SpyCast 3.28.23
Ep 580 | 3.28.23

“Secrets Revealed” – Curators Alexis and Andrew on SPY’s Pop-Up Exhibit


Erin Dietrich: Welcome to "SpyCast," the official podcast of the International Spy Museum. I'm Erin Dietrich, your host Dr. Andrew Hammond's content partner. Coming up next on "SpyCast."

Alexis Albion: There were things that we had seen before and we said, oh, yeah, we've seen that. But then, you know, there were artifacts that just popped out for us, and we'll be talking about that - some which sent little shivers down my spine, where we were like, wow, I haven't seen that before. 

Erin Dietrich: Recently, the International Spy Museum installed a new pop-up exhibit called "Secrets Revealed: Highlights from the Grant Verstandig Collection." This exhibit offers the unique opportunity to sneak a peek at one of the most fascinating collections of spy-related artifacts. The exhibit is here through this year, so don't miss your chance to see it for yourself. This week, Andrew is joined by Alexis Albion, curator of special projects here at the International Spy Museum. In previous chapters, Alexis was a staff member on the 9/11 Commission Report, consultant with the World Bank and strategist with the U.S. Department of State. 

Erin Dietrich: Andrew and Alexis come together this week to debrief some of their favorite artifacts from the exhibit, including Victor Laszlo's prop passport from the 1942 film "Casablanca," a letter from J. Edgar Hoover recommending a lighter sentence for Ethel Rosenberg, and a drawing by Mata Hari, depicting one of her iconic dancing costumes. While you're listening to this episode, you can follow along with links to photos of these artifacts in our show notes. If you enjoy the show, please tell your friends and loved ones. Please also consider leaving us a five-star review on Apple Podcasts. The original podcast on intelligence since 2006, we are "SpyCast." Now sit back, relax and enjoy the show. 

Andrew Hammond: I'm really pleased to do a follow-up to the episode that we'd done last year, Alexis, on the artifacts that we have on Kim Philby in our collection. So we are here today to talk about a pop-up exhibit that we worked on called "Secrets Revealed: Highlights from the Grant Verstandig Collection." So just for our listeners, can you just set the stall out for them, give them the underlying premise of the pop-up? 

Alexis Albion: Yeah. So Grant Verstandig is a member of our board. He is an entrepreneur. He is a philanthropist. And he's got a real interest in the intelligence world and, in fact, has his own personal collection of artifacts related to intelligence. So the idea came about to do a mini exhibit based off of his collection. We got some inventories of what he had in his collection. We took a look at it, picked out what looked like some really interesting artifacts, went over to his house and was able to take a look in his vault, literally, and put together this little pop-up exhibit, which is still in place at the museum right at the start of our permanent exhibits on the fifth floor - right? - what we call the briefing theater there. And it just, you know, highlights some really interesting artifacts, a variety of things. And, you might remember, we - you know, we were sitting there with these lists of what Grant had in his collection, some descriptions of them and photos. And, you know, we spent a wonderful afternoon going through, picking out what our favorites were. 

Alexis Albion: And it was this really surreal moment when we thought, wow, you know, 'cause we're looking at it and saying, oh, yeah, it's a OSS - I don't know - object of some kind. It's a concealment device. We sort of realized, like, we are so spoiled with our collection here at the Spy Museum. There were things that we had seen before and we said, oh, yeah, we've seen that. But then, you know, there were artifacts that just popped out for us, and we'll be talking about that - some which sent little shivers down my spine where we were like, wow, I haven't seen that before. And those we really put aside, and a number of them are in the exhibit. So that's how the exhibit came about. It opened a few months ago, and it's going to be in place throughout 2023. So there's lots of opportunities for people to come and take a look. 

Andrew Hammond: And I think it would be useful, at this point, just to talk about this idea of a pop-up, as well, because this is the third one that we've done. And this is something that came about during COVID and was quite exciting. The National Cryptologic Museum was closing down to be refurbished and we got the offer of some of their superstar artifacts, some really incredible stuff. And then we'd done a pop-up exhibit last year in Operation Jaque. So could you just tell our listeners a little bit more about both of those pop-ups? 

Alexis Albion: Yeah. You know, sometimes, these just opportunities come along to do something quick and simple in a limited amount of space. You know, the exhibits in the permanent exhibit - I don't know if people realize how long it takes to create an exhibit. It can take months in design elements. And especially if you've got media and everything involved, it's a real enterprise. But these are sort of what we call quick pop-ups in this one space that we have in the Briefing Theater. And so we were grateful to have that space which we can switch things in and out fairly quickly, though we still have to think about design and mounting artifacts and things like that. So it does take some time - where just a great opportunity comes along. 

Alexis Albion: As Andrew mentioned, I think it was in the midst of 2020, we just had this great opportunity from the NSA museum. Our former historian here, people - some listeners may remember Vince Houghton, who went over there to become the director of that museum. And during COVID, of course, closed. They were also redesigning their museum. And he actually approached us and said, hey, I'm finding some amazing artifacts here. We're not open. You guys will be as soon as you're able to be during COVID. And, you know, it would be a shame not to give the public an opportunity to take a look at some of these amazing artifacts. So we got with him and saw what he had and quickly put an exhibit together on the jewels of the NSA, which had some fantastic items, some rare items, a couple of artifacts that had never actually been put on public display before. 

