This reading group guide for THE PRINCESS SPY includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Larry Loftis. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.Introduction
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In 1941, Aline Griffith, born and raised in a quiet New York suburb, is a college graduate desperate to aid in the war effort as World War II rages across Europe. Although she studied Spanish and French, she has hardly left New York and doesn’t know where to begin as a bright-eyed young woman whose only career experience is modeling clothes.
Aline’s life changes when she meets a man named Frank Ryan and reveals her love of adventure and her desire to do her part for her country. Within a few weeks he recruits her to join the Office of Strategic Services—forerunner of the CIA. With a code name and expert training under her belt, she is sent to Spain to be a coder, but is soon given the additional assignment of infiltrating the upper echelons of society, mingling with high-ranking officials, diplomats, and titled Europeans, any of whom could be an enemy agent. Against this glamorous backdrop of galas and dinner parties, she recruits sub-agents and engages in deep-cover espionage to counter Nazi tactics in Madrid.
Even after falling in love with and marrying the Count of Romanones, one of the wealthiest men in Spain, Aline secretly continues her covert activities, taking special assignments when abroad that would benefit from her impeccable pedigree and social connections. Full of adventure and danger, The Princess Spy
is the story of a woman who risked everything to serve her country.Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. When Aline meets Frank Ryan on a blind date at a friend’s house, she doesn’t know that he works for the Office of Strategic Services, an intelligence operation that served as the forerunner to the CIA. She tells him she wants to get into the war, stating, “I love adventure. I like taking risks. All the men I know are eager to get over there. Why should it seem strange that a woman wants to also?” (8) How does this chance encounter with Ryan influence the rest of her life? What do you believe he saw in her then and later that made him think she had a talent for intelligence work?
2.Discuss the role of Spain during World War II. Why was Spain critical to both Allied and Axis powers during the war, despite its purported neutrality? Why was the Iberian Peninsula (and the cities of Madrid and Lisbon in particular) such a hub for intelligence operations?
3. Aline’s flight on the Yankee Clipper reveals how important the OSS felt she was to their operation in Madrid. Why do you think that was the case?
4. The OSS and the American Embassy in Spain had a frosty relationship throughout this period, especially given Ambassador Hayes’s disdain for the OSS (65). What reasons did both organizations have for this animosity? Did the lack of cooperation hinder American efforts in Spain? During the time, espionage was a crime in Spain that could carry a sentence of death. What effect did this have on the relationships between the OSS, the American Embassy, and the Spanish authorities?
5. Aline frequently mixes her social life and espionage work, attending parties held by the Marquesa Torrejón in Madrid, the Count of Avila in Toledo, and the Hohenlohe family El Escorial. How did the qualities that made her a welcome guest also make her a capable spy? What personal advantages might she have had that made her well-suited for the role? And how do these relationships foreshadow her many friendships later on with aristocrats, political figures, and Hollywood stars?
6. Bullfighting and flamenco seem to play a central role in Aline’s world of espionage, and she had a close relationship with two bullfighters (Juanito Belmonte and Manolete). She also took a turn in the ring with a young heifer, a dangerous activity for anyone. Discuss the relationship of bullfighting, flamenco, and espionage, and how Aline’s exposure to all three affected and reflected her decision-making and bravery.
7. When Aline returns from Toledo she finds Marta, the young woman she had been harboring, killed by a gunshot wound to the head while sleeping in Aline’s bed. How does Marta’s killing reflect the real dangers of Aline’s work?
8. Aline frequently believes she is being followed. Does her enthusiasm for espionage overshadow concerns for her personal safety? Do you think she was well-prepared for her job in Spain?
9. The realization that Ana del Pombo’s salon functioned as a letter box is a turning point in Aline’s career with the OSS, although it was “still conjecture at this point and she wasn’t actually a field agent.” (149). Was it Aline’s training at The Farm that led her to act and think as a field agent at this point, her personality, or both?
10. Toward the end of the war, Aline works closely with Edmundo, whose intention is to find “an aristocratic wife with an impressive title and bank account.” (171) How do Aline and Edmundo’s romantic and social lives mix and diverge? How do they compare with the usual expectations of spies?
11. When Aline tells her husband about her espionage work during the war, he replies incredulously with “You, a spy!” (226). Why does he find this unbelievable? Is his disbelief a testament to Aline’s training to disguise her work, or perhaps due more to Aline’s socialite personality, or her husband’s own upbringing and understanding of women’s roles?
