by Mint Julep
The stately Cortland Arms, a massive gray stone structure that springs twin-towered and twenty stories tall on Fifth Avenue just three blocks up from the Plaza, has housed more than its share of august personages both famous and notorious. It was widely rumored that Joseph P. Kennedy used one of its penthouse apartments for late-night assignations with a series of Broadway ingenues and shapely showgirls during the height of the Jazz Age, and another suite was used as a love nest by Edward VIII and Mrs. Simpson before they became the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Others of its tenants have been, at various times, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Leonard Bernstein, and Henry Cabot Lodge. Jacqueline Onassis had one of her town flats there, as did both Henry Kissinger and Andy Warhol, and current residents include several Duponts, a couple of Rockefellers, and at least one Auchincloss. As I approached the doorway beneath the taut green awning on a crisp autumn evening for my first visit to the Cortland, I was greeted by the doorman, a powerfully built man who looked to be perhaps a year or two either side of fifty, who seemed to glide smoothly forward and said, in a tone that struck just the proper note between the cordial and the officious, "Good evening! Can I help you?"
I was every bit as impressed with his courtesy as I was with the remarkable precision with which he managed to block my entrance to the building. I told him my name and that Sir John Steed was expecting me.
"Of course," he said, smiling just enough to reveal two rows of slightly tobacco stained teeth beneath a nose that suggested that its owner had spent some significant part of his youth in a boxing ring or perhaps on a shipping pier. "Do you have any identification?" he asked. I dutifully produced my driver's license and my press card, as well as copies of my correspondence with Sir John, including my initial letter to him and Sir John's reply written on his personal stationery. The doorman thanked me and handed them back. "Sir John is expecting you. The elevator operator will direct you to his apartment." As he stepped aside to let me pass, I saw the faint outline of what might have been a handgun just beneath his breast pocket.
I crossed the black and white checked marble lobby to the elevator and introduced myself to the operator, a lean young man with wild red hair and just the faintest trace of polish on the brass buttons of his jacket sleeves. "Sir John has asked that you go right up," he said, as he slid the grille shut and swung down the antique metal lever.
"Does Sir John have many visitors?" I asked, as the lift rose gently heavenward.
"I really couldn't say," he replied. "Excuse me," he said, leaning slightly forward to slide the grille back and open the door for me. As he did so, I noticed what might have been the top part of a black leather holster just barely discernible through the slightly open part of his jacket front.
I walked from the elevator along a wainscoted hallway across a plush deep blood-red carpet and past two enormous gilt-framed mirrors. Beneath each mirror was a glowing mahogany sideboard supporting an elegant vase filled with cut hothouse flowers. There was no bell button next to the door of Sir John Steed's apartment; instead there was a finely detailed brass knocker shaped like a chess knight. I gave it three bold solemn clacks and the door was opened almost immediately by a somewhat puffy, red-faced and balding man who smelled faintly of starch and cologne. My first thought at the sight of him was that he looked absolutely nothing at all like his photographs.
John Steed was one of the unsung and necessarily anonymous heroes of the Cold War epoch, that anxious and precarious era when the delicate balance of world power was kept in place largely by means of shadow organizations and secret agencies whose frequently dirty doings were largely unknown to the public. Indeed, while much of the free world was cheering the increasingly ludicrous adventures of the super suave James Bond, very few people had even an inkling that many of Bond's campy gadgets, such as cuff-link communicators and bootheel automatic weapons, were already standard issue to real agents who were risking their very real lives to maintain global order. Nor did they suspect that such cold-blooded villains as Mr. Goldfinger and Dr. No were actually about as scary as Elmer Fudd when compared to some of the diabolical masterminds who were really plotting world domination in a variety of gruesome and nefarious ways. These were villains whose schemes transcended the political or the ideological: some of them bordered on the genuinely psychotic.
