in Recent Public Literature
The Master of By
Antonio Mendez. New York
Secret Life in the CIA
Company, 1999. 351
Magicians love gimmicks. In fact, I think it is this admiration for contraptionsfor tricky pieces of apparatus that do this when you push thatwhich often attracts people to the field of conjuring. The best magicians come to understand that these gimmicks are mere tools for the presentation. Illusion, not mere gimmicks, must he present in any real magic performance. The way a great magician comes to under stand his or her environment and subtly crafts the illusions is worthy of swdy. The current trend in magic, which a friend of mine calls jazz magic, is a celebration of and ability, ingenuity, improvisation. Decades ago the renosvned sleight-of-hand magician Dai Vernon called this The Trick that Cannot Be Explained, a thrilling, seat-of-your-pants technique, in which gimmicks were damned and the whims of the spectators, the experience of the performer, coincidences, and opportunities were all smoothly blended into a performance. Jazz indeeddangerous jazzbut still just a magic trick. The jazz is
sweeter, than the
operations and deceptions outlined in Antonio Mendezs remarkable book, The Master of Disguise. The master of disguise is, in fact, a master of deception, and Mendezs true stories of his CIA operations are inspiring lessons in illusion. It should not be a surprise that Mendez is something of an amateur magician. More to the point, lie has taken examples from such trickery, and applied the principles like a masterful conjurer. a boy, Mendez had a natural fascination with the clandestine. He was, like many boy, deceitful enough to sell yesterdays papers to passengers on the train. He was also clever enough to carry one copy of that days edition, which made his siack of papers look more authentic and, if caught red-handed, gave him a quick ow. In his later career, this would he called plausible deniahility, but it was based in standard magic. He had studied a 1905 book of do-it-yourself wonders called The Boy Mechanic. He was in good company. That book, just a kids collection of projects and tricks, was the inspiration for many aspiring magicians and provided the blueprints that were later assembled into the special effects of Walt Disneys
CIA, Mendezs early lessons in surveillance were lessons in deception. The of watching closely gives certain opportunities for illusion. Magicians have understood this for many years. That is the basic explanation for generations of phony psychics who have achieved success by fooling the scientists determined to very
Scientists, of course, have been
think in certain ways,
JUn Steinmeyer is the inventor of illusions used by leading magicians and in Broadway shows, and the author of numerous books on magic and historical illusions.
think like the
learning watching opportunities mysterious man trailing him. His later mastery of gimmicksin his case innovative disguisesnever replaced his understanding of the bigger picture Magicians call it presentation An early co-worker explained it to him: A disguise is only a tool, Tony. Befcire you use any tradecraft tool, you have to set up the operation for the deception. In fact, CIA agents who did not want to fuss with such things often greeted disguises with suspicion An important part of Mendezs job was to sell ciate each situation,
magician must understand his audience, Mendezs balancing of cultures and expectations. An eastern culture Just
misshapen person clearly dropwas smeared with messy motor successful illusions could depend on dozens
in the eye. A tin
~vork involved would find
oil. Who would
informationpart want to pick it up?
of these subtle, natural tendencies.
