Sunday, January 8, 2012

Getting to Know "The Man Nobody Knew" (Rhoades

Getting to Know
“The Man Nobody Knew”

By Shirrel Rhoades

“My father was the ultimate gray man,” Carl Colby says, his voice sounding much closer than Mexico. He was talking to me about William Egan Colby, the spymaster who served as head of the Central Intelligence Agency from September 1973 to January 1976. His dad.
“He was invisible, the last person you’d notice at a diplomatic reception.” An intelligence gatherer.
He’s been described as someone who couldn’t easily get the attention of a waiter in a restaurant. Yet he was one of the most powerful men in the world as director of the CIA.
As a boy Carl thought his dad was a diplomat. In those earlier days the family had been stationed in Stockholm, in Rome, and in Saigon.
“One day another kid told me my father worked for the CIA. I went to my father and asked him if that were true, was he like James Bond? He leaned close with a slight crease of a smile and said, ‘Well, let’s keep that our little secret.’ We never discussed it again.”
He was a member of the club and I supported the membership.
In Rome, clergy often visited the Colby household. The CIA was working with the Vatican to help sway the elections for the Christian Democrats.
And in Saigon, the Colby family lived next door to the palace. One day it came under attack. Colby hid his son under a stairwell and went upstairs to phone Washington. “After a while I got restless and wandered upstairs and showed myself in the doorway. ‘Get down,’ my father shouted as rounds from 50-caliber machinegun ripped through the room. ‘You all right?’ he asked and I replied yes. He invited me over to the window to watch the battle raging outside. I saw a guy get shot next to the tree where I played. After a while, my father said, ‘Well, you better go downstairs, sport,’ and continued monitoring the battle for the CIA. Surprisingly, I wasn’t afraid with my father there.”
I tell Carl about my friend Elizabeth who had known his dad, used to go to Washington DC to attend parties with Colby. When she was a girl her father had been a ‘diplomat’ in Turkey and a big black Volga followed Elizabeth and her twin sister to and from school. She said they always felt safe with the Russian KGB looking after them.
Carl says his childhood was like that too. “In terms of fear, I never feared for him, never feared for myself. He was so coolheaded.”
“It was a fascinating way to grow up,” Carl observes. “How could I never have stayed awake at night worrying about him? I never thought, What happens if he doesn’t come home?”
A devote Roman Catholic, William Colby was known as “the warrior priest.” As a young soldier he’d bought a first edition of T.E. Lawrence’s autobiography at the Strand in London. It caught his imagination. “So that’s what he became,” notes his son, “the Lawrence of Arabia of every hot zone in the world.”
During World War II Colby had joined the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the CIA. Next thing you knew, he was parachuting behind enemy lines, blowing up bridges in Norway. He rose through the ranks, eventually working in concert with John F. Kennedy on a counterinsurgency leading to the 1963 coup in South Vietnam. He headed the Phoenix Program, sometimes referred to as a “death squad.” He also ran the CIA’s secret war in Laos. When asked by a young CIA recruit, “Is this going to work out?” he replied, “I dunno, probably not,” acknowledging the fatalism of their mission.
Colby eventually became director of the CIA. His brief tenure was known for its transparency and many reforms. But when the Nixon White House asked him to stonewall Congress, he couldn’t do it. He served a higher calling. His revelation about “the Family Jewels,” the Agency’s darkest secrets, capped his career. Newly appointed President Gerald Ford replaced him with one George H. W. Bush as DCI. “A sacrificial lamb,” some said, referring to the unpopularity of his CIA policy of openness.
“There’s something like an ‘invisible government’ running the show,” Carl says, the phone signal from Mexico wavering in my ear. “There are more than 200,000 people with Top Secret clearance in the Washington DC area alone.”
I joke about our call being monitored. He chuckles, noting, “There are surveillance programs that pick up key words.” And we’re saying them all as we talk about his dad’s career in the CIA.
William Colby was an affable, yet steely man. Carl describes him as “an Edwardian schoolboy,” an adventurer, an only child whose mother “gave him all the love he was ever going to need.” He didn’t show his emotions, he didn’t express how he felt about his family.
Colby led a clandestine life, his job compartmentalized from his family life. “As a spy you can’t tell your wife where you’re going. You can’t explain to your son why you missed his soccer practice. Where have you been? was never asked in my family.”
