Authors: Lara Prescott
The Agency moved fast. After Irina’s successful night in the Bishop’s Garden, with the Russian manuscript now in our hands, there was no time to waste. In the time it took winter to thaw, the cherry blossoms to bloom and drop, and the dome of Washington’s humidity to descend,
’s Russian proofs were prepped in New York, printed in the Netherlands, and shuttled to a safe house in The Hague in the back of a wood-paneled station wagon. Three hundred sixty-five copies of the novel had been printed and bound in blue linen covers—just in time for the tail end of the World’s Fair, where we’d distribute the banned book to visiting Soviets.
But all that was only after a few hiccups.
The Agency’s initial plan was to contract a Mr. Felix Morrow—a New York publisher with close ties to the Agency—to arrange the layout and design of the manuscript and prepare proofs that couldn’t be traced back to American involvement. Then the manuscript was to be shipped off to a yet-to-be-determined publisher in Europe for printing—another safety precaution to erase any Company fingerprints. A memo even stipulated that no American paper or ink be used.
Teddy Helms and Henry Rennet had taken an American Airlines flight to New York, then a train out to Great Neck, to personally hand the Russian manuscript to Mr. Morrow—along with a bottle of fine whiskey and a box of Mr. Morrow’s favorite brand of chocolates to seal the deal.
But Felix Morrow proved to be a liability. A former Communist turned Trotskyite but now as American as apple pie, as he put it, the New York intellectual loved to talk—and talk he did. Even before the ink on the contract dried, he was telling everyone about the great book he had in his possession.
Norma even heard through her old New York literary contacts that Morrow had contacted several Russian scholars to review the manuscript, and soon everyone was talking about a Russian edition in the works here on American soil. She immediately alerted Anderson, who told her they’d take care of it. “No pat on the back,” she told us. “Not even a thank-you.”
Even worse, Morrow had also contacted a friend at the University of Michigan Press to explore the possibility of printing the novel in the United States—in spite of the exclusive world rights owned by the Italian publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli and likely to secure a nice amount of change. “I can publish anywhere I please,” Morrow had told Teddy when confronted.
Teddy and Henry were again dispatched to Great Neck—to quiet Morrow with an even finer bottle of whiskey and an even bigger box of chocolates, and to halt his deal with Michigan. Morrow protested, but finally he agreed to be cut out of the operation—not because of the whiskey and chocolates, but because of the promise of an even larger compensation than he’d initially been given.
After the Morrow situation was put to bed, Teddy and Henry trekked over to Ann Arbor to stop Michigan from moving forward. They pleaded with the university’s president to cease the publication plans. They told him the first Russian-language edition needed to appear to come from Europe in order to have the greatest impact on the Soviet reader and to avoid being dismissed as American propaganda. They also emphasized that the author, Boris Pasternak, could be put at risk if the book was connected to U.S. distribution. After some back-and-forth, Michigan had agreed to delay the publication until the Agency’s edition appeared in Europe.
The Agency then worked with Dutch Intelligence to finish the job. A deal was made with Mouton Publishers, which was already contracted to produce the book for Feltrinelli in Dutch, to do a small run in Russian for the Agency.
After all that,
was finally on its way to Brussels and the World’s Fair; if all went according to plan, it would be in the hands of Soviet citizens by Halloween.
To celebrate, Teddy and Henry arrived back in Washington just in time to catch Shirley Horn’s second set at the Jungle Inn. They took a seat in the red vinyl booth farthest from the stage.
Teddy drank whiskey on the rocks and Henry sipped a dirty gin martini as they watched Shirley. They were so transfixed that they didn’t notice Kathy and Norma in the booth next to them. Or perhaps they did notice the women but just didn’t recognize them without their typewriters and steno pads.
“She’s good, right?” Henry shouted over the din of the club. “What I tell you? The real deal.”
“Very,” Teddy said, waving his hand to flag down the waitress.
“The real deal. Absolutely. Aren’t you glad you came out tonight?”
“What’s with the waitress?” Teddy asked. He loosened his tie. “We should’ve gone home to change. We look like a couple of feds.”
“Speak for yourself,” Henry said, dusting something invisible off his navy blue jacket. “And you know damn well that if we’d gone home first, you’d have just stayed in. What’s with you lately, Teddy boy?”
Instead of answering, Teddy rose to get another drink, returning with two martinis, an extra olive in his.
“A toast?” Henry asked.
“The book, of course. May our literary weapon of mass destruction make the monster squeal.”
Teddy raised his glass half-mast.
Kathy and Norma, still unnoticed, raised their own glasses to toast the victory.
The two men watched as Shirley dipped her head to her keys, looked up to the ceiling, then glanced over at a man wearing a black Stetson with a peacock feather sitting up front at a small round table.
“What’s the story there?” Henry asked, nodding toward the man at the table.
“I’m not in the mood.”
“Come on! For old times’ sake.”
“Husband,” Teddy replied. “He sits and watches her every show. Or maybe…a lover?”
“No,” Henry said. “Ex-husband. Watching her perform is as close as she lets him get.”
“That’s good, real good.”
“Any chance of reconciliation?”
The two friends sat for a few minutes.
“You sure you’re all right, Ted?”
Teddy finished his drink in two gulps.
“Cold feet’s normal. Hell, I have cold feet now, and I’m not even dating anyone.”
“It’s not that. She just…she gets so quiet.”
“We all have our quiet moments.”
“Nah, this is different. And when I ask why she’s quiet, she gets mad.” Teddy looked around. “Where’s the goddamn waitress?”
“So…to change the subject—”
“Wanna hear a rumor?” Henry asked.
