From the outset it was certain to be an interesting and unusual evening, and uniquely tailored to Washington. After all, it was a gathering of what even the members of this clique like to call themselves—“spooks.” The intelligence industry. The men and women who have covers, and double covers. There was even a Hemingway in the room, along with the current director and former directors of the Central Intelligence Agency and a lot of men of a certain age wearing racks of colorful medals. Officially it was the annual dinner of the OSS Society, the onetime Office of Strategic Services, which in World War II was the predecessor to the Central Intelligence Agency. No one said whether the spooks deliberately chose the Saturday before Halloween for their gala, but there were a few revelers in costumes—dressed up, of course, as members of the French resistance.
There were so many ways the evening stood out, but easily the most memorable sight was what waited for each of the 800 guests at their tables: a perfectly dry gin martini with two olives on a toothpick (wood, not plastic). The martini took everyone back to one of the OSS’s finest hours: August 25, 1944, and Paris and the Liberation. The legend was that David Bruce, then an OSS colonel, and Ernest Hemingway, then a war correspondent, corralled two truckloads of resistance fighters and led them to the deserted but undamaged and open Ritz Hotel.
“Paris was a city my grandfather loved more than any other in the word,” said Sean Hemingway, visiting from New York, where he is a curator of ancient art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “He was proud to assist the OSS in the city’s liberation, and the liberation of the Ritz hotel is one of his most memorable moveable feasts.” He explained that when Bruce and Hemingway arrived with “their band of irregulars, the hotel manager greeted them joyously and asked if there was anything he could get them. Hemingway replied, ‘How about 73 dry martinis?’” That was the reason for the 800 gin martinis at a different Ritz, the Ritz-Carlton West End.
The martinis had to last the guests as they stood through nine separate toasts from a number of notable individuals, including former OSS members and decorated World War II veterans. The first toast was to the United States from Bernadette Casey Smith, daughter of the late CIA director William J. Casey, followed by a toast to the President, from retired Army colonel William H. Pietsch Jr., and a toast to the Allies, from 85-year-old John Douglas Slim, the second Viscount Slim, who inadvertently (or not) let slip a reference to “the Japs.” The audience tittered, but respectfully left it at that. Before raising his glass, he said, “I thought, ladies and gentlemen, that we would look inward, at ourselves, America and Britain; we are good allies, and this is going to be a toast to the allies.”
The fourth toast was to the OSS, from retired Army general John K. Singlaub, who is chairman of the OSS Society. A toast to OSS founder General William “Wild Bill” Donovan was given by retired Army colonel Sully de Fontaine, who recalled Donovan as “impressive” and as having given him this advice: “Young man, every organization needs a maverick.” There was a toast to the French resistance from Dr. Stephen J. Weiss, who was joined onstage by the costumed irregulars; Hemingway toasted his uncle, John Hemingway, and his grandfather; retired Army colonel Andy Anderson toasted absent and missing comrades; and former Marine Rob Townley asked the room to raise a glass to “those women with us this evening who have inspired so many young men to do great things.”
The guests at the dinner said things that could only be said at a gathering of the intelligence industry. When one man was asked if he knew a lot of the people in the room, he said, “There are a lot of people I know, but I don’t know how many of them I can say I know.” Carl Colby, son of former CIA director William Colby, said, “You’ll be lucky if you get anybody to give you their real name tonight.” A man dressed as a resistance fighter, complete with beret and an automatic weapon, said, “Is anyone here using their real name? Doubtful.” At dinner, I sat next to a couple, and the man said he used to be in defense intelligence. When he was briefly away from the table, I asked his wife if his current line of work was still related to the intelligence business. “I don’t know,” she replied. “He says he’s a banker.”
Many awards were presented during different parts of the evening, which was broken up by a performance of the United States Army Strolling Strings—they started the playlist aptly with “As Time Goes By”—and the meal, which included jumbo lump crab salad with mache, herb-crusted whole roast beef tenderloin with potato gratin and porcini sauce, and a dessert trio of crème brûlée, raspberry tart, and cherry-chocolate mousse, accompanied by Mondavi private reserve Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Of the seven awards given out, the main event was the presentation of the William J. Donovan Award to Robert M. Gates, the former Secretary of Defense, who spent 27 years with the Central Intelligence Agency, including as its director. He is currently chancellor at William & Mary College, his alma mater. The OSS Society said it gives the annual award to “an individual who has rendered distinguished service to the United States.” Donovan, who died in 1959, is noted for being the only person to receive the nation’s four highest decorations: the Medal of Honor, the Distinguished Service Cross, the Distinguished Service Medal, and the National Security Medal.
There were few men at the dinner who weren’t wearing medals, and it’s too bad that in addition to a menu and a program there wasn’t a cheat sheet to explain the derivation of each ribbon, patch, and medal. Guests departed with an assortment of relevant swag: a bag in which to carry their now-empty martini glasses, a General William J. Donovan coin, and an OSS pin with a good backstory. It features Donald Duck smashing bridges and Nazi armor and weapons with a hammer. It was designed for the OSS by Walt Disney.