Alexis Albion: A similar opportunity came along when the embassy of Colombia actually approached us. And I think we have to give "SpyCast" some credit here for getting the name of the museum out there. I think they were "SpyCast" fans. They'd also visited the museum and didn't see a lot about Colombia in the museum and said, you know, we've got a fantastic story from Colombian intelligence. They approached us with this one story and said, hey, how about doing an exhibit in the museum? We looked into it, a great story. We talked to them about artifacts, lots of back and forth. They ended up bringing artifacts over from a small museum they had in Bogota where they had a small exhibit about this Operation Jaque, which is a really fascinating exfiltration operation to rescue hostages who had been taken hostage by the FARC. And a lot of planning went into this operation. Absolutely an undercover intelligence operation to rescue these people, many of whom were Colombian - members of the Colombian army but also some high-profile hostages, including three Americans, including a woman who had been running for president of Colombia. And they put together this incredible deception operation, pulled it off without a hitch. Every single one of those hostages was rescued. No shots were fired. Nobody was injured at all. 

Alexis Albion: So, again, the Colombians brought over artifacts for us. We put together how we wanted to tell that story and put together this great pop-up exhibit about Operation Jaque. We had a really interesting program as part of opening this exhibit where we had people who had been involved in that operation from the Colombian army intelligence services come over and talk about their experiences, including one of the hostages who had been rescued during Operation Jaque. And I have a wonderful photo still on my phone of that gentleman with his wife and his young daughter standing in front of our exhibit and smiling. It's really quite moving to look at that. 

Andrew Hammond: And just for our listeners, the FARC - they're a Marxist insurgent group who had kidnapped Americans and then also someone that was a presidential candidate last year... 

Alexis Albion: Yes, Betancourt. 

Andrew Hammond: ...Ingrid Betancourt. And another interesting byproduct of this was that we had the former professional head of the Colombian navy, Admiral Wills, on the podcast last year. So that's been a great partnership. I just want to go back to the beginning because I remember when we had this opportunity with the National Cryptologic Museum, we were thinking about a good name. Call it - what do we call this? So just for our listeners that aren't in the museum business, permanent exhibitions, if you're doing it from scratch, can take years and years to do. And then you try to rotate stuff, give artifacts a rest, maybe update the stories. So that's an ongoing evolution. And then there's temporary exhibits, which, depending on the exhibit, can take 18 months, 2 1/2 years to think about, to plan out, to get the funding, to execute it. 

Andrew Hammond: So we had this opportunity, but we had a very narrow window of time. And we had a very small space within which to display this stuff. So we were just brainstorming, what do we call this? And I think that we just collectively came up with the idea of pop-up because that's what it was. And I think that, for me, this is quite an interesting space for museums because the permanent exhibits, long term - the temporary is almost medium term - but museums historically haven't been very good at reacting to ongoing events or being nimble on their feet. And just to put it in the context of the time, this was during COVID, so we were just - we were looking for a win somehow. We were looking to do something for the public to bring people here, to just get them excited again about the topic matter. So I think that, for me, this whole process of this space and what it's became is just really, really interesting. Like, what's your thoughts on that, or what's your recollection? 

Alexis Albion: Yeah. I think, you know, it's a space that we always thought of as - we called open storage, an area where we could put on display artifacts from our collection that weren't part of the permanent exhibit, and we would rotate things in and out. But it's sort of become this this, as you said, pop-up area for these little mini exhibits. And yeah, I mean, generally, it's about three months, I think, probably that it takes us to put these together kind of from beginning to end, from just getting the germ of an idea, checking out artifacts to installation. And it's an interesting space because it's right at the beginning of our permanent exhibit, so I think it's when people are really excited to start going through the museum, and it maybe gives them a little taste of what's to come and, hopefully, gets them excited to see what they're in for when they go into the museum. But it's also a space that some people are spending more time in than others. 

Alexis Albion: So it's a bit of a challenge there to tell a story that's not too complicated but also just gives them, again, a taste of what we're trying to do at the museum in terms of telling stories about intelligence or espionage or displaying artifacts and giving enough information so people get a sense of what they're actually looking at, but not too much so they don't linger for too long before actually going into the museum because they've got quite a journey to go on already to go through the museum. So yeah, we're hoping to do more of these and to then take advantage of opportunities that come our way and partnerships, hopefully international partnerships, to tell stories that we aren't able to do within the permanent exhibits. 

Andrew Hammond: In open storage - just for our listeners, almost every museum that you go to, you're basically seeing the tip of the iceberg, right? You're only seeing 5, 10% - maybe a little bit more, maybe a little bit less - of the collection that they have. And the idea of open storage is just that you can still see it. It's just not interpreted and put within the structures of a story or something, right? But it's still accessible. It's still something that you can see. So yeah, I find that what we are doing with this open storage pop-up - I don't know. We're somehow in the middle of all of that. 

