July 07, 2014
Perhaps Harvey—the man who, in 1874, was about to become the first-ever photographer of the giant squid—saw it as his duty to restore power to it, body and myth, myth and the body.
“It proved to be…gigantic,” Harvey continued.
July 07, 2014
Perhaps Harvey—the man who, in 1874, was about to become the first-ever photographer of the giant squid—saw it as his duty to restore power to it, body and myth, myth and the body.
“It proved to be…gigantic,” Harvey continued.
The most iconic movie in American, if not world, history was shot on November 22, 1963, with an 8-millimeter Bell & Howell camera owned and operated by the cofounder of Jennifer Juniors, a Dallas, Texas, womenswear company. The movie—which soon became known as the Zapruder film, so called after its maker—is silent and less than thirty seconds long, yet it was effectively squelched for more than a decade. Select frames from the film were published in such magazines as Life—Abraham Zapruder sold the copyright to Time Life the day after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the film’s subject—just as frames were published in the Warren Commission’s voluminous report on the Kennedy assassination, but, except for bootleg copies, the film itself was unavailable to the public. The Warren Commission had concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald, an avowed Marxist and repatriated defector to the Soviet Union, was solely responsible for the death of Kennedy, firing three shots at the presidential limousine from the Texas School Book Depository, where Oswald worked for $1.25 an hour as a stock boy. The FBI had likewise concluded that Oswald acted alone, and many assumed that Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, had established the Warren Commission precisely to corroborate the FBI’s finding and quiet talk of conspiracy. The scarcity of the Zapruder film had the opposite effect.
I was in the basement of the downtown Los Angeles courthouse, where I was researching a possible nonfiction book about an overlooked film-noir actor whose offscreen brawling and balling led to occasional trouble with the law, as well as comparisons to his better-known colleague at Warner Bros., Errol Flynn. The basement is where old case files are stored on microfilm, and one of the files I needed was lost, so that I kept returning to the courthouse to see if it had been found. I was out of luck again that day, headed to the elevator when I was stopped by a nondescript man of sixty or so. He couldn’t find his way out of the basement, he said. I told him to follow me. He did, remarking on the flatcap I was wearing.
“I used to know somebody who wore a hat just like that,” he said. “She was a big racing-car driver back in the thirties. She was friends with my family.”
He repeated that. He repeated everything he said. Something was clearly wrong with him, though whatever it was, he was in no way menacing. Apparently obsessed with height, he informed me, apropos of nothing, that he was six feet tall. Then he asked how tall I was, and before I could answer, he said, “Six-one, right? You’re six-one.”
December 10, 2012
Among the memories of those who lived through that dreadful April day so many years ago was the way the afternoon sunshine quickly descended into evening gloom. With darkness had come fog and a gentle mist that dampened the nation’s capital. A chill followed, an unwelcome surprise after the warmth of day. Then there was the moon. It appeared late on that Friday night, leaving the hours just after sunset dark and unusually dreary. It announced itself first in the silvered edges of clouds and then, unhurriedly, came fully, brightly into view. In the years after, more than one man swore that before the night was done, the moon had turned blood red. If true, it was a fitting banner over the events unfolding below.
July 28, 2012
When I was a small child, I was prone to insomnia and fits of the night terrors. To get me to fall asleep, my mother and father would fasten me into our family’s 1971 Toyota Carina, throw in an eight-track cassette of Anne Murray’s Greatest Hits and drive up and down South Main Street in Houston, Texas, to look at the prostitutes. The blinking neon signs of the no-tell motels, the bling of streetwalkers working their finery, and the day-glo hues of their billowing lingerie were too much stimulation even for a toddler; I would finally shut my eyes and stop struggling against the seat belt while “Shadows in the Moonlight” and the South Main ho stroll played on. I nodded off to sleep not only with visions of sugar plum fairies, but also of leather-clad fairies, common harlots, desperate dope fiends, glamorous go-girls, and rowdy rent-boys all gyrating in my little head.
My first exposure to the joys of fellatio were, typically, in print form—via a late-’60s totem called The Sensuous Woman, by a woman so mysterious that she went only by the first initial “J.”
It would have to have been about 1976 when I first encountered this mind-blowing Baedeker. My pal Eric had somehow secured a copy of this licentious wonder, though I’m pretty sure he boosted it from his folks. They probably did it all the time.
— One —
…As late as 1803, indeed until Lewis and Clark returned from their expedition, Jefferson believed there must be a viable water route to the Pacific from the Missouri River. Strange as that may seem to us, this assumption of a passage to the “South Sea” had been common among geographers and scholars of geography for three hundred years. It was the residue of Columbus’s dream of reaching the Indies across the Atlantic. A rough estimate of the size of the planet had been known since antiquity, but for a number of reasons the scale and width of the North American continent remained something of a mystery. Perhaps one factor was the difficulty of calculating longitude. It was only when the chronometer was developed around 1705 that reasonably accurate calculations of longitude could be made.
The great blank on the map that needed to be filled in was the area from the eastern edge of the Rockies to the coastal waters near the mouth of the Columbia River. No one but Indians had crossed that land or knew its heights or extent. Jefferson had a precise and detailed sense of geography. Had he not been so busy with all his other interests and obligations, one might imagine him as an important mapmaker, with his passion for accurate representation, his draftsmanship and devotion to the study of land.
“Beginning at the mouth of the Missouri,” he wrote to Lewis, “you will take observations of latitude & longitude, at all remarkable points on the river, & especially at the mouths of rivers, at rapids, at islands, & other places . . . that . . . may . . . be recognized hereafter.” Jefferson, long fascinated by tools and instruments, gave his explorer instructions in the use of compass and logging of distance and told him to note the variations in the magnetic compass readings as he moved up the river to the west.
Neither Jefferson nor anyone else was prepared to learn of the hundreds of miles of forbidding terrain that separated the head of navigation of one river from the head of navigation on the other. Certainly some of the Indian tribes in the region could have told the president differently, but they were out of communication for reasons of language, distance, and war. Besides, the Native Americans had many horses for travel and it might not have occurred to them that it was even desirable to haul boats and tons of baggage from the Missouri watershed, through weeks of travel, to the Pacific watershed.
“The interesting points of the portage between the heads of the Missouri, & of the water offering the best communication with the Pacific ocean,” Jefferson wrote, “should also be fixed by observation . . . Your observations are to be taken with great pains, & accuracy, to be entered distinctly and intelligibly for others as well as yourself.” To ensure survival of the documents, several copies should be made and carried by different members of the party.
And then Jefferson added one of the most unexpected and often quoted sentences in the letter. “A further guard would be that one of these copies be on paper of the birch, as less liable to injury from damp than common paper.” Knowing that the records of the expedition would be carried in canoes and mackinaw boats, on horseback and human backs, through rain storms and snow storms, Jefferson was concerned about the vulnerability of paper. Where Meriwether Lewis was to acquire such pages of bark along the Missouri is not clear. Perhaps Jefferson meant for him to procure a supply of the bark in the East before setting out. Or maybe Jefferson thought Lewis’s party could pause to chop down birch trees and peel their bark on the way up the river.
One of the best known passages in Jefferson’s directions to Lewis is the list of things to be noted about native people along the way. Since commercial interest in the West “renders a knoledge of those people important,” a special effort must be made to learn the names of populations of each nation encountered, as well as
the extent & limits of their possessions;
their relations with other tribes of nations;
their language, traditions, monuments;
their ordinary occupations in agriculture, fishing, hunting,
war, arts, & the implements for these;
their food, clothing, & domestic accommodations;
the diseases prevalent among them, & the remedies they use;
moral & physical circumstances which distinguish them from
the tribes we know;
peculiarities in their laws, customs & dispositions;
and articles of commerce they may need or furnish, & to what extent.
Jefferson also wanted Lewis to gather information about “the state of morality, religion, & information among” the natives. Like most enlightened men of his time, Jefferson believed that those who went among the Indians should seek to “civilize & instruct them,” but he also realized that to do so Europeans must “adapt their measures to the existing notions & practices of those on whom they are to operate.” The last clause of the sentence shows something of Jefferson’s sophistication. English missionaries and administrators usually failed with the native people because they wanted to teach Indians to behave like Europeans. French and sometimes Spanish missionaries were often more successful because they understood that they themselves had to adapt to Indian customs before they could have any effective impact. Had all Americans been as sensitive to this particular issue as Jefferson and Meriwether Lewis, our history might have been very different. To negotiate with others, trade with others, live beside others, we must first know something about who they are and how they view us and their own world. It is a simple principle to state but hard to practice in strange places and on dangerous occasions.
Significantly, Jefferson places study of the indigenous population ahead of his other lists of scientific objects of study. Only after he has described some of the things he wanted to know about the natives did he catalog his other scientific interests. For Jefferson the West was not just the land but also the people who had lived there for thousands of years. The priority of his scientific interest was the study of the people.
One of the most memorable passages in Jefferson’s letter to Lewis is his instructions about the treatment of native people. In no place does Jefferson’s idealism show through more than in this section. “Treat them in the most friendly and conciliatory manner,” he urged, and “allay all jealousies as to the object of your journey, satisfy them of it’s innocence, make them acquainted with the position, extent, character, peaceable & commercial dispositions of the U.S., & of our wish to be neighborly, friendly & useful to them.” He authorized Lewis to arrange visits of the chiefs to Washington at public expense, if they desired it, and to offer to educate their young. He also told Lewis to carry with him on the expedition “some of the matter of the kine–pox” to inoculate against small pox, which had already killed so many Indians. The inoculation might be especially important in the village where they would pass the winter.
Since it could not be known beforehand whether a given Indian tribe or nation would be welcoming or hostile, it was important for the expedition to have enough men to defend itself. But if a large group of Indians adamantly stood in the way of the expedition, “you must decline it’s farther pursuit, and return.” Not only must the lives of the Corps of Discovery be saved, but the information they have accumulated must be protected.
Jefferson recommended that Lewis commission friendly Indians to carry back letters and copies “of your journal, notes & observations of every kind,” to the settlements at Cahokia and Kaskaskia on the east bank of the Mississippi. That way he could be informed at every stage of the progress of the expedition up the river and to the West Coast. Sensitive messages should be put in code.
