An Intriguing Life: A Memoir of War, Washington, and Marriage to an American Spymaster
By Cynthia Helms, with Chris Black
Rowman & Littlefield, 224 pages, illustrated, $24.95
Cynthia Helms, now 90, has had a remarkable, if not, strictly speaking, an intriguing, life. If there’s any person of note she hasn’t met on either side of the Atlantic, it’s not obvious from her book, co-written with Chris Black. Yet the most engaging part of her story is the first third, before she began her life in Washington, where she shone at parties and playing bridge, served on lots of boards and married, in late 1967, the “man who kept the secrets.”
Cynthia Ratcliff was a spunky young Englishwoman who came of age between the world wars, served her country in the Women’s Royal Naval Service (the women were known as Wrens), married in haste and repented after 24 years and four children. The description of her youth in Maldon, Essex, has a passing resemblance to life at Downton Abbey. Cynthia, the last of the six children of a wealthy landowner (14 farms), definitely dwelled upstairs, though she and her mother had to ride in the third-class railway carriage while their father rode first-class.
At boarding school, where Winston Churchill’s daughter Mary was a fellow student, she learned to tolerate cold baths and terrible food (her book pauses every now and then to remember good food shared by American sailors during the war and feasts in Iran, where her second husband was U.S. ambassador when the Shah was still in power). She points out that her boarding school instruction included training in formal manners: “For the rest of my life, I never had to worry about the proper way to behave, regardless of the setting or country.”
Her home county of Essex, on England’s exposed east coast, anticipated Hitler’s invasion before the rest of England did, and Cynthia, after digging trenches at her boarding school, was sent for her safety to live with an uncle in Devonshire. As it happened, she experienced her first bomb attack there when German bombers dumped leftover bombs on the way back to their bases on the Continent. Months later, she witnessed the sudden departure of all boats available — they had gone to rescue 338,000 British and French soldiers from Dunkirk.
Right after her 18th birthday she became one of the original Boat Crew Wrens who manned most of the naval harbor craft at Plymouth. Her father consented to her enlistment after advising her to “learn to concentrate so totally that I could read a book in a crowded room.” She did, and claims that this advice proved of even greater value when she “became a mother and had small children crawling all over me.”
She describes her naval training: “Because the navy had never used women in this way, it had no idea how to train us. So we got the exact same six weeks of training that the male sailors received: we learned to tie knots, to navigate by the stars and instruments, to handle boats. We swabbed the decks and polished the brass . We rarely got a good night’s sleep because of the intermittent bombing. We slept with our warmest clothes and a few treasured keepsakes at the bottom of our bunk beds.” There were also dances and pub crawls, and eventually she was wooed and won by a dashing navy doctor from Glasgow, Allan M. McKelvie, eight years her senior.
When she transferred to Weymouth to be closer to her husband, she found herself, in the buildup to D-Day, with a fellow Wren, manning “Liberty boats” — whalers used to ferry sailors to and from their ships for shore leave. Often, the women had to handle their boats in rough, open seas using no lights and navigating by the stars. Her war service ended when she became pregnant in early 1944.
She discovered America after the war when her husband opted for a fellowship at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. Accustomed to wartime shortages in Britain, she was initially overwhelmed by the Piggly Wiggly’s plenty but delighted by the Sears catalog. By 1951, when she was 28 and the mother of four children under the age of 7, the family moved to Washington, D.C. There she quickly took to the salon life, particularly after meeting the director of the CIA at a Lebanese Embassy party. She discusses frankly the lack of freedom and companionship she felt in her first marriage, and describes how appealing she found Richard Helms in contrast. They each shed their first spouses in the late 1960s and lived happily ever after.
She is particularly proud of her first employment after the Wrens, as host of a weekly magazine-style radio show about the eclectic Smithsonian collections, for which she interviewed various experts primarily about the institution’s holdings. An early environmentalist, she also sought to mobilize other well-connected wives in a nonprofit organization to publicize the dangers associated with lead in paints and phosphates in detergents. She has a lot to say about her own and other women’s changing roles and aspirations over recent decades.
The author and co-author acknowledge the assistance of some CIA veterans in rather blandly summarizing Mr. Helms’ legendary professional career. The author has some strong views about the good guys and the bad, including Richard Nixon, whom she disliked. Intriguing or not, her life has certainly put her in the company of some of the last century’s most influential people.
Priscilla S. Taylor is a writer in McLean.