- - Wednesday, February 3, 2016



By Paddy Hayes

The Overlook Press, $29.95, 336 pages

At the age of 11, Daphne Park was living in a tin-roofed shack with no lights or running water in the British protectorate of Tanganyika when a letter arrived from London that changed her life forever. It was from her aunts, who were offering to provide her with a home and an education and in the end, it would lead to her becoming one of the first women spies.

How successful she was might be measured by a memorial address given after her death at the age of 77 when a former intelligence chief declared that her service in the Moscow station had convinced the Soviets that she was “an asset and not an embarrassment.” In the wake of Miss Park’s performance, he said, “Our presence in the Embassies, even in the Soviet bloc, was readily accepted.”

Miss Park’s active life did not end at her retirement from the secret service. She found favor with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who appointed her to the board of the BBC, a precursor to her later elevation to the House of Lords. Yet not everyone liked her. Many compared her to Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple for her “deeply suspicious and sour” attitude toward life. But she did love being in the House of Lords and was “moved to tears by the admission ceremony.” She was believed to have had two great love affairs but remained characteristically discreet about who and where. And she had strong feelings about her colleagues. She disliked espionage author John le Carre to the point that she once said she would “hang, draw and quarter him” for his belief that intelligence was a “world of cold betrayal.”

“It’s not,” she said, “it’s a world of trust. You can’t run an agent without trust on both sides.”

Paddy Hayes tracks the unusual life and times of “Daffers” as she became nicknamed back to her childhood in Britain in the 1930s “where order prevailed and people knew their place. Where Empire reigned supreme with almost a quarter of the globe still colored pink on school room maps as a sign of ownership.” It was not a time when women were sought after in professions, especially that of espionage. Miss Park became one of the first women to rise to prominence in the British Secret Intelligence Service known as SIS.

In a series of vignettes, the author tells a dramatic story that he gathered over five decades of researching the shadowy world of intelligence and those who survived it as an occupation. Miss Park’s achievements were remarkable. She became the SIS station commander in Leopoldville and worked closely with her CIA colleagues to bring about the downfall and murder of the tyrant Patrice Lumumba, the first premier of an independent Congo. Her capacity for taking risks was demonstrated in Moscow, where she was posted as an intelligence officer and where she became dangerously involved with fringe groups in Soviet society, which made her a target of the KGB. She also played a risky role in obtaining a copy of Boris Pasternak’s “Doctor Zhivago.”

Mr. Hayes suggests that it was Miss Park who controlled or “ran” a diplomat working undercover for the United States in Hanoi when the Vietnam War was at its height. At one time, Miss Park was suspected by a colleague in SIS of working for the Soviet’s KGB. In fact, Miss Park was one of those convinced of the guilt of the notorious spy Kim Philby, who fooled most of his British colleagues by persuading them that he was one of their own. Even when his double-dealing was exposed, Philby escaped to Moscow and was never penalized for being the kind of traitor who brought about the deaths of many British agents.

Her biographer emphasizes that Miss Park’s achievements should never be underestimated. “From the moment the eleven year old girl set foot on British soil in 1933 she never once faltered. The Service she joined in 1948 was a chauvinistic, militaristic men’s club. The one club that did grant her admission insisted she enter by its side door.”

He noted the difficulty of finding out what Miss Park was like, pointing out, “She was a spy and spies are careful.” Few photographs exist of Miss Park and she didn’t write too many letters even to friends who recalled, she just telephoned when she arrived back in London.” Her motto might have been to leave “nothing more than a footprint in the sand” observes Mr. Hayes, yet from those blurred markers he asserts, an extraordinary person had emerged.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.

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