Alger And Priscilla Hiss, 2009 Model
In early June of this year readers of Washington’s two dailies woke up to the news of the arrest of a much-liked, sophisticated, rather affluent local couple. W[alter] Kendall Myers, when FBI agents put the cuffs on him, was 72 years old; a great-grandson of Alexander Graham Bell and scion of the Grosvenor family that guided National Geographic magazine for a century; and a former high official at the State Department and adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University’s ultra-prestigious School of Advanced International Studies. His wife, Gwenolyn Steingraber Myers, was a 71-year-old South Dakotan who had come to Washington as an aide to Senator James Abourezk in the 1970s and, in recent years, had been working at Riggs Bank and at a bookstore in DC’s Cleveland Park neighborhood. The couple lived in an elegant co-op at the Westchester on Cathedral Avenue, and, in 2007, acquired a 37-foot, state-of-the-art yacht which they named Helene. Both had reached retirement age, and, like many well-off couples in their sunset years, were just counting down the days until they could board their boat and head south for good.
Except in their case, they weren’t planning to dock their yacht in Boca Raton or Jupiter, or even Key West, and go looking for a comfortable little house. They meant to go all the way to Havana, to the nation for whose spy agency they had worked for nearly thirty years. It was for espionage that they were arrested by the FBI this summer.
At the time of the Myerses’s arrest, the Washington Post and the Washington Times published lengthy articles. The Post’s writing about the couple noted that in the mid-1970s, not long before meeting his Gwen, Kendall Myers, who had recently divorced his first wife and had trouble making his child-support payments, had drunkenly slammed his car into another vehicle one Thanksgiving Eve and that a teenage girl, Susan Slattery, who was in the other vehicle, died as a result, for which he received three years’s unsupervised probation. The tone of the quotes from Myers’s friends suggested that this unfortunate incident had somehow unsettled an otherwise upstanding citizen and had sent him down the path to espionage.
Ah, if only Alger Hiss had friends like that – or, for that matter, could have used something like that for an excuse. The new issue of Washingtonian magazine features a lengthy article by Toby Harnden, the US correspondent for London’s Daily Telegraph, which presents by far the most complete picture of the Myerses and their misdeeds set down on paper or cyberspace to date. (At this point the article is not online, so readers are urged to proceed to their nearest bookstore and newsstand and look for the October Washingtonian among the “city” magazines.)
Like any well-written account of the spy world, the article is thoroughly fascinating, from beginning to end. Among its most remarkable passages is one describing the other residents of the Westchester. As it happens, several of the Myerses’s neighbors, according to one resident, were or are in the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency – and an upstairs neighbor is an FBI agent. Not one of these neighbors remotely guessed that the tall, bespectacled, well-mannered, bright but rather glib Foreign Service officer in their midst had actually spent decades, with his wife, hunched over a Sony radio purchased with Cuban money, carefully deciphering messages from those “numbers stations” that pop up around the shortwave dial. None of them knew that a man who once had angled to be George W. Bush’s special envoy to Northern Ireland had, in 1995, spent four full hours with a grateful Fidel Castro. None of them knew that two agents working to the detriment of American national security were walking, every day, down the hallways where a former Westchester resident, Barry Goldwater, had once walked.
Instead, it was up to diligent FBI agents to listen to the broadcasts, carefully narrow lists of suspects, and look for clues. How about this one: the Cubans’s code name for Kendall Myers was “Agent 202” – the DC area code. How many Scoobysnacks would the Great Dane need to puzzle that one out? And Gwen Myers’s handle was “Agent 123.” Impressive, no?
Probably the most arresting passage in Harnden’s article is the one describing how the Myerses were recruited to work for Cuba. They were not approached in some distant land which has diplomatic relations with the Castro government. They were not approached by someone who’d managed to go under deep cover in Little Miami and make his or her way up north. Rather, they were approached by a Castro lieutenant of long standing, who’d fought in the mountains with Fidel, Raul and Che, by the name of Carlos Ciano – an operative at the UN’s Cuban mission in New York, who, thanks to the Carter Administration’s conciliatory attitude toward the island nation’s diplomats, was moving completely at will between Manhattan and Washington in the late 1970s, meeting and “greeting” leading policymakers at various informal brunches and parties sponsored by sympathetic Capitol Hill staffers and others. It was at one of these that Ciano met Kendall and Gwen Myers.
Gwen Myers, as explained in the article, had a thoroughly left-wing background – one of her sons, according to a South Dakota neighbor, made no bones about being, literally, a card-carrying Communist – and it apparently was through her that Kendall Myers took the fateful step from being a liberal State functionary, like thousands who never give a thought to betraying their country, to becoming an operative for Cuba.(The resemblance to the influence that Priscilla Hiss’s views had on Alger in the early years of their marriage, as described in such books as Allen Weinstein’s Perjury and Sam Tanenhaus’s Whittaker Chambers, is quite striking.) It’s difficult to overstate the implications of all this as the Obama White House and various Democrats on Capitol Hill assure us that it’s time to let old quarrels with Havana be patched up.
Harnden also looks into the auto accident which is said to have had such a troubling psychological effect on Kendall Myers. It turns out that, for a man of almost forty, he handled the whole matter as if he were a particularly spoiled seventeen-year-old. He sent Susan Slattery’s family a letter that, although missing an apology, concluded: “It is a tragedy for me too.” During a recess in the civil case brought against him by her family, he told her father: “You people can’t touch me.” Harnden then wryly quotes a character in a David Ignatius novel, a CIA psychiatrist: “Treason is the ultimate mid-life crisis.” Be that as it may, Kendall and Gwen Myers appear set to conclude their lives in prison.
The nuttiest quote in the article comes from James Abourezk. The former Senator was the first person Gwen Myers called after her arrest, and he states: “If we had ended the embargo years ago, there would have been no spying and none of this stuff would have happened. To me, if the Cubans are spying, it would be a defensive thing.” Really?
There’s a lot more of interest in the article – the description of Kendall Myers’s deep Anglophilia, especially his fascination with those model modern Englishmen Burgess, Maclean, and Philby; the fact that his PhD thesis was a contrarian defense of Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement policy; and a lot more. All in all, this is a fine, must-read work of journalism. Don’t miss it.