These were the sorts of nemeses that the public never heard about, and John Steed was one of the men assigned to thwart them at all costs. He was for many years a key man in the now-defunct organization known simply as The Ministry, the elite corps consisting in the cream of MI5, MI6, and NDO specializing in covert operations in the name of national security. Created in 1946 as an adjunct to MI5, The Ministry's origin remains a subject of some debate to this day. Many of its first members are now deceased, and those who survive have been disinclined to discuss it in any real detail. According to now declassified papers of the era, The Ministry was intended to fill the gaps between what the MI5 could not officially handle and NDO could not legitimately investigate. Unfortunately, due the deliberate ambiguity of its mission and the looseness of its structure, The Ministry gradually disintegrated into a barely coherent smattering of individual agents who had very few constrictions placed on their methods of operation. There were widespread rumors of agents who were capitalizing on their privileged status by running smuggling and blackmail rings. The more principled Ministry men, who took their commitment seriously and who were increasingly embarrassed by the antics of those few of their colleagues who had run criminally amok, insisted on an overhaul.
The Ministry was re-structured in 1962 by Thomas Campion, a former RAF group captain who had been decorated for conspicuous bravery during the War (Campion lost the use of his legs in an injury sustained during an Italian campaign)
and a man with a reputation for both genius and eccentricity. It was Thomas Campion who eventually succeeded in transforming The Ministry from a raggle taggle gang of agents scattered haphazardly about the globe into a tightly run and highly disciplined group of top professionals. John Steed was handpicked by Campion to be one of the key operatives in the new organization and remained his invaluable lieutenant for two decades. Now that many of the papers have been declassified, it is clear from the record that the success of The Ministry was in large part due to the combined efforts of these two very different but equally remarkable men.
John Steed continued to work diligently for the Ministry until its dissolution in 1987, when he transferred to the diplomatic corps and began his second career at an age when most men are commencing their retirement. He was assigned to the Allied Liaison Committee to pursue diplomatic relations with the former states of the Soviet Union and in 1992 became a senior consultant for the British Ambassador to the United Nations. In these capacities Steed was one of the men charged with the task of restructuring allied relations in the wake of perestroika, and his efforts brought him not only international respect but were also rewarded by a knighthood in 1994. Although he officially retired in 1995, he still remains active as a member of the International Peace Coalition and occasionally lectures on wine at the London Culinary Academy. Although he regards himself as British to the core, he still lives part of the year in New York, and has maintained his residence at the Cortland for the last ten years.
I was there this lovely autumn evening ostensibly to talk to him about the events of September 11, but I had a darker purpose in mind as well. The late Thomas Campion's memoirs, recently published as part of the wave of revisionist examinations of the Cold War Era, had just become an international cause celebre, and I naturally intended to pounce upon Sir John for some provocative quotes on the subject. Campion's posthumous memoirs defy credibility in their outrageous (and thus far uncollaborated) claims that The Ministry saved the world from such unthinkable horrors as plastic politicians and mechanical assassins. The book includes stories about a shrinking machine that can reduce human beings to the size of Beanie babies and another machine that can transfer psyches from one body to another. These might be dismissed as the ravings of a lunatic were it not for the source: Thomas Campion demonstrably had one of the sharpest minds of his age and was known to have a genius for organization. How could such a fine intellect disintegrate into such madness?
The controversy surrounding the book is widespread. One common theory insists that the memoirs are simply a clever forgery; another hypothesis has it that the memoirs represent one final and elaborate practical joke perpetrated by a man notorious for his quirky sense of humor. Thomas Campion was, after all, by all accounts a most extraordinary man. A lifelong bachelor who suffered from chronic insomnia, he was a man of many curious interests, including a passion for games and puzzles and a fondness for ciphers and codes. It has been said that he had very few friends, and no really close ones. During the last years of his life, after the Ministry was dissolved, he became a virtual recluse who kept changing his address and telephone number in order to avoid social contact. He also worked on his memoirs, a very strange document filled with tales of diabolical masterminds, mad scientists, and their bizarre schemes for world domination. One of the major figures in these odd adventures is a certain intrepid and charming agent who is never directly named but whom many who claim to be in the know have identified as John Steed. If Campion is to be believed (and it is not at all clear that he should be), Steed, or at any rate someone astonishingly similar to him, was instrumental in saving the world over and over and over again.
Since the brouhaha stirred by the publication of the book, Sir John has not said a single word about it in public. Those rude enough to ask his opinion of it have been invariably met with a chillingly cordial "I'm sorry, I haven't read it." I was determined to pin him down once and for all. Were any of the stories in the book remotely true? Or is it simply a sad record of a great and agile mind descending into delusional psychosis partly as a result of losing his life's work and partly under the pressure of constant isolation from society? I wanted answers, and I had the distinct feeling that they were answers that Sir John Steed alone could give me.
