, and he did so as gently as laying down a lover. I tipped him generously, as I always did when someone else was footing the bill, and sent him on his way. I’d ordered the red-and-black floor-length Pucci as soon as I heard the words
Running my hand across the silk, I was quite pleased I’d secured a clothing budget from the Agency. After a bath, I applied a drop of Tabac Blond to each side of my neck, then to my wrists, then under my breasts, and slipped on the gown that had been tailored to my exact measurements.
That was the best part: the moment you become someone else. New name, new occupation, new background, education, siblings, lovers, religion—it was easy for me. And I never broke my cover, even down to the smallest details: whether she ate toast or eggs for breakfast, whether she took her coffee black or with milk, whether she was the type of woman to stop in the street to admire a crossing pigeon or shoo one away in disgust, whether she slept nude or in a nightgown. It was both a talent and a survival tactic. After assuming a cover, I found it harder and harder to go back to my real life. I’d imagine what it would be like to completely disappear into someone new. To become someone else, you have to want to lose yourself in the first place.
I’d timed my entrance to exactly twenty-five minutes after the party began. A waiter handed me a flute of bubbly as I entered the gilded room, and I immediately located the guest of honor: not the author of the novel whose publication was being celebrated, as he could not possibly attend, but the novel’s publisher. Giangiacomo Feltrinelli stood in the middle of Milan’s finest-dressed intellectuals, editors, journalists, writers, and hangers-on. He wore thick black glasses, had a high widow’s peak, and was slightly too thin for his height. But all the women, and more than one man, couldn’t take their eyes off him. Feltrinelli’s nickname was the Jaguar, and indeed, he moved with the confidence and elegance of a jungle cat. The majority of the party guests were in black tie, but Feltrinelli wore white trousers and a navy blue sweater, the corner of his striped shirt beneath untucked. The trick to pinpointing the man with the biggest bank account in the room is not to look to the man in the nicest tux, but to the man not trying to impress. Feltrinelli pulled out a cigarette, and someone in his orbit reached to light it.
There are two types of ambitious men: those bred to be ambitious—told from a very young age that the world is theirs for the taking—and those who create their own legacy. Feltrinelli was cut from both cloths. Whereas most men born into great wealth carry the burden of preserving their inherited legacy, Feltrinelli hadn’t started a publishing company just as another notch in his empire, but because he truly believed literature could change the world.
In the back of the room was a large table covered in books stacked into a pyramid. The Italians had done it:
had made it into print. Within a week, it would be in every bookstore window across Italy, its name splashed across every newspaper’s front page. I was to take one of those books and hand-deliver it to the Agency so they could have it translated and determine if it was indeed the weapon the Agency thought it might be. Frank Wisner had also tasked me with getting close to Feltrinelli to see what we might find out—about the book’s publication and distribution, about the publisher’s relationship with Pasternak.
I took a copy of
and ran my fingers across its glossy cover: a design of white, pink, and blue scribbles hovering above a tiny sleigh making its way to a snow-covered cottage.
“An American who reads Italian?” a man standing on the other side of the book pyramid asked. “How fetching.” He wore an ivory tuxedo with a black pocket square and tortoiseshell glasses with frames too small for his broad face.
“No.” In truth, I could read Italian and was conversationally fluent. When I was young, back before I’d changed my name from Forelli to Forrester, my grandmother had lived with our family. First generation Italian American, Nonna spoke hardly a word of English—just
leave me be
—and I learned how to converse with her over card games of Scopa and Briscola.
“Why take a book you can’t read?” His accent was hard to place. Italian, but a practiced Italian. He either wasn’t Italian or was attempting a Florentine dialect to appear posher than he was.
“I love a first edition,” I said. “And a good party.”
“Well, if you need help reading it…” He tipped his glasses downward, and I noticed a small red mark on the bridge of his nose.
“I might just take you up on that.”
He waved a waiter over and handed me a glass of Prosecco without taking one for himself.
“Nothing for the toast?”
“I’m afraid I must go,” he said, and touched my arm. “If you ever get a spot on that pretty gown of yours, look me up back in Washington. I own a dry cleaning business and we can get any spot out, I assure you. Ink, wine, blood. Anything.” He turned and left, a copy of
tucked under his arm.
KGB? MI6? One of our own? I looked around to see if anyone had noticed the strange interaction as Feltrinelli clinked his glass with a spoon. The publisher stepped atop an overturned wooden crate as if about to make a stump speech. Had he brought the crate himself for the effect? Or had the hotel provided it? Regardless, the look fitted him.
“I’d like to take a moment to thank everyone for being here tonight on this momentous occasion,” he began, reading from a piece of paper he’d pulled from his pocket. “Over a year ago, the winds of fate brought me Boris Pasternak’s masterpiece. I wish those very winds could be here to celebrate with us tonight, but alas, they cannot.” He grinned and a few people in the audience laughed. “When I first held this novel in my hands, I could not read one word of it. The only Russian word I know is Stolichnaya.” More laughter. “But my dear friend Pietro Antonio Zveteremich”—he pointed to a sweater-vested man puffing on a pipe toward the back of the crowd—“told me that to not publish a novel like this would constitute a crime against culture. But even before he read it, I knew just by holding it in my hands that it was special.” He dropped the piece of paper he was reading from and let it flutter to the ground. “So I took a chance. It would be months before Pietro would complete his translation and I could finally read these words.” He held up
“But when I did, the Russian master’s words burned themselves into my heart forever, as I’m sure they will into yours.”