Counterspy: The Russian Plot to Take Over Hollywood

They wanted a spy at the center of the industry. He had bigger ambitions. The wild true story of wheeling and dealing double agent Boris Morros and the woman who became his nemesis.

Nathan Masters
Truly*Adventurous

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Hollywood producer Boris Morros was famous for his wild antics, but even he might not have believed the outrageous scheme he was about to hatch in this flamingo-pink booth. Across from him sat Vasily Zarubin, the NKGB’s top spy in America. The Soviet intelligence officer peered over the table at Boris, glass of vodka in hand. “What about taking my men into your music company?” he said.

It was Hollywood’s Technicolor age. Under the clatter of plates and chirpy conversations at nearby tables, Boris considered the offer. For this clandestine lunch in February of 1943, Zarubin had chosen the showiest restaurant on Wilshire Boulevard. Perino’s was famous for its crab legs and pink décor, but its outstanding attraction were the plush, high-backed booths that advertised their glamorous occupants. Gossip columnists dined at Perino’s for a chance at a scoop. Bette Davis had her own booth. So did mobster Bugsy Siegel. It was a curious location, then, to hatch a Soviet espionage scheme. Then again, even communist spies liked to hobnob.

Boris weighed his choices. With its headquarters at Sunset and Vine, the Boris Morros Music Company was only a modest sheet-music publishing house, but its ambitious owner had bigger dreams for it. Those didn’t include putting Soviet spies on the payroll. His ambitions did require a sizable investment, however, and here Boris, who had survived — at moments even thrived — during his two decades in the entertainment industry, smelled opportunity.

Yes, Boris replied at last. If Moscow helped him expand the business, he could easily justify a few talent scouts and performance rights agents.

“Sounds like a perfect cover,” Zarubin, a heavy drinker, purred. “We could have men around the United States and a few in South America — all on your payroll.” Lost in the brilliance of his scheme, the Soviet spymaster continued, “It would seem natural for a music company to have men working in other countries, finding native songs and developing talent, making tie-ups with foreign music publishers. They’d have every excuse in the world to keep moving about.”

There was just the question of money. Boris, a former Paramount Pictures executive who’d carved out a tenuous foothold as an independent producer and music publisher, would need a substantial investment, he insisted, to support the espionage work.

Zarubin noodled this over, acutely aware how difficult it would be to extract hard currency from Moscow. He proposed a more creative funding source. Imperial Russia’s art collections had fallen into the hands of the Bolsheviks. Perhaps a few masterpieces could make their way to Boris’ house in Beverly Hills, he offered, where Boris would sell the Raphaels and Rembrandts and invest the proceeds in the music company.

Boris dismissed that as preposterous. He was no art dealer. Zarubin would have to come up with cash.

A few months later, Zarubin summoned Boris back to Perino’s. “I’ve decided,” he announced after a few glasses of vodka, “that we’ll expand your music company,” adding that financing would be no problem. He’d found an investor, a wealthy American whose new wife, a true believer in the Marxist-Leninist ideal, had turned her husband into a Soviet asset. They would back the mission by becoming business partners with Boris. Slipping toward drunkenness in the high-backed booth, Zarubin seemed exuberant.

Boris, excited at the prospect of investment in his fledgling business and curious about his new business partners, was suddenly rattled by a serious-looking young man in a neighboring booth who seemed out of place among the Hollywood glitz and glam. When the man made eye contact with Boris, even going so far as to wink, the stunned producer, a legendary schmoozer who usually solicited attention, went cold.

Was this man eavesdropping, he wondered, as he hoisted his glass to seal the new business arrangement? And for whom?

Before the year’s end, Boris was sitting in the passenger seat of a NKGB sedan as Zarubin, his nervous eyes scanning the rear-view mirror, drove deep into the snow-flocked Connecticut countryside. Soon they arrived at a sprawling country estate outside the town of Ridgefield, where Boris was to meet his new investors.

Although no true believer himself, Boris had few qualms about helping the Soviets. He was an opportunist, a hustler in the best tradition of Hollywood, and he had identified an upside to this arrangement.

Boris Morros

Bald and roly-poly fat, the 52-year-old producer had emigrated from Russia to America in 1922 and still carried an accent, which he used to uproarious effect. He liked to repeat the old show-business adage, “A little embellishment never ruined a good story,” and Boris was full of stories. Born to humble Jewish parents, he boasted that he once played fiddle for the czar and sipped tea with Tchaikovsky, who died when Boris was two years old. At meetings in his office, he twirled a string of amber beads and insisted that Rasputin, impressed with his witty banter, had given him the rosary. Boris didn’t talk, he gushed, clutching his listener’s hand until his story found its punch line. His innate charm helped him climb the ranks at Paramount, where he became general music director in 1935 and turned the film score into an art form, collecting three Oscar nominations. More recently, he’d struck out as an independent producer, the man behind the fifth-highest grossing film of 1942, Tales of Manhattan.