Alexis Albion: Yeah. I mean, it's a shame not to give people access to them. We're working on that. We've got lots of different ideas for giving people access, virtually and other. So hopefully, there'll be more of that in the future. But, you know, again, I think also partnerships - the opportunity to partner with the Embassy of Colombia was fantastic for both of us, I think, to tell people, get a great, really interesting story from Latin America that I wasn't too familiar with, but I've learned a lot more about, get that out to the public. And I think for the Embassy of Colombia to get that story in the Spy Museum, they were really excited about that partnership as well. So it's just expanded our network, and we hope we can do a lot more of that. 

Andrew Hammond: And I think that that story in particular is very intelligence centric because not a single bullet was fired... 

Alexis Albion: Yeah. 

Andrew Hammond: ...During this operation. So it's not, this came about because of force of arms. This was meticulously planned and executed, and intelligence was involved almost at every stage of the way, including cooperation with American intelligence agencies. So it's a really, really fascinating story, right? 

Alexis Albion: Yeah. My favorite aspect of it was actually the radio deception part of it. So what the Colombian military intelligence had been able to do was to actually hack into the FARC radio communications for the group specifically that was holding these hostages and these high-profile hostages, and they had broken their code. And they actually were able to do this really interesting deception operation where they could simulate another FARC group who were part of these communications so that the group holding the hostages actually thought they were communicating with another FARC group, but they are, in fact, communicating with Colombian military intelligence. 

Alexis Albion: And my favorite part of that story is that the group that were running that radio deception operation wanted to make sure that they sounded as authentic as possible. So they actually went out into the countryside and were camping out there because they knew that the sounds, the sort of ambient noise that was around them, had to mimic what would be expected if you're communicating with a FARC group who, of course, are living in the Colombian jungle. So they were sure to be in a place where, you know, you could hear the birds chirping. You could hear the bugs buzzing and making all those ambient sounds. And I don't think it was very pleasant for the radio operators. They're literally camping out in the jungle for a couple of months in preparation for this operation to take place. 

Andrew Hammond: Wow. And let's go back to talking about "Secrets Revealed." So this exhibition, we went over to Grant Verstandig's house. 

Alexis Albion: Yeah. 

Andrew Hammond: We got to see some of his artifacts. We got to see the breadth and depth of his collection. And then we had to select some. Can't include everything. So I just wanted to go into a bit more detail on some of the ones that we did select. So I just wondered, is there one that particularly caught your eye? You mentioned the spine-shivering moment earlier. What was that in relation to? 

Alexis Albion: Well, for me, that was when I saw in his collection that he had the prop passport from the movie "Casablanca" - one of the prop passports that was produced for the movie. And this one in particular was for the character Victor Laszlo. And if our listeners remember that classic 1942 movie "Casablanca," at the heart of the film, which is a love story, is the story between Rick, played by Humphrey Bogart and Ilsa, played by... 

Andrew Hammond: Ingrid Bergman. 

Alexis Albion: Ingrid Bergman. So heart of the story is a love story between Rick and Ilsa. That's Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. And Ingrid Bergman's character, Ilsa, is married to Victor Laszlo, played by Paul Henreid. And he is the leader of the Czech resistance - resistance against the Nazis. This is in the midst of World War II. And they are in Casablanca, and they're trying to get out so that Victor Laszlo can continue his fight against Nazis - his resistance work. But in order to get out, you need to have passes. And Rick is the one who's got the travel passes. 

Alexis Albion: And obviously, part of being able to travel is to have your passport in order. And so for the film, they made up prop passports for both Ilsa and Victor. And in Grant's collection is this prop passport for Victor Laszlo. And when I took a look at it, yeah, I think I audibly gasped, went, ah, just because Casablanca is just such a classic, classic film. And I'd never seen anything from the film before. And it's a beautiful object as well. People who made these props - you know, it's got his photos, got his vital statistics, and actually, in interior pages of the passport, it's got travel stamps as well, showing where he's been. And it's sort of - you know, it just brings back the film, I think, and brings back that period of history in the midst of World War II so vividly. And I was stunned and just delighted, I think, that we could have that opportunity to put it on display. 

Andrew Hammond: I don't think there's any connection to Casablanca, but it's quite interesting to me that Victor Laszlo, Czechoslovakian resistance - and that same year, 1942, is the year the Reinhard Heydrich is killed by the Czech resistance in Operation Anthropoid. There's actually been a couple of movies about it recently. He chaired the Wannsee Conference that speaks about the final solution for the Jewish question, as he calls it - one of the most reprehensible figures you could ever come across. But it's quite interesting. The Czechoslovakian resistance movements are both featured fictionally, but then in real life, there's a matter. I don't actually know if there's any interface at all, but I think it's quite an interesting coincidence. 

Alexis Albion: Well, there's another actual interesting real-life connection here, 'cause I did look a little bit into Paul Henreid, actually, who played Victor Laszlo in the film, who himself, you know, came from - he was born as part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He was Austrian. His father was Jewish but actually had converted to Catholicism in order to hide his Judaism. And Paul Henreid himself was an actor in the 1930s and ran into a lot of antisemitism, obviously, and was virulently anti-Nazi himself. But in order to act, tried to join the national sort of acting society, whatever - was turned down by Goebbels himself because, you know, came - his anti-Nazism came out, and the fact that he was half Jewish. And so, you know, he actually was able to go and work in Britain and work in the United States. 

