To the reader: My Friend the Spy is a Great Whatsit serial. It is a true story (save for the author’s pseudonym), to be told in weekly installations over the coming months. Read Part I here.
That Saturday night, with no other plans in my datebook, I decided to go to Berg’s party – even though a glance at my city map revealed that his apartment building, at 38 Budapeshtskaya Street, was on other side of town. I’d have to take the subway and then a bus, then a long walk, to get there. As I headed toward the metro, I thought to myself, I hope this is worth it.
An hour later, I arrived at Berg’s building. I took the elevator up to the ninth floor, and immediately heard the sounds of loud conversation coming out of apartment number 52. I rang the buzzer, then gently pushed open the door.
The apartment was crammed with people, and the air was filled with that unique scent that permeates any area where three or more Russians have gathered: a dusky mix of cheap cigarettes, damp wool, vodka, pickled vegetables, and loamy sweat. I’ve never smelled it anywhere but in Russia – but it is the same across the length and breadth of that country, no matter where you are, who you’re with, or what season it is.
I made my way into the apartment, nodding, shuffling, and looking for the man I’d come to meet. Soon enough, I saw him holding court in a far corner of the living room. He was tall, bald, and stork-thin, with impossibly slender hips and the slightly stoop-shouldered look of a man in his seventies. His face was a long oval, creased with wrinkles across his forehead, and his eyes were squinty with age. When he laughed, which was often, he kept his mouth oddly open for a few seconds after the sound had stopped, as if already anticipating the next laugh.
I didn’t introduce myself right away, but instead moved through the crowd toward a long table at one end of the room, where I piled myself a small plate full of Slavic party staples: cheese, bread, pickles, some kind of meat. I also gratefully took a glass of cognac, offered by a man hovering near the table.
With a full, bristly beard and a long, unkempt mane, this other man seemed at first glance to be made almost entirely of hair. He was dressed in a slightly worn crew-neck sweater and gray suit pants, which gave him the look of a professor who’d been marooned on a desert island. The Hairy Professor. As he handed me my glass, my eyes met his, and I held his glance for a fraction of a second – long enough to invite him to speak.
“Hello,” he said in Russian. “Are you a friend of Dr. Berg?”
“Not really,” I told him. “Not yet, anyway. We haven’t been introduced.”
“Ah,” came the response. The man looked at me quizzically, as if expecting clarification.
“We spoke on the phone earlier this week,” I said, “and he invited me to come tonight. I’m looking forward to meeting him.”
“Hmmm.” We each took a sip of our cognacs. Before the man could respond, and perhaps launch us toward a conversation about himself, I spoke again. Might as well find out what I can about Berg before introducing myself to him, I thought.
“I hear he’s got some kind of incredible story,” I ventured, half-expecting a blank stare in response.
“Oh, yes,” the man replied. “Did he tell you anything about himself? No? It’s quite a tale.” He paused, watching me as he sipped his drink again. “Have you heard of the Rosenbergs?” he asked. In Russian, this came out “Rozenbergov.”
Did he mean the Rosenbergs? Stoic Julius and moon-faced Ethel, electrocuted for treason against the U.S. in the 1950s? I’d always had a mild fascination with the Rosenbergs and the Red Scare, even more so after I’d studied Cold War history in college. All spy stories interested me, but theirs was particularly intriguing for its strange twists. They had been betrayed by Ethel’s brother David Greenglass, convicted in the face of massive public protests, and executed – despite the fact that government prosecutors hoped, until the very end, that Julius would break down and confess after seeing his wife threatened with the electric chair. The government’s bluff hadn’t worked, and the Rosenbergs’ two young sons, Michael and Robert, had been left orphans when their parents were executed in 1953.
“Dr. Berg was good friends with the Rosenbergs,” the man went on, when I didn’t immediately respond. “He knew them well.”
“Really,” I said, taking another swallow from my rapidly emptying glass. “I’ll have to ask him about that.” With that, I decided I didn’t want to hear this story secondhand. I quickly excused myself and began squeezing through the crowd to introduce myself to Dr. I.V. Berg.
He saw me coming, and his face lit up. “Well, hello!” he fairly bellowed in his Brooklyn accent, reaching out his ancient hands to grip me on the shoulders. “You must be Leeza! I’m so glad you came!” It had been a long time since anyone was so happy to see me – much less someone I’d never met before.
“Just look at you!” he shrieked. “Gosh, you’re very pretty! We’re really going to have to get to know each other!”
I smiled happily in spite of myself. This was quite a reception – and although the old man was clearly practiced in the art of senseless flattery, he delivered it with such vigor and energy, it was hard not to get caught up in the excitement. “So nice to meet you, Dr. Berg,” I parried, with a flirtatious smile. “And I’m glad you find my looks more to your liking than my writing.”
“Oh, don’t even think about that,” Berg replied with a pucker, waving his hand dismissively. “Listen, it’s a good thing I wrote that letter – otherwise we never would have met! Can you imagine what a tragedy that would have been?” He laughed loudly, holding his mouth open in a goofy grin for that few extra seconds.
I wanted to know about the Rosenbergs, of course, but I didn’t want to specifically ask him; I was interested to see whether he would be coy about it. “So, what’s this incredible story of yours that’s going to make me want to write your biography?” I asked. “I’m counting on something truly amazing.”
“Ohhh,” he said, “you get right to business, don’t you? Well, it’s a great story, as I told you.” He leaned in closer. “Do you know who the Rosenbergs were?” Then, just as abruptly, he stood straight again, flapping his free hand. “Ah,” he barked, “you probably have no idea.” He shook his head, saddened that the younger generation, embodied by me, was so woefully unaware of history. I laughed, feeling insulted but not irritated, as seemed to be becoming my habit with him.
“Of course I know who the Rosenbergs were,” I told him.
“You do?” He broke into a delighted grin. “They were my best friends. Well, not my best friends. But we were good friends. Julius and I went to college together in New York.” Like the Hairy Professor, he seemed to watch me for a moment, to gauge my response. I expected him to launch into the details of the story, but instead, he shrugged his shoulders and said, “I know, I know, you can’t believe that a handsome young guy like me could possibly be that old. What can I say? I can hardly believe it myself.”
“It is absolutely unfathomable,” I said, shaking my head in mock wonder.
“Anyway,” he went on, “I’m lucky I didn’t end up like the Rosenbergs. Really. I mean, that very easily could have happened to me.”
“So, why didn’t it?” I asked, now truly intrigued.
Continued next week.