Press Box

Roger Straus, International Man of Mystery

Farrar, Straus’ creepy partnership with American intelligence.

Here’s more evidence that the ‘70s are over. Last week, when The New Yorker helped publisher Roger Straus out himself and his company, Farrar, Straus & Co., as closeters of American spies during the Cold War, no publication or Web site aggregated by either Nexis or Google wrote a word about it. (Victor Navasky, call your office!)

Writer Ian Parker delivers the spooks scoop at about the 3,600-word mark of his 9,200-word puff profile of Straus (“Showboat: Roger Straus and his flair for selling literature,” April 8, 2002). Parker writes that Straus discloses “for the first time in public” his decadelong partnership with an unnamed U.S. intelligence agency, which ran from the postwar ‘40s to the mid-’50s. The deal went down when an employee of U.S. intelligence visited Straus during his company’s first year or two of existence and made this offer:

Appealing to Straus’s patriotism, the man asked if Farrar, Straus could provide cover for two men in Europe. They would do real work for Straus as literary scouts, but they would also be reporting to this government agency, which would pay their salaries.

Straus, celebrated by all as the most independent cuss in publishing, readily agreed. “Here we are starting this company—I’ll have two guys in two different countries where I want entrée, who will do what I’ll tell them to do and bring stuff in,” Straus told Parker. Straus did business with the government on a dedicated phone line installed in his office, and the publisher concealed the arrangement from his colleagues.

Of course, Straus wasn’t the only American culture figure to accept intelligence largesse during the Cold War. The CIA supported anti-communist liberal intellectuals and writers during the Cold War with publishing subsidies, conference grants, and traveling stipends through its front organizations. In The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters, Frances Stonor Saunders reports that the CIA laundered its donations through such willing partners as the Ford Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundations, with the money eventually trickling down to Bertrand Russell, Isaiah Berlin, Czeslaw Milosz, Mark Rothko, Mary McCarthy, T.S. Eliot, Dizzy Gillespie, Peter Matthiessen, Sidney Hook, Lionel Trilling, Diana Trilling, Stephen Spender, Robert Lowell, Isak Dinesen, Robert Penn Warren, and many, many others. Most famously, the CIA funded the eminent British journal Encounter, part of what CIA officer-turned-journalist Tom Braden later called “a vast project targeted on the intellectuals—’the battle for Picasso’s mind,’ if you will.”

According to Braden, few of the CIA beneficiaries knew the money was coming from the agency, even if they suspected the hand of the U.S. government behind their good fortune. Straus, on the other hand, knew from the get-go.

Who used whom? Straus says his “literary scouts” went and talked to writers such as Alberto Moravia and the publishers of Carlo Levi or Cesare Pavese to find out when their new books would be ready, presumably saving Straus a few dollars in international phone calls. And what did American intelligence get out of the relationship? Straus says he doesn’t know but guesses it was “pretty thin soup.” Now, that’s simply preposterous: two U.S. agents serving in Europe with perfect cover during the 10 hottest years of the Cold War, and all they delivered was thin soup?

Parker doesn’t push Straus very hard on his decade of collaboration with U.S. spymasters. “They never asked me to do anything that was embarrassing,” Straus tells him. “They never said to me, ‘Will you please pass some money from Sam to Jane?’ or ‘Would you please call up So-and-So and arrange an appointment?’ ” After indulging all this soft-pedaling, Parker lets Straus off the hook with a they-were-all-doing-it disclaimer, writing, “Given what’s known about the CIA’s funding of the magazine Encounter, for example, few people would be surprised to learn of another Cold War contact between American intelligence and an American cultural body.”

Judging from the silence greeting the scoop—and The New Yorker’s willingness to bury it—I reckon that Parker is right. Nobody is surprised. Nobody cares. Not even the left. But it was wrong for the government to ask Straus for cover, and anything but patriotic for him to surrender his independence by agreeing. The government surely took his acquiescence as a sign that 1) the arrangement was kosher; and 2) it shouldn’t think twice about recruiting more publishing figures. Not to be too much of a scold, but without Straus’ corruption would there have been an Encounter scandal?

For those who don’t think that it matters that U.S. intelligence was present at the creation of America’s best-respected publishing house, let me offer two words: Daniel Pearl. By providing direct cover for U.S. intelligence agents (something the Encounter gang never did—as far as we know), Straus gives credence to the perpetual claims leveled at Pearl and other fourth-estaters that they work for the CIA.