"We seldom get into trouble when we speak softly. It is only when we raise our voices that the sparks fly and tiny molehills become great mountains of contention."
- - Gordon B. Hinckley
February 02, 2015
Encounters with Spooks
by Lawrence Jeppson

After some investor friends and I acquired the estate of painter William Henry Clapp, our first museum exhibition of his California landscapes was arranged for by a deep cover CIA operative.

At the time, we didn’t know who really paid Jim’s salary. He worked out of Amsterdam on the payroll of a prominent Washington, D.C., public relations agency. This firm was owned by a former Life editor and one of the founders of the CIA. When the CIA needed a cover for several of its foreign spies, they asked the owner if he would be sufficiently patriotic to provide their cover.

Jim arranged for a collection of Clapp paintings to be exhibited in Denmark. We sent the collection unframed. The Danes framed them.

The black and white Danish catalog. The cover painting was not in the collection.

I am writing The Joy of Vision!, a biography and critique of Clapp, an American Impressionist who is also claimed north of the border as a Canadian painter. Will I include this CIA story in my book? Probably not. But as I write this “Moments in Art,” I am reminded of several of my own encounters with the CIA. Two of them had nothing to do with art. Another one did. It was the biggest of the lot.

Living in the Washington area, we had friends who worked for the CIA and NSA (National Security Agency). We had friends who probably did, but we didn’t know it. One of them, when he retired from the CIA, went to work for the State Department. He served as a courier in the international fight against drug cartels.

Whenever a State Department employee is posted to a different country, the department provides him/her a packet of basic information about the country, its geography, and culture. These did not include confidential information. Whenever one of our young people received a call to a foreign mission, this friend would give the missionary a copy of State’s employee package for that country.

One of our friends, who worked as a private art dealer for cover, had adventures that, if all the facts were known, would make him a semi-James Bond. The two of us began working with another private dealer in New York. My friend entered her apartment (I didn’t use the words “broke in”), found some drug-use things he didn’t like, and our tripartite work ended. I don’t think she ever knew the reason.

He and I were getting along very well, when he wasn’t off in the Philippines or some other exotic place teaching businessmen how to keep from getting kidnaped. He came from a family that was significantly placed in at least one important Ivy League university. His art knowledge was substantial, and his web of contacts boggled my mind.

Ours was a robust and rewarding friendship — until I made an unfortunate remark. It was made in jest, but it was not taken that way, and I never heard from him again.

My first adventure with the spies dates from 1953. After Frances and I were married we moved to Palo Alto, California. While waiting for a job with a San Jose company to open up, I worked for Stake President David Haight in his Palo Alto Hardware. Frances worked for the Palo Alto Clinic.

When it became evident that my hoped-for job was not going to materialize, I placed a classified ad in the Los Angeles Times. It summarized my qualifications and mentioned that I spoke French. The ad led to several interviews, including a request to meet someone in what turned out to be an unidentified upstairs office in a nondescript building.

Two men quizzed me about my WWII training, graduate studies at Boston University, and my experience as an LDS missionary in France, Belgium, and Switzerland. They said they’d be in touch with me.

I did not hear from them.

My wife’s parents lived most of the year in a nice apartment in Washington, but they would be in Utah for the summer months. We could stay in their apartment while I looked for Eastern employment. That’s how Frances and I came to live in the Maryland suburbs for 53 years, 44 of them in the same house.

The CIA headquarters at the time was on the fringe of what would be considered downtown Washington. It was just slightly isolated. What was more natural that I would drop in and ask what had happened to my Los Angeles interview?

The headquarters people were appalled and displeased that I would allow myself to be detected entering their doors. Someone sinister was probably spying on the spies and photo recording all who came and went.

“We’ll send someone to meet you at the Washington Hilton at 16th and K Streets.” They specified the date and time.

“How will I recognize the person?”

“You won’t. We’ll send someone who will recognize you.”

I went to the Hilton at the appointed time and found a comfortable seat in the lobby. Among the people there I spotted one and said to myself, “I bet he’s the spy.”

I sat for a long time before the man I had fingered came up to me and asked, “Are you Jeppson?”

He explained the task they had been considering me for had been cancelled.

“What was that?”

Reluctantly he explained. They were looking for someone who spoke French who could infiltrate the French labor unions. This was at a time when many French unions were riddled with Communists.

My wife says that job would not have fitted me very well.

