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Highlights of my year working at the British Embassy in 1961

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My first assignment at the embassy was an unpleasant posting at the embassy's garage doors. This was far from an ideal assignment, especially so that particular January, as it was very cold when I took up the posting, and the garage doors were more often than not usually open. In addition to the to the main embassy and the ambassador's residence, on Massachusetts Ave., the British Government also owned a number of other buildings around Washington, mostly warehouses and archival libraries. After my garage door assignment that lasted several weeks I was next stationed at one of these storage locations, often on weekends. Because these places were almost always vacant on weekends, they turned out to be ideal places to catch up on lost sleep, or to put in some time preparing for a couple of courses I was taking in International Affairs at the George Washington University. The main drawback of being in these buildings as far as I could tell was that they were insufferably overheated in winter and very stuffy in summer due to the absence of air-conditioning.

The prestige embassy postings for receptionists and security were those at the ambassador's residence and the embassy's main entrance just off the Rotunda and both came my way before long. Sir Harold Caccia was the British Ambassador to the USA at that time (1960) and the general feeling one got about him around town, was that he was quite popular.


Shortly after getting assigned to these plum postings in late February, more opportunities opened up within the wider embassy world. Within another month or two I was appointed liaison officer between the security section and the social affairs and public relations departments of the embassy, allowing insights into these other aspects of embassy life. The Ambassador's residence posting was quite a different quintal of fish again.Surprisingly,being here permitted me to eavesdrop on Washington's and the wider worlds political and entertainment glitterati of that era.

My surprise posting to the ambassador's residence materialized quite suddenly late one afternoon. Quite out of the blue, my boss a fastidious Scotsman and head of the department asked me to take the 4:00 pm to midnight shift there beginning the following day. Almost immediately it began paying big dividends. Within the week I got to meet and greet the biggest Washington fish of them all.

The Scotsman had told me that there would be a private dinner coming up at the residence the next week, for guests of honour, the US President, John F Kennedy and Mrs.Kennedy. (Soon to be well-known universally as JFK and Jackie.) I freely admit that upon hearing the news I grew quite excited.

It was late in February and uncommonly cold for Washington when they arrived right on time, 7 pm sharp as expected. Although I could conceal it to some extent, I was nevertheless hyped up. Their group also included a select secret service detail that remained in the hall way with me for much of the evening, while at times sneaking peeps into the dining room, to keep an eye on their very important charges.

The Kennedy party,pushed along by a stiff cold gust of outside wind quickly came through the residence's entrance and vestibule into the warmth of the hallway, where they suddenly arrived practically in front of my desk.

Kennedy, as usual was wearing the ubiquitous, long navy blue winter great coat of his, a style that very quickly was becoming de rigour among Washington's political and bureaucratic ilk. He was already in the act of peeling it off the minute he got into the hall way, clearly a man of action. He swept past an embassy attendant sent to assist him and was past my reception desk, before an embassy first secretary came rushing up to greet them officially. He then escorted them down the hall a short distance to the residence's cloak room where other attendants awaited.

The Caccias at that moment suddenly materialized from an adjoining drawing room smiling broadly, offering outstretched hands in greeting. Somewhat more attention seemed to be extended Mrs. Kennedy and she clearly allowed herself to be fussed over much more than JFK. Everyone in the immediate area was soon smiling grandly, including me. How could our distinguished guests not fail to notice such obvious affection?

After being attended to, the small group, with the ambassador leading, made their way towards the dining room a little further down the hall. Amid all the hubbub I too had been the recipient however briefly of one of the captivating JFK smiles, as he passed by my post. That was as close as I got to the President and Mrs. Kennedy during my year at the embassy.

Around this same time, another celebrity turned up at the residence as special guest of the Caccias' for a private dinner party and it was a more subdued affair than the Kennedy visit had been. The celebrity guest this time was Sir Lawrence Olivier, who arrived alone somewhat surprisingly,no date or companion. I gave him a genuine polite greeting as he walked past my table to sign the guest book, receiving a curt smile in return.

He was met by the residence butler and led off to the drawing room across the hall where Sir Harold, Lady Caccia and a few of their select friends awaited him having pre-dinner drinks.

Rotunda receptions

The Rotunda, a special design feature to this quite new embassy,(late 1950s) was an eye catching large circular space that lay just to the right after entering the embassy. It was without question, the centre for all the embassy's larger social gatherings.

