|Paris, Summer 1970|
In 1970 I was in my junior year at Cal. Though nominally an econ student I was far more pre-occupied with being a campus radical — an “inside” agitator, to turn a phrase, whose bête noire was the war in Vietnam. I was in love with a sophomore named Krya Santini with whom I spent most nights. Kyra was tall, beautiful and shared my passion for left wing causes.
In February I’d received a $5,000 inheritance from a recently deceased grandmother so determined that Kyra and I would take a break from politics and Berkeley for a six-week European vacation after the Spring semester ended in June.
We flew to Paris the day after my brother’s wedding, arriving at six a.m. local time, jet lagged and hungover. We took an expensive taxi ride to a hotel in the Latin Quarter, Hôtel des Arènes, overlooking the Arènes de Lutèce, a park that had been an outdoor arena in Roman times. It required all my persuasive powers to convince Kyra — and for that matter, myself — that the wisest course was not to collapse into bed but to start acclimating ourselves to the time change by getting out and enjoying our first day in the City of Light. Several strong cups of coffee in a nearby cafe helped us on our course.
Stepping out of the cafe we found ourselves on a large avenue called the Rue Monge and with no conception of what was where, began walking. It was a happy accident that we found the famous bookstore, Shakespeare & Company where Hemingway, Joyce and others of the Lost Generation had convened. After buying a bag full of books we exited the store and were surprised to see Notre Dame, not two hundred yards away.
“If we keep wandering around aimlessly we may discover the Eiffel Tower, Napoleon’s tomb and the Louvre before dinner,” I joked.
Eventually we made our way back to the hotel noting the occasional beggar and street person and the ever-present smoke from powerful French cigarettes. Even as a part-time smoker I was occasionally overwhelmed, especially when we stopped in a cafe for a glass of wine. Kyra, who never partook of tobacco, nearly gagged.
But we found Paris to be beautiful, especially its architecture. Even the grimy grayness of some of the buildings provided something of an old world charm.
It was Kyra’s first day in a foreign city — she was mesmerized.
“I want to live here, Charlie. There’s an elegance and at the same an intimacy to the city. Everywhere you go it’s like looking back into time.”
“I don’t know if this makes sense,” I said, “but it seems such an intelligent, sophisticated city.”
“I know exactly what you mean. Being here I feel so inspired to learn, read, study and explore ideas.”
In part owing to our enthusiasm for the city, we managed to keep each other awake until nearly nine o’clock then slept for eleven hours, awakening refreshed and ready to be tourists.
Virtually our entire second day in Paris was spent at the Louvre.
“Comparing the museums I’ve visited to the Louvre is like comparing McDonalds to a fine restaurant,” I told Kyra, who enthusiastically agreed.
“If I lived in Paris I’d come here everyday,” Kyra said. Having developed a greater appreciation for art from Jason’s art shows, I was in full agreement.
The next day we visited the Eiffel Tower then Les Invalides where we gazed upon Napoleon’s tomb. Heading back to our hotel room we walked through the Luxembourg Gardens.
Ravenous and exhausted we decided to stop at a bistro to rest our aching feet and sate our appetites. I was using my rudimentary French, acquired in an extension course I’d been taking, to decipher the menu when I noted a couple seated at an adjacent table, looking at us.
“Excuse me, are you Americans?” The man asked. He was tall, handsome, rugged looking like an athlete, probably in his mid to late twenties.
‘Uh oh, we’ve been found out,” I said. “Guilty.”
“That’s okay, so are we,” he said smiling. “I’m Riley McKinnon.
“I’m Susie Donnelly,” said his companion, a lovely woman with dark curly hair and cherubic face.
Kyra and I introduced ourselves.
“Where you from in the states?” Riley asked.
“Far out, man. That’s one of the places where it’s happening.”
“Indeed it is,” I answered. “And you?”
“I’m originally from Kansas but went to New York for college and live there now. Susie’s a native of New York.”
“Specifically, Queens,” she added.
At Riley’s suggestion we shared a table.
I found Riley to be affable, intelligent and thoughtful. Of Susie I developed no strong impressions as she was mostly silent, often looking at her partner admiringly, always smiling, laughing, frowning or appearing serious on cue.
The four of us found common cause in our opposition to the war and distrust of the American government. We also took turns extolling the virtues of Paris. Riley, who was well-traveled, suggested places to see and restaurants to dine at during the Rome and London portions of our trip.
From the bistro we went bar-hopping eventually finding ourselves in a neighborhood where Hemingway once lived that was not far from our hotel. Riley pointed out Hemingway’s former apartment. “We’re on sacred ground,” I told Kyra. We entered a small, dark, crowded pub where a table had recently been vacated. After ordering drinks I went to the restroom. As I stood at a urinal a short middle-aged man with long dark hair and a thick mustache came up to me. In heavily-accented English he said, “you should be careful that man you are with is CIA.”
He might as well have told me that there was a talking dinosaur at the bar.
“He calls himself Riley McKinsey, is that not correct?”
“McKinnon, not McKinsey.”
“It is all the same. He is recruiting assets, that is why he is with you now.”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“Please, sir, I know what I speak about.”
“And just who exactly are you?”
“My name is László. I tell you the truth. These are things I know about. This man McCannon is CIA. I have no reason to lie to you sir. Be careful.”
László looked me in the eyes, patted me on the shoulder then left.
I didn’t know what to think.
When I returned to the table I gave Riley a good look. Was it my imagination or was there something too perfect about him?
