Every Foreign Service Officer can have a difficult job of navigating cultural differences, memorizing customs and sticking to protocol while at their post. The long list of do’s and don’ts apply equally to a Foreign Service spouse, and while they usually do a commendable job, there have been a few cases when they have made noticeable (and comical) slip-ups. Whether it’s committing a fashion faux pas or exuding a provocative character when interacting with the locals, FSO spouses are under a lot of scrutiny.
In fact, the wives of Foreign Service officers used to receive their own efficiency report, along with their husbands, which kept track of their merits, achievements and blunders. Their efficiency reports were closely monitored and correlated directly to whether their husbands could get promoted, which created even more stress. Herewith are a few examples that probably did not help their husbands’ reputations.
Thomas Gallagher worked as the Consular and Political Officer in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia from 1965-1967. He was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning October 2012. S. Douglas Martin served as a Grievance Program Officer in the State Department from 1971-1973. He was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning January 1999. Joan Wilson served as the spouse of Deputy Chief of Mission in Manila Philippines from 1966-1970. She was interviewed by Margaret Sullivan beginning June 1989.
Elinor Constable served as the Deputy Director of the Office of Investment Affairs at the State Department from 1975-1977. She was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning May 1996. Archie M. Bolster served as the Deputy Chief of Political Section in Tehran, Iran from 1974-1976. He was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning January 1992.
You can read about one particularly difficult ambassador’s wife and the problems she caused with her cat. Go here for Moments on Diplomats Behaving Badly.
“She pointed at his crotch and cried: “I want one this big”
Thomas P. Gallagher, Consular and Political Officer in Jeddah, 1965-67
GALLAGHER: Slator’s [Blackiston] wife was a character. Her name was April, and when April walked into a room, everyone knew that she had arrived. To understand this story you need to know that in Arabic the word “zip” is a coarse street word referring to a part of the male anatomy. You also need to know that although April grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, she affected a Southern accent after her mother moved to Palm Beach, so she didn’t always pronounce the r’s at the end of words very clearly.
She was also one of those Americans who, when foreigners don’t understand their English, will speak LOUDER. Further April hated Arabs, whom she regarded as unfair to women, so she flouted her diplomatic immunity by driving her car right past the King’s palace waving her naked arms at the astonished guards.
One day April was making herself a dress and she needed a large zipper for the side of the garment. She took my friend Carol Southerland down to the traditional Arab souk (market) to buy her zipper.
The merchants gathered around her as she repeatedly, and ever more loudly, demanded that they sell her a ”zippa”, moving her hands up and down to illustrate what a zipper does. Most of the merchants were wearing traditional Arab thobs (gowns); but April noticed that one of them was wearing Western-style pants.
She roared closer to him, pointed at his crotch, and cried: “A zippa, like that, and I want one this big.” The Saudis were destroyed….
“He openly went around town with his mistress”
GALLAGHER: At one of Tanya’s dinner parties, I met an American citizen who was born to an Italian family in Cuba back during the Batista regime, where her family had gotten very rich, and were on one of the first planes out when Fidel took over Cuba. She was educated in Marymount College in New York and seemed a very charming woman.
She was the mistress of the Duke of Toledo who was a first cousin of the King and was fourth in line for the Spanish throne. He actually lived in Hong Kong a good chunk of the year, where he was manager of the Banco Santander, a huge Spanish bank. He was head of their Asian operations, but he came back to Madrid a lot. She was very openly his mistress. He had an arranged-marriage-wife that he didn’t pay much attention to. He openly went around town with his mistress.
But when he was out of town, she had no man to escort her. She came on very strongly to me because she was smart enough to know that I was gay – and I had the title of American Consul – which made me a perfect escort for her to bring to parties….
There was an odd moment in the luncheon that I had with Frances Aldrich de Llopis and the woman who introduced us (whose name I have long forgotten). At one point Frances went off to the ladies room and I was left chatting with the woman who was going to be my bosom buddy. At some point in the middle of the conversation, I said that my father was a chauffeur. I saw a look of shock come over her face and the curtain went down on our relationship right then and there.
The mistress of the Duke of Toledo was not going to hang around with any chauffeur’s son. She went out of her way to almost insult me at subsequent meetings that we had, which I think was nothing but her own rather pathetic snobbery.
It was the only time in my adulthood that I remember being put down because of my humble origins.
“She came to the attention of the FBI”
Douglas Martin, Grievance Program Officer in the State Department, 1971-73
MARTIN: Some of the [grievances] were funny in a way. In one case, a guy was complaining he hadn’t been promoted, and that there was a lot of stuff in his file that shouldn’t have been. If you looked at his file, you could see what was happening, and Brewster had said we’re not going to approve it.
At one point, there were these confidential things that an ambassador could add – there could be a two-part efficiency report. Some of it was confidential. It was supposed to be consistent with the other.
Well, lots of times it wasn’t. Also there were comments about the wife in the efficiency report. In this case the guy’s wife was haunting him in the file even though he was divorced from her. When you read the file, you thought, “I’ll bet you that’s why he didn’t get promoted.” You couldn’t be sure.
The [promotion] boards are separate but you could just see somebody reading his file and reading a file of somebody else with an equal career — somehow this guy’s file didn’t look as good, and it was because of this wife.
First, she used to dress in a very provocative way. Inspectors, everybody commented that she dressed provocatively. She apparently was flirtatious.
She was so flirtatious that when this guy was away on a trip, she came to the attention of the FBI because of people visiting her apartment. We laughed about that, but in that case we really couldn’t do very much because the comments about the wife had already been put in.
“I can remember just nearly doubling over in laughter”
Joan Wilson, Spouse of the DCM in Manila, 1966-70
Q: What was Imelda Marcos, wife of President Ferdinand Marcos, like?