"Sir John is on the telephone to London," the balding man with the red face (who turned out not to be Sir John Steed, but rather his butler) informed me. "May I offer you some refreshment?"
After just enough demur to appear seemly, I accepted his offer of a glass of white wine. And I watched him very carefully as he went to fetch it, wondering if he too was armed.
My glass of wine was brought in not by the man who had originally greeted me, but rather by someone who introduced himself as Harcourt, an enormous man well over six feet and with a powerful build that seemed to strain against his clothing. Harcourt, a former Marine and onetime bouncer at Studio 54, has worked for Sir John for seven years as a combination bodyguard, guy Friday, and general front man. His unblinking eyes briskly grazed over my person in a kind of quick visual frisk, and I realized that his presence there was part of his job of assuring Sir John's continued good health. The wine was an excellent bone-dry white that was a perfect complement to the brie I was also offered.
Sir John's living room, where I was invited to sit, is forty feet long and twenty feet wide, and the ceiling is about two stories above the floor. The fireplace was alive with the happy crackle of butterwood, and through the windows in the gathering dusk, one could perceive the twinkle of the brighter lights of Central Park. This apartment has been one of Sir John's homes ---he also keeps a flat in London and a house in Devonshire, where he spends most of his time when he is not traveling--- since he joined the diplomatic corps in 1987, at an age when most men are contemplating retirement, to help in the reorganization of the British embassies in the new age of perestroika. As senior consultant to the UK's ambassador to the United Nations, he was one of the men responsible for the restructuring of international relations among the former Allied nations. Although he officially retired in 1992, he still spends part of the year in New York, primarily because he and his wife, Dame Emma Knight, enjoy the autumns. Perhaps not quite co-incidentally, New York City is also the headquarters of the U.S. division of Knight Enterprises, the corporation founded by Dame Emma's father and in which she still maintains a controlling interest. These days the American market constitutes the majority of KI's revenues, and one of Sir John's standing jokes is that his wife likes to be near her money.
The couple were secretly married in 1972 (Sir John was not yet Sir John and was still an active field agent at the time) in a quiet ceremony in Paris with John Campion and the groom's Aunt Lydia in attendance as witnesses. Their union was subsequently kept under tight wraps for security reasons until Steed moved into administration in 1982. The fact that they were able to keep their marriage a secret for so long is a testament to their resourcefulness and discipline. When they finally decided to reveal the truth, even their closest friends were said to have been astonished, although they should not have been: it was precisely this sort of tight-lipped secrecy and carefully engineered subterfuge that made John Steed a legendary agent in his time. Some even said, after the fact, that it was typical of Steed to have kept the marriage quiet, if only for the sake of his own amusement.
Dame Emma, who was honored for services to industry by Her Majesty in 1996, has an impeccable reputation as a canny business woman, a shrewd investor, and a tough competitor in her own right. Knight Industries was one of the first British companies to foresee the computer age, and Emma Knight began investing in the research that eventually produced a technological revolution long before anyone else in her comparable position took it seriously. She insisted in adding an American division specifically for the purposes of aligning herself and her company with the new market. These kinds of maverick decisions, considered imprudent by many of her colleagues at the time, assured Knight Industries' financial solvency for decades to come.
Acclaimed a great beauty in her youth, Dame Emma is still an attractive and imposing woman. As part of my research, I had seen close to a hundred photographs of her spanning the course of three decades, and while it was clear that she had aged both well and gracefully, none of the photos had adequately prepared me for her actual person, which I first sensed even before I saw her. Harcourt was answering my questions about the apartment (they have three in staff, not counting himself: a cook, a maid, and the butler who had greeted me). In response to my query about his own place in the household, Harcourt described himself, with a perfectly straight face, as the family's driver. It was just at this point that I became aware of another presence in the room, and I instinctively looked up in a not wholly voluntary ---indeed, almost a reflex--- action and was startled to find myself face to face with the lady of the house.