I first met Mrs. Burke, wife of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Arleigh Burke one bright spring morning. I had been sent to meet her by the head of our department in order to be briefed on some joint US/British Embassy social events that she was involved in coordinating.

Her kick- off event was to be a cocktail party to be held in the Rotunda she'd requested the embassy co-host. I don't think any of these initiatives of hers were in any way related to her husband's department though it goes without saying the mere mention of his name would surely have opened doors for her. The initiative seemed to be her own idea, another way of introducing visiting celebrity Brits to the Embassy to Americans as well, over drinks a few times a year. Of course, to get the green light for the Embassy to host these get-togethers required the approval of the embassy's security division.

After he had been brought up to speed on Madame Burke's plans, my boss, the very fastidious Scotsman, did give his approval for the events after fussing for a while, concerned over the vulnerability of the Rotunda to the outside. He then delegated me to be his point man with Madame Burke.

Ms. Burke was a very friendly, affable woman, who had a straightforward way about her of getting right down to the business at hand.This chatty side to her nature became immediately apparent the moment she welcomed me into her office, with an effusive greeting.

"Hello Mr. Christopher, I'm so happy to see that you will be my embassy contact for our social committee's plans for the coming year. Please convey my warm greetings and thank yous to your dept. head Mr. Lowry for me.I'm very happy we had the opportunity to meet and I very much look forward to working with you on the planning of our events during the coming year."

She enthusiastically then went on, describing her plans for the social committee in the coming year. "The security director informs me that your beautiful Rotunda at the embassy can be the location for our first cocktail party next month. Please, don't hesitate to contact me if any of our plans need further explanation with regard to the embassy's security protocols."

The first social event I worked on with her was the cocktail party.As it happened it was held in conjunction with a visit by Dame Maggie Smith, who was then acting in a Broadway play in New York. Of course, most of Washington's official arts and cultural community showed up along with numerous glitterati for the event, as well as a number of interested or curious foreign embassy officials.

The British embassy on Massachusetts, was quite new at the time and had only recently opened for business and I'm quite sure that many of the invitees for the event were simply curious. The embassy building itself was quite impressive and its opening just a few years before my arrival had received a ton of favourable press at the time.

The Rotunda was located just to the right of the main entrance, after entering the embassy; in this respect the embassy was considered almost too accessible in the opinion of my fastidious Scots security boss. It could probably hold in a couple hundred guests for a stand-up cocktail party, where people could stroll around nibbling on hors d'ouvers sipping a glass of wine; which was exactly what our planned social events would seem to be. For a more formal sit down dinner, it might accommodate a hundred at best. The stand-up gathering, I think it might have been for the British Broadway star Maggie Smith was held in the very early evening, beginning shortly after 5:00 pm. In addition to the arts and entertainment crowd, there were scatterings of politicians, government bureaucrats and guests from interested foreign embassies along with many members of the press and television. Ms. Burke had covered the invitee spectrum pretty thoroughly.

I learned from my boss that all I would have to do during the party was keep my eyes open and circulate around, appearing to be just another one of the guests. "Act like you're one of the crowd. Just fit in! You can do it," he ordered.

To assist in this charade I decided to walk about with a glass of wine always in hand. As I hadn't cleared this ploy with my boss however, I lay off drinking it as much as possible during my walk-about. Of course I kept sipped away throughout the entire event so that by the end of the evening, I had probably put away several large glasses of the embassy's best grape and become slightly lightheaded. Nevertheless, I still attempted to do my duty and continued to keep a sharp look out for any suspicious looking behaviour. As the function began to wind down, I was approached by Mrs. Burke , who seemed to be a bit woozy herself, exclaiming "John how are you? How nice it is to see you." Mock surprise upon seeing me, (but without giving away our undercover game).

I should explain that I had been dating a couple of young women during my time working at the embassy, one from in-house connections and the other locally , a resident of Washington D.C. Neither was with me at the the gathering for Maggie Smith that night Ann Fear was the rather proper daughter of Wing Commander Fear our Military Attache. She was then an Oxford University nursing student taking what seemed to be a rather long holiday visit to Washington. Nancy Hansen, on the other hand was just her opposite, the completely free spirited daughter of a left wing Senator from Wisconsin I believe. I spent many enjoyable hours in the Hansen household, usually on Sunday afternoons, when there seemed to be an open house for all comers.

