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Spying through the Ages

February 10, 2019 Topic: Security Region: Americas Tags: MilitaryWarStrategyIntelligenceSpies

Spying through the Ages

"Twenty-first-century intelligence suffers from long-term historical amnesia."

Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, the celebrated (“Marriage of Figaro”) playwright who also moonlighted as an ancien regime espionage agent, was sent to London to cut a deal with d’Eon securing his permanent silence. Under terms of the resulting “transaction,” d’Eon was required to announce that he was, in fact, a woman, and agreed—perhaps a little too eagerly—to dress as one for the rest of his life.

On 21 November 1777, following a four-hour toilette supervised by Marie-Antoinette’s dressmaker, Rose Bertin, the 49-year-old d’Éon was at last presented in female dress at court to Louis XVI [who had succeeded Louis XV, his grandfather (and d’Éon’s old spymaster) to the throne] and his queen. “She had nothing of our sex except the petticoats and the curls”, complained the vicomtesse de Fars (among others). After a fortnight at Versailles, the court ended the embarrassment by banishing d’Éon to the provinces…While d’Éon languished in the provinces, Beaumarchais continued to combine a flamboyant career in both drama and intelligence. In May 1776, two months before the American Declaration of Independence, [he was]…authorized…to found a company, “at your own risk”, to supply arms to the American rebels…

From the start, the paper firm of Rodrigue Hortalez et Compagnie was a front operation, unofficially channeling military supplies to North American forebears of the Nicaraguan Contras two centuries later. As for the cross-dressing Chevalier, while Professor Andrew leaves him languishing in the French countryside, he soon grew tired of life in the provinces, returned to England and continued to dress as a woman, even when engaging in occasional pay-to-view fencing matches, before dying in debt and obscurity. An autopsy revealed that he was, as most people had long suspected, a man.

Where will it all end? Probably nowhere and never. As always, some leaders will be better at deploying their agents and evaluating their intelligence than others. The Secret World is an invaluable compendium of “past experience” in the field. I am confident that it will achieve well-deserved status as a classic, a learned and readable work that throws light on the shady world of intelligence and espionage and—not least of its virtues—entertains as well as informs its readers along the way.

Aram Bakshian, Jr. served as an aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, and has written extensively on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts for American and overseas publications.

Image: Wikimedia Commons