By Alex Gross
(London, Berlin, 1967-68)
No good spy story, especially one about Berlin, can be complete without a double agent or two. I am therefore fortunate in being able to offer the reader a rather extraordinary one. In fact, if this particular character's view of himself were to prove even partially accurate, he would certainly go down as one of the most accomplished double agents in all the annals of espionage.
I first remember encountering Harvey in the early spring of 1967 when I was back in London for a month. I was seated in the ramshackle offices of International Times, at that period still located in the basement of Miles' Indica bookshop, when a fat jovial satyr-like form accosted me as though I was an old friend of his. He looked vaguely familiar, but I couldn't exactly place him, and I listened while he cut in on my time with the editor to make a pitch for an article he wanted to write about the CIA. The editor wasn't very enthusiastic about the article our satyr friend was outlining, and even to me it sounded rather vague and paranoid in form, in so far as I could follow is account of it.
Realizing that he hadn't made his point, the satyr reached into his briefcase and drew out a thick portfolio of documents written on what appeared to be CIA stationery. He waved these in front of us and claimed they proved that the CIA was so powerful that they might take over London at any moment. He then looked to me for confirmation of his thesis, saying he was sure that I must have become aware of their all-embracing threat to public liberty during my time in Germany. I replied that while I was well aware of their operations in Berlin, in my experience they seemed thus far neither very coordinated nor terribly menacing. I probably went on to say that I felt the role of the underground press was to steer a careful line between being taken in by either the CIA or the Communists, who I visualized as equal threats to the freedom of the counter-culture and newspapers like I.T.
Our editor Tom was called away, and I was left to continue the conversation with the satyr myself. Before I knew it, we were sitting together over a "cuppa" in a neighborhood tea shop - not that either of us liked English tea that much, but as usual the pubs weren't open yet -as though we had known each other for years. Yet I felt somewhat wary of this new-found satyr, for he seemed almost pathetically eager to make friends with me. Harvey pumped me for every bit of information he could get about Berlin and my fellowship there.
I was willing enough to give him this information, as I soon became aware from what he was telling me that he had been quite active on the New York arts scene and had helped out with early issues of the East Village Other. It turned out that we had a number of friends in common in the States. He had only been in London for a few months, having been attracted, like many newly-arrived Americans, by the press reports of "Swinging London." And like so many others, he was desperately casting around for ways to stay financially afloat and "make the scene."
He told me he had written a few books and had been extremely active during the McCarthy witch-hunting period of the early 'Fifties. It was at that time, he claimed, that he had begun to develop his knowledge of intelligence procedures and techniques. There was little doubt in my mind that he was indeed what he purported to be, a hustling, imaginative artist-writer doing his best to make a living in England. And yet I still felt slightly wary of him, perhaps because of his almost painful need for my friendship. Soon I met him again with his girlfriend, a composer from New Zealand named Anna Lockwood, and a week later the two of them invited us to their apartment for dinner.
Not long afterwards my phone rang, and Ilene and I received an emergency invitation from Harvey and Anna to be the sole witnesses at their wedding in the Marylebone Town Hall. I was later to discover that he and Anna had held several different weddings in different parts of London and invited different friends as witnesses to each one. Harvey claimed this was merely an original way of cementing the spiritual bonds of matrimony, and perhaps he knew something about the subject, for he had been married several times. But I was never able to dismiss the notion that it might also be a way of establishing a level of intimacy with his friends by having them participate in his various marriages.
Somehow Harvey's name rang a bell with me - as it may also with the reader when I mention it - and I was able to nod sagely when he told me he had published books which had created a certain impact. I was able to nod even more wisely when he told me he had been quite deeply involved in the McCarthy business. But I couldn't quite remember the details. The next time I was in the I.T. office, I asked the editors precisely who Harvey was, as we had already published a few of his articles, and he seemed a likeable enough person in spite of his pushiness.
The response was an outburst. "My god, don't you know who that guy was? There's a whole bunch of people still looking for his head." And they outlined to me what I was soon to find out for myself in minute detail. I was doing some research at the British Museum the next day, and while there I looked up his writings in their large catalog books. Under "M" for Matusow.
Harvey's book False Witness was soon brought to my desk. I found it hard to believe what I discovered in it. In fact, I was positively appalled. I could not see how the person I knew could have written this book or done the things he described in it. I simply could not square the picture of what Harvey had been and done with the person I was coming to know, and I cannot do so even today.