And then he gave Lewis a list of his interests in the physical landscape that reads like a passage from a poem by Walt Whitman or a paragraph by Henry David Thoreau.
the soil & face of the country, it’s growth & vegetable
productions, especially those not of the U.S.
the animals of the country generally, & especially those
not known in the U.S.
the remains or accounts of any which may be deemed rare
the mineral productions of every kind; but more particularly
metals, limestone, pit coal, & saltpetre; salines &
mineral waters, noting the temperature of the last,
such circumstances as may indicate their character;
climate, as characterized by the thermometer, by the proportion
of rainy, cloudy, & clear days, by lightning, hail,
snow, ice, by access & recess of frost, by the
winds prevailing at different seasons, the dates at
which particular plants put forth or lose their
flower, or leaf, times of appearance of particular birds,
reptiles or insects.
Jefferson added that he thought it especially important to know the land between the headwaters of the Rio Brava, meaning the Rio Grande, and the headwaters of the Rio Colorado. He was not sure whether the country between these rivers and the Missouri was mountainous or flat land. Few people had studied the existing maps of the west as thoroughly as Jefferson had, yet he thought that by going up the Missouri Lewis might be able to learn “anything certain of the most Northern source of the Missisipi & of it’s position relatively to the lake of the woods,” which English and French traders had described. And Jefferson wanted to know the distance from the mouth of the “Ouisconsing” (Wisconsin) River to the mouth of the Missouri. But it is not clear how Lewis was expected to acquire that information while going up the Missouri, unless he happened to meet someone who knew the exact distance.
Furthermore, if the Pacific coast was reached, the prospects for the fur trade there should be studied. The present center of the fur trade was farther north, at Nootka Sound on Vancouver Island, where British and Russian companies were already dominant. Most important, Lewis should find out if the United States could conduct business in the far northwest by going up the Missouri instead of sailing all the way around Cape Horn, as was the present practice.
When Lewis arrived at the Pacific coast he was to look for a port and if possible send two of his crew back to the United States by sea with copies of the journals and notes made crossing the continent. And if Lewis determined that it was too dangerous to return overland, Jefferson urged him to return with all his men by sea, either around the tip of South America or Africa. Since he would be without money, he must use letters of credit to pay for his passage.
If Lewis decided to return by land, Jefferson asked him to again make such observations “as may serve to supply, correct or confirm those made on your outward journey.” Each member of the expedition would not only be paid in full when they returned to the United States but would also be given a grant of land, as other soldiers were. Last he tells Lewis, “Repair yourself with your papers to the seat of government” once other duties were discharged.
And then Jefferson thought of one more contingency. In case Lewis should suffer death on the journey west, he should leave a signed document written in his own hand “to name the person among them who shall succeed to the command on your decease.” But as the voyage continued he should feel free to change the desigznated successor as he learns more about the character and competence of his men. And such a successor should be given authority to name his successor in case of his own demise. It does seem that Jefferson thought of everything on that day, June 20, 1803. Reading certain passages of the letter to Meriwether Lewis we are reminded that among his many other accomplishments, Jefferson was a gifted if reluctant lawyer.
December 10, 2011
Caravaggio’s art is made from darkness and light. His pictures present spotlit moments of extreme and often agonised human experience. A man is decapitated in his bedchamber, blood spurting from a deep gash in his neck. A man is assassinated on the high altar of a church. Faces are brightly illuminated. Yet always the shadows encroach, pools of blackness that threaten to obliterate all.
Caravaggio’s life is like his art, a series of lightning flashes in the darkest of nights. He was one of the most original artists ever to have lived, yet we have only one solitary sentence from him on the subject of painting — the sincerity of which is, in any case, questionable, since it was elicited when he was under interrogation for the capital crime of libel.
Much of what is known about him has been discovered in the criminal archives of his time. He lived much of his life as a fugitive, but is caught, now and again, by the sweeping beam of a searchlight. Caravaggio throws stones at the house of his landlady and sings ribald songs outside her window. He has a fight with a waiter about the dressing on a plate of artichokes. He taunts a rival with graphic sexual insults. He attacks a man in the street. He is involved in a fatal swordfight.
Anyone attempting a biography of Caravaggio must play die detective as well as the art historian. His life can easily seem merely chaotic, the rise and fall of an incurable hot-head, a man so governed by passion that his actions unfold without rhyme or reason. But there is a logic to it all and, with hindsight, a tragic inevitability.
A lot has been made of Caravaggio’s presumed homosexuality, which has been presented as the single key to both his art and his misfortunes. There is no absolute proof of it, only strong circumstantial evidence and much rumour.
The truth is that Caravaggio was as uneasy in his relationships as he was in most other aspects of life. He likely slept with men. He did sleep with women. But he settled with no one. From a very young age, and with good cause, he suffered from a deep sense of abandonment.
If any one thing lay behind the erratic behaviour that doomed him to an early death, it was the tragedy that befell him when he was just a little boy. To understand the experiences that most deeply shaped him, it is necessary to begin where he was born: in the town of Caravaggio, in Lombardy, from which he would later take his name. He lived both there and in the nearby city of Milan for the first 21 years of his life.
In the summer of 1576, when Caravaggio was almost five, Milan was struck by an outbreak of bubonic plague. A year later, the plague tore into Caravaggio’s own family. By the age of six, Caravaggio had lost almost every male member of his family, and the art of his maturity would be saturated in the ineradicable memory of night terrors, filled with images of turmoil in dark places.
‘Whore, bitch, tart!’ These are the words of an artist scorned, addressed to a courtesan who refused to sleep with him. They are preserved in a deposition in the State Archives of Rome for 1602. The man was before the magistrates for abuse and physical assault.
As well as insulting and beating her, he had actually knifed the woman. She had been badly injured, cut deeply to the face. The facial wound was an example of a sfregio, a slash with the blade inflicted as a mark of shame – doubly damaging to a courtesan, whose face was her fortune.
There are many such tales in the annals of the lives of the artists who thrived, floundered or failed in Counter-Reformation Rome. During his own 14 years in the city, where he moved after cutting all ties with his family at the age of 21, Caravaggio would become embroiled in more than his fair share of bloody vendettas. He was a violent man, but he lived in a violent world. Throughout 17th-century Italy an inflammatory code of honour prevailed. The fama of an individual, which referred to not only his fame or reputation but also his good name, was paramount. Any insult to it had to be paid for, and the price was often blood. Caravaggio went to greater extremes than his contemporaries, in life as in art.
The artists’ quarter of Rome at the end of die 16th century was a dangerous area. Fights were common and fists were not the only weapons used. The ultimate ambition of every young, jostling artist was the same: to work for the cardinals closest to the pope, to secure the most important devotional commissions and win lasting fame -with the money and security that went with it. In a world where rivalry was intense, stories of sabotage abounded – of collapsed scaffolding, of the painter whose rival poisoned his colours with acid so that all his blues turned green in a matter of days.
When Caravaggio arrived in the city, in the autumn of 1592, he was just another artist on the make. Having begun painting crude ‘heads’ – most likely those of famous men of the past – he eventually found himself a more exalted position in with the Cesari brothers, one of whom was among the most prominent artists in Rome. Caravaggio was employed to paint ‘flowers and fruit’ within the relatively new field of still-life painting.
In 1579, Carlo Borromeo, the dour Archbishop of Milan, had tried, unsuccessfully, to kill off the exuberantly joyful pre-Lenten tradition of Carnival. Caravaggio lived his life as if there were only Carnival and Lent, with nothing in between. His pictures are the legacy of his Lenten days. His carnivalesque alter-ego emerged in his early days in Rome, where, according to one biographer, Caravaggio liked to go about with a crowd ‘who lived by the motto nec spe, nec metu, “without hope, without fear”.’The most dangerous of these companions was a hot-headed architect called Onorio Longhi, who would patrol the streets of Rome on horseback, as if he was a knight and his servant was his page. Those who ran with him behaved like modern, debased versions of the ‘veray parfit gentil knights’ of the old romance tradition, whoring and fighting rather than slaying dragons and protecting damsels in distress.
Caravaggio was certainly friendly with prostitutes, some of whom modelled for him. His favourite was Fillide Melandroni, a dark-eyed girl destined to become one of Rome’s most famous courtesans. In 1598 or 1599, Caravaggio painted a startlingly sado-erotic Judith and Holofernes, with Fillide in the leading role. Like that of David and Goliath, the biblical story of Judith was a parable of underdog virtue triumphing over tyranny: a Jewish heroine seduces a ruthless Assyrian general and then slays him, with his own sword, in his tent.
Under Caravaggio’s hand, sanctified execution in an Assyrian tent has become murder in a Roman whorehouse. The bearded Holofernes, lying naked on the crumpled sheets of a prostitute’s bed, is a client who has made a terrible mistake. He wakes up to realise that he is about to die. Fillide pulls on his hair with her left hand, not only to expose his neck but to stretch the flesh so that it will part more easily. She frowns with grim concentration, as he screams his last, and as the blood begins to spray from the mortal wound in bright red jets.
Caravaggio has imagined the whole scene as a fantastically extreme version of the violent incidents that he and his companions were so often embroiled in. He adds a sexual frisson to the violence: beneath the diaphanous fabric of her tight-fitting bodice, Fillide’s nipples are visibly erect. It is the sort of detail that Cardinal Paravicino may have had in mind when he made his famous remark about pictures that he ‘would not have wanted to see from a distance’. Judith and Holofernes divided Caravaggio’s contemporaries, many of whom found the realism rude and indecorous. Others were fascinated by it.
On July 4 1600 the painter received a final payment of 50 scudi for The Calling of St Matthew and The Martyrdom of St Matthew, two paintings destined to adorn Rome’s prestigious Contarelli Chapel. His matchless sense of drama and use of extreme contrasts of light and dark would prove intoxicating. It is no exaggeration to say that they decisively changed the tradition of European art.
The Contarelli paintings were controversial but they instantly established Caravaggio as one of the leading painters of the city. There is no sign that success mellowed him. During the winter of 1600 he injured one of Rome’s many unemployed mercenaries in a swordfight. On November 19 1600, he was charged with a nocturnal assault on a young Tuscan art student named Girolamo Spampa. The premeditated attack – Caravaggio stabbed Spampa from behind – reeked of vendetta.
Just over five years later, deeply in debt, recently evicted and in trouble, yet again, with the law, Caravaggio received a commission that must have seemed like a God-given chance for him to paint his way out of trouble. He had finally been asked to paint an altarpiece for St Peters, the central church of Catholic Christendom.
