A conversation with Australian author Richard Flanagan about his latest book “The Narrow Road to the Deep North.” The Man Booker Prize-winning novel is based on his father’s experience as a slave laborer in a Japanese POW camp during World War II.
Juan Pujol Garcia is an unfamiliar name today. Born in Barcelona in 1912, he dropped out of school at an early age and was a failed businessman. Yet he is considered one of the greatest spies of World War II. In 1941, Pujol became an informer for the German forces, but what no one knew was that he was working as a double agent for the British. In what a British spy called “the greatest double cross operation of the war,” Pujol helped divert Nazi forces from the beaches of Normandy, making an Allied victory possible. Author Stephan Talty talks about this in his new book, “Agent Garbo.”
- Stephan Talty author and New York Times best-selling author of "Empire of Blue Water."
Photos Of Agent Garbo
Read An Excerpt
Excerpted from “Agent Garbo: The Brilliant, Eccentric Secret Agent Who Tricked Hitler and Saved D-Day” by Stephan Talty. Copyright Stephan Talty © 2012. Reproduced by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. On June 6, 1944, allied troops landed on the coast of Normandy, France, to fight Nazi Germany. Known as D-Day, the battle proved to be a turning point which led to allied victory in the second world war. A new book tells the improbable story of a Spanish spy who helped shape the battle of Normandy and defeat the Nazis. It's titled "Agent Garbo," and author Stephan Talty joins me in the studio.
MS. DIANE REHMI hope you'll join us as well for this fascinating story. 800-433-8850. Send us your email to firstname.lastname@example.org, join us on Facebook or Twitter. Good morning, Stephan. Good to have you here.
MR. STEPHAN TALTYGood morning. Great to be with you.
REHMIs it true that you came across a single sentence about this fellow and that set you off on all of this research?
TALTYI did. I'm a fan of espionage, and I read a book and I thought there must be four or five great titles on this subject. And I went to Amazon, as everyone does, and there was just one memoir by Juan Pujol himself, and I ordered it and I read it, and I realized it was a spy's memoir. It was full of half truths and evasions, and the real story had never been told. So basically, I moved with my family to Madrid where his family still lives and they showed me the letters, his photographs. And it was a wonderful year, but, I mean, the story is really what made it.
REHMDid his family know everything he had done?
TALTYWell, we can talk about that a little later, but essentially they thought he was dead for 30 years. After the war, he was afraid of Nazi reprisals, and he broke up with his wife. She took the kids back to Spain and they lost contact for three decades. So he paid a very high price for what he did.
REHMI should say. He was a failed chicken farmer.
TALTYHe was really like a Walter Mitty figure. He grew up with this incredible imagination. He was a great dreamer, but when World War II came, he was a nobody. He was 29 years old. He was managing a dump of a hotel in Madrid, but he had these grandiose dreams about sort of saving western civilization.
REHMAnd helping in some way.
TALTYYes. I mean, his father was an idealist progressive, and he'd instilled these moral ideas in Pujol that you have to stand up when freedom is threatened, and, you know, he hadn't done that. He'd been a disappointment to his family, to his father, and to himself.
TALTYHe really just failed at everything he tried. I mean, from chicken farmer to -- he was an indifferent student, he was a terrible solder, he was a disaster as a businessman. I think part of it was his imagination didn't really suit him for normal life. He was looking for that one big opportunity that so few of us get to really exercise that one incredible gift that he had. In every other way, he was ordinary.
REHMYou know, it was fascinating that he avoided service during the Spanish Civil War, but that war clearly influenced him.
TALTYYeah. He just didn't want to kill a fellow Spaniard in a cause that he didn't believe in. So he had deep experience both with the Nationalists and the Republicans, and he was really appalled by both of them, by their rhetoric, by the massacres in the streets, and it really sort of turned him off to sort of both those sides. But when...
REHMBut how did he avoid service?
TALTYHe hid out. I mean, if you've seen the movie "The Pianist" -- there are a lot of Hollywood moments in Pujol's story, but if you've seen "The Pianist," that was very much like his life. He hid out in a girlfriend's home. He lost weight. He couldn't even like walk, you know, briskly across the floor in fear that the neighbors would hear him. And so he -- it was a kind of a courageous thing to do. He could have been put up against a wall and shot for it, but he just did not want to kill, you know, someone in the name of Fascism or in the name of Communism.
REHMBut then came the Second World War and I wondered, as I was reading through this book, whether a certain amount of guilt propelled him. Guilt that his fellow citizens in Spain had died during that Spanish civil war and that he really wanted to make some kind of contribution however naively he went about it.
