Showing posts with label Christopher Marlowe. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Christopher Marlowe. Show all posts

10 May 2018

Actor, Writer, Catcher, Spy

by Eve Fisher

I just heard that Paul Giamatti, Paul Rudd, and Jeff Daniels are all joining in a movie about Moe Berg (1902-1972), professional baseball player. He played pro for 15 seasons (1923-1939), mostly as a backup catcher. But he was called "the brainiest guy in baseball," and I can see why.  An Ivy League graduate, attorney, and baseball player who spoke nine language?  Well, of COURSE he would be a prime candidate for a spy with the OSS. 

MoeBergGoudeycard.jpgBerg began his work in 1934, when he was touring Japan with the American All-Star team. In 1943, he parachuted into occupied Yugoslavia to determine which of the resistance groups was the strongest.  (He decided for Tito, and he was right.)   He was also sent around Europe in the 1940's to collect intelligence on Germany’s efforts to build an atom bomb. If he believed the Germans were close to developing nuclear weapons, he had orders to shoot the lead physicist, Werner Heisenberg. He decided they weren't. He was awarded the Medal of Freedom in 1945, but declined.

Things changed, though.  In the early 50's he worked for the CIA, very briefly, because they quickly decided he was "flaky". For the next 20 years, he lived with his brother, Samuel, reading and snarking and unemployed. Sam evicted him, and he lived with his sister Ethel in Belleville, New Jersey until he died.


There's a long list of unlikely spies, if you think of spies as being a specific, separate job, as in a Le Carré novel or Ian Fleming novel.  But the truth is, writers (including Le Carré and Fleming) and entertainers have been the first choice to hire for years.

The first recorded one is Thessalus, a tragic actor in Hellenistic Greece, who accompanied Alexander the Great on the long expedition to conquer the Persian empire (and, as far as Alexander could, the world). He served as an envoy (and probable spy) for Alexander to Pixodarus of Caria (southwestern Anatolia, current day Turkey) in 336 BCE.

Geoffrey Chaucer was another one.  He has a surprisingly well-documented life for the medieval son of a vintner.  Let's put it this way:  vintners were simply wealthy peasants in the view of the aristocracy.  And being a poet - well, anonymity was the order of the day for artists of all kinds.

But somehow, Chaucer got placed a page in the house of the Countess of Ulster.  He married Philippa de Roet, the sister of John of Gaunt's 30 year mistress Katherine Swynford, who eventually (through what many people of the day believed had to be either witchcraft or a miracle of God) became John of Gaunt's third wife.  In other words, Chaucer had connections:  and besides becoming one of the great poets of the English language, he became a courtier, diplomat, soldier, lawyer, and civil servant.  And spy.  

He spent a tremendous amount of his life traveling on either King Edward III or Richard II or John of Gaunt's shilling:  France, Spain, and Flanders, the Italian states, perhaps in pursuit of a princess for the young Richard to marry; and/or to negotiate peace; and/or to borrow money from the Visconti and/or Sir John Hawkwood in Milan; and/or for who knows what?  We're all guessing when it comes to what medieval potentates (or modern potentates) really wanted.  (For a great study of the actualities and possibilities of Chaucer's role as diplomat and spy, read Monty Python alum and medieval scholar Terry Jones' Who Murdered Chaucer?  Mesmerizing.)  

Some other writers are more surprising.  Graham Greene, John Le Carré and Ian Fleming make sense, because they all worked for British intelligence at one point or another.  But Roald Dahl?  Julia Child?  Harry Houdini?

Roald Dahl.jpg
Roald Dahl
Both Scotland Yard and the American Secret Service used Houdini's escape artistry for their own ends.  Houdini was notorious for going into police stations around the world - including Russia (hint, hint) - where he insisted on being locked up so that he could prove he was the greatest escape artist in the world!  The locals were wowed!  He did it again!  And he left town with his reputation intact (he always escaped), and a lot of information.  (No, I don't know what kind.)

