The Frank Olson Legacy Project

From Norman Mailer’s novel, Harlot’s Ghost

(© Random House 1991, used with permission of the author)




[The Family Jewels and the “High Holies”]

All the same, not many occasions in my life had been more momentous than the summer day in 1982 when Harlot had invited me to work again with him. “Yes,” he had said, “I need your assistance so much that I will forgo my true innings.” His knuckles, huge as carbuncles, fretted his wheel chair forward and back.…

It was exactly at this time, when disaffection was collecting in my pores like bile, that Harlot summoned me to his rump office at the farmhouse in Virginia, much as he must have called in several other men like myself, still ambitious enough to know rage that their careers were in irons, yet old enough to suffer the knowledge that their best years were committed and gone. Who knows what Harlot cooked up for the others? I can tell you what he talked about with me.

We, at the CIA, had gone through some considerable suffering on the exposure of the Family Jewels in 1975. Maybe a few bushmen in Australia had not heard how we labored to rub Fidel Castro out, but by the time the Senate Select Committee to Study Intelligence Activities had done inquiring, there were very few bushmen. The rest of the world had learned that we were ready to kill Patrice Lumumba as well, and had gone in for LSD experiments in brainwashing so exuberantly that one of our subjects, a Dr. Frank Olson (on government contract), had jumped out the window. We hid the fact from his widow. She spent twenty years thinking her husband was an ordinary suicide, which is onerous for a family to believe since there are no ordinary suicides. We opened mail between Russia and the U.S. and closed it again and sent it on. We spied on high government officials like Barry Goldwater and Bobby Kennedy; we had all of those activities advertised in the marketplace. Since we are, at CIA, a proud and secretive people, we felt not unlike a convention of Methodist ministers who are sued by a fine hotel for infesting the bed linen with crab lice. The Company had never been quite the same since exposure of the Family Jewels.

In its wake many of our top men had to go.…

Seven years later [Harlot] was calling me to action. “I ask us, Harry boy,” he said, “to forgive the spears we’ve left in one another. There is a scandal forming that will prove worse than the “Skeletons”—which was his term for the Family Jewels. “I’d estimate about as much worse as Hiroshima was an order of magnitude beyond Pearl Harbor. The Skeletons decimated our ranks; the High Holies, if not excised, will cut us right out of the map.

(PP. 26-28 Ballentine paperback edition)



I could read no further.… VICTIM kept falling in my mind.



“How are your headaches?” asked my father at the bar at Twenty-One.…

“Herrick, I haven’t seen a superior hell of a lot of you lately, have I?” he asked, unfolding his napkin, and sizing up the room.…

“Well, there’s a reason I haven’t seen a lot of you Rick.” He was the only one to call me Rick, rather than Harry, for Herrick. “I have been traveling an unconscionable amount.” This was said for the blond woman as much as for me. “They don’t know yet whether I’ll be one of the linchpins in Europe or the Far East.”

Now the man in the pencil-strip suit began his counteroffensive. He must have put a curve on what he said, for the woman gave a low intimate laugh. In response, my father leaned toward me across the table and whispered, “They’ve given OPC the covert operations.”

What’s covert?” I whispered back.

“The real stuff. None of that counterespionage where you drink out of my teacup and I drink out of yours. This is war. Without declaring it.” …

(pp. 115-116)



[The letter]

“Yes, one more thing,” I said. “You mentioned that you would let me see Rosen’s letters.”

“Why do you want to see them now?”

I shrugged. “For diversion.”

“Yes,” he said. “that’s right. All right.” But I could see he was reluctant. He went to his room, closed the door, came out, locked the door, and handed me a thick envelope. “Read it tonight,” he said. “And when you’re done, slip it under the sill.”

“I’ll read in this room,” I said, “and if anybody unfamiliar knocks, anyone official, that is, I’ll put the letter under your door before I go to answer.”

“Approved,” he said.


Dear Dix,

Well, here I am on hotshot duty in TSS, and there you are, honcho number one to the big man in Berlin. Congratulations. The old training group PQ 31 is doing all right for itself, even if PQ has to stand for peculiar—which is what I can say about my work now. Dix, procedure and any other I send you, is BAP (which in case you forgot is Burn After Perusal). I don’t know if work at TSS deserves to be as hush-hush as is presented to us here, but it is certainly a special place. Only geniuses need apply—how did they ever miss you? (Before you get too pissed off, recognize that I mean it.) The overseer for all us Mensa types is Hugh Montague, the old OSS legend, and he’s an odd one, as remote as Mt. Everest, confident as God. I can’t imagine what would happen if you ever tangled with him. Anyway, TSS is but part of his demesne, which I deliver as a gift to you love of big words. (Demesne is the etymological origin of domain, that is, the lands belonging to the Lord for which he pays no rent.) Montague, so far as I can see, pays no rent.) He reports only to Dulles. Over at Top Sanctum Sanctorum (true meaning of TSS), we tend to be savage our opinions of everybody, but on Montague, we agree. Unlike many in the Company, he is no dedicated brwon-noser.