In a town that collected colorful personalities, Boris stood out. At studio Christmas parties he walked around with two seemingly identical bottles of vodka and insisted that everyone drink with him. While colleagues grew inebriated swigging 80-proof, he gulped from a bottle filled with water. But even his most outrageous hijinks paled next to his sartorial choices: He wore the wildest combinations of ties and shirts, stripes on plaid, clashing colors. “How else,” he once explained, “would anybody ever notice me in this big place?”

In an odd way, his cartoonish persona helped mask suspicion that his Russian origins might otherwise have garnered, putting people at ease even as anti-communist paranoia began to grip Hollywood. McCarthy’s witch hunt and the Hollywood blacklist loomed just a few years out, but Boris seemed too obvious to be any kind of threat.

The Soviets didn’t think so, however. Boris’ career in espionage began in 1933 when a talent agent offered him the exiled communist Leon Trotsky, by then out of favor with the Soviet authorities, as a performer. Boris, who at the time was supervising live stage shows for Paramount’s theater chain, just couldn’t picture a future in show business for an exiled Bolshevik fulminating on stage against Stalin, and so he gave Trotsky’s agent a show-business “no”: He said he’d think about it.

Almost immediately, his secretary began receiving phone calls from a man with a Russian accent who identified himself as a Soviet trade representative and claimed he had business to discuss. What a pity, the trade representative said over lunch at the Hotel Astor, that Boris’ brothers, still in Russia, were on such bad terms with the Soviet government.

This was news to Boris. To his knowledge, they were loyal Party members.

As quickly as the mysterious Russian had raised Boris’ alarm, he tried to put him at ease. “We can be very useful to each other, my friend.” Stalin was determined to keep Trotsky, his arch-nemesis off the stage. “I understand you want to book Trotsky. Don’t book.”

“All right,” Boris said, neglecting to mention he had independently reached that conclusion. “If you don’t want Trotsky booked into the Paramount, I can promise you he will never appear there as long as I am in charge of the stage shows.”

In return, the mysterious Russian not only pledged to help Boris’ family, he also secured permission for Boris’ father to bypass the Soviet Union’s notorious migration controls and visit America. As father and son walked the streets of Manhattan together and vacationed in Florida, Boris — now a Soviet agent with the codename FROST — realized how much influence he could wield through the simple exchange of favors with the world’s most feared intelligence service. He also realized the various benefits the relationship could afford as his own bright star was rising as a Hollywood operator. Boris would exploit his relationship with Soviet intelligence for his own gain. It was a lucrative, thrilling, and, yes, dangerous, side-hustle.

Now he was about to begin its next chapter. Climbing out of the car, Boris and Zarubin crunched across the snow toward a massive New England farmhouse.

A small, pretty woman in her mid-30s emerged to meet them. She shook hands with Boris, who then watched as the woman wrapped her arms around “Vasya” Zarubin, as she affectionately called him, and kissed him on the lips. They held the embrace like it was the closing shot of a romantic movie. Embarrassment crept across Boris’ face until, finally, a meek voice protested: “Now, Vasya, that’s enough.” It was the woman’s husband.

Martha Dodd and Alfred K. Stern were a study in contrasts. Martha was vivacious and sensual; Alfred was quiet and demure. She chased adventure; he sought safety. Nevertheless, they found common cause in their concern for social justice, their affinity for international communism, and their eagerness to do Moscow’s bidding.

Martha was attractive, even gravitational, in a way her physical description — thirty-five and petite, wavy blonde hair and a subtle yet distinctive overbite — could never capture. When her father was appointed U.S. ambassador to Nazi Germany in 1933, she moved with him to Berlin and found herself overwhelmed with attention. Love letters from Carl Sandburg and Thomas Wolfe, both old family friends, piled up. At one point, as she found herself briefly enchanted by the goose-stepping storm troopers and flowing red banners, a Nazi matchmaker set her up with Adolf Hitler. At the appointed rendezvous at the Kaiserhof Hotel, the Führer kissed her on the hand, twice — but that was as far as it got. Hitler, she later concluded, was “a frigid celibate.”

Martha Dodd

When Hitler couldn’t satisfy her, Martha soon found true love with a tall, handsome English-speaking press attaché from the Soviet embassy. The couple escaped to Paris, then Moscow, and only later did she learn that her paramour was an NKVD officer with orders to recruit her into the service. Nevertheless, Martha joined willingly, dished State Department secrets to Moscow, and remained loyal to the Sovet Union — even after her lover fell victim to one of Stalin’s purges.

