It was one of the travel nightmares of the 1970s, along with being hijacked to Cuba or being stuck behind the Iron Curtain – being thrown into a Turkish prison and left to rot. The 1978 movie “Midnight Express,” based on a book by Billy Hayes, and adapted into a screenplay by Oliver Stone, shows Hayes’ arrest for trafficking in hashish, his beatings and the squalid prison conditions. Though originally sentenced to a relatively mild four years, just two months before his release date, a superior court overturned the decision and sentenced him to 30 years. Other prisoners try to escape (which gives the book and movie their name), while Hayes remains, going slowly insane until his girlfriend visits him and urges him to escape as well. After an attempt to bribe the guard fails, he attacks the guard, who is accidentally killed. Hayes is then able to flee prison. According to Robert Dillon, who was deputy chief of mission at the embassy, the real story was a bit less lurid. Read more
Remember when renegade South Korean soldiers set off a bomb in Seoul during a festival and make it look like it was done by North Korea? And how the head of the Operations Center and the former U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Gregory Donald had to prove that North Korea had nothing to do with it before the situation got hostile? No? That’s because it was only the plot of a 1995 Tom Clancy novel, inspired in part by the career of real-life Ambassador Donald Gregg, who served in the Central Intelligence Agency for 31 years, including in Korea, and was Ambassador to South Korea from 1989 until 1993. Here he discusses his 2002 visit to the Hermit Kingdom of the North and its attempts to understand the U.S. better, including by reading Tom Clancy novels. Read more
A colony of Belgium until 1962, Rwanda became dominated politically by the minority Tutsis. During the independence movement, the majority Hutus seized control of the government, killing thousands of Tutsis and forcing even more into exile. Many fled to Burundi and Uganda as refugees. Tensions between the two ethnic groups continued to fester over the course of the next two decades, culminating in the outbreak of civil war in 1990. Exiled Tutsis regrouped as the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) and led an invasion to overthrow the Hutu-controlled government and re-establish themselves in Rwanda. Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana and the Hutu president of Burundi were then killed on April 6, 1994, when their airplane was shot down as it was landing in Kigali. Read more
Born in New York City in 1903, Clare Boothe Luce led a diverse career as a playwright, journalist, editor, and congresswoman, and became the first woman to ever be ambassador to a major diplomatic post. Though she was a talented writer in all genres, her sharp wit and biting sense of humor served her best in playwriting. (She is famous for such tart one-liners as “No good deed goes unpunished” and “Widowhood is a fringe benefit of marriage” as well as for her famed rivalry with writer Dorothy Parker.) Her most famous work was The Women, a satirical commentary on the lives of Manhattan socialites that features an all-female cast. The play was made into a movie in 1939 starring Rosalind Russell and Joan Crawford (and was remade in 2008, featuring Meg Ryan and Annette Bening).
Just before The Women opened on Broadway and after her first marriage ended in divorce, Clare married Henry Luce. Publisher of Time, Life, and Fortune, he gave his wife many opportunities to work as a correspondent for those magazines during World War II. She reported on countries in Europe, Asia, and Africa and interviewed such famous people as Nehru and Chiang Kai-Shek. Luce won a seat in the House of Representatives in 1942 as a Republican and outspoken critic of FDR’s foreign policy. Luce was admired for her incredible ambition and intelligence. But these same qualities, combined with her alluring sexuality and pointed humor, often drew criticism as well. FDR campaigned against her reelection, publicly calling her
“a sharp-tongued glamour girl of forty.” Nevertheless, Luce won a second term and played a vital role in the establishment of the Atomic Energy Commission.
In 1953, after campaigning for Dwight Eisenhower, Luce was rewarded with an appointment as Ambassador to Italy. Her greatest achievement was the negotiation of a peaceful solution to the Trieste Crisis of 1953–1954, a border dispute between Italy and Yugoslavia. Trieste had been declared an independent city-state – the Free Territory of Trieste – under the protection of the United Nations in 1947.
However, the territory was divided into two zones: Zone A governed by the U.S. and the British and Zone B controlled by Yugoslavia. Worried that the territory would escalate conflict in the region, Luce played a critical role in negotiations that eventually led to the signing of the London Memorandum, which granted civil administration of Zone A to Italy and Zone B to Yugoslavia.
Luce left Italy in 1956 after suffering arsenic poisoning, and in 1959 she was nominated to be Ambassador to Brazil. (Her farewell gifts from the diplomatic corps are part of ADST’s collection of diplomatic artifacts.) She was confirmed by the Senate, but her appointment was met with strong opposition from a number of Democratic senators and she resigned from her new ambassadorship having only served four days.
In 1964, the Luces retired; Henry Luce died in 1967. In 1973, Richard Nixon named Luce to the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. President Reagan awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the the first woman member of Congress to receive the award. Luce died in Washington, DC in 1987 at age 84.
In these excerpts from her 1986 interview, Luce discusses her time in Congress, how she worked the Washington bureaucracy on the Trieste issue, the problems she had with the Italian press, including those over a black cultural affairs officer, a funny misunderstanding in Italian, and the difficulties of being a woman in the State Department and Congress. She was interviewed by Ann Miller Morin.
“Being ambassador is not as broadening an experience as being a congressman”
Q: How would you place your experience as an ambassador in the totality of your life?
LUCE: Speaking of it as a human experience in life, it was very interesting, very rewarding, very exhausting at the time, but I wouldn’t say it was as broadening an experience as being a congressman. In other words, I think being a congressman would be very helpful to anyone who is appointed an ambassador. Now, it would not be helpful to him in learning the language of the country; you’d have to know that before you went.
The State Department would certainly give you what they gave me, a quick course. But the diplomatic experience is very different. Now I’m leaving out personalities and language, but just as a process, a technique, the diplomatic experience is very different from the political experience, because in politics, to use the phrase of one of the founding fathers, the people are the king and you are getting your orders from the people. We live now in a democracy and not a republic.
The function of being representative for the people and making decisions for the people has long since passed. They make the decisions and you are supposed to follow them out. Their decisions are often very close decisions, they’re often confused, they’re often ignorant, they’re often conflicting, so that the poor congressman is driven to guess what it is that his constituents really want.
Now there are, I suppose, still constituencies in America where your constituents would be largely represented, let’s say, by the tobacco companies, or the tobacco workers as well as companies–for all the workers in the company, or by the largely agricultural, or whatever. But sometimes a congressman will have the misfortune, misfortune or good fortune, call it what you will, of representing a district like the Fifth Connecticut District, which has a–it’s a little America where there’s a little of everything, so as you can’t possibly please everybody, you please yourself.
You do what you think is right. I mean, all the time that I happened to be in Congress I only on one occasion made a vote that I did not in my own conscience believe in. But that I couldn’t have done if I had represented, say, a different kind of a district. I would probably have been voted out of office if I’d followed my conviction. So, the political experience is one of trying to keep your conscience and your constituencies together.
The diplomatic experience is a good deal more agreeable because you’re taking orders from your commander-in-chief. And while you do have the right, and the duty, even, to disagree with the Department of State’s policy, and you sometimes can change their minds, nevertheless, you have the comfortable feeling of following orders for the United States and the American people as a whole. And that’s a very rewarding feeling after politics…. Also, the diplomat has a great deal of privacy compared to the politician.
Q: Is that so? I’m surprised. I would have thought it was a sort of goldfish-bowl-like existence, being the chief…
LUCE: Oh, it is a goldfish bowl as far as you are, so to speak, on parade, but you are not subject to the intrusion, at least in my day, of the press. You didn’t have to account for your actions to anybody but the boss man, who was the secretary of state or the president, and your private life, while it
had to be above board and all the rest of it, which is very important, your privacy when it was invaded was invaded by your peers rather than anyone who met you on the street who could come up and say, “I’m your constituent. Will you take me home and give me a cup of tea?” You know?
And not always a cup of tea, either. So it is different in that respect. Then I think that we’re seeing more and more women ambassadors. It doesn’t distress me at all. It’s a funny thing for a woman to say, that I should even suggest I might be distressed, but I’ve always thought myself that getting the job done as well as possible was a good deal more important than whether you put in a black or a woman or an ethnic of some sort or someone who had a certain religious bent.
