Curator Linda McCarthy shows the public the secret history of spycraft.
Linda McCarthy likes to think of Harriet Tubman as a spy. She calls the Underground Railroad “an intelligence mission.” She refers to George Washington not as “the father of our country,” but as “our nation’s first director of intelligence.” Sacagawea? McCarthy dubs the Lewis and Clark expedition’s 15-year-old Shoshone guide “this country’s first undercover agent.”
The 52-year-old McCarthy also likes to quote scripture. She says that spying goes back to biblical times and claims there’s a line in the Old Testament that reads, “Go into the land of Canaan and bring me information.” McCarthy could easily be mistaken for one of those people who thinks the CIA is out to get her—if it weren’t for the fact that she gave the same spiel to CIA operatives and officials for a decade.
Until her retirement, in 1997, McCarthy was the curator of the CIA Museum at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va. Besides regaling both visitors and agents with her cloak-and-dagger interpretations of history, she also organized displays about the little-known intelligence work of celebrities such as director John Ford, who won two of his six Oscars for short documentaries that he made while working for U.S. intelligence officials, and Morris “Moe” Berg, the major-league catcher who went to work for Uncle Sam as an atomic spy.
Over the years, McCarthy has accumulated several hundred espionage-related objects, through both auctions and former agents who have donated their old gear to her. What she acquires, she hardly ever sells; when she dies, she says, she’ll donate her collection to a museum. Though her life is filled with stuff, McCarthy is less interested in rising valuations than in sharing her finds and telling stories about them.
McCarthy contributed many of her own spy goods to an exhibition she has curated called “Clandestine Women: The Untold Stories of Women in Espionage,” currently at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery. It’s the inaugural exhibition of the fledgling National Women’s History Museum and coincides with the 60th anniversary of the founding of the Office of Strategic Services, the World War II-era forerunner to the CIA. Many of the objects in the show are OSS-vintage, and four of the eight female agents featured worked for the OSS.
Given McCarthy’s habit of seeing spies where most others don’t, it’s not surprising that some of the women McCarthy labels as spooks emerge as agents provocateurs only in retrospect. She counts Sacagawea as a covert operative, for example, because the Lewis and Clark expedition began in 1802 as a secret mission planned to find a route to the Pacific. The bilingual guide was also able to solicit food and horses from tribes the expedition met along the way.
“When gathering intelligence, you work with locals,” notes McCarthy. “They know the terrain better than anyone.”
By casting historical figures as spies, McCarthy tweaks popular misconceptions about the business of intelligence work. For example, during World War II, Marlene Dietrich “performed a mission” for the OSS simply by recording an album of her American songs in German. According to McCarthy, the OSS aired the songs to keep Germans tuned to U.S. propaganda broadcasts.
McCarthy says Julia Child once worked for the OSS “behind the scenes” as well. Child was awarded the Emblem of Meritorious Civilian Service for cooking up, of all things, an effective shark repellent. According to McCarthy, sharks were a big problem for Navy and OSS divers who tried to place bombs on German U-boats. Long before she made frog legs seem appetizing to Americans, Child came up with a potion to make frogmen unappealing to sharks. Years later, NASA used Child’s recipe to protect space capsules that plopped down in shark-infested waters.
“There’s a reason why we’ve never lost a single astronaut to sharks,” notes McCarthy. “That’s Julia Child.”
McCarthy has never been interested in being an operative herself. “It’s a hard life,” she says. “Hard on a
psyche, on a marriage.” What she knows about spying she’s learned from years of collecting her “spy toys,” talking to former agents, and digging in agency archives.
McCarthy joined the CIA in 1973, straight out of college at George Mason University. Initially, she worked as an analyst. (“I can’t tell you what I worked on,” she says. “I can’t even tell my mother.”) But in the mid-’80s, she took a job in the CIA Library, where she began collecting espionage paraphernalia. At the time, few people at the agency thought of the old, declassified equipment that had accumulated in their office closets as artifacts. Most of it had been created for specific missions and wasn’t reusable, but retiring agents were loath to throw it out. So they would bring it to the library and McCarthy.