During the McCarthy era, to summarize an incredibly complex career, Harvey had been, like Whitaker Chambers, a self-professed ex-communist who testified at trials and congressional hearings against other alleged communists in all walks of life, whom he claimed to have known during his party days in the late 'Forties. During his time as a party member Harvey was in his early twenties. Because of his testimony, many prominent and conscientious Americans lost their jobs, careers, reputations, wives and families, and much of their freedom.
But Harvey had gone much further than even this. He had been no mere passive informer but, by his own published admissions, an eager-beaver witch-hunter. He had volunteered as a stool pigeon for the F.B I. as soon as he saw the American political climate shift against communism. He had willingly written red-headlined front-page articles on the dangers of communism for the Hearst press.
And McCarthy had not asked Matusow to work for him, rather Harvey had offered his services. He had furthermore actively campaigned in their own states for the re-election of Senator McCarthy, Senator McCarren, and other right-wing candidates. And he had even helped a congressman's wife flee the country at a time when she was a key witness in a pending Senate investigation into McCarthy's finances. And once again by his own admission, he had ended up marrying this reluctant witness for her money. Harvey was quite candid about all this in his book, in fact he was positively glib about it, as if he enjoyed confessing what a bastard he had been,
But there was a twist to this story, what I have come to think of as a typical Harvey Matusow twist, as there was to almost everything Harvey had done. If this had been the entire story, I obviously would have dropped Harvey as a friend right away and would not now be writing about him.
After having testified against any number of alleged ex-communists for McCarthy's committee, Harvey took a vacation bicycling through New Mexico. From a roadside telephone he called up a New York publisher and told him that most of his testimony before assorted committees and courtrooms had been invented, that he had purposely falsified it out of misplaced patriotism, and that to his knowledge none of those accused had ever actually been communists.
The publisher asked him to write a book about his experiences. The result was False Witness, and this was the book I was holding in my trembling hands beneath the great vault of the British Museum. After its publication, as the saying goes -a saying that was surely invented to describe this sort of situation -the shit hit the fan. McCarthy's empire had already begun to crumble with the Army investigation, and soon he would be censured by the Senate as well. But Harvey's book was undoubtedly one final nail in McCarthy's coffin -all of his committee's investigations became suspect, and many of the cases forwarded to criminal court had to be suspended because of the false testimony Harvey had borne.
The right-wing McCarthyite faction was furious with Harvey because of his betrayal. But those whom he had accused were scarcely about to welcome him as a hero, for their lives lay in ruins, and it was small consolation to them to learn what they had known all along, that they had been falsely accused and needlessly harassed. Harvey quite literally did not have a friend in the world at that time or for a long time afterwards. His name was anathema to left and right alike. He was shunned by his former left-wing friends, and he claimed that the FBI actually tried to have him murdered.
But most damning of all, he had by his own admission repeatedly committed perjury. And he had no shortage of enemies who wanted to see him suffer for it. He hired expensive attorneys to defend him. He had married another rich wife and started a toy business to manufacture a "stringless yo-yo," which he claimed to have invented. The toy caught on, and he was suddenly wealthier than he had ever dreamed of being, with a vast, opulent apartment on Central Park West and a host of newly found good-time friends. But his lawyers were of no avail, and on the very same day Harvey lost his wife, his business, his home, and his freedom. He was sentenced to ten years for perjury and served four years of this sentence.
And this, as I discovered, was the full story of the person who only a few weeks earlier had been leaning anxiously towards me across a table in a crummy North London tea joint. Needless to say, I was perplexed. My first thought was that Harvey might still be involved in some sort of devious espionage mission to pump my brain or to motivate me in some direction in my role as an underground journalist.
But I checked around with everyone else on the London scene. The result was unanimous though surprising: Harvey was quite reliable, he was writing good copy for the movement, he was doing passable and sometimes first-rate work as a happenings artist. We later attended one happening by him and Anna that was positively brilliant. He also wrote a terrible book urging people to do all they could to thwart computers. And he and Anna were to start a musical group called Harvey Matusow's Jews Harp Band, which showed some promise and was for a time aired on the BBC. I eventually picked up their one LP in New York for sixty-nine cents.
In short, Harvey was absolutely okay except on one subject. This, naturally enough, had to do with anything about his past, and on this theme he was positively bonkers. One of the main drawbacks of knowing Harvey well was that you had to hear regular rehashes of the whole early 'Fifties scene from him. McCarthy, Chambers, Cohn, Schine, and company as they had existed in 1952 were not ghosts for Harvey Matusow - they were real entities who still stalked around in his mind as though they might at any moment come back to life.
