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A Woman of Mystery : Espionage: Countess Aline Romanones has written no less than three books about her exploits as a spy. But skeptics keep asking: Is she all she says she is?

March 10, 1991|IRENE LACHER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Aline Romanones is staring her interviewer straight in the kisser and saying she's not at all sure the other woman is not a spy.

"As I say," Romanones says with deadly sweetness, between dainty bites of berries and cream, "you could perfectly well be a top agent. You'd be a very good one, because your career enables you to write and ask people questions that other people couldn't ask."

Though it is only lunchtime at the Polo Lounge, she's glittering with rubies, diamonds and emeralds. A diamond-studded zebra chases its tail around her slender wrist. Her Valentino ready-to-wear suit is simple and classic, a pale leaf-colored confection that looks tailor made for the rich forest-green banquette that envelopes her. The effect is unadulterated aristocrat. Indeed, if it takes a spy to suspect one, there's an even better spy cover than being a journalist.

Being a Spanish countess.

"With that, nobody's going to think you're doing anything worthwhile," says Aline, Countess of Romanones and former spy. Then she hoots. "Well. Except putting on your makeup or something."

The countess for the CIA was humbly born Aline Griffith, one of six children in Pearl River, N.J., 67 years ago. The model-turned-spy-turned-aristocrat-turned-spy-turned-bestseller writer naturally thinks of herself as a contemporary Cinderella.

Only this Cinderella sometimes packed a gun in her evening bag. She can pick safes and pockets. And while she has tarried a lifetime at the ball with royalty and presidents, it never did turn midnight on the countess, despite several close brushes with that old demon death. Time magazine once gushed that the countess "lived a life of glamour and danger that Ingrid Bergman only played at in 'Notorious.' "

"I always knew I had a good story," Romanones says with some understatement.

Late last month, Romanones became the vortex of controversy in the New York press over charges that her best-selling memoirs are precisely that--just stories. Women's Wear Daily said it had retrieved her file from OSS (precursor to the CIA) from the National Archives and learned she had embroidered her exploits as an American spy.

The newspaper reported that early in her spy career--which began in 1943--she was only a code clerk who had worked her way into a low-level intelligence job; she passed on gossip circulating in Spanish society. And the newspaper said there was no mention of her shooting a man who tried to kill her or of her helping the OSS uncover an OSS double agent, as she recounts in her first book, "The Spy Wore Red."

Romanones defended her three books: "My stories are all based on truth. It's impossible that whatever details of any mission I did would be in a file." The CIA declined to comment.

For four decades, Romanones' best career asset was keeping a secret. Finally, when she had reached that rarefied stage in life where she was long a grandmother (13 times over at last count), Romanones gave up the spy business. Not until 1987 did she publicly blow her cover with a series of memoirs.

And now she's stumping the country's better restaurants to promote her latest, "The Spy Wore Silk," about her role in fending off a coup attempt on the government of Moroccan King Hassan in the early '70s. The book picks up the countess' story in 1971, when she hears of a plot to overthrow Hassan, a friend of the family. "Silk" tracks her on a royal boar-hunting trip in Morocco in which she tries to warn the king--and snares the prize of an important Soviet defector for her trouble.

Her first book, "The Spy Wore Red," has been optioned for a cable television movie and Broadway musical.

Still, for all the intrigue that enticed her to exotic locales from Madrid to Morocco to Manila, despite the fact that you have to be foreign to have blood the uncommon hue of blue, Romanones sees her story as peculiarly American.

"I think it's what happens to everybody in America," Romanones says in all seriousness. "We always feel that we have the opportunity of doing anything we want to do, and this is the big adventure around the corner. You're born in a very simple, unimportant place, to an unimportant, unknown family and yet the whole world is yours."

Aline Griffith was born to a large family in Pearl River, a sleepy New Jersey town with 2,000 inhabitants upriver by an hour or so from New York City. Her father worked in her grandfather's newspaper printing-press factory, while her mother, who claimed ties to the Mayflower, tended to their sizable brood.

An unusually pretty child, Griffith's upbringing was fairly strict. She was raised to be a lady, schooled near home at the Catholic girls' College of Mount St. Vincent's-on-the-Hudson in Riverdale, N. Y. Even when she went on to become a Hattie Carnegie model in New York, she lived at home, but her modest modeling days didn't last long.

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