Celebrity chef Julia Child is no Bond girl, but she makes a cameo appearance at the new International Spy Museum.
The $40 million museum, which opens today, offers up some serious history about the art of espionage as well as a glimpse of the frothier side of spying as portrayed in pop culture.
Child's story seems to bridge both categories. Visitors to a special exhibit of "celebrity spies" learn that the chef processed classified documents for the OSS (the forerunner to the CIA) during World War II. Marlene Dietrich, who recorded American propaganda songs broadcast to German soldiers, is also included, as is singer Josephine Baker, who worked for the French Resistance.
Former CIA Director Stansfield Turner, an adviser to the Washington museum, says real spies may lead exciting lives, but they rarely resemble James Bond's adventures.
"I never found myself holed up in a Swiss chalet with a blonde!" he insisted.
But artifacts at the museum suggest that CIA and KGB inventors certainly had as much imagination as Bond's famous gadget-master "Q."
A 1956 lipstick pistol, nicknamed "The Kiss of Death," was issued to KGB operatives during the Cold War. The 4.5 mm, single-shot weapon, encased in a lipstick tube, was first detected at a Berlin border crossing.
There's also a coat with a buttonhole camera, another KGB invention, and a shoe with radio transmitter, microphone and batteries embedded in the heel. The idea was for a maid or valet to sneak these enhanced shoes into the target's closet then activate the heel's transmitter before the target left home for the day, allowing agents nearby to monitor all conversations.
Understanding How Spies Work
Executive Director E. Peter Earnest says the museum, six years in the making, has a mission that's even more relevant in a post-Sept. 11 world.
"People can come to the museum and see that many of the tools used by spies throughout history are the same as those now being used by terrorists," said Earnest. "They're moving about the world under false cover, using aliases, secret ways of communicating and clandestine currencies."
One area of the museum explores the various motivations that lead people into espionage, how they are recruited and trained and how they operate.
The museum also manages to strike a smart balance when it comes to presenting history, avoiding portrayals of U.S. spies as the good guys and Soviet-bloc agents as the bad guys. At least one former KGB operative was actively involved in the museum's creation.
"We've tried to be objective and fair. This is not a Cold War museum, nor is it a celebration of espionage," said Earnest, a 36-year veteran of the CIA. " We're not trying to glorify espionage. We let visitors draw their own conclusions about the value or damage these spies did and they can decide for themselves whether it's worth it."
Visitors can also spend time at the museum's "Operation Center," staffed by espionage specialists and retired spies who will be tracking current events related to the world of espionage.
Fittingly, one of the buildings that now houses the International Spy Museum once served as headquarters for the U.S. Communist Party.