Roald Dahl was a three time Edgar Award winner, who wrote the classic "Lamb to the Slaughter" (short story and immortal "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" episode), as well as dark children's masterpieces like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The BFG, and The Witches.  During WW2, he worked with Ian Fleming and others to write propaganda to help the war effort.  He also was attached to the British Embassy in Washington, D.C., where he was stunned by American luxury: "I'd just come from the war. People were getting killed. I had been flying around, seeing horrible things. Now, almost instantly, I found myself in the middle of a pre-war cocktail party in America." Dahl later said: "My job was to try to help Winston to get on with FDR, and tell Winston what was in the old boy's mind."  (see Wikipedia)

And then there's Julia Child, who started out as an OSS research assistant and definitely moved up the ladder.  According to Wikipedia

Julia Child at KUHT.jpg"In 1944, she was posted to Kandy, Ceylon, where her responsibilities included "registering, cataloging and channeling a great volume of highly classified communications" for the OSS's clandestine stations in Asia.[9] She was later posted to Kunming, China, where she received the Emblem of Meritorious Civilian Service as head of the Registry of the OSS Secretariat.[10] When Child was asked to solve the problem of too many OSS underwater explosives being set off by curious sharks, "Child's solution was to experiment with cooking various concoctions as a shark repellent," which were sprinkled in the water near the explosives and repelled sharks.[11] Still in use today, the experimental shark repellent "marked Child's first foray into the world of cooking..."
While I couldn't find a playable video of The Bobs' "Julia's Too Tall" song about her, I did find a couple of lyrics: "She's too tall to be a spy. But not too tall to bake a pie..."  But I disagree. I think her being too tall made her a perfect spy.  No one ever thought of Chaucer, Child, Houdini, Berg or Dahl and instantly went, Spy! which is probably part of why they were so successful.  

Which raises the interesting question of why Ian Fleming - who certainly knew better - made James Bond so damned obvious.  Apparently, on November 29, 2016, Anthony Horowitz and David Farr got into a 90 minute debate as to who was the greatest spy novelist of all time, Fleming or Le Carré.  (Full Transcript.)  Horowitz' summation was that ‘George Smiley is a fascinating character. James Bond is an icon. That’s the difference.’

And that's largely true, despite the fact that James Bond was actually a horrible spy. Think about it:  He uses his real name.  All the time.  He blows his cover, every time.  He gets captured.  All the time.  And he destroys everything he touches...  There's a whole lot of things get blown up, run over, caved in, and I'm not just talking about the women.   (10-reasons-james-bond-worst-spy-.) 

I don't know if John Le Carré and Ian Fleming ever met, but I do know that Le Carré had his own problems with James Bond.  In an interview in 1966 with BBC's Malcolm Muggeridge, he said, "I dislike Bond. I'm not sure that Bond is a spy. I think it's a great mistake if one's talking about espionage literature to include Bond in this category at all. It seems to me he is more of some kind of international gangster with, as it is said, a licence to kill...  he is a man entirely out of the political context.  It is of no interest to Bond who for instance, is president of the US or the Union of Soviet Republics."

Reflecting on the interview in 2010 he said : " These days I would be much kinder. I suppose we have lost sight of the books in favour of the film versions, haven't we ? I was a young man and I knew I had written about the reality in The Spy Who Came In From The Cold and that the Fleming stuff was a fantasisation of his own experiences written from the safety of New York."  (Citation)

La nuit de Varennes (1982)Then again, maybe it's not all fantasisation.  Fleming was notoriously heavy drinker, smoker, and womanizer.  Or perhaps he was channeling another great spy, whose womanizing, gambling, style, and sheer effrontery made him welcome everywhere, even after it was known he was a Venetian spy.  Who else, but Casanova?

It's amazing that, of all the spies, Casanova has the worst movies made about him.  With one brilliant exception.  If you get a chance, beg, borrow, or steal a copy of La Nuit de Varennes, where Thomas Paine, Restif de la Bretonne (pornographer, journalist, and philosopher, often called "the Voltaire of the chambermaids"), and Casanova and others all chase down Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette as they desperately try to escape Paris and their coming doom.  It is comical, philosophical, sexual, historically accurate, beautiful, horrific, and constantly entertaining.  The highlight is Marcello Mastroianni as Casanova in old age - still stylish, still courteous, still gallant, still arrogant... and ruefully, wearily truthful, even to himself.

I'd love to see a movie with James Bond in old age - see if he has the same grace and presence.  But then, icons don't change.  Fascinating characters do.

Oh, and yes, that's a young Harvey Keitel as Thomas Paine - it's a hard movie to beat.  Enjoy!















10 January 2018

The Once and Future Spy

David Edgerley Gates

Sir Francis Walsingham was principal secretary to Elizabeth I, as well as her spymaster and head of her security detail. Along with William Cecil, the Queen's senior advisor and Walsingham's chief patron, the two men guarded the Protestant crown and Elizabeth's own person with severe diligence. Heads rolled. Not a metaphor.
L-R  Cecil, Elizabeth, Walsingham
Walsingham lived in a treacherous age, but he himself was steadfast. There was a magnetic attraction. What drew him to her, what recommended her to him?