Caravaggio had finished the work in less than four months. The Madonna of the Palafrenieri, sometimes known as The Madonna of the Serpent, is monumental in scale. Almost 10ft tall and more than six across, it shows three figures absorbed in a confrontation with pure evil. The Virgin and the infant Christ together crush the head of a serpent beneath their feet. Strangely for Caravaggio, there is no sense of drama. Instead of telling a story he was obliged to embody an allegory and make a theological point. He did his utmost to produce an unimpeachable endorsement of the prevailing religious orthodoxy – which can only have made what happened next all the more painful.
Within two days of going up, the altarpiece had been removed, and was soon to be sold on to a private collector. It was almost certainly Caravaggio’s embodiment of the Virgin in a low-cut dress that caused the difficulty. Appealing once more to the mass of ordinary Catholics, Caravaggio had simply painted her as the kind of mother with whom real mothers might identify.
Despite this enormous setback, Caravaggio refused to change his approach. Shorty after delivering The Madonna of the Palafrenieri, he finally completed his long overdue altarpiece of The Death of the Virgin. This huge and deeply moving picture is stark evidence of the painter’s reluctance to compromise, and of his moral resilience.
Never before in the history of Christian painting had the mother of God been made to seem so poor and frail and vulnerable. Wearing a simple red dress, unlaced at the bodice to make her more comfortable in her last moments, she lies stretched out on the makeshift bier of a plank of wood. She looks shockingly dead. The church of Santa Maria della Scala, for which the painting was intended, belonged to the order of the so-called discalced Carmelites, the shoeless Carmelites. This may have encouraged Caravaggio to believe that his stark depiction of the Virgin might find favour. But no sooner was his painting delivered than he learnt that it too had been rejected.
The Carmelite brothers had reportedly found it ‘well made but without decorum or invention or cleanliness’. To say a picture had been created ‘without invention’ was shorthand for saying that it had been painted from reality rather than the imagination. The Madonna had been made to look ¡ dirty and indecorous. She was made to look real.
This second rejection must have cut Caravaggio to the quick. Looking back on it years later, Giulio ; Mancini, a physician from Siena who knew I Caravaggio well, wondered if the refusal of The Death of the Virgin might not have been the tilting point of the painter’s whole life. ‘Perhaps consequently, Caravaggio suffered so much trouble,’ E he wrote. It is just an aside, but it should not be taken lightly. Mancini had seen first-hand what happened next. In the immediate aftermath, Caravaggio committed a crime that would blight the rest of his life. He killed a man.
What were the circumstances that led to Caravaggio fatally stabbing the pimp Ranuccio Tomassoni in a duel on May 28 1606? Numerous theories abound but one thing is certain: a bitter enmity had been building between the men. Tomassoni had been the pimp who controlled Caravaggio’s favourite courtesan, Fillide. From the outset, Tomassoni would have been dismayed to discover their association: a mere painter was hardly a desirable client for Tomassoni s most beautiful courtesan. There is even evidence to suggest that Caravaggio might have encroached on Tomassoni’s territory by becoming a part-time pimp himself. Caravaggio needed models, so rather than be at the mercy of pimps, why not secure his own whores?
One other detail suggests that the cause of the fight may have been some kind of sexual insult. Tomassoni bled to death from the femoral artery. Caravaggio had struck him a low blow, aiming perhaps at the groin and missing by just a fraction. Wounds were meaningful. A cut to the face was a sfregio, but it was by no means the only form of symbolic, premeditated injury that Italians inflicted upon their enemies. It is possible that Caravaggio was not trying to kill Tomassoni, but attempting to make mincemeat of his testicles with a sword.
This time, retribution was swift: Caravaggio was condemned as a murderer and made subject to a bando capitale, a ‘capital sentence*.This meant that anyone in the papal states had the right to kill him with impunity; indeed there was a bounty for anyone who did so. To claim the reward, it would not be necessary to produce the painter’s body. His severed head would suffice.
Badly wounded himself, the painter had no choice but to flee Rome. Yet his yean in exile would be no less eventful or dramatic. Caravaggio first fled to Malta, where he joined the prestigious order of the Knights of St John, before clashing with one of their most illustrious members and finding yet another death sentence upon his head. On the run, once again, Caravaggio escaped to Naples, where, on the brink of securing a papal pardon for the murder of Tomassoni, he made an ill-advised visit to a seedy Neapolitan tavern. Here, his life of violence finally caught up with him. This time it was Caravaggio who was the victim of a ‘hit’ by a group of armed men who were almost certainly sent by Fra Giovanni Rodomonte Roero, the ‘noble Knight’ he had argued with in Malta.
Caravaggio was badly cut on the face, which in the honour code of the day was an injury to avenge an insult to reputation. He would never recover, and it was almost certainly these injuries that would leave him so weakened as, in the summer of 1610, he made his way back to his beloved Rome after finally receiving confirmation of his pardon.
The artist was travelling by boat, with three of his unsold paintings, all of which were intended for Scipione Borghese, a papal nephew who was fond of the artist and had commissioned him before. With Caravaggio was a trusted skipper, Alessandro Caramano. It was this humble boatman who would be the source of the artist’s final movements. After docking at Palo, he told authorities, a misunderstanding with the captain had resulted in Caravaggio being jailed. The boat continued to Porto Ercole, where, presumably, Caravaggio attempted to make his way in a desperate attempt to recover his paintings. The stress of his arrest, and the frantic ride to Porto Ercole in the heat of July, was more than a man in his condition could take. Heat exhaustion, or a heart attack, may have been what finally killed him.
Caravaggio had lived much of his life surrounded by poor and ordinary people. He painted for them and from their perspective. In the end he died and was buried among them, in an unmarked grave. He was 38 years old.
November 12, 2011
I grew up knowing about mistresses because my great-grandfather Stephen Adelbert Griggs, an affluent Detroit brewer and municipal politician, maintained what my mother scornfully referred to as a “love nest” occupied by a series of “fancy” women. Great-grandmother Minnie Langley had to tolerate this, but she exacted a price: for every diamond Stephen bought his latest mistress, he had to buy one for her. This was how his love nest hatched a glittering nest egg of rings, earrings, brooches and uncut gems, which Minnie bequeathed to her female descendants.
Great-grandfather Stephen walked a well-trodden path. I realized this as I matured and met real mistresses and their lovers. … Yet it was [not they] who inspired me to write about mistresses. It was while writing my book A History of Celibacy that I came to realize that mistressdom, like celibacy, is a crucial lens through which to explore how women relate to men other than in marriage; mistressdom is, in fact, an institution parallel and complementary to marriage. Even before I finished writing A History of Celibacy, I was already beginning the research for what has become Mistresses: A History of the Other Woman. [A History of Marriage is the final volume in this historical relationship trilogy.]
There were sources in abundance, including in the daily news; mistresses, it seemed, were everywhere. In 1997, for example, when prominent journalist Charles Kuralt died, Patricia Shannon, his mistress of twenty-nine years, launched a successful claim to part of his estate. In 2000, Toronto mayor Mel Lastman’s former mistress, Grace Louie, announced that he had sired her (Mel look-alike) sons, Kim and Todd. In 2001, the Reverend Jesse Jackson’s mistress, lawyer Karin Stanford, sued for child support for their two-year-old daughter, Ashley, already in utero as Jackson advised and prayed for President Bill Clinton, under attack for his relationship with intern Monica Lewinsky. (Simultaneously with prosecuting Clinton, the self-righteous Newt Gingrich was secretly pursuing a passionate relationship with Callista Bisek, whom he married after divorcing his wife, Marianne.) I began to make lists and take notes, trying to understand the nature of these relationships, the modern as well as the historic.
As in the past, today’s presidents and princes also succumb to their desires and take mistresses, though they, too, risk exposure by scandal sheets and mainstream media (unless, like French president Francois Mitterand, they were impervious to criticism and enabled by a docile press; Mitterand lived with his primary mistress, museum curator Anne Pingeot and their daughter, Mazarine, while his wife, Danielle, remained in the family home. At Mitterand’s 1996 funeral, the three mourning women stood side by side, as he would have expected.) President Dwight D. Eisenhower had a very special “friend,” the
Englishwoman Kay Sommersby. JFK dallied with many women, including film idol Marilyn Monroe. Though rivalled in prominence by the story of President Bill Clinton and unforgettable White House intern Monica Lewinsky, the longest-running scandal belongs to England’s Prince Charles. When I began my book, he was in disgrace. Years later, widowed and remarried to his long-time mistress, Camilla Parker-Bowles, his image and hers have been largely rehabilitated.
Legions of other provocative unions are replacing Charles’ and Camilla’s in the spotlight. Champion golfer Tiger Woods’ multitudinous sexual partners included only one, Rachel Uchitel, whom he treated as a mistress rather than a casual fling. But politicians in a steady and adulterous stream have mistresses, and often media “scoops” are the first inkling their wives have that their husbands have been betraying them.
US presidential hopeful and former Senator John Edwards ignored his fear that “Falling in love with you could really fuck up my plans for becoming President” and capitulated to his passion for Rielle Hunter, who likened it to a “magnetic force.” Edwards was prescient: their affair destroyed his career and shattered his marriage to his cancer-stricken wife Elizabeth Edwards. It also produced a daughter, Quinn.
So did New York Congressman Vito Fossella Jr.’s affair with Laura Fay, a retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel; Natalie was three years old when Fossella incurred a DUI charge while on his way to visit his mistress and their daughter.
Congressman Mark Souder, an evangelical Christian, resigned in 2010, repentant (he said) for having “sinned against God, my wife and my family by having a mutual relationship with a part-time member of my staff.” Ironically, he and his married mistress, Tracy Meadows Jackson recorded a web video urging youth to abstain from sex “until in a committed, faithful relationship.”
Governor Mark Sanford, caught out in adultery, admitted his infidelity to wife Jenny with his Argentinean mistress and “soul mate,” Maria Belen Chapur. But he could not give her up. The scandal escalated, he resigned and Jenny divorced him. Afterward, Sanford continued to pursue his relationship with Chapur.
California State Assemblyman Mike Duvall, winner of an Ethics in America award, was a more cavalier lover forced to resign after an open microphone broadcast him bragging that “I’ve been getting into spanking her [one of his two mistresses]. I like it.”
