On September 11, 1978, the Bulgarian Secret Police, assisted by the KGB, murdered defector and dissident Georgi Markov on the Waterloo Bridge in London using a mechanism that shot a ricin-filled pellet out of the tip of an umbrella. Then, in 1980, a French film, The Umbrella Coup, included the same poisonous weapon, suggesting to American audiences that real spy technology could appear not only at their corner movie theater, but, perhaps on their suburban sidewalks, as well.
August of that year saw a spectacular breakthrough in fusion energy at The Princeton Plasma Physics Lab, in Princeton, NJ. Suddenly, the possibility of supplying the entire world with cheap and virtually unlimited energy transformed every restaurant on Nassau Square and Witherspoon Street into a breeding ground for foreign agents. They were sent by the world’s governments, both large and small, to the leafy university town in order to steal whatever secrets they could.
Confirming this exodus, the New York Times published an article on its front page identifying several of the spies by name. One was Victor Louis (LOO-ee), who was a “journalist” for the London Evening News and eventually became a translator of Time Magazine, the Sunday Times of London, and the well-known American journalist, Edmund Stevens. However, Louis was most famous for having exclusive access to Kremlin secrets and purveying sensitive information the Soviet Communist Party and the KGB wanted published in the Western press.
I had never heard of him.
One late summer evening in 1980, my (then) husband, Richard, and I sat down to dinner with our art dealer, Arlene, the proprietor of a fine art gallery in Princeton, and her boyfriend, David, at Lorenzo’s, a popular steakhouse across from the Trenton train station. (This is “BR,” Before Religion: before we were kosher, before we were shomer Shabbos, and before we made “aliyah” from Princeton to Teaneck.) The lovely, dark, and elegant rooms were known to be frequented by city politicians and newsmen and, on the evening we arrived, it was packed. The only table available was a round one able to accommodate many more people than the four of us.
Although I am normally not a slow eater, that evening I took longer than everyone else to finish my dinner. Suddenly, Arlene rose to greet a giant of a man. “Victor!” she exclaimed. “What are you doing here?” He was a handsome man, in an angular sort of way, maybe in his early 50s, clad in a worn, brown tweed suit with elbow patches and pant cuffs—typical professorial garb. He trod down the aisle towards our table leading an entourage of three stout women in babushkas and a few frail-looking peasants. Standing in the aisle, Arlene proceeded to make conversation with him and then invited all of us to join her for introductions. I begged off and remained seated in order to finish my food. With their backs to me, I could not hear what transpired.
Later that evening, Richard told me that Louis had informed him that his sons had gone to Eton. This was quite surprising, for the only people in the U.S.S.R. who were permitted to attend prestigious foreign institutions were the children of the Communist political hierarchy. Suddenly, Richard recalled reading the name Victor Louis in the book, Inside the KGB. The looming man before him was none other than the number two man in the KGB, the Soviet Union’s organization acting as internal security, intelligence, and the secret police, whose members were ruthless, cold-blooded killers. If he wanted to, Victor Louis could have us eliminated at any moment as easily as he could swat a fly.
I had no idea who this man was. Then, he sat down beside me.
Arlene had taken a trip to Russia the year before, and she explained that through one of her corporate business clients she had been a guest at Victor’s beautiful villa and was privileged to have visited normally inaccessible sites. Weeks after this dinner, Arlene disclosed who had referred her to Victor Louis. It was a CEO of a major American corporation. The two men, Victor, at the head of the Russian intelligence apparatus and the other, the top executive of a huge American pharmaceutical company, had been war correspondents together in London. The CEO had put her in touch with Victor, assured her that his old, Russian friend would take care of her, and asked her to give Victor a manila envelope. A car picked up Arlene at the airport and brought her to Victor’s luxurious country estate outside of Moscow. It was a Westernized dacha that was technologically modernized, replete with an indoor swimming pool and a tennis court that became an ice skating rink. Inside was priceless art, a treasury of paintings, statues, icons, and antiquities from every corner of the world. Some of it, she said, was art no one knew—and probably would never know—existed. Before her return trip, she was given an envelope to deliver to the American CEO.
As she introduced her Russian host to me that evening, Arlene added that Victor was Jewish, like the rest of us.
It wasn’t long before Victor turned to me and asked whether or not I had any Jewish relatives in Russia. Instinctively, I remembered my mother’s admonition when I was a cocky college kid thinking I would trace my ancestry and visit unknown relatives in Russia and Poland. “Don’t you DARE interfere in other people’s lives,” she admonished. “If there are family members in Eastern Europe who survived the war, remember, they are living under Communism.” Her voice grew louder. “You have NO RIGHT to put them at risk and jeopardize their freedom or lives simply because you are curious. You do not know what consequences your inquiry could produce. Don’t EVER, EVER interfere.” Her tone was momentous, weighty, and grave.
I answered Victor’s question truthfully, as one trusting Jew to another: “Yes, I have relatives that were from Minsk, but they undoubtedly were killed. My grandmother used to write religiously to those whom she had left behind. Eventually, mail from Europe just stopped coming.”
Throughout my response, Richard was kicking me under the table, but I refused to be censored without a reason.
“If you would like to come to Russia,” Victor continued, “I could help you find your relatives who may still be living there.”
Following this, there were more kicks under the table and piercing eyes on me above the table.
“I do not think that I will ever visit Russia,” I forged ahead. “Americans are used to traveling freely, without restrictions. We like to think we get to know a country, not only its grand places and avenues, but also its people and quiet little villages. Why would I want to visit a country in which I constantly would be told that I could drive no farther than the road before me and where everyone fears to speak the truth? A country without freedom doesn’t appeal to me.”
Richard was now furiously kicking me, and Arlene and David were apoplectic. I looked at them all defiantly. All I knew was that Victor was a Russian member of the tribe.
“You have been watching too many movies,” Victor smiled. “Come to Russia. I will make sure your trip is unlike any other.”
“Victor,” I said, with the degree of patience I traditionally accord any a new acquaintance and a level of earnestness one customarily associates with those in academia, “I have studied for a Ph.D. in English under Richard S. Kennedy, one of the country’s foremost scholars of the famous poet and writer, e. e. cummings. While major American writers, such as Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein, languished at sidewalk cafes in Paris discussing literature, art, and politics, in 1931, e. e. cummings did not join them. Instead of talking, he traveled by train to Russia and, two years later, published a first-hand account of his journey using the Greek word for “I am” as his title, EIMI: The Journal of a Trip to Russia. It is a brilliant tour de force, a record of his experience being in Russia’s closed society. The travelogue begins with the word, “SHUT,” as cummings is entering Russia; it ends with the word “OPENS,” as he is leaving the country. Professor Kennedy told me that, at the time, I was one of maybe 300 people in the whole world who had read this linguistically challenging primary source, this document, and I happen to believe every word of it is true.” Richard, Arlene, and David were aghast, utterly beside themselves.
Victor puffed, “Ech! More American propaganda!”
On the way out of the restaurant later that evening, Richard told me who this giant member of the tribe was. Richard loved to tease, and I was inexperienced and guileless, the perfect gull, believing everything he said. “For the next few days,” he tortured me, “you’d better watch out for people carrying umbrellas.” And I did just that.