“The Room” in New York City
An excerpt from The Last Goodnight: A World War II Story of Espionage, Adventure, and Betrayal by Howard Blum.
“The Room” was a small, very select club, a secret society of rich and powerful men who liked to play at being spies. Its name was a veiled reference to their covert meeting place, a dingy apartment at 34 East 62nd Street in New York with an unlisted phone number and an impressive collection of wines. The Room’s keyholders all shared similar pedigrees, a provenance of recognizable family names, New England boarding schools, and Ivy colleges. But the group’s acknowledged driving force was Vincent Astor.
After the Titanic had sunk into the sea with his father, John Jacob Astor IV, on board, Astor had dropped out of Harvard to manage the family’s multi-million dollar real estate empire. Yet soon he was looking for more excitement, and instinct and opportunity conspired to push him toward the secret life. Here was a trade that provided not just the altruistic opportunity to protect the gilded establishment world he’d been born into, but also offered a rustle of adventure. A well-connected amateur could ply it as effectively, or so he innocently thought, as the scurrying professional.
With Astor setting the tone and often the agenda, the monthly Room sessions were informal intelligence briefings. One member would report, for example, on his trip to China. Another would give an insider’s report on the growing Japanese financial reserves at his bank. Astor would share what he’d discovered on his self-styled reconnaissance missions across the Pacific in his gleaming motor yacht, the Nourmahal. Notes of the discussions would be typed and then Astor, with a gravity normally reserved for state secrets, would distribute the Room memos to his important friends in the federal government and in the Office of Naval Intelligence.
Politics Takes a Turn During World War II
Playing intelligence agents proved to be an enjoyable sport for these worldly men; they were as happily occupied as boys in a tree house frolicking with decoder rings and secret writing kits. But in 1933 their freelance ops abruptly took on a new significance – Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected president.
Not only was FDR one of their privileged own, part of the Groton, Harvard, Knickerbocker gentry, but he was also Astor’s longtime friend. The new president soaked his paralyzed legs at the indoor pool on the Astor estate just down the dirt road from his farm at Hyde Park. When the pressures of his job grew overwhelming, he’d unwind with Astor and a tight circle of buddies, all members of the Room, on the palatial Nourmahal; “this is the only place I can get away from people, telephones and uniforms,” the president would write. And like the Room’s keyholders, Roosevelt, too, had a dilettante’s fascination for the intriguing game of espionage. He encouraged diplomats, generals, and journalists to bypass normal channels and pass their confidential reports directly to the Intelligence-Analyst-In-Chief. He did not hesitate to let his friends into this operational circle too.
Astor, particularly, relished his new heady role as the president’s very own secret agent. A entirely new way of living had broken through the tedium of his pampered life. What fun he had! There he’d be the undercover yachtsman steering the Nourmahal around the Galapagos islands to check out the rumor that Japanese ships were prowling the area for a covert base. Or he’d be playing the wireman with the yacht’s Direction Finder as he voyaged across the South Pacific, hoping to locate, as he wrote to Roosevelt, “the Jap Radio stations in the islands.” Or before taking on his next mission, he’d confidently share a bit of his tradecraft with his controller in the Oval Office: “Tomorrow I start working on the banks, using the Chase as the Guinea Pig. Espionage and sabotage need money and that has to pass through the banks at one stage or another.” And as director of the Western Union Cable Company, he’d disregard privacy laws and use his lofty position to scour the international cable traffic, and time after time he’d uncover a bounty of secrets. He’d forward to Roosevelt intelligence revealing the locations of Japanese gas storage facilities, burgeoning plots against the U.S. being hatched by foreign agents in Mexico City, and the existence of a larcenous ring inside the Brazilian naval commission, a group of hustlers who routinely collected pay-offs in return for the weapons they’d purchase in Washington.