Upon returning to the U.S., Martha became an NKGB talent spotter. Her methods were quirky — she once submitted a report on 53 potential contacts in the form of a screenplay — but she got results. Among Martha’s most significant recruits was an espionage power couple, the wife an operative with the top-secret Office of Strategic Services, the husband a counterintelligence officer for the U.S. Army.

But her most improbable recruit, a millionaire communist, gave her the most pride — not least because the Red millionaire happened to be her own husband, whom Martha, a friend later wrote, “ruled with an iron hand wrapped in a thick velvet glove.” Eleven years her senior, Alfred K. Stern was a thin, lanky man with a pockmarked face and toothbrush mustache. More to the point, Stern was the divorcé of a Sears, Roebuck heiress, and he was eager to spend his fortune for the Cause.

“Now we have no more trouble about money,” said Zarubin, in a cheery mood. “Here is our treasury, our millionaire. All you have to do is set him up in the business and train him as a music company executive.”

It wasn’t actually that simple — negotiations stretched on for several days in the Sterns’ library — but eventually they reached a deal. The Sterns would invest $130,000 into the Boris Morros Music Company, in return for a twenty-five percent annual dividend and Alfred’s appointment as vice president.

Lawyers drew up a contract. On New Year’s Eve 1943, Alfred Stern arrived at Boris’ Manhattan hotel room to sign. Zarubin, who came along as a witness, was in a jubilant mood, declaring that Operation CHORD was to be the “crown in his work,” providing cover to a generation of “illegals,” as Soviet intelligence officers with non-official cover were known. Downing a few swigs of vodka, he broke out into a Red Army song, “If Tomorrow Brings War,” but stopped mid-verse when he saw Stern pick up the contract. “Don’t read it, you stupid son of a bitch! Just sign it.”

Stern sighed. He took out his fountain pen and scribbled his name.

As Boris returned to Los Angeles with his corporate coffers overflowing, his original business plan suddenly seemed too modest. The Sterns’ investment valued the Boris Morros Music Company at north of a half million dollars — this for a firm he’d started with no more than six grand! With that kind of capital, he could do more than issue sheet music. He could take on Columbia, Decca, RCA Victor. He could build a record label.

A publicity shot of Boris from his Paramount days

And so, even as his company started printing sheet music, Boris began funneling the Sterns’ money into his new idea. He rented a factory at 686 North Robertson in West Hollywood, purchased four record presses, and signed top acts to recording contracts.

Before long, a full-page advertisement appeared on the inside front cover of Billboard. “Proudly we announce a new name in phonograph records,” it boasted, “an outstanding achievement in recorded music with the presentation of these famous artists!” Those artists’ faces smiled up from the Billboard ad: Hoagy Carmichael, Frances Langford, Bob Crosby, brother of Bing.

American Recording Artists, or ARA Records, was born.

When the Sterns questioned this unexpected development, Boris informed them, matter-of-factly, that the economics of the music business had changed. A publishing house couldn’t survive without a record company to popularize its tunes. “It’s a simple formula,” he explained. “With a record, you only have to listen, but for sheet music, you have to know how to play.” Though they remained skeptical, the Sterns accepted his decision.

Even as Boris wooed emerging talent to his label — Phil Harris, Skinny Ennis, Rosa Linda, the Town Criers — he sought out innovative projects that would distinguish ARA from the competition. He struck a deal with the Catholic Church, for example, to issue a quadruple-album by the famed Vatican Sistine Chapel Chorus. And, through a partnership with producer David O. Selznick, ARA pioneered the use of a soundtrack album to promote a film, with Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound. The score went on to win an Oscar.

By March 1945, ARA records were getting regular radio airplay. Sales of their first hit, Joe Reichman’s western single “There’s Nobody Home on the Range,” were strong. American Recording Artists, it seemed, was well on its way to becoming another Capitol Records, a permanent West Coast fixture in the record industry.

It was not, however, living up to its billing as a top notch spy operation, and for Agent FROST’s increasingly suspicious business partners, that was a problem.

If anyone could see through Boris Morros, it was Martha Dodd Stern.

The ambassador’s daughter got her first lesson in tradecraft from one of her early lovers back in Germany, a man she recalled as “a human monster of sensitive face and cruel, broken beauty.” Over the course of their unlikely romance, Rudolf Diels, head of Nazi Germany’s Gestapo, or secret police, introduced a naive Martha to a hidden world of intrigue. Once, the secret police chief even showed Martha his office, where she noticed a variety of listening devices strewn about his desk.

“There began to appear before my romantic eyes,” she remembered, “a vast and complicated network of espionage, terror, sadism and hate, from which no one, official or private, could escape.” Nazi Germany was descending into paranoia and simmering with violence. By the end of the affair, Dodd was covering the telephone with a pillow and questioning every moving shadow she saw, every footstep she heard, a preternatural suspicion she would carry for the rest of her life.