We had a friend who, with wife and infants, lived with us for a few weeks while he waited for a job in Mexico. He had been an LDS missionary there before he graduated from college. He got his job and went south, but eventually the high altitude of where he worked in Mexico ruined his health, and when he returned to the States his medical expenses were taken care of by the CIA.

But back to my own story. At the time when I began representing the great French tapestry artists in the United States, I occupied the two big rooms comprising the second floor of a small, new, two-story building on K St. I shared my front office space with my two account executives and a secretary; the backroom was for my art director and his assistant. My office had a building-wide picture window that overlooked the street and provided an ideal spot for watching Cherry Blossom parades.

I paid for two telephone lines.

In those almost pre-historic days, most telephone subscribers shared their line with one or more other subscribers. These were called party lines. If you picked up the phone and heard people talking, you hung up, waited, and tried later when you supposed your number was free.

Or, you could pay more and have a private line.

I was in the consulting business. My lines were private. In spite of that, from time to time when I’d pick up the phone we used most, I’d hear strange people talking. They weren’t my employees in the back room. I wouldn‘t listen and hung up quickly.

When I complained to Bell, I was told they could not trace and correct the crossed lines if they didn’t know the other party. “When this happens, interrupt the other party and get their phone number. Then we can help you.”

My chance came. I wanted to use my phone. A couple of men were talking away on my line. Bravely, I interrupted them.

“Excuse me. Sometimes I hear you talking on my private line. The telephone company told me that when this happens I must get your telephone number so they can uncross the lines. So, please what is your number?”

There was sputtering and crossness on the other side. “Who are you?” came the angry reply. “What are you doing on our line? No, we won’t tell you anything. What is your number? We’ll take care of it.”

In less than half an hour I had a telephone technician at my door.

I asked, facetiously, “Whom did you have me crossed with, the CIA?”

The repairman nodded.

I wished I had listened to the conversations.

Many years later, after I had closed my downtown Washington, D.C., space and moved into our new home in Bethesda (actually Potomac), Maryland, I became close friends with a group of Formosan dissidents. When China fell to the Communist revolutionaries, Chiang Kai-shek moved with a million of his troops onto the island of Formosa. The Kuo-Ming-Tang quickly eliminated local authorities and intellectuals, changed the name to Taiwan, and imposed a repressive dictatorial regime.

Some Formosan students were caught abroad when this happened. Many other Taiwanese were able to flee. Among the latter was Dr. Ming-min Peng, whose book A Taste of Freedom is among the most eloquent I have read.

Before WWII, Formosa was a conquered island occupied by Japan. Peng had gone to Japan to study law and political science at Tokyo Imperial University. In a bombing raid he lost an arm. Then he witnessed from afar the atom bombing of Nagasaki.

After the war, Peng returned to Taiwan to study law. During the terrifying weeks after the 228 Incident, he wrote letters to his grandfather complaining about the terrible things that were taking place in Taipei. The letters were being censored, and he found his name on the KMT blacklist.

Peng went abroad, receiving degrees from McGill University in Montreal and the University of Paris. He returned home and at 34 became the youngest professor at National Taiwan University. Impressed, Chiang Kai-shek sent him off as advisor to the Republic of China at the United Nations.

Peng later wrote, “My thoughts were in turmoil. The government and party bosses had made a great mistake in sending me to New York. The experience finally politicized me, and I was to lead a dual life thereafter.”

Back in Taiwan, Chen and two students secretly printed 10,000 copies of a paper calling for an overthrow of the government. They were tried for sedition by a military court. Worldwide attraction to the case led to Peng’s incarceration being changed to house arrest. He was smuggled out of Taiwan with the aid of Amnesty International.

Under Nixon, Communist China was recognized. According to the agreement, Taiwan was not. The Chinese Embassy was turned over to Beijing.

When the exiled Formosans decided they needed to call American attention to their plight, they organized a worldwide conference in Washington. They had two main objectives: to protest the KMT government and to keep the United States government from turning Taiwan over to mainland China.

At the time, Taiwan was having a so-called free election. Dr. Peng was running in absentia for president. He had no hope of winning. He could not go back to campaign. That would have meant his imprisonment and perhaps liquidation.

Having no public relations experience, the Formosans came to me. I got them television coverage, a full-page interview with Peng in the Washington Times, and an hour-long meeting between Peng and Ronald Reagan, who would eventually win his own White House election.

I was present for the Peng-Reagan meeting.

