Read The Secrets We Kept Online
Authors: Lara Prescott
Fall had come to Washington. It was dark when we woke and dark when we left the office. The temperature had dropped twenty degrees and during our commute we’d walk with our heads down to avoid the wind whipping through the spaces between buildings, careful not to slip on wet leaves or roll our heels on the slick sidewalks. On mornings like that—when the thought of getting out of a warm bed to go stand on a crowded streetcar under some man’s armpit just to spend the day in a drafty office under harsh fluorescent lights almost made us call in sick—we’d meet at Ralph’s for coffee and doughnuts before work. We needed those twenty minutes, that dose of sugar—not to mention a better cup of coffee. The Agency’s own brew, though brown and hot, tasted more like the Styrofoam cups we drank it from.
Ralph was actually a little old Greek man named Marcos. He’d come to the States, he told us, just for the chance to fatten up pretty American girls like us with the pastries he woke up at four o’clock each morning to bake. He’d call us “beautiful” and “exquisite,” although he could hardly see us through his cataracts. Marcos was a shameless flirt, even though his wife—a white-haired woman named Athena with a bosom so large she had to take a step back when opening the register—was always right behind the counter. Athena didn’t seem to mind, though. She’d roll her eyes and laugh at the old man. We’d laugh in return and touch his arm, hopeful he’d put an extra powdered doughnut in our bag and hand it to us with a cloudy-eyed wink.
Whoever arrived at Ralph’s first would get us a booth in the back. It was important to get a booth in back so we could keep an eye on the door to see who came in. Ralph’s was not the closest coffee shop to HQ, but the occasional officer would wander in from time to time, and much of what we said during our morning meetings we did not want overheard.
Gail Carter would usually get there first, having walked only three blocks from her studio apartment above the hat shop on H Street. Gail roomed with a woman who was a third-year intern on the Hill and whose wealthy father owned a textile factory in New Hampshire and paid all her living expenses.
That particular Monday morning in October started out with the same back-and-forth. “Pure hell,” Norma Kelly said. “Last week was pure hell.” At eighteen, Norma had moved to New York with dreams of becoming a poet. Irish American with the strawberry blond hair to prove it, Norma had gotten off the bus at the Dixie Bus Center on West Forty-Second and, suitcase in hand, made her way to Costello’s to rub elbows with the Madison Avenue ad men and freelance writers for
The New Yorker.
She eventually figured out that both were more interested in what was in her pants than in the words she wanted to put on paper. But it was at Costello’s that she also met a few Agency men. They’d encouraged her to apply for a job only as a way of flirting, but she needed a paycheck so pursued it anyway. Norma tucked a strand of hair behind her ear and stirred three sugars into her coffee. “No, this week was worse than hell.”
Judy Hendricks cut her plain doughnut into four equal pieces with a butter knife. Judy was always on some sort of fad diet she read in
“What’s worse than hell?” Judy asked.
“This week, that’s what.” Norma took a sip of coffee.
“I don’t know,” Judy said. “Last week was pretty bad. I mean, that meeting about the new Mohawk Midgetapes? I think we can understand how to click
without a two-hour orientation. If that man pointed to that diagram one more time, my eyes would’ve rolled right out of their sockets.” She wiped an invisible crumb from her lip, though she had yet to touch her doughnut.
Norma put her napkin to her chest. “But how on earth are we supposed to understand unless a man thoroughly explains it?” she asked, doing her best Scarlett O’Hara.
“It can always get worse,” Linda said. “You can’t let that little stuff get you down. You have to save the headache for the bigger stuff. Like the fact that they haven’t filled the Kotex machine since Truman was in office.”
Linda was only twenty-three, but once she got married, she started speaking as though she was wise to the world in a way we single gals couldn’t possibly fathom—like we were still virgins or something. It got on our nerves, but we still looked to her as a kind of mother figure: the first to calm us when we wanted to tell off one of the men, or to smooth a flyaway hair. The one who’d tell us the appropriate time to let a man know he could get somewhere with us, and what to do if he didn’t call the next day.