If Boris shared anything with Martha, it was the thrill of maneuvering through a secret world and a familiarity with the dangers of life under a murderous regime. His life — half of it played out in front of the bright lights of Hollywood, the other half in the shadows — had become something of a fantasy, as if he were starring in one of his own movies. And his ambitions grew with his success. Boris had his eyes on a promising new technology with the potential to revolutionize Hollywood — pictures beamed directly into American living rooms. If the NKGB could capitalize his record label, perhaps it could provide the funding for a television company, too.

Why not? Boris was lining his open pockets and raising his own profile at Moscow’s expense, and if he was quickly becoming a Hollywood mogul, no one in the Soviet intelligence service seemed to care.

No one, that is, except his new business partner’s wife.

Martha had grown wary as American Recording Artists released travesties like “There’s Nobody Home on the Range” but still couldn’t manage to put a single undercover spy on the payroll. So far, Boris had offered only two small concessions to his music company’s true, clandestine purpose. His record deal with the Sistine Chapel choir, he insisted, was merely the groundwork for opening a branch office in Rome. He also tried to reassure the Sterns by sending a company rep named Stone to Mexico, even referring to him as “our man in Mexico City.” But “our man,” it turned out, was no spy. He was a bona fide composer from Los Angeles, and he had no knowledge of the company’s secret intentions.

The Sterns brought their concerns to Zarubin, who didn’t want to hear them. He announced that he’d been promoted to major general and was handing over Operation CHORD to one of his subordinates, a Lithuanian intelligence officer named Jack Soble. But before doing so he wanted to make one thing clear. “Our Comrade here,” he said of Boris, “is completely devoted to the motherland, and is one of our most trusted and loyal agents.”

That display of confidence couldn’t stop the business partners from growing apart. The geographic distance between them didn’t help. Martha hated Hollywood, so Alfred Stern, vice president, worked out of his seventeenth-floor office at 30 Rockefeller Plaza while Boris headed up affairs in California. Alfred got into the habit of mailing daily letters, each several pages long, questioning Boris’ every move. He wanted to fire Boris’ talented sales manager, Shelby Yorke, and criticized Boris’ talent signings, once asking “Why don’t we sign Bing Crosby instead of his brother Bob?” (Bing was already under contract at Decca.)

Tensions boiled over in March 1945 when Alfred Stern accompanied Jack Soble to Los Angeles and found Boris occupying a lavishly furnished office at the American Recording Artists’ West Hollywood headquarters. Stern worked himself into a rage seeing how Boris was enjoying such splendor while their label released bombs like “Brazen Little Raisin.” He pounded Boris’ desk. “It’s trash! I won’t let you spend my money on such tripe.” Boris lost his customary cool and let loose a few choice expletives. Stern was, he declared, “a musical ignoramus on all levels.”

A tour of the company’s factory on Robertson Boulevard only deepened the divide. The visitors found it “a tiny, rented place,” Soble wrote, “something I found completely surprising in view of the large outlay of money for the operation.” Moreover, they were astonished to discover that Boris had registered the plate plant in his own name, not the company’s. “This is strange and difficult to understand,” Soble concluded in a memo to Moscow, “because Boris considers himself a comrade, deeply loyal to our cause.”

Even as his business partnership was falling apart, other worries occupied Boris’ mind. Since the Soviets made their first approach, Boris had kept his stridently pro-American wife in the dark about his secret career. Catherine would never have understood, forever haunted as she was by the memory of her brothers’ deaths in the Russian Civil War. Now Boris struggled to explain why his social circle had come to include so many card-carrying communists. He fretted over what she might blurt out in their presence. On one occasion, Soble’s mischievous wife goaded Catherine into a counter-revolutionary tirade. “Bolsheviki!” Catherine cried. “Swine! They did not even blindfold my brothers before shooting them down like dogs!”

Adding to his anxiety, Boris was sure he was being followed. Mysterious cars tailed his Cadillac around Los Angeles. Strange men watched the front door of his Beverly Hills estate and tracked him into New York apartment buildings when he paid associates visits, asking doormen about “the little fat fellow.”

Meanwhile, despite early hits, ARA was burning through its cash, and Boris announced that the company needed another infusion of $150,000. Of the Sterns’ initial contribution, only $6,500 was left in the bank. His communist business partners were certain Boris was mismanaging their investment, or worse, pilfering it for his own vain ambitions.

Martha shared her mistrust with Alfred, who dashed off a report to Moscow. “The business is in an extremely critical state,” it read. “One of the reasons for the crisis is that my partner doesn’t want to listen to business advice.” Soble reported his own concerns to Moscow. “With his enthusiasm for music,” he wrote, “Boris has almost forgotten the main idea. Music is only a means to realizing our central goal — to infiltrate a number of countries bordering the USA.”

