The Great Man himself was waiting for me on the phone. I say that without irony. In those days Edwin Lemaster was my hero, accomplished and unblemished, the very sort of fellow I aspired to be but never became. Even my wife, April, sensed the call’s solemn importance, although she’d never liked his books.
“Genre fiction,” she always sneered. “Spies and secrets, lies and betrayal, blah blah blah.”
“You mean like life?” I’d counter, little knowing we were touching on the dynamics of our coming failure.
Yet on that long‑ago sunny morning she smiled in excitement and stretched the phone cord to its limit, as if it were a lifeline that might pull me to safety. I grabbed it.
It was June of 1984, Orwell’s year of reckoning. The Cold War, after a brief thaw, had safely returned to subzero, and the Berlin Wall remained rock solid. I was twenty‑seven, a Washington journalist on the make, poised at roughly the halfway point of my life up to now. Opening my mouth to speak, I felt like a flustered fan who had finally reached the head of the autograph line.
“Uh, Mr. Lemaster? This is Bill Cage.”
“Bill, a pleasure. And call me Ed. My assistant Lenore forwarded your request. As you know, I don’t usually give interviews, but your letter was quite convincing.”
Of course it was. I’d spent hours on it, agonizing over every word. In my latter‑day career as a PR flack, nothing I’ve written has ever matched its persuasive sincerity. Then again, I am no longer paid to be sincere.
“I’ll be coming down from Maine for the university lecture anyway,” Lemaster continued, “so why don’t we give it a try?”
I could barely draw breath to answer.
Why such excitement over a mere scribbler? I should explain. Not only was Lemaster the world’s premier espionage novelist, but he’d also been a spy for sixteen years at the height of the Cold War, back when spying was a glamorous profession. “Our Le Carré,” the American critics called him, although to my mind Le Carré was “Their Lemaster.”
But for me the appeal went further, and was deeply personal. Having grown up as a Foreign Service brat, I had come of age in the very capitals where Lemaster set his plots, at the very moment in history when they were unfolding. In those days, to walk the night streets of Berlin, of Prague, of Vienna, of Budapest, was to imagine that mysterious and exciting events were occurring just around the corner. And sometimes they were.
My father, also a fan, first put a Lemaster novel in my hands when I was twelve, as an antidote to a gloomy Saturday in Prague in 1969. Within days I was pillaging his shelves for the equally timely glories of John Le Carré, Len Deighton, and Adam Hall. Eventually I turned to earlier classics by Maugham, Buchan, Ambler, and Greene. I even read the 1903 Erskine Childers book that supposedly gave birth to the modern spy novel, The Riddle of the Sands, its pages haunted by the knowledge that the author had eventually been hanged as a spy. My father had them all, a painstakingly assembled collection of more than two hundred espionage first editions, most of them signed by the author.
Whenever we moved—and in the diplomatic corps that happened about every three years—the books were my back‑door passage to our new home, with the characters as my escorts. At a moment in history when other American boys were memorizing batting averages and home run totals, I was steeping myself in the lore of fictional spies. They were my Mays, Mantle, and Maris, and I aspired to emulate them. To be a spy was to survive by your wits in a dangerous foreign landscape, to seek to know everything about others while revealing nothing of yourself—an arrested adolescence in which you merited your country’s highest trust even as you traded in its deepest duplicity.
And the writer I always returned to with the greatest anticipation was Lemaster, who seemed more willing than the rest to take me into his confidence. He declassified the world I lived in, elegantly parting the curtains in all their varying shades of gray. So perhaps now you can understand why his promise of an interview left me momentarily at a loss for words.
“Bill?” he prompted. “Are you there?”
“Great,” I finally managed. “That would be . . . great.”
“Chancellor Stewart has kindly offered the use of his conference room. Shall we say four o’clock?”
“Perfect.” At least I’d moved on from “great.”
“In the meantime, Lenore will send you an advance copy of my latest. See you next week.”
“Wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
Wouldn’t miss it for the world? Had I actually said something so trite? I blushed as I hung up, and for the next hour I half expected Lenore to call back to cancel. Then, determined to make the most of the opportunity, I began finding out all I could about Lemaster’s life and times.
The basics were already known to me: He was divorced, childless, eldest son of a Wall Street lawyer. Groton ’51. Yale ’55. Then two years as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, where he became an incurable Anglophile before joining the CIA in 1957. Served throughout Europe. Began writing novels while still an Agency employee. Left the CIA in ’73, a month after his third book became a bestseller.
