The Hottest Party You’ve Never Heard Of

Forget Nerd Prom. Washington's social event of the year is Spy Prom. And in case you missed it, I was there.

Photo by Shane Harris
Photo by Shane Harris

The gala was spooky, and not because it fell six days before Halloween.

There at the center table, which was covered with half-drunk gin martinis and a tiny American flag, sat the guest of honor, Leon Panetta, the ex-CIA director and former secretary of defense, clad in black tie and looking eager to be feted by a ballroom full of spies and soldiers. Across the table was last year’s honoree, retired Adm. William McRaven, the former head of U.S. Special Operations Command, who, along with Panetta, oversaw the nighttime raid that killed Osama bin Laden in 2011. A few tables away, the current CIA chief, John Brennan, shared a laugh with David Cohen, an ex-agency officer who is unknown to most Americans but legendary within the CIA’s ranks — and who rarely makes public appearances. And who was that seated at the table with retired California Republican Congressman Duncan Hunter, the former House Armed Services Committee chairman? Was that … Oliver North?!

The White House Correspondents’ Association may have its B-list celeb-studded dinner. Politicos can rub elbows at the exclusive Gridiron dinner. But the spooks and special operators of Washington’s shadowlands have their own affair: Call it Spy Prom.

The William J. Donovan Award dinner, as the annual gala is officially known, is unknown on the list of must-attend Washington social events of the fall season (which seems perfectly appropriate for a party honoring clandestine operators). But every year, it recognizes a boldface name "who has exemplified the distinguishing features" of the honor’s namesake, the World War II general known as "Wild Bill" who first ran the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor to the CIA. Think men (they’re nearly all men, save for Margaret Thatcher, who won the award in 1981) like Panetta, McRaven, and ex-CIA directors Robert Gates, David Petraeus, and William Casey. The room is full of their ilk, but also hundreds more spies and soldiers who will spend their careers in near-total anonymity. As one of the night’s 28 speakers (28!) put it when he nodded to the head table: "This is like the real-life cast of Homeland."

Indeed, if you were a terrorist looking for a moment to take out the upper echelon of American spycraft, à la the Season 2 finale of Showtime’s popular spy drama, this would have been it, right there in the grand ballroom of the Ritz-Carlton in Washington, D.C. Along with the other notables, Pentagon intelligence chief Michael Vickers came to give a toast and have dinner, as did recently retired Defense Intelligence Agency director Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn. Gen. John Kelly, the head of U.S. Southern Command was in attendance, along with retired Adm. Eric Olson, who preceded McRaven as the Special Operations commander, and Ash Carter, the recently retired No. 2 at the Pentagon.

Maybe the potential for a decapitation strike was why more than a few guests looked warily at the gray-haired man, dressed in a medieval knight costume and carrying a long sword, who was sitting mere feet from Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. Was this man a security threat? Or had he crashed the spy ball on his way back from a Party City costume store?

As it happened, he was part of the formal program. After a rousing series of a dozen toasts — including "to the commander in chief," "our allies," and "our absent and missing comrades" — David Aland, a retired Navy captain, took to the stage and in front of an audience of several hundred delivered an impassioned rendition of the St. Crispin’s Day speech from Shakespeare’s Henry V (Act 4, Scene 3)

With his admittedly awkward attempt at a regal British accent, Aland drew a few titters from the crowd. But when he arrived at the speech’s most enduring line, "We few, we happy few, we band of brothers," men and women around the room fell silent, looked knowingly across their tables at each other, and raised their glasses. Some just held their drinks aloft, to those gone but clearly not forgotten.

That was, and has been for years, the tone of the OSS gala. It careens from the jocular to the solemn. At one moment, the piano-playing satirist Mark Russell was serenading Panetta with an old OSS marching song: "Hidy hidy, Christ almighty, this is a terrible mess. Zim zam goddman we’re in the OSS." But then there was the 100-year-old former OSS member, Fisher Howe, who regaled the rapt crowd with stories of derring-do and wartime intrigue and reminisced fondly about his longtime friend and former colleague Julia Child, herself a wartime employee of the secretive intelligence organization. Howe and another OSS vet, Irving Refkin, drew standing ovations from the crowd when each took his turn to speak.

Every year, the number of people in the room who actually served with Donovan dwindles. But his legend lives on, fiercely protected.

Case in point: About halfway through the program, Norman Steinberg, a filmmaker perhaps best known for co-writing the Mel Brooks Western spoof Blazing Saddles and whose connection to the OSS wasn’t clearly explained, showed clips from a TV pilot he has been producing on the early days of the spy agency. The film portrays Wild Bill as a hotheaded womanizer who, in a scene that borders on Brooksian farce, stabs his secretary, an apparent Nazi sleeper agent wearing dominatrix garb and wielding a riding crop, and has her bloody corpse trundled out of his office rolled up in a carpet.

The clip drew boos and hisses from the audience. (Indeed, the story seems to have been invented by the filmmaker.) Charles Pinck, the president of the OSS Society, issued a written apology to guests the next day, explaining that "because I was managing many last minute details of Saturday night’s event, I did not have time to review [the film] before it was shown."

Steinberg seems to have made it out of the room intact. And the party carried on. Next year, one imagines, the film clips will be kept to a minimum. Maybe replaced with more toasts.

 Twitter: @shaneharris

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