Sometimes the job became the life. “My father had been in Indonesia with his deputy Bob Myers. At the time it was the hottest zone possible, ‘The Year of Living Dangerously’ tripled. Coming home from the inspection trip, my father suggested they go out for a drink. Bob clasped him on the shoulder and said gently, ‘Bill, you’re home, go home.’”
The CIA offered a fraternity, a bonhomie. “I sometimes think I would have preferred to work for my father than be his son, as I would have been closer to him,” Carl told me wistfully.
But the son didn’t follow in the family trade. “I worked for the CIA for a summer,” he admits. “But it wasn’t my world.” For a career he became a filmmaker. His award-winning documentaries explored the art world. “Strokes of Genius” was a TV mini-series about painters like Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. “Legends in the Light: The Photography of George Hurrell” was a portrait of the famous Hollywood lensman. He interviewed stars like Sharon Stone, Raquel Welch, Loretta Young, and Katherine Hepburn – not spies and secret warriors.
Even so, he couldn’t help asking himself who this man he’d known as his father really was. William Colby had died in 1996 under mysterious circumstance, a boating accident that had been viewed by some as a suicide. This was after leaving his family behind, starting a new life. In 1984, he had divorced his wife Barbara and married diplomat Sally Shelton-Colby.
“Suicide, I don’t think so,” Carl told me, citing a conversation with his dad two weeks before his death. “He’d been upset over his removal from the CIA, but he didn’t show it. ‘It was better for their business,’ he’d said, upper lip quivering just a bit. He was extremely good at compartmentalizing.”
Colby had “jettisoned the family,” walked away from old friends, found new friends. “‘To hell with the past,’ he’d said.”
On that last phone call his father had sounded “kind of woozy.” He had cryptically said his end would not be like in the movies. “Oh, that will never happen to me. One day I’ll be walking along a goat path on a Greek island and fall to the sea.” He fell off his canoe in the waters near his home in Rock Point, Maryland.
“Maybe he was the gray man,” mused Carl. “Maybe the family was just a cover. I started to ask myself, could the family have been a lie too.”
So he undertook making a documentary about his father.
The euphuistic title says it all: “The Man Nobody Knew: In Search of My Father, CIA Spymaster William Colby.”
Despite the personal quality of this film, Carl doesn’t appear on camera very much. “This isn’t about me,” he says as if trying to convince himself of that.
“The Man Nobody Knew” was produced by Carl Colby, with David Johnson and Grace Guggenheim, for Act 4 Entertainment. “Grace was great at turning up archival footage. I think I looked at every scrap of film showing my father.”
His producer David Johnson pushed him to go further into personal doubts. “Are you sure about this?” counseled David when they began the project. “What if you turn up something you don’t like about your father?”
Carl did. But at the same time he learned much about the murky world of espionage and the dedication of men like his father. “It’s a quiet, selfless service,” he says.
But his was a more basic quest: finding who his father really was. “It’s the oldest story in the world: Who’s Abraham?” he makes a Biblical reference. “I was afraid I was becoming him, cold remote.”
Researching the film helped him “fill in the blanks.” In the end he came away with “a grudging respect” for the father he hardly knew.
He interviewed more than 85 people, although all of them did not make it into the documentary. “I tried to be really balanced,” Carl says. “I have to grow during the course of the film. I have to be that ten-year-old boy who adores his dad. That questioning teen. In the end I have to be the adult son who asks the toughest questions.”
Producer David Johnson ruefully said to Carl, “You don’t see it. You’re really like him. Compartmentalized.”
“The Man Nobody Knew” will be shown at the Tropic Cinema on January 13. Carl Colby and David Johnson will be on hand to introduce the film, take questions from the audience afterwards.
He doesn’t consider the film pro CIA or anti CIA. Rather, it’s a portrait of a father who took on one of the toughest assignments possible, one that took precedence over family and friends. “The CIA exists so the President has an option – diplomatic protest or sending in the Marines,” explains Carl. “And the men who do this are very tough – but also very solicitous – gentlemen. My father was one of them.”
The biggest lesson Carl Colby learned from his dad? “My father was a listener. He taught me how to listen.” So bring your questions.

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