“The Princess Spy: The True Story of World War II Spy Aline Griffith, Countess of Romanones” by Larry Loftis; Atria Books (384 pages, $25.49)
First, she was a small-town girl turned Manhattan model, sporting the latest Hattie Carnegie designs. Later, she was the Countess of Romanones, a royal jet-setter who partied with Audrey Hepburn and Jackie Kennedy.
And in between? A secret agent for the U.S. government, spying on Nazis in Franco’s Spain and Communists in Cold War Europe while fending off the advances of German spies and lovesick matadors.
Any one of Griffith’s three lives could have made a book. Perhaps that’s why, in her spare time, she wrote several memoirs.
But spies, writes Larry Loftis, are “skilled at creating an alternate reality.” So his “The Princess Spy” peers behind Griffith’s years of cover stories to reveal the truth.
Which, in her case, was as exciting as any spy novel.
Born in Pearl River, New York, in 1923, Griffith grew up comfortably middle class, attending the College of Mount St. Vincent before moving to Manhattan. Slim and attractive, she was soon a busy model.
Then came Pearl Harbor. Her kid brothers immediately enlisted. Griffith began to feel unpatriotic just modeling clothes. A year passed. She only grew more impatient.
When a stranger at a dinner party asked if she were planning to become a famous model, she snapped, “Not if I can help it. I want to get into the war — overseas.”
He stared for a moment, then began questioning her. Was she married? No. Did she speak any foreign languages? Yes, French and Spanish.
“There’s a slight possibility I can help,” he said. “If you should happen to hear from a Mr. Tomlinson, you’ll know.”
Griffith forgot about it. Then, a month later, her phone rang.
“This is Mr. Tomlinson,” the voice said. “Be in the Biltmore lobby at 6 o’clock. A man with a white carnation in his lapel will be looking for you. Don’t mention this meeting to anyone.”
When Griffith arrived, the man with the white carnation told her he might have a government job for her. He passed her a slip of paper with a Washington address and told her to pack a suitcase — but first strip any identifying labels from her clothes.
Her cloak-and-dagger days had begun.
In D.C., Griffith was whisked off to a Maryland estate, identified only as The Farm. Other job candidates had already arrived, and Griffith was the youngest. “You are in the first school of espionage in the United States,” an instructor informed them. “You are here to be made into spies.”
It was the beginning of the Office of Strategic Services, the CIA’s predecessor.
Training began immediately: lockpicking, cryptography, small-arms training. One class demonstrated how to turn a newspaper into a lethal stiletto. Every recruit’s bedroom was bugged; at night their teachers listened in. No one wanted a spy who talked in her sleep.
After a month, Griffith received her assignment to work in Madrid. She would pose as a secretary while decoding messages and reporting on any German activities. Technically, Spain was neutral, but the fascist nation was full of Nazi sympathizers.
The pay was $2,800 a year, plus overtime.
Madrid was exquisite and boasted a sophisticated nightlife. Her first night there, Griffith went for a late dinner, then attended a flamenco performance. The next morning, men knocked at her door.
Their employer, the great matador, Juanito Belmonte, had “beheld the senorita” at the flamenco concert, and dispatched them to find her and pay his respects.
It was a sign that Griffith would not be lonely in Madrid. It was also a sign that secrets were easily revealed. No one was supposed to know her name or where she lived, yet here they were.
When Griffith wasn’t decoding dispatches from other agents, she was gathering essential information. This required moving in society’s highest circles.
Griffith made herself a fixture on the Madrid social scene. She was a regular at the opera and fine restaurants. Weekends meant invitations to some noble’s country estate. And every month brought a trip to Balenciaga for a new dress.
It was all a cover for the real work she was doing.
At one mansion, she peered inside their guest book, scanning for Nazis, and fought off the drunken pawing of a German admiral’s nephew. At a posh nightclub, she peeked into a private room and discovered SS head Heinrich Himmler secretly working in Spain.
The danger was constant. “O.S.S. employees did not have diplomatic cover,” Loftis reminds readers. “And espionage was a capital crime.”
In Malaga, to pass a list of safe houses to another spy, Griffith was briefly jailed for traveling without proper papers and nearly exposed. In Madrid, she lent her apartment to two Spanish agents on the run. Returning late one night, Griffith found one of the women murdered in her bed.
Griffith never knew if the assassin had meant to shoot her instead or why they spared the other agent. A hurried call to headquarters brought the immediate, quiet arrival of two colleagues. They sneaked out the corpse, wrapped in a blanket. The other agent would go on her way.
If sections of Griffith’s story read like James Bond novels, other parts feel closer to Harlequin romances. At one point, she was pursued by five separate admirers.
There was Pierre, another O.S.S. agent she met at The Farm. Juanito, the matador — who liked to present her with bloody bull’s ears. Edmundo, a representative for Walt Disney Studios and part-time spy. And Benito, an Argentinian ambassador who Griffith wanted absolutely nothing to do with.
The jealous Juanito was the most persistent. For months, Griffith worried that Nazis were surveilling her only to discover it was Juanito’s servants keeping an eye on her. Yet, it was the fifth suitor, Luis, a handsome count, who won her heart. He hinted at marriage.
Meanwhile, the war and the O.S.S. were winding down. Her bosses gave Griffith a choice to quit now, or wait while they assembled the CIA. They even had her next assignment selected — in Switzerland.
In turn, Griffith gave Luis his choice: Marry me, or I’m taking this new job. “I work for a living,” she reminded him. Her ultimatum: Announce the engagement, or she leaves for Zurich.
He finally proposed. And, she finally told him what she did.
“You, a spy!” he said, bursting into laughter. “Really, Aline, you do have a great imagination!” He told her not to share her fantasies with her prospective in-laws. “It wouldn’t improve their opinion of you,” he warned.
By now, Griffith was hardly a stranger to secrets. Being a spy suited her. She kept quiet. She also kept in touch with her old bosses.
A decade after the war, Griffith received a call from Washington. Given her social status and global travels, would the countess, now an elegant mother of three, do an occasional odd job?
She told them yes. She told Luis nothing.
“The work she did for the CIA during this period,” Loftis notes, “remains classified.”
Luis died in 1986. Soon, Griffith published her first, lightly fictionalized book of memoirs, “The Spy Wore Red.” Other books would follow. Griffith died in 2017, at 94. It had been a long, rich life.
In fact, it had been several.