Consular officers need to be prepared for whatever American citizens traveling abroad can throw at them. The consular section can often be a chaotic and stressful environment, as Foreign Service officers try to deal with an array of characters, usually with demands as outlandish as their personalities. Alexander Watson, who later became an ambassador, served at Embassy Madrid from 1964 to 1966 as a consular officer. The following account details his experiences with some of the most interesting Americans ever to walk — or sometimes stumble — into an American embassy.
Catering to the crowd
WATSON: Let me give you two or three real short ones. I’ll give you the absurd end of the range. I mean, I remember having a person — a man — come right from the airport in Madrid, directly to the consular section of the embassy, to complain that he could not find Barbasol shaving cream in the airport store. We at the American embassy had an obligation to get him Barbasol; no other kind, Barbasol shaving cream, immediately. So what do you do? Send him up to the supermarket and they say they don’t have any.
A woman came and she was traveling with her large Doberman Pinscher dog. She had sent ahead, to every one of her stops, dog food for this dog, which was in the post office, and she could not get the dog food out of the Spanish post office for some reason. She demanded that her American embassy produce some dog food or get it out of the post office for her because her dog had to have this particular kind of dog food, nothing else.
I had a guy who was very high ranking, he was the secretary of the Chicago Bar Association, if I remember correctly — came into my office with his wife and he was furious. He sat down in front of me and he ranted and raved. He had been at the Hilton Hotel and, after all, Hilton is an American chain, and they had treated him absolutely outrageously. Then they had presented a little basket of rolls for breakfast and his wife had eaten only one roll out of the basket and they charged him…for something called a continental breakfast. This was absolutely unheard of and the embassy had to do something about this right away. He was there for half an hour pacing my office, ranting and raving, and I was sitting there behind my desk saying, “What on earth am I going to say when this guy finishes?” I learned a very valuable lesson because, when he finished, he sat down, and before I could say anything, he said, “Thank you very much, Mr. Watson; you’ve been very, very helpful. I think we’re all set now and goodbye.” He needed to vent and have a cathartic experience. My sitting there patiently listening to him was apparently all he needed.
You had this stuff many times every day. Then we had serious mental cases and death cases. There was a major robbery. There was suicide of a wealthy heiress from North Carolina. I had all of her furs in my safe for a long time. A major robber of Shreve’s in San Francisco, a major jewelry house related to Shreve, Crump and Low in Boston. The diamonds that were left, most of them there were caught in the Canary Islands with these people. They were arrested in the Canary Islands, millions of dollars of diamonds in my safe for weeks.
We had depositions all the time, death cases where you had to go and see the body, which was always nerve-wracking, and collect all the effects and stick them in the corner of my office and make a long inventory of the effects and find a next of kin and write to them and get the death papers and get the body out to the U.S. air base and get it embalmed and get it paid for and get it shipped back to the U.S. Each one of these cases took hours and hours. It seems to me you had at least one a week when I was there.
You had the case of a woman who was a sociopath, absolutely brilliant sociopath. This was a woman who could convince anyone of anything. She convinced everyone. She talked her way into the U.S. air base, convincing physicians there that she was a doctor and that she had been participating at least as an observer. I’m not sure she did anything in a birth inside the obstetrics ward of the air force base hospital. She convinced a fellow Foreign Service officer in the American embassy to loan her $5,000 and that she would let him and his family use her parents’ wonderful summer cottage in Vermont which, of course, did not exist. She had bills all over town and could talk her way through anything. A lot of people were coming to the embassy saying, you’ve got to get my money back, I’m an American citizen, etc.