He constantly claimed he was working on a book that would "clear his name" of his involvement in the McCarthy days, and most of his friends had to learn to shrug off this assertion. He would profess to having been part of the innermost party councils at the time that the communists began to realize that trouble might be headed their way from Senator McCarthy. At that time it had been decided by the party - or Harvey himself had decided, depending on which version he believed at the time - that the only way to defeat the reactionaries was to plant an agent among them who would at first help them by supplying information against the party but would then finally, at the perfect psychological moment, ball up the works by confessing to perjury.
This seemed to me an argument invented after the fact, and I did not lend it much credence. Granted, it would have been a superb tactic, but I could not believe that anyone would be willing to sacrifice himself for the sake of its execution, however great his love for any party or principle might have been. Harvey also quoted from some legal journal of the time that his testimony had been instrumental in making informers suspect in all subsequent trials and hearings - something they should have been all along - but I could not help suspecting that this too was an after-the-fact rationalization.
I tended to discount the possibility that Harvey might still be active as an agent of any sort. After all, considering everything he had done during the 'Fifties, who could possibly still believe him? Furthermore, if Harvey had sacrificed himself to the party in this way, it seemed reasonable to me that they would have rewarded him in some visible manner. Instead, what I saw was an obviously insecure hustler, desperately hanging on to any thread that might support him and his wife.
While I knew him, Harvey worked as a part-time reporter for the London American (which folded), as a London taxi driver, and as an entrepreneur in any number of deals, all of them about to net him a fortune, though of course none of them ever did. He was both the embodiment of pure commercialism and a revolutionary, an advocate of absolute selflessness, and he could switch from one role to the other in the twinkling of an eye. In general, his more selfless enterprises were far more successful than the ones he tried for gain. He was eventually to organize London's first avant-garde arts festival, to which he invited many New York artists, ending up with a prestigious success and a pile of debts that finally drove him back to America.
At the time I knew Harvey, he was anxious to discover if he could qualify for the same sort of fellowship I had in Berlin. I saw no reason why he shouldn't apply, and so both he and his wife did so. As I have made more than clear, I knew perfectly well who and what Harvey Matusow had been. I knew there were still people, fifteen years after the McCarthy era, who wanted to see Harvey flayed alive, despite the fact that he had already served four years in prison. But it seemed to me that Harvey was some kind of test case for human nature. I would use the mere mention of his name to the people around me to determine which of my friends was interested in humanity as a whole and which of them was blinded by ideology and political hatred. It was a very instructive test.
When we returned to London in the autumn of 1967, we saw the Matusows again. They were as eager as ever to come to Berlin, and the following March, when we were holding our "Kinetic Light Environment" at the Galerie Hammer, I sent them an invitation. Harvey called me from London, and we agreed that he could use his time in Berlin to get a definitive answer on his application for a fellowship. Accordingly, he and Anna wangled a free flight to Berlin - Harvey had a knack for this sort of small promotion - and came to stay with us for a few days.
Up until this time I had paid little attention to his claims of having connections high up in the communist party. I would merely nod diplomatically at his tales and try to change the subject. On the day after our exhibition, Harvey told me he wanted to take me over to East Berlin to meet someone. I had no objection and told him I would be happy to accompany him on the S-Bahn to Bahnhof Friedrichstrasse.
To my surprise, Harvey corrected me and said we would be going through Checkpoint Charlie instead. I objected, telling him no one lived at that end and it was a long cold walk to the center. He told me to wait and see and just come with him through Checkpoint Charlie.
We took the U-Bahn to Kochstrasse and emerged by the checkpoint. No sooner had we passed through the border formalities and started out across the desolate neighborhood than Harvey, who to the best of my knowledge had never been in either East or West Berlin before, led me down the very first and most desolate cross-street of all. We came to a ruined shell, inside which some form of barracks had been erected. Harvey opened the door, and we both went in.
I suddenly realized I was in the offices of a publication I had heard something about in West Berlin. It was a small monthly pamphlet called the Democratic German Report, and it was put out by an Englishman, a former Reuters correspondent who had chosen to live in East Germany. His name was John Peet, and although a journalist he was as celebrated in his own way at home and abroad as the English diplomats Burgess, MacLean, and Philby, who had defected to the East.
John was standing right in front of me, extending his hand to welcome Harvey and myself. He was not at all surprised to see Harvey, though I had the impression they were meeting for the first time. He was dressed somewhat seedily, a middle-aging, studious Englishman with a dry sense of humor, and he was embarrassingly grateful for a few packs of English cigarettes Harvey had brought him as a present.
Peet's publication was the official voice in English of East Germany, and although he enjoyed such perks as the communist system was able to afford, his life did not seem very comfortable by western standards. The noxious fumes of soft Polish coal permeated the office, as they did all of East Berlin.
