Almost everybody loves reading nonfiction that reads like a novel. “The Princess Spy: The True Story of WWII Spy Aline Griffith, Countess of Romanones” is pure nonfiction, but it’s also a really enjoyable read. Author Larry Loftis keeps the excitement going from the first page of the Prologue. We read about a strange noise outside Aline’s apartment window in Madrid. Then the shutters are pried open, and a hand pushes back the curtains. Lofts writes, “She raised the gun.” Then Chapter One begins in Estoril, Portugal on May 24th, 1941. We don’t learn about who the intruder into Aline’s apartment was, or whether Aline fired the gun, until much later in the book. Loftis, like many successful mystery writers, often leaves us hanging at the end of a chapter, forcing us to keep reading so we can find out what it is that one person is hiding, or who the person behind the curtain really is. That technique is just one of the ways in which Loftis’s book reads like a thriller.
But before we read the Prologue, Loftis explains in the Preface the careful documentation he explored in writing this nonfiction tale of Griffith’s extraordinary life. While Aline Griffith herself had written several books about her life (decades ago I read “The Spy Wore Red,” and I remember enjoying it immensely), Loftis informs us that her story about her life as an OSS agent (and later a CIA agent) contained many embellishments. However, after extensive research, he shares his conclusions with us: “There’s no question that Aline was an active, highly valued operational agent, but her spy books must be regarded as historical fiction; some parts are true, many others not.”
What Loftis presents us with, then, is his meticulously researched, beautifully crafted nonfiction book that reads like a James Bond thriller. And, ironically, Ian Fleming is mentioned in Aline’s tale. While including facts about the war and Spain’s part in it, often with footnotes that share even more information, the actual book is filled with a novel-like telling of Aline’s life, from her childhood in suburban New York, when she first meets Frank Ryan, who eventually hires her as an OSS code agent, to her time at “The Farm,” the training camp outside D.C. where spies are trained; we follow her on her trip on the flying boat, the Clipper, across the Atlantic, and we learn about her subsequent time in Madrid and other parts of Europe. We also discover how she meets the extremely wealthy aristocrat she ultimately marries, and how that marriage comes about.
At the end, Loftis sums up her incredible life: “(She) lived an extraordinarily multifaceted life as a small-town girl, a model, a spy, a wife, a mother, a socialite, a fashion icon, and a celebrity. She’d left the safety of home and put herself in danger in order to help defeat the Nazi threat, then found the love of her life in a fairytale romance. Aline was smart, resourceful, determined, and fearless.”
There are over 60 pages of Notes, in which Loftis, chapter by chapter, cites the sources for his text and explains where and why he changed Griffith’s own account. Often, it’s due to conflicting accounts in the media, other times it’s because of other research. There is also a ten-page bibliography. The result is a story that is filled with humor, authentic dialogue, historical information about WWII and the Spanish Civil War, a glimpse into the OSS, which eventually became the CIA, as well as a fascinating account of how the rich and famous lived almost a century ago.
This review was first posted on Bookreporter.com.