Everything had gone as smoothly as we'd hoped. No one became intoxicated, no scenes were created, and nobody blew my cover that evening.Security personnel at the embassy didn't wear uniforms; there no markings of any kind to identify such individuals. We were all hidden from view.

(In those days Embassy employees were issued a cartoon or two of cigarettes (Players) and a couple bottles of booze weekly, overseas posting treats for British Nationals I suppose.) The food and booze served at these Rotunda affairs was always top drawer, with most products carrying the seal of Her Royal Highness. I soon discovered that on the whole, the events I worked on were interesting and educational.

The 'high-light' reel for me before the year at the embassy ended was a weekend spent 'guarding' Sir Harold Macmillan, the British Prime Minister, then on head of state visit to the USA. It turned out to be the busiest event of the year for us, involving as it did both the residence and embassy and it involved a great deal of preparation on the part of embassy staff as well as American governmental officials.

At the time, there was among other things, a major crisis brewing between the American government and the Soviets over the installation of soviet missiles in Cuba. For me, purely by accident, it turned out to be the most interesting time to be working at the British Embassy. JFK, the knight from Camelot found himself locked into a game of chicken with the colourful bombastic and very controversial Nikita Khrushchev. (Who could have forgotten his famous shoe banging incident at the UN?) It was around this time that the witty, urbane and pragmatic Sir Harold, (Supermac) undertook his visit to the USA, ostensibly to express solidarity with Kennedy but perhaps also to help calm the waters. At the embassy we all looked forward to the MacMillan visit much anticipation. Still ahead, lay the fiasco of the failed CIA sponsored anti- Castro paramilitary invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs (Invasion de Playa Giron) in April 1961.

Meanwhile,at this time, rumours were running rampant that the embassy was full of closet reds, with accusations being made almost weekly that soviet moles had already been planted in our midst by moles then working at MI 5 itself. This was in all likelihood probably true.

All of this intrigue just added to the glamour of working in the place. I felt quite lucky to be working there that year, and as it so happened on the 'inside' in security.

Real or imagined security challenges at the embassy, kept us on our toes, always on the lookout for possible moles among our embassy employees, even among the highest levels like first and second secretaries. We were kept pumped with weekly pep talks by our very conscientious and overly suspicious supervisor, to report on any questionable employees.

This excessive diligence was put to the test during our nightly rounds when we inspected certain offices following official business hours, when we could do our snooping unhindered. We were told to be particularly on the lookout for official looking big brown manila envelopes marked Top Secret that were left out, on desktops and the like, not under lock and key as they should have been, after the office occupants had left for the day. If such things were discovered, we were to report them immediately to our Scots boss so he could get to work questioning the rule breakers right away. This extra degree of scrutiny was to be undertaken especially in the offices to our most senior secretaries more so than in those of individuals lower down in the pecking order. Naturally, Security felt that it was only these people who would have been privy to the most important sensitive government information; MI5 may in fact have tipped us off to undertake this extra degree of surveillance. When such infringements were discovered and reported to the Scotsman, a stern warning was given to the office occupant, to get their house in order. If a second breach occurred, they would be watched more closely, perhaps even secretly, and it would be reported up the chain of command even up to the ambassador himself.

I'm not aware that anyone on staff was ever caught spying for the USSR while I was there, although there were, from what I later learned through the grapevine, a number of individuals under very close surveillance. Just a few years later, a maelstrom exploded within MI5 itself, when a group of former Oxford chums led by Kim Philby, who then occupied a very senior post at the spy agency, together with five of his notorious friends, were outed as USSR moles in 1963. Just as the noose was closing in on him however,Philby was successful in making his escape to the USSR just in the nick of time. After he fled, Philby was forced to live the remainder of his natural life in the USSR, dying there in the mid-1980s. Apparently Philby's spying had been going on for decades and undoubtedly senior MI5 officers had not been completely without their suspicions, but proof of his guilt always eluded them until just before he flew the coup in 1963. Security officials at British Embassies worldwide, had been alerted to the possibility of potentially dangerous in-house situations by the time of my arrival in 1960.

