It's July the 4th and I'm feeling an odd nostalgia that I can't quite pinpoint. Is it the smell of barbecue improbably wafting up to my sixth-floor Manhattan apartment? Or is it the recent story of the Russian spies?
Back when I was young, impressionable and hopelessly addicted to TV, spies used to be not only cool, but fun. Sure, they were dangerous in a James Bond kind of way; you certainly didn't want to be silently shot with a dart or unexpectedly stabbed with a bayonet-tipped umbrella or have Lotte Lenya kick you with the poisoned toe of her shoe when you weren't looking. But at least according to movies and TV shows, spies were scary in a comfortable, containable, and child-like way. Invariably Russian, spies back then didn't plot mass murders or suicide bombings; all they wanted, really, was state secrets, and how frightening was that? They carried tiny cameras and tape recorders, surreptitiously photographed boring documents, then handed them off to one another wrapped in trench coats or stuffed in baby carriages. No fuss, no muss. We knew who they worked for, and besides, we had our own intelligence agents who were a lot sexier (The Man from Uncle), cooler (Mission: Impossible) and even funnier (Get Smart). It was all a deliciously absorbing narrative with an invariably happy ending.
And so how retro is it that last week, ten suspected Russian spies were arrested in Yonkers, Virginia, Boston, and Manhattan? Some of the husband-and-wife teams weren't even married but posed as couples, which definitely would have given me a pre-pubescent frisson when I was eleven. It seems the spies were best at acting the part of familiar, somewhat boring, occasionally dorky Americans - drinking Coors Lite and wearing golf shirts, selling real estate and barbecuing, posting on Facebook, baking cookies shaped like Lady Liberty and forgetting to rake the leaves (which was apparently what made one neighbor suspicious. Don't you love details like that?)
The actual quality of their espionage and sabotage, however, was apparently more Boris Badanov than anything else. They really did the kind of goofy things we used to do when we pretended to be spies as children, like hold magazines a certain way to initiate contact, switch bags surreptitiously in a crowd, and use special code words when communicating with a contact (who unfortunately for them turned out to be an FBI agent.) "Did I see you in California?" "No, in the Hamptons." You couldn't make this stuff up!
The New York Daily News unkindly called the ring "More Borat than Bond" and suggested the Russians could have found better intelligence by simply using Google. The Associated Press took a higher road and merely commented that at a time of Al Qaeda, the episode felt like a return to a time when we actually could capture spies.
In fact, there's historical precedent for domestic spy rings in America -- and they weren't considered ridiculous, but a matter of national security. (Speaking of the Hamptons, I should point out that in 1942, four Nazi agents managed to sneak onshore from a German submarine at Amagansett, Long Island.) During the war, there were many efforts by Nazi spies to obtain military, economic and political intelligence. Okay, most of the dope they found was basically useless: inaccurate or inadequate, too late or too generalized. But there was one Nazi spy ring that was a lot more organized... and it was located right on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.
The Duquesne Spy Ring was made up of 33 men and women strategically placed in jobs to smuggle information to Germany. One opened a restaurant on the Upper East Side in order to eavesdrop on influential customers; another worked for Air Terminal Co. in order to jot down the sailing info of Allied ships crossing the Atlantic. Some worked as delivery people, in order to deliver secret messages; others worked in bookstores and as library clerks. One of their goals was to secure and smuggle out photographs and specifics of a new type of bomb being produced; but in 1941, the ring was infiltrated by double-agent par excellence, William G. Sebold. With his help, the FBI was able to not only bust the entire ring, but come up with enough evidence to make the charges stick.
The Duquesne Spy Ring was the largest espionage case in US history that resulted in conviction. Four years later, it inspired the movie, The House on 92nd Street. Sixty-five years later, it also inspired the graphic novel I just wrote with my partner, Laurence Klavan, called City of Spies. Illustrated by Pascal Dizin, the book is a highly fictionalized riff on the actual events; the heroine is no longer a grizzled German-American double agent, but a ten-year old girl dumped in her aunt's NYC apartment for what seems will be a boring summer.
And yet, the spies are still there: the bad guys trying to pass as average Joes, the secret gestures and photographing of documents, the handing-off of packages in Times Square and 86th Street. They're the same details that make the Russian spy story so compelling despite its silliness... possibly because it's still the stuff of childhood fascination.