TALTYI think you're right. I think especially with Hitler he saw something that was just uncompromising evil, and he could no longer sort of choose not to take a side. So there was guilt. I think there was a desire to live up to the ideals of his father. He also had a beautiful new wife, Araceli, who we can talk about, but she was ambitious and she was beautiful, and I don't think -- I think he knew that as a hotel manager he might not be able to keep her because she just had great dreams like he did, and he had to do something extraordinary to sort of live up to this woman.
REHMSo what was the first step he took toward that something extraordinary?
TALTYWell, he was in Madrid, which was Fascist controlled at the time, and he decided to go to the British Embassy and sort of offer his services. So he marched into the Embassy...
REHMHe just walks in?
TALTYHe was very naïve in the beginning. He walks in, and he says, I wish to offer you my services, and the response he got was, your services of what? I mean, who are you? He had no skills, he had no connections, he had no training. And so they really laughed at him. He was kind of a comic figure, and he went there four different times and realized he had nothing to show them. So what he decided to do was become this pseudo-fanatical Nazi, go into the German Embassy, pretend to be a Nazi, and volunteer to be a German spy, and then he would have material to go and offer the British, and offer himself up as a double agent.
REHMSomebody had to be pretty stupid on the other side to accept him as a spy.
TALTYI think that was a minor part of it, but, you know, what he did was extremely dangerous. Madrid was honeycombed with Nazi informers and spies, and he met with a guy named Federico, who was a trained spy runner, and Pujol was just so good at what he did. I mean, he sat down and he just made up stories, and he made you believe them. I mean, he could have been like a great ponzi schemer, a great swindler, but he could sort of use his gift for good. But, I mean, the Germans were trained. I mean, there were a lot of people trying to get out of Madrid, trying to get to freedom. So he was chosen among many. So I think his skill level was really extremely high, even at the beginning.
REHMWhat kinds of stories did he make up in order to convince the Germans?
TALTYWell, he tried a couple and they didn't really buy them. So what he did was he went to Lisbon, and Lisbon at that time was really the capital of intrigue. It was a place where even the hotel bartenders and the chambermaids were working for one spy agency or another. And what he did was he found a guy who had a special diplomatic visa. We talked about Hollywood moments. This is sort of the "Casablanca" moment. And he went into the -- he befriended the man -- everyone sort of fell in love with Pujol, got the visa out of his luggage, went to all these shops in Lisbon, had it copied -- reproduced down to the last stamp, and basically walked back to the German office in Madrid, showed it to his spy runner Federico, and this is really a document that people would have killed for Lisbon.
TALTYI mean, it was really -- you could anywhere in the world and escape to the west with this document. So they were highly impressed, and that was really the first coup of his career.
REHMAnd once having committed that coup, what came next?
TALTYWell, he went to Lisbon pretending that he was in London.
REHMPretending he was in London...
REHM...while he's in Lisbon the whole time?
TALTYYeah. He was just scouring the city looking for things that he could put into his bulletins. He would go to see a movie and there would be a newsreel about a destroyer and he would suddenly have two pages in his head what the destroyer could do, how it was outfitted, what the torpedoes were like. He was just, you know, he could have been a great thriller novelist. It just was natural to him to do that. And so he would send these really fabulously long and very convoluted messages about all the things he discovered, and the interesting thing is that even when MI5, the British agency analyzed those messages, they refused to believe he hadn't been in London when he wrote them because they were so accurate and so convincing that it was impossible that he had been in Lisbon when he was doing it, but he was.
REHMAnd he was doing all this from reading newspapers, magazines, watching films, creating in detail these messages he would pass then to the Germans. MI5 began picking them up?
TALTYRight. MI5 had broken the German codes with Enigma -- the Enigma machine, and the really turning point came when he sent a message about this convoy, this British convoy that was headed to Malta to attack them, and the British picked this up in their, you know, in their offices in London, and they called the British Navy and they said, no, there's no such convoy. But they were terrified to think that some spy had, you know, crept through their defenses and was now broadcasting from London, and so they had to sort of figure out who it was.
TALTYAnd they put two and two together. They realized that this comic figure that had been wandering into their embassies, you know, demanding to volunteer, was the same guy who had suddenly gained the Germans' confidence, because the Germans sent Italian fighter planes, they redirected destroyers to attack this imaginary convoy. And they thought the spy who had such power to really move the German high command was valuable.