With a haircut he’d look like a soldier, lean and well-built with an erect posture. It occurred to me that a lot of what he said was obvious and cliched. There wasn’t anything particularly original in his observations, particularly his criticisms of the United States. He suddenly seemed ingratiating, almost cloying.
Was I being paranoid?
But why would a mysterious stranger claim someone I was with was a CIA agent?
What exactly was an asset? Did it mean you were asked to give information, perhaps spy on people?
Never in a million years would I give the CIA so much as the time of day.
Meanwhile I was not participating in the conversation and was lost in thought.
“Earth to Charlie, what’s going on Boyo? You’re totally spaced.”
“I suddenly don’t feel well.”
“Oh no, is it your tummy?”
“Hmm? Yeah. Maybe we should head back to our room.”
“If you need to.”
“That’s a drag,” Riley said. “Need any help? Should we call you a cab?”
“No thanks, I can make it. We’re walking distance.”
“Here let me give you my number. Call us tomorrow, we’ll get together, this was fun.”
Riley scribbled his name and the name of his hotel on a piece of paper. “Where you staying?” He asked.
The lie came easily: “We’re not happy with where we are now so we’ll be looking for another place tomorrow.”
“Then call us in the morning, I can help you find something.”
Kyra was baffled. We were perfectly content in our hotel.
When we got outside she asked me what that was all about.
I told her about László.
Kyra’s response surprised me: “I believe it. There was something robotic about him, like he was repeating memorized lines and it was like he was trying too hard. I wasn’t going to want to hang out with them any longer anyway.”
“Goddamn, the CIA. I find the whole thing hard to believe but I believe it all the same.”
“But we’re not really changing hotels.”
“Did we ever tell Riley where were staying?”
“We just said in the Latin Quarter.”
“Okay, we can stay.”
“Well, we’ve got a story to tell people when we get back to the states.”
“If they believe it. I’m having trouble with it myself.”
I kept an eye out for the mendacious Riley for the rest of our time in Paris, which marred an otherwise wonderful time
A few days later we took the train to Rome where we again marveled at old world charms and nearly grew fat on the culinary delights. We’d been there for two weeks when it was time to board a plane for London and the final third of our vacation.
Having gotten to the airport early we reposed in a bar where we enjoying a few glasses of Campari. We had just acknowledged to one another that we had a delightful buzz from the liquor when we noted a disturbance at one of the gates. Heavily-armed uniformed men were wrestling a man to the ground. “You’ve got the wrong guy!” He yelled in English. I went for a closer look and noted that the man being held was none other than Riley McKinnon. He was frantic.
“The man you want is getting away!” I got the impression that none of the arresting officers understood English.
As they propped the American into a standing position another man approached, an Italian in a suit who looked and acted like he was in charge. He barked orders at the officers who immediately let go of McKinnon. “Scusami mi dispiace,” one of the officers said to him, which I took to be an apology.
The man in charge started to speak to McKinnon in English. “I am so sorry for this, these men — ”
“Never mind that, Hereford is getting away.” With that McKinnon turned and led the men towards another gate. Soon they were out of sight.
By this time Kyra had come out and was standing next to me.
“That was the American from Paris, wasn’t it.”
“Yup. That scene kind of confirms that he’s some kind of agent.”
“Probably CIA, like your mysterious friend said.”
During the rest of our trip and in the months to come we occasionally speculated about Laszlo and McKinnon but having nothing solid to go on we could only go so far with our musings. It did make for entertaining stories to share with friends which we did regularly.
Kyra and I broke up about a year later. The war in Vietnam ended. Campus radicalism eventually took a backseat to my studies and I got a job and became part of the establishment I’d once reviled.
Twelve years after the Summer of 1970, I had just become a father for the first time, living comfortably in Marin County with my wife Lena and our daughter Emily. I was watching the evening news one night when there was a story about an American businessman whose body had been found in East Berlin. He’d been strangled to death. I recognized the man to be Riley McKinnon though on the news they gave his name as Terry Corbin, from Hartford, Connecticut.
I called my wife away from washing the dishes and told her about the news story and my evening in Paris with the mysterious man. But she seemed more interested in Kyra, a past love I’d only mentioned in passing. I’d been out of touch with Kyra since we broke up so had no way of sharing the news with her. Maybe she’d seen the same news story or read about in the paper the next day. It was big news for awhile though there was never any reference to McKinnon — or Corbin — working for the CIA. The last time I saw anything in the New York Times about his death, it was still classified as unsolved.
A few days ago I picked up a copy of “My Secret Life in the CIA” by Wendell Rifkin a former agent who was in hiding. The book has created quite a stir as it reveals details about the agent’s work over a three decade career. The author mentioned a fellow agent whose real name was Latham Orgonickle but who went by both Riley McKinnon and Terry Corbin. There wasn’t much of interest about Orgonickle/McKinnon/Corbin except that he privately espoused extreme right wing views and hoped that the military would take a more pronounced role in running the U.S. government. Rifkin added that McKinnon’s death was not related to his work for the agency, but the work of a jealous husband whose wife had had an affair with the agent.
That, no pun intended, closed the book on Riley McKinnon’s brief appearance in my life.
One another note, I recently googled Kyra and found that she was back in Berkeley where she co-owned a health food store. I called her at the store and we had a nice chat, especially enjoying reminiscing about the time we were courted by a CIA agent.
Kyra concluded the call by saying, "Now if we can just find out who Laszlo was...."