Oddly enough, women are well qualified as diplomats; I think much better than these politicians. I mean, by nature. By nature, not by where they went to school or anything of that sort, but by nature, women like to strive for agreement. In fact, I’m not with it. I don’t sound like a member of NOW [National Organization of Women], and I never have been one, either. But I think women are better negotiators. I think they do what is diplomatic, always must do, seeming to be a breeze and getting along and seeking for an honest compromise, and women are very good at that….
Negotiating the Treaty of Trieste
Q: In connection with that, would you explain your part in the Treaty of Trieste? I have seen so many different versions.
LUCE: You’ve seen many different versions partly because I never wanted to press my own view on anyone. I was content to let everyone figure it out the way they wanted to at the time. But the actual fact was, very soon after I arrived, the prime minister at the time ordered the Italian troops to Trieste, to the border. And I had been briefed about the so-called Trieste situation, and faced with what looked like war which was about to come, I remembered that what State Department advice had been was, “When it boils up, calm it down; when it calms down, forget it.”
And that struck me as a recipe for constant conflict. The Italians were doing, or the Italian leadership was doing, pretty much what leadership does in any country when in a domestic jam, trying to create a diversion with a foreign country with whom you have sufficient disagreement so that the diversion seems logical. So there it was, and I strived to find out from my minister counselor, who was a man called [Elbridge] Durbrow, what steps we were taking, what steps I should take to get the question solved, and was told that it was probably insolvable within the present context, you know?
So I wrote some letters, as I remember, to Livy [Livingston] Merchant, who was the head of the European desk, and got back equivocal answers and they all came to the same thing: “As soon as they calm down, they’ll forget it, forget the whole thing.” I knew it was boiling up again, because the situation in Italy was such that the next prime minister, and the next, would all return to Trieste to settle their own political disagreements. As a matter of fact, De Gasperi [Alcide De Gasperi, leader of the Christian Democratic Party and sometime prime minister of Italy] said to me, “If I had had this Trieste settled, I would still be Prime Minister.”
So I then said, “Well, how do you get this thing settled?” And somebody in the embassy, and I couldn’t remember who it was, said, “You have to get [to] the National Security Council; you have to get it on the agenda.”
So I said, “Well, how do you get it on the agenda?” And he said, “Well, you know the president. He can put it on.” Well, I did know the president, and this was one thing where it goes to show that it’s important to know, and by know, I don’t mean just shake his hand. I knew that Ike, President Eisenhower, was the kind of military man who never could read more, never had the time to read more than a page on any question.
So I sat down at my own typewriter and tried very hard to put the complicated Trieste question–it was terribly complicated–and the reasons for solving it on one sheet of paper. I was always running over onto two and three, and pulling it out of the typewriter. I said to myself, “My goodness! This guy is a soldier. If there’s anything that he is familiar with, it’s that famous little childhood poem, ‘For the want of a nail the shoe was lost; for the want of a shoe, and so on’.” So I paraphrased it….
Anyway, the way the thing began was, “For the want of a two-penny town.” And I wrote at the bottom of this letter, “Dear Mr. President, please let us try to solve this. Put it on the agenda,” or whatever. And the word came over, “Go ahead. Try to solve it.” Well, cheers!
And then, it was impossible, of course, to solve it without the British, because the occupying powers were the British and ourselves in Trieste then. Somehow or other–I’ve forgotten all this history; it was a long time ago–but the end of the war left Americans still in Trieste, which was disputed between Tito [Yugoslav communist leader Marshal Tito (ne Josip Broz)] and the then caretaker government of Italy. As it happened, with De Gasperi towards the end, and with [Mario] Scelba, and then with I’ve forgotten whom. We had a new prime minister every year, as you know.
Then it was all right to try to do this, and it was not only all right, it was most agreeable to do it with the British ambassador. Meanwhile, the news was that we could put it on the agenda. Permitted my opposite number in Yugoslavia – Riddleberger [James Riddleberger, Ambassador to Yugoslavia, 1953-1958] Riddleberger could tell Tito to lay off because we’re going to get this solved and, obviously, Riddleberger was in favor of his client; it was Tito’s argument. I was in favor of the Italians’.
So anyway, everybody fell back and the arguments began. At what point the French latched onto it, I don’t know, except to say that the French always latched onto to everything pour la gloire or pour raison d’autre…and they don’t give up. Anyhow, there the French walked in on it, and not only did they walk in on it, but I never will forget that French ambassador — he’s a career ambassador — who insisted that he sit in on the meetings at the American embassy and insisted that every word of everything should be translated into French, and the final document should be in French.
That wasn’t bad enough, but we had to go to the Foreign Office, and there we finally became like a musical comedy, with the English ambassador and the American ambassador and the French ambassador marching three abreast to the Chigi. And there would be reporters as we went in, and reporters as we left. And after a while — I think that went on for some time. I didn’t write up the experience or keep a diary, but, anyway, it then occurred to me that it would never get settled, because trying to conduct these diplomatic negotiations in public…that’s when I first realized that modern communication had absolutely ruined the diplomatic technique of getting things solved. It’s really a very serious problem….
So I said, “How do we get this thing where it belongs, where it isn’t in the headlines with the dope story, or whatever? I told my husband what I had in mind and he said, “It’s worth a shot.”
I made a trip back to Washington and I went to see the Secretary, whom also I knew very well, Foster Dulles, and said, “Foster, why not–if I can get them to agree, and I’ll do my best, and you tell Riddleberger to go ahead on his end, and we’ll persuade the Italians to appoint a team and the Yugoslavs to appoint a team to negotiate this thing in the place where they will both agree; not in Italy and not in Yugoslavia.
And then you pick a diplomat and the British pick one to chair it, and see if you cannot decide [on an agreement]. Now, they began those negotiations and I think they took over a year…. Tommy Thompson chaired the Trieste proceedings. Who his British opposite number was, I don’t know.
In any case, in the end, when they began discussing the ownership of Trieste, the whole city and everything it encompassed, when they got to the end, they hit a road block. It had a certain similarity to the difficulties the Israelis are having with Golan Heights. What they were arguing about was the crest of a hill, 14 acres — I mean, a little more than that — the size of a golf course. That’s all there was, a golf course, but it was on the crest of the hill, and the Israelis’ idiotic nationalistic things come in. The Yugoslavs didn’t want the Italians looking down on them, and vice-versa. And there it was, absolutely, hopelessly stuck.
Now, I was dressing to go to a dinner when someone came to me, and I shall not tell you the name at this point because it would be breaking a promise made many years ago. A telephone rang and it was a man. I was told it was very urgent and I went to the phone. Oh, yes, I remember my husband was there, and he said to me, “It’s So-and-So,” who asked for me, and it was someone who’d worked for my husband.
And my husband said to me, “Doesn’t want to talk to me. He wants to talk to you.” I got on the phone and he said, “May I come and see you? It is really very urgent, and your husband will tell you I’m a serious man.”
I was going out to dinner, but I put aside the time and he came to see me. I’ll never forget it as long as I live. He laid down a map and that’s how I remember his pointing. He said, “This is all that it’s about. These few little acres.” And he said, “Now I’ll tell you why, what the real argument is about, the real argument.”
Twisting Tito’s Arm
Now if you’ve been reading the history of Trieste, you might come to think it was about fishing rights and this or that. Even today I’ll be in trouble if I tell you what real troubles it was about. I just can’t tell you. All I can tell you is there was something – there was a way in Tito’s own interest, and there was a way that certain very important people in Italy would be satisfied on the question of the debt they thought was owed to them.
Then this man – I said to him, “Why are you telling me these things instead of the CIA?”
“Well,” he said, “I’m telling you first because I’ve never met you and I’ve always liked you and, secondly, because I’m going to tell them tomorrow but I thought you should have the first crack at it because you have worked so hard and you’re the only person that has.” So there I had the secret, but I did not have the means at my disposal of twisting Tito’s arm, and there were reasons why it couldn’t be twisted, even on the cables, so I was very unhappy about it and said, “I will go back to Washington.”
I got back to Washington, and the day before I was going to see the president there was a big dinner given at the Pan American Union, a ball of some sort, a big diplomatic dinner, enormous. And the man I sat next to was an old friend, Bob Murphy. And Bob said to me, “How is the Trieste affair going?”
And I said, “Bob, it’s hung up because we have a little problem that I can’t solve. I can take care of the Italian end, but I can’t take care of the Yugoslavian, because our Ambassador there has gotten us painted into a corner, because he insists that there is no possible way of changing Tito’s mind.” That was also part of my information.