REHMAn incredible story of a ruse on both sides. Stephan Talty, his new book is titled "Agent Garbo: The Brilliant, Eccentric Secret Agent Who Tricked Hitler and Saved D-Day." You're welcome to join us, 800-433--850. Why is he called Agent Garbo?
TALTYWell, in their debriefing, they went through all his messages and the interesting thing I found was that a lot of double agents didn't get very much respect from MI5. They had code names like Weasel or Cocaine or Washout. But Pujol impressed them so much, they thought he was the best actor in the world, and the best actor in the world in 1941 was Greta Garbo, so that's the name they gave him, because he was able to sit down and convince you of anything.
REHMWhat did he look like, Stephan?
TALTYHe was almost handsome. I mean, he was an interesting looking guy.
TALTYHe was about 5'9", very sort of confident manner about him, handsome brown eyes. Everyone talked about his warm, brown eyes. That was sort of the first key to his role basically.
REHMAnd his role as Agent Garbo, who really saved D-Day for the allies, more about him and your calls when we come back.
REHMAgent Garbo is the name given to Juan Pujol Garcia, a man who first volunteered his services as a spy to the Brits. The Brits thought the guy was nuts. He then went to the Germans and convinced them somehow that he could be a good spy for them. In fact he became a double agent working for British security forces. Stephan Talty has written a book about Juan Pujol Garcia and the book is titled "Agent Garbo." Do join us 800-433-8850. Stephan, how did he manage to convince the Germans? Weren't they very, very skeptical of him at first?
TALTYThey were skeptical of him, but a lot of his things by luck or just by his own talents checked out. And then when he got to London and he'd hooked up with MI5, he was smuggled to London in 1942.
TALTYBy MI5 and they started giving him what they called chicken feed, which was completely true military information that was not very important, but it was called build up. You build up the character. You build up the confidence in this double agent and you slowly groom for bigger things. And that's what they were doing. The interesting thing I found is just as an example of how good he was, when he was being debriefed by MI5 in London in those first weeks, they went through his messages and they were fine. They all checked out.
TALTYAnd they asked him about his motivation, like why are you here? You're from a neutral country. Why are you risking your life and that of your young family to come work for the Allies? And he just told them the story about his brother Joaquin, his older brother, who'd left Spain, gone to France and was driving along a country road and saw the Gestapo pulling out innocent victims from a farmhouse, lining them up against a wall and shooting them.
TALTYAnd Joaquin came back told Juan the story. He was so moved and so galvanized that he had to do something. What I found out in my research was that Joaquin had never been out of Spain. He'd never been to France. There was no massacre. This was Juan Pujol making sure.
REHMMaking up another story.
TALTYYes. I mean for a good cause. He wanted into MI5. He wanted into Allied Intelligence. He wasn't going to sort of leave it to risk. He told the best story he could possibly think of. And that's just what he did. I mean I'm sure he thought up that story on the spur of the moment. So not only did he fool the Germans but essentially he fooled the British to get in.
REHMVictoria in Rochester, N.Y. sends us an email saying "I was struck by Mr. Talty's comment that Garcia was a failure in everything else he tried in life. That is such a parallel to Otto (sic) Schindler. I wonder if Mr. Talty has thought about that?"
TALTYYou know, I hadn't until this very moment. But I think that is the wonderful thing about these stories. When you have people with one very specific gift that doesn't work in normal life and they meet their historical moment, they find a niche in history where they can really just use their skills to the ultimate level. And then they step into it and really, you know, bloom in those circumstances. And that's really what Pujol and Schindler did. They saw their moment and they grasped it.
REHMOf course, "Schindler's List" became a magnificent motion picture. Has there been any interest in this?
TALTYThe film rights are still available, Diane.
REHMAnd you're hoping, I think you're absolutely right. Of course, Pujol spent months studying Hitler, did he not?
TALTYYeah, he considered Hitler a demon and it just stood out even from General Franco who he knew in Spain. That he wanted -- in one of his quotes, he said, "I wanted to start a personal war with Hitler and I wanted to fight with my imagination." I mean, but who gets to do that? Who can really sort of mold themselves into a matched spy within the course of a year? But he did that.
TALTYHe created 27 sub-agents. They were spread out from Buffalo to Rio De Janeiro. So he really created in his own mind this global network and that's what the British really took advantage of. They were able to report on American airplane production from one of his agents. They could report on a convoy leaving Liverpool. So wherever there was a fake story, where they wanted some misdirection, they wanted Hitler to look at this specific spot that's where Garbo would place his sub-agent. This imaginary guy.