12. Macmillan notes that Aline had a “special aptitude for intelligence work,” including “an unusual sense of the importance of security” (192). How do you think Aline acquired this sense? Or was it something innate?
13. In a book that leaves many mysteries, one of the largest and most personal is the identity of Pierre. Who do you think he was? Which side do you believe he was on? And what about World Commerce Corporation? Do you think it conducted espionage, or was it merely a business organization? Could it have conducted both?Enhance Your Book Club
1. Get out a map of Spain and plot the places Aline visited or mentioned, including El Escorial, Toledo, Malaga, and Irun. Have members of your group research each of these towns and report any interesting discoveries about their history.
2. Read Larry Loftis’s previous book Code Name: Lise
and discuss the similarities and differences between the story of Odette Sansom and Aline Griffith.
For more information and research, visit the author’s website at larryloftis.com.Author Q&A Q: What drew you to the story of Aline Griffith? How did you know she would become the focus of your next book?
A: As I note in the preface, a friend mentioned her to me with the caveat that much in her story might be untrue. He was right. Of the nine murders/killings mentioned in her first two espionage memoirs (The Spy Wore Red
and The Spy Went Dancing
), eight were untrue. A real turning point for me was the murder of Marta, which—like the other killings Aline wrote about—is not mentioned in the OSS files. However, during my research I met the sons of Aline’s code room partner, Robert Dunev, and they gave me a copy of their father’s unpublished memoir, A Spy Reminisces
. In this document (prepared only for the Dunev family) Robert mentions “the night I removed a body from Aline’s apartment.” Bingo!
, I thought at the time. With my background as a lawyer, I knew that this was highly credible evidence since Dunev was an eyewitness and had no potential conflicts of interest (such as making money on a book).
Since I write nonfiction thrillers, I knew that I had at least one frightening event to include in the book, and now had to dig in. A trip to the National Archives to review the OSS files, along with materials from other primary sources, allowed me to include everything you find in the book.Q: Your previous books, Into the Lion’s Mouth and Code Name: Lise, were also about World War II spies. The former became an international bestseller, and the latter a national bestseller. Why do you think readers are hungry for these WWII espionage stories?
A: I think these stories are popular for a number of reasons. First, WWII was one of the only truly world-wide events in history, and readers never seem to tire of learning more about it. Look at the popularity of movies like Saving Private Ryan
, and the never-ending supply of books about D-Day. Second, with the creation of James Bond, Ian Fleming (and Sean Connery) made espionage “cool” and exciting, thus spawning countless books and movies in the genre. Third, I only write nonfiction stories that have enough exciting events and suspense to quality as legitimate thrillers, and I think readers are drawn to this unusual combination.
Ironically, the subject of Into the Lion’s Mouth
, Dusko Popov, was Ian Fleming’s inspiration for Bond, and Aline Griffith was a real-life female version of Bond. In fact, they were both trained in close combat (including knife fighting) by the same man, the legendary William Fairbairn.Q: Tell us a little about your research process. Knowing about the embellishments Aline created in her own memoirs, how did you establish the veracity of documents and stories and then weave them into a compelling narrative?
A: With all of my books, I start with any autobiography (Dusko Popov’s Spy/Counter-Spy
, Aline’s five books) or biographies (Russell Miller’s of Popov, Jerrard Tickell’s of Odette Sansom) of my subject. After that I go to the pertinent archive files (UK and US for Popov, UK for Sansom, US for Aline), which are the most reliable and the most credible under evidentiary rules. For Aline, these were the OSS Madrid files. After pouring through all of the memos, agent reports, and letters in these files I can generally determine the errors contained in the autobiographies or biographies, and in some cases discover what was simply invented. A quick illustration would be the two operations Aline claimed to have worked on: “Operation Bullfight” and “Operation Safehaven.” The former Aline invented, but the latter was very much true, and she played a key role in it, second only to Edmundo Lassalle.
In my endnotes I always explain these discrepancies or embellishments. Popov, for example, had written that MI5 had given him a small banquet in Lisbon “as the bombs of D-Day were falling.” His case officer, however, who was at the event, put a memo in the MI5 file at the time showing that the date was actually April 26, 1944. Since Popov was writing thirty years later, the error on dates is understandable.