And I said, and I remember using that phrase, because it always stuck in my mind, “What we need is someone who knows Tito well enough to twist his arm.” And he said, “You’re talking to the man….”
It always reminds me of Churchill, when we were talking about what makes a great man, and he said, “I’ve told you all these things and you’ve forgotten the most important thing.”
I said, “What’s that?”
He said, “Luck.”
Well, anyway, there I was, lucky enough to sit next to Bob Murphy, who had been in the OSS [Office of Strategic Services] during the war and who had had OSS contacts with the partisans in Vis. He was on a first-name basis with Tito. This I can say now because Tito’s dead and all of that doesn’t matter. We were then giving wheat to Tito under our Marshall aid….One of the unbreakable rules in the State Department was…you were not permitted linkage…. Kissinger got all over that by coming outright and saying, “We’re going to proceed on a quid pro quo basis.” But in my day you weren’t supposed to link things.
So I said, “Now, if you will go over and tell Tito that unless he gives in on those 14 acres, no wheat.” He won’t know because he’s a totalitarian and he thinks that the State Department, the President, and everybody would act the way he would act in those circumstances…. I said, “Could you go? He said, “I can’t go like that unless the President sends me.”
So the next day I went to see the President. I said, “Mr. President, I only have one favor to ask and we’ve almost gotten this Trieste thing solved. If Bob will stop in Rome and then go on to Belgrade, and be briefed in both places, and make his call on Tito, we can settle this thing.”
And I think if you looked this up in the papers, you will see that he wasn’t gone but three days, or four days. And a few days later, with great sighs of relief, Tito and the Yugoslavs signed the treaty….
“In Italy the only man is a woman”
The Archives in Congress are full of the cartoons that they wrote about me. And, incidentally, my name has always been a misery here – you know, “loose woman,” “loose talk,” all that kind of thing. But in Italy, it was just wonderful. “Clara Loo-chay” meant “clear light.” And there were a lot of cartoons, many of them puns on my name, during the Trieste thing. “The light at last,” you see….
I remember one Trieste cartoon with two characters. The “Mike and Ike” kind of characters were in one of the Italian papers, and one was saying to the other, “It’s a strange thing. In Italy the only man is a woman.” I thought that was funny.
And really, the funniest one is – this is again having the sense of the Congress – I wrote to Foster [Dulles] and said, “Foster, one of the big things the Italians are talking about is how badly we treat our blacks. Could you find me a black cultural attaché?” And we brought over – I think I was the first who ever had a black man [as cultural attaché] in an embassy – a Dr. Snowden from Howard University. He was Master of Romance Languages at Howard, and a charming man. He never speaks much about the extraordinary honor. He just fell so much in love with Italy that, while he returned, his daughters married Italians. At any rate, he was very good. I’ll just tell you this, because this is a very amusing pun.
The Italians did not very much like blacks…. The day after he arrived, there was a cartoon in the paper and it showed me…. The Communist papers made me look like a hag. You know, I was made to look like an awful witch, with shrunken bosom and everything. And the papers that were for me would have me going along with bosoms pointed out; it really was very funny. They couldn’t get their act together as far as what I looked like.
Anyway, there was this cartoon of me spanking along down the Via Veneto, followed by a black man, and the thing underneath it said, “Dopo la luce l’oscuro,” which quite literally means “After the light, the dark.” The way we put it is, “After the night comes the dawn.” But anyhow, there were lots of cartoons, an enormous number of cartoons….
But if I allowed myself to be distraught by every piece of bad publicity, I mean, I wouldn’t have a peaceful evening. Now, furthermore, most of my bad publicity, as far as Italy went, was in the American papers.
Q: Is that so? Why were they vilifying you at that time?
LUCE: Well, my mission got off on the wrong foot…. This was in the McCarthy days, and most of the embassies were staffed by people of the Rooseveltian heyday, really, when New Dealers sponsored a very, very mild and very necessary reform. I myself began as a New Dealer, as you know. Ellsworth Bunker was the Ambassador. He had called the entire staff together and told them he would have no more talk about me becoming the ambassador.
Q: Was this because you were Mrs. Luce, “Harry” Luce’s wife?
LUCE: Yes, and because I was a Republican.
Oops — Some Problems with the Italian Language
Q: Because you were a Republican. It had nothing to do with your being a woman?
LUCE: And the idea of being a playwright. Oh, yes, it did…. Well, anyway, an interviewer came, and he spoke hardly a word of English, very poor English. I said I wouldn’t see him unless he spoke English, because my Italian was not, at that point, very good….
I’d just begun my Italian lessons. I said I knew De Gasperi. Because, see, I told you to begin with, I’d known De Gasperi during the war, before the war. Where did I meet him? I think I met him at some kind of a business conference that my husband had for foreign economists and that sort of thing. Anyway, I said to this interviewer,” What kind of hobbies does Mr. De Gasperi have?” And there’s no word in Italian for hobby. But I finally said to him, “What does he like to do when he is not working, to amuse himself?” You know. And very gradually got the idea through to him. Then he replied to me that he did not know the English word, but he’d say it in Italian. And I said, “Oh, we have the same word for it in English.” And I repeated, “entomology.” And he said, “Si.”
Okay, we now found out that Mr. De Gasperi was interested in insects. And I said, “Butterflies,” and he just didn’t understand “butterflies,” and I didn’t know the Italian word, but I assumed “Si, si, signora,” as being agreeable, and so on.
So I reported to my husband that I had made my first interesting discovery in having discussed Italy with a foreigner, with an Italian, that De Gasperi collects butterflies. Harry had the Time people get a frame and box of beautiful butterflies of North America for the entomologist. I told the State Department that I’d already picked the gift I’m taking to the foreign minister, and they asked me what? And I said, “He’s an entomologist and he’s a butterfly collector.”
The next thing I’m told is that I have made a serious mistake. He’s not an entomologist, he’s an etymologist. He collects books on linguistics, or languages. Fine, except someone in the Department thought it was so funny they started to tell the press, and it gets in the press that I am so ignorant I don’t know the difference between butterflies and books.
But it also gets into the Italian press, where one little writer, who said his knees were shot off by the Red Brigade, called Montenelli, was the wittiest and the cleverest of all the Italian writers, political commentators. (He wrote something called L’histoire des Papillons; it was Pappilloni in Italian.) He said that it was appropriate that a well-known American butterfly – that was me – should bring butterflies to the man with the butterfly brain….
On Being a Woman in the Foreign Service (and Congress)
Now, the first woman I ever met in the Foreign Service I met under the most extraordinary circumstances, and that was on May 10, 1941. I was coming from Amsterdam and spent the night at Ambassador Cudahy’s. And that was the morning that the Phony War [the early part of WWII, where there was little military aggression] ended.
Q: You were in Brussels then?
LUCE: Yup, this remarkable woman and myself, not knowing at any moment whether the Germans would go on bombing, because they only dropped two bombs on Brussels, and one of them sent the house next door right up. She became an ambassador. I think she probably was the first ambassador to Switzerland. She was a regular Foreign Service officer.
Q: Frances Willis. [Frances Willis was the first female FSO to become an ambassador. She had three embassies (Switzerland, Norway, Ceylon) and was the first woman to achieve the personal rank of career ambassador]
LUCE: Frances Willis. A wonderful woman. She and I had an extraordinary morning that morning, and she helped me get out of the place with the wife of another ambassador, a French woman, Hugh Gibson’s wife…. Well, Frances Willis…or I would have been startled if anybody had come in and said, “You’re both going to be ambassadors.”
Q: Isn’t that amazing? And you liked Frances Willis?
LUCE: Oh, yes. I thought she was une femme serieuse. She was straight and very effective. But I’d always thought that the women undergo the same hazard in this occupation – I mean, the ambassadorial career – as they do in federal office. You may have noticed that whereas there are a great
many women mayors and aldermen, and even a number of governors, there are still very few senators, you see, or even congressmen. There were 17 women in Congress when I was in Congress, and there are now only about 25.
The problem for women is that once they have to leave, the husband must either give up his business or there’s a divorce ahead of them. I mean, I refused to take the post when Ike offered it to me unless Harry would promise to spend six months with me. And in those days you got three months off for the summer, so that was nine months of the year….
