Maria Aline Griffith’s life is the stuff of movies. She was a well-educated and striking fashion model from New York. During World War II she was recruited by the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and sent to neutral Spain, a country rife with Nazi sympathizers and spies. Her mission was to gather as much information as possible to aid in the Allied invasion of France.
After the war, she married a Spanish count and became a member of the Spanish “jet-set.” Her friends included leaders of state and first ladies, industrialists, millionaires, and movie stars. Later, she did contract work for the CIA and wrote several books, some of which recounting her career in espionage. She died in 2017 at the age of 94.
To the Service of the Country
Aline Griffith was born in Pearl River, Rockland County, NY in 1923. She grew up in a comfortably middle-class home. She graduated from the College of Mount St. Vincent with a degree in literature, history, and journalism. Slim, with striking good looks, Griffith was hired as a model in Manhattan by Hattie Carnegie.
When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, her brothers enlisted in the military. Despite being busy with modeling, Griffith wanted to somehow help in the war effort.
Then, one night at a dinner party a stranger approached her. He asked her if she was married and spoke any foreign languages. (She spoke French and Spanish fluently). The stranger told her that he would help her get into the war effort.
A month later, her phone rang. On the line was a man asking her if she still wanted to serve. He then told her to meet a man in the lobby of the Biltmore wearing a white carnation. Griffith arrived at the lobby where the man handed her a slip of paper with a Washington DC address. He told her to pack a suitcase but first remove any labels from her clothes.
The address was OSS HQs. After she reported to the HQs, Aline Griffith was quickly sent off to “The Farm” where agents were trained.
She was trained in small arms, cryptography, and lock picking. Following her training, she was whisked off to Madrid with a cover job as a secretary. Goin with the code-name “Tiger” she began coding messages but soon was unleashed on the Madrid social scene.
In the World of Spies, it Pays to Be Beautiful
With her stunning looks, she was immediately the center of attention of a plethora of playboys, aristocrats, and Nazi spies who wanted to make time with a beautiful American secretary. But all the while, she was reporting on the comings and goings of Nazi sympathizers, once even reporting that Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, was in Madrid.
For a while, she thought she was under surveillance by the Nazis. But it later turned out that a jealous Spanish bullfighter, who was obsessed with her, had his servants watch her every move to see who she was going out with. At one party the handsome Count of Quintanilla, Luis Figueroa y Pérez de Guzmán el Bueno, the grandson of the former Prime Minister of Spain, caught her eye. The two were married soon after the war.
On their wedding night, she told her husband what she did for a living during the war. Laughing, he accused her of having an unbridled imagination.
Griffith, now the Countess of Romanones, moved in high society circles in Europe. Together, the couple raised three sons.
But her work for the OSS wasn’t forgotten when the CIA was established. About a decade after her marriage, the CIA asked her to take on some freelance work. She accepted but hid it from her husband.
“Espionage Becomes Like a Drug”
In 1990, the Countess did an interview with People Magazine. She spoke about her life working for the two U.S. clandestine services.
“Espionage becomes like a drug,” she said. “It makes life very exciting. You know things other people don’t know — you’re always going under the surface.”
“In a way, it was selfish,” she added. “I got accustomed to living with a certain amount of tension: I would have frightening encounters, and I would be quaking, and I couldn’t tell Luis.”
She later recounted her exploits in three books: The Spy Wore Red (1987), The Spy Went Dancing (1990), and The Spy Wore Silk (1991). She also wrote a book of fiction, about Venezuelan-born terrorist Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, better known as the assassin Carlos the Jackal. Yet, many panned her books stating that she embellished her career and that she fabricated some of the events in them. Women’s Wear Fashion magazine said that OSS files had nothing in their reports corroborating her tales of derring-do, something that she insisted was the truth in interviews.
“My stories are all based on truth. It’s impossible that whatever details of any mission I did would be in a file,” Aline Griffith said in another interview with the Los Angeles Times.
Summarizing the Countess’ exciting life, Washington Post’s obituary read,
“Her Rolodex included Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Ivana Trump, publisher Malcolm Forbes and Imelda Marcos. She once attended a costume ball at a French palace at which Audrey Hepburn wore a birdcage over her head, while she and Wallis Simpson, the American-born Duchess of Windsor, hunted down a suspected Soviet mole working for NATO.”