I figured there would be plenty more. But in those days before Google and YouTube it was far easier to maintain a low profile, and that’s what Lemaster had done. I checked the clip file at the Post, the Lexis‑Nexis database of publications from around the world, Who’s Who, the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature. My search turned up loads of book reviews, but only a few profiles, and those were skeletal. Only Time magazine and London’s Guardian had interviewed him at length, and even their stories were mostly about his books and characters. When Time asked about his career in spying, Lemaster was charmingly dismissive.
“Oh, I was quite unimportant. A cog in the machine, easily replaced. Anything I picked up for the novels came mostly from hearing what other fellows were talking about, the ones who were doing the interesting stuff.”
Frustrated, I retraced my steps, this time combing the material like an old‑fashioned Kremlinologist, alert for significance in the backwash of minor detail.
He hunted, but only for birds, never mammals. Fished, but only with a fly rod and he tied his own lures. Liked Bordeaux reds, Alsatian whites. A Red Sox fan who had never been to Fenway, yet had twice been to Yankee Stadium (and if that isn’t the behavior of a natural‑born spy, what is?). His thesis at Oxford was on the theme of courtly love in medieval poetry.
I looked up “courtly love.” It was all about a knight’s idealized, secretive devotion to a specially selected woman, never his wife, although possibly someone else’s. He pledged eternal loyalty even if she never loved him back, and wrote her letters under a code name.
It sounded an awful lot like espionage.
At the appointed hour I appeared at the chancellor’s oaken chambers with a fresh notebook and a microcassette recorder. Folded in my pocket was a list of forty questions, winnowed from fifty‑seven the night before. I wore a jacket and tie, which in those days occurred about as often as sightings of Halley’s Comet.
Chancellor Stewart, who turned out to be a school chum of Lemaster’s, handled the introductions. His secretary kindly tried not to smile as I wiped a sweaty palm on my corduroys before shaking hands.
Lemaster was taller than I expected, even a bit imposing. But the craggy nose, the lined face, and the stray forelock, curling toward his brow like a comma, were exactly as advertised on his dust jackets. Both he and the chancellor wore tweeds. Stewart escorted us into the conference room, then departed.
“Where would you like to begin?” I asked nervously, feeling like a sycophantic fool.
“Wherever you’d like.” He sounded as though he meant it. “We don’t even have to talk about the new book unless you want to, although my publisher would probably send me to the gallows for saying so.”
His relaxed manner immediately put me at ease, and for the next two hours I enjoyed that rarest of pleasures—a much‑anticipated event that exceeds expectations. His answers were witty and expansive, candid and unrehearsed. And although he continued to downplay his career with the CIA—seeming almost sheepish on the topic—in other areas he revealed details I had never seen elsewhere. He even described the exact moment he had dreamed up his greatest creation, frumpy spymaster Richard Folly, who had come to him out of the blue in 1967 as he rode a heaving tram car in Budapest, where I had actually been living at the time. Folly, a perennial loser in love and in office politics, had been the most sympathetic literary companion of my adolescence, and I’d always felt redeemed when he ultimately triumphed on the strength of his nimble, analytical mind.
But the best thing about the interview was that Lemaster spoke just the way he wrote—in complete and flawless paragraphs, rarely hesitating and never doubling back. I couldn’t help but compare the painstaking hours I’d spent on the letter, and I surmised enviously that for Lemaster writing must be almost like taking dictation.
Things went so well that the chancellor, with Lemaster’s blessing, invited me to join them afterward for dinner at the University Club, where a round of cocktails followed by two bottles of wine further loosened tongues. In those days I was too vain to consider that anything other than my winning personality had prompted his easy collegiality, but toward the end of the meal I learned otherwise. The chancellor had just excused himself to the men’s room, leaving the two of us alone for the first time since our interview. Lemaster leaned across the table.
“So tell me something, Bill.”
His tone was conspiratorial, and I edged forward. He paused for a swallow of claret, then sprang his surprise.
“How is your splendid father? We once knew each other well, you know.”
“You did?” The words were out before I could stop them.
“Oh, yes. We crossed paths here and there back in the day. He was a useful man for people like me. Very helpful.”
