As Frank Wisner watched from a dark corner of the nightclub, the diverted stage spotlight swept over the crowd until it found the man who had just stepped through the entranceway. He was in his mid-forties, bespectacled and wore a well-tailored suit. He was also clearly well known at the Park Hotel for, along with drawing the spotlight, his arrival caused the nightclub band to slide into a different jazzy number.
I’m involved in a dangerous game,
Every other day I change my name,
The face is different, but the body’s the same,
Boo boo, baby, I’m a spy!
Wisner felt a growing irritation, directed less at the song than at the man being serenaded. His name was Lanning “Packy” Macfarland, and he was, in fact, a spy, the head of the Istanbul branch of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), America’s wartime intelligence agency. He was also the man that Frank Wisner, a fellow OSS officer, had made the 1,400-mile overland journey from Cairo to meet.
You have heard of Mata Hari,
We did business cash and carry,
Papa caught us and we had to marry,
Boo boo, baby, I’m a spy!
“Boo Boo, Baby, I’m a Spy” was a popular ditty in Istanbul in the spring of 1944, and with no group more so than the habitués of the Park Hotel bar. Located near the sprawling German consulate in neutral Turkey’s largest city, the bar was the favored watering hole for officials of the Abwehr, the Nazi military intelligence agency. Naturally, that status also made it a destination spot for all the other spies circulating through wartime Istanbul, along with the assorted lowlifes—con men and arms merchants, prostitutes and pimps—inevitably drawn to such an underworld. Wisner had arrived early for his rendezvous with Macfarland and situated himself in a dark corner of the bar so as to avoid notice, a pointless precaution judging by the extravagant welcome given the American spy chief.
Now, as a lad, I’m not so bad,
In fact, I’m a darn good lover.
But look, my sweet, let’s be discreet,
And do this undercover.
In Macfarland’s defense, he may have simply accepted as absurd any notion that his Axis counterparts didn’t know exactly who he was; as author Barry Rubin notes, World War II–era Istanbul practically survived on espionage: “Would-be spies for rent strolled up and down Istiklal Boulevard and around Taksim Square with its neo-baroque monument to the republic. They lounged in Istanbul’s bars, dining places, nightclubs, and dance halls. . . . The music from the cafes and the bells of the crowded trolleys played accompaniment as men weaved through the streets trying to follow or evade each other.”
I’m so cocky, I could swagger.
The things I know would make you stagger.
I’m ten percent cloak and ninety percent dagger,
Boo boo, baby, I’m a spy!
Certainly, Macfarland’s own OSS colleagues had been little help in maintaining his cover as a banker with the U.S. government’s Lend-Lease program, the wartime structure that funneled American weapons and matériel to its allies. Soon after setting up shop in the Istanbul Lend-Lease office, the frustrated spymaster had fired off a despairing cable to OSS Cairo: “Please, please, please! Instruct everyone to leave out any reference whatsoever to Office of Strategic Services in addressing envelopes. Today there came two more that bear this inscription.”
The element of farce aside, the mission of the OSS in wartime Istanbul was deadly serious—so deadly serious, in fact, that by the time of Wisner’s arrival in the city, Packy Macfarland had managed to compromise a whole series of intelligence missions and may have been instrumental in prolonging the course of World War II. Indeed, so calamitous was the workings of his Operation Dogwood, a spy network that extended throughout Eastern Europe but which had been thoroughly infiltrated by Nazi agents, that many details of the story still remain classified. What is known is that by the late spring of 1944, OSS leadership in Washington had become so alarmed by the dire news coming out of Istanbul on Dogwood that they scrambled to find an operative close at hand who might be brought in to stanch the bleeding. The man they chose was a thirty-four-year-old naval officer attached to OSS Cairo, Frank Gardiner Wisner.
It was a call Wisner had been awaiting ever since joining the military three years earlier. In that time, his lot had been to look over legal briefs and shuffle paper, to sit in a back-base office and collate the fieldwork of others. Now, by being dispatched to Istanbul, he was finally going into the field with the opportunity to accomplish something tangible, and he set to the housecleaning mission in Istanbul with a zeal. OSS higher-ups swiftly took note of the contrast between their two men in Turkey; just days after his arrival, Wisner was made head of the Secret Intelligence branch of OSS Istanbul, then shortly after named chief of the entire mission, with Macfarland bundled off to a posting in Yugoslavia where he could do little harm. At long last, Frank Wisner had arrived. The inauspicious trappings of his meeting with Macfarland at the Park Hotel notwithstanding, he was now on his way to becoming one of the most important and powerful figures of the American intelligence community in the twentieth century.