British radio and television presenter Jonathan Dimbleby’s brief affair with his dying mistress was the most dramatic and obsessive, and it destroyed his until-then happy marriage of thirty-five years. In May 2003, Dimbleby interviewed the magnificent soprano Susan Chilcott, found her enchanting and began to sleep with her. Days later, Susan was diagnosed with terminal metastasized breast cancer. Against her anguished pleas that her very new lover consider his own well-being and not ruin his life for her, Dimbleby vowed to care for her until she died, and moved in with her and her little son. “I still do not adequately understand the intensity of passion and pity that animated my decision,” he said later.
It felt like an unstoppable force. I knew what I was doing but I didn’t know what the outcome would be. It was odd, but I didn’t want to be away from Bel either – I felt absolutely torn. But I was entranced; and then of course we didn’t know how long she had – it might have been a few weeks or months or it might have been a few years. It was a very powerful, overwhelming experience and also a kind of test.
Part of that test was watching Susan’s last public performance, playing Desdemona and, garbed in white linen, singing sorrowfully, her voice rising to a crescendo, “Ch’io viva ancor, ch’io viva ancor!” (Let me live longer, let me live longer!)
Less than three months later, Susan died and Bel Mooney, Jonathan’s wife, waited for her husband to return home to her and say, “That madness is over, let us pick up the threads of our life again.” He did not, Bel moved out and on, and their tattered marriage unravelled into divorce. Susan Chilcott and Jonathan Dimbleby’s love affair was fleeting and fuelled as much by her impending death as by passion. Push back its timing to an earlier century or set it on the stage of a romantic tragedy and it looks exactly as it did at the end of the 20th century, in cosmopolitan England.
After years of research, what interested me was the structure and common denominators of the relationships between men and their mistresses, especially how mistressdom reflects the nature of marriage and male-female relations in different eras and cultures. After much deliberation, I decided to frame my exploration of mistressdom through the perspective of individual mistresses whose experiences tell the story of men and women’s relationships in their society. By grouping these women into categories that reflect different cultures and historical periods, I could present their unique circumstances while also drawing conclusions about their society’s versions of what a mistress was and how its men and women lived together. The result of this approach to my material was that I titled my book Mistresses: a History of the Other Woman.
Mistressdom is inextricably linked with marriage, human society’s most fundamental institution, and almost automatically implies marital infidelity, sometimes by the husband, sometimes by the wife. Indeed, marriage is a key element in determining who is a mistress and who is not. Though many people assume that adultery undermines marriage, many others believe that, paradoxically, it shores marriage up. Frenchmen, for example, can justify the cinq à sept, the after-office-hours rendezvous a man enjoys with his mistress, by quoting French writer Alexandre Dumas’s pithy observation: “The chains of marriage are so heavy that it often takes two people to carry them, and sometimes three.”
This association between marriage and mistressdom, and also Eastern concubinage, extends through time and place, and is deeply ingrained in almost every major culture. British multibillionaire Sir Jimmy Goldsmith, who died surrounded by wife, ex-wives and mistresses, commented famously that “when a man marries his mistress, he creates an automatic job vacancy.” Not surprisingly, Western models are more familiar to North Americans than those of the Eastern world, with their different and more elaborate versions, notably institutionalized concubinage and harems.
The unbreachable chasms of class and caste have also created mistresses who might otherwise have been wives. Saint Augustine, the 4th-century bishop of Hippo, subscribed to his North African society’s proscription against marrying below one’s class, and so he lived with the lower-ranked woman he loved as his concubine. When he decided to marry, his mother found a suitably well-born girl.
Caste determined by nationality, race or religion can also relegate women to the lower status of mistress. Xenophobic ancient Greece, for instance, forbade its citizens to marry foreigners, so the Athenian leader Pericles could never marry Aspasia, his beloved Miletian concubine and the mother of his son.
In many Eastern cultures, concubinage was integral rather than peripheral or parallel to marriage, and concubines’ duties and rights were spelled out in the law or in social custom. Concubines frequently lived in their master’s house, under the same roof with his wife and other concubines. In modest homes, a concubine or two assisted the wife in her daily chores. Concubines were bound by wife-like sexual obligations, including fidelity, and confined to the same domestic sphere. There were excellent reasons for this. In sharp contrast to Western mistresses, one of the principal duties of most Eastern concubines was to bear their masters’ heirs.
In a few countries, notably imperial China and Turkey, some royals, aristocrats and men of privilege displayed their wealth and power by maintaining harems of concubines, often captured or purchased. Their crowded, eunuch-run harems were turbulent communities where intrigue, competition and conflict—to say nothing of children—proliferated. Older and less-favored harem concubines were drudges consigned to household labor. Their still hopeful younger colleagues filled their empty days with meticulous grooming and plotting, with and against eunuchs, wives, relatives, children, servants and each other. Their goal was to spend a night with their harem’s owner and, if they were extraordinarily lucky, to conceive the child who could catapult his mother from obscurity into a life of privilege and perhaps even power.
In stark contrast, the laws of Western societies have almost always reinforced the primacy of marriage by bastardizing the offspring of mistresses, from the lowest-born slave to the highest-ranked duchess. Legally and culturally, fathers had no obligation to accept responsibility for their natural children and could condemn them to the ignominy and perils of illegitimacy. Indeed, the law often made it difficult, even for men so inclined, to recognize and provide for their “outside” children.
Yet some men defied their society’s strictures against supporting their illegitimate children. Royals such as England’s Charles II, who elevated so many of his mistresses’ sons to dukedoms that five of today’s twenty-six dukes are their descendants, assumed that their bloodlines were exalted enough to outweigh such niceties as legitimacy. Commoners driven by personal passions also flouted their society’s values. A few slave owners, for example, risked serious reprisals from their profoundly racist compatriots by acknowledging paternity of a slave mistress’s children. In the Western world, however, acknowledging bastards has always been the exception to the rule.
Today’s mistress rightly expects better treatment for any child she might have with a lover. Like her precursors, she is the bellwether for female-male relations, and her status reflects how these relations have developed. The improving condition of women, the liberalization of the laws governing families and personal relationships, and the growing acceptance of DNA tests have greatly increased the likelihood that her lover will recognize, or at least contribute to the support of, her child. (John Edwards is an egregious example of this. After requesting an aide to pinch one of Frances Quinn’s diapers for a secret DNA test to determine whether or not he was her father, he systemically denied that he could be or was the father until, irreparably tarnished by a public trail of falsehoods, he admitted paternity and sought forgiveness, especially from Elizabeth, his furious wife.) At the same time, the advent of accessible and reliable birth control and of legalized abortion has substantially diminished the number of those children a mistress is likely to have.
And yet, like Rielle Hunter, mistresses do have children with their lovers. Some, like Karin Stanford, have to do battle for their children’s rights. Others, like François Mitterand and Vito Fossella, Jr. offer secret financial support. But even these cooperative fathers cannot guarantee that their legitimate children will take kindly to their “outside” siblings. Ashley Stanford-Jackson’s mother complains publicly that her daughter’s siblings have no interest in her. And Mitterrand’s son, Jean-Christophe, snubbed Mazarine in the hospital where both were visiting their father. “As long as my father doesn’t speak of this young woman, for me she doesn’t exist,” he told friends. When she was thirty-four years old, Mazarine assumed the legal surname of Pingeot-Mitterrand, explaining “For nineteen years I was nobody’s daughter, but I’ve finally decided to add my father’s name to my identity papers.”
An even more extraordinary case was that of African-American Essie Mae Washington-Williams, daughter of sixteen-year-old domestic Carrie Butler and her employer’s twenty-two-year-old son, Strom Thurmond, a politician who died, still in public office, aged one hundred, and was notorious for his relentless advocacy of racial segregation. “There’s not enough troops in the army to force the Southern people to break down segregation and admit the nigra race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches,” he thundered. “He became an outright racist, cloaked in the ancient doctrine of states’ rights,” Essie Mae recalled. He sounded “like the ghost of Adolph Hitler.”
But in private, Thurmond offered financial support and was keenly interested in and proud of his bi-racial daughter. They first met when Essie Mae was a teenager, when she and her mother visited his office. “He never called my mother by her first name. He didn’t verbally acknowledge that I was his child. He didn’t ask when I was leaving and didn’t invite me to come back. It was like an audience with an important man, a job interview, but not a reunion with a father,” Williams wrote. Yet she left it convinced that her mother’s relationship with Thurmond was ongoing and that they cared for each other.
At Thurmond’s recommendation, Essie Mae attended an all-black college now known as South Carolina State University. He paid her tuition and arranged occasional visits in the privacy of the office of the college President, who must have guessed at or known the nature of their relationship. So did Thurmond’s sister, Mary Tompkins, whom he delegated at least once to bring money to Essie Mae.
Yet Essie Mae never revealed her father’s identity. “It’s not that Strom Thurmond ever swore me to secrecy. He never swore me to anything. He trusted me, and I respected him, and we loved each other in our deeply repressed ways, and that was our social contract,” she wrote.
Thurmond died in 2003 and only then, in Dear Senator: A Memoir by the Daughter of Strom Thurmond, did Essie Mae disclose what Thurmond’s colleagues and friends had long suspected. The Thurmond family publicly confirmed her paternity and spoke of her right to know her heritage. (It helped that she had no interest in suing for a share of her father’s estate – her moral and legal right.) Her half-brother, Strom Thurmond Jr., added that he was eager to get to know her. In 2004, South Carolina’s Governor Mark Sanford added her name to the list of children engraved on a public monument commemorating Thurmond. Times were changing, even in South Carolina.
Feminism, expanded women’s rights and effective and accessible birth control have altered mistressdom, its parameters and its possibilities. As sexual mores surrounding pre-marital sex have relaxed and common-law living arrangements become increasingly the norm, the line between mistress and girlfriend has blurred. In many cases today, the answer must lie in the partners’ perception of their status and, to a certain extent, in society’s. Modern mistresses are less likely than their forbears to be married or to depend financially on their lovers. Today’s mistresses fall in love, usually with married men unwilling to divorce and regularize the relationship. The only alternative to breaking up is to reconcile themselves to an illicit relationship. But often these mistresses are reluctant to accept the status quo, and they hope that somehow, someday, their liaison will be legitimized through marriage, as Camilla Parker Bowles’ was.
Just as often, the love affair itself—the romance and the passion, the arousal of desire and its delirious fulfillment—is what matters. Even if guilt coexists with the excitement of sexual adventure and the challenge of defying social norms, that does not negate the bonding force of shared secrecy and the mutual trust underlying it. The relationship’s forbidden dimension also affects its balance of power, which is in part controlled by the unmarried mistress’s restraint and discretion. Though it forces on her considerable free time, especially during traditional holidays, it also liberates her from wifely domesticity into the mode and mystique of showing only her best face and her best behavior. The relationship may also feel or actually be egalitarian, with both partners bringing to it what they can and taking from it what they want.
