Friday, June 10, 2016

In Search of the Soviet Spies with Two Lives

The subject of my book, Operation Whisper, came to me on a morning that seemed to have been modeled from childhood memories, moist and green, smelling of jasmine and wild onions. I was sitting under the big oak in my backyard in New Orleans, drinking coffee and searching the paper for something interesting. But it was a slow news day. I was about to move on to the sports section when I noticed a story buried at the bottom of an inside page.

A famous spy for the Soviets had died in a KGB nursing home in Moscow. His name was Morris Cohen, eighty-four years old, born in the Bronx. There was something odd about this. I knew that Americans had spied for the Russians, but how many had actually got on a plane and defected to the workers’ paradise?

And just how famous was he? The story went on to say that Morris and his wife Lona had run a Soviet spy network in the United States and Canada during World War II. They stole atomic secrets from the Manhattan Project and put Russia on a fast track to building its own nuclear arsenal. The Cohens, and not the Rosenbergs, had delivered a complete diagram of the first A-bomb to Moscow. That, I had to admit, was an impressive set of bona fides, as they say in the trade.

The story also said that Morris had worked as a sports writer for the Memphis Press-Scimitar before the war. That’s when I sat up. I had worked as a reporter for the Press-Scimitar. It was my first major-market journalism job. A Russian spy was an alumnus of the Press-Scimitar? I put the paper down. Was that why some people used to call us Reds on the Press-Scimitar? I poured another cup and read on.

Morris had served in an international brigade in Spain and fought against Franco’s army, the obituary said. He was wounded in battle and recruited for spying while recuperating in a hospital. I put the paper down. The Cohens sounded like a good subject for a feature story or an essay in a historical journal.

I obtained a copy of their FBI file, which included interviews with people who had known them in America at different times in their lives. I began mining sources at libraries, archives, museums, and additional government offices. I found that the Cohens, after leaving America, went on to atomic spying in England. But when I started checking British sources, I hit a wall. Nobody had ever heard of the Cohens. What was I doing wrong? My course was finally corrected by a helpful soul in the morgue (library) of the Sunday Times.

“Who?” he said.
“Morris and Lona Cohen,” I replied.

“Famous spies for the Soviets.”

“In Britain? Never heard of them.”

“It was the Portland spy case.”

“Oh! You mean Peter and Helen Kroger. Bloody Yanks.”

Things really opened up after that. I collected British news stories about the Cohens, and memoirs and reminiscences written by the spies they worked with, and the spy catchers who caught them. I contacted people who had known them, and located some good published interviews, including one conducted by KGB historians.

The Cohens and their London spy ring were finally captured in a joint effort by the FBI, CIA, RCMP, MI5, and Scotland Yard. When I found that out, I knew there was a book in all this. The roll-up was called Operation Whisper. The case featured all the elements of a Hitchcock thriller: chases, blackmail, threats of assassination, secret drops, secret meets, secret knocks, secret codes. Nocturnal beach landings and shots in the dark were included, along with a double-agent femme fatale. The Scotland Yard detective who arrested them was called Moonraker. I especially liked that.

One thing I noticed early on was that Americans who had written about the Cohens offered little information about their later work as the Krogers in England. And British writers who wrote about the Krogers seemed to care little about their previous incarnations as Americans. Thus, in my book I have tried to bring together a narrative history of the Cohens’ “two lives” on both sides of the Atlantic.

Equally, I’ve described how police and security agents in the United States, Canada, and Britain systematically tracked down the Cohens, clue by clue. Writers often concentrate on the political ideology of spy cases and ignore the work of the spy catchers. But in a chase, I think the role of the hound is just as thrilling as that of the hare.

In the course of my research I learned a lot about spying, about the Spanish Civil War, the two world wars, and some truly fascinating characters I would like to have had a drink with. At times, the well ran dry. Other times, there was a flood. That’s why I like research. But most of all, I like the writing.

I don’t agree with what the Cohens did. But I do think they led intriguing lives. I’ve always believed that contradictions in character are the things that make people interesting. You’ll find plenty of those in Operation Whisper.

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