We might remember the fury of religious hatreds in the 16th century. Philip of Spain may very well have felt slighted after Mary Tudor's death, and there wasn't any love lost with the French, either, but Spain and France were Catholic powers, and England was apostate, Elizabeth a heretic.

Her older sister Mary, daughter of Henry VIII's first wife, Catherine of Aragon, wore the crown for five intemperate and bloody years, and did her best to turn back the English Reformation, burning dissenters at the stake. Not few and far between, either, the known number being two hundred and eighty-four. Some better-off Protestants went into exile abroad. Francis Walsingham, then twenty-one, left his law studies at Gray's Inn and beat feet for Basel, in Calvinist Switzerland.
Sir Francis
Mary died in 1558, and Elizabeth succeeded. Walsingham came back to England. He stood for Parliament. He got in good with the Earl of Bedford, with the nimble-footed Nicholas Throckmorton (who survived involvement in the plots of Thomas Seymour and Lady Jane Grey, and the murder of Darnley, among other things), and with Cecil. He took the lead in supporting the French Huguenots - and was later ambassador to France during the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre. He played a big part in exposing the Ridolfi plot, which tarnished Mary Stuart, and led to the execution of Norfolk.

Mind you, we're only into the first ten or a dozen years of Elizabeth's reign. Walsingham's got twenty years to go. The through-line, though, is the thwarting of Catholic power and ambitions. This is a guy who seeks to frustrate at every turn the puissant majesties of Papist dominance. Certainly it's a political balancing act, a chess game, but Walsingham seems motivated not simply by loyalty to his sovereign, but gleefully rubbing their Romish noses in any humiliation he could contrive. He wanted boots on the ground in the Netherlands, for instance, open rebellion against Spain by the Protestant Dutch. Cecil persuaded the Queen to more moderate tactics. Then there were the constant negotiations over prospective candidates for Elizabeth's hand. She used the possibility of marriage as an instrument of foreign policy for most of her life, not in some coquettish pursuit, but as a serious means of structuring or weakening alliances. Here too, Catholic and Protestant proved selling points, for and against.
Walsingham's great espionage triumph is the defeat of the Spanish Armada. Given the time and distances, it's extraordinary how well-informed he kept himself, and how immediate the reports were. He recruited merchant skippers and diplomats, footpads and whores. The intelligence was terrific. He also orchestrated Drake's raid on Cadiz, which pushed Spain's invasion planning back a full year. In the event, the naval battles in the Channel, and later at Calais, decided the issue, Francis Drake again the hero of the hour - the famous story of his finishing the game of bowls - but it was Walsingham's system of beacons, built along the south coast, that gave Elizabeth's captains their timely warning.

Less honorable, perhaps, were the inductions devious by which Mary Stuart was betrayed and condemned, but she was easily led, a foolish queen, far less canny than her cousin. Elizabeth would never have put her trust in such a congeries of rascals and lowlifes and feckless naifs.
Marlowe
The story that's always fascinated me, however, is the murder of Christopher Marlowe, at a tavern in Deptford, if in fact it wasn't a whorehouse, in a drunken quarrel over money. The facts were stated at an inquest, and the three other men present were exonerated, including the one who actually stabbed Marlowe over the eye. There's been a lot of back-and-forth about this, over the years, and whether or not the witnesses are credible. Generally speaking, it's been acknowledged that there's 'something queer' about the whole episode. [Marlowe biographer John Bakeless]

For our purposes, there's the longstanding suspicion that Marlowe was a spy for Cecil, in the Low Countries. And perhaps earlier, when he was at Cambridge, for Walsingham. The three men he was drinking with, that afternoon in Deptford, were all connected to the Walsinghams. Two of them, Poley and Skeres, had been active agents provocateurs for Sir Francis in the Babington plot that undid Mary, Queen of Scots. Marlowe's killer, Ingram Frizer, was in the household employ of Thomas Walsingham, a first cousin. Marlowe had been commanded to appear before the Privy Council to answer charges of libel and sedition - privy to the Crown, in effect the Queen's cabinet, the Council was the seat of authority for both Cecil and Walsingham. Marlowe was killed ten days after the summons, but Sir Francis Walsingham himself was already three years dead at the time of Marlowe's murder.