TALTYAnd they even sent out scouts, real MI5 agents, they would go into the local hotels, the local bars and just give local color that Pujol could pass back, you know. They really sort of thought of this almost in Hollywood terms. This was a long-form narrative. They had agents that appeared and they were killed off. One agent was even -- his death notice appeared in the Liverpool Post, completely imaginary man. But the Allies really backed him up with these physical, you know, with this physical alternate reality that he could then sell to the Germans.
REHMAll right. Now tell me how his wife is fairing during all this time.
TALTYThis is really sort of one of the more tragic chapters in the book. Araceli and him were partners in crime. They trusted each other with their lives at the beginning. I mean, had they been found out, they would both have ended up in concentration camps.
REHMWas she helping him?
TALTYShe was helping him. She was essential in the beginning. She brought him -- brought his story to the American Embassy and got him noticed by the British. But when they went to London, everything changed. He got an MI5 handler, a partner to work with, Tommy Harris who was a brilliant guy in his own right. But Araceli was stuck at home with, you know, unfamiliar foods, with two babies. She hated England. It was, you know, it was war torn, it was dark. She didn't know the language.
REHMShe went back to Spain.
TALTYShe wanted to. And this is one chapter that is almost unbelievable that she got so frustrated with him and with his work that in 1943, she threatened to go to the Spanish Embassy and blow his cover. And MI5 was horrified. I mean, they were placing so much emphasis on him. He was the point of the spear, if you will. He was really the most trusted agent of the Germans in London. And they had control of him. So they couldn't let her go back to Spain, you know, at any cost.
TALTYSo they went to Juan Pujol and they said, you know, what are we going to do about this? And he created this scheme where he was going to convince her that her threats were really endangering his life. So MI5 called her up and said, he's been arrested. He slapped the head of MI5 and in defense of your honor because, you know, we told him what the accusations were. And they brought her to a prison in a black police car. And there he was in prison clothes.
TALTYAnd they said -- he said to her, you know, I'm going to have a trial tomorrow. They're going to pass judgment on me. It might be execution. And so she was faced with a scheme where her threats had really almost endangered his life. This was all made. This was another Juan Pujol scheme. And even MI5 was a little horrified. They said, you know, if Araceli finds out about this, your marriage is over. But he really felt that he had the lives of thousands of GIs, the future of Western Civilization on his back. And he just couldn't let this dispute threaten that.
TALTYSo he took a very tough almost ruthless course of action. She was devastated by this scenario, went home apparently tried to commit suicide by gas. Her family -- and I believe that she was a great actor in her own right so she was probably faking it. But it just shows that he had learned these incredible skills as a spy and he was forced at the last moment to turn them on his own wife, you know, to use his skills to convince her that she could not blow his cover.
REHMSo she remained there in London.
TALTYShe swore she'd never, you know, threaten his cover again. She stayed in London, but I think really at that moment the marriage was broken. You know, these people who had trusted each other with their lives could no longer really live together. And so that's another price that he paid after the war. The marriage split up.
REHMStephan, the importance of this story really comes down to D-Day and Normandy and the fact that somehow Juan Pujol managed to convince the Germans that the Americans were going to land at Calais as opposed to Normandy. How did he do that?
TALTYWell, the Allies were faced with this huge challenge. How do you disguise really the greatest human invasion in history? And they really decided that double agents, especially Garbo and another called Brutus, were their best weapons. And so what they did is created a million man army, a totally phantom army that did not exist. And they began having Garbo report that they were in the east of England in Dover and surrounding areas. And Dover is the natural jumping off point for an invasion of Calais.
TALTYSo Garbo began to weave this incredible story. His agents were seeing divisions moving towards Dover and they sent out wireless traffic. They had these things called spoof vans which were really just vans with transmitters. Could drive all over England and they could imitate three divisions. So they could have the Germans believe to put a pin in the map that this division is at this location pointed at Calais.
TALTYAnd behind him was, as I mentioned, this real whole Hollywood production. They had fake airfields, fake destroyers. They had a guy, a British soldier, imitating Monty to try to throw the Germans off. They even had a brilliant scheme where they told the Germans that people were buying up insurance for art works that were all along the fake path of invasion. You know, they were insuring these Monets and these Cezannes, you know, towards Calais, thinking the Germans would make the leap that ah, the invasion must coming here because they're trying to preserve the great works of art.
