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Saturday, November 15, 2014

13. SERENE CITY





Autumn 1992


When I telephoned Artie Stimple, a retired CIA officer based in Germany, and told him I would travel with Clair George to Geneva, Switzerland, and we needed to see him pronto, Artie did not say what about?  He said where and when?  

Such was how CIA alumnus felt about Clair, a legend among his colleagues.

Another such former colleague inadvertently joined us aboard Swissair’s inaugural flight from Washington-Dulles to Zurich, with connection to Serene City.  

Jim Bonde (not his real name) dressed like a prosperous banker in a navy pinstripe suit and bespoke striped shirt with white collar.  Clair wore his customary navy blazer, button-down shirt and, of course, his Burberry raincoat.  I wore blue jeans and shirtsleeves.

At check-in, a Swissair employee recognized Clair and said she and her husband backed him all the way against the wicked Judge Walsh and his team of Iran-Contra persecutors.  

Bonde and I exchanged glances.  Pointing at Clair, I quipped, “That’s the last time I’m traveling with him—he’s blowing our cover!”

Clair had just emerged from his first trial, which ended in a hung jury.  It had been a harrowing, hellacious time for the former spymaster.  

Imagine serving your country faithfully for 33 years, being paid peanuts, but giving your best, earning two Distinguished Intelligence Medals, and rising to the top through pure merit.  And then having to endure a bug-eyed prosecutor stand over you for hours each weekday for three weeks, glaring at you, pointing at you, and berating you in front of your friends and family and a pack of media hounds as a liar and a traitor.

Swissair celebrated their maiden flight from Washington by cracking open champagne and handing out gifts:  mini Swiss Army Knives and travel alarm clocks (made in Japan)—to the thirty or so passengers aboard the jumbo jet.

As I sat sipping bubbly, looking at Manhattan lit up two miles below me, I thought, Gee, I could do this all night, all around the world.

We cruised smoothly into Boston, a quick stop, intensifying my contentment on my way to Switzerland with former CIA luminaries.

In Zurich, with a half-hour to kill between flights, Clair and I found a cafĂ© for hot chocolate; Bonde dashed off to a phone. 

Clair rolled his eyes.  “He always has to make a call.  And he’s one of these guys who can’t stay in the same place for more than five days without growing restless.”

Bonde and Clair had been neighbors and rivals at the agency, vying for promotion within its ranks.  Once Clair was firmly on track to win the top job, Bonde quit in 1980 to work for a wealthy Libyan self-exiled from his country.  

“Bill Casey could never understand that,” Clair told me.  

Ever since, Bonde had been enjoying the high-life, and rubbing it in.  Clair added that CIA frowns on employees that leave at the peak of their careers to become high-priced private consultants.

The short flight to Geneva was perhaps the most graceful I’d ever flown, with sweeping views of Berne, Montreux, Lausanne and Lake Lemann.  And then Geneva came into view, its landmark fountain, the Jetto, shooting its spray toward us.

Clair and I had to wait for our bags; Bonde, who’d carried his, scurried off to a telephone and to get his BMW.  As we drove into town, Bonde regaled us with stories, the first couple dealing with his wealthy Libyan client, climaxing each story with a high-pitched giggle.

Bonde dropped us at Le Richemond, a clubby, comfortable hotel near Lake Lemann, and much later returned to initiate us into Serene City.  If you want to see a foreign city, do it with a former CIA chief of station.

We zipped into Hotel Des Bergues, to its “spy bar,” so-called (by Bonde) for its seven ways to get in and out.  “A spy must have as many exits as possible in any situation,” said Bonde, before dashing out to use a telephone.

I could have sat sipping nutty Swiss white wine through the evening in this bar, but Bonde, rebounding, had other plans. We climbed into his bimmer and roared out of town—to nearby Cologny and Le Cheval Blanc, the finest eaterie in the area.

En route, Bonde bitched about what CIA had become.  

“The goddam shop is more interested in having meetings on sexual discrimination than collecting intelligence,” he moaned.  “When I was station chief here, a female spy arrived for duty, and she bold-faced asked me if I was partial to discriminatory practices.  And I told her, ‘I don’t give a f--- if you’re male or female, black, white yellow or purple—all I care about is scalps.  You get scalps, you get commended, period.’”  Bonde eructed another high-pitched giggle.

Le Cheval Blanc’s walls are lined with museum-quality handsomely framed and lighted paintings.  Over a fabulous filet of sole and rich chocolate cake, Bonde related Cold War espionage tales.  It didn’t matter that I was listening; I was with Clair George, and anyone with Clair was okay, part of The Net.