Alexis Albion: And I think playing that role - I don't know; I haven't read anything - but it must have been quite personal to him, himself, I think. We have to remember this movie was being made about the war during the war, and the people involved, I think, must have felt this very, very closely. And I'm sure Paul Henreid himself did as well. So I think that's a really interesting aspect I didn't know before. 

Andrew Hammond: And one of the most stirring scenes in the movie and maybe in all of movie history is the scene where Victor Laszlo - he's in Rick's bar - so Humphrey Bogart's bar - and there's German officers, and they begin singing "Die Wacht am Rhein," so "The Watch on the Rhine." And then they counter with "La Marseillaise." 

Alexis Albion: Yeah, yeah, yeah. 

Andrew Hammond: And Victor Laszlo's character - it's like a hymn, the way that he's, like, delivering it. So I think that that's a very interesting point of connection there as well. 

Alexis Albion: Yeah. I think it is a very emotional film. Again, as I said, it's a love story, but I think what's so moving about it and, of course, the ending, which is where Rick sacrifices the love of his life, Ilsa, because he recognizes that there is a cause that is more important than himself - right? - more important than the individual, than his own happiness, than his and Ilsa's love. And that is fighting the Nazis. And I'm sure that must have moved many moviegoers in 1942 and three when the movie came out. You know, and I think it's still quite moving today to watch that. And I think - because we - I think we all feel that he did the right thing and that fighting the Nazis was, you know, more important than anything. 

Andrew Hammond: I rewatched it recently... 

Alexis Albion: Yeah. 

Andrew Hammond: ...When we were putting on this... 

Alexis Albion: Yeah, yeah, me too. 

Andrew Hammond: ...This exhibition. And maybe this is just my own perspective, but to me, it was almost as well a rumination on America's role in the world - the sense of, well, why should I get involved in this? Or that doesn't really matter to me. I'm just out for myself. And there's this isolationist kind of view. And then there's the, no, you're connected to everything else. And it's Rick going from one thing to the other. And they do say, he'd been an idealist in the past, Rick, but he's became more cynical. But inside, I think that the idealist is still in there somewhere. So there's this interesting thing going on between isolationism and global engagement, between looking after your own self-interest and looking after your brothers and sisters. So I think that there's more depth to the movie than sometimes - you know, people just think, oh, it's just some romantic war movie. But I think there's a lot going on underneath the surface, including this stuff, and then also the ties to espionage and so forth during that period. 

Alexis Albion: And I think it's why it's - it holds up, right? Because if it was just a film that was set in this little slice of time, it might seem really dated and, at least from my opinion, I think it just holds up, has these maybe universal themes... 

Andrew Hammond: Timeless, yeah. 

Alexis Albion: ...These timeless themes, which makes it a classic. And, yes, it does have - it's infused with espionage intelligence, of course, because that's what Casablanca was during the war. The setting is so important for those themes and for that storyline, because Casablanca was this cross place where people from everywhere crossed paths and a den of espionage at the time. 

Andrew Hammond: I remember reading once in this article about "Casablanca" - and it was a film critic. And they were saying, if there is a God, if the universe makes any sense whatsoever, when you go to heaven, there's got to be a Rick's Cafe Americain somewhere in the sky. And you just walk in and you just hear Sam playing "As Time Goes By." And I think that's a thought that helps get me through the winters of the Northeast United States. 

Alexis Albion: Let's hope so. I thought you were going to say if there is a God in heaven, please may they never remake "Casablanca." 

Andrew Hammond: (Laughter) Please, do not. 

Alexis Albion: I thought that's what you were going to say. 

Andrew Hammond: Victor Laszlo is a revered Czechoslovakian resistance leader in the 1942 movie "Casablanca." That same year, in a perfect fusion of old Czechoslovakia, Reinhard Heydrich was killed by the Czech resistance fighter Jan Kubis through the fatal grenade and the Slovak resistance fighter Jozef Gabcik, whose Sten gun jammed. Yes, these submachine guns look very cool in the movies with a magazine jutting out to the left, usually fired from the hip. But they were notorious for jamming. 

Andrew Hammond: Heydrich was the 38-year-old former head of the Gestapo and Hitler's point person in Czechoslovakia. He was raised in a comfortable and cultured upper-middle-class home. He promised to Germanize the Czech vermin. His father was an opera singer who founded the Halle Conservatory in 1901. One of Heydrich's nicknames was the Young Evil God of Death. He was a gifted violinist. He was also called the Butcher of Prague and Hangman Heydrich. His mother was a classical pianist. Hitler - bear in mind, this is Hitler we're talking about - called him the Man with the Iron Heart. Heydrich's kind of background was far from atypical among those who came up with the final solution to the Judenfrage, the Jewish question, at the infamous Wannsee Conference in early 1942, which Heydrich chaired. Six members of the group, for example, had advanced degrees in law. Another one had a Ph.D. in philosophy. What they planned was accelerating the systematic destruction of an entire body of people by industrialized processes. 

