They Were Spies: Famous Folks Who Played the Espionage Game

Spy /spī/ noun: A person who secretly collects and reports information about an enemy or competitor.

Artists, in my experience, have very little centre. They fake. They are not the real thing. They are spies. I am no exception. – John le Carré, aka David Cornwell

If you should learn one thing from watching the Oscar-touted new film version of John le Carré’s classic of realistic Cold War-era cloak and dagger, “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” it’s that people in the espionage business should not be show-offs. If everyone knows you’re a spy, you’re not doing it right.

Nevertheless, documents get released over time, old stories get told, and the end result is that we now know of a surprisingly large number of world-renowned writers, actor, and others who have worked pretty high up, and sometimes rather low down, in the field of intelligence. On the other hand, whether or not some of them were actual spies is a matter of how you define spying. That’s why we like the rather inclusive definition we’ve placed up top. On his website, John le Carré, who worked for several years at England’s MI-6 and whose real name is David Cornwell, at first tells us he was not a spy at all, but then jauntily describes himself as a “spook” four paragraphs later. By any name, spies are cagey.

While a lot of these people were probably mainly bureaucrats, we’d add that the same thing could be said for le Carré’s most famed protagonist. Whether portrayed by Alec Guinness in the 1979 television adaptation or newly embodied for the big screen by Gary Oldman, the seemingly gentle and harmless George Smiley is a man one underestimates at one’s extreme peril.

In any case, some of the notables below were pretty deep in the trenches of the spy game, and some probably even killed people. Some may not really have been involved with intelligence at all, we can’t be sure. That’s one thing about dealing with espionage – it’s like it’s all supposed to be a big secret or something.

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Drink of the Week: The Americano

the AmericanoOf all the boozy discoveries I’ve made in the relatively short time I’ve been writing DOTW, easily the most personally fascinating to me is Campari and the great cocktail made with it, the Negroni. Mine is a lonely passion, however. American bartenders tend to play down Campari and Campari-based drinks, even while they usually stock it. It’s not hard to see why because it’s a dangerous drink, taste wise. It’s essentially the bitterest of bitters mixed with the sweetest of liqueurs. When you drink it straight — and you really should, just once — the sweet part leads the charge followed by a sharp, intoxicating punch of bitterness. Pleasure followed by a punishment I personally find quite addictive.

Fortunately, the Negroni is not alone among Campari-based cocktail classics. This history of the Americano goes back the mid-19th century, when it was first known as the Milano-Torino before the Italians noticed that we Yanks we’re taking to the drink. No doubt, that was because it does such a great job of softening the Campari 1-2 punch.

Wikipedia also points out that the Americano is the first bar order made by James Bond in Ian Fleming’s first James Bond novel, Casino Royale. Relax, however; you don’t have to be a super-spy to enjoy this and you certainly don’t need to be a super-mixologist to make it. In fact, it’s a perfect drink for lightweights and/or lazy bartenders with a mild adventurous streak.

The Americano

1 ounce Campari
1 ounce sweet vermouth
Carbonated water
Orange slice or lemon peel (optional, but desirable, garnish)

Pour equal parts Campari and sweet vermouth over ice cubes in a rocks/old fashioned glass. Top off with carbonated water of your choice. Add citrus slice/peel of your choice. Stir.

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If you’d like a bit more hydration or if you’d like to put a bit more distance between yourself and the Campari bitters, it’s also perfectly acceptable to make an Americano in a Colllins/highball, leaving more room for the carbonated water. As to the type of soda water, club soda or plain seltzer/carbonated water are fine, though I understand 007/Ian Fleming suggested using Perrier with it in the short story, “A View to a Kill.” On the other hand, since that magnificent snob recommended using the French mineral water as a relatively inexpensive way to improve “a bad drink,” he couldn’t possibly have been talking about the Americano.

  

Drink of the Week: The Gimlet

gimlet cocktailIt’s the start of another July 4th Weekend, but we are forgiving folk here at Drink of the Week central. In fact, we’ll be big about our little armed disagreement that began in earnest back in 1776 and choose a drink that highlights the U.S./English special relationship. We’ll get into the whys and wherefores in a bit, first the drink itself.

The Gimlet

Two ounces gin
1/2-1 ounce of Rose’s Lime Juice

Pour contents into a shaker with plenty of ice. Shake as vigorously and as long as you can stand, and pour into a chilled martini glass. Make a toast to English/American friendship and sip at will.

Since Rose’s comes pre-sweetened, there’s no need to add any sweetener. However, if you have a huge sweet tooth, you may demand that you have an older version of the drink — equal parts gin and Rose’s. When we tried it that way, we found it a bit excessive.

Now, usually, drinks made with fresh juices are going to be a lot better, but the gimlet appears to be rare exception. We actually tried it with 1 ounce of fresh lime juice and a teaspoon of sugar, but it wasn’t as good as the version with Rose’s.

Now, the history: The source of the name of this very refreshing, very summer-appropriate, cocktail may be one Sir Thomas Gimlette, an English Royal Navy surgeon who eventually rose to the rank of Surgeon General in the early 20th century. It’s possible that part of what got him to that esteemed post was that, back in the later 19th century, he had popularized the anti-scurvy properties of Vitamin C-rich lime juice among his fleet by encouraging the men to mix it with a bit of London gin. Thus, he helped begat the not-so-flattering term “limey” for English sailors and, eventually, English people in general. Of course, the gimlet might also be named after the hand tool used for drilling holes, but we don’t find anything particularly refreshing about that.

Whatever its origins, the gimlet wormed its way into American culture and, perhaps because of the dry, warm weather, found some notable fans in our native metropolis of Los Angeles, a city that many notable limeys Englishman have called home over the years. One famed Angeleno gimlet fan was British-American mystery writer Raymond Chandler, the creator of detective Phillip Marlowe, who mentioned the drink at some length in one of his greatest novels, The Long Goodbye, which is also the widely quoted source of that original 50/50 gin/Rose’s recipe we mentioned above. (If our memory is correct, the drink isn’t featured in Robert Altman’s equally great 1973 movie quasi-adaptation. Nothing is perfect.)

Much, much lower on the artistic scale than anyone we’ve mentioned, Edward D. Wood, Jr. of “Plan 9 From Outer Space” was another gimlet hound. Wood, who drank even more in real life than he did in the Tim Burton-directed biopic starring Johnny Depp, apparently liked gimlets made with vodka so much that his “adult fiction”-writing pen name was Telmig Akdov.

As for variations on the Gimlet, we’ve already mentioned that it can be made with vodka, and we’d argue a rum gimlet might actually be superior to one with gin. One variation we’re not so found of, however, is that tendency to sometimes serve this drink on the rocks. Earlier this week, we tried a high end ($15.00!!!) version made at an ultra-glam Hollywood-area hotel. Despite the inclusion of both Hendrick’s Gin (possibly our favorite) and cucumbers, which always seems to improve cocktails made with that particular brand, it was a disappointment taste wise. We were not asked first if we would prefer it “up” and it was one option we should have been given. One more reason to cherish really good bartenders when you find them.

  

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