Émilie du Châtelet, Voltaire’s mistress, was … uncommonly intelligent and uncommonly well educated, and she became the mistress of a celebrated philosopher. Émilie was the child of an enlightened era, and her lover was a progressive thinker. … As her formidable intellect matured, she focused on physics, literature, drama, opera and political ideas, including the startling proposition that women and men should have equal rights.
[ She married] Claude du Châtelet, colonel of a regiment, scion of a fine old family and an agreeable man twelve years her senior. Their arranged marriage was convenient and amiable, and quickly produced a daughter and a son. Émilie spent much time in Florent’s Paris townhouse, and he spent even more on garrison duty. As was quite acceptable among spouses who had already produced heirs and whose marriages were primarily family alliances in which romantic love played little or no part, Émilie took lovers. Her belief that a good wife behaved well and loyally toward her husband by allying herself only with lovers of quality and discretion was typical of her aristocratic social milieu.
When Émilie met the witty and clever Arouet de Voltaire, he was nearly forty and much sought after by women eager for the reflected glory of associating with France’s most famous writer and one of the philosophe movement’s leading lights. The philosophes were engaged in revaluating, in the light of “reason” and “rationality,” the entirety of the human experience. Besides ascertaining the truth, their objective was to compile a vast encyclopedia of human knowledge. … Much of the philosophes’ interaction took place at certain Parisian salons, where Émilie and Voltaire developed their deepening relationship.
Voltaire’s assessment of Émilie as a dynamo of energy and purpose was correct. She was fascinated by physics and the theories of Leibniz and Newton, and studied them with a discipline that put other scholars, including Voltaire, to shame. She also found time to dine with friends, attend social and artistic events and—alas!—to gamble away small (and sometimes not so small) fortunes at the gaming tables.
Émilie and Voltaire began to travel together, and in 1734 they settled down in Cirey, in her husband’s decaying family château. Florent was most cooperative about this arrangement. He would sometimes visit his wife and her lover, but he considerately slept apart from Émilie, and took his meals with his son and the tutor. Above all, he was delighted with the spectacular renovations and redecorating that the lovers undertook with money lent by Voltaire at a low rate of interest.
…She and Voltaire began a regime of study and literature that came to be known as his Cirey Period. Émilie was now Voltaire’s recognized mistress, and she conducted their affair as if it would last a lifetime. But unlike most 18th-century lovers, who resorted to subterfuge in the name of discretion, she and Voltaire cohabited. This took some managing. Whenever she was forced to spend time with her husband, she treated him with affectionate respect. In fact, Florent’s very presence belied the fact that she was actually living in sin with Voltaire, and it gave the arrangement a certain legitimacy, something all three of them desired.
Émilie, immensely disciplined and organized, established a regimen of study that focused the more disorganized Voltaire. The day began in Voltaire’s quarters, with late morning coffee and discussion. At noon, Émilie and Voltaire sometimes popped in to greet Florent as he lunched with his (and her) son and the tutor, then retreated to their separate studies to work. Sometimes they took a break, snacking and chatting before returning to their books. At nine, they met for dinner, a leisurely and well-provisioned production, and followed it with conversation, dramatic productions in their own tiny theater, and poetry readings. At midnight they dispersed again to their studies, and Émilie worked until about five in the morning. When she retired to her blue and yellow bedroom, so color-coordinated that even her dog’s basket had matching blue and yellow lining, she slept for a refreshing four hours. If she had set herself a personal deadline, she would reduce this to one hour and jolt herself awake by plunging her hands into icy water.
Under Émilie’s erudite tutelage, Voltaire assimilated (but never mastered) the principles of physics, particularly Leibniz’s and Newton’s, and incorporated them into the core of his thinking. He generously acknowledged Émilie’s influence and dedicated his Elements of Newton’s Philosophy to her. He even implied that he had been little more than her amanuensis rather than she his muse.
… Until just before her premature death, Émilie was immersed in translating and elucidating Newton’s Principia. In public as well as private, Voltaire was the first to acknowledge that his mistress was his intellectual and sexual partner and equal. He read aloud what he had written each day and eagerly welcomed her critiques and suggestions. Her keen mind convinced him that women could do everything men could. In a letter to a friend, Voltaire paid Émilie the ultimate compliment: “I [cannot] live without that lady whom I look upon as a great man and as a most solid and respectable friend. She understands Newton; she despises superstition, in short she makes me happy.”
Émilie du Châtelet’s story is an edifying narrative of purpose fulfilled, love reciprocated and passion (usually) requited. The constraints on her—principally the refusal to publish her memoirs, though her translations of men’s works were rushed into print—burdened all women. Even at the time, Émilie and her contemporaries knew that her status as Voltaire’s mistress rather than her genius guaranteed her a significant place in history.
Émilie’s alliance with Voltaire was widely known. Voltaire went out of his way to acknowledge her enormous contributions to his work, and in his private correspondence with Europe’s leading thinkers, he reiterated how greatly he was in Émilie’s debt.
December 20, 1860
South Carolina’s Secession Convention was called to order in Columbia on the 17th. For some delegates, this was a moment reached after a forty day sprint, and for others after a trek three decades in length, but all had come to proclaim their liberty and to sire a new nation, and the air was filled with promise and glory. “To dare! And again to dare! And without end to dare,” said the president of the convention, the scholar-planter D.F. Jamison, invoking the noble Danton’s defiance of the enemies of France. Inspired by his words, the convention then took as its first order of business the question of whether if it might dare move itself to Charleston. An outbreak of smallpox had erupted concurrently with the arrival of the delegates. Rumor had it that abolitionists had contaminated a box of rags with the disease in an effort to decapitate the rebellion, and many delegates thought it would be prudent to hightail the convention to Charleston on the four o’clock train. No, protested the longtime fire-eater William Porcher Miles, his voice acquiring the tone of a keyless bridegroom confronting a locked bed chamber on his wedding night. “We must not allow mockers to say that we were prepared to face a world in arms, but that we ran away from the smallpox.” The suitably chagrined delegates then voted unanimously to promise they would consider secession just as soon as they got to Charleston, but for now there was the matter of that train.
After being greeted in smallpoxless Charleston with applause, band music and a fifteen-gun salute, the delegates invested two days in procedures. Shortly after one o’clock on the 20th, however, the critical vote was cast, and by unanimous decision, South Carolina declared its independence. On the streets, delirium prevailed. As the bells of St. Michael’s Church pealed, the taverns disgorged their roisterers, who sang and marched and shot rockets into the air.
In the evening, a more solemn celebration was held. At 6:30, the members of the convention marched in ceremonious procession to the venerable Institute Hall, Jamieson at their head. He carried the official Secession Ordinance, a 23 inch by 28 inch rectangle of thick linen parchment which had been inscribed with the statement of dissolution and stamped with the great silver Seal of the State of South Carolina. As the procession entered the hall, a crowd of 3000 shouted and whistled its approval. Reverend John Bachman then blessed the proceedings, and the delegates were summoned forward, alphabetically by election district, to sign the document. It took about to hours for all 169 delegates to affix their names.
Ninety percent of these men are slave owners. Sixty percent of them own at least twenty slaves. Forty percent of them own at least fifty. Sixteen percent of them own a hundred slaves or more.
The final delegate to sign was the former governor, John Laurence Manning. Like Moses holding the tablets of Decalogue, Manning lifted the Ordinance above his head. Flanked by two palmetto trees, he was joined in this tableau by Jamieson, who proclaimed South Carolina to be an independent commonwealth. The members of the crowd cheered and cheered, and once the proceeding adjourned, pressed forward. Searching for souvenirs of the great moment, they began stripping the palmettos of their razor-sharp fronds, which they then waved about their heads like Napoleon’s mamelukes as they surged from the auditorium and waded into the pandemonium of the streets.
In Washington, a mood far more somber prevailed. The holiday season, normally an occasion for gaiety, has acquired a distinctly gloomy cast. Friends of decades’ standing now find themselves on opposite sides; men and women whose fathers stood with Washington on the battlefields of the revolution cannot bear to meet one another’s eye. Northerners visit only Northerners, and Southerners the same; and even at those occasions, the mood is heavy.
There was one party, however, that would not be postponed, that of the wedding of John Bouligny, the popular Congressman from Louisiana and one of the very few officials from the deep South who opposed secession, to Mary Parker, daughter of Washington’s wealthiest grocer. The bride’s father had produced a magnificent spectacle, filling his large home with roses and lilies and illuminated fountains. The president came, joined by his niece Harriet Lane, and was the first to kiss the bride. It was a happy event in a beautiful setting, reminiscent of so many other happy events and beautiful settings the president had enjoyed in his younger days as a diplomat in Russia and Great Britain. But soon the mood was broken by a commotion instigated by the entrance of Lawrence Keitt, the brash, bombastic, recently resigned congressman of South Carolina. Jumping, bellowing, waving a piece of paper over his head, he shouted “Thank God!” again and again. Finally he elaborated. “South Carolina has succeeded! Here’s the telegram! I feel like a boy let out of school.”
When eyes at last left the jubilant Keitt, they fell on Buchanan, his face ashen, who slumped in his chair as though he had been struck. “Madam,” he at last said, “might I beg you to have my carriage called?” And with that he returned to the White House, to resume his time on the rack.
I don’t know much about the First World War. I know about Ypres and the Somme, and that it was started with Gavrilo Princip’s assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand… but the details are sketchy and vague… my knowledge of The Great War is a fraction of what I know about The Second World War.
The Second World War is generally considered somehow more exciting. It’s certainly more cinematic; there are hundreds of films set during WWII, and hundreds more that feature Nazis as the villains. I suspect this is largely because the Nazis are easily identifiable villains locked in a clear battle between good and evil. The Waffen SS— literally Nazi death squads— wore, as well as the black uniforms with sinister slashes of red on the left arm, skull and crossbones on their uniform in an almost comical caricature of villainy.
The start of WWII is also easier to understand. Although a lot of Hitler’s military actions were driven by the desire for revenge over the terms of the German’s surrender and Treaty of Versailles at the end of WWI, put simply the Nazis invaded Poland, Britain declared war on the Nazis, and every country in Europe (aside from Ireland and Switzerland) picked a side. Once the party was in full swing the US turned up fashionably late, just in time to inject new life into proceedings.