Childhood acquaintances of Frank Gardiner Wisner rarely recalled seeing him walk; he seemed to run everywhere. Even as a boy, he fairly crackled with a kind of impatient energy. In a photograph taken of him around the age of eight or nine and in which he is posing with two other boys, he appears to be practically bursting out of his Sunday suit, as if clothes are just another thing getting in his way, slowing him down.
Wisner was born in the town of Laurel, in the swampy, yellow pinelands of southeastern Mississippi. Even today, Laurel dubs itself “the town that lumber built,” although “lumber” might more accurately be traded out for “the Iowans.” In the early 1890s, a group of prospectors from eastern Iowa moved into the economically moribund Deep South town, and proceeded to both buy up vast tracts of the surrounding yellow pine forest, and then to build a state-of-the-art lumber mill. Among the newcomers was Frank Wisner’s father, Frank George.
Their timing was propitious, for within a few years the lumbering of Southern Yellow Pine was experiencing a nationwide boom, making the Midwestern transplants in Laurel—along with the Wisners, there were the Gardiners and Eastmans—fabulously wealthy. According to one local historian, by the 1920s Laurel boasted more millionaires per capita than any city in the nation, and had converted the once scrubby little town in the pinelands into an unlikely architectural showcase, with a park designed by Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. and mansions lining its own Fifth Avenue.
At its heart, Laurel was a boomtown. As such, it had far more in common with, say, the mining settlements of Montana or the oilfields of California than with its Mississippi counterparts. In this most rigidly segregated state of the Deep South, blacks and whites worked alongside each other in Laurel’s Eastman-Gardiner lumber mill, and there was a degree of racial intermingling virtually unheard-of elsewhere in Mississippi. In the black sections of town, the Iowans funded parks and streetlights and, in 1926, one of the first high schools for black children in the state, a development regarded as shocking, even subversive, by many Mississippi whites at the time.
All of this made Frank Wisner, born in Laurel in 1909, something of an oddity, a hybrid of two very different cultures. While his childhood bore all the hallmarks of the privileged white Southerner—he was raised by a black nanny, and black housekeepers tended to the expansive Wisner home on Fifth Avenue—his family had little in common with the Mississippi “aristocracy,” those wealthy landowning families who traced their roots back to pre–Civil War days and who remained steeped in nostalgic notions of the Old South. Instead, from a very early age, Frank Wisner had his sights set beyond Mississippi. After graduating from the local high school at sixteen, he was dispatched to one of the South’s better preparatory boarding schools, Woodberry Forest in Virginia, then sent on the obligatory grand tour of Europe prior to going to college. For his part, Frank Wisner never truly regarded himself as a Southerner except, his middle son, Ellis, recalled, on those occasions when outsiders denigrated the region. “That’s when he got his back up,” Ellis Wisner recalled. “If people made fun of it, that’s when he became a Southerner.”
This was a distinction lost on most of his future CIA associates. To them, Frank Wisner seemed the very epitome of the Southern gentleman—his colleagues invariably remarked upon his politeness and good manners, his soft rounded drawl—and, as a result, often ascribed stereotypes to him which didn’t really apply.
Perhaps the most inapt was the stereotype of Southerners being laid-back, even a bit slow. Much to the contrary, by his adolescence, Wisner seemed propelled by a kind of edgy anxiety, the need to prove something to himself and to others. Along with being quite small for his age, he suffered a series of childhood illnesses that left him bedridden for weeks or even months at a time. This was undoubtedly an enormous worry to his parents—they had lost two children in infancy prior to Frank, and would lose another afterward—and might easily have resulted in a cosseted youth. Instead, these frailties appeared to spur a fierce self-discipline. On his college track team at the University of Virginia, Wisner was such a standout sprinter and broad jumper that he was invited to try out for the American Olympic team. “And that’s where you see the conservativeness of the family come in,” said Graham Wisner, the youngest of Wisner’s three sons. “My dad was, I don’t know, maybe the second or third fastest runner in the country, but his father said no. ‘A gentleman does not do athletics when he should be going to law school and starting a career. A gentleman is serious.’ ”
Wisner obeyed his father’s dictate, and instead turned his fire-at-the-heels sensibility to academics. After receiving his undergraduate degree at Virginia, he went on to its law school, one of the most demanding and select in the nation. There, he sat on the Law Review, finished third in his graduating class, and was inducted into UVa’s most exclusive secret club, the Seven Society. To the surprise of no one, within weeks of his graduation in 1934, the newly minted attorney was hired on by a prestigious Wall Street law firm, Carter Ledyard.