Dame Emma's official biography states her height as 5'9'' but she appears in person to be at least six feet tall. When I met her that evening, her dark brown hair was cut quite short, with feathery bangs that seemed strategically placed to camouflage a double scar just under her right eyebrow that my research had revealed was the result of an automobile accident in her early twenties when she and her first husband, the late aeronautic engineer Peter Peel, were joyriding in a Triumph TR-3 on a London thoroughfare at three o'clock in the morning at 120 miles an hour. Peter Peel was known as a man who liked to take chances, and it has been suggested that his daredevil insouciance was a major contributor to his death in 1970 at the age of thirty-six when a plane he had designed himself crashed into the side of a mountain while he was test flying it against the advice of the manufacturer. Peter Peel had already made headlines as a test pilot in 1965, when he was reported lost and was presumed dead until he miraculously emerged two years later out of a South American jungle, where he had survived against even the most optimistic odds. Although he promised his wife to stay out of airplanes, the lure of danger was eventually irresistible to him, and this time, in 1970, after his charred and mangled corpse was identified by dental charts, the obituaries were real. His widow, who reverted to her family surname of Knight (which she maintained even after her marriage to John Steed, first as part of the ruse to keep their marriage secret and later because it was the name with which she had made her reputation as an international businesswoman) dealt with her grief privately for a year, during which she immersed herself in the workings of Knight Enterprises and was rarely seen in public.
"I must apologize for my husband," Dame Emma said, in a very pleasant contralto voice. Sir John, it turned out, was on the telephone to Lambeth Palace conversing with the newly appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, who had been at Cambridge with one of Sir John's nephews. Sir John Steed and his family seem generally to revolve in those almost celestial social circles in which everyone, from the Prince of Wales right on down through the House of Peers and beyond, sooner or later is connected to everyone else by means of a richly complex and highly stratified network of public schools, college staircases, men's clubs, family seats, and genealogical tendrils. This is the world into which John Steed was born and one in which in he was, by many accounts (including his own), not wholly comfortable. There is no small irony in the fact that he has, in his golden years, evidently returned to it.
At the age of eighty, Sir John Steed looks at least a decade younger, standing a little over six feet tall and sporting a great shock of thick white hair, an insubordinate forelock of which occasionally fell into his right eye during our visit (just before she left the room to attend to a telephone summons from their daughter, the National Public Radio journalist Elizabeth Steed Montford, Dame Emma briefly paused to push Sir John's wandering forelock back away from his eyes) and speaking at a very fast clip, as though scrambling to keep pace with his own brisk and active mind. He is a very animated talker, with a rich clear diction and a veritable encyclopedia of elastic facial expressions. His reputation as a raconteur and a spellbinder is clearly well deserved, and it is hardly surprising that his career as a diplomat was so wildly successful: this is a man who could charm the socks off a rooster.
"We were in Australia," he began, in answer to my question about his whereabouts on September 11, "visiting with an old friend when the news came through on the radio. After we realized what was happening, we knew we had to get here straightaway. The White House was kind enough to provide us with a military escort to the States. It took us longer to get to New York from Washington than it had taken us to get from Sydney to New York. Security was tight as a drum and when we got here it was like walking into a war zone. Actually, I remember that day, and really that whole week afterward, as an endless series of emergency meetings and filtering through a lot of intelligence reports, not all of it wholly reliable. In those first few days, there was a lot of rumor and misinformation going about, and I think even some of us hardboiled old eggs from the diplomatic corps were afraid that this was the beginning of the end."
A just barely discernible glaze of incipient tears was visible in Sir John's eyes as he talked about that week, and I began to sense that all the years of government service, which of necessity requires a certain degree of detachment and even outright cynicism, had not hardened his heart. "Our daughter Beth was one of the people covering the story for NPR," he went on, "and she's about as tough as they come, but there came a point when the three of us were grabbing a quick dinner here at something like, I don't know, one or two in the morning, and suddenly we all just started weeping. It was just a terrible terrible thing, one of those events that makes you question your whole vocation as a diplomat and a peacemaker and all that. I'd spent the last decade or so of my life trying to get nations to come sit at the table and talk to each other like ladies and gentlemen, and then something like this happens to remind you that we have a long long way to go, not just as nations, but as human beings."
When I suggested to Sir John that he himself was someone who had come a long way as a human being, he laughed a most charming laugh. "Oh, no," he said. "I'm just an old war horse who's having to learn how to settle down and graze in a quiet pasture. I started out my career as a warrior, after all, during the Second World War, and then became a different kind of warrior during the Cold War, and gradually, over the years, I've come to see the absolute futility of war of any kind. Until you get people to put down their weapons and sit at the table together, you're not going to get anywhere. It took me a long time to see that, and now that I have, I wish I could start all over again. Not that I resent growing old. The second half of my life has been so much more rewarding than the first."