By this point, the spymasters had heard enough. A one-word order arrived from Moscow: “Dissolve.” That decision satisfied no one, least of all Alfred Stern, who would see his entire $130,000 investment wiped out. He threatened to sue Boris “until he’s blue in the face” — an outcome the NKGB wanted to avoid.

To keep Operation CHORD’s secrets out of a courtroom, Moscow ordered Boris to repay the Sterns $100,000. His new handler knew how to twist an arm. “I’d hate to feel responsible for the extermination of your relatives in Russia,” Soble said. “Wouldn’t you?”

Boris scrambled to scare up some cash, selling off his share in a lucrative film project. The partnership was dissolved.

Not long after, while Boris was visiting New York on business, Martha came to say farewell. As she strutted into his room at the Sherry-Netherland, she struck a conciliatory tone, but there was something bitter beneath her sugar-coated words.

Martha mistrusted Boris more than ever. Far from being a “tried and true communist,” he seemed motivated by something other than loyalty to the cause. He had tried to fleece her husband, and if Boris wasn’t already working for the FBI, Martha was convinced, he soon would be.

Considering it her duty to set the record straight, Martha put her concerns into writing. She filed a damning memo with the Soviet embassy in Washington, well aware it likely meant the untimely end of Agent FROST.

Unaware of her denunciation, Boris thrust himself into work on a feature film, Carnegie Hall, a project refreshingly free of international intrigue. Even so, the unwanted attention he first noticed in that Perino’s booth only grew more palpable. Every day he saw the same suspicious car parked across the street from his house. Every evening he felt eyes watch him leave his studio office. Once, when he hosted a press party, his friends reported seeing an “unidentified, uninvited male guest” mingling with the crowd, and he was certain someone had gotten hold of his bank records. Boris wasn’t sure if it was the Soviets or the Americans — or both — but he sensed a net tightening around him, fast.

“You boys were following me, weren’t you?”

Boris was seated across from two FBI special agents inside the Bureau’s Los Angeles field office. He’d arrived that day in 1947 in what he later described as a “state of mental chaos,” unsure if he’d ever know freedom again, or only the inside of a federal prison cell.

One of the agents laughed. “We’ll ask the questions, Boris, if you don’t mind.”

In fact the FBI had been following Boris for nearly four years, since an anonymous letter singling him out as a Soviet intelligence asset landed on Director J. Edgar Hoover’s desk. The eccentric Hollywood figure seemed an unlikely spy, but the Bureau dutifully opened a case file and placed him under surveillance, logging his movements and noting visitors to his Beverly Drive home — even eavesdropping on his lunchtime conversations at Perino’s.

Now, the agents urged Boris to confess.

“Just tell us what happened.”

It was a relief to spill the secrets he’d held inside for so long. In fact, Boris told the special agents so much that his confession ran into a second session, and then a third.

He identified Martha and Alfred as Soviet agents. He told them all about American Recording Artists. He recounted his decade-plus relationship with Soviet intelligence — one he had gladly exploited for his own gain time and again. He wrapped up his confession, resigned that this was the end of the line.

But that’s not what the FBI agents wanted. When Boris was finished, the two agents stunned him with a scheme of their own: He would continue spying on behalf of the Soviet Union, only now he’d do it on the FBI’s terms. He would cook up new Soviet intelligence operations, even more outlandish and ambitious than before, and report everything back to his FBI handlers. They wanted him to act as a double-agent, or, to use Boris’ own formulation, a “counterspy.”

“We can give you your instructions now — unless you’d like to think the whole thing over for a day or two.”

“I don’t have to think anything over.”

The agents urged caution. “If you think your life was difficult and complicated before, that is nothing compared to how complicated it will be once you begin working with us. Because you will have to pretend to be playing ball with them all the time. You will have to remember a thousand details that you will not dare to write down, that you will be able to pass on to us only verbally.”

Boris shrugged. He had been walking a tightrope for years. Why not learn to juggle while he did it?

The agents went on. He would log every telephone call he received, every conversation with Soviet spies. He would conceal nothing from the FBI. Most importantly, Boris could tell no one that he was working for the Bureau — not his colleagues, not his friends, not even his wife, Catherine — even as the favors he supposedly performed for the Soviets became more brazen and overt, casting his loyalty to America in doubt.

“And it is only fair to tell you that it is dangerous. Very dangerous.”

Spies were routinely jailed and executed without fanfare or judicial process in the international game of state secrets. Double agents were treated especially roughly.

Boris felt uncharacteristically brave at that moment. Perhaps the threat of federal prison helped him summon the courage. But he also knew a thing or two about how to construct a good movie. And if he was living in a spy thriller of his own making, now was the time to introduce a wild complication that ratcheted up the suspense.

“What are my instructions?”

A Russian boy was running up and down the aisle of the Pullman coach with a toy gun.