And now, of course, they can conveniently get a divorce, which they couldn’t. Look at Von Damm [Helene von Damm, while Ambassador to Austria (1983-1986), divorced her American husband to marry an Austrian. Von Damm was born in Austria and is a naturalized American citizen]; she not only got a couple of divorces, she – well, we won’t say much about that….
Q: [Laughs] We won’t talk about that.
LUCE: No I don’t like to talk about that. I don’t know what became of the old idea that you had to be a native-born American to become [an ambassador]. But, even if you weren’t, you shouldn’t be sent to the country of your origin. I mean, mes colleagues diplomatiques, mes amis – I had a lot of good friendships with many of them. And I had a good feeling about Italy and the Italians and made many lasting friends and, in many ways, it is the heart of my life in Washington, the many, many friends that led to other friendships, and so on. That and congressional life is why I like to live here.
So after Italy I was appointed to Brazil, and appointed ambassador twice, and you know the story and my decision not to go Brazil, which I think was the right decision…. When it said that the President [should] send the best man, we sent John Cabot.
Jack Kennedy said to me, “Clare, you’ve only made one mistake in your life. You’ve made a terrible mistake, because if you had not resigned, I would have kept you. You know that.” He was a good friend of mine.
I said, “Jack, you would have kept me? How would you have done that?” I said, “John Cabot was a lame duck. He was THE expert ambassador in the field of Latin American affairs, and the Brazilians asked him to leave four months after he got there.” So anyone who got there was in trouble….
Q: I think, after your tremendous success in Italy, any other country would take it as a great compliment to have you sent to them. I think that’s about the size of it.
LUCE: Yes, I had a little trouble about that. I’ll tell you a story that was never printed; or I don’t think it was ever printed. [Winthrop] Aldrich, our Ambassador [to the U.K.], for some reason or other was not altogether a success. And somebody – it was toward the end of my stay in Rome – put it in the paper that I was going to replace Aldrich.
This piece of news, which was instantly printed in Italy, not only startled me and my husband, it embarrassed us because we had just accepted an invitation from Aldrich for a dinner that he was giving for the Queen. And so, what to do? Nothing to do but go. So we got there and I was sitting in earshot of my husband — it was not difficult to do because he had a very loud voice — and on this occasion I couldn’t be more pleased, because he was sitting next to Harriet Aldrich.
The Value of a Good Spouse as Ambassador
And there was a little silence and Harry’s voice was heard to say, “Harriet, there’s something I want you to know, and that is that I’m not trying to get your job.” And everybody laughed, you know, and it broke the tension. Then after that he said, “I assure you that there’s nothing in the rumor.” Then from the time I came back, things started about where I would go next.
But it was too much of a strain on my marriage.
Now the only reason that Harry consented – found it easy in Rome – was because he had an office in Rome. Time had an office in Paris and London and Berlin, so he was [an] overnight [flight] away from any of his offices, and he enjoyed it. He loved to travel and he loved parties, and altogether he was happier when he was my husband….
He wasn’t when I was a very successful playwright making a half a million dollars a year.
Q: Why do you think that was?
LUCE: Why, I think that’s very simple. I could write my plays entirely alone. I couldn’t have done the embassy thing without him….Even a male ambassador is ten times as effective if he has a good wife. You’ve got to have a wife.
Now, in one sense, he was not a “wife,” in that he paid no attention to the embassy. But where Harry was wonderful was that he knew inside and out what I was not very good at, which was the actual talk of business.
You see, all the businessmen in Italy, not to mention all the people who owned newspapers and magazines — Harry was great from the start on the publishing, and he was a man who understood success and how to get from the bottom to the top — so they were just as eager as possible to lunch alone, man-style, with him, you know. So I was very fortunate. And he was aware of the important part he played.
On March 1st, 1954, the U.S. conducted its largest hydrogen bomb test ever near the Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. An unexpected blast of 15 megatons — 1,000 times stronger than the Hiroshima bomb — affected Australia, India and Japan with widespread radioactive fallout. The Fortunate Dragon (Daigo Fukuryū Maru), a Japanese fishing boat, was about 150 kilometers from the blast and was gravely affected. At least one crew member died due to direct exposure. The U.S. initially tried to cover up the incident. The shock stemming from the tragedy helped further an anti-nuclear movement in Japan. It also inspired the 1954 movie Godzilla, in which the nuclear test awakens and mutates the monster, which then attacks Japan. Read more
On May 1, 1960, an American U-2 spy plane was shot down over the Soviet Union and its pilot, Francis Gary Powers, was captured. The Eisenhower administration initially attempted to cover up the incident but was soon forced to admit that the U.S. had been conducting reconnaissance flights over the Soviet Union for several years. The ensuing diplomatic crisis ended a period of warmer relations between the two superpowers and heightened Cold War tensions.
During the course of his captivity, Powers was interrogated at length and found guilty of espionage after a show trial. Read more
It sounds like something out of Hollywood. Indeed, it was made into a Brazilian movie in 1997 with Alan Arkin (in his pre-Argo days). Charles Burke Elbrick, U.S. Ambassador to Brazil, was kidnapped and held for four days in September 1969. What made the incident so strange was that Fernando Gabeira, a member of the guerrilla group called the Revolutionary Movement 8th of October (MR8) and a key figure in Elbrick’s kidnapping, later wrote a book called O que é isso, companheiro? (“What’s this, comrade?”) in which he discusses the kidnapping and his armed resistance to the military dictatorship. Gabeira lived in exile for several years and was elected federal deputy for Rio in 1995. In a 2009 interview he said he was “in error” in kidnapping Elbrick; however, he is still not allowed a visa to travel to the U.S. The movie Four Days in September was nominated for several awards, including Best Foreign Language Film by the Academy Awards. In these excerpts, Elbrick’s widow Elvira discusses her husband’s kidnapping and life after his release, as well as how she “got even” with Richard Nixon. Read more
The March 2009 edition of Time magazine called it one of the world’s “worst nuclear disasters.” On January 17, 1966, a B-52 bomber of the Strategic Air Command (SAC) carrying four hydrogen bombs collided with a tanker during mid-air refueling at 31,000 feet over the Mediterranean off the coast of Spain. The tanker was completely destroyed when its fuel load ignited, killing all four crew members. The B-52 broke apart, killing three of the seven crew members aboard.
Three hydrogen bombs were found on land near the small fishing village of Palomares. However, the non-nuclear explosives in two of the weapons detonated upon impact with the ground, resulting in the contamination of 490 acres. The fourth fell into the sea and was eventually recovered intact after a 2½-month-long search.
News stories related to the crash began to appear the following day, and it achieved front page status in both the New York Times and Washington Post on 20 January. Reporters sent to the accident scene covered angry demonstrations by the local residents. The incident had an eerie similarity with the recently released James Bond movie Thunderball, in which SPECTRE steals two NATO H-bombs, which end up submerged on the ocean floor of the Bahamas. Read more
In these excerpts, Bruce Laingen, then Charge d’Affaires of U.S. Embassy Tehran and one of the “super Satans” kept hostage at the Iranian Foreign Ministry, discusses his concerns about a possible “apology” by the U.S. government to the regime, the confusion engendered by changes in the Iranian government, the Argo episode (and how the Ministry knew of their whereabouts but never told anyone), the failure of the rescue mission, his imprisonment, negotiations for their release, and their eventual flight to freedom. To read Part I of his interview, go here. Read more
Kathleen Turner was one of the iconic actresses of the 1980’s, starring in such movies as Romancing the Stone, Jewel of the Nile, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (where she was the voice of Jessica Rabbit), Prizzi’s Honor, Peggy Sue Got Married, War of the Roses, and the movie that started it all, Body Heat. After a debilitating bout with rheumatoid arthritis, she made a string of cameos on Friends (where she appeared as Chandler Bing’s estranged gay father) and Californication, before getting the title role in John Waters’ dark comedy Serial Mom.
She then returned to the stage, earning a Tony for Best Actress for her performance in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, starred in The Graduate, and earned rave reviews for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? From August through October 2012 she starred in the critically acclaimed one-woman show Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins.
In this interview, she discusses her father’s internment in China by the Japanese, her life in Cuba during the revolution (and how she prayed to Castro and got candy), her grim memories of charity work in Venezuela, and life in London, where she got the acting bug and protested the Vietnam War, all to her father’s chagrin. She was interviewed by ADST’s Charles Stuart Kennedy on October 3, 2012 backstage at Washington, DC’s Arena Stage.
