POLITICS
10/27/2014 06:25 pm ET Updated Oct 29, 2014

The Old Man And The CIA: Inside A Hemingway-Themed Spy Prom

WASHINGTON -- Relations between the intelligence community and the media are at such a low ebb it might be hard to believe that there's a reporter whom spies deeply admire.

But for journalists who might want to follow him into the hearts of the intelligence world, his path doesn't offer much promise.

Ernest Hemingway earned his place in spy lore with two complementary gestures. The first was shooting his way into Paris in August 1944 with a gang of French communist resistance fighters and men with the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner to the CIA. The second is what he did when he got there, immediately heading for the Ritz, liberating its bar, and ordering several dozen dry martinis, the number of which has continued to grow in subsequent retellings.

The Paris Ritz now boasts a Bar Hemingway and its keeper was flown to Washington this past weekend by the OSS Society for its annual gala, Washington's Spy Prom, where he did what bartenders do -- told stories of the old days and made several hundred dry martinis, just the way, he said, Hemingway drank them. Multiple generations, in fact. The bartender, Colin Field, told the audience that Ernest's son Jack, who'd been an OSS member and himself parachuted into Nazi-occupied France, became something of a regular at the Bar Hemingway.

The night was full of stories, including one, from music industry executive Miles Copeland III, that included the unique boast: "My father was the first covert American to overthrow a government."

The evening's secondary honoree, after Hemingway, was former CIA Director Leon Panetta, who shared the dais with the agency's current head, John Brennan. Attendees dined on spare ribs made from a recipe in Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child, herself a former staffer with the OSS during the war.

Led by William "Wild Bill" Donovan, the agency cultivated a reputation for brashness and bravery. The OSS is fondly recalled by the intelligence community as a nimble, no-bullshit outfit that fought an undeniably good fight, the war against fascism. Especially today, with bureaucracy grinding the gears of intelligence, with the public worried that American power abroad does more harm than good, and that intelligence collectors have no regard for privacy, it's pleasant for the intelligence community to think of a time when spies were the good guys. And, indeed, many of those surviving good guys were on hand, some as old as 100. As young men, they parachuted or snuck into Nazi-occupied France to sabotage the German army, organize the resistance and prep for liberation.

The sense of nostalgia was aided by a piano performance by Mark Russell, who is older than the OSS -- biggest laugh line: "You want 100 percent privacy? I suggest you stay offline and shut the hell up." -- and Norman Steinberg, co-writer of "Blazing Saddles." Its famously flatulent scene was played on the big screen to the black tie crowd. Charles Pinck, who organized the dinner, explained that the gaseous cinematic moment was screened to recall the "pocket atomizer" OSS agents tried to use to spray German officers in an attempt to sap morale -- the skunks at the occupied garden party. The broader purpose of showing the film, Pinck told the crowd, was to connect the OSS with the film's anti-racism message. Wild Bill Donovan, Pinck noted to the crowd, never bought into the type of WASP-only prejudice implied by films like "The Good Shepherd."

The often cold and noticeably uncomfortable Brennan was at ease in the room, laughing easily and cracking jokes as he introduced Panetta. Had the former secretary of defense just written a book, he wondered aloud? Did President Barack Obama know about it yet? Had Panetta cleared it with the agency?

Panetta, meanwhile, delivered an unapologetic defense of the intelligence community, arguing that its more controversial activity was necessary in a dangerous, post-9/11 world.

It's hard to know what Hemingway -- or for that matter, John Steinbeck, who was also applauded at Spy Prom -- would have made of the evening, which was held at Washington's Ritz-Carlton. Like martini-fueled history often does, it glossed over some of the nuance.

Hemingway, in fact, was rejected by the OSS when he offered his services. The agency officials charged with evaluating a potential partnership reported that they "decided in the negative about Hemingway. We may be wrong, but feel that although he undoubtedly has conspicuous ability for this type of work, he would be too much of an individualist to work under military supervision," according to a 2012 investigation.

But Hemingway was determined to be part of the first wave back into Paris anyway, as a war correspondent, and teamed up with a small group of communist French resisters. He then stumbled upon OSS officer David Bruce, who ran European operations for the spy outfit. Hemingway, Bruce and the French communists together liberated the bar at the Ritz.

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