Outside, darkness still shrouded the Polish countryside as Boris Morros’ train rattled on toward Moscow. Before the sun dawned, his train would cross the Bug River, and the Hollywood producer would be on Soviet soil.

Catherine was accompanying Boris, against his better judgement. His wife’s tendency to denounce the Bolsheviks and declare that she “didn’t care to breathe the same air as those swine” could only complicate matters. But he had no choice. She wanted to visit her troubled homeland.

Boris knew that for too many travelers, especially travelers like him, Moscow was a point of no return. But he was willing to risk it all for his latest caper — an FBI counterintelligence sting, Soviet cover operation, and show business venture all rolled into one.

Even before he turned double agent, Boris had foreseen the power of an emerging technology to disrupt and transform Hollywood. And so, when the Bureau offered to pay his startup costs, Agent FROST dashed off a written proposal to the spymasters in Moscow.

“A new popular form of entertainment has appeared,” his proposal read, “a combination of film and radio under one name — ‘radiovision,’ or, as it has become commonly known in ordinary and commercial language, ‘television.’ Television has found wide acceptance throughout the country, and there are already more than two million television sets in private homes, bars, and restaurants.” By 1948, those sets were tuned to a handful of pioneer networks. DuMont Laboratories, a maker of household electronics, launched the first in 1946, followed soon after by the three-letter giants of radio: NBC, CBS and ABC.

Boris’ network would distinguish itself by its programming. Whereas the others aired a variety of programs — news and sports, situational comedies and anthology dramas — Boris’ would specialize in music. A series about Mozart, for example, would be shot entirely in the composer’s hometown of Salzburg, and live performances from the great concert halls of the world would be broadcast straight into American living rooms.

And it would be different in one other important respect: it would operate as a front for the MGB, the newest call sign for the Soviet intelligence service that, at other points in its history, was also known as the NKVD and KGB. Like American Recording Artists, the new network would open international branch offices wherever the Soviets had intelligence-gathering needs, all under the guise of seeking out new musical talent for the airwaves.

Over dinner the previous November at the Pomme d’Amour in Paris, Boris told his two FBI handlers that he’d been summoned to Moscow to discuss the proposal.

“Now, fellows, what do you think I should do?”

The special agents looked at each other. Considering that it was essentially an FBI counterintelligence sting, he expected them to urge him on to Moscow to close the deal. After all, Boris had set up two companies, Worldwide Television, Inc., and the Boris Morros Music Corporation, and rented a lavish fourteenth-floor suite in midtown Manhattan, all with Bureau funds, a welcome substitute for his former business partners.

After a pregnant pause, one of the agents finally spoke. “Of course we want you to go, but under no circumstances will we give you orders or instructions to go. You have to make up your own mind.”

Boris suggested they cable the special-agent-in-charge in New York, or even headquarters in Washington, for guidance. But the agents refused.

“We know this is very dangerous. We can’t protect you there. We can’t go along. Our office wouldn’t sanction it.”

Boris had become one of the Bureau’s most closely guarded secrets. Should something go wrong, there would be nowhere to run for sanctuary.

“Nobody in the American Embassy in Moscow knows you,” the agents warned.

The FBI men had only one emergency protocol at their disposal. If they learned he was in immediate danger, they would find a way to send him a single codeword — the latest Hollywood innovation, a three-projector, widescreen process — CINERAMA.

“What would you want me to find out there?”

“You used to be a musician, Boris. You’ll have to play this one by ear.”

The agents suspected that the television deal was only a pretext for his invitation. Moscow’s spymasters likely wanted to size him up in person — a general meeting, in the parlance of Hollywood. If the spymasters approved, Boris would be fully accepted as an MGB operative, which would make him an even more valuable American asset. If they disapproved — well, the FBI men wisely kept silent about that possibility.

Boris had heard the horror stories. Others who braved a return to their native Russia had been arrested by the secret police, declared traitors to the homeland, and shot — or tortured until they wished they were shot. It made no difference that he now carried an American passport. Once a Soviet citizen, always a Soviet citizen.

The fate of his youngest brother, Aleksandr, haunted him. Once a rising Party apparatchik, Aleksandr was one of three Morros brothers swept up in the so-called Great Terror of the 1930s that sent more than a million Soviet citizens to the Gulag and another 681,692 to their deaths. When Boris learned of his brothers’ arrests, he begged his friends in Soviet intelligence to intervene. They obliged. Soon they secured the release of Savely and Yuliy Morros. Sadly, when they finally tracked down Boris’s third brother, there was nothing they could do for him. Aleksandr Morros had already paid Vysshaya Mera Nakazaniya — “the highest measure of punishment.”