TALTYBut really Garbo was the point of the spear. He had Hitler's confidence and it was really going to come down to him. Did the Germans believe him or were they going to see this invasion in Normandy and have Garbo tell them wait, there's another army coming at Calais. Normandy was just a feint, it was a fake attack. If they didn't believe him all those reserves were going to come down from France and from Belgium and D-Day could, you know, turn into a blood bath in the days right after June 6.
REHMYou know, I recently saw a movie about D-Day and I distinctly remember the German general not believing that Normandy was going to be the landing. That it was going to be Calais and what you're telling me now is that that information had come through Pujol.
TALTYIt had come through Pujol and this other double agent, Brutus. And it was something where I think, you know, a lot of Americans think of D-Day being one day. It wasn't one day.
REHMOf course not.
TALTYEisenhower was really even more worried about the days after when those reserves, those Panzer divisions and those troops -- thousands of troops poured down and hit his forces in the small towns of Normandy. And that's really where Pujol stepped in. On June 9 he sent a message that he had sort of collected his brain trust. He'd collected all his sub-agents, the best of them, and asked them what is happening at Normandy? Of course he had no brain trust. This was just Pujol himself. And they said our conclusion is that Normandy is definitely not the real attack.
TALTYHe sent that on June 9 and Hitler was faced on that day with a decision of whether to send those reserves and attack the Americans. And he basically turned those Panzer tanks and turned those soldiers around. He said we have information that the real attack is coming at Calais. So even in that moment I think he probably saved thousands of lives. And he really helped turn the battle because a lot of people don't realize that the battle after D-Day and the late days of June and July was really tougher than the Allies expected.
TALTYThe fighting at places like Caen. Terrible fighting. So had the Germans had much, you know, much more power, more Panzers, they could have been a totally different battle.
REHMStephan Talty. His new book is titled "Agent Garbo." And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We're going to open the phones now. We've got lots of folks waiting. 800-433-8850. First to Jacksonville, Fla. Good morning, Louie, you're on the air.
LOUIEGood morning, Diane. Good morning to you and how are you?
REHMFine, thank you.
LOUIEMy question was -- I'm actually a psychology major here at school, The University of North Florida, and in my -- one of my, like, focuses is on psychological warfare. But I am reading a book by Thaddeus Holt called "The Deceivers" and they had a chapter in here talking about Garbo. And I was just wondering if Stephan had any kind of information if Garbo had, like, any kind of contact with other MI5 double agents or SIM agents or even AGIR double agents?
TALTYNo, he was kept very isolated. His handler, Tommy Harris, was sort of in charge of coordinating his work with the other double agents. But sort of on the psychology footnote -- I think that one thing what Garbo did was he created a character that was very much unlike himself, this tempestuous, Mediterranean, temperamental man. And so he really manipulated the Germans not only with information, but with personality.
TALTYWhen they doubted anything, he said he would threaten to quit. And he would say, I'm a fanatical Nazi, you're just sitting there in the cafes of Madrid and I'm here, you know, risking my life and my family. And they would always return and say, you know, send him extra money or send him these incredible letters of congratulations. And I just think that instinctively Pujol knew how far to push them, knew how to really manipulate them almost like a lover would in threatening to quit and threatening to blow the operation.
REHMAll right. To Enrico in Dallas, Texas. Good morning.
ENRICOGood morning, Diane. Thanks for taking my call.
ENRICOQuick question. I wanted to know from your -- from the person over there. Is that a possibility that this man was afflicted by a form of schizophrenia not unlike the protagonist of the movie "A Beautiful Mind"?
TALTYNo, I don't think so because, you know, in the rest of his life, he never sort of used this alternate personality that he created. I mean -- I was going to talk about this later, but later after the war, he was dead broke. And he could have, you know, he could have been one of the great Ponzi schemers of all time. I really think that had Pujol been on Wall Street, Bernie Madoff would have invested with him.
TALTYHe was just that good. But he never went back to that personality. Never tried to, you know, run a scheme on anybody else. All his neighbors said he was a very honorable guy. So it's not something that he was sort of doing compulsively. He used it very selectively when he did it.
REHMDo you think he could have had help from those within the Nazi regime who wanted to see an end to Hitler?
TALTYThis is one theory. I mean, there was a colonel named Von Rohn who was really the last analyst of all of Garbo's information. And what he was doing was increasing the numbers of the divisions, the order of battle that Garbo was sending. But he was doing this mainly because he saw Garbo's, I mean I'm sorry, he saw Hitler's lieutenant's lowering those estimates because they wanted to please Hitler and they wanted to give Hitler what he demanded and that was an optimistic view of the war.
