While the work at embassies can often put Foreign Service officers in harm’s way, on occasion they have the chance to rub elbows with the rich and famous. That could range from helping the niece of a famous actor get a passport, arranging a meeting between a diplomatic rock star and George Harrison or, in a more serious case, grant a visa to a famous punk rocker despite serious opposition, only for that person to be arrested for murder while in the States.
Below are excerpts from the orals histories of William Newlin (interview begun in 2001), Robert Barry (1996), Albert Fairchild (2012), David Hobbs (1997), John Upston (1988), Leslie Alexander (2005), and Thomas Miller (2010), who were all interviewed by Charles Stewart Kennedy. Denis Lamb was interviewed by Ray Ewing in 2005. Robert K. Geis was interviewed by Lewis Hoffacker in 1999.
You can also read about one consular officer’s rather unpleasant experience with Bianca Jagger and Congressman Robert Torricelli and some fond remembrance of Grace Kelly. You can read about Michael Jackson’s underwhelming visit to Gabon.
“I got to give the Beatles their visa”
William V.P. Newlin, Special Assistant to the Economic Minister, Embassy Paris, 1961-1964
NEWLIN: [One] good thing that happened to me in the visa section is that I got to give the Beatles their visa for their first tour in the U.S. They came to the office to get their visas. I decided how we would deal with them. There was another officer there, George Lowe. He took two visas and I took two visas. We had a lottery in the office to see which of the French staff were going to get their autographs signed. One person was going to be allowed to get autographs done. The Beatles were very cute about doing that. We made it quick for them, of course.
But I said, “What’s it like being a Beatle? What do you like the most?” They said, “The nicest thing about being a Beatle is not having to do things like this. You get people who do stuff for you.”
“Chirac introduced us to Frank, Liza, and Sammy”
Denis Lamb, Ambassador to the OECD, Paris, 1966-1969
LAMB: I remember receiving an invitation from the mayor of Paris, Jacques Chirac, to attend a ceremony at which he would give the key to the city to Frank Sinatra. (Sinatra, Liza Minnelli, and Sammy Davis were in town for a concert.) When the Caddie [Cadillac] pulled up under the portico of the Hotel de Ville, a flustered protocol officer, who addressed me as “Monsieur le Chargé,” greeted Helen and me. I told him that I was not the embassy chargé, but he persisted. (I was told later that the real chargé had boycotted the event because he was not offered free tickets to the concert. I have no idea whether this was true.)
We were escorted into a small reception room. I was presented to the mayor as “Le chargé d’affaires de l’ambassade des Etats Unis.” Chirac introduced us to Frank, Liza, and Sammy. As it happened, I had been in Tokyo a week or two before and had seen the three of them perform in concert on television in my hotel room. So we had something to talk about. The brief encounter went smoothly. Then it was time to move to a larger room where the keys would be handed over.
As we were trudging down a long hallway, I felt a hand on my shoulder. I looked around and heard a voice say, ‘Hi, I’m Greg Peck.’ Made my day. My new friend “Greg” and I chatted amiably as Chirac droned on during the ceremony.
“Heavy man, heavy.”
Robert L. Barry, Consular Officer, Leningrad, 1971-1973
BARRY: There was a rather vociferous propaganda about the [U.S.] incursion into Cambodia, the bombings of Hanoi and Haiphong and all that. It certainly didn’t lead to any personal hostility.
I do remember when Jane Fonda ended up in Moscow and came down to demonstrate against American policy in front of the American embassy and was whisked away by the KGB because this had not been a planned demonstration. She was heard to exclaim when she was bundled into the car, “Heavy man, heavy.””
Turn on, tune in, drop out, get arrested
Albert E. Fairchild, Political Officer, Kabul, 1972-1973
FAIRCHILD: I was not involved in consular matters. Although I do remember once we had some notices out in the Embassy about what to do if certain things happened to certain citizens.
One of the people that American justice was looking for in those days was Timothy Leary [former Harvard professor who advocated the use of LSD]. He was involved with an outfit that the DEA [Drug Enforcement Agency] was anxious to shut down at one point.
I remember one afternoon getting a call — I was the duty officer at the time — from the airport authorities saying there was an American citizen there whose papers were not in order.
I said, “Can you tell me anything more? What is the person’s name?” They said, “His name is Dr. Timothy Leary.” I said, “Oh right. Someone will be out there in just a few minutes.”
I then called the DEA office, and shortly their agents went out to the airport. Leary was later put on a plane with a DEA agent escort, and flown all the way back to the United States where he was arrested and put on trial.
“You never knew who you would see next”
David L. Hobbs, Visa Officer, London, 1973-1976
HOBBS: I was assigned there to be one of the visa interviewing officers in the consular section. That was before they waived the visa requirement for the British and in those days issued and processed the most visas of any place in the world, I think.
I only worked two weeks on the visa line, having sweet-talked my way into a job supervising the office which handed all the ineligible cases, the visa coordination unit. It coordinated the waivers for those who were ineligible for visas because of their criminal background or their political affiliations or medical reasons, etc. It turned out to be a fascinating job because there were a large number people who seemed to need the services of my office. (Photo: Bettman/Corbis)
The Rolling Stones and the Beatles all had marijuana problems and had to have our help. A number of well-known people had been part of the Oxford Group in the ‘30s and were of leftist, communist background and needed waivers. I helped Michael York once plan his vacation across the United States. He asked me what I thought he should be doing and I got to telling him. I gave Mohammed Ali his passport after we whisked him off the streets where he got mobbed because everybody recognized him. Tony Curtis came in once with arm loads of flowers for all the staff. It was kind of fun. You never knew who you would see next.