Returning to central Geneva, Bonde parked in front of Maxim’s.  “Time for a little treat.”

We tumbled downstairs to the swank club’s bar.

Bonde ordered champagne.  “The good stuff,” he whispered to the bartender.

It was not yet midnight; the bar was empty apart from a handful of scantily-dressed young women floating around.

“Let’s invite them over,” said Bonde.

“Let’s not,” I said.

But they ambled over to us.

Neither Ludmila nor Svetlana spoke much English.  They were Russian, part of the floorshow.  All the dancers at Maxim’s were Russian, they told us—most of them looking for a door into the USA.

Ludmila, a blonde, tried to snuggle close to Clair, dropped her hand to his knee.  Clair sat there, indifferent, nonchalant, sipping champagne, basking in the incongruity of it all.  We were a long way from sleepy Bethesda.

“Jeez, we really did win the Cold War,” I whispered to Bonde.

“It’s what you call the spoils of war, my son,” said Bonde.  “And since I fought it, I get to enjoy it the most.”  Bonde giggled—and ordered a second bottle of the good stuff.

Ludmila massaged Clair’s knees.

“Repeat after me,” said Clair.  “I love CIA.”

Both Russian beauties bleated over and over again, “I love CIA,” and Bonde howled with laughter.

Svetlana excused herself, and moments later appeared onstage, solo.  She danced sensually with the agility of a gymnast—a kind of belly dancer-meets limbo rock number, clad only in a bikini brief.

“They ask a thousand francs,” whispered Bonde.  “But you can have them for five hundred—or two for the price of one.”

A soon as she finished her erotic dance, Svetlana reappeared at my side.

“That was amazing,” I said.  It truly was.

Svetlana blushed.  “You like?”

“Hard not to like.  You’re a swell dancer.”

Svetlana told me that she trained as a trapeze artist; that she’d been doing acrobatics since the age of five.  Then she whispered to Ludmila about how they might get Clair and me to invite them to the USA, where they could become famous dancers.

But Clair was done.  He called it a night and quickly departed.  (Clair had but one love in his life, his wife, Mary—and before Mary, his mother, who, now quite elderly, lived a half mile from her son.  It wasn’t unusual for me to run into Clair helping his mother shop at Giant supermarket in Westbard Shopping Center.)

I stuck around with Bonde and listened to his stories, one about taxi drivers in Serene City.

“You know how, in Hollywood, taxi drivers and waiters are all aspiring actors?  In Geneva, everyone is an aspiring banker.  Every goddam one of them has a financial deal they’re begging to pitch at anyone who’ll listen.   Take my barber.  One day I’m getting my hair trimmed, and he says to me, ‘I got someone I want you to meet—it’s big, really big.’  And I say, ‘I don’t want to meet anyone, I know enough people.’  Later I find out it was Ghorbanifar, that goddam Iranian.  Richard Secord got to meet him instead.”  Bonde ripped into another high-pitched giggle.  “Let me tell you, I know more things by accident than most people know on purpose.”

That line stuck with me ever since.

Sometime past 2:30, I begged off, body and soul scrambled by trans-Atlantic travel and fatigue; Svetlana’d and Bonded.  

Tired as I was, I could not find a comfort zone, but listened to a ticking clock—3:30.  4:15. 4:50. A new day would appear before I could tie up the old one.
I phoned Clair’s room at 8:30 and awakened him from deep slumber.  When we met half-an-hour later on the verandah, I greeted him with Time magazine, which had just published a full-page article about him and Iran-Contra.

“Uh-oh,” was all he said.

Time reported that Clair had returned home from a vacation in Maine.  Little did anyone know that he was sitting with me in Geneva, about to consult with a billionaire countess.

At 11:20, our Mercedes taxi stood waiting. I climbed in first.  Then Clair.  

Brrrrrrrrrrraaaap!  

Clair looked at me sheepishly.  Too much champagne the night before?  No.  His business suit pants had split at the crotch.

“You want to carry on without me?” he asked.

“No, I’ll wait.”

Clair returned to his room, emerged eight minutes later in a blazer and khakis.

It always boggled my mind how Clair always found whatever he needed from the small travel bag he carried on trips.  I eventually called it The Magic Bag because it seemed bottomless.

Our driver whisked us to the office of a colorless individual I dubbed the Gray Fiduciary—every billionaire needs one.  