To listen to the entire interview, go to the ADST channel on
To listen to a podcast of the interview, go here.
“The Japanese invaded China and my father was interned”
TURNER: My father died about 40 years ago – it was a week before I turned 18. I was brought up in the diplomatic foreign service, and I really had thought that it was so long ago that although I maintain an interest in many things, certainly in international fronts and everything, I hadn’t felt so involved, or hadn’t realized, when [U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris] Stevens was killed [in Bengazi], I couldn’t believe the feelings that flooded back into me about the protectiveness and loyalty and the anger, that I thought, “My God, I’m still a dip kid.”
Q: The Foreign Service is family.
TURNER: It sure feels like it.
Q: And when something happens, it’s part of it.
TURNER: Something like that. I talked to my mother because I told her I’d be speaking with you and I wanted to get a little more of her color, of her experience since I was so, so young, and she carries very excellent, very good memories of the time in the Foreign Service. Even though she says that [Secretary of State during the Kennedy Administration] Dean Rusk said at a speech he gave to the families at one point, that it was the best deal in the business – that you get two for one always, because the wife is certainly [going to work for free], I mean – it’s full time, it’s a job and although I understand women can now have a job outside the Foreign Service, where they could not when my mother was, when my father was
alive. I don’t know if she’d have had time, because I can remember endless events.
For example she tells a story that, when we were in Caracas, the ambassador was going to be retiring and my mother said that she and the other wives got the impression that the ambassador’s wife was quite ready to go. And there was always an annual July 4th, huge event for all the local people and the other diplomatic embassies, and that they were ordered by the ambassador’s wife – each wife to produce 250 canapés, because she was tired of dealing with this party, and mom said all the wives got together, and they counted everyone to make sure that they all had 250.
Anyway, it was very funny. But I have wonderful memories of the communities, I mean in Caracas, we basically went to the English-speaking Protestant church and the international schools were much more varied, they weren’t just diplomatic, they were also top businessmen from other fields and their families.
Q: From the community – from the indigenous community, you know, I hear the top business people often sent their kids there.
TURNER: Well, no, as I recall, Campo Alegre was our school in Caracas, and although it was considered international, I don’t remember many Venezuelans there. In London, it was the American School in London, and again, many diplomats would send their children there, as opposed to – really the only other great choice in England were the public schools, which were usually boarding schools. And I wouldn’t have wanted to lose my kids – ASL [American School-London] was a big school in London.
Also, the extraordinary thing was that both these schools – there were 500 applicants for each teaching post, so we had some of the best educators, some of the best teachers. I think, when I got out of high school and I ended up in Springfield, Missouri, which is the story of when my father died quite suddenly – we hadn’t lived in the United States for 12 years – we had no home in the United States, so we went to my mother’s parents in Springfield, Missouri. And my older brother and sister were already in college, but my younger brother and I were not in college yet.
And I had planned to stay on in England and go to the Central School of Speech and Drama [at the University of London]. But that was not possible when my father died. My mother needed me, and so that was that.
But I tested out of the entire freshman year because of the education I’d received. I mean, the exam -It was laughable what they had. I mean are you kidding me? OK, so all of those things were extraordinarily positive, but at the same time, I also remember some very difficult times, many nights, including holidays when my father was away from home because an American was detained or in trouble somewhere and that always came first, rightly so.
Even in times, the two years we spent here in Washington when he was at State, the very, very long hours that he worked. And we lived in Chevy Chase. But we still had very little of him here in Washington. I think we saw more of him overseas, really, when he was posted to the embassies.
Q: Sort of to keep to the chronological order – you were born in Washington?
TURNER: No,Missouri– mom was on home leave. Lived there 3 months.
Q: But your father had a very interesting early life – did he talk much about it?
TURNER: Yes, see, he did not join the Service in any usual way. He was brought up in China. He went out when he was about a year and a half – two years old, and grew up with his older brother and sister, much older brother and sister, with his grandfather who was a missionary – a Methodist missionary to Shanghai– and his maiden aunts. So he grew around when he was 18, going on 19, you know the Japanese invaded China and he was interned. After Pearl Harbor, the Americans were separated to another camp, which was a great deal harsher. And one of my aunts, my great-aunts, died in that camp.
But when China was liberated by the Americans, my father’s family had an excellent name and very high standing in the community, and he was of course bilingual in Mandarin and Cantonese. And so he was sort of drafted into the Foreign Service. There were no males of eligible age allowed to leave China by the Japanese after 18. Anyone eligible to serve in the military service was interned, be it an American or not.
And so he never – he had planned to come back to university, but that was stopped, so he never went to university. He went right into the Foreign Service in ’45, in Shanghai. And I think that was something he felt his whole life – that he had never qualified quite the same way as some of the other officers had, and it drove him, I think, to prove himself continually in his job.
Q: The Foreign Service is still the only government executive position where you don’t have to be a college graduate. You pass the test, or come in through different means, but there are very few who do that
TURNER: Very few who do that.
Q: There are a number of high school graduates who have gone off and done something else, and then came back, but of course, today is a different matter. In your father’s day, getting a college degree was quite something.
TURNER: It was, well, in my family, it was expected. I mean, all four of us, all four children hold doctorates. It was just — we promised my father that basically we would do what he had not, which was to take an advanced degree. We all kept our promise, but in any case, my mother went out first in ‘46 under – with UNRA [United Nations Relief Association] – and she was actually posted inland to distribute the supplies and she got extremely ill. She was sent back to the United States, and when she recovered, she went back to Washington and said she wanted to go back to China, so she went back under the Foreign Service in ’47. And my parents met, and fell in love and married there in Shanghai.
One thing I’ve never been able to understand about my father, because he did not speak much of the years of internment.
Q: He really didn’t.
TURNER: No, he really didn’t. Bits and pieces, and over the years, I’ve learned more about him from other people. I mean in London, these people approached me, older people, and said that my father had saved their son’s life, you know, things like that. That came up, and my father saying once, that they broke into the – when the Japanese fled because of the advance of the American army. They broke into the office and found orders that they were to be executed in two weeks, in anticipation of losing Shanghai.
So that was all bits and pieces like this.
Q: Did your father ever bear hatred, resentment towards the Japanese?
TURNER: See, well this is what I wanted to say, what I cannot understand is that his first post was Tokyo, he was sent to Tokyo. That’s where my oldest sister was born. They were there, I think, almost three years. See, I don’t know how he did that. I don’t know how.
Q: He’s brave
TURNER: I would have thought so. But in any case, my mother tells the story very vividly. They were literally on the last boat out of Shanghai. That at this point, because the American government had not recognized the Chinese – the interim government in ’49 – the boat, the last American destroyer allowed, it was 3 miles out in international waters. And they had to ferry the last Americans out to the boat. And my mother by then was pregnant with my sister, and she said they literally climbed up a rope ladder, with steps, but they climbed up this rope ladder and my surviving aunt, my great-aunt, the sailors carried her up, and they were on the last – literally the last boat.
Q: Yes, because we’ve had consular officers who were interned by the Communist Chinese, and had a very difficult time for some time before they finally were released…
TURNER: Yeah, I’m sure
Q: China business is very difficult. Was there any feeling, sort of, that you got from your parents about China?
TURNER: Oh absolutely! My mother’s home is filled with – they were able to ship through the British people who had recognized the government.
They were able to ship out a lot of the family’s treasures, artifacts, rugs and furniture and art and such. So, in fact, we have a lot of my great-grandfather’s possessions still – quite beautiful – quite wonderful.
So this is the home I grew up in. The Chinese influence was very strong to me. I, unbelievably, have never been. I don’t know why. Somehow…I don’t know…
My mother’s been back. And she tells a story that she went to the quarter where the internationals were allowed to stay, which actually was called the French section, the French quarter where the internationals lived, and she went back to the old, hideous red brick Victorian house that they – the four of them lived in or something, and – to find that there were 11 families living in it now.
She said she didn’t go in or anything, but she turned away to walk away, and she heard this voice yelling at her “Missy Turner! Missy Turner!” and it was this man who had been house boy, and had managed to keep a room in the house, but I assume that the only white woman of that age who would be coming to look at that house would be someone connected with the family.
Q: That’s amazing.
TURNER: I know, isn’t that extraordinary?