Henry Kissinger Meets a Beatle
John Edwin Upston, Executive Director, U.S. National Commission for UNESCO, Washington, DC, 1973-1977
UPSTON: When the U.S. Congress cut off money to UNESCO [UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization], I wanted to maintain influence within UNESCO, realizing the Soviets were trying to fill this vacuum.
To do this I needed to reach out to the public. I did a Sammy Davis concert in San Francisco to raise money for Books for the Blind. A world literacy concert at Radio City and another at the Capital Center [in Washington, DC] with the late Marvin Gage. That sort of thing.
Mo Ostin, President of Warner Brothers Records, said that George Harrison, the Beatle, was coming to Washington for the day and could I think of something exciting? I said, ‘Why not meet with the Secretary of State?’
I called Jackie Hill in the Secretary’s office. Henry Kissinger would be delighted. We went to the 7th Floor at 4 p.m. In his familiar voice the Secretary said, “Mr. Harrison, you are a very famous man. It is my understanding you are in Washington for one day and of all the people I am the one you wanted to meet.”
George Harrison responded in his own characteristic voice, “I didn’t want to see you, it was Upston’s idea.”
“Well,” said Henry, “Let’s have a picture, I need to go to the White House.”
Elizabeth Taylor, Cicely Tyson and Jane Fonda can’t save a Russian Turkey
Robert K. Geis, Public Affairs Officer, Leningrad, 1974-1978
GEIS: Our educational and cultural exchanges were very active at this time, under a bilateral agreement between the two countries. We worked with the infamous Goskoncert, which is the Soviet State Concert Bureau. I was involved in implementing our exchange program, not only for Leningrad but also for the three Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. I came to know Tallinn, Riga, and Vilnius, their capitals, and their stalwart people very well.
These republics were permitted a bit more cultural freedom of action by the Soviets, so that American touring groups often were scheduled there. I was, in fact, one of the few more senior officers who was permitted by the U.S. Government to visit these republics. Our Consul General in Leningrad, for example, was not allowed to visit since we deemed that such a visit would come too close to recognizing the incorporation of the formerly independent republics into the USSR.
At the time of my arrival, one of the more unique exchanges was in progress. It was the first Soviet-American film co-production. And at that time I met and assisted the director George Cukor and several of his stellar cast members, including Elizabeth Taylor, Cicely Tyson, Jane Fonda. Fonda was also in the cast, and I made a pointed effort to be cool toward her for her Vietnam activities.
She thought the Russians would welcome her with open arms, which proved not to be the case. They apparently didn’t like this radical, even if she was pro-North Vietnam. As it turned out, unfortunately, The Blue Bird, the film, was a resounding flop in the U.S. and was duly christened by the critics as “The Blue Turkey.”
The Sex Pistols: “Do not give these people a visa”
Leslie M. Alexander, Chief of the Written Inquiries Branch of the Visa Office, Washington, DC, 1977-1978
ALEXANDER: We actually wrote individual letters to every single person who wrote to us. Much of the language was stock because 99 percent of the letters were “Why did you turn down my…?” and fill in the blanks, “brother, sister, cousin, aunt …”
Occasionally we would get extremely political cases. One that I remember on my watch was this rock group, the Sex Pistols, a punk rock group. There were thousands of letters written saying “Do not give these people a visa” or “Why did you give them a visa because they were offensive in the extreme?”
In fact, the reason why I remember this so well was that we were deluged with letters saying, “We understand these folks want to come and tour the U.S. Do not give them visas. They’re nasty, dirty, vile creatures.” The Sex Pistols got a visa, they came to the States and one of them, Sid Vicious I think it was, murdered his girlfriend under the influence of drugs while he was here.
Well, we received twice as many letters after, from people saying,”We told you so,” and “Why did you give these people a visa?” I mean, the outrage was really astounding. We had to answer these letters. And, of course, there was a Congressional inquiry….
There’s certainly a very political dimension to visa work which I didn’t fully appreciate until I spent a few months in the visa office.”
“”My name is Rita Wilson'”
Thomas J. Miller, Ambassador to Greece, 2001-2004
MILLER: I remember one case I did get involved in, a young lady lost her passport. It was on a weekend and her aunt and uncle called and they asked to speak to the Ambassador. And I get on the phone. The receptionist puts me through. And the woman, the aunt, gets on the phone and she says, “My name is Rita Wilson.”
I said, “Oh, it’s nice to meet you.” Didn’t mean much to me. And she explains that her niece had lost her passport and she had to go back to the States. And so I said, “Well, we’ll do what we can and I’m”—there’s a punch line, which I’ll get to in a second.
She dropped the name of her husband as well, whose name was not Wilson. And later I got our Consul General and we were ready to open up the embassy.
Now, I guess the girl was going to come back on the first flight Monday morning and we were going to see her quickly, you know, we weren’t going to open the embassy on a Sunday. And later that Sunday I get a call from the husband saying, “We found the passport.” And then the next day I get this vase of 50 white roses sent to the residence from the husband and the wife.
Now, you know who Rita Wilson is? She’s married to Tom Hanks. And it was Tom Hanks who called me to thank me. And I said “Hey, you know, I’d do it for anyone.” I think everyone will know Tom Hanks. Even if people are listening to this interview 50 years from now, they’ll remember Tom Hanks.