At that juncture, it seemed Frank Wisner was determined to check off all the requisite boxes that marked the rites of passage of the successful, if utterly conventional, American man—albeit to do so a bit faster than most. Two years after he joined Carter Ledyard, he married his girlfriend, Mary “Polly” Ellis Knowles. Moving into a spacious apartment on Manhattan’s East 57th Street, the couple soon had the first of what would ultimately be four children. By 1938, the twenty-nine-year-old corporate lawyer—most of his work was for the American Express Company—was already highly regarded in the tightknit Wall Street legal community, and well on his way to becoming a Carter Ledyard partner.
“He came up with very defined parameters of his own behavior,” Graham Wisner explained. “This is what men of his class, of his time, did, what was expected of them.”
And yet, for all his life’s ease and privilege, it somehow didn’t satisfy. Always keenly interested in politics and world affairs, Wisner closely monitored the march to war in Europe and, after the fall of France to the German war machine in 1940, became convinced the United States would eventually intervene. But “eventually” wasn’t a word that sat well with the hard-driving lawyer; in early 1941, he told his startled Carter Ledyard colleagues of his plan to take a leave of absence from the firm and join the Navy. No doubt those colleagues tried to talk him out of the idea—after all, Wisner had a wife and now two young children to support—but instead, and under the weight of his considerable persuasive skills, ended up writing Wisner glowing letters of recommendation.
By that spring, the lawyer from Mississippi had received his naval commission—lieutenant, junior grade—and was assigned to the New York branch of the Office of Naval Intelligence, or ONI. He was there when Pearl Harbor was attacked that December.
But if Wisner had been prescient in enlisting before the United States came into the war, he quickly discovered the downside of leading a life of advantage. Taking note of his academic and professional pedigree, his ONI superiors immediately shunted Wisner into a managerial role—and in 1941, just as today, “managerial” was usually shorthand for sitting behind a desk. Matters didn’t improve when he was transferred to the naval cable and radio censorship office for the New York district. While that posting came with the benefit of allowing Wisner to continue to live with his family, it was also mind-numbingly dull. “He had a joke about it,” his eldest son, Frank Wisner Jr., recalled, “that in the Navy, they gave him command of a cutter. A paper cutter, that is, chopping up documents.”
After enduring the censorship office for nearly two years and seeing no end in sight, Wisner desperately looked to transfer to any military branch that might offer something more interesting. His lucky break came when an old Carter Ledyard colleague passed his name on to another former corporate lawyer who had joined in the war effort, William Donovan. As unpromising as that might sound, Donovan was no typical lawyer and neither was the wartime agency that he headed. Instead, the sixty-year-old attorney from Buffalo, New York, had earned his nickname, “Wild Bill,” through heroism on the battlefields of World War I Europe, and he was now President Roosevelt’s handpicked spymaster, the director of the Office of Strategic Services.
The adjectives used to describe William J. Donovan tend to run to hyperbole: brilliant, charismatic, fearless, larger-than-life. A former CIA officer based in postwar Berlin offered a different one: “Exhausting. He was a wonderful man, with an extraordinary mind, but he just never damn stopped.” Donovan occasionally visited Berlin in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and sometimes stayed in the CIA officer’s home. “He’d keep you up till one or two in the morning peppering you with questions, and then he’d be up at seven and he would start in all over again.”
By the time Frank Wisner’s résumé landed on his desk in October 1943, Wild Bill Donovan had been a prominent figure on the American political landscape for the previous quarter-century. A very successful Ivy League–educated lawyer, he had first garnered notice in the early days of World War I when he vigorously lobbied for the United States to join the military alliance of Great Britain, France and Russia; what made this noteworthy was that, as an Irish Catholic Republican, Donovan was from an ethnic group that overwhelmingly favored neutrality in the conflict.
Copyright © 2020 by Scott Anderson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.