Andrew Hammond: One of the objects that we included, which I found really interesting, was a letter by J. Edgar Hoover to the then-attorney general requesting a degree of clemency for Ethel Rosenberg. So just for our listeners, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, two - a couple from New York City who were caught up in the atomic espionage of the 1940s. We know that Julius was definitely guilty from subsequent declassified records. Ethel is implicated, but the degree of her culpability's less assured, and this is still a point of contention in American society. But J. Edgar Hoover, hard-line anti-Communist - he's saying, don't execute her; basically, give her a lighter sentence, which I just found quite interesting - just seeing J. Edgar Hoover's thinking - this implacable anti-Communist. I guess one of the reasons why it's so interesting is there're shades of gray there. And I know that he's come in for lots of criticism, much of it probably justly so. But again, it's how do we keep the historical baby without throwing out the bathwater? I think that there are shades of gray to J. Edgar Hoover. And for me, this letter brought that home. What was your thoughts on that letter? 

Alexis Albion: Yeah. I mean, you know, a lot has come out about the Rosenberg story, about the FBI's treatment of the Rosenbergs. And, of course, since the declassification of a lot of information around - surrounding the case, we do know that Rosenberg - that Julius was spying for the Soviets. My understanding is that they - neither of them ever really said a word. And that was the problem because the bureau knew that Julius was guilty because they - that's how they had gotten onto him, because they saw these - Venona was the name of this decryption program. The government had broken these Soviet diplomatic codes, had been collecting these diplomatic correspondence. And it had taken years to actually get around to decoding everything... 

Andrew Hammond: Sometimes decades later. 

Alexis Albion: ...Transcribing sometimes - yeah, decades and things. So it was by around 1950 that they had decoded some of this information from the late '40s. The individual's name who - they had code names often - they were able to identify that the code name Liberal - that person was Julius Rosenberg. And this led to his arrest. So they knew that he was involved. But what they really wanted from the Rosenbergs was they wanted more names. They wanted more information about the spy ring, and they wanted names. And that was, I think, the strategy also behind arresting Ethel Rosenberg as well. And what they wanted from them were names. And what neither of them were ever willing to give were names. They would not name names. 

Alexis Albion: Well, I think arresting her as well, putting them both on trial - there was - the things that happened at that trial as well were a lot to put pressure on Ethel to break down and to name names, which she never would do. And now, of course, the sentencing - so they were on trial. They were both found guilty. The sentencing, of course - that was up to the judge, who put - brought down a very severe sentence of the death sentence for both of them. But I'm wondering if - so I think Hoover would have known about the Venona decrypts. He knew about Julius and his connection in the spy ring and also would have known that they really did not have any solid evidence on Ethel. 

Andrew Hammond: I think that one of the interesting things about the Rosenberg case as well is it's became a political touchstone for liberals and progressives and conservatives and so forth. But this is also complicated by the fact that both of them were Jewish. And some people have said that this is the Dreyfus trial of midcentury America. And the Dreyfus trial is a famous case where a French Jewish officer is wrongly accused, and it became wrapped up in the Zionist movement at the end of the 19th century. So I think that that's quite interesting as well - midcentury America, Judaism. And then we've got this suspicion, almost bordering on paranoia, of communism. But it's not completely paranoid because it does actually exist in - all kinds of parts of American society have been penetrated by either communists or sympathizers or, in some cases, Soviet moles and so forth. So it's a very, very interesting time period. 

Alexis Albion: Yeah. And, of course, it's a story that continues to have life, which is one of, I think, the most interesting parts of it. And here we are 70 years later. In fact, let me see, 1953, I think, is when they were both put to electric chair. So it will be 50, 60, 70 years this year, and story still evokes emotions. And the question of Ethel Rosenberg is still one which is hotly debated, I mean, in academic circles, certainly, but also outside by just people who get really involved in this story and the fact that the Rosenbergs' children - their two sons - very young at the time when their parents were arrested and tried and executed - are alive today and were very involved in pursuing justice for their parents in the '60s and into the '70s as well and - because they did not know about the existence of the Venona program and the decrypts - nobody did - and even when those Venona decrypts were made public in the 1990s were flabbergasted, frankly, by being presented with this evidence of their father's guilt. But that question of their mother, Ethel, was not really answered by the decrypts and continues to be something that they have an interest in. So I think I find that very moving. 

Alexis Albion: We've got some on exhibit in the museum, actually, where we have a film which has an interview with one of the sons where he talks about finding out about his father's guilt and - but also there's sort of open question about his mother and wondering if that evidence that they had against his father but not against his mother had been made public during the trial, you know, whether or not his mother might be alive today. So, yeah, the context is, again, is really fascinating. You can't understand the Rosenberg trial without the context of 1950s, anti-communism, antisemitism, all of that. It's a pure sort of real great Cold War story there about American politics and society. 

Alexis Albion: But at the base of it, there's also something just human emotion, I guess. I can't think of this story without thinking of Mike Meeropol talking about his mother and father because, to us, it might be the Rosenbergs, these sort of incredible historic figures from the Cold War intelligence. But to Mike Meeropol, his mom and dad. So I think it's a really human story as well. And so this letter, again, which makes recommendations about their sentencing, about life and death, again, sort of, for me, it evokes that just really human dimension about whether or not especially this mother, you know, might have lived. 