For those enjoyable days I spent in the company of Sir Harold, I have to thank again my boss, the Scot. It's not every day that someone as young as I was would have the opportunity, (even at the most important UK embassy of them all), to spend almost three days wandering around with while keeping an eye out for the Prime Minister of Great Britain, especially someone of Sir Harold Macmillan's stature. I was indeed lucky to be chosen one of just a few embassy security people to accompany Sir Harold on his embassy and residence rounds during his visit to the USA that year. During the week -end he was kept very busy with meetings, receptions, press conferences and formal dinners at both the embassy (where he stayed while in Washington), and the US state department. NOTE: embassy security didn't accompany him outside the embassy where he was accompanied by his own Scotland Yard people, who had also accompanied him at all times within the embassy, in addition to his numerous engagements around Washington DC. On Sir Harold's final night, the Ambassador had a formal dinner for him at the residence for just a select list of dinner guests. I had the opportunity to observe him up close, under different circumstances of course during most events at the embassy and his comings and goings between embassy and residence.

I remember particularly that final evening when he attended the formal good bye dinner at the residence, hosted by Sir Harold and Lady Caccia. The guest list included several foreign ambassadors, some of whom may have been personal friends of Sir Harold's, along with a number of local friends and politicians of the Caccias and Sir Harold's. Perhaps, because of advancing age, (he was then 66 or 67) combined with the extremely long working hours he'd put in during his visit, he appeared to grow quite weary, stifling many yawns, as the dinner wore on. Also contributing to the ennui may have been the pre-dinner drinks and the dinner wine.

But he was a tough old bird and knew how to handle himself in these situations having undertaken many similar tours of duty on Great Britain's behalf, going back to his days as Foreign Secretary for Prime Minister Anthony Eden, (who, by the way, he somewhat resembled in appearance, natty dressing, and manner and whom he succeeded. Unfortunately, in so doing he was left with the aftermath of the ill-conceived Anglo-French Suez Canal fiasco to clean up. He was active politically during a time when there were many world crises unfolding including the erection of the Berlin Wall, the Bay of Pigs Invasion, the Cuban Missile Crises and the start of the Viet Nam war. Great Britain's attempts to be included in the European Common Market were also an on-again/ off-again preoccupation during his years in Parliament.

Whatever the causes of his obvious ennui, I noticed he did indeed nod off on occasion while at table, if only momentarily. Perhaps he was just bored or disliked what was being served. He appeared not to be a very hearty diner on that particular night. From my hall door vantage point in the corridor I could still occasionally sneak a glimpse into the dining room and keep an eye on him. On one of these peeping-toms I studied him closely for a couple of minutes as he rather daintily nibbled on a bit of asparagus. During his visit there were no scandals and nothing gossipy for the newspapers to report, he displayed no behaviour quirks and no scuttlebutt ensued.

But he was still at the time a very important person politically to the rest of the world. Since taking office in 1957 he had acquired the well -earned title of 'the decolonizer' for beginning the process of disengaging Britain from her colonies in Africa that began with Ghana in 1957, with others to follow before he left office in 1963. He and John Kennedy were on very good terms both politically and personally, perhaps in part due to the marriage of Kennedy's sister to a nephew of MacMillan's. He and Jack hit it off from the very beginning and a solid committed friendship continued until Jack's assassination. Jack often kept Harold in the loop with as many as six cable grams a day. Jackie continued a warm personal relationship with Sir Harold until his death. Jack and Harold were an odd couple in that Jack was such an obvious womanizer (sometimes as many as three girlfriends a night) while Harold was just the opposite, a staid faithful husband up to the end. (In this regard unlike his wife who carried on a thirty five year affair with a colleague of Harold's.) Trivia collectors might be aware of the fact that he was the last British Prime Minister to wear a moustache and the last PM to be born, (in 1894), while Queen Victoria was still on the throne. He lived to be 92, and remained active politically in retirement with biting critiques of those with whom he disagreed. He died in 1986.

I remember my girlfriend Ann and her air attache, Wing Commander dad, both saying at the time I was then en garde at the embassy that it couldn't have occurred at a more interesting time. Sir Harold was always very courteous towards me during my rather brief time with him. I recall him now, as a very natty dresser, in the conservative manner, always very smartly and expensively turned out. He was every inch the British gentleman. He was the PM during the 'good times' of the British invasion in music and fashion in the UK (1957-1963) and was followed by yet another conservative Sir Alex Douglas Home (pronounced Hume). Sir Alec was the last in a string of Tories and was ousted only a year later by Labour's Harold Wilson.

John P Christopher
Toronto, ON

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