WILSON: Mrs. Marcos was always handsome to look at, always provocative in her interests. She was definitely a nicer person when we first arrived than she became later. I think she was the perfect model for Lord Acton’s principle of that absolute power [“Absolute power corrupts absolutely”].
I think I first became very uncomfortable with her in the Malacanang Palace looking at some art works that she had purchased — one could only assume with public funds — that had attached to them a label saying, “Property of Imelda Marcos.” So when you saw a fifteenth century German ivory triptych, which was of museum quality, marked “Private Property,” it made one very apprehensive for the Philippine people. (Photo: Getty Images)
I have some amusing memories of Mrs. Marcos. She pretended never to know who I was unless I stood with my husband, and then she would embrace me and call me by my first name.
I had the duty occasionally of escorting her to functions at the Embassy, or the residence, and we had always interesting conversations about her pet projects. She came most alive when she danced, and she was really a spectacular dancer. I think she took frequent lessons. My husband is an old box-square dancing school kind of dancer, and it’s his least favorite occupation, and so when we’re at a social function where dancing is on the menu he tends to hide behind potted palms, deep in political discussions.
There was a wonderful party at the Residence, given by Ambassador Soapy Williams for the visiting head of the Peace Corps and it was the only time the Marcoses attended a function at the residence, and it was dancing with a marvelous orchestra. Ambassador Williams somehow or other persuaded Mrs. Marcos — she had to ask Jim Wilson — to dance, and then he found me working another part of the party and said, “You’ve got to come and watch.”
I can remember just nearly doubling over with laughter, seeing Mrs. Marcos shimmying up and down, leaping into the air, and just absolutely remarkable, rocky and rolling, and my husband beet red doing his little box-square. She was aware of how amusing this whole situation was, so she accentuated her dancing and was really having fun watching how embarrassed Jim was. I’m sorry that a woman with her drive and her political skills became corrupt.
She had the potential of being a great leader for Asia. It is a great loss. I thought her husband a very, very quick-witted, bright, adept politician. If they had had their country’s interest at heart instead of, unfortunately, their own, the Philippines might face a better future.
“I dreamt I wore my Maidenform bra in Timbuktu”
Elinor Constable, Deputy Director of the Office of Investment Affairs, 1975-77
CONSTABLE: I had been working in something called the files project run by Cleo Noel’s widow. Cleo Noel was killed in Khartoum in 197, and his wife Lucille was a magnificent woman who had also been in the Foreign Service. There were about eight or nine of us assigned to it, I was assigned to it temporarily. It was an awful project, going through old personnel folders, putting everything in chronological order, cleaning out the old files, and removing the inadmissible material.
I was especially curious about women officers and wives, some of whom I knew. It became kind of a running joke. We would be going through the files, and I would start to giggle. Everybody would look up, and they’d say, oh, Elinor has found another one. I read these things out loud to them. Things like: Mr. X’s wife does not know how to behave in social situations, but then she’s French.
My favorite has to do with a young man who at the time that I was doing the files project in 1973 was still in the Foreign Service. The particular report was from the ‘60s, so obviously he had survived. He was in Africa at a two-man post, I forget which one, and the Principal Officer left. He was in charge for five or six months and a new Principal Officer arrived, and they just didn’t get along.
It was a mystery until the Inspector came along. And you remember in those days the Inspectors did a confidential report that you didn’t get to read. The confidential report explained why the Principal Officer has no confidence in his deputy.
When the Principal Officer arrived, his deputy took him to his house, they went in, went upstairs to the bedroom, put their suitcases on the floor, whereupon the suitcases fell right through the floor to the living room because the entire floor had been eaten away by termites.
And shortly after that, the Deputy Principal Officer’s wife traveled to Timbuktu with a native guide — this is the way it was described in the report — and took off her blouse and had the guide take her photograph so she could caption it, “I dreamt I wore my Maidenform bra in Timbuktu.”
Of course, we had to remove all this material. But there were hundreds, just hundreds of choice bits. Women officers who were described as, “A little broad in the beam but doing good work.” Unbelievable. (Go here to read more from Elinor Constable.)
“Some of the wives got together and formed a house of ill repute”
Archie M. Bolster, Deputy Chief of Political Section, Tehran, 1974-76
BOLSTER: In so many cases the [American technicians] were just not well-qualified and well-briefed before they came over. They didn’t really understand what it was like to start living in a Moslem country.
One of the most egregious examples was that some of these helicopter instructors had been in Vietnam as single guys. You know, young, hot shot instructors, etc.
Before they left Vietnam some of them had taken “instant wives,” some of whom were bar girls they had consorted with. They had to leave the country almost overnight when things phased down and some of them had quickie marriages and off they went back to the States.
Then they got word that there was this big opportunity in Iran so some of these people came out and some of the wives got together and formed a house of ill repute right there in Isfahan that was taking care of some of these American instructors, etc. who were footloose and fancy free.
This took place right in some of the guys’ homes. The wife would entertain when the husband was away from home. The Iranians saw this and thought this was terrible. Here the Americans are supposed to be over here showing us how to live — modern ways of living. “They are showing us how to fly helicopters but at the same time they are destroying our morals because here they are just openly having this development right in their community that just flaunts itself in our faces.”
That was an egregious example, but there were so many problems of people essentially coming in without any briefing on what it was like to live in a Moslem country, how they should behave.
I would hear stories about American girls in shorts riding motorcycles roaring through the countryside, shopping, etc. This was just scandalous to people who have very strict standards of what women should wear. The sensibilities were just ignored by so many of these people who came in. That in turn gave the Iranians a sort of bad impression of the West. Do we want to be so closely associated with the West or not?