This was an interesting statement for a man in his position to make so boldly and so unequivocally. John Steed had been born to wealth and privilege into a family from the landed gentry with close familial ties to aristocracy. His father, the Honourable Richard Wickham Steed, was a barrister noted as much for his eccentric political opinions as for his legal expertise, who was retained as personal counsel by His Majesty Edward VIII and helped to engineer the abdication. John's elder brother Arthur followed his father in pursuit of the study of law while young John, in the grand tradition of younger sons, found himself floundering. By the age of sixteen, John held the dubious distinction of having been expelled from both Eton and Harrow for chronic insubordination and a penchant for elaborate practical jokes (he once spiked the punch at Visitors' Day, resulting in a melee that remains local legend to this very day) and, by his own admission, might have ended up a profligate idler had it not been for the fact that the boy's natural enthusiasm, personal charm, and quick mind caught the attention of one of the older boys at Eton, who convinced his father, then an administrator at Sandhurst, that young Steed was military officer material. Steed got into Sandhurst, that most exclusive and prestigious of military colleges, largely on the personal recommendation of Sir Charles Campion, whose son Thomas had great faith in Steed's as yet undiscovered genius.
It was at Sandhurst, under the forever unmentioned burden of his obligation to the Campions (the well-heeled British do not remind one another of personal favors) and the genuine desire to do his family proud, that young John Steed began to shine. The discipline he had rejected at Eton and Harrow seemed absurd and insignificant compared to the very real and very arduous physical and mental challenges at Sandhurst. He had been at best a mediocre student at Eton (although he had excelled at sports and was on the first teams for cricket, rugby, and polo), where he had been more interested in amateur theatricals than in his studies, and a constant thorn in the side of the administration. At Sandhurst, under the tutelage of some of the finest military minds of the age, Steed learned the virtues of both strategy and subterfuge. It was at Sandhurst that Steed became a crack shot and began to make his reputation as a quick study and an intrepid fellow. Once on a dare he ran the obstacle course while under the influence of a magnum of champagne and not only got through it but received the highest mark in the squadron. His commanding officers, while not universally approving of some of his more eccentric methods, were impressed by his hair-trigger reflexes and his talent for what can perhaps most politely be termed sneakiness. It was well known that young Steed was the ringleader of a group of cadets who would regularly steal away from the grounds and partake of various pleasures of the flesh at a series of houses of ill repute, but none of them were ever actually caught. Although this might have been grounds for suspension elsewhere, it was precisely this sort of behavior that made the administration take notice of him as a great potential asset in War time, and he was earmarked early on as a candidate for Military Intelligence.
After completing his training at Sandhurst, Steed was commissioned to Camp Hamelin (which Sir John has since described as a "launching pad" for secret agents) under the command of his old school chum Thomas Campion, who had already distinguished himself as a crackerjack codebreaker and a colorful figure whose eccentricities were regarded as alternately endearing and unbearable. Noted for his dandyish panache and snappish sarcasm, Group Captain Campion's fussy concern over the men in his charge (as well as widespread rumors of his homosexual leanings) earned him the nickname "Mother" among his cheeky but affectionate underlings. Far from being offended by his wartime sobriquet, Campion was greatly amused by it and would later adopt it as his Ministry code name. The small band of a dozen men who were selected to work with Campion on special assignments would later become the core of the Ministry and included, aside from John Steed, some of the Crown's top secret agents, all of whom are now deceased. Some of them were sacrificed in service to the Crown, while others outlived their service long enough to disappear into the private sector and eventually die of natural causes. The last known survivor of the original group was Campion himself, whose posthumously published memoirs became the focus of much gossip, speculation, and incredulity last year.
Which leaves Sir John Steed as the sole living witness to the early days of the Ministry's formation and development. And, up until this autumn evening, with the fireplace alive with crackling butterwood and the distant lights of Central Park blinking beyond the window, he had declined all comment.