A more serious error, of course, is when spies simply make up events. In The Spy Wore Red
, for example, Aline writes that she witnessed the murder of an OSS informant at Casino Estoril (Lisbon, Portugal) on Christmas Day, 1943, and that the murderer was her OSS partner, Edmundo Lassalle. The problem with this story is that Aline and Edmundo were both in the US at this time. Aline would not arrive in Lisbon (OSS files and hotel records show) until February 8, 1944, and Edmundo would not arrive until June 1, 1944 (leaving from Philadelphia aboard the SS Thoma
on May 13). This is why I often include copies of hotel registrations in my books (showing Popov’s and Ian Fleming’s in Into the Lion’s Mouth
, and Aline’s in The Princess Spy
After reviewing archive files I then fill in gaps with details gleaned from primary sources (e.g. memoirs of Robert Dunev, Ambassador Carlton Hayes, Barnaby Conrad, Walter Smith, Edmundo Lassalle’s daughter, etc.).
I then weave the story into a compelling narrative by preparing a calendar of what happened on each day throughout the entire time frame, which serves as my outline. I have to follow the calendar in setting out the story, of course, but I get to pick where and how I end chapters (with cliffhangers!).Q: What was the most intriguing bit of information you uncovered in your research?
A: Without question, World Commerce Corporation. This was the mysterious company that apparently bridged the gap between closure of the OSS on August 15, 1945, and the commencement of the CIA on September 18, 1947.
I was also amazed to discover Barnaby Conrad’s background in coding, his rise to a diplomatic post, and his activities as a bullfighter.Q: There are many mysteries still unanswered by the end of the book—Marta’s death, Frank Ryan’s postwar business, Pierre’s identity. Are there any you wish you had visible trails or conclusions?
A: This is the ongoing problem of investigating historical events: sometimes the evidence is unclear or missing. With some events, such as Marta’s murder, you simply have to apply logic. As I point out in the text, Marta had already killed two Civil Guards and was at risk of being shot upon capture. Aline’s cover had not been broken, and even if it had, the Germans would have been more likely to take her prisoner than shoot her. So the only logical explanation is that the killer was Spanish.
In some cases, like Frank Ryan’s World Commerce Corporation, there is evidence on both sides. Tax records show that WCC certainly conducted normal business operations, but on the flip side, the entity was founded by and stacked with espionage officers from the OSS, BSC, MI6, and SOE. That’s all we really know so my job is to give all of the dots the records provide, and then let the readers decide where and how to connect them.
With Pierre, as I point out at the end of the book, there’s simply no traceable evidence without his real name or real code name. So I made a judgment call on each bit of dialogue or each scene Aline claimed to have had with him, deleting some (where it was impossible or highly unlikely) and keeping some.
I would love to see all CIA records, but in my experience that organization will release nothing (even under the FOIA).Q: Which real-life character in the book do you identify with most and why?
A: Barnaby Conrad, for sure. Like Conrad, I have an unquenchable thirst for knowledge, adventure, new challenges, and a bit of danger now and then. I was a corporate lawyer for many years but never really felt challenged (except in law school) or fulfilled in that career. If you recall from the story, Conrad became a vice-consul because he was bored to tears as a coder in Washington. I could relate.
Recall too that Conrad had gone to Mexico for a little adventure, and to learn Spanish. I have gone to Colombia many times for adventure, to brush up on my Spanish as well.
Then the bulls. Conrad, you remember, was a bullfighter. Growing up in Texas, I went to many rodeos and know well the ferocity of these beasts. And just as Conrad (with no prior training) jumped the fence to fight a bull, I (with no prior training) rode a massive, nasty bull in a rodeo in Beaumont. Fortunately, we both escaped our adventures uninjured, but I learned first-hand that a bull can toss you a country mile. And remember that scene with Juanito Belmonte being launched out of his shoes? The same happened to me that night, as my boots were halfway off when I hit the ground.Q: You write beautifully about bullfighting, a sport little known in the US. Is this a particular interest of yours? What drew you to the subject matter?
A: Thank you. Part of it was my connection to Barnaby Conrad, as explained above. Like Conrad, I had been drawn to bullfighting by reading Ernest Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon
. And because bullfighting played such an important role in Aline’s story, I felt I had to be somewhat of an expert on it. So in addition to Hemingway’s book, I read three of Conrad’s bullfighting books: Matador
, La Fiesta Brava
, and Fun While it Lasted
. It was his bullfighting books that propelled Conrad’s writing career, eventually leading him to found the Santa Barbara Writers Conference.Q: And, just for fun: Aline’s code name was BUTCH. If you were able to choose a code name for yourself, what would it be?
A: Ha! Well, I queried my Facebook (or was it Instagram?) followers about a year ago with that very question (what my code name should be) and two people came up with a name I had thought of as well: BARRISTER. So with a nod to my British legal colleagues, I guess that shoe fits.