Q: Well, back to you – you were born… ?
TURNER: I was born in Springfield. My mom was on home leave. My dad was still in Antwerp, in Belgium, and my mother wanted to come back while she could still travel. You know? And my father was supposed to be relieved, but he wasn’t. So he didn’t get to see me until I was almost 3 months old, just before we moved to Canada, which my mother says has a great deal to do with my attitude of “Oh yeah?? Yeah?? You’re making tough?? Well, watch!” (laughter) She seems to feel that this is all very deep, psychological stuff…Any case…
Q: Where did you have your first, might I say, foreign service?
TURNER: In Canada. I was in nursery school…I was 3, I guess, and we went to the nursery school that was in the local church. And every morning we would come up on stage and sing “God Save the Queen” before we started to play or anything.
But then my father was posted to Cuba, so he went to Washington for 6 months of intensive training, and language and briefing. So my mother took us back to Springfield, Missouri, for those 6 months and put me in nursery school there, and I remember thinking, “Oh my God”, you know, well I didn’t think “Oh my God,” I mean I was very timid, very afraid. And then the teacher at the piano started to knock out these chords and I thought “Well, all right!” And I started to sing “God Save the Queen” and she slammed her hands down and turned to me and said “THIS IS AMERICA!” (laughter)
Anyway, so that was my most vivid memory from that. We were just there 6 months. Then we went to Cuba.
On Cuba, Praying to Castro, and the Senseless Killing of Her Dogs
Q: And when you were in Cuba – you were there before the revolution?
TURNER: Oh yes! My father closed the embassy. Yeah!
Q: Can you talk a bit about your experience?
TURNER: Yes, I can! Well, we were in Cuba. Well, I was in “Pre-Primaria” then. And we were put into this school with these strict uniforms, and everything. And I remember, brown skirt, a tan blouse, and it being very, very hot. We had to ride – we had assigned seats on this bus and I was in between these two really big girls. Anyway, the teacher – now this was “Pre-Primaria”, which is basically kindergarten, but there was some kind of dictation or something, and I had no Spanish whatsoever. So every day the teacher would come by and look at my blank page, and take out this red pencil and write CERO, CERO OTRA VEZ! [Zero, Another zero!] You know – everyday (fake crying).
Any case, we lived in a lovely house. We had a beautiful garden. And the previous owners had left their dogs – these two Weimaraners, called Oro and Plata. Plata was the female, Oro was the male. He was big enough that I could actually sort of ride on him, you know? Beautiful dogs! And, any case, I remember when the tensions started to ratchet up. And well this one memory that – I came into my room, and there was a tarantula… and my father came running in with a machete and chopped it into pieces, and I remember the arms still wiggled after it was chopped up, and I was like “Ugh, God!”
Q: That’s one of those nice memories…
TURNER: But we had this very nice maid – very nice woman, and when the tensions started to rise, when the government, when Batista was deposed and everything, then I went to school one day, and my brother and sister and I used to trade off. Every third day, one of us got to get a soda from the machine rather than our drink from home. It was a big day. It was a big thing.
We went, and the teacher told us to close our eyes and pray to God for candy. And we did. And she said “Open your eyes.” And she said “There’s no candy.” “Close your eyes, and pray to Castro for candy.” And she went and put pieces of candy in our hands (of course I didn’t know that) and then she said “Open your eyes – Who loves you more, God or Castro?” So I went home and said, “Mom! Castro gave me candy!”, and that was it. That was the last day I went to school.
But it started that early, you know because the teachers and the intelligentsia were very much pro-Castro and the change and revolution. So that was the last day I went to school. And then we started to hunker down in the house, and things happened. Like the maid came by and said she could no longer work for Americans, and she left. And my mother, I remember complaining about not being able to shop at certain stores, because they wouldn’t take her money… that kind of thing. The anti-American feeling was getting very high, and then one day we came out on the back patio, and Oro and Plata were dead, they had been poisoned. Someone had done that, which was a terrible, terrible, thing.
And then, one day I walk into the living room and when you picked up the phone, between the time we dialed, and the phone was connected, there was a recording “Castro is our leader. Castro is our savior. Castro…” and I can remember my mother yelling at the phone “Castro is a bastard! Castro is an asshole!” (Laughter). Any case, so, they got the women and children out to Florida, took us to Clearwater. And the men stayed. The officers stayed for almost another 6 months.
Remembering Her Father’s Work as a Consular Officer
Then I was down in Miami, not too long ago, few years ago, ten years ago… I was doing a benefit for something, and I got a note — a message at the stage door, saying “Please, understand, I must see you. Your father saved my life.” And so I said: “All right.” So this young man came back, and he told this story that I kind of remember from my father. That when the officers were given a plane to leave Cuba. And they knew that there would be major retaliations against the embassy staff.
So under the pretext of the staff gathering to say goodbye to the officers, they all went to the airport and the officers loaded the staff onto the plane and stayed on the tarmac, knowing that they would have to give them another flight, another plane out of there. But one of the secretaries had a newborn baby without papers, without anything, and was terrified that she would not be allowed into the United States, or the boy would be taken away.
And my father, evidently, took a piece of paper and wrote out a visa and signed it and everything and gave it to her and said: “Hold on to that.” And that got her and the boy into the United States, and it was this boy, this man now, who said: “This is the story my mother has always told me, and when I saw you were going to be here, I wanted to thank his daughter. And I thought that was really wonderful.
Q: One of the things that say, I’ve spent my entire career as a consular officer, and it’s – I mean sometimes you do – you can really change lives.
TURNER: A follow-up story to that is – then we were sent to Caracas, in Venezuela. We were there five years, which is the longest we were anywhere. But anyway, my first boyfriend was Dario Gonzales, and he went to the American school, but he was Cuban originally. The family had fled to Venezuela from Cuba, and I was taken, you know his parents invited me to his home for dinner one night. Because we were all very, very proper, I mean, every young woman was chaperoned.
Nobody went anywhere alone, and by then, at that time, I was very blonde, blue-eyed. Not wise to run around, and you couldn’t anyway. You couldn’t go anywhere on your own. But his mother, I remember looking at me and saying, “Turner, is your father Richard Turner?”, and I said “Yes.”
She had spent two weeks in line, on the sidewalk, to get a visa in the United States and she was second up to the window when they broke relations. And she said she’ll never forget my father because he said “I have to close the window now, I’m sorry. I cannot grant any more visas.” And she’d been sleeping on the sidewalk for two weeks…and she said “I know now, I do not blame him. But I did then. I said one more, just one more.”
Anyway, they had trouble getting out, because they were professionals, and the father was a scientist, and they didn’t want no one to let those people go. Anyway, that was a bit of a coincidence.
Q: The type of experience you’re having right from the get-go: the complexities of foreign relations, the movement of people, particularly with the consular side. Did your father bring home stories of people getting into trouble? I know with my three children, they got all sorts of drug stories.
TURNER: Well, I remember one Thanksgiving, my father had to leave Thanksgiving dinner because an American plane – a small, drug smuggling plane — had come down, had been forced down, and it was an American pilot, and he was in deep trouble, and so my father left to go to the jail and to see what could be done.
I think looking back, my life was really extraordinarily sheltered. Particularly in countries where there was another language, like Venezuela. The American community was very, almost insular in some ways. And it wasn’t just the embassy personnel. It was Americans abroad, the ex-pats. We’d form a community anywhere we’d go, but particularly in different language cultures.
Obviously in England it didn’t feel nearly as restrictive, or as – we felt much more absorbed, much more part of – but then if you contrast it to the military service kids who never got off base, I mean, I met kids who spent five years and never spoke any Spanish because their schools, their movies, houses, their stores, everything was on military base, and they never mingled with. So, for that I am very thankful. You know, as a diplomat, we were part of the community.
Then, in London, I worked two summers at the embassy when I was too young, but my father let me do it anyway, because he was Consul by then. So I worked in the visa section, which was quite amusing.
Q: Before we get to that, I would like to ask about Venezuela. Venezuela has these terrible troubles right now there, but the troubles were there before. There was a discrepancy between wealthy and the poor, and there wasn’t much of a middle class.