TALTYSo I don't think Von Rohn and the others that were sort of involved in this were really trying to aid Garbo. They weren't really allies of the British. What they were trying to do was get an accurate assessment of what the Germans were facing. And that's what led them to really change the assessments.
REHMWhen they changed the assessments, how did Hitler react to that?
TALTYWell, Hitler never really trusted spies. This is one of the fascinating things about the book is that you get a sense that the Germans really hated spies and the British loved them.
REHM"Agent Garbo," that's the name of the new book by Stephan Talty. When we come back, more of your emails, your calls. I look forward to hearing from you.
REHMWelcome back. Stephan Talty is with me. He's written a fascinating new book about a man that few people recognize. He has been called Agent Garbo after one of the most famous and secretive actresses of the time. He was a man who literally helped the allies save Normandy. And here we go to Lawrenceburg, Ky. Good morning, Jack. You're on the air.
JACKGood morning, good morning. I hope to clear this simple question. That far back and over that great distance how was he able to quickly and securely communicate all this information to the Germans, for example?
TALTYYou know, there's a great story with that. One of the things he did for buildup to sort of convince the Germans he was real, when they invaded North Africa he was given all the details by the allies, really confidential information about where the attack was coming, who was going to lead it. And he wrote that all in the telegram -- in the letter I should say and he sent that to his handler, Federico. And this is something that could've really doomed the invasion had it got to him in time.
TALTYBut of course the allies had planned this out and they slightly delayed the delivery of the letter. Federico open s it, reads the details of, you know, this huge invasion of North Africa and realizes that the invasion has just taken place two days before. So the letter was sent before the invasion. He had the information before the invasion. This just boosted him enormously in the eyes of German high command. But what they did is sent him a radio transmitter.
TALTYSo going toward D-Day in 1943 and 1944 he was sending coded messages. He would get new codes and he would just transcribe his messages in Spanish and they would send them to Madrid. So he had almost instant communication with the Germans.
REHMSo what do you make of that, Jack?
JACKOh gosh, because we're in such a different age of technology I couldn't help but wonder how he could affect the communication, especially securely. But that answered the question beautifully.
REHMGood. Thanks for calling.
JACKOh, thank you.
REHMAnd, you know, you mention that Hitler hated spies. How did General Eisenhower feel about spies?
TALTYWell, initially he, like a lot of the other generals, had very little use for them. But when he was in the Mediterranean Eisenhower commanded the Mediterranean forces and he saw how well they did, how they could really influence battle. And so when it came towards D-Day there were many in the British command, in the allies, even in Churchill's office who thought that this whole deception thing was going to be an enormous failure and a waste of time.
TALTYAnd a lot of deception planners had troubles getting warships. They had trouble getting troops because generals thought, why should we waste these men and these resources on imaginary fairytales? But Eisenhower was a convert and Churchill loved espionage, loved the daring do and the skullduggery of it. And he read Garbo's dispatches by night with a cigar and he was just fascinated by this whole thing. So it was really those two men who really backed up what Garbo was doing.
REHMSo you're saying that Eisenhower also knew of Garbo?
TALTYHe knew the name Garbo after the war. He actually met Tommy Harris his handler to thank him because he had asked the deception operation to hold the German reserves back for 48 hours. That was his -- that was sort of his standard of success but they were held back for weeks and months. There were -- I mean, we were talking about into fall that the Germans were still holding crack Panzer divisions back in anticipation of this phantom army that Garbo had created and sold to them. So for 48 hours really to months just shows how effective Garbo really was.
REHMWow. Were there others like Garbo?
TALTYThere were. I mean, there was -- Brutus was a Polish airman. There was a guy named, I'm sorry, Agent Tricycle who was a Serbian playboy who was very daring. He would go to Belgrade and meet Gestapo officers face to face and hand them over, you know, documents that MI5 had given to him. So they each sort of had their specialty.
TALTYTricycle was very good person to person. He could -- he just had that daring do and that confidence, while Garbo was really the fabulous. He could dream up, you know, subagent after subagent. He could create these incredible schemes in his mind. And that's -- you know, a lot of agents you couldn't do that with. You were just sort of -- you had to sort of force feed them the information.
REHMYou know when you talk about pyramid schemes and ponzi schemes it does seem as though Agent Garbo built this imaginary pyramid where one thing could have brought the whole thing crashing down.
TALTYRight. I think the caller was talking about sort of the age of the internet and everything. And Garbo could not have existed in this atmosphere that we have today. I mean, had the Germans made one more phone calls, had they checked one more source, especially in the early days when he was in Madrid or he was in Lisbon, he would've been sent off to a camp. There's no question.