…back to TSS. I find an unholy desire to tell you about the worst fiasco we ever had, which is why this letter has to be Ultra—BAP [Burn After Perusal]. It could fry my kishkes if read by the wrong eyes. Do not bother about the meaning of kishkes. That is argot from Yiddish and will advance nothing you’re interested in. I mention it only because the nominal head of TSS is named Gottlieb, and kishkes is the only Jewish word I ever heard him use. Of course, they assigned me to him — I guess they figure we have something in common. Well, not all that much. Some Jews are deep in tradition like my family, which is half religious-orthodox, half socialist — typically Jewish, ha, ha — but some Jews go in the other direction. They become mirrors of their culture. (Like me!) Disraeli, the British Prime Minister under Queen Victoria, born of Jewish parents, but they say he had the best upper-class English accent of anyone in the British Isles.

Well, Gottlieb is like that except he’s cosmic in scope, interested in everything. Odd! He lives on a farm outside of Washington and gets up every morning to milk his goats. The farmhouse itself used to be a slave cabin, but Gottlieb is a Sunday carpenter, so it’s big enough now to house his family. Mrs. Gottlieb, incidentally, spent her childhood in India. That may be the explanation for the goats! She’s the daughter of Presbyterian missionaries. Gottlieb also raises Christmas trees. And he has a clubfoot, but loves all the same to square dance. He’s only a chemist with a degree from City College, but he’s nonetheless a genius. Which is why in summary he sounds like nothing but pieces and parts. I must say, he messed up. Of course, only a genius can when in concert with another genius like Hugh Montague. It actually happened three years ago, but it’s still the worst-kept secret at TSS. You can’t go out with a colleague for a drink and get a little intimate without being told The Story. I find it interesting. There’s some principle of reverse-morale here. Montague is so elevated that I think The Story makes him human for us. Of course he only failed in a judgment call. He put his bet on Gottlieb, and Sidney did the damage.

Here’s the gen. (Old OSS word for poop.) Three years ago the big rumor at TSS was that the Sovs had synthesized some magic drug. They could not only control the behavior of their agents, but could fix a spy’s memory to self-destruct upon capture. They also had schizophrenia-inducing chemicals to free their agents from all moral concerns. Isn’t this what Communism is all about anyway! The magic drug is in the ideology! Anyway, Gottlieb had come upon a physical substance that turns a few corners in schizophrenia. It is called lysergic acid diethylamide, LSD for short, and TSS people harbor the hope that it will become our wonder drug, since present techniques of debriefing enemy agents are too slow. Allen Dulles wants a chemical spigot to turn a defector on and off. Kind of a truth cocktail. LSD inspires one to tell the truth.

Now, it’s hard to be sure, Dix, because I only acquired this at several removes, but Gottlieb seems to have had a honey of a theory, worked out in collaboration with Mrs. Montague and her theories. It is built on the premise that the psychic wall which schizophrenia builds to close off communication between opposite parts of the personality is composed of an immense number of lies, and the truth is encysted behind it. Any drug that can induce schizophrenia might also, if used on a start-stop -start-stop basis, induce enough of a vibration in the lies of that schizophrenic wall to shake it and, conceivably, crack it. More normal people, in contrast, only choose the lies that will keep their ego intact. By the Gottlieb-Gardiner theory, a defector’s wall, whether psychotic or normal, can be shattered by the use of LSD. First, however, Gottlieb had to test the compatibility of LSD to his purpose. He and a few colleagues tried it on one another, but they were aware of the experiment. Unwitting LSD recipients were what was needed.

So, one night at a small cocktail party a TSS researcher managed to slip ad's of LSD into a pony of Cointreau that a contract scientist was drinking. The victim was not witting of the experiment. Now, I don’t know his name — that fact is sealed, but let’s call him what he is — VICTIM.

As it turned out, he did not react well. VICTIM returned to his home in a state of agitation. A very disciplined man, he fought the effects of the LSD. No symptoms of overt derangement presented themselves. The only manifestation was that he could not sleep. Then he began to tell his wife that he had made terrible mistakes. Only he could not specify what they were. After a couple of days, he was so agitated that Gottlieb sent him to New York to see one of our psychiatrists. Gottlieb’s own deputy stayed with VICTIM in a New York hotel room. VICTIM, however, got worse and worse. Finally, right in front of his keeper, he took a running dive through a closed window and crashed ten stories to his death. They gave his widow and children a government pension, and Gottlieb got away with a slap on the wrist. Montague sent a memo to Dulles: Formal punishment would tend to interfere with ‘that most necessary spirit of initiative and outright enthusiasm so prerequisite to this work.’ Dulles did send a personal letter to Gottlieb scolding him for poor judgment, but no copy of this letter — at least so goes the gen — ever landed in Gottlieb’s file. Sidney is in fine shape at TSS these days.



I had a strong reaction to the letter. I could read no further. The fear that I was being used by Harlot in careless fashion had just been confirmed. VICTIM kept falling in my mind.

(pp. 344-348)


[“Wet jobs” and termination experiments]

So I went on to TSS with Allen [Dulles’] blessing and Hugh’s strong arm around my waist. I was prepared to dive into the dark depths, but, of course, as soon as I finished training, they wrapped me in cotton. Technical Services Staff, as you can guess, is as highly compartmentalized as any place you’re going to work in the Agency. Even now, after five years in TSS’s recessive folds, I still can’t decide such basic things as whether we go in for wet jobs, or leaving assassination quite to the side, whether we indulge in even worse deeds, such as honest-to-god termination experiments. If one were to believe the more sinister gossip, it’s true. Of course, such rumors do come to me in the large from Arnie Rosen, and I’m not sure he’s always to be trusted. (He loves wild stories too much.!)

(p. 502)