Did he reach out from the grave? One way of looking at it is to ask what Marlowe might have known and what stories he might have told. By far the most interesting speculation involves the so-called School of Night, a supposed group of atheists patronized by Sir Walter Raleigh, although the evidence is exceeding slim: the theory here being that Kit Marlowe was silenced so he wouldn't incriminate Raleigh, atheism as the time being family to treason, the Queen both monarch and head of the Church of England.
Raleigh
But the cold case mystery of Marlowe's murder seems to illustrate how much space Walsingham has taken up in the Elizabethan imagination, that his shadow could fall so far, and that a dead man's hand struck the fatal blow. 


12 November 2014

The School of Night

by David Edgerley Gates

The first of Anthony Burgess' novels I read, or at least finished, was NOTHING LIKE THE SUN, a re-imagining of Shakespeare's life. (I'd tried tackling A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, but found it too difficult.) Many years later, he wrote an extraordinary book called EARTHLY POWERS - which deserves a column of its own - but one of the last books he published in his lifetime was A DEAD MAN IN DEPTFORD. It revisits the Elizabethan age, one of Burgess' great passions, and looks into the mystery surrounding the murder of Christopher Marlowe. 
  
'Mystery' is an inexact word, because we know who killed him. Stabbed him above the eye, during a drinking quarrel. The question is whether it was arranged beforehand.


Marlowe
Kit Marlowe was a poet first, and then a hugely successful playwright. He and Shakespeare were born the same year, 1564, but Marlowe was a marquee name much earlier. DOCTOR FAUSTUS is probably the most famous of his plays, and the most quoted. "Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it." "Is this the face that launched a thousand ships?" "I'll burn my books." FAUSTUS also attached to Marlowe the reputation of being an atheist or a heretic, a damaging accusal.

He was also a spy. This has been disputed, but he was probably in the pay of either Lord Burghley, the queen's treasurer, or Sir Francis Walsingham, her principal secretary. Walsingham, a member of the Privy Council, was Elizabeth's spymaster, a secret and dangerous man. The dates don't always work, but Marlowe was often absent abroad, and his chief mission was apparently to penetrate supposed Catholic plots threatening the queen. More to the point, various criminal charges brought against Marlowe were dismissed or nol prossed, which meant he had powerful protectors. Finally, though, a warrant was issued on the charge of sedition, involving inflammatory anti-Protestant literature. Given the climate
Walsingham
of the time, however, this could have been a deception - a provocation, in present-day vocabulary, bait to draw out suspected conspirators.


In the event, Marlowe was ordered to appear before the Privy Council. He presented himself on May 20th, 1593, but the council didn't meet. He was told to keep himself available, until such time as they did. He was murdered on the 30th, ten days later, without ever testifying.

Four men spent the day drinking at a pelting house in Deptford. Kit Marlowe, Ingram Frizer, Nicholas Skeres, and Robert Poley. Frizer, Skeres, and Poley were dubious characters, loan sharks, confidence men, and all three of them had served in some capacity or another for the Walsinghams, either the late Sir Francis or his first cousin, Thomas, a one-time agent provocateur in the intelligence trade, now turned gentleman, and a member of the queen's court. At some point late in the afternoon, according to the inquest, Frizer and Marlowe got in a fight over the bill. Marlowe attacked Frizer, Frizer stuck him in the head with a knife and killed him. It was ruled self-defense. Kit Marlowe was buried in an unmarked grave. Frizer was pardoned inside of a month.

This much is known. The rest is speculation.


Raleigh
Sir Walter Raleigh's name surfaces. Although a favorite of Elizabeth's, he had many enemies, and his star rose and fell. There was plenty of malicious gossip being passed around. One story goes that Raleigh, thought to be no respecter or religion, hosted a coven of unbelievers, known as The School of Night. Marlowe was said to attend, as were Henry Percy, the Earl of Northumberland, and the astronomer Thomas Harriot. Nothing supports this, or even that the men knew each other, but it certainly thickens the plot, if plot there was. Supposedly, should Marlowe have been tortured, he might have incriminated Raleigh. This fabrication could have been circulated by Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, another of Elizabeth's favorites and a rival of Raleigh's. Essex went to the block in 1601, Raleigh himself was executed some years later, both men attainted by treason to the crown. No evidence suggests either of them had a hand in Marlowe's death. The circumstances have remained unexplained.

Shakespeare has the last word, in AS YOU LIKE IT. "When a man's verses cannot be understood, nor a man's good with seconded with the forward child, understanding, it strikes a man more dead than a great reckoning in a little room." The 'reckoning' refers to an unpaid bill, the 'little room' to a shabby kennel in Deptford.



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