“They would break a child’s limb so that they could use the child to beg”
TURNER: Well I can remember when I lived there, that there was talk already. Now, we left there in ’68 to go to London. I remember there was already a great deal of discussion about the threat of nationalization to the oil, and some of the huge land wars. You know, in the beautiful open farmlands, these people owned tracks of hundreds or thousands of square miles. So even then, I just turned thirteen when we left, but I remember discussions even then of the threat of the terrible inequity.
And in the class system that existed, because there were the hidalgos, there were the pure Spanish settlers, and then there were the Indians, the natives of course were the bottom of the bunch. And in between there were the mestizos, kind of the middle class, mixed blood, and blacks. The Indians being the very lowest of the social order, but the gap between the hidalgos, the “real” descendants of the conquistadores, and the native people was huge. Absolutely huge, and there was – we rarely came into contact with anyone of the lower classes, except through charity work, of course.
And this was something that – I think my mother said to me once that, of course it was expected – that every Foreign Service wife, but also the young women of the family, would work in charity organizations. It was an unspoken rule, which is dead.
When I was eleven, I went to work once a week on Wednesdays for a couple of hours a day in a national government orthopedic hospital, which was a really, truly terrible, terrible situation. Each week I would make up these little plastic bags of toys and candy for the girls in my ward, and then usually I would read to them, or something like that. By now, of course, I was quite fluent because it was half Spanish and half English a lot of the days. You obviously were immersed, you know.
But there was a practice – IS a practice – in most South American countries, very strong then, called “limosnas” [alms] where you take a child, a beautiful child usually – an attractive child, and you would break a limb or something and would bind it badly so that it grows back as a cripple, and then you use the child to beg. And very often this is the only income for the family, perhaps.
So, about once a year the government would sweep through, pick up these kids, re-break their limbs, reset them, and that’s when they would put them in this hospital. And when they were healed, they would release them, and if the were still young enough and attractive enough, they would be back in another six months.
There was this beautiful young girl who had both legs badly broken and she was in a body cast from the waist down while I was there. She was finally healed and when she came back, I said, “I can’t do this anymore” to my parents. “I really can’t.” And they completely understood, but you did that, and the wives did all kinds of outreach to organizations, sometimes through church, or very often through programs at the embassy.
Q: I remember my wife ran an international girl scouts unit with…
TURNER: Absolutely! My mother was the head of TOFS [Troops on Foreign Soil]!
Q: This was, these were Indian, Pakistani, and with the Burmese. They wore their national uniforms.
Q: With your Spanish, had you been able to keep up with it?
TURNER: Oh, yes, and tackled some French and some Italian. This is something my father gave me as a great gift. He said, “If you have only one language, you only have one way of thinking”, and I agree, I truly do. It isn’t a question of translating words. It’s concepts and cultural context that gives you an education you know.
Q: Were you able to get out much and around in Venezuela?
TURNER: In Venezuela we could not go anywhere without a parent driving us somewhere. Now, the practice was after school, or on weekends, everybody belonged to a club, mine was the swimming and tennis club. And there were other kinds of clubs, you know, four or five, and basically all the internationals went to one of these clubs. Mine was tennis and swimming.
And then we had, through the scouting program, we had a camp, you know, up in the mountains that we would visit once a year. Oh, I got impetigo, I remember. I fell down and cut my face and got impetigo, and the only thing to treat it with then was gentian violet. Yes, so I had to go to school looking like Hitler with this purple mustache (laughter). It was really lovely – everyone was going “Heil!”. My confidence barely survived that one (laughter)
Q: It prepared you for household audiences.
“The Foreign Service fosters this kind of compassion”
TURNER: But we did travel as a family some. We went – well, in the church choir, we had a hand-bell choir, and my brother and I, my older brother and I, were in that. And we traveled a couple times to Maracaibo, and once up to the Colombian border to play for groups. And as a family we tried to – we went on some trips down into the Amazon, I don’t think we ever went very deeply. And I never went to Angel Falls, I think my older brother did, but I never got up there. I don’t know why. But no, we lived a fairly restricted life to be honest.
Q: Did your family ever get together around the dinner table and talk about the situation in Argentina or Venezuela or in the world?
TURNER: Oh, definitely. Definitely. We weren’t as interested or involved with domestic politics. My father felt, or said that it didn’t really matter to him who the president was. The president of the United States was his commander in chief, and that’s all there was to it. So whatever political party he belonged to made no difference to his job, you know, or loyalties. I have long since grown out of that – a lot.
Q: I take it you’re an ardent Republican.
TURNER: I am a liberal! I am liberal! Anyway, I think part of the reason I am so liberal is because of all the exposure around the world to different levels of living and different backgrounds and different – a lot of it being different access, different possibilities for people. You know, visiting some of the countries as we did – you just need that. The inequalities were so vast in some places, that how could you not be liberal and wonder.
I mean, I really think the Foreign Service fosters this kind of compassion, this ability to put yourself in someone else’s place, and see! Grant you, we are a huge country, and most Americans can spend days traveling and never have to leave, or speak another language, or deal with another currency or another historical background. And all right, OK, I understand that, but the fact that we don’t seek it out, the fact that we are not encouraged as a country to broaden our horizons, I find, discouraging.
s is one of the things I miss most about the Foreign Service experience, as you come back to the United States in home leave. I remember doing a cross-country trip coming from Yugoslavia, and I had a car which had the Yugoslav plates and I thought “Oh boy! I’m gonna get a lot today…questions about Yugoslavia. But nothing, nothing. It must’ve been hot there, or less lonely.
TURNER: What do they eat or what do they drink? When I ended up back in Springfield, Missouri from London– that was the greatest culture shock of my life. I didn’t know any of the TV shows, I had never been to a McDonald’s, for God’s sake, and I couldn’t find out anything about the rest of the world.
I mean all the news programs were local, the papers. I was completely cut off from the rest of the world – it was the most shocking thing to happen to me. And even at that time, the national news was only domestic. They didn’t cover foreign affairs. It was terrible.
London, the Love of Acting and Her Father’s Misgivings
Q: When you went to London, you were there for…
TURNER: Four years. ‘68-‘72.
Q: How did you find…I mean you went to an American school but, was this different? It was a pretty good school?
TURNER: Well, I was lucky enough to be part of an experiment with that school. First of all, let me say that the first thing that my older brother and I did when we went to London was jump on the underground, and just move, just travel. We were liberated, you know? I mean we could never go anywhere before in our lives without someone taking us, knowing where we were, deciding when we were leaving.
Wow! I mean, I think we must’ve scared the hell out of our mother, but we just got a ticket and just rode the subways and just rode the underground until we felt free. And of course the transit system in London is fabulous. And this is one reason I brought my daughter up in New York City. Because I think at 12 you get the bus pass, you get the Metro card, and that sense of being able to take yourself places is so important to confidence, to a sense of who you are and your capabilities.
I could never bring up a child in Los Angeles and never would’ve and never did. Any case, that was what we had in London, the ability to move ourselves around. Now we moved up to Hampstead Gardens, suburbs above Hampstead Heath. So our options were to walk across the Heath, basically to get the northern line at Hampstead and take that down, or to walk to this side marketplace.
The first year we were there, the American School was under construction – they were rebuilding the whole thing – so we shared with a school called the Working Men’s College in Camden [pictured], which was not a very nice area then at all. But we had it during the day, and the Working Men’s College was at night. And I can remember we walked to and from the Tube in groups, and they didn’t necessarily like the white rich Americans very much.
Q: Did they take advantage?
TURNER: Well yeah, it was a little hairy there. That was only a year. When the American School was finished in St. John’s Wood, they wanted to do pretty much a very experimental sort of program where they designed a course of study, that a good student, working hard and responsibly, could finish the week’s requirement by Wednesday night.
So that would give you two days to decide your own course of study. And if you got 7-10 students together, you could design a class you wanted and they would provide a teacher. This was unheard of, and there were no closed rooms; they were all pods that opened onto a central location, which the teachers actually grew to hate because it was too noisy. We had, in a school of 400, we had 50-some English courses, because somebody just wanted to do Chaucer and going around London. This kind of thing, it didn’t work. We lasted a little over a year, and too many kids were not doing the work, and they felt they had to go back to the constant supervision. To me it was like, oh hell, I loved it! I absolutely loved it.
Q: Well, the acting, when did this hit you?