Vincent Astor as a Secret Agent
Astor would detail his findings in meticulously organized reports, all designed to reinforce the personal nature of his small triumphs. But to ensure that they would have optimal effect – and, no doubt, because the proximity to power was a cherished part of the adventure – he made it his business to have frequent one-on-one debriefs with his controller. He’d meet with Roosevelt in Hyde Park or at the White House. The president would listen attentively, often offer words of encouragement, and, most gratifying, from time to time he’d suggest new missions. Astor would jump at these presidential commands. And it wasn’t long before the controller rewarded his agent’s diligence.
A presidential directive appointed Astor Area Controller for Intelligence Activities in New York. It was by design a secret post; Astor was to remain on inactive naval duty and his title was known only to the upper ranks of military intelligence. Still, he had an office and a staff in the Naval District Intelligence Office down by the Battery in lower Manhattan. And best of all, the gentleman spy now officially had the authority to play the game.
New York had always been Astor’s playground, but he found it was an even better place to be a spy. He rushed about the city, vigilant, on the prowl, looking for new opportunities. In that inquisitive way, he made it his business to get acquainted with Sir William Stephenson, the director of Britain’s then largely unheralded intelligence activities in America.
He had known the previous British Passport Control heads, Sir James Paget and Walter Bell. Both had been invited to speak at The Room. Afterwards, always the plotting fieldman, he had written to Roosevelt: “it occurred to me that Paget and Bell might from time to time obtain leads useful to us.” And as soon as he had heard Stephenson was coming to New York, Astor urged him to be his guest at the hotel he owned, the St. Regis; “my broken-down boarding house,” he called it with a millionaire’s hollow self-deprecation. Then when Stephenson, a stranger to the bewildering corridors of American power, was looking for guidance, it was Astor who helped him find his way. All it took was just a single telephone call – and there was Stephenson sitting across from the president of the United States in Hyde Park and having a cozy chat.
It was only a matter of time before Stephenson and Astor, two well-heeled and keen neophytes in the secret life, developed their own special relationship. Working together, they launched what became officially known as the “Ships Observers’ Scheme.”
The Ships Observers’ Scheme
An admiring memo from the Chief of US Naval Operations detailed the official operational scope of their plan:
“In cooperation with the British Intelligence unit in the Third Naval District, New York, New York, a plan for placing ship observers on American merchant vessels has been in effect for several months with excellent results. The plan involved cooperation between the British Intelligence and Naval Intelligence whereby certain ship observers placed on American vessels by British Intelligence were put under control of Naval Intelligence and certain additional observers were placed on American vessels by Naval Intelligence. Provisions were made for the mutual exchange of information….”
And so when the Excalibur, a ship of the American Export line, sailed from Portugal for New York in October, 1940, a quick-witted naval lieutenant was on board as an undercover observer. His name was Paul Fairly, but his officer’s rank was part of his cover. He was a yeoman assigned to Naval Intelligence.
An experienced operative, Fairly had received high marks for his previous shipboard work as a watcher. He was also young, handsome, and oozing with a confident charm. After mulling several possible candidates, Vincent Astor had decided he was just the man he’d been looking for.
This mission, Fairly had been told, would be different than his previous watcher assignments. It wasn’t the usual eyes wide open, report anyone or anything on board that catches your attention. This op had a specific target.
The target had originated with Bill Stephenson. There was “a person of interest” to the Service sailing on the Excalibur, he had told Astor. She’d done a few things in Poland that had first brought her to his attention, and now he was thinking she might be of use to the BSC. Before he made the offer, he thought it’d be prudent to have someone look her over. He had big plans for her, but he didn’t want to rush in without getting a better sense of whom she was. He was a businessman by training, and he’d learned due diligence was always a wise precaution.
Stephenson gave Astor a name, and Astor made sure it was passed on to Fairly.
The target was Mrs. Betty Pack.
To find out what happened next, read more about Betty Pack, Vincent Astor, and World War II Espionage in The Last Goodnight by Howard Blum.