Kathy and Norma leaned back to hear better.
“Would I be in this business if I didn’t?”
“You hear about the redhead?”
Norma and Kathy shot each other a look.
“Bingo,” said Henry.
“About to be tossed. Damn shame too. I loved seeing her coming, but not as much as I liked seeing her go.”
“I’ve always preferred a nice ass.”
Norma rolled her eyes.
“No, why’s she going to be canned?”
“That’s the best part. You’ll never guess.”
“Just tell me.”
Henry leaned back in the booth. “Ho-mo-sexual.”
“What?” Norma let out, unable to contain herself. The men didn’t notice, but Norma and Kathy sank down in the booth a few more inches.
“What?” Teddy asked.
“Well, Ted, it means she prefers the company of other women.”
“I mean, when did this happen? I thought you two had a thing or something?”
Henry sipped his drink. “Maybe some guy dumped her and she never looked back.”
“Jesus Christ.” Teddy lowered his voice. “I mean, how did you find out?”
“You know better than to ask for my sources.”
“She’s Irina’s best friend,” Teddy said. “I mean, they haven’t been spending as much time together, but—”
“Maybe that’s it. Maybe Irina found out Sally’s little secret too.”
“She never mentioned anything to me.”
“All relationships are built on small omissions.”
Shirley ended “If I Shall Lose You” and addressed the crowd. “Y’all stay put now. Order another drink to warm your soul, and I’ll be back in a hot minute.” She rose from the piano and sat down next to the man wearing the black Stetson. He kissed her and she pushed him away but held on to his wrist, turning it over to kiss its underside.
“Definitely a lover,” Teddy said.
In late August there was a massive thunderstorm and half the District went dark. The morning commute was a mess, and the buses and streetcars ran late or not at all. Irina usually took the bus to work, but on that day, Teddy must’ve picked her up, because when we were getting our morning coffee in the break room, we noticed them still sitting in his blue and white Dodge Lancer. We tried not to watch, but that proved difficult, as the break room window overlooked the east parking lot.
It was already nine thirty, but the couple was showing no signs of hustling in. Instead, they sat, and we pressed our faces against the window until the glass fogged. By nine forty-five, we cracked the window, hoping we could hear something, but had to close it again when a gust of rain blew into our faces.
We could see Teddy slumped over the steering wheel as if he’d been shot, and Irina looking out the passenger window. Around ten, Irina got out and rushed into the office, her heels skidding on the slick sidewalk.
A few minutes later, Teddy drove off, fishtailing onto E Street, and we went back to our desks.
Irina came in, took off her raincoat, and took her seat. She rubbed her pink eyes and complained about the storm.
“You okay?” Kathy asked.
“Of course,” Irina said.
“You look a little upset,” Gail said.
Irina licked her fingertip and started flipping through her notes from the previous day. “I’m just a little frazzled this morning. The weather and all.”
“Don’t worry,” Gail said. “We told Anderson you were in the ladies’.”
“Anderson was looking for me? Did he say what he wanted?”
“Good.” She opened her purse and took out the small metal cigarette case with her initials engraved on it that Sally had given her for her birthday. She brought a cigarette to her lips and lit it, her hands still red and shaky. We’d never seen Irina smoke, but that wasn’t what we noticed first; what we noticed first was that her engagement ring was gone. “Well, I mean, I hate to be late,” Irina continued. “Thanks for covering for me.”
We wanted to ask about Teddy and the car. We wanted to ask about the missing ring. We wanted to ask if she’d heard the rumor going around about Sally. But we didn’t. We figured we’d give her some time and ask for details the next day.
But the next morning, Irina was called into Anderson’s office.
We knew that Irina was called into his office. We knew that when she came out she rushed into the ladies’ and stayed a good long while. And we knew that after she left the restroom, she went home early, complaining of a stomachache.
Helen O’Brien, Anderson’s secretary, filled us in on the rest.
“He told her the Agency needs to maintain the highest reputation, and she replied
Yes, of course.
Something about decorum in the office and at home. And she was like,
Yes, I agree.
He went on to say there’d been rumors of personal misconduct. And then there was a long pause. She asked if it was about her and said as far as she knew, she carried herself according to the highest Agency standards. And he was like,
Look—people are saying you might be a little funny, you know, in that way. And if it’s true, that’s a liability for us.
She denied it up and down. And I think she may have started crying, but I couldn’t be sure through the door. He told her he was glad to hear it, and that he hopes the rumor doesn’t come back to his desk like it did with another woman he had to fire the other day. She asked who it was, and he waited a few seconds. Then he said it:
Irina didn’t come in to the office for the rest of the week, and we never got a chance to ask her what was happening. That Saturday, she boarded a plane bound for Brussels and the World’s Fair.
The following Monday, Teddy didn’t come into the office either. Nor did he come in the rest of that week.
We met up for happy hour at Martin’s to discuss.
“Maybe he went to Brussels to win Irina back?” Kathy suggested.
Norma held up an oyster twice as big as the others. She inspected it a second and tipped it back. “You old romantic,” she said. “I heard he’s locked himself in his apartment and refuses to get dressed or answer the door.”
“Where’d you hear that?” Judy asked.
“I’m pretty sure he’s just on assignment,” Linda said, stabbing at an olive in her martini glass with an oyster fork.
“You’re no fun,” Norma said. She waved the waitress over and asked for another martini. “She needs another too,” she said, pointing at Linda.
Linda didn’t protest. “Or maybe he defected. Maybe it wasn’t just his heart Irina broke.”
“Now that’s the spirit!” Norma said.
“Or maybe he’s with Sally,” Linda went on.
“But what about her being,” Kathy lowered her voice,