In contrast to so many distinguished men of his comparable age and accomplishments, Sir John seems remarkably disinclined to discuss the past and during our visit was clearly far more concerned about the present and the future. I soon understood what so many people have said of him: he strikes one as a charming, articulate, sincere, and altogether admirable man, but the surface is so highly polished that one feels that it is too slick to take hold of. Over the years, Sir John has apparently mastered the complex and subtle art of expressing himself in a way that seems absolutely spontaneous but is actually the result of much preparation and private rehearsal. Like a good actor who makes every performance in a very long run seem somehow new and fresh, Sir John delivers his speeches with a kind of studied casualness and seemingly effortless elegance, but one is nevertheless aware at one level that it has all been prepared, rehearsed, and recited many times before. Possibly decades of necessary deceit and problematic subterfuge have rendered him unusually cautious about revealing whatever lies behind the mask. Obviously he is very good at it; no one could have been a successful secret agent and valuable diplomat without developing a great degree of discretion. At one point during our talk, I was reminded of a sleight of hand artist who must become a master of misdirection in order to work his magic; and indeed my research had revealed that Sir John had in his youth been renowned for his ability to dazzle his confederates with amazing little feats of prestidigitation, making playing cards dance at his fingertips and producing the odd coin from thin air or plucking pairs of dice from behind the respective ears of a delighted young lady acquaintance.
The magician's tricks are essentially tricks of seduction, and Sir John's reputation as a ladies' man stretches back to his Sandhurst days, when his casual elegance and personal charm captured the fancies of reportedly innumerable female hearts. Sir Daniel Wooler, one of Sir John's oldest friends and one of the few not connected to government service (the Wooler family fortune resides in the manufacture of disposable paper products) told me that Sir John always had a genius for attracting extraordinarily desirable women. "We would go to parties in places like Chelsea or Mayfair," Sir Daniel recalls, "and Steed always managed to connect with the prettiest girl in the room. It was just understood." Always the gentleman, Sir John never discussed his various and plentiful conquests, although some of the ladies themselves have been less than timid about sharing some of their more colorful reminiscences. One much married and frequently widowed former paramour who spoke to me on the condition of anonymity bluntly recalled that Sir John was "the best lover I ever had. It wasn't just the technique, though God knows he had that, it was more the attention he paid to one. When I was with him, Steed always made me feel that I was the most interesting, desirable, and beautiful woman in the world. And he was very focused, whether it was in the bedroom or wherever. He enjoyed giving and sharing pleasure." An equally glowing accolade of another sort was offered by the anthropologist Dr. Cathy Gale, an old friend and onetime partner (in the professional sense) who has known Sir John for forty years. "Steed is really one of the few men I've ever known who actually likes women," she told me during an interview in her office at Cambridge. "I mean, aside from liking them in bed, which he obviously does, he also likes them as people. He once told me that he liked everything about women: he liked the way they looked and the way they smelled and the way their minds worked. When I first met him, he had that awful reputation, you know, and I let him know straightaway that I was having none of it. Most men would have been put off by this, what with the whole monumental male ego thing and so on. But Steed was very accepting, very considerate, he knew that No meant No and we went on to become great friends. Of course, he always continued to flirt outrageously with me, and once or twice I did in fact succumb to his charms, as my God, what woman wouldn't? But the really lovely thing was that afterwards we could still be friends, and that's very rare, you know." In this same conversation, Dr. Gale also offered an interesting opinion. "I'm glad he found Emma," she said. "I knew Emma at Cambridge, and when I heard that she and Steed were together, one of my first thoughts was that he'd met his match. In more ways than one."
I asked Sir John about his reputation as a womanizer, and he smiled a most enchanting smile.
"I've known so many truly extraordinary women," he began. "I was delighted to have had their company and consider myself very fortunate indeed that some of them are still my friends."
I could not resist suggesting Dr. Cathy Gale as one of these friends.
"Ah, Cathy," Sir John sighed, momentarily seeming to drift into a reverie of days gone by. I took note of it because it was the first time in our interview that the mask seemed to begin to slip. My journalistic instincts twitched in giddy anticipation of eliciting nostalgic anecdotes which, however innocuous, might lull my subject into dropping his guard sufficiently to blunder into the imprudence of revealing more than he intended. It is one of the oldest tricks in the handbook, Celebrity Journalism 1-A, and yet, in the presence of this exquisite souvenir of the Cold War I could not quite bring myself to violate a hard won and well earned privacy.
I then realized that throughout our interview, Sir John had continued to keep my wine glass almost constantly full while he leaned back and took occasional sips of what looked suspiciously like tomato juice.