“If I have to listen to Anderson tell me one more time that my voice sounds too gravelly when I answer the phone, I swear to God,” Gail said. Walter Anderson, a bear cub of a man with perpetually uneven sideburns who looked as though he once played college football but had come to consider his walk from the bus stop to the office his daily exercise, oversaw the typing pool and other administrative operations in SR. He had been in the field during his OSS days and was assigned an office job shortly after the Agency formed in ’47. Never quite at home behind a desk, Anderson would pace the floor, seeking something or someone to take his pent-up frustrations out on. But after he did let someone have it, he was often remorseful, and overcompensated with boxes of doughnuts and fresh flowers in the break room. He preferred that we call him Walter, so we called him Anderson.
Gail dabbed a twisted paper napkin into her water glass and blotted a spot of pink jelly on the cuff of her blouse. “Us government gals are relegated to the typewriter while overgrown children like Anderson tell us what to do.” Gail didn’t have a chip on her shoulder; it was more like a cement block. After earning an engineering degree from U.C. Berkeley, she had applied to NSF and Defense, only to be turned away for her “lack of an advanced degree”—code for her being a black woman. Gail knew for a fact that several former white male students with the same degree were already working there—and moving up in the ranks. With her savings low, she applied for typist positions and bounced around from one government gig to the next. By the time she got to the Agency, she was fed up that her real skills hadn’t been noticed. “And the other day, you know what he said to me?” Gail continued. “That he and his wife
just love The Nat King Cole Show,
and that I must be
to see him on television. When I asked what exactly I should be proud of, he just mumbled something and shuffled away.” She took a sip of coffee. “I
proud, but wasn’t about to let him know that.”
“At least the hours are good,” chimed in Kathy Potter. Our eternal optimist with a four-inch shellacked bouffant, Kathy had come to the Agency with her older sister, Sarah, who had married an officer three months into the job and moved with him to a foreign station. With Sarah gone, Kathy was particularly quiet, but whenever she did speak, it was always to remind us the glass was half full.
“Well, I’ll toast to nine to five,” Norma said, raising her mug, though no one else followed. She set it back down.
“And the benefits,” Linda added. “When I worked in that dentist’s office after college, I didn’t even get dental insurance. Can you believe it? He replaced my cracked filling under the table, after hours, if you know what I mean. And that’s only because he wanted to, as he put it,
get to know me better,
and thought the laughing gas would help.”
“Did it?” Kathy asked.
“Well…” she took a bite of her doughnut.
“Well?” Norma prodded.
Linda swallowed. “That stuff really does put you in a good mood.”
After Ralph’s, we took our time walking to 2430 E Street. Agency HQ, set back from the street, was in a complex that used to house the OSS during the war. We passed through a black iron gate and went up the walkway. It would be two years before the Agency would move to Langley. In the meantime, HQ was spread across several of these nondescript buildings overlooking the National Mall. We called them “tempos,” because they’d been telling us we’d be moving soon since we started. The tin-roofed buildings were hard to heat in the winter, and the air conditioning worked just about as well as anything in Washington.
Norma had this recurring gag where she’d hesitate before going through the heavy wooden doors into the lobby. “I won’t go,” she said that Monday, holding on to a bald cherry tree next to the door. We pulled her in with us and got into the inspection line, our laminated badges in hand, our pocketbooks open and ready to be prodded with a dowel.
We knew her name before she arrived. Lonnie Reynolds in Personnel had told us the Friday before she started. “Irina Drozdova. Anderson will bring her around and introduce her Monday morning.”
“Another Russian,” Norma said, voicing what we’d all been thinking. It wasn’t unusual for Russians to come over to our side—in fact, SR had so many defectors, we joked that the water cooler was full of vodka. Dulles hated to use the term “defectors,” preferring to call them “volunteers.” Regardless, the Russians were usually men, not typists.
“Be nice,” Lonnie said. “She seems like a good kid.”
“We’re always nice.”