Andrew Hammond: But all of this nuance gets lost and the emotiveness of this issue where it's - you know, there's not really many shades of gray, and in this time period, the 1950s, there certainly weren't a lot of shades of gray. I just think this whole period really, really interesting about all of the things that you mentioned. 

Alexis Albion: Well, again, like "Casablanca" in some ways, there is a timelessness to this story, which is why I guess we can be talking about it 70 years later and debating it and weighing up, you know, the different nuances of it, as you said. And I think it is because there is that emotional element that's involved, which, yes, you're right, it absolutely might obscure some of the sort of academic or intellectual aspects of it, you know. And you're absolutely right, there's different points. Was she guilty? And if so, what was she guilty of? And then, you know, all the way up to, well, does she deserve that sentencing? Did he deserve that sentencing? So there's lots of aspects of it. But I do think it's worth mentioning that there were huge international movements or protests at the time asking for clemency for the Rosenbergs. So, you know, I think there's some - again, there are some themes there that seem to still have resonance 70 years later. 

Andrew Hammond: And I think that - just for our listeners, Venona - just to make this clear in case anybody's lost the thread here, Venona is basically traffic - diplomatic traffic, as Alexis said, that's decrypted by U.S. intelligence. But this is a very painstaking process for reasons that we don't have time to go into. And the program, I think, runs up until the 1980s or so. So it's gone on for decades and decades. And it's only afterwards that people began to put pieces of the puzzle together and find out that this codeword referred to this person and there's a process where they're grasping through the dark and trying to reach the light. And sometimes, they reach it, and sometimes, they don't. 

Andrew Hammond: And during this whole period, both of the sons - as of course you would - say that their parents are innocent. But then Venona conclusively proves that Julius, anyway, was a Soviet spy. And as you mentioned, this is very painful for the sons. And then the question of Ethel is still - there's still a question mark over that. But at the time when all of this was taking place and nobody knew about Venona, it was a very classified operation that was going on. And we have a reproduction of a lithograph that Pablo Picasso basically drew to try to raise money and support for the Rosenbergs. So it became this cause celebre across the world, really, didn't it? 

Alexis Albion: Yeah. Yeah. Some wonderful photographs of just sort of, you know, crowds of people in Paris holding up placards, clemency for the Rosenbergs. I believe the pope even issued a request. It went way beyond the United States. 

Andrew Hammond: The Venona project we mentioned in this episode was a top-secret effort to decrypt messages transmitted by Soviet intelligence, largely between 1942 and 1945. The Venona program itself lasted from 1943 to 1980. Yes, you heard right. It ran for 37 painstaking years, from the time of FDR through to the Carter-Reagan election, or in movie terms, from "Casablanca" to "Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back." Venona led to startling and troubling discoveries. For one, the top-secret Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb had been thoroughly penetrated by Soviet intelligence. 

Andrew Hammond: For example, Klaus Fuchs, a leading theoretical physicist, Theodore Hall, the youngest scientist on the project at 18, and David Greenglass, a machinist who was recruited by his brother-in-law Julius Rosenberg, were all uncovered by Venona. Just as worrying was the fact that almost every major department of the U.S. government appeared to have been compromised - for example, Harry White, number two at the Treasury Department; Maurice Halperin, the head of research at the Office of Strategic Services, or OSS; Lauchlin Currie, White House economic adviser to FDR during World War II; and Alger Hiss, a State Department official who had served as the temporary secretary general of the United Nations. Venona also uncovered the infamous Cambridge Five spy ring, which showed that the Soviets had also penetrated the British establishment, including - and you couldn't make this up - Sir Anthony Blunt, the surveyor of Her Majesty the Queen's art collection, the largest private collection in the world from 1945 to 1973. 

Andrew Hammond: So we've had one that sent a shiver down your spine. Is there anything else that you particularly were attracted to or that you immediately noticed, or maybe even one that you would like to buy off of Grant if, you know... 

Alexis Albion: If. 

Andrew Hammond: If. 

Alexis Albion: Well, I think one of the really startling artifacts we have on display is a sketch - a pencil sketch from the notebook of Mata Hari. It's a sketch she did herself, and it's just a - one page from her sketchbook. And it's a charming sketch - not terribly detailed, obviously quickly done - of a dance costume for herself, obviously for a dance that she must have been planning. And it's just - it's her. Obviously, she's got her sort of Eastern-looking costume on, and she's sort of sitting there with her limbs crossed. And you can - easily recognizable of sort of taking that whole persona of this Javanese princess that Mata Hari did - exotic sort of Eastern dancer. But it's just a lovely sketch there. And it is an original from Mata Hari. 

Alexis Albion: And I think it was really - obviously really eye-catching. I'd never seen anything like that before. It's just lovely. And to think that she sat there, in her sketchbook, putting down ideas for possible costumes or possible themes for her dances. And - but to think that it's now behind glass in our museum. And it sort of made me think, my goodness, what would Mata Hari think about the fact that this pencil sketch that she had probably done quite hastily is now on display at the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C., a hundred years after she was executed by firing squad for espionage. 