While watching Sir John sip somewhat reflectively at his tomato juice and listening to him answer my queries with studied charm, I also recalled that in his youth he had been renowned for his capacity for alcoholic intake. It has been said that John Steed could consume staggering quantities of vintage wine and still remain sufficiently acute to leap into action at a moment's notice. It has also been said that age and occasional infirmity have rendered him somewhat less hardy with the years, but his person still radiates an abundance of physical energy. Indeed, while sitting in his presence, I was aware of a palpable glow of what can only be called erotic vitality: by that I mean that I was aware of him as a highly sexual and almost overwhelmingly masculine man, filled with an abundance of the sort of drive and assuredness that one still associates with Classic Maleness. And yet, paradoxically, there was very little trace of that macho swagger or smug braggadocio that so many spy novels have taught us to expect from sexy spies. Instead, there was a kind of quiet self-confidence and innate sense of security that mature men who know they are attractive sometimes develop in their golden years when there is no longer anything to prove. Sir John's masculinity is now more in his authoritative take-charge manner and his natural role as a leader.
Masculine energy is difficult to define. Tara King Lofton, who had a brief career as a Ministry agent before she abandoned the secret service and forged a new life as a wildly successful author of romance novels, admitted to me that she had based Burt Stanton, the hero of her blockbuster thriller "Saving the World in Style," which was made into a disappointing and lackluster film starring Ralph Fiennes, largely on her memories of John Steed, with whom she claims to have had a torrid affair thirty years ago (a claim that Sir John has declined to comment upon). "Steed was all man," she told me in an interview she granted me in her luxuriously appointed offices in London. "It wasn't just the sex. He was Man with a capital M, with all the authority and expertise that implies. Of course I had a terrible crush on him when we worked together, and he was attracted to me as well. I was fresh out of spy school and there he was, so much more knowledgeable and so much in control." Ms. Lofton, known for her provocative candor, was not at all shy about sharing some of their wilder adventures. "Let's put it this way," she told me. "When we weren't hunting down diabolical masterminds, we were in bed together. And not necessarily always in bed, mind you. We did it standing, sitting, in the car, under the car, on the floor, on the staircase, against the wall, wherever the fancy struck us. He was really incredible. He needed very little coaxing, if you know what I mean, he was just ready all the time." This is perhaps one definition of masculine energy. It rather succinctly encapsulates at least one part of Sir John's enormous appeal.
But masculine energy as such may mean different things to different people. D. B. Purdey, who at this writing is standing for her third term as a member of Parliament on an Independent platform that combines traditional Labour concerns (e.g. provisions for government-sponsored day care service for working mothers) with conventionally Conservative interests (e.g. the preservation of examples of great classic architecture by restoring ancient buildings that have fallen into disrepair) managed to give me an hour in between committee meetings in order to praise Sir John Steed. "He was always a man of great authority who trusted his own judgment and his own instincts. He never had to go running to anyone for clearance and he never bothered to wend his way through the labyrinth of bureaucratic red tape. He was and is a good leader because he trusts himself." I made particular note of this. "And when you talk to Emma," Ms. Purdey added, her eyes dancing with felicitous mischief, "you tell her that any time she's tired of him, she can just bundle him up and send him over here." I should add that Ms. Purdey and Ms. Knight are known to be great friends.
While recalling these comments as I sat contemplating Sir John Steed at eighty, I flipped my notebook to these quotations and decided to ask him about their sources.
"Let's just do a little exercise here," I tentatively began. "I'll say some names, and you just say whatever you like."
"Oh, I adore games," Sir John replied.
"Okey dokey. Cathy Gale."
He sipped for several silent moments at his tomato juice. "Brilliant mind. Magnificent body. Great moral discipline. And a lovely woman, very emotional in many ways. I enjoyed teaching her how to play."
"How do you mean?"
"Oh," Sir John fairly burbled, "just that she was in many ways a very serious woman. Down to earth, diligent, took great pride in a job well done. But she did have a fun side, and I like to think that I brought that out in her a bit."
I asked if he could give me an example.
"Well," he conceded, "she enjoyed a good pillow fight."
I ventured another name. "Tara King."
A smile spread across his face, like a flower opening to the sun. "Very lively girl."
Sir John did not respond immediately. When he did, he said, very simply, "I have always had the greatest respect for Sir Thomas."