He seemed to be expecting us and was obviously pleased and honored that Harvey and I had come to visit him. He complimented me on the articles I had been writing for I.T. I was not surprised that he knew about them, as I had already learned that some underground papers had made it through to the East. He even expressed the vague wish that perhaps one day publications like it might become possible in the German Democratic Republic, though he did not sound very hopeful on this score. As for his life in the East, he had no regrets and did not seem to miss the frills and luxuries of the West. He impressed me as a faithful and reliable socialist, for whom the party and the party's ideals would always come first.
As Harvey was present, the conversation naturally turned to the McCarthy era, a subject Peet seemed to be quite familiar with. And so we sat there, just a hundred yards inside the Berlin wall, chatting about Hiss, Nixon, the so-called "pumpkin papers," and all the other old causes. All in all we spent a good ninety minutes talking shop about the problems of dealing with our respective ideologies and newspapers. While we were there, John showed us what he described as a proof copy of a world index of CIA agents, soon to be published in East Berlin.
I leafed through it briefly and was not surprised to find Roger Lyons' name listed under West Berlin. Harvey asked him if he had a copy to spare, and John promised he would send him a copy to London, as soon as they were printed. Only later did it hit me: what office had I actually been brought to, that I was holding a pre-publication copy of such a book in my hands?
When published, this book was to cause considerable consternation in western intelligence circles. I was later to see a copy of this book on Harvey's desk in his London flat. John invited me to visit again next time I was in East Berlin. I promised I would, but my days in Berlin were already numbered, though I did not know this at the time, and for one reason or another I never had occasion to take him up on his invitation.
As I have said, up until this time, I had no reason to believe Harvey's long explanations and apologies about the McCarthy era. Nor could I credit his seemingly self-serving claim that he had been working as a double agent for the communists all the time he was helping the committee in its investigations. I do not pretend even now to be in a position to make an authoritative judgment on this matter. But the little trip I took with Harvey to East Berlin has at least opened my mind to the possibility of wonder.
Some Afterthoughts in 2002:
The Cold War is over. The desolate area of Berlin near Checkpoint Charlie has doubtless been rebuilt. Even now I don't want to read too much into this account, but I still find it at the very least suggestive. So let me now act as a devil's advocate concerning the details of our East Berlin jaunt together and what it may or may not prove.
First of all, how did Harvey set up such an appointment in the first place? Most probably, it was by phone from London, since during that time there were NO phone connections between West and East Berlin.
Had Harvey been to East Berlin before, or was his certainty about his destination in this desolate landscape mere bravado? I'm not sure - it could have been either one.
Had Harvey and Peet met before? I don't think so, but I could be mistaken.
Perhaps most important, what are we to make of Peet's willingness to meet with Harvey in the first place? We were, after all, sitting and talking in an office of that agency that only later would become well-known as the dreaded STASI, the East German Intelligence Service. Does this mean that Harvey's ties with the communists had been strong all along, thereby supporting his claims to being a double agent during the McCarthy era?
Or could it have merely been that Peet readily succumbed to Harvey's suggestion for a meeting, simply because the two men had so much in common, having both gained fame by their switches in loyalty, plus the additional sweetener that Peet would have a chance to meet me as well?
These are the hardest questions of all, and once again I have no certain answer. I can only hypothesize that while the communists may have been unhappy with Harvey during his pro-McCarthy days, that might have changed when he totally derailed the investigation by switching sides.
It also didn't take me very long after that meeting to realize that it was probably also set up as a first step towards recruiting me into the ranks of STASI. A similar effort to recruit me into the CIA would take place about a month later. Both attempts failed.
I really would like to be able to claim that this story presents another instance of that 'typical Harvey Matusow twist' I talked about. But I can't quite do so, and even if it did - even if we were able to view Harvey as an ultimately selfless double agent throughout the Mccarthy era this still would not undo the harm and suffering he brought to so many people during that time.
So I don't know the final answer to any of this. Perhaps John Peet could tell us something, but he passed away in 1988 (and was thus spared the demise of his system one year later). Harvey is also no more: complications from a car accident claimed him in 2002. And even if he were still here, it could be that Harvey himself wouldn't fully know the answer. Perhaps this incident, as I have already suggested, at least makes it possible to wonder.
* Peet's book, The Long Engagement: Memoirs of a Cold War Legend, was published a year later, with an appropriate introduction by the spy novelist Len Deighton.
Helpful Hint: If you want to know more about the whole 'Sixties mood in London, Berlin, and points beyond, one way you can find out is by buying a copy of the book The Untold Sixties: When Hope Was Born, an Insider's Sixties on an International Scale.
© 2006 - Alex Gross
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