Andrew Hammond: I find it almost tender and achingly beautiful. Maybe this is just me reading into what her ultimate fate was and conjuring up some idea in my head because of that. But nevertheless, I think it's very graceful. There's lots of soft edges. And it's just - yeah, there's just something really unique about it. And this is, to me, one of the best parts of the job, just being able to see these things, to hold a letter that J. Edgar Hoover wrote to the attorney general, to hold Victor Laszlo's prop passport, to look at a Mata Hari sketch. And these are all ways to try to help us make sense of the history of intelligence and espionage. And to me, this is just pretty much as good as it gets. Those soft edges are caught within the hard contours of power politics during the First World War, right? 

Alexis Albion: Right. I mean, I think that's - again, to think that this woman, who found considerable fame and acclaim in her day for dancing, of her own making - obviously, something that she worked very hard at and very much wanted that acclaim - that, again, this ends up in the Spy Museum where we are - the reason why she's in the Spy Museum is because of her short-lived career as a spy, collecting intelligence on behalf of the French. The French thought she was doing it on behalf of the Germans. They arrested her, put her on trial - high-profile trial, accusing her of betraying them, of being a spy for the other side. Of course, probably a lot of misogyny in there. An exotic dancer was something I'm sure many of the people in the trial would have been very happy to pay money to go and see her in a nightclub at night, but not going to make that - a public statement to that end. 

Alexis Albion: So here she was, sort of not exactly a socially acceptable woman, who had - was allegedly spying for the other side. There's no evidence that she was. There's evidence that she was spying for the French, perhaps not doing a great job. And again, giving her that ultimate sentence, the death sentence - very unusual for a woman. She, you know, had this high-profile trial, high-profile death, made all the newspapers at the time and the melodramatic ending to a celebrated life - perfect for the movies, which is the reason why we still talk about her today, her depiction in the movies by Greta Garbo, by others. Just that - those two words, Mata Hari, even today conjure up this image of the femme fatale, the female spy who uses seduction to get secrets. And here it is, this little sketch of a dance costume that ends up in a museum, sort of symbolizing this incredibly storied life. 

Andrew Hammond: And I think it's incredible as well. Last week, some Indonesian intelligence officers were visiting the museum, and they were saying that Mata Hari means the sun in Bahasa. And she was partly Dutch, and Indonesia was a Dutch colony at the time, which is an interesting twist on the story. But another part of that I find really interesting is - and a lot of people from the modern vantage point - I'm not saying Mata Hari was good or wrong. All I'm saying is sensitize yourself to what it was like to be her during this period of time, as you mentioned, trying to make her own way in the world with the bones of marriage and the social norms and conventions of Europe during this period. I mean, it's a very dangerous place for a woman to be in. I mean, it's quite interesting. Both women that we've spoken about today ended up getting executed. And executions are not a commonplace thing. So I think that there's something interesting going on there as well about Mata Hari going out with the accepted norms of what you're meant to do as a citizen, as a mother, as a woman, as a whole bunch of different things. 

Alexis Albion: Yeah. No, definitely. I mean, she was a divorcee as well, got away from home, got away from her family by marrying an older gentleman who was being shipped overseas into Indonesia, a Dutch colony at the time. That was her way of escaping. And it was where she found out about dancing and different types of dancing in Indonesia, the Javanese ways. Of course, she bastardized that and completely made it her own, and not saying there was anything particularly authentic about the Eastern princess persona that Mata Hari created for herself, but it was based off of things that she saw in Indonesia. You know, that marriage did not work out. She - they - divorced of who she is, with no means of support and managed to create this persona, this brand, basically - well, that's what we would call it today, this incredibly powerful brand of Mata Hari, the Eastern princess who does rather racy exotic dancing, which just hits home. I mean, it's hard not to think, you know, the Lady Gaga of her day (laughter). 

Andrew Hammond: I was just thinking that. Yeah, I mean, Mata Hari... 

Alexis Albion: Right? Yeah. Right? Shocking, she was... 

Andrew Hammond: ...She could have been on the halftime show for the Super Bowl or something (laughter). 

Alexis Albion: Absolutely. I mean, you know, she was shocking, titillating and incredibly successful and completely independent, self-made woman, which was not a usual thing in the 1910s. And I think espionage is part of that. I mean, the reason why she was approached by both the French and the Germans was because she had access that others didn't. Mata Hari, because of her reputation, her name could get access to people, to officers of high rank quite easily because of who she was. And so she was particularly appealing in that sense as somebody who could collect intelligence. So I think it's worth remembering why she was recruited to be a spy. And it's because of who she was. And that was completely self-made. They did give her some training as well. And we know in invisible ink and codes and things like that, she - we do know that she did go on a mission, I believe, to Spain, collected some intelligence from the Germans. She thought she was doing what she was asked to do. 

Alexis Albion: You know, I think there's still some - not too much clarity around exactly why she was arrested and certainly that sentencing. But it probably had a lot more to do with - again, with society and the times and French losses during the war and the need to distract against that or come up with some kind of explanation. Oh, well, she was spying for the Germans, you know? Probably had a lot more to do with all those other things than it had to do with Mata Hari herself or what she'd actually done. Again, you know, maybe image over substance. 