Although a lot of British people still don’t like to accept it, the Allies would have lost the war without American intervention. Without their troops, funding, or munitions we would have run out long before the end and we wouldn’t have been able to keep mass producing the Spitfires and Hurricanes that won the Battle of Britain.
The high involvement of the US in WWII probably explains the high ratio of Second World War to First World War films. The U.S contribution to WWI was vital, but their role always seems less prominent. They were also much more reluctant to get involved the first time around. Although these days American foreign policy has ramifications on a global scale, under Woodrow Wilson the U.S government followed a policy of isolationism. Essentially this made their foreign policy ‘well, that’s not our problem…’
I feel quite guilty about my WWI knowledge gap, particularly given the vast amount of time— in and out of school— I’ve spent learning about WWII. I’ve been to Nuremburg, seen the sight of the Munich putsch, and I’ve been inside the attic that Anne Frank hid in. I’ve spent hours at the Imperial War Museum marvelling at Spitfires, and recreations of the trenches.
I watch a lot of documentaries. I’ve seen one about a man who broke into Auschwitz and survived. He still has nightmares some sixty years later. I’ve seen a documentary about four Jewish men who escaped by stealing SS uniforms, equipment, guns, and a car. It was one of the most brilliant things I’ve ever seen.
War is a terrible thing, but it unites and brings out the best in people. Whilst the Nazis were displaying the absolute worst humanity was capable of, so many in the Allied forces were demonstrating the absolute brilliance humanity was capable of.
That brilliance lives on, even today in the 21st century. There aren’t many left, but those who are meet up occasionally— men from both sides. One of the best things I’ve ever seen is a wheelchair bound ninety-four year old Englishman called Henry Allingham sitting in a room with a ninety-four year old German man sharing memories of the war. At one point they realized they were both fighting in the same battle, firing shots across no-man’s land at each other. And they both laughed; they found it hysterically funny, and joked that neither of them could have been much good with their weapons.
They laid a wreath together at a local war memorial to remember the fallen. I’m sure that even if Henry had the mobility to dance he wouldn’t have danced to the deaths of the German’s former comrades. I’m fairly confident that when the Allies finally won the war Henry danced to the end of the war, not celebrating the end of people’s lives… revelling in the end of the suffering, rather than the thought of it.
We have Remembrance Day in Britain primarily to remember those who sacrificed themselves in the World Wars. There are very few towns in the country that don’t have memorials to those who died. Some are bigger than others. In the village where my parents live there’s a very small plaque and although there are fifteen different Christian names, there are only four different surnames. The majority of the names are from the First World War.
The guns fell silent across no man’s land twice during that war— once on Christmas day when the two sides played a game of football, and for a final time at eleven a.m on the eleventh of November 1918.
There was one surviving veteran of World War One.
He was Claude Choules, a British man who was known by his comrades as ‘Chuckles.’ He joined the Royal Navy at the age of fifteen, and served on the HMS Revenge where he personally witnessed the surrender of the German Imperial Navy.
He later transferred to the Royal Australian Navy and saw active service in the Second World War.
He died in the early hours of Thursday May 5th 2011.
And now there are none.
Shortly after writing this I learnt that Claude Choules never celebrated the Armistice, and refused to participate in memorial marches. After witnessing so much suffering and death he became a pacifist; he objected to violence and the glorification of war. I don’t really know what to make of that. I just know that it makes me feel incredibly glad that the last man standing was a good man.
One of our best.
As one of the few British writers at TNB I felt it was my duty to record the historic Royal Wedding for the site. It also helps that we have a Bank Holiday so we can all watch it, and that due to time difference I was able to sit through it without waking up at a ridiculously early time.
What I’ve done is record my observations as they popped into my head whilst watching the coverage on the BBC. Hopefully this will make you feel like you’re watching it with me… get out the good china and pour a hot cup of tea…
Woke up late— started watching just as Kate arrived. My first thoughts are: she looks very grown up, her eyebrows are quite thick, and she looks absolutely amazing. The phrase ‘lie back and think of England’ has never seemed more exciting…
A few clips of previous Royal Weddings. Kate is easily the most beautiful bride since the Queen married Phillip back in the 1950s. Incidentally the Queen has lent Kate a Cartier tiara from the 1930s…
Jesus, how long does it take to walk down an aisle? We could be done by now if they picked up the pace a bit…
The vows: William sounds like a posh actor whose name I can’t remember. This is the first time I’ve heard Kate speak— she’s terribly well spoken for a ‘commoner’…
Oh… is the ring going to fit?
This is way better than when Charles and Camilla got married. Prince Harry is wearing more gold than Mr T and William looks like an ostentatious Thunderbird…
There are trees inside Westminster Abbey. Everyone is standing and facing the bride and groom. It looks almost exactly like the end of Star Wars.
A very young man is talking about good and evil. It sounds like a very posh pep talk…
There are far too many hymns. It feels like a Christmas service. I’m not actually sure if they’re married yet or not…
The Archbishop of London addressed William and Kate from a high vantage point and talks about setting the world on fire. This is questionable advice.
Oh, it’s a metaphor…
They’ve exchanged rings so they must be married, surely…
Was slightly disappointed no-one had a reason they couldn’t be married…
Is the Queen asleep?! She’s definitely asleep! In fairness she’s hosting the reception and there won’t be a time for a nap between now and then…
The Archbishop has started talking about starting a family… that’s got to be a bit awkward for Wills and Kate in front of al those people…
I’m sure he was expecting more of a response to that ‘Amen’… tough crowd…
Interesting selection of guests. William has invited David Beckham and Elton John whilst Kate has invited the Indian couple who run the Spar in her village…
A Holy man keeps begging for mercy… ah, the Lord’s Prayer. This is getting a bit sombre…
No response for the ‘amen’ again…
This is the first time I’ve heard Jerusalem outside of a sporting event. I fucking love Jerusalem.
Best. Fanfare. Ever… followed by an epic sweeping shot of Westminster Abbey as everyone launches into the National Anthem… This is fantastic!
God Save the Queen… It’s got be kind of weird for Kate Middleton… it’s her wedding day and everyone is singing a song about her (grand)mother-in-law…
They’re definitely married now. They’re going off to sign the register… it’s illegal to film it so everyone is just going to sing hymns until the come back…
Getting a montage of previous Royal wedding certificates… and they’re back!
There’s a wedding theme. It sounds very John Williams. Everything about this is awesome.
Prince Harry is terrible at walking slowly. He’s almost skulking…
The William and Kate— no, sorry, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge— step out to the sound of wedding bells. Lovely.
A carriage awaits— it’s from 1902 and I think it was the one the Queen used at her wedding…
A whole convoy of carriages going down the Mall… it’s like a slow motion chariot race…
They’re approaching the finish line… I think William and Kate might just win it…
They arrive to the sound of the National Anthem… it seems no-one knows what happens next…
The National Anthem plays again… Good lord, Princess Beatrice is wearing a giant pretzel for a hat!
Apparently it’s a whole hour before the traditional presentation of the bride and groom on the balcony… at least the Queen can sit down for a bit…
Now it’s just an hour of talking to people in the crowds… kids… Mexicans… Americans… Aussies… South Africans… but mostly people in plastic hats…
We have studio coverage. The historian Simon Schama is acting as a pundit. He liked the trees and the gothic vaulting…
Apparently there are five rooms in Buckingham Palace that can be opened up into one super-room. I wish I was rich…
There’s an announcement for anyone wanting to watch the snooker. Ding is playing Trump. Seriously.
The analysts are talking about the future of the monarchy whilst dancing around the phrase ‘she’s got to die eventually.’
An American girl has given one of the presenters her straw hat and is teaching him how to courtsey. This is lovely, they’re really enjoying this— no-one does this stuff better than us… Probably because we have the monopoly on gilded carriages…
There’s coverage from Kate Middleton’s home village of Bucklebury. There are about ten people there who didn’t get invited and they’re all incredibly fat.
There’s a sixty year old man wearing Kanye-esque shades!
Performance artists and incredibly camp Spaniards!
This wedding has everything!
The crowds marching on the Mall are pretty intimidating… they’re just flowing like water…
The place is packed like the front few rows of a Bon Jovi gig… I’m getting kind of bored now… Oh! Someone just peaked out of a window. Is it Princess Catherine?
There’s going to be an RAF flyover in a minute. It doesn’t get any more British than this…
It was Harry at the window apparently…
The camera is now just fixed on the window and the shadowy figures behind the net curtains…
Here they come!
The Prince and Princess are on the balcony and waving. This is brilliant, the crowd love it!
The Queen looks sooo bored. There are some kids dressed like toy soldiers.
We’re still waiting for the traditional kiss…
There it is! It’s more of a peck on the cheek, but this is Britain after all… the crowd cheer regardless…
The BBC have a presenter in the Lancaster Bomber leading the flyover. There are all kinds of technical difficulties and the presenter looks like he’s about to throw up…
There’s a second kiss! A second cheer! The planes fly over right on time… magnificent…
A second wave of more modern fighter jets in tribute to Prince William who is a pilot himself…
They head back inside, but there might be an encore…
No, that’s it. It’s all over!
Y’know what? I think these kids are going to be alright…
John Adams (George Washington’s Vice President) called it “The most insignificant office that ever invention of man contrived.” Thomas Riley Marshall (Woodrow Wilson’s Vice President) said, “Once there were two brothers. One ran away to sea, the other was elected Vice President, and nothing was ever heard of either of them again.”
It’s not nearly as bad as all that. The forty-seven guys who have held the office of Vice President of the United States are pretty fascinating, and because they’re often chosen to “balance a ticket” regionally or ideologically, they’re often nothing like the President they’re paired with. Although long gone are the days where the loser in the Presidential election became Vice President, they’re still people of ambition, political skill, and distinction, and many of them became Presidents themselves. Some didn’t even like the promotion as much; Martin Van Buren went on to call the Presidency “Anxious and toilsome probation.”
So, this President’s Day, disabuse the anxious and toilsome regard for Washington and Lincoln and celebrate the folks who, for centuries, have been one heartbeat away from the job. They did some pretty memorable things themselves.
1. In 1798, John Adams signed An Act for the Relief of Sick and Disabled Seamen, which mandated that privately employed sailors be required to purchase health care insurance.
2. Thomas Jefferson used to have jam sessions with his wife Martha and apparently scared off some of her potential suitors after they heard the two playing music together.