I remember finally tracking this woman down in the uppermost room in a hotel and sitting down with her. She was very elusive, and finally finding her and talking to her and explaining to her what she was really up against, I convinced her to go to this mental institution. I got her in there though she damn near persuaded me out of all this. I mean, she was so incredibly persuasive because she was a sociopath. Because when she’s talking to you she believes what she’s saying or at least she manages to give every indication that nothing is baloney. She was a very poor woman, Puerto Rican extraction, from the Bronx, had nothing, never finished college; she had never been to medical school, she hadn’t done anything. Her sister was not terribly wealthy but produced funds to get her back. I remember standing there in the airport watching that plane go until it was absolutely out of sight, fearing that she would go up to the cockpit and convince the pilot to bring her back. I can tell you that after I left Madrid she came back and was doing it all over again. This kind of stuff happened all the time.…
When the Hollywood crowd rolls in…
Another whole universe of people, which was the American movie industry, was making spaghetti Westerns. They came to be known as spaghetti Westerns later, but they were made in Madrid at this point, and all sorts of major films were made while I was there. The most important being Dr. Zhivago, was made there with David Lean as the director.… So, you had American actors all over the place getting into all kinds of trouble at the time. In fact, in Dr. Zhivago, the son of this Foreign Service officer who made the loan to this sociopathic woman and never got it back…is the small child in Dr. Zhivago, Geraldine Chaplin’s son in this thing. This guy now is a professional dancer and a professor of dance at a university in Colorado with his wife and kids…. They also did a lot of dubbing of films that were made in Spanish or in Italian into English. You had a lot of people there hanging around; the fringe people on the movie industry that do dubbing. Those people got into trouble.
I remember one guy who was a very serious alcoholic. I won’t mention his name, but he filled every open space of my life I think for a year and a half. This guy was always getting thrown in jail and the stories are just marvelous. At one point he was in a small hotel down on the Calle Echegaray, which is downtown Madrid, which is where you went to have these tascas [bars] — a fabulous part of town. The guy in the room next door to him was a bicycle salesman. Anyhow, this guy, not the bicycle salesman, the other guy that I dealt with so often, was a huge, powerful guy. Somehow he tore off the faucet of the sink in the bathroom of his room. He got this bicycle salesman, who had a bunch of wrenches, and they went down into the basement in the Hotel Ingles. It was probably almost an 18th century basement under there, and they were looking around for pipes that could do something, valves that would stop the water from flowing. So he was down there like a madman — if you witnessed this thing, it was something out of Groucho Marx or something — undoing things until finally the police came and arrested them and threw them in the jail.
Another time, after a number of drinks, he hid in his closet naked except for an overcoat, and when the chambermaid bent over to make his bed, he popped out and leaped at her and he was arrested again. Another time he went to some sort of a hotel lobby to go somewhere and he got mad and he ripped the switchboard out. Another time he went to a hotel and he got mad and he smashed his fist into a marble wall and cracked it. He was always in jail and I was always getting him out and he was always drunk. He was doing dubbing for these films.
I’ve got a hundred stories of this guy. One day he came into my office and he closed the door and he pulled out of his pockets a mass of sopping American currency which he dropped all over my desk and he told me that he had just gotten paid $5,000 for dubbing this film and he’d gone out in the evening and now there was only $4,000. He doesn’t remember exactly what happened, but he had enough presence of mind to get back to his hotel room and he hid it and could I guess where he hid it. I said, no and he said, well, I hid it in the back of the toilet tank, the reservoir tank and that’s why it was all wet and he dropped it on my desk and he said, I’m afraid I’m going to lose all of this money. You know I get into trouble and I drink a little too much and could I help him out. You could never do this today.
Q: Oh, no, no.
WATSON: I took this money – it was soggy money – up to our budget and fiscal officer who was a very, very tough person, gave him this wet money and asked him to make out a U.S. government “clean, do not fold mutilate or spindle” check in the name of this person for this money, and he did it. So, I gave this check to this guy. This guy…had so many run-ins with the law that they finally threw him out of the country. He went up to France and in July of ’66 I remember getting an operations memorandum from the American Embassy in Paris sent to our budget and fiscal officer, who brought it down to me asking if in fact the U.S. Embassy in Madrid had really issued check number so and so in this amount to this person, because this person had come into the embassy with it all wadded up into a ball and had said that he wanted to cash it. They wanted to be sure. I mean the stories about this guy go on and on and on.…
It was one of the best jobs. People my age in the political-economic sections were literally reading and clipping newspapers. That’s what they were doing all day long. I at least had my whole world that I had to deal with and it was a very active, amusing, interesting one.