March 24, 2011 —
How well do you keep a secret? When your best friend tells you something in confidence, do you tell your husband and no-one else? Do you tell a small circle of friends and hope they’ll keep it in the circle? In my experience, keeping a secret that doesn’t involve our personal safety is rare and difficult.
So I was surprised to learn my best friend kept a secret about another friend for almost 50 years. I will be sure to trust her with my future secrets, as I have in the past. A mutual friend’s mother died last month and when I was told, all my friend the secret-keeper would say was “You’ll read about it in the Times.”
She was right. On the morning of the shiva, a prominent editorial obituary appeared on my breakfast table. It featured a photograph of a woman bearing a striking resemblance to our friend, in 1940s dress and handcuffs being escorted by Federal agents. Her story was straight out of a John LeCarré novel.
When my friend’s mother was a young woman in the post World War II era, a lot of intellectuals were curious about the different political movements taking shape in places like Russia. A Barnard graduate with a record of achievement and a good-citizenship award from high school, she had a job as a political analyst for the Justice Department. Although she never discussed her history with her daughter, her obituary in the Times says she fell in love with a Soviet agent after meeting him at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan, a famous hangout for “intellectuals” then and now. She always maintained her innocence, saying her only crime was “that I knew a Russian.”
In a sting worthy of “The French Connection,” she was found with government documents in the company of her Russian friend and arrested for espionage under the Third Avenue elevated train in Manhattan in the spring of 1949. She remained free on bail until her conviction was overturned in 1952 because the arrest was conducted without a proper search warrant. While her appeals were pending, she married her lawyer, our friend’s father. They remained married at her death, having raised four children in relative obscurity in a Brooklyn brownstone.
The stigma of her arrest followed her and her family, however. Although she did not discuss her history with her children, the parents of her children’s friends were not always so discreet. I never knew the extent of her family’s secret, but I knew there was one.
In an era of reality shows and all-too-public public personalities, keeping a secret like this one may be hard to imagine. My grandfather retired from the Air Force as a captain. He was an intelligence officer in World War II, which delighted my brother and me when we learned of it as teenagers during the Cold War. “Grandpa was a spy!” we chanted gleefully to our mother’s chagrin. He would neither confirm nor deny this assertion when confronted, but I always thought I detected a glint in his blue eyes when we pressed him for the truth. He, of course, was on the right side of the spy game if he was, and thus stigma-free. As far as I know, he went to his grave carrying secrets only his priest and his commanding officers were privy to. How many of us could say the same?