3. Aaron Burr believed in sexual equality and his daughter Theodosia became one of the best educated women of her generation before she was lost at sea and probably killed by pirates.
4. George Clinton had a fun plan for keeping taxes low: He confiscated the property of his political enemies to raise revenue.
5. Elbridge Gerry redrew a congressional district in Massachusetts in the shape of a salamander; hence the term, “gerrymander.”
6. Do you like Tompkins Square Park? Thank Daniel D. Tompkins.
7. John C. Calhoun was the first Vice President to resign the job. He quit in order to run for Senate where he would be an advocate for slavery and nullification.
8. Martin Van Buren was a nice guy. After Secretary of War John Eaton married his wife Peggy a little too quickly after her husband was lost at sea, all of the other cabinet wives ostracized her. Martin Van Buren went out of his way to talk to her at parties and he was the only one who did.
9. Richard Mentor Johnson took his slave Julia Chinn as his common-law wife and raised and educated their children as free people.
10. John Tyler was not buried in the United States. He was in the Confederate House of Representatives at the time of his death and was consequently buried in the Confederate States.
11. George M. Dallas served as Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to the Court of St. James, probably the awesomest job title in the world, under three Presidents.
12. While in Europe on vacation, Millard Fillmore discovered that an American journalist named Horace Greeley was imprisoned in Paris for failing to pay a debt, and Fillmore bailed him out.
13. William Rufus DeVane King was a notoriously flamboyant lifelong bachelor who Andrew Jackson referred to as “Miss Nancy” and “Aunt Fancy.”
14. Elected at age 35, John C. Breckenridge was the youngest Vice President in history. He went on to be a Confederate general in the Civil War.
15. Hannibal Hamlin, Abe Lincoln’s first Vice President, didn’t meet Abe until after they were elected.
16. Andrew Johnson’s wife taught him how to read. Andrew made all of his own clothes, however; growing up, he was indentured to a tailor.
17. Schuyler Colfax was accused of corruption and only lasted one term as Ulysses S. Grant’s Vice President; he retired to the lecture circuit and died of a heart attack in Mankato, Minnesota after stepping off a train into -30 weather.
18. Henry Wilson ran a shoe store in Massachusetts before he got into politics. He also changed his name from Jeremiah Jones Colbath after reading a book about some dude named Henry Wilson as a teenager.
19. Presidential candidate Rutherford B. Hayes hadn’t even heard of his Vice Presidential nominee, William Wheeler, until they were nominated. But as President and Vice President they became extremely good friends, and Wheeler became kind of a third wheel with Rutherford and First Lady “Lemonade” Lucy Hayes.
20. The life of Chester A. Arthur’s playboy son Alan bears a strong resemblance to the character Dickie Greenleaf in The Talented Mr. Ripley. Also, Chester may have been secretly Canadian.
21. Thomas A. Hendricks is the only Vice President (who did not also serve as President) whose portrait has appeared on U.S. paper money. He was on the $10 silver certificate of 1886.
22. In 1881, Charles Guiteau was pissed off that he wasn’t appointed Minister to France and shot President James A. Garfield in a train station. The guy who got the Minister to France gig over Guiteau was future Vice President Levi P. Morton.
23. Adlai E. Stevenson was described by friends as “windy but amusing.”
24. Garret A. Hobart cast the tie-breaking vote in the Senate to deny independence to the Philippines because he wanted to convert that country to Christianity and make it part of the United States.
25. Theodore Roosevelt was once shot in the chest before delivering a speech, but the bullet was slowed both by a glasses case and the script of the speech, and only gave Roosevelt a flesh wound. Roosevelt delivered the one-hour address with the bullet in his body and went to the hospital after he was done.
26. Charles Fairbanks’ family home growing up was a safe haven for runaway slaves.
27. James Schoolcraft Sherman was one of the early Republicans to break from Teddy Roosevelt’s progressive conservativism and form the base of the hard-right Republican party that we know today.
28. Thomas Riley Marshall not only attended a Stephen Douglas / Abraham Lincoln debate as a four-year-old, he sat on the lap of whichever man wasn’t speaking.
29. Calvin Coolidge rode a mechanical bull for “exercise.”
30. Charles G. Dawes wrote the music for Tommy Edwards’ 1958 #1 hit single “It’s All In The Game.”
31. Charles Curtis was three-eighths Native American and lived for a time on an Indian reservation while growing up.
32. John Nance Garner was FDR’s Vice President for his first two terms and fully expected to run for President after those eight years. The problem was, Roosevelt changed his mind and ran for a third term. Garner challenged him and lost.
33. Had Henry Agard Wallace been Vice President when Roosevelt died, the world might be a very different place. Wallace wouldn’t have participated in the Cold War or the Korean War, and may not have dropped the bomb on Japan.
34. Harry S Truman’s daughter Margaret was a professional singer, and Truman wrote a scathing letter to the Washington Post critic who criticized her performance. “I never met you,” Truman wrote, “But if I do you’ll need a new nose and a supporter below.”
35. 71-year-old Alben W. Barkley was the first Vice President to get hitched while in office, marrying 37-year-old Jane Hadley.
36. Richard Nixon proposed to his future wife the night he met her. She turned him down and they dated for two years before she finally said yes.
37. Lyndon B. Johnson also proposed to his future wife less than 24 hours after first meeting her. Johnson went on to have numerous affairs including one with a woman named Alice Glass that lasted over 30 years.
38. Hubert H. Humphrey caused a rift in the Democratic Party when he announced at the 1948 convention, “To those who say, that we are rushing this issue of civil rights, I say to them we are 172 years (too) late!” The Southern “States’ Rights” Democrats walked out and most of them were Republicans by the mid-1960s.
39. Spiro Agnew is famous for calling his opponents “an effete corps of impudent snobs” and “nattering nabobs of negativism.”
40. Gerald R. Ford found out at age 17 that he was adopted; he saw his biological father only twice as an adult and Ford did not think much of the guy.
41. Nelson Rockefeller has been portrayed in the movies by both Edward Norton and John Cusack (so far) and is frequently mentioned in the series Mad Men.
42. Walter Mondale has lost a statewide election in all 50 states as a nominee of a major party.
43. George H. W. Bush was the first former Director of the CIA to become either President or Vice President.
44. Dan Quayle is famous for making off-putting, confusing statements like “The holocaust was an obscene period in our nation’s history… No, not our nation’s, but in World War II. I mean, we all lived in this century. I didn’t live in this century, but in this century’s history.”
45. Al Gore’s work has won a Grammy, an Emmy, and an Oscar.
46. Dick Cheney is a distant cousin of Barack Obama. They share an ancestor in 17th century French immigrant Mareen Duvall.
47. Joe Biden overcame a lifelong stuttering problem in his twenties by reciting poetry in front of a mirror.
January 08, 2011
The British Secret Intelligence Service – popularly known as MI6 – is the oldest continuously surviving foreign intelligence-gathering organisation in the world. It was founded in October 1909 as the ‘Foreign Section’ of a new Secret Service Bureau, and over its first forty years grew from modest beginnings to a point in the early Cold War years when it had become a valued and permanent branch of the British state, established on a recognisably modern and professional basis. Although for most of this period SIS supervised British signals intelligence operations (most notably the Second World War triumphs at Bletchley Park over the German ‘Enigma’ cyphers), it is primarily a human intelligence agency. While this history traces the organisational development of SIS and its relations with government – essential aspects for an understanding of how and why it operated – its story is essentially one of people, from the brilliant and idiosyncratic first Chief, Mansfield Cumming, and his two successors, Hugh Sinclair and Stewart Menzies, to the staff of the organisation – men and women who served it across the world – and, not least, to its agents, at the sharp end of the work. It is impossible to generalise about this eclectic and cosmopolitan mix of many nationalities. They included aristocrats and factory workers, society ladies and bureaucrats, patriots and traitors. Among them were individuals of high courage, many of whom (especially during the two world wars) paid with their lives for the vital and hazardous intelligence work they did.
SIS did not emerge from a complete intelligence vacuum. For centuries British governments had covertly gathered information on an ad-hoc basis. In the seventeenth century successive English Secretaries of State assembled networks of spies when the country was particularly threatened, and from its establishment in 1782 the Foreign Office, using funding from what became known as the ‘Secret Service Vote’ or the ‘Secret Vote’, annually approved by parliament, employed a variety of clandestine means to acquire information and warning about Britain’s enemies. By the end of the nineteenth century the army and the navy, too, had intelligence-gathering branches, which processed much information acquired relatively openly by naval and military attachés posted to foreign countries. But, after the turn of the twentieth century, with foreign rivals (Germany in particular) posing a growing challenge to national interests, British policy-makers began to look beyond these unsystematic and uncoordinated methods, and, as the Foreign Office worried about the possibility of its diplomatic and consular representatives becoming caught up in (and inevitably embarrassed by) intelligence-gathering, the notion of establishing a dedicated, covert and, above all, deniable agency came to find favour.
The Secret Service Bureau, and the subsequent Secret Intelligence Service, remained publicly unacknowledged by the British government for over eighty years and was given a formal legal basis only by the Intelligence Services Act of 1994. Th e fact that a publicly available history of any sort has been commissioned, let alone one written by an independent professional historian, is an astounding development, bearing in mind the historic British legacy of secrecy and public silence about intelligence matters. It is also an extraordinary once-in-a-lifetime opportunity (and privilege) to be appointed to write this history, though I am well aware that the fact that I have been deemed suitable to undertake it may in some eyes precisely render me unsuitable to produce an independent account of SIS’s history. But of that the reader must judge.
Part of the agreement made on my appointment was that I should have utterly unrestricted access to the Service archives over its first forty years. I am absolutely confident that this has been the case and it has been an unparalleled treat to be let loose in the archive, which is an immensely rich (though in places patchy) treasure-trove of historical materials. In addition to this access, I have also been allowed to read some post-1949 materials bearing on the history of the Service. In general, the SIS attitude to archives was that they should be kept only if they served some clear operational purpose. Certainly, since no one envisaged that a professional history of any sort would be written, let alone one that might be published, there was no imperative to retain materials for historical reasons. When the Service did begin to think historically, which, from the evidence I have seen, was not much before the 1960s, a huge amount of material had already been lost.