The Gulag could even swallow up non-Russians, with little concern for the diplomatic consequences. Only a year had passed since Alexander Dolgun, a file clerk at the US embassy in Moscow, born in the Bronx to Polish immigrants, stepped out for lunch. As he was walking down the sidewalk, a man called out after him. Dolgun stopped, and the man wrapped his arms around him in a bear hug. “Old buddy! How wonderful to see you. It’s been such a long time.” Dolgun had never seen the man before in his life, but before he knew it he was in the back seat of a Pobeda, speeding toward the Lubyanka prison. He was not heard from again for seven years.

If Boris wanted the money for his television company, he would have to come face to face with the men who orchestrated such terror. Ultimately, he would have to persuade Stalin’s foreign intelligence chief, an MGB lieutenant general named Pyotr Fedotov.

In an organization of maniacal ideologues and sadistic killers, Fedotov set himself apart with his reputation for calm, dispassionate analysis and his charming manners. He was often characterized as “professorial,” an effect attributable as much to demeanor as to his gray hair and eyeglasses. But looks can deceive, and Fedotov could be ruthless in his pursuit of traitors. He was believed to be the trigger man in several political killings during the Great Terror, including the 1938 execution of the Soviet ambassador to Hungary. And few had more experience at ferreting out foreign agents. During the Second World War, Fedotov directed military counterintelligence within SMERSH — a Soviet agency whose name meant “death to spies.”

Unbeknownst to Boris, he would also have to overcome the denunciations of his former business partner, herself a valued Soviet intelligence asset with a track record of success. Martha Dodd Stern’s secret memo — set aside at the time by the MGB bureaucracy — still moldered somewhere inside the agency’s Lubyanka headquarters, dormant but deadly, like unexploded ordnance.

Now, as Boris’ train hurtled through the darkness toward Moscow, the boy was still playing with his toy gun. Boris stopped him to ask if he was shooting Indians.

“Not Indians,” the young Russian answered. “Americans.”

The safe house was located on the third floor of a brick-and-stone apartment building on Meshchanskaya Street, in one of Moscow’s recently redeveloped neighborhoods. At the door, the junior MGB officer escorting Boris enacted an elaborate signal. He rang the doorbell, rang it again, and then knocked — once, twice, three times. Only after the third knock did a woman’s voice answer from inside.

“Who?” the voice asked.

“Owls,” the officer answered.

The door swung open to reveal a housekeeper, who smiled at them with her gold tooth. Inside, the apartment was furnished in what Boris judged was the height of Russian respectability but in New York, would pass for lower-middle-class. There was a record player, a large knockoff Zenith radio, and, fittingly, a television set.

But not his dinner companion. Prior to his ultimate showdown with Fedotov, Boris was scheduled to meet another intelligence officer, Colonel Aleksandr Mikhailovich Korotkov. As head of the MGB’s shadowy Illegals Section, Korotkov was responsible for all the agency’s deep-cover operatives. At his command were hundreds of MGB officers working under non-official cover, as well as the thousands of foreign agents they recruited through ideological persuasion, blackmail, or cold, hard cash.

The MGB colonel was running late — a classic Hollywood power move Boris knew well. It gave him time to reflect on his predicament. He was certain that his room at the Metropol, a remnant of pre-revolutionary Russia in all its faded glory, was bugged. And when he left the confines of his hotel, the hairs on the back of his neck told him he was being followed. Part of him still reveled in these shadowy thrills. But another part was downright terrified about where this all-too-real spy-thriller was headed.

Finally, two hours later, there were two rings and three knocks at the door, and in stepped Korotkov. With his movie-star good looks — square jaw, thick blond hair — he appeared young for someone who occupied such a high station, barely 40 years old. Then again, Stalin’s purges had not spared the security services’ upper ranks.

As a young man, Korotkov got his start as an elevator operator in the secret police’s Lubyanka headquarters, but the bosses there soon realized his talents were wasted pulling levers and pushing buttons. He quickly mastered the German language and, under non-official cover, infiltrated the Third Reich, where he uncovered evidence that Hitler was preparing to break his non-aggression pact with Stalin. Once war did break out, Korotkov donned a tattered Wehrmacht uniform and embedded himself within the Red Army’s POW camps, prying even more secrets from captured German officers.

Now, as this legend of the spy world settled in across the dining table from his Hollywood secret agent, Boris would have to keep his secrets more secure. The housekeeper brought out caviar and vodka. Despite the refreshments, the conversation got off to a bad start.

Korotkov brought up Boris’ intelligence reports on Thomas Dewey and Earl Warren, the Republican Party’s 1948 ticket. Boris had thought it amusing to scribble those reports on the back of a golf scorecard. It didn’t seem so funny anymore.

The MGB colonel glared at him through steel-rimmed glasses. The reports, he snarled, “could have been written for the New York Times.”

Boris’ heart sank. His actual source for those reports was the FBI, and of course those two by-the-book special agents hadn’t given him any compromising information.

