Books postsThursday April 09, 2015
Harvey's Ladies' and Gentlemen's Oyster Saloon
Here's a nice section from Ben Macintyre's “A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal”:
Harvey's Ladies' and Gentlemen's Oyster Saloon started serving steamed oysters, broiled lobster, and crab imperial in 1820 and had continued to do so, in colossal quantities, ever since. In 1863, notwithstanding the Civil War, Harvey’s diners were getting through five hundred wagonloads of oysters a week. Every president since Ulysses S. Grant had dined there, and the restaurant enjoyed an unrivaled reputation as the place to be seen for people of power and influence. The black waiters in pressed white uniforms were discreet, the martinis potent, the napkins stiff as cardboard, and the tables spaced far enough apart to ensure privacy for the most secret conversations. Ladies entered by a separate entrance and were not permitted in the main dining room. Most evenings, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover could be seen at his corner table, eating with Clyde Tolson, his deputy and possibly his lover. Hoover was said to be addicted to Harvey’s oysters; he never paid for his meals.
Interesting: ladies get first billing but separate entrance and no main dining room.
Here's a little history of Harvey's, which “no longer exists in the city.” (That second photo of the exterior looks like something out of a Wes Anderson movie.) This piece suggests Harvey's does exist; it simply “relocated to the suburbs,” but it doesn't say which suburbs.
How the Great Soviet Spy was Undone by the Soviets
I recently finished Ben Macintyre's much-recommended and compelling piece of history, “A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal,” which focuses mostly on the friendship between Philby and MI6's Nicholas Elliott during the 1930s, '40s and '50s, as Britain fought World War II and then the Cold War, while Philby, a Soviet spy recruited at Cambridge, fought both war for the U.S.S.R.
First, this needs to be a movie, and soon, with Colin Firth as one of the two leads. The section in which Philby is stationed in Washington, D.C., and charming information out of compatriots from MI6, MI5, the CIA and the FBI at Harvey's Ladies' and Gentlemen's Oyster Saloon, while the information he's extracting leads to the deaths of numerous nationalists dropped in to combat communism at home, is already a heart-wrenching montage. Macintyre makes you see it: the drinking and laughter on the one hand, the sudden deaths on rocky cliffs on the other.
Second, you cringe a bit as you read the book, since our side is so badly duped. You think: How could the Soviets have been so much smarter than us?
Answer: They weren't. Macintyre doesn't say it outright, but the biggest blunder in this entire decades-long drama was a Soviet blunder.
That's saying something, by the way, since the West was completely schnookered here. Philby was so Etonian, so Cambridge, so properly British that no one suspected him. (Except for J. Edgar Hoover, but Hoover suspected everyone.) And even after they suspected him—this is the beauty of it—and suspended him, and thought of prosecuting him, he was able, years later, to worm his way back into the fold. In the mid-'50s he became an MI6 agent again in Beirut, with a journalist cover. He was only finally “caught” for B.S. reasons. Flora Solomon (who created the welfare dept. at Marks & Spencer, and whose son founded Amnesty International in 1961) fingered him less because he tried to recruit her to the Soviet side at Cambridge in the 1930s than because, as a Zionist, she thought his reporting from Beirut was too pro-Arab. And down he went.
Even so, even in ths tragicomedy of errors, the Soviets committed the biggest error of all.
By 1951, one of their agents, British diplomat Donald Maclean, had been fingered by the West as a Soviet spy, and to spirit him out of the country they used another British spy, Guy Burgess, who was, according to Macintryre, gay, a heavy drinker, and rarely diplomatic. Two for one, they thought. Bring in Maclean, whom the West was about to pounce on, and Burgess, who, given his lifestyle, could only last so long.
The problem? Maclean had only tangential connection to Philby, their best spy. But Burgess had actually lived in Philby's house in D.C. So when Burgess defected with Maclean, all eyes turned inevitably toward Philby.
Think of it. You had Philby stationed at the epicenter of western power, and being groomed for high rank in MI6. Some thought he might lead MI6 someday. He was a star. And the Soviets turned him into a suspect. And his career was never the same.
BTW: If anyone knows a good book on the Venona code-breaking operation, let me know.
Tinker Tailor, Elliott Philby
“Over-suspicion can sometimes have more tragic results than over-credulity. His tragedy was that he was so often deceived by his own ingenuity, and the consequences were disastrous.”
-- MI6's Nicholas Elliott on CIA counterpart James Angleton, who became paranoid and trusted no one after it was revealed that their mutual friend, Kim Philby, had, for the entire length of their friendship, been a Soviet spy, as recounted in Ben Macintyre's excellent book, “A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Greaty Betrayal,” which I finished this morning. More later. In the meantime, I realized, after reading the afterword by John Le Carré, that the two parts of the main relationship in the book (Elliott and Philby) have been played, more or less, by Colin Firth. He was (SPOILER ALERT) the Philbyesque traitor in “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”; and he played a supercharged version of Elliott, the Etonian, well-mannered, well-tailored MI6 agent, in this year's “Kingsman.”
“The disco music shifts to the Bee Gees, white men who have done this wonderful thing of making themselves sound like black women. 'Stay' Alive' comes on with all that amplified throbbleo and a strange nasal whining underneath: the John Travolta theme song. Rabbit still thinks of him as one of the Sweathogs from Mr. Kotter's class but for awhile back there last summer the U.S.A. was one hundred percent his, every twat under fifteen wanting to be humped by a former Sweathog in the back seat of a car parked in Brooklyn.”
-- part of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom's driving-home musings in the summer of '79, in John Updike's 1981 novel, “Rabbit is Rich.” I thought of this passage after last night's doubly odd showing from John Travolta: both on the red carpet with Scarlett Johansson (below), and on stage with Idina Menzel. I think John needs another talk with Quentin Tarantino. Maybe QT (who's got issues of his own) could at least get him to lose the rug.
The Most Absurd Money Game Ever: 1980s Edition
“My father's generation grew up with certain beliefs. One of those beliefs is that the amount of money one earns is a rough guide to one's contribution to the welfare and prosperity of our society. ... It took watching his son being paid 225 grand at the age of twenty-seven, after two years on the job [as a bond trader with Salomon Bros. in the 1980s], to shake his faith in money. He has only recently recovered from the shock.
”I haven't. When you sit, as I did, at the center of what has been possibly the most absurd money game ever and benefit out of all proportion to your value to society ... when hundreds of equally undeserving people around you are all raking it in faster than they can count it, what happens to the money belief? Well, it depends. For some, good fortune simply reinforces the belief. They take the funny money seriously, as evidence that they are worthy citizens of the Republic. It becomes their guiding assumption—for it couldn't possibly be clearly thought out—that a talent for making money come out of a telephone is a reflection of merit on a grander scale. It is tempting to believe that people who think this way eventually suffer their comeuppance. They don't. They just get richer.“
--Michael Lewis, ”Liar's Poker," epilogue.