"Have you read his book?"
"I've heard about it."
"And how do you feel about what you've heard?"
Sir John looked into his tomato juice.
Before Sir John could reply, a tall young woman with soft gray eyes and chestnut hair entered the room. "Is this off the record?" she asked, then leaned down to kiss Sir John's forehead. "I thought you were going to rest today. Where were you when I rang this morning?"
"Your mother wanted to go riding in the Park."
The woman, whom I now recognized as Elizabeth Steed Montford, rolled her eyes. "Romantics. Honestly," she said, turning to smile at me, "they get sappier as they age."
Sir John introduced me to his daughter and I handed her my card, at which she barely glanced. "Yes, my mother told me you were here. Have you been having a nice chat?'
I told her that I had been enjoying my visit immensely and was just finishing up. "I was hoping to get a quote from your father about Thomas Campion's memoirs."
"He hasn't read them," Ms. Montford said.
"Have you?" I asked her, returning her cool smile as blithely as I could.
"No comment. Is this off the record?"
"If you like."
"No comment anyway." She turned back to her father. "Eric is boozing with a client at Sparky's, but he'll meet us at The Blue Rose at 7:45. Mother says we'd best get a move on."
Sir John, ever the consummate host, suggested that I accompany them to dinner; but before I could formulate a gracious acceptance, Ms. Montford addressed me with an apologetic little half-smile. "I'm sorry," she said. "I'd ask you to join us, but ther reservation is for four, and they're rather strict about that sort of thing."
"Oh, surely, they'd stretch a point in our case..." Sir John began.
"They might for you, but the reservation's in Eric's name. I'm sorry," she said to me again. "I don't mean to be rude, but it simply isn't convenient."
"I understand. If I could just ask one or two more brief questions..."
"No, I'm sorry. My father is very tired, and I'm sure you'll excuse him."
I paused and simply stood looking at her, noticing how much she resembled each of her parents. At that moment, she had her father's steel gray eyes and her mother's stubborn mouth: this was clearly a woman who meant business.
She was not, however, out rightly rude and, as a fellow journalist, even extended me the professional courtesy of offering to make herself available to me for any additional questions I might want to address to her. She gave me her card and asked me to ring her at any time I liked. I understood that my time with Sir John had come to an end.
Before I left, though, I did ask Sir John if there was anything he particularly wanted to say now for the record. He peered for a silent moment or two into his tomato juice. "I've been a very fortunate man," he began. "I've cheated death more times than I can count, and I've been blessed with a wonderful wife and two fine children. As for the rest..." He spread his hands and sighed. "I shall leave it to history to judge whether it was all for good or ill. It's been a long life of war and violence and second guessing, and now all I want is a little peace. We could all use a bit of that."
And so I never did find out whether Thomas Campion's memoirs were fact, forgery, fantasy, or fiction. It occurred to me as we said our goodbyes that, ultimately, it really did not matter if all the wild stories about cybernauts and shrinking machines and psyche swapping were true or false. What mattered more was the deep humanity and generous spirit of this extraordinary man who had dedicated his life to the service of both his nation and the world. Here he was, at the age of eighty, still contributing to the causes he believed in, only now he had evolved from a warrior to a peacemaker.
During the course of our talk, Sir John had told me about his experience in Berlin during that week that the Wall came down. He had stood amid a crush of people and felt an overwhelming sense of what he described as great exhilaration. Tue to form, he had compared it to the first sip of a two hundred year old cognac or the first kiss from a beautiful woman: "One was giddy with the anticipation of the joys to come," an interesting way to describe the prospect of peace.
As I left his apartment and wondered how I was going to tell my editor that I had failed my assignment and that the story would have to be killed, I once again noted the chess piece that served as the door knocker to his flat. It had previously struck me that the knight was a clever way of combining Sir John's and Dame Emma's surnames, steed and knight, but now as I was leaving another thought occurred to me: the chess knight is an elegant war horse, now retired from the field of battle and shining beautifully in a quiet hallway filled with flowers.
© Mint Julep 2003
No aspect of this story may be used elsewhere without the expressed prior written consent of the author. These stories may not be altered in any way or sold; all copyright information must appear with this work at all times. Please read disclaimers and warnings on top of each story. Feel free to send constructive comments to the author.. :o)
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