It was apparent within thirty seconds of joining the countess and her fiduciary that the assignment was a given; a decision had already been made to retain our services.

We made the deal:  three grand a week plus expenses.  

The Gray Fiduciary provided his fax number for invoicing; he had already wired twelve-and-a-half grand to cover the cost of our presence in Serene City.

We left the fiduciary, and the countess joined us at Le Richemond with her cousin, Bruno.  Our morning session confirmed the business transaction.  Now we moved onto substantive issues.

The countess elucidated us with further detail about her ex-son-in-law, Baron von Biggleswurm.  He had met her daughter, Lara, at a party in St. Moritz, where the count and countess owned a chalet.  They had not liked the baron from the start; the count considered him St. Moritz’s village idiot.  The baron then wooed Lara by mail for two years, recognizing, said the countess, that she was one of Europe’s wealthiest and most eligible bachelorettes.  When Lara finally agreed to meet him again, Biggleswurm postured himself as a struggling cellist in need of a benefactor.  She came to his aid by organizing a concert appearance for him, renting a hall and underwriting the advertising.  Seven persons showed up, one of them, a critic, who panned his performance.

And then she fell in love with the baron.  

Her parents and all her friends begged her to recognize that Biggleswurm was a gold-digger.  Despite their pleas, she wed the baron. (The count and countess boycotted the wedding, which took place in Paris)  

Within a year, Lara became pregnant with their son.

The marriage turned sour almost immediately; the baron’s charms and affection switched off.  His wife stuck with it, embarrassed that her parents had been right all along, but finally, after suffering more than enough, she fled and filed for divorce.

Biggleswurm quickly ran through his pay-off and henceforth used the boy as a weapon to gouge more.

The countess provided us with full names, birthdates, addresses, and other details.  Her only stipulation was that we were to work around her daughter, who, she insisted must know nothing of our mission.  Lara apparently considered the predicament her own problem, her own mistake, and did not want her mother meddling into her affairs.  She would, we were told, become angry if she knew the countess had retained us.  

“It’s a pride thing,” said the countess.  “We were right all along about Biggleswurm and she knows it.  She doesn’t want to be humiliated any further.”

Cousin Bruno seemed to have other ideas.  “Lara needs a man,” 

Clair and I exchanged glances, like, is this part of the assignment?

We saw them to the door, watched them revolve onto the street, and took off other direction for some fresh air.  

With little sleep, fatigue had cut in big-time, my brain unwilling to connect with my mouth.  A solution occurred to me:  McDonald’s.  (Nothing like a belly full of grease to get you up and running.)

We pigged out on scrumptious Big Macs and french fries and milk shakes, relishing every bite, every slurp.

Afterwards, we took a long lakeside walk, followed by a stroll around the old town, stopping at J. Weston, a high-class shoe store to inspect its window display.  I pointed out a pair of black crocodile monk strap shoes to Clair, and converted the price:  $1700.  He almost choked.

Then back to Le Richemond—and Artie Stimple.

Artie arrived punctually.  He, Clair and I sat in a detached part of the verandah away from prying ears, and I laid out the assignment.  Clair listened quietly; Artie nodded his head and scribbled notes.

Artie’s mission:  to visit the village of Biggleswurm in northern Germany and dig up intelligence on Baron von Biggleswurm.

Business concluded, Artie departed, replaced by Jim Bonde.

After ensuring it was okay with me, Clair told him the name of our new client

Bonde whistled softly.  “An introduction like that is worth a million dollars,” he said.

Clair continued on with a slow, rambling description of our assignment, concluding with Bruno’s suggestion that Lara needed a man.

“And that’s where you come in,” Clair eased into his deadpan punch line, which was so very Clair.  “We’re going to marry you into the Bossi fortune!”

Dining on perch at a lakeside restaurant, Bonde reeled off more Cold War stories, with Clair jumping in, and I could only sit back in awe.

When serving in Yemen, Bonde awakened to find his house completely surrounded by tribesmen on horseback.  Their leader turned out to be from Brooklyn, had come to Yemen years earlier to take over the tribe, and, feeling an affinity for Bonde, offered his army for hire:  for the right price, they’d take on whomever the CIA wanted them to fight.

The real story wasn’t today’s CIA, which, listening to them, one would believe had been over-bureaucratized and emasculated.  The story was Clair’s Net:  a worldwide network of former operations officers, many of whom had run large stations—first generation spooks, the smartest of their generation, who had been wined and dined and wooed in style to join the agency, and who looked back in dismay at what their old shop had become.



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