McCarthy quickly discovered that she was more interested in researching the history of the junk that appeared on her desk than she was in cataloguing books. Whenever McCarthy got a new spy toy at work, she set about learning how the item had been used. Once she knew a piece’s background, she would incorporate it into the talks she had started giving library visitors and new recruits. Coincidentally, CIA administrators were trying to do a better job of educating the public about what the agency does. So when the agency began moving into a new headquarters building in 1988, CIA brass gave McCarthy space for a small museum.
Over nine years, she turned the museum into a one-of-a-kind collection of vintage spy gadgets. Among the items displayed are a tiny Minox camera for photographing documents, a caltrop for puncturing tires, and samples of CIA-produced pamphlets that were air-dropped just before Allied bombing runs during the Gulf War. The museum isn’t open to the public, because it’s inside the CIA compound, but similar items will be on display at the International Spy Museum across from the J. Edgar Hoover Building downtown, set to open in July. McCarthy, who promotes her post-retirement work through her own History Is a Hoot Inc., helped acquire some of the objects as a consultant.
In 1993, McCarthy became the only CIA employee ever to win an Emmy, after contributing her research on Berg for a 1992 WNBC-TV New York segment on the ballplayer’s involvement with the OSS. After his baseball career ended, in 1942, the multilingual, Columbia Law School-educated Berg went to work for the OSS, trying to figure out if the Germans were making an atomic bomb.
When WNBC producer Ann Kemp won an Emmy for “outstanding research” for the segment, she gave the trophy to McCarthy at a special presentation at CIA headquarters. She keeps it on top of a bookshelf in her den. “I still look at that thing,” McCarthy muses, “and say, ‘Did I really win that?’”
Not surprisingly, McCarthy is an avid collector of all that is Berg-related. She owns the bat that Berg used to hit his sixth and last home run, autographed by Berg himself. She also has the steamer trunk that Berg shared with Jimmie Foxx when they played for the Boston Red Sox in the late ’30s. But one of only a few things she possesses that hints at Berg’s side career as a spy is his pass to the Nuremberg trials.
Wary of other Berg-maniacs and thieves, McCarthy keeps the pass locked away in climate-controlled storage in, she says, “an undisclosed location.”
McCarthy has been a bit of an amateur historian ever since she was a child growing up in Sterling, Va. “My parents would pile all seven of us into a car and take us to Manassas battlefield, and that was an outing,” she says. In the late ’80s, she met her business manager and History Is a Hoot co-founder, Kristen Sanders, when the two were both part of an effort to save Civil War sites around the Shenandoah Valley, where they both now live.
A good portion of McCarthy’s den is taken up with Civil War prints, movies, and bric-a-brac. Even at home, McCarthy can’t help but be a good curator; she keeps white gloves handy to handle her most fragile objects. And she has continued to lecture about the history of espionage and display her spy toys. The only difference is that she now speaks almost anywhere, from corporate luncheons to a Fauquier County field school. She calls what she does now “motivational speaking with a historical bent.”
“These are ordinary people who did extraordinary things, after historical events thrust them into extraordinary situations,” McCarthy says. “If they can do it, you can do it.”
For instance, she suggests, imagine trying to find your way out of enemy territory by using a map printed on a silk scarf. Betty McIntosh, a former OSS operative, wore such a garment when she went undercover in Canton, China, during World War II; it’s part of the “Clandestine Women” exhibit. On the map are possible escape routes: major roads, railroads—including what gauge the tracks are—and steamer routes. (“It’s not only stylish,” says McCarthy, “but potentially life-saving.”)
But the star of the display in Arlington is McCarthy’s doggie-doo transmitter. It’s a 2-inch-long turd mounted on a piece of cardboard and covered in plastic; next to it in the exhibition is an X-ray of the dropping that reveals the wires and three cadmium-nickel batteries inside. During World War II, an OSS agent would have strategically placed the transmitter in an open field to coordinate an ammo dump—without having to worry that someone would step on it.
And as far as McCarthy is concerned, when you have your own doggie-doo transmitter, you have no need for Q. So she doesn’t read spy thrillers and has yet to catch any episodes of Alias or The Agency.
“Why,” she asks, “when there’s so much really good true stuff?”CP
“Clandestine Women: The Untold Stories of Women in Espionage” is on view to Dec. 31 at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Va. For more information, call (703) 813-6209.