TURNER: When I was in Venezuela, which makes absolutely no sense. I was 12, but I had never been to a theatre performance. When we lived here in Washington, when I was in second and third grade, my mother took me to the ballet once. And that was the only real, live performance I had ever seen, so I was just a voracious reader. And I was always reading plays out loud and would influence my brothers and sisters to sing, do other roles, and things. You made a lot of your own entertainment in those days.
Q: So you used to do a lot of play reading?
Q: One of those things where families get together and do play readings…
TURNER: Something like that, but we kind of did it all for me. But, in any case…I remember when I was twelve, I would say to my mom: “Well, I’m gonna be an actress,” they just thought this was real cute, you know. But then when we moved to London, of course, I had access to theatre.
And the first night we were there I snuck out, and I snuck into a theatre, went up to the gods [British expression for the highest part of the theater with the cheapest seats], and I think it was Angela Lansbury in “Mame”. And I remember sitting up there, and you’re almost afraid that you’re gonna fall over and fall off the balcony because it’s so high and it’s so steep.
I remember thinking that “Oh my God, I can earn my living this way!”, because we all knew we’d have to earn our living. There was no money that we were going to inherit or anything like that, so any career we chose had to support us. Which was our father’s objection, because he couldn’t see any way that this could ever work out so that I could be safe and secure financially. Which, as a parent, I completely understand, but he was wrong. They were both wrong, and it took years for my mother to confess.
Q: I was wondering whether you felt there was something in the water or something…
TURNER: Well, I do think many actors actually come from a similar background. If it’s not Foreign Service, it’s where they have been moved to other countries or different schools or had to adapt and compensate for being the new kid all the time, or something. And I think you learn how to present yourself. You know, you go to a new school. And again, I can remember, when I moved from Venezuela to London, thinking “Oh, I have a chance to reinvent myself, because nobody there will know me from the years before.” So whoever I say I am, I am to these people, which I thought was quite handy. I mean not that I was going to lie, but I wasn’t carrying any baggage.
Q: Did you find that there were lots of opportunities for trying things on, I mean skits or anything like that, or was it just a matter of serving?
TURNER: Well, we had a great group of kids in high school in ASL, and we wrote, directed, produced everything, you know, acted everything. We did everything. And we put on play after play after play and the school was very supportive. We hated this one drama teacher – got him fired and got another one. Then we traveled to Paris, to other international schools and productions. And I think, you know, one of the most thrilling things about being based in London was how easily you could just go to the continent.
My older brother and I would get down to Paddington and take the train and cross to Amsterdam. My father had this sort of an honorary aunt who lived in Amsterdam, and we’d show up and knock at her door and say “Can we stay here tonight?” and it was a sort – we had that kind of freedom, to just go to Paris. On a few francs, I mean, it wasn’t a big deal and you didn’t expect to stay in a nice hotel or anything like that. But you could buy a baguette and some cheese and hang out. I mean, come on, that’s just extraordinary!
Q: You say your father didn’t feel that this was the world for a successful…
TURNER: He was very, very against it. Also because I think he felt that it was a very dubious profession – that young ladies didn’t go into acting. It was one step above a streetwalker. But I can remember that my mother…I was doing Brian Friel’s play “The Winners and Losers” at ASL, at the school. It was a beautiful piece. I’d like to direct that one day. Anyway, my father drove my mother to the school, and he stayed in the car because he would not give the tacit approval of coming in. So it was incredibly foolish because he never saw me act – very foolish. But my mother said she went out at the intermission to say it’s going well and she’s doing well, and he was sitting there with his hands clenched on the steering wheel. Idiot.
Q: Did he and your mother see plays or things of that nature?
TURNER: Oh, once we got to London, yeah. Yeah. Not as much as I did, but yes. And theatre was frankly cheaper than movies, I mean it was great. You could just go to a play almost twice a week at least.
Q: You mentioned you were a reader.
TURNER: Huge. I still am. I read at least four books a week.
Q: In the early years, what sort of things were you reading?
TURNER: Well, I read a lot of historical drama. I’m very attracted by history and that sort of thing. I mean, for example, right now I’m reading Ken Follett’s second book of the century, you know, the one that’s about World War II. Excellent. His work is so good in any case. Still drawn to all of that, but I read a lot of poetry.
I read every piece of Shakespeare I could get my hands on, and I’ve recorded many, many pieces there. It wasn’t until – and this is an interesting coincidence that just occurred to me. It wasn’t until I moved back to Missouri, or was forced back to Missouri, to be more accurate, that I picked up and was fascinated by science fiction, and I think it’s really because I wanted an alternate world. I really didn’t want to be where I was. So, yeah there I got hooked on science fiction, which I love too.
Q: A great thing I’ve used to get the hell out of where I am. Did you run across any anti-Americanism?
Q: Any problems?
TURNER: Within Venezuela, there was a group called the FALN, and what they did was they would target American houses, very often the embassy’s staff. They didn’t kill anyone, they’d come in and tie up anybody in the house and then spray paint the house with their initials and things like that. Tear furniture off and all this kind of stuff. But in Venezuela everyone, not just Americans or anything like that, everyone lived in fortified homes. There were huge fences, there were bars on every window, broken glass on every perimeter wall. You know it was just, it’s how everyone lived.
Q: Was there a safe room?
TURNER: No. We were never attacked. But there was toward the end of our stay there, again when there was talk starting about nationalizing the oil and things like that. But the anti-British sentiment at that time was almost greater because of Shell. Shell owned the major interest in the oil fields out West. They were more targeted than we were, in fact. In London, no.
No, I remember at one point, in almost – it must have been ’71 – when Nixon went into Cambodia. By then I was quite political and we put together a march, and we got permission to go down Oxford Street, into the embassy, into the north, on the street in Grosvenor Square, and then to meet at Hyde Park corner afterwards.
Well, my father said, “You’re not doing this”, and of course I was one of the organizers, and I said, “Yes, I am.” And we had a really huge fight. He said “All right, now let me ask you this. Do not go in front of the embassy. Leave the march at north on this street and then rejoin it to go to Hyde Park. Please, do not come and stand in front of the embassy. I can’t bear it.” I said, “Well, of course”, you know, of course I won’t. And I didn’t, I mean had to respect his wishes, and he felt, you know…
On the Foreign Service, Body Heat, and fellow Foreign Service brat William Hurt
Q: Looking back on it, did you find that your Foreign Service experiences translated into any of those delightful movies I’ve seen of you and stage things. Was there any transference there?
TURNER: Well, my education, for heaven’s sakes. I mean, whether it’s – obviously the Spanish came in very handy in “Romancing the Stone”, and French came in rather handy in “Jewel of the Nile”. We were in Morocco and the South of France. I think what it really gave me was an extraordinary edge on many, many American actors, many born and bred American actors.
I had a greater breadth of knowledge, I had a greater depth of language, both English and others. I had so much more experience that, when I would see a piece of writing, I didn’t go for the cliché – for the expected interpretation or response, because my whole history didn’t necessarily include the expected response.
And I think that that was always very powerful to have someone who had a seemingly unique interpretation of everything, simply because they saw the same thing over and over and over, because the people came from the same background. And so, having such a different upbringing, for this country, I think worked hugely in my favor. Yes?
Q: I’m thinking obviously anybody interviewing you comes back to Body Heat sometimes.
TURNER: Well, yes.
Q: You can’t help this. To me it seems interesting that William Hurt is also a Foreign Service kid.
TURNER: He is.
Q: And all I can say is…
TURNER: Yeah, he didn’t serve outside the country much, but the [parents’] marriage didn’t last.
Q: But still, two Foreign Service kids put into a difficult social truth…
TURNER: (laughter) You know, this was thirty-one years ago. The film is thirty-one years old now. We knew we were breaking ground. We knew we were pushing limits, but we didn’t realize, I don’t think anyone realized, you know, that it would be such a…
Q: The thing is the movie, I mean, some of these things.
TURNER: When you look at it, all my movies are good movies. I really don’t have a bad one
Q: No, you really don’t. Particularly one that struck me…
Q: I can’t remember the name of it, but you took an exception. A violent exception to Patty Hearst wearing white after Labor Day [in the 1994 John Waters movie “Serial Mom”]…
TURNER: Oh that was John Waters! He was here last night. He came last night.
Q: I thought that taking a stand like that. I liked it.
TURNER: Well, she had to die, didn’t she?
Q: Well, rightly so. It was stuck in my mind. Well I’m looking and this is probably a good place to stop.
END OF INTERVIEW