challenge. the spotlight that magicians their hands by watching dread. Sleight-of-hand artists refer to audiences burning Moscows constant surveillance, listening, so closely that maneuvers are impossible. watching. and trailing, left barely any room for intelligence gathering Parts of Men dezs cloak operations in Moscow were the ultimate examples of understanding the audience. KGB officers were in trouble if they lost track of a CIA operative they \ere following. By giving the impression that the tail was successful, by keeping them comfortable, operatives gained precious moments to accomplish their goals. If the KGB was burning Mendez, he had to deceive them into thinking that they as a magicians concedes, you were doing their job perfectlyjust got me, buddy, and then waits for the audience to drop its guard For Mendez, his diligent work seems to have gotten him into trouble, and he may have been slipped a dose of poison in an exclusive Russian club. He caught the action, avoided the trap, and left In Moscow. Mendez found
emphasizes not only the philosophy of his jol) but also the misconceptions. We may long have suspected that the spy business never involved freewheeling James Bonds, with souped up sports cars, martinis with exploding olives, and swizzle sticks with radio transmitters. That is just in the movies. The reality, however, can he even harder to imagine. Spying can involve being bent over a desk in a steamy room in Indochina for IS hours a clay, day after day. fidgeting and adjusting the latest forged papers. In The Master
fascinating aspects of this firsthand account is its hint at the levels of bureaucracy and politics involved in any operation It is often easy to forget that even the most gritty operations are tied to the big picture of the CIA, where person nel changes and political trade \\inds can rattle the case officers in the trenches The Shah of Iran, Alas/er oJDisgzitse reminds us of how the storms on the surfacethe felt under the layers of bureau Watergate, Aldridge Ames, pe;-estrotkacoulcl he object of Pinball cracy. Menclez came to call the political process ~}~inl)all~The there table as long as possible and keep it was to place the ball ~rour idea) on the One of the
ously. youd about
Back at Headquarters, competing for a score you could rack up and technical resources was, in fact, a game. If you took it too seri tighten up and lose. In films, the master spies do not have to worry
that the real world
is quite different.
expert at documents, disguises, and procedures under his acquired the virtuosity to play variations on the themejazz. These the most hairraising aspects of his CIA adventures. With all the gim
place, the documents prepared, and the parts rehearsed, there were times came down to quick thinking. In Teheran, during one carefully planned exfiltration, the disguised man lost his nerve and hid in the mens room as the plane was hoarding. Mendez had a premonition. He boldly maneuvered through the air port, located the man, and gave him the necessary push at the necessary moment. It micks in
when it all
insights and skills were best demonstrated in his most famous achievement, sneaking six Americans out of Iran by disguising them as~j Holly
Even Mendez admitted that it did not make
usually try legends closely experience of the person involved. A cover should be bland, as uninteresting as possible, so the casual observer, or the notso-casual immigration official. doesnt probe too deeply. The situation in Teheran, however, was unusual, and Mendez suggested a surprising deception. The film crew would he flashy and interesting. The ruse would only work because it would be unexpected, and it would be unex
because the rules of the game had been well established.
to meticulous detail. He actually established a Holly production company, with a script, arnvork, job descriptions, and trade ads announcing their upcoming project. This was matched, in detail, by the forged dloc uments and disguises for the six Americans. It was an indulgence that \vas the dream of any magician Mendezs improvisation was performed within carefully rehearsed scenes, meticulous papenvork, hackstopped stories, and exhaustive research. If the six Americans seemed to saunter efforfiessly through the Teheran airport, it was because the stage had been beautifully set and the scene masterfully presented. It wasa demonstration of Kellar the Magicians famous boast that, once he had an audience under his spell, he could march an elephant across the stage
One of my favorite
from the famous British
painter, John Constable. Faced with an elaborate panorama, an example of the 19th century craze for grand-scale, super-realistic paintings, he just shook his head. The That is a good analogy for Antonio art pleases by reminding, not by deceiving. Mendez. In essence, Mendez began with a watercolor kit as a boy. then treated his forgeries as works of art, later graduated to the subtle colors and adjustments of make-up. and finally retired from the CIA to pursue his lifelong interest in painting.
stage magician in the
deception, the art lies right, comforting, and
in subtle reassurance, the
goal might not be painters eye. It is about seeing the entire scene and always adjust the colors, fill in the picture, and comfort the viewer with a deft everything
far from Mendezs
Magicians practice for endless hours has
shuffle the cards and
give the impression
happened. Mendez orchestrated scenes in which KGB agents could tail him and later report, confidently, that nothing had happened. Even if the art istry is concealed, in magic we proudly call the best of our work an art, and ii should be no different for this master of disguise. that