The Countess of Romanones Commands a Dazzling Cast in Her Second Memoir of Espionage, the Spy Went Dancing
05/07/1990 at 01:00 AM EDT
Impeccably dressed, imperially slim and immensely wealthy, the Countess of Romanones is not unlike the lionesses of Manhattan society who lunch at Le Cirque: The posture is perfect, the jewelry important and the beauty improbably well preserved for a woman of 68. She takes her Diet Coke from a champagne glass, and her pied-à-terre off Park Avenue is done in the rich reds favored by her friend the late Diana Vreeland. Her address book is plump with names such as Nan Kempner, Carolina Herrera and Ivana Trump, and a private secretary fields her invitations.
This, however, is no social X ray who amuses herself with trips to Marbella and Sotheby's art auctions; beneath this perfectly tailored size-6 jacket beats the heart of an adventure junkie—a former CIA operative who packed a pearl-handled pistol for years and who still adores intrigue. "Espionage becomes like a drug," she says. "It makes life very exciting. You know things other people don't know—you're always going under the surface."
In New York the Countess of Romanones (Aline, to her friends) is perched on a gilt chair in her living room. In the bookcase behind her are the Spanish, French and Portuguese editions of her splashy 1987 memoir, The Spy Wore Red-a skillful account of a World War II mission in which she tracked down Nazi sympathizers among the haut monde in Madrid. Now she is back on the New York Times best-seller list with The Spy Went Dancing—a delicious tale about the true life hunt for a NATO mole in which the Duchess of Windsor served as her confederate. Writing about espionage, she says, has sustained her since the 1987 death of her husband, Luis. "When you're in a book," she says, "you become obsessed."
Her own life has played itself out like a romantic thriller. Born in Pearl River, N.Y., where her father sold real estate and insurance and her mother was a housewife, Aline Griffith marked time as a model during the early years of World War II, wishing that she could be flying fighter planes instead of sashaying down runways in little black dresses. On a blind date in Manhattan, she met a recruiter for the Office of Strategic Services—forerunner of the CIA—and in short order was sent as a spy to Madrid, where she was told to infiltrate high society and was given an expense account for Balenciaga gowns. In the course of a perilous assignment to track down a Nazi agent, she embarked on a cat-and-mouse romance with Luis Figueroa y Perez de Guzmán el Bueno, the Count of Quintanilla and, later, of Romanones. Their three-year courtship was derailed several times by secret missions; their 1947 nuptials were hailed as Spain's wedding of the year.
Although even the most ambitious screenwriter would have stopped there, this heroine couldn't wait to return to her life as a spy. After giving birth to three sons (Alvaro, now 39, Luis, 38, and Miguel, 37) and securing a place in the Best-Dressed Mall of Fame, Aline went back to work for the Company in 1954. Her conservative husband—who had learned of her calling only after they became engaged—was vehemently opposed to his wife's placing herself in peril, and she told him little about her missions. "I thought, 'Why burden him?' " she says. "In a way, it was selfish. I was trained as a spy very early, and it became a part of me. I got accustomed to living with a certain amount of tension: I would have frightening encounters, and I would be quaking, and I couldn't tell Luis." The duplicity took its toll—mostly, she says, in the form of "a not very elegant diarrhea."
In The Spy Went Dancing, she unveils a complex story that spans nearly 20 years, interweaving a wartime search for artworks stolen by Nazis with the hunt for a mole who pilfered NATO secrets during the '60s. Aline's compatriot Wallis Warfield Simpson plays an impressive supporting role. A close friend who was consumed by boredom in her Paris villa, the Duchess of Windsor was delighted when the Countess asked her in 1966 to help make contact with suspects in the NATO case. Code-named Willy by the CIA, she stalked her prey at fancy-dress balls and pumped unwitting informants at Maxim's. "Part of what makes the countess's book so wonderful," says one critic, "is its almost incidental look at the high life—intrigue-filled dinners in Europe's best restaurants, elegant shooting parties, romantic festivals in Spain. You just can't make this stuff up."
Like Aline, the duchess was compelled to keep her spying from her husband; while the duke and the count talked about golf in the Windsors' sitting room, Aline whispered with Wallis in the boudoir about Operation Magic. "What she did, she did very well," says the countess of the duchess's spy work. "She felt that she had nothing worthwhile that she was doing with her life, so when I mentioned this to her, she said, 'Oh yes, I think I'll have those people for dinner.' She didn't even realize the extent to which she would get completely immersed."
The persistent rumors branding the Windsors themselves as Nazi sympathizers are "preposterous," the countess says. "I know those stories backwards and forwards, and they're absolutely untrue. The duchess was extremely American, and one of the most patriotic women I've ever known. I would only involve someone in a mission if I felt they were totally conscientious and trustworthy."
Of course, the business of spying often leads one outside the drawing room, and it was the countess herself who took on the messiest missions. While on the trail of Nazi art thieves, she was obliged to patronize a Madrid dressmaker whose dingy apartment was thought to harbor stolen paintings. Returning to the flat when she believed it to be empty, she disguised herself as a shabby crone to get past the porter. But as she was breaking into crates containing the paintings, she was confronted by the dressmaker's grown son, who came at her with a pair of sewing shears. She felled him with a judo thrust to the groin and fled.
More often, though, the countess can disarm people with plain charm. In conversation she instinctively gives her unwavering attention and compliments that are almost subliminal. Says her friend Dominick Dunne (The Two Mrs. Grenvilles): "What I like about her is that she zeroes in on you when she talks to you—although she's extraordinarily glamorous, she doesn't have any society airs."
But she does have the sort of ambition that causes delicate shudders among the ladies who lunch. "She wanted to have this writing career," says Dunne, "and by God, she did it." These days, the countess is at work on a book about thwarting a planned assassination of Morocco's King Hassan II in the '70s—and while many of her past assignments must remain secret, she says that she has several more book-length adventures to tell. There is no time, she says, to dish or plan dinner parties. She is leading a double life again, and that is how she wants it. "A writer is a kind of spy," she says, "an unconscious spy. You use everything that's ever happened to you, and you're never, ever bored."