TALTYSo even the British when he finally made it to London they were astonished that he'd survived because of the riskiness of what he'd been doing.
REHMHere's an email from Virginia in Muskegon, Mich. who says, "I'm puzzled by the current use of the term double agent. Isn't a double agent a person who gives genuinely actionable information to both sides?"
TALTYNo. A double agent is someone who is pretending to work for one side when actually working for another. So Garbo was the classic double agent. And actually when he first went to London they suspected he might be a triple agent, which actually those actually exist where someone comes to say I'm pretending to work for the Germans, I want to work for you. But they are secretly working for the Germans. And so they're sort of investigating the mind of the British war machine. So that's why he was debriefed and that's why his messages and his whole motivation was sort of gone over in very fine detail.
REHMAnd yet you say he ended up broke, miserable. How much were they paying him for this kind of information?
TALTYGarbo almost singlehandedly funded the double cross operation. They were paying him over a million dollars by the time the war was over. Because he had so many subagents he had to keep these men fed, had to keep them motivated, had to give them bonuses when they did great thing. And at the end of the war MI5 gave him a chunk of that money and he went to Venezuela very much worried about Nazi reprisals attacking his family.
REHMBy this time his wife had left him?
TALTYNo. His wife...
TALTY...Araceli went to Venezuela with him giving the marriage one last chance. And he bought a big farm and, you know, went back to his dream of being, you know, a farmer on a big scale. But a Venezuelan dictator came into power in 1948. The farm was confiscated so he was dead broke again. That's when Araceli left and went back to Spain.
TALTYAnd she actually had a fabulous career back in Madrid. She married the body double for Rudolph Valentino and they began one of the great art galleries in Spanish modern history, the Chrysler Gallery, which is still there. And it's run by Juan Pujol's son, Juan. And I spoke with him in the back of that gallery and he was telling me the story of his father and how he disappeared for those three decades. The man broke into tears. It was really a moment for me when I realized that this story still has human consequences. His children are still alive. His grandchildren are still alive.
TALTYSo he lost touch for that 30 years and wasn't reunited really until 1984 when a British spy writer rediscovered Garbo living in Venezuela. Everyone thought he was dead. That was sort of his last caper. He initiated his own death to throw his pursuers off the trail.
REHMBecause he was afraid of German reprisal.
TALTYHe was. Throughout his life he was. And so he was brought back to England for the D-Day celebrations in 1984 and walked those beaches. And there were a couple of great moments. He was with a group of veterans and the veterans just thought he was another soldier. And a newsman asked one of the Americans, he said have you heard of this man Garbo? And the guy said, yeah, I think I've heard of him. He was a spy, et cetera, et cetera. And the newsman said, well he's standing right next to you. And the two of them embraced.
TALTYAnd I think, you know, there is no monument to Agent Garbo. He hasn't even received an American medal, but that moment was his -- that was his reward to see these men that he'd saved with their daughters and their sons and their grandchildren. To him -- he was sort of an old fashioned humanist. That's what he wanted to see. He wanted to protect the lives of those young men in that battle and to sort of stand up for freedom and individual dignity.
REHMDid his wife go on to have other children?
TALTYNo, she did not. They raised those children in Madrid. And interestingly when Garbo reemerged there was a reunion with the kids and with Araceli back in Barcelona after really 40 years. And the kids went to their mother and said, you know, what approach do we take? This man is walking back into our lives after three decades. And they said -- and she said to them essentially, don't be bitter. You know, you can either approach this with bitterness and recriminations or you can embrace this old man who -- which he was at that time -- and sort of enjoy the last years of your father's life.
TALTYAnd they did. I mean, it's really a testament to them. They sent letters to him...
REHMBut he had married again.
TALTYHe had a new family, yes. A new family in Argentina -- I'm sorry, in Venezuela. But the Spanish family really embraced him and they didn't ask too many hard questions. But those -- that moment when his older Spanish son Juan broke down, just told me that -- you know, they still felt the devastation of not knowing their father for 30 years.
REHMAll right. And to Laurel, Md. Good morning, Tom.
TOMYes. I was wondering if Garbo ever read "Cervantes" and very few people know Cervantes was a genuine military war hero and was idealistic and had to put up with the upper crust of Spain that was incompetent, just like the upper crust of Britain that was incompetent, and the arrogant Germans that were incompetent. And they were all done in by a genuinely heroic, idealistic man.
