Recently I talked with a friend about his imminent move to pastures rural and the difficulty he faces in editing his personal possessions. What to keep? What to lose? What matters? We’ve all been there, I assured him, recounting the times I’ve culled the things acquired over many years and house moves.
It’s hard to part with one’s past, just as to dwell on it is an analogue for this film. When my late mother-in-law, Erica was alive I tried to persuade her of the therapeutic benefits of letting go, recognising how, whether consciously or not, her desire to cling to the past had trapped her in an unwieldy present, awed by the sheer weight of stuff, the literal trappings surrounding her. After her death in 2004, confronted with rooms full of mostly useless objects, my husband and I realised Erica’s lack of discrimination made it impossible to know what mattered to her most. That we disposed of the majority of her possessions was painful but it taught us the virtues of discernment.
Over the last few weeks I’ve cleared out my shed in preparation for building work that will finally make it watertight. Hidden among wall-to-wall boxes and files one of the most intriguing finds is a set of documents; a trio of CIA citations awarded to Thomas Polgar, a distant relative of Erica’s on her mother, Vera’s side. The file also contains correspondence to me and my husband from Mr. Polgar dated 2005-6 and includes a typewritten document (including Tip-Ex corrections) – an autobiography recalling his formative years in Hungary prior to his emigration to the United States.
Around that time I had considered making a film about Thomas Polgar. By then he was – at least officially – long-retired from the CIA and living in Florida with his wife, Anna. As a cursory Google search reveals, Mr. Polgar is arguably one of the twentieth century’s most notable figures given his early career as an OSS operative during WW2 and later as one of the first CIA officers enlisted when the agency was formed to counter Communism and the Cold War. Among his many postings, Polgar is perhaps best known for his role as the last CIA Station Chief in Saigon at the height of the Vietnam War. What’s less clear, however, are his movements in the UK during WW2. Certainly he was in contact with Erica’s mother who, like him, had fled Hungary in 1938; an episode witnessed by Erica and referred to in the script.
Not long ago, reading the late Christopher Hitchens’ memoir ‘Hitch 22’, his admission that he kept ‘two sets of books’ convinced me that he was most probably MI6. What’s fascinating about Polgar’s account of his life is how history can both reveal or obfuscate. Is he a reliable witness to his own past? My motivation for making a film about him was not to deal with the truth; rather my interest was to show the ways truth can be interpreted, and in Polgar’s case when that truth determines the course of geopolitics.
As a prime keeper of secrets Polgar was a formidable player. Richard Helms, ex-CIA Director and OSS colleague said in 1988 – “If somebody were to assign Tom Polgar to go after me, I would really be worried about it. He gets his man.” What qualities does it require, I wonder, to be a world-class spymaster? Did he share Erica’s dissociative traits, traits that made it possible to perform acts of ruthlessness, even cruelty and be able to live with the consequences?
As events transpired, we did not take up Mr. Polgar’s invitation to visit him in Florida. Work, life and yet another house move got in the way. On 22 March 2014 aged 91, Thomas Polgar died. There are few lives that merit full-page obituaries in The Washington Post and The New York Times but his did. Curiously, according to his wife, Anna, the cause of his death is unknown, adding another layer of intrigue to his story. A part of me still believes there’s a film to be made about Mr. Polgar, not least his part in the Fall of Saigon. One day…
Reflecting on Thomas Polgar’s professional need for secrecy and discretion, I think of Erica’s story and how, as with so many women of a certain age, her inability to make her presence felt was expressed (or not) by a cloak of concealment. Erica’s ‘otherness’, evident from the earliest age, was due in part to decades of chronic depression and – less tangibly – in her attempt to become English, assimilating into the provincial middle-class life that disapproves of the conspicuous or contentious. In her papers, Erica writes of ‘social death’, by which she meant not only how one is judged in terms of dress, speech and manners but also the fear of exclusion and isolation – by one’s family, peers or, more likely, self-imposed.
It is said of Thomas Polgar that he was “a legend… the last guy you would think was in the spy business.” Had she not embarked on a short-lived career in science, I believe Erica might have made a good spy. Certainly my research into her Oxbridge studies and subsequent employment in the 1950s shows she assumed several clandestine roles that brought her into contact with men – always men – of flawed character and dubious reputation working in the field of physiological and biological research in the cause of national security. It’s at this juncture “Voyageuse” begins to get interesting.
The above image is from Thomas Polgar’s passport. Note the German stamp.