Within SIS the practice appears to have been routinely to destroy documents once their immediate relevance or utility had passed. There is plenty of internal evidence indicating this, some of which has occasionally slipped out into the public domain. In a 1935 letter to Valentine Vivian, head of the counter-espionage Section V in SIS, Oswald ‘Jasper’ Harker of MI5 remarked, ‘An old report of yours regarding a Madame Stahl has just come to light – I enclose a copy as I believe your 1920 records have been destroyed.’ Reviewing the work of SIS in the early 1920s, one officer observed that the SIS headquarters ‘receives from its overseas branches over 13,000 different reports per annum, exclusive of correspondence about these reports and administrative matters’. He noted that ‘the mass of papers involved immediately becomes apparent’. In order to keep the volume of material under control, he added that ‘every effort is made to destroy all matter … not needed for reference’. The practice of clearing out old papers has also been powerfully stimulated by the fact that the organisation has moved house on some six occasions during the last century.
Over the years some documents were recognised as having real historical significance and were preserved. One such is the ‘Bethell letter’, from the Director of Naval Intelligence to Mansfield Cumming on 10 August 1909 inviting him to become (as it turned out) the first Chief of the Service. There has, nevertheless, been intermittent, methodical and substantial destruction of records which may, or may not, have been of historical value. But I have found no evidence that the destruction was carried out casually or maliciously, as some sort of cover-up to hide embarrassing facts about SIS’s past or whatever. The destruction has resulted more from a cultural attitude where the retention of documents in general was assessed in the light of their current (and certainly not historical) value to the Service, primarily in operational terms.
The corollary to unrestricted access to the archives has been an extremely painstaking and fastidious disclosure process. From the start (and for obvious reasons) it was laid down that the identity of any agent could not be revealed for the first time in this book. One result of this stipulation is the regrettable need (from the historian’s point of view) to omit some significant and important SIS stories, as it would not be possible to include them without providing at least circumstantial details which could potentially help identify agents. Exceptionally, however, some agents’ names do appear in the book, but each case has been subject to the most careful and rigorous disclosure criteria. Where agents have clearly named themselves (not uncommon for individuals who worked during the world wars), this has been relatively straightforward, but simply arguing that an agent’s name is ‘in the public domain’ is not in itself sufficient, as the ‘public domain’ constitutes a great range of contexts, from unsubstantiated assertions in sensationalist and evanescent publications (what might be called ‘sub-prime intelligence literature’) to serious and scholarly articles by professional historians.
What remains? Quite a lot, despite the fact that immense quantities of documents were destroyed, especially during the period covering the headquarters move from Broadway to Century House in the early 1960s. The first thing to be said, however, is that (perhaps surprisingly) the archive contains comparatively little actual intelligence. Over the 1909–49 period with which I am concerned SIS was always primarily a collection agency, responding to specific or general requests for information from customer departments, principally its parent department, the Foreign Office, and the armed service ministries. The information requested (if available) was collected and passed on to the relevant department. Little or no analysis was applied to this material within SIS, apart from some outline indication about the reliability, or otherwise, of the source. Once the raw material was passed on to the user department, they processed it and normally destroyed the original documents. Intelligence assessments were the job of the particular desk in the Foreign Office, the Directorate of Military Intelligence and so on, not of SIS.
SIS’s deployment and work, therefore, was principally defined by the priorities and perceptions of external agencies. Between the wars Soviet Communism remained the chief target, and a particular concern with naval matters in the Mediterranean and Far East clearly reflected Admiralty perceptions and intelligence requirements. During the early and mid-1930s SIS resources, in any case constrained by an acute shortage of funding, were not focused on the developing challenge of Nazi Germany as much as (admittedly with the benefit of hindsight) they might have been. Although the Service was, nevertheless, quick off the mark to report German rearmament, there was evidently little demand in London for secret intelligence about internal German political developments. There is, for example, almost nothing in the SIS archives (both for this period and during the Second World War) about the persecution of Jews generally or the Final Solution. A report from Switzerland in January 1939 is a rare exception. An SIS representative had asked an Austrian- Jewish refugee if he could supply ‘any information about people in concentration camps’. The source said that he knew a man in Geneva who had spent nine months in Dachau, ‘but he doubted whether he could get this man to talk. He said German refugees were frightened of saying anything against Germany, because European countries were riddled with Nazi agents and they feared reprisals.’
One of the things I had hoped to do in this history was find instances when I could track the process from the acquisition of a specific piece of intelligence to its actual use, but in the absence of much of the raw material I have found this quite difficult (though in some cases not impossible) to achieve. I might remark that the situation is quite different with regard to signals intelligence where a considerable volume of the raw (or rawish) product survives and can readily be used, as in Sir Harry Hinsley’s magisterial volumes, to estimate ‘its influence on strategy and operations’, as his sub-title promises. During the First World War, nevertheless, I have for example been able to trace the use of human intelligence from the ‘Dame Blanche’ organisation in occupied Belgium, as well as the ready and informative response of the German naval spy TR/16 to requests for details of German losses in the Battle of Jutland in 1916. In the mid-1930s (though it was not always taken as seriously as it should have been) SIS reporting was used to inform British assessments of German rearmament. In the Second World War, specific SIS intelligence underpinned the important Bruneval raid in February 1942 and provided early indications of the German V-weapons development programme.
But, on the whole, the story of human intelligence is not generally one of fiendishly clever master-spies, or Mata-Hari-like seductresses (though in this volume the keen-eyed reader will find one or two possible examples of these types), achieving fantastic, war-winning intelligence coups. It is more like a pointillist painting, containing tiny fragments of information, gathered by many thousands of individual men and women in circumstances fraught with danger, which need to be collected together to provide the big picture. Watchers along the Norwegian coast in the Second World War, for example, provided precious information about enemy ship movements. These individuals had to get to what were inevitably exposed situations; once there they had not only to collect their intelligence unobserved, but also to communicate it quickly back to London; and at each stage of the process the penalty for discovery was almost certain death. In both world wars, ordinary men and women in enemy-occupied Europe ran similar risks, for example train-watching, carefully logging the movements of railway trains and their cargoes and endeavouring to identify the military units they carried. We ought not to pass over in silence the astonishingly brave actions of these numberless, and for the most part nameless, people, few of whom were the kind of spies so beloved of film and fiction, but many of whom contributed to the successes of British intelligence during the first half of the twentieth century.
The material which survives in the SIS archive is more abundant on the process and administration of acquiring intelligence than on the intelligence itself. ‘Sources and methods’, the most sensitive of all aspects of intelligence work, are embedded in this material: names of officers, agents, sources, helpers, organisations, commercial companies, operational techniques, various sorts of technical expertise and the rest. While some of these no longer pose any security risk – for example there seems little danger that national security may now be jeopardised by revealing 1940s wireless technology – documents relating to agents and their activities have the potential to jeopardise them and their families even long after they may have ceased working for SIS. A typical agent file, for instance, may, without giving very much detail, note that she (or he) produced ‘much valuable intelligence’. The bulk of the documents may thereafter contain details for years afterwards of the agent’s address (say in some foreign city), pension payments and perhaps reports of visits by an SIS welfare officer, bearing a Christmas bottle of whisky or some other suitable gift. This is exactly the kind of material which the Service rightly believes can never be released.
This history, written as it were from headquarters, reflects the surviving SIS documentation upon which it is primarily based. This means that it has sometimes been difficult to recreate the personal relationships between case-officers and agents which lie at the heart of human intelligence work. Busy case-officers did not often have the time to write reflective notes on their agents’ personalities or motivations, though some hints of these fascinating matters have, happily, survived, and are included in my narrative. I have in general used memoir material very sparingly. Although often revealing on the personal side, the recollection of events and emotions, sometimes many years after, presents critical problems of interpretation and assessment for the historian, particularly in the matter of espionage and other covert activities, which are not infrequently cloaked about with a melodramatic air of secrecy, conspiracy, conjecture and invention. This is not to say that such things do not exist – indeed examples of each might be found in this book – and I have drawn on secondary sources in cases where they seem to be particularly illuminating. Nevertheless, my primary objective has been to base the narrative as closely as possible on the surviving contemporaneous documentary record. If this approach risks some loss of vividness, then it does so expressly for the purposes of historical accuracy.
As will be apparent from the reference notes, I have also had privileged access to relevant but closed documents held by other British government departments. These have been especially useful in helping place SIS in its wider bureaucratic context. With a very small number of exceptions, all other primary source materials (including some extremely valuable sources in foreign archives) are fully open to the public.
Quotations from documents in closed and open archives are reproduced exactly as originally written with the following exceptions: proper names rendered in most official papers in block capitals have been given in title case, with agent and operation code-names in quotation marks; numbering or lettering of individual paragraphs in cables and other documents has not been reproduced; in communications where names of people, places and organisations were given letter codes (‘A’, ‘B’, ‘C’ and so on), the key being transmitted separately, the correct name has been substituted for the code-letter. Queried words in deciphered messages are as in the original (for example, ‘reliable’). In a few cases punctuation has been silently adjusted for the sake of clarity. Since records from the SIS archive are not released into the public domain, no individual source references are provided to them. In this case I have followed the precedent set by past British official histories. Calculations of current value of historical sums of money are based on the Retail Price Index, as indicated in www.measuringworth.com, which has also been used for exchange-rate information.
This account of SIS’s history finishes in 1949, at a moment when the Service had moved from being a tiny, one-man outfit to a recognisably modern and professional organisation. After forty years’ existence, SIS was on the threshold of four decades when the Cold War challenge of Soviet Communism would dominate its activities. But these are matters which I leave to my successor, if there is one.
This is a continuation of a series of personal observations about my native country on its golden jubilee. For items 1-16, please see part 1. For items 17-32, see part 2. In this final installment I include a few observations I’ve culled from my father’s memoir of his life in Nigeria and abroad “Seeing the World in Black & White.” (SWBW) (AWP, 2006)¹
33. Modern Nigerian literature, ever vibrant, is certainly on the up. Young as it is Nigeria has already had an early generation of great writers, household names such as Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka, not to mention the likes of Cyprian Ekwensi, Amos Tutuola, Christopher Okigbo, Flora Nwapa, Buchi Emecheta, and even the prolific pulp novelist Dan Fulani. It’s almost too much to ask for more, but as it happens, we have much, much more with new generations exploding on to the scene, including poets Chris Abani, Uche Nduka, Olu Oguibe and lesser known contemporaries such as Chinweizu. But the real earthquake manifests in novel form, with the emergence of the likes of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Helen Oyeyemi, Sefi Atta, and Nnedi