BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
A no-holds-barred interview with former CIA operative Valerie Plame Wilson, signature cocktails dubbed “a spy’s ally,” and guests in Mata Hari plumed cloches and elegant evening trench coats combined to create the most mysterious (and timely) gala in town on March 31: The Guild of the Chicago Historical Society’s An Evening of Intrigue.
From hors d’oeuvres sequestered in suitcases passed by servers in sunglasses to a chocolate “bomb” termed “spies demise,” clever chairs Connie Barkley and Erica Meyer—in a fabulous pink lace trench coat—made sure the evening’s operative tone dovetailed with the CHS exhibition Spies, Traitors, Saboteurs: Fear and Freedom in America, which opened April 8.
Credit Barkley with the winning idea of inviting Plame Wilson, who served as a covert CIA operations officer, to be guest of honor. The author of Fair Game: My Life as a Spy, My Betrayal by the White House, Plame was portrayed by Naomi Watts in the 2010 film Fair Game, which won the Freedom of Expression Award from the National Board of Review. Plame Wilson continues to write, produce films, and participate in political think tanks.
In his welcome address to the evening’s 200 guests, CHS President, Gary Johnson, thanked the Guild for funding the gallery where the reception was held. He added:
“Whenever we needed something, we knew that we could always count on the Guild. We honor Valerie Plame for her service to our nation. We thank Mary Ann Ahern, winner of the Peter Lisagor award for the Chicago Headliners Club, for conducting the interview.”
CHS Board Chair David Hiller; Guild President, Libbet Richter; and Honorary Chair, Liz Stiffel, joined Johnson in welcoming guests who moved into the CHS theater to hear the glamorous Plame, a nuclear proliferation expert, speak on how columnist Robert Novak (acting on leaked information from members of the Bush administration) destroyed her cover and her career.
Ahern, the NBC reporter known for her moving interview with Christopher Reeve, has spoken with numerous local, state, and national politicians as well as many religious leaders over her storied career, commented:
“Valerie gave me absolutely no restrictions—she said that we were going to have a great conversation. This was so refreshing. Everyday when I have an interview at the Mayors office, I am asked to submit questions in advance. When you realize the dangers she and her family faced after the outing, you so admire her courage.”
As Plame Wilson described:
“Patrick Fitzgerald convicted Scooter Libby in 2007 for the leak, and I feel that there is no value in holding onto anger. My husband and small twins moved to Santa Fe after his trial. I loved working for the CIA and joined right after college because I wanted a career in public service. The troubles began when my husband wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times after a visit to Niger saying that the claim that it was receiving uranium from Iraq to make nuclear weapons was absolutely bogus.
“After I was outed by Robert Novak, I called my boss and told him it was like Alice falling down the rabbit hole. There is often that time in a person’s life where you know that it is the dividing line; nothing in the future will be the same as the past from then on. I had never intended to be a public person. Our names were everywhere, and it was very frightening.”
Before the benefit, Plame Wilson sat down with Classic Chicago to tell us what she is doing now:
“I have a couple of projects that I have options on with partners. One is Mary’s Mosaic, the book about Mary Pinchot Meyer, believed to be a girlfriend of President Kennedy, whose unsolved murder many believe was part of a CIA plot.
“I continue to write my spy thrillers with the female protagonist on a more realistic and accessible level than a James Bond. For example, there are not a whole lot of guns, and she struggles with how to have a personal life.
“I am a TV host and have made documentaries. Most importantly, I continue to work on projects related to creating a more peaceful world.”
As the daughter of an Air Force Officer, Plame Wilson lived all over the world growing up. She says that her natural curiosity held her in good stead for her CIA undercover work.
“Everyone has a story—you just have to ask. I think it is important for people to realize that as an agent, you are not just a lone wolf out there; you are working with a team. I spent 20 years in both Europe and the Middle East and was there during the terrorism in Athens. I loved my work.
“I told friends that I was a consultant, and, of course, Washington is filled with consultants. I think they were slightly relieved when it was revealed that I worked for the CIA—they suspected that I didn’t really have a job!
“The field definitely needs the best and the brightest now more than ever, but there is such chaos in the system currently. It is probably not an auspicious time to get into intelligence.”
She was proud to discuss her Chicago roots with the local audience:
“My grandfather came to Chicago from the Ukraine in 1894. My father attended IIT and lived in Western Springs before becoming a career officer in the Air Force. I remember him telling me of special family days at the Pump Room. . . .”
Photo credit: Robert Carl