Andrew Hammond: So just quickly, one final artifact that we could talk about - is there anything else that really appealed to you? 

Alexis Albion: Well, I think there's some maps in there which are particularly interesting and, I think, you know, something you should be talking about, Andrew. 

Andrew Hammond: (Laughter) Well, so it's basically a map. It's a map that was provided to the Luftwaffe to bomb Glasgow. So Glasgow was one of the major industrial centers. I mean, I think at the beginning of the 20th century, it produced a crazy amount - something like a quarter of all the merchant tonnage in the world. It was the world's preeminent shipbuilding port. That's lasted through the Second World War. So, like, Liverpool, Bristol, London, Newcastle - the Germans tried to bomb. This is a bombing map for Glasgow, my home city. My grandfather worked in the brickwork - so making bricks. So that was a reserved occupation. And he can remember the Germans coming overhead and bombing the city and the air raid sirens, the searchlights, the Anderson shelters, the whole nine yards. So I find that quite interesting with the 20th century. We're using intelligence. We're using maps to try to take the war to population centers. Whereas before, it would be the armies would meet on the front lines, a few thousand people would die and then it would either be over or they would meet again and do the same thing. But now the war is getting taken to civilians. We're in the era of total war. 

Andrew Hammond: And, in fact, reading this, when my grandfather mentioned this to me, it reminded me of the book "The Lion and the Unicorn" by George Orwell. And at the very beginning, he says, at the time of writing, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead trying to kill me. And he's playing on the paradox of modern total war. So I just found this map really interesting because it reminded me of this time period and just the stories that my grandfather used to tell me about that period. And I think I've mentioned it to you before, Alexis, but I have two great-uncles that died during the war. One of them is buried in Yokohama in Japan. The other one's buried in Chittagong in Bangladesh - modern-day Bangladesh. I've always wanted to go to their graves. For some reason, that map just struck me as being quite interesting. 

Andrew Hammond: And then another artifact, just while we close out, which I found really interesting was the Neptune Monograph. So this is basically a book, and it's for the maritime component of the D-Day landings - so a strategic deception campaign, trying to convince the Germans that the Pas de Calais is going to be where the allies are going to land, that Patton's got this army and he's going to be the - you know, the lead thrusting general. But actually, the whole thing is a smokescreen. It's a strategic deception. And Operation Neptune is top-secret BIGOT, which is the highest classification of the Second World War. And bigot's got a different meaning now and it probably had a different meaning then. But I think that this is quite interesting that to be - to given access to this, it's a very bigoted thing. 

Andrew Hammond: So those two from the Second World War - those two artifacts from the war I thought were particularly interesting - the bombing map, trying to bomb an industrial center, but then also an entire book that's part of a broader campaign of strategic deception to try to make sure that the beachhead in France is one that is sustainable and that will ultimately lead to the overthrow of the Third Reich. So those were two that stuck out for me. Any other ones that you thought were interesting? 

Alexis Albion: Well, I... 

Andrew Hammond: I mean, they're all interesting. But... 

Alexis Albion: They're all interesting. 

Andrew Hammond: But it's like a book. You know, we're not going to tell you everything that's in the book. 

Alexis Albion: No. 

Andrew Hammond: You have to buy it. So if you want to see the rest, you know, you can come to the Spy Museum and look at them. 

Alexis Albion: Yeah. No, we've got some lovely things. We've got a lipstick pistol, which is always fun to see. I think our domino concealments are really beautiful. 

Andrew Hammond: Those are pretty cool. 

Alexis Albion: Those date to World War II. And they are made by MI9, Britain's secret military intelligence unit, which created all these concealments for escape and evasion during World War II. And these are dominoes which have a concealed compartment for a piece of map that could be used by somebody trying - who was escaping, maybe, from a prisoner of war camp or something like that to help them find their way to safety. And what's really interesting about them is that the maps - pieces of map inside these dominoes are for South Asia, for Burma - modern-day Myanmar. So that's double unusual to see that. They're really beautiful. And got a rectal toolkit, which people always enjoy seeing. 

Andrew Hammond: Classics. 

Alexis Albion: Some classics, yeah. 

Andrew Hammond: Wow. Well, this has been so much fun, and we could speak for another couple of hours about all of this. But I think we've given a decent taster of some of the things that you can see if you get to come to the International Spy Museum this year. Thanks for a lovely chat, and to be continued some other time. 

Alexis Albion: Thank you, Andrew. I hope so. 

Andrew Hammond: Thank you. 

Alexis Albion: Thanks. 

Erin Dietrich: Thanks for listening to this episode of "SpyCast." Please follow us on Apple, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts. If you have feedback, you can reach us by email at spycast@spymuseum.org or on Twitter @intlspycast. If you go to our page, thecyberwire.com/podcasts/spycast, you can find links to further resources, detailed show notes and full transcripts. I'm Erin Dietrich, and your host is Dr. Andrew Hammond. The rest of the team involved in the show is Mike Mincey, Memphis Vaughn III, Emily Coletta, Afua Anokwa, Elliott Peltzman, Tre Hester and Jen Eiben. This show is brought to you from the home of the world's preeminent collection of intelligence and espionage-related artifacts, the International Spy Museum.