I had long known that my father’s embassy duties sometimes included assisting men who were, as he liked to say, “in a more delicate line of work.” I fancied I’d even met a few, on strange occasions when my dad chivvied me along after dark to some unfamiliar café, where we would share a back table with a fellow I’d never seen before and would never see again. None of those men ever stated his name, and at some point in the proceedings my father always suggested that I make a preemptive visit to the men’s room, which is probably when he and the mystery guest transacted the evening’s real business. I liked to believe then that my role was to help provide cover—a cozy father‑son backdrop for some spook in transit. But in retrospect I may have embellished those memories, because at the time I was always waist‑deep in some new find from my father’s spy shelves, and would have been highly susceptible to any suggestion that clandestine doings were afoot.
What I did know for certain was that Lemaster had never appeared at any of those trysts. And surely my father would have told me if he’d met the man. Autographed Lemaster novels held pride of place on his shelves, although Dad had led me to believe the signatures had all been obtained by enterprising booksellers.
Yet here was the author saying they were pals. Obviously I had missed something.
“Well,” Lemaster continued, “I shouldn’t be too surprised he never mentioned it. He was a good soldier that way. A real Joe, your dad, and you certainly couldn’t say that about everyone on the diplomatic side. A lot of them acted as if we were radioactive.”
Before I could respond he raised the stakes further.
“He always spoke well of you, Bill. His son the top student. His son the track star, beating all those strapping Austrian boys ’round the oval. Four minutes twenty‑one seconds, wasn’t that your mile time? And that flap you got into with that pretty gal of yours down in Vienna, Litzi something or other? That’s why your letter was such a hit. Lenore usually tosses those things in the trash, but she made sure I saw yours right away.”
So even his assistant knew all these details? I was feeling hurtfully excluded, the foil of some long‑running jest. You were right, Warfield. That lad of yours had no idea! My discomfort must have shown. Lemaster’s expression softened. Then, perhaps in atonement, he offered a small intimacy, just for me.
“Of course, in those days even your father didn’t know what I was really up to. No one did. I was keeping an eye out for the Don Tollesons of this world.”
Now that was interesting. Tolleson was the traitorous creation at the heart of Lemaster’s magnum opus, The Double Game, in which Folly unmasks his lifelong friend and colleague Don Tolleson as a Soviet double agent. Was Lemaster admitting that he, too, had been a mole hunter? None of his press clippings had even hinted at that.
“So did you ever find one?” I asked. “Who was your Don Tolleson?”
Lemaster frowned, as if realizing he’d said too much. He swallowed more claret, then launched into a paragraph on the nature of betrayal. This time the answer felt rehearsed, and it skirted my question. I tried again.
“But what about you personally? You wrote The Double Game while you were still with the CIA. It must have been a guilty pleasure to contemplate betrayal to such depths. Did you ever play with the idea of crossing the line yourself?”
“What, by defecting?”
“Or just by turning. Working for the other side. If only to find out what it was like.”
His eyes crinkled in amusement, and at that moment it was clear to me that Lemaster believed he was still talking solely to the son of his old friend Warfield Cage, and not to an ambitious reporter for the Washington Post.
He swirled the wine, and something about the way it eddied in the big glass reminded me of a crystal ball on the verge of revealing all. Maybe that was what stimulated my baser instincts as a newshound. Or perhaps I was still feeling stung by my dad’s secrecy, or emboldened by drink. Whatever the case, as Lemaster glanced downward, momentarily lost in thought, I slipped a hand inside the lapel pocket where I had stowed the microrecorder. Then, like one of Folly’s zealous young acolytes, I squeezed the red button for “Record,” setting the tape in motion without the slightest click. I casually withdrew my hand just before he looked up, and upon seeing he hadn’t noticed, I was giddy with a sense of accomplishment. For the only time that night, I was the smartest man in the room.
“As a matter of fact,” Lemaster said slowly, “yes. I did contemplate it. Not for ideological reasons, of course. And certainly not for the money. But it crossed my mind, and do you know why?”
I shook my head, not daring to speak. The revolving wheels of the recorder vibrated against my chest like a trapped bumblebee.
“For the thrill of it. The challenge. To just walk through the looking glass and find out how they really lived on the other side—well, isn’t that the secret dream of every spy?”
The words were barely out of his mouth when the chancellor rounded the corner from the men’s room, breaking the spell. Soon afterward the coffee arrived, and with it the first glimmers of the sobriety that would restore our previous distance. That night I slept deeply and dreamed for the first time in years of Cold War Vienna.