Dr. Tsing-fang Chen was a Taiwanese artist living in Paris. I have written about him several times. He was the intellectual head of the Formosan cultural bodies all over the world. He came to Washington to speak and to paint banners and prepare other graphic items for the conference.

He spoke French. I spoke French. He was an artist. I represented artists, most of them French. Tsing-fang and I instantly bonded.

The Formosans organized a march through Washington that ended up in front of the offices of the Taiwanese Trade Office, which our State Department permitted, to the displeasure of Beijing. There they burned flags representing the regime they hated.

I marched in the parade, stride for stride with my new friend Tsing-fang Chen. I didn’t do any of the flag burning.

While this was happening I was cornered by two well-dressed men who quizzed me extensively about my relationship to the dissidents, my background, and my relationship to certain politicians. My father-in-law sat in the United States Senate, and I had known Sen. Paul Laxalt from Nevada all my life. Paul was often described as Reagan’s best friend, and it was through him that I arranged for the Peng-Reagan meeting.

The two quizzers described themselves as reporters for The New York Times. But when does any print or broadcast entity sent two reporters to conduct an interview? I pegged them as two CIAs, and I’m sure that if I employed the Truth in Information Act I would find things about me on file there and/or in FBI records. I don’t care enough to ask.

Shortly afterwards Chen married and emigrated to New York City. Then he moved to Washington, where he and I collaborated for several years, until he moved back to New York and established himself in SoHo (South of Houston Street). We have remained very close.

Chen could not go back to Taiwan. Like Peng and my other friends, he dared not. The risk was too great.

The Formosans appreciated what I had done for them. I sat in on many Formosan meetings and dinners. Most of the time I didn’t understand what was being said. Most of the talk went on in Taiwanese (Fukienese).

My private opinion was that time would cure the problems that vexed my friends. The million Mainlanders, who were outnumbered about ten to one, would intermarry with the natives, be absorbed, and die off.

That has happened. Chen has benefitted from scores of exhibitions in his homeland. His wife operates a Chen cultural center in Taipei (also in Shanghai, Beijing, and New York City). And Tsing-fang is now recognized as a national treasure.

But there was an intermediate period, when Chiang’s successor son had died and antagonisms began to soften. Article 100 of the Criminal Code allowed people to advocate independence. Chen could go home to see his family.

At this time I considered visiting Taipei. Frances and I were given our visas. I knew that the government must have a full dossier on me and my work for the Formosans. I had no idea of what kind of reception I’d get, once I got to Taipei.

I should not have worried. I think the government wanted to get me on its side. The second day we were introduced to the head of one of the country’s leading museums. He took us to dinner in a Chinese restaurant in an American hotel.

The next day we were introduced to the head of another museum. He scoffed that our previous host had taken us to an Americanized Chinese restaurant. He took us to an authentic one, which he called the best in the city. Ironically, Frances and I had discovered that one our first night, but we didn’t tell our host.

The crowning event, however, came when we were picked up by an official in a bullet-proof limousine with darkened windows and taken to see the Chian Kai-shek Memorial. Our being romanced was complete.

The Chiang Kai-shek Memorial in Taipei

Bookmark and Share    
About Lawrence Jeppson

Lawrence Jeppson is an art consultant, organizer and curator of art exhibitions, writer, editor and publisher, lecturer, art historian, and appraiser. He is America's leading authority on modern, handwoven French tapestries. He is expert on the works of William Henry Clapp, Nat Leeb, Tsing-fang Chen, and several French artists.

He is founding president of the non-profit Mathieu Matégot Foundation for Contemporary Tapestry, whose purview encompasses all 20th-century tapestry, an interest that traces back to 1948. For many years he represented the Association des Peintres-Cartonniers de Tapisserie and Arelis in America.

Through the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, the American Federation of Arts, the Museum of Modern Art, and his own Art Circuit Services he has been a contributor to or organizer of more than 200 art exhibitions in the United States, Canada, Japan, and Taiwan. He owns AcroEditions, which publishes and/or distributes multiple-original art. He was co-founder and artistic director of Collectors' Investment Fund.

He is the director of the Spring Arts Foundation; Utah Cultural Arts Foundation, and the Fine Arts Legacy Foundation

Lawrence is an early-in-the-month home teacher, whose beat is by elevator. In addition, he has spent the past six years hosting and promoting reunions of the missionaries who served in the French Mission (France, Belgium, and Switzerland) during the decade after WWII.

Copyright © Hatrack River Enterprise Inc. All Rights Reserved. Web Site Hosted and Designed by WebBoulevard.com