TALTYIt's funny you should mention that. In his letters that I read in Madrid, he sort of gave his granddaughter a reading list and Cervantes was on the list. He loved Cervantes. He loved Jules Verne. He loved the sort of quest authors about people who do, you know, fantastic things. And...
TOMWell, the other thing is I'm reading James M. Gavin and he had to put up with the idiocy of Floyd Browning and Montgomery and all these fools that they thought they were military heroes, but they were just ne'er-do-wells where Gavin was the old style leader from the front and, you know, sat down and drank with his men, fought with his men, was actually a bastard by birth. And those knuckleheads were just self-made men.
TALTYYeah, I mean, I think Monty's a controversial figure still. I think he was definitely an inspiration. I don't think he lived up to his own hype as far as what he believed he did in his own mind. But there are a lot of these figures that we're still discovering like Garbo who are sort of the unsung heroes of World War II.
REHMYou think there are more out there?
TALTYI think we're running out pretty fast. I mean, there have been a lot of books lately but I think maybe one or two are still out there.
REHMStephan Talty. His new book is titled "Agent Garbo." And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go now to Pittsfield, N.H. Lester, thanks for waiting.
LESTERNo worry. Thank you, Diane.
TALTYStephan, what a great book. Interesting story.
LESTERLast question I guess, what's the -- what did he do in those 30 years after the Venezuelan government nationalized his farm?
TALTYHe was translator for Shell Oil and he and his wife opened a little gift shop in a hotel in Venezuela. A lot of his businesses -- he tried to open a cinema, he tried to open a guesthouse. They both failed. So he was -- you know, he led a really ordinary humble life. The most interesting thing I think was that he's one of the few people both to get an MBE from the British -- member of the British Empire and he was also given the Iron Cross by the Germans, who still -- after the war they thought he was still a hero.
REHMThey still thought...
TALTYAbsolutely. I mean, there were people years after who thought that Garbo was still the most brilliant spy they'd ever employed. And he just got a huge kick out of that. He loved bamboozling the Nazis.
LESTERDid he die a happy man?
TALTYI think he was content, especially after going back -- he died in 1988. The reunion at D-Day was 1984. So he had four years to sort of, you know, bask in the recognition of what he'd done. He had tragedies in his life. His daughter died. He lost his Christian faith because of that. But I think he died knowing that he'd sort of made his contribution to the world.
REHMHow did she die?
TALTYYou know, I think it was a car crash. It's slipping my mind at the moment but he was devastated by that. And that's one of the sort of mysteries. I mean, he was so close to his children. Such a warm and loving person and yet he has this family in Spain that -- I think spies are able to have different compartments in their lives and he was certainly able to do that.
REHMWe have an email from John who says, "Was Garbo actually pursued by the Germans after the war?" If they gave him that cross, for heaven sake, I gather they felt he was their hero.
TALTYHe -- you know, his last mission was -- he was sent by MI5 to go to Spain and interview Federico and his boss, Kulenthal (sp?) and see if the third Reich was going to become the fourth Reich. They wanted to know if the Nazis were going to go underground. And so he sort of marched into the lion's den and these guys, if they had known, they would've shot him immediately. And he interviewed them and they still thought he was a kind of espionage god and just gave him compliments, gave him more money.
TALTYAnd so basically he proved at the end the delusion was still working and was able to report back that, you know, these guys had no plans for a fourth Reich. And that was really his last service to the allies.
REHMBut, you know, it's so hard to believe that even after the war was over they still believed he was on their side.
TALTYWell, some intelligence agents on the German side actually believed that Garbo did not exist, that he was a creation of MI5, the he was a phantom himself. But they were really confused because he'd sent so much good information, like the invasion of North Africa, so much accurate stuff that they thought that maybe he'd been bamboozled by his own sources about this phantom million-man army.
TALTYSo there was definitely a difference of opinion. There was rivalries within German intelligence. Some believed he was a fake. Some believed he was, you know, a tool of British intelligence. But there was always those diehards who thought that, you know, he was their greatest spy of all time.
REHMAnd one last question from Felice. "Was there any relationship between Pujol and Operation Mincemeat?"
TALTYNo, there was no direct connection. And that's another great story. Ben Macintyre wrote a great book about that. But, no. Garbo had his own capers and D-Day was really his masterpiece.
REHM"Agent Garbo" by Stephan Talty. The name and the author of really a fascinating book. Thank you, Stephan.
TALTYThank you for having me.
REHMAnd thanks to all of you for listening this morning. I'm Diane Rehm.
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