The next morning, a bit hung over, I agonized over how to handle Lemaster’s little bombshell. No doubt my family connection had allowed me to maneuver into a position of trust. Alcohol had also played a role. And any man unaccustomed to giving interviews was certainly more prone to a lapse. But weren’t such factors part and parcel of effective interviewing? Didn’t readers of the Post deserve the truth? And hadn’t I succeeded where even Time magazine had failed?
I was reminded of a Joan Didion line I’d read in college, something about how writing was always a matter of betrayal. That’s when I realized I couldn’t go through with it, not for something as ephemeral as a newspaper story. I felt immediate relief, albeit with a pang of disappointment, but my decision was made. I was too close to the story. I would keep the revelation to myself.
Or such was my intention when Metro Editor Kent Spencer ap- proached my desk an hour later to ask how the story was coming. I described my approach. His downturned mouth indicated he was less than impressed. So, as a teaser, or maybe just to show him what a diligent little questioner I’d been, I found myself saying, “You know, right toward the end of the evening he mentioned something pretty interesting.”
Even as I told him I was calculating how to use the quote, after all, by sprinkling it into the final paragraphs. It would be an anecdote to unite the story’s major threads. A kicker, as we said in the business. That way I could provide the proper context—the drinks, the off‑the‑cuff mood, the devil’s advocate thrust of my question.
But Spencer was a step ahead of me.
“He said what? Are you telling me the author of The Double Game actually considered being a double agent? That’s a helluva story, Bill. I mean, it’s still kind of featury, but only if you go with a soft lead. Who knows? They might even want it out front.”
My stomach rolled over. The dangerous animal I had just released from its cage paused to bare its teeth, then leaped beyond reach. I tried to catch it.
“Really, Kent, it wasn’t like he was serious.”
“C’mon, a quote like that? You got it on tape, I hope.”
“Sure, but . . .” In my rush to chase down the beast I had just ensured its escape. If I’d told Spencer the remark wasn’t taped, I might have been able to downplay it, even bury it. Instead, my editor now knew it was not only usable but also lawyerproof.
“Great! Lead with it.”
“I was thinking more in terms of a kicker. It would make the perfect ending.”
“What, then have some turnip on the desk cut the story from the bottom? It’s called news, Bill. It goes at the top.”
So, with a dark sense of foreboding and, worse, of betrayal, I wrote a story saying that spy‑turned‑novelist Edwin Lemaster had once considered working for the Soviet Union. By the time Spencer and the copy desk finished with it, the tone was downright accusatory, and even my loudest protests couldn’t repair the damage.
It was a brief sensation, of course. The wires picked it up before the ink was dry, and by noon one UPI version had even reported that Lemaster “nearly defected.”
Lemaster never called, never wrote. He responded only through a press release in which, as I richly deserved, he condescendingly implied that a callow young hack had used an unguarded moment of tipsy speculation to fashion a mountain out of a molehill.
But the strangest reaction may have been my father’s. He phoned our apartment even before April was out of bed. He lived in Paris then, one of his last diplomatic postings. In those pre‑Internet days he must have spotted the item in the State Department’s daily press summary, and then gotten someone in Washington to read him the text.
“Jesus, Bill, what have you done to our old legend Edwin Lemaster? You get him drunk or something?” His tone was strained, like he was trying to keep it light but not succeeding.
“You’re the one with some explaining to do. How come you never told me you were friends?”
There was a sharp intake of breath, followed by a pregnant pause. Then, in halting steps: “Did he . . . He told you that?”
Another pause, the line crackling from across the Atlantic.
“What else did he say about, well, all that?”
“Hardly anything. Said you crossed paths a few times, that you were ‘a good soldier, a good Joe.’ Nothing specific. I would’ve thought you’d have mentioned it at least once.”
“There were security reasons. And you . . .” He sighed, groping his way through the static. “You’d have thought I was name‑dropping.”
“Is that the best you can do?”
I tried to sound offhand, hoping for a laugh, or for more. Dad is a nimble conversationalist, and this was his opening. But he held his ground, and when we hung up a few seconds later it felt as if a veil of secrecy had been lowered between us. Worse, maybe it had been there all along.
But what I didn’t learn until recently was that elsewhere, my story had planted the seed of unintended consequences deep in the fertile soil of chance. Blowback, the wonks call it now. Reaping the whirlwind. Although by the time germination occurred, the matter had assumed the nature of a hybrid, its traits drawn literally from all those spy novels I had once read with such youthful interest.
Page by page, I would be lured back into an era when fact and fiction were virtually indistinguishable, yet with consequences that were anything but dated.