“Whatever you say,” Lonnie said, and left the Pool.
We never liked Lonnie.
Irina was already at her desk by the time we came in that Monday. Thin as a birch tree, medium-length blond hair, debutante-straight posture. We ignored her for a good hour, going about our day as usual while she made slight adjustments to her chair and typewriter, played with the buttons on her brown jacket, and moved paper clips from one drawer to another.
We weren’t trying to be rude. But this new girl was replacing Tabitha Jenkins, one of the longest-standing members of the Pool. Tabitha’s husband had retired from Lockheed and they’d skedaddled down to a bungalow in sunny Fort Lauderdale. Now this Russian was sitting at her desk.
We put off the usual niceties for a little longer than usual. As the clock ticked past ten, it became more uncomfortable. Someone had to say something, and it turned out Irina was the one to break the ice. She stood, and all eyes looked up and down her svelte figure.
“Excuse me,” she said, more to the floor than to anyone in particular. “Where can I find the ladies’?” She picked a piece of string off her jacket. “It’s my first day,” she added, blushing at the obviousness. She had a peculiar way of speaking: no trace of an accent, but slightly unnatural, as if she had to think about each word before saying it.
“You don’t sound Russian,” Norma said, instead of pointing her to the bathroom.
“I’m not. Well, not exactly. I was born here, but my parents are from there.”
“All the Russians working here say that,” Norma said, and we all tittered. “I’m Norma.” She extended her hand. “Born here too.”
Irina shook Norma’s hand. We felt the tension drop. “Nice to meet you all,” she said. She looked across the typing pool and made eye contact with each of us.
“Down the hall, make a right, then another right,” Linda said.
“What?” Irina asked.
“Little girls’ room.”
“Oh, yes,” she said. “Thank you.”
We watched until she disappeared down the hall before we discussed: her Russianness (or lack thereof), her hair color (not from a bottle), her strange way of speaking (like a budget Katharine Hepburn), her slightly outdated fashion (bargain basement or homemade?).
“She seems nice,” Judy concluded.
“Nice enough,” Linda said.
“Where’d they find her?”
“I think she’s pretty,” Gail said.
We had to agree on that. Irina’s was not the type to win any beauty contests, but it was there—a subtler kind of beauty.
Irina returned to the Pool, walking shoulder to shoulder with Lonnie. “I trust the girls are making you feel welcome?” Lonnie asked.
“Oh, yes,” Irina replied without a hint of sarcasm.
“Good. These gals can be a tough group to crack.”
“I heard Personnel is where they keep all the crack-ups,” Norma said.
Lonnie rolled her eyes. “Anyways, since Mr. Anderson has failed to grace us with his presence this morning—”
“Is he out sick?” Linda interrupted. We took extra-long lunches when Anderson was out.
“He’s out. That’s all I know. Whether he’s passed out on a park bench somewhere or is having his tonsils removed, it’s none of my business.” Lonnie positioned herself in front of Irina, her back to us. “Anyways, I’m supposed to make sure you have everything you need, then I’m to”—she held up her fingers in air quotes—
“fetch you for a meeting down South.”
Irina told Lonnie she had everything she needed, then followed her out. As soon as they left, we retired to the ladies’ room for more in-depth speculation. “A meeting?” Linda asked. “Already?”
“Think it’s with J.M.?” Kathy asked, referring to SR’s Chief, John Maury.
” Gail said. Down South referred to the ramshackle wooden tempos near the Lincoln Memorial. “That’s Frank.”
Norma lit a cigarette. “A Moscow mystery?” She took a puff, then exhaled. “Of course it’s with Frank.”
Frank Wisner was the boss under the big boss, and the father of the Agency’s clandestine ops. A founding member of the Georgetown Set of influential politicians, journalists, and Agency men, Wisner—with his Southern accent and charm—was known to conduct most business during his famous Sunday night suppers. It was at these parties, after the pot roast and apple pie had been served and the group was thoroughly buzzed from cigars and bourbon, that a vision for a new world had taken shape.