Trend of Restaurants in Spycraft Shows Life and Art Imitating Each Other

literature and the cia enjoy a relationship dating back to the cold war

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

A recent CIA memoir shows the importance of eateries in the spy game, NPR reported. Restaurants as meeting places for spies is common in real life and fiction. Sometimes life imitates art in the world of international intrigue.

Old fashion diner with people eating in background
Rendezveous restaurants feature prominently in fictional spy thrillers, as well as in real-life spy missions. Photo by Erickson Stock / Shutterstock

According to NPR, ex-spy Amaryllis Fox’s new memoir Life Undercover: Coming of Age in the CIA mentions how carefully a spy must choose the proper venue at which to meet a new contact. Although it may sound like something from a James Bond film, Fox specifies out-of-the-way restaurants as ideal locations for early meetings that can establish trust between the operative and their source of information. The Hollywood image of the international spy is often lavish and exotic, but screenwriters do sometimes accurately portray life as a spy—and vice-versa.

The CIA’s Patronizing of the Arts

Some would be surprised to learn that the CIA’s influence on culture went far beyond the occasional spy movie, but during the Cold War, it often found itself serving as a counterweight to Soviet propaganda in what was called the “cultural front of the Cold War.”

“This involved the Agency trying to win the hearts and minds of foreign intellectuals,” said Dr. Hugh Wilford, Professor of History at California State University, Long Beach. “It was undertaken by presenting the United States as a source of cultural tradition rivaling that of communist Russia, [and] in the process, the CIA became a secret patron of American musicians, artists, and writers. It concealed its role behind international front organizations and fake philanthropic foundations.”

According to Dr. Wilford, some of these CIA contributions to the cultural voice of the 1940s and 1950s included the magazine The Paris Review, which was started by undercover operative Peter Matthiessen; and the 1954 animated adaptation of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, which was produced by the Agency’s Office of Policy Coordination to fuel anti-communist sentiment.

“Historians disagree about what effect CIA patronage might have had on American literature,” Dr. Wilford said. “Some think it was a necessary response to Soviet propaganda during the Cold War, and that the CIA merely provided money to support U.S. authors in what they would have done anyway. Others think that the clandestine patronage, in the form of hidden official subsidies, must have come with strings attached. If the CIA didn’t like what a writer was doing, it could take the money away and give it to someone else.”

How Fiction Returned the Favor

It’s likely more surprising that spy fiction influenced real-life intelligence communities than the other way around, and yet it did happen.

“Intelligence services older than the CIA—Britain’s, for example—were often peopled by writers such as Graham Greene; John Le Carre; and James Bond’s creator, Ian Fleming; all of whom had worked for the British secret state at some point in their careers,” Dr. Wilford said. “Ideas that first cropped up in spy fiction ended up crossing over into the real cloak-and-dagger world of Cold War spies.”

Dr. Wilford said that in 1959, Ian Fleming befriended then-CIA Director Allen Dulles and relayed to him many of the ideas for Bond’s trademark gadgets given by his quartermaster, Q.

“After Dulles returned to CIA headquarters, he instructed agency researchers to begin reproducing Bond’s gizmos,” Dr. Wilford said. “He later revealed in a magazine interview that agency technicians managed to replicate the spring-loaded poison knife shoe in From Russia with Love.”

According to Dr. Wilord, other examples include President John F. Kennedy asking Fleming for ideas on how to take down Fidel Castro and the influence of Rudyard Kipling’s Kim on the CIA-led 1953 government coup in Iran.

Dr. Hugh Wilford contributed to this article. Dr. Wilford is a Professor of History at California State University, Long Beach (CSULB). He was born in the United Kingdom and graduated with a B.A. with honors in Modern History from the University of Bristol. He earned his Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Exeter.