Talking Location With author Annee Lawrence – Indonesia
Talking Location With author Henry Hemming – New York
6th September 2019
#TalkingLocationWith… Henry Hemming, author of Our Man in New York which details the fascinating and extraordinary story of Bill Stephenson, who headed the covert operation to manipulate American public opinion and bring the USA into the Second World War… and he founded the organisation that eventually became the CIA. Over to Henry:
In the summer of 1940, if you wanted to move to the world’s most glamorous city, the most cosmopolitan, dynamic and luxurious metropolis anywhere on earth, then you would head to New York. There was little debate. Of course, at that time most of its rivals in the glamour stakes – London, Paris, Berlin – were preoccupied with the Second World War. Yet even before the start of the conflict you could argue that New York had the edge.
This particular moment in the city’s history, as the United States weighed up whether to come into the Second World War, is one I’ve come to know well, and is the setting for Our Man in New York, my history of the undercover British campaign to bring the United States into the war.
If New York itself is one of the key characters in the book, another is the senior MI6 officer for North America, Bill Stephenson, an Icelandic-Canadian who grew up in poverty in the red-light district of Winnipeg, deep in the Canadian prairies. Stephenson was forever reinventing himself. Having obscured his humble origins he moved to London and became a millionaire. In the summer of 1940, he was sent to New York as a British spymaster.
It was strangely apt that his latest transformation should take place in New York. Whether it’s Frank Sinatra singing about making ‘a brand new start of it / in old New York’, or the cast of the musical Hamilton– ‘in New York you can be a new man’ – this is clearly where you go to start afresh. Stephenson was no exception. His first act on arriving in New York and inspecting his new MI6 office, in Exchange Place, Lower Manhattan, was to move the office into his new apartment, one of the most expensively decorated homes in New York.
This was the penthouse suite of Hampshire House, 150 Central Park South, an elegant block overlooking the park. We know exactly what his new home looked like because it featured in a recent issue of House and Garden, whose readers were told of the pink ceiling, chessboard marble floor, lights hidden in fruit and flower plaster mouldings, the maroon lacquered doors, a double-height drawing room and white Georgian banquettes artfully upholstered in crimson velvet. By some distance, this was the most extravagantly decorated intelligence headquarters anywhere in the world.
Stephenson soon outgrew this space and moved his MI6 station to a large office on the 35th floor of the Rockefeller Center’s International Building. During my last research trip to New York I walked the various routes Stephenson would have taken into work each day.
The most dramatic of these takes you from Hampshire House along Central Park South, past the horse-drawn carriages – a feature then as they are today – and diagonally across Grand Army Plaza, taking in the Pulitzer Fountain with Karl Bitter’s bronze ‘Pomona’ perched elegantly above the water. Next comes the most dramatic part of this MI6 officer’s commute, the point when you head downtown along 5thAvenue.
At once, the view reaches out before you to the horizon. It is as if you’re at foot of a narrow, sharp-edged canyon. For Stephenson in 1940, or for any visitor today, you are soon lost in a flow of office workers, labourers and tourists. On your left as you carry on downtown is a river of yellow taxis, and on your right a parade of impressive window displays in stores selling jewellery and clothing.
After a few minutes, Stephenson would have been able to glimpse the entrance to his favourite nightspot, the Stork Club, at 3 East 53rd Street, the very spot where he laid out his vision of an American centralised intelligence agency to his friend ‘Wild Bill’ Donovan, who would go on to run the agency that became the CIA.
The Stork Club may have gone, but his next landmark is still there – the façade of St Patrick’s Cathedral. In 1940 it was blackened by soot, but today it has been restored to its original pale honey colour.
Opposite the cathedral is the International Building of the Rockefeller Center, with the Lee Lawrie and Rene Paul Chambellan bronze ‘Atlas’ standing guard outside, which is where Stephenson now worked. It’s worth pausing before going in to enjoy that pocket of space before the tower. You can’t help but crane your neck up to gawp at the vertiginous simplicity of the structure. Inside it feels like a hushed mausoleum. Gone is the bustle, modernity and bright light of the street. Instead you are surrounded by veined green marble, bronze mouldings and a vast stretch of copper leaf squares on the ceiling.
Which is as far as you can go when retracing this particular MI6 officer’s walk into work, but there’s no real need to go any further. The MI6 station for the United States is no longer inside the Rockefeller Center – as far as I know.
What an utterly fascinating piece of history… who would have guessed!!! Thank you so much to Henry for such a fabulously insightful piece
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