“In fact,” Korotkov continued, “I suspect that is the newspaper you copied them from.” The colonel had a habit of talking through his teeth and biting off his words, which made him seem angry about everything. “It may be a surprise to you, but we also subscribe to the New York Times.”

Desperate to change the subject, Boris poured some vodka and offered a toast to Korotkov’s health.

No, Korotkov corrected him, let’s drink to Mrs. Morros.

Catherine had nothing to do with this — so why was Korotkov invoking her? She had spent much of her time in Moscow shopping with her strong American dollars. Surely that was no crime, even in Russia. Or had a microphone caught her denouncing those cursed Reds yet again?

He offered an olive branch. “I am sure that we all wish from the bottom of our hearts,” Boris said, raising his glass, “for peace between the United States and Russia.”

He gulped down the vodka and felt that familiar burning sensation in his throat. Only as it subsided did Boris, self-satisfied, glance at his drinking partner. The spymaster was still holding a full glass.

Korotkov slammed his fist on the table. “How in hell can you have peace when you have that goddamned government?” The spy boss wasn’t just angry about the grand ideological struggle; some resentment about the recent world war still simmered. “Did we not win the war,” he demanded, “without any help from our so-called Allies in the West — until the real fighting was over?” He had a point — the German blitzkrieg claimed millions of Russian lives before a single American died at Pearl Harbor.

Boris couldn’t get a word in. Korotkov went on: “Isn’t our food better than theirs? Our cars? Our houses? Above all, our thinking?”

The colonel only cooled off when coffee was served. He squeezed some lemon into his cup and explained that he always took his coffee that way — it sobered him up.

Boris thought this might be the time to pitch his TV proposal, a necessary preamble to his big pitch to Fedotov, but Korotkov cut him off. How long, he asked, was Boris staying in Moscow? Another week, Boris answered.

No, Korotkov told him menacingly. It would be longer than that.

The meeting with Korotkov had not gone well. Boris tried to put it out of his mind. With hundreds of Hollywood pitch meetings under his belt, he knew that a bad showing with an underling could be erased if you knocked the socks off the big boss.

As the fateful evening approached, Boris’ stomach grew more unsettled at the prospect of dinner with Lieutenant General Pyotr Vasileevich Fedotov.

Several officers had spent the past weeks interrogating and indoctrinating Boris. Now even they were on edge as they all waited for “the big man” to arrive. “Don’t interrupt Fedotov,” he was warned. “Don’t use anyone’s last name. Don’t ever say ‘in our country,’ and under no circumstances offer comparison between Russia and the United States.”

Boris listened to that advice carefully. When he’d arrived in Moscow, he was hopeful he could leave with a half million dollars to launch his television network. Now, he would thank God, or even Josef Stalin Himself, if he could simply leave in one piece.

The room stewed with nervous energy as Korotkov and his men watched the clock. Fedotov had been expected at seven, but he was running late — of course. One hour passed, then another. The night sky darkened. Finally, at half past nine, they heard the elaborate signal at the safe house door.

Ring.

If any man could expose Boris as a traitor to his native Russia, it was Fedotov. In his previous post as wartime counterintelligence chief, Fedotov had rooted out Nazi spies and others who would betray the Motherland.

Ring.

Would such a high ranking official actually carry out the dirty work of rooting out and even terminating a traitor? It wasn’t beyond the pale. MGB generals were known to personally torture prisoners within the Lubyanka.

Knock.

As a Jew, Boris was especially vulnerable. The Soviet Union was in the grip of anti-Semitic paranoia, with Stalin publicly declaring that all Russian Jews were secret agents of the United States. Even Korotkov, despite his rank and unquestioned loyalty, had been forced to divorce his Jewish wife.

Knock.

Boris’ seventeen-year career as a Soviet intelligence asset had seemed like an elaborate fantasy. Now it felt very real. Why had it taken this reckless trip to Moscow to realize what a fool he’d been? As a double-agent, he was also a double-traitor.

Knock.

The door swung open.

Boris was expecting a smoldering volcano of a man. He braced himself and looked toward the door, only to find the plump, smiling face of Pyotr Fedotov lighting up the room. A glimmer of hope. Surely this cheerful man couldn’t be his executioner? With his glasses and his combed-back gray hair, the spymaster looked more like a university professor than a murderous thug.

Fedotov introduced himself by his full name, himself breaking the rule about no last names.

At that moment, Boris made a bold decision. To hell with all the warnings, and to hell with these pussyfooters. Boris hadn’t become a Hollywood player by kowtowing to men like Zukor and Mayer or slavishly following the instructions of their subordinates. His flamboyant persona, his loud shirts, his tall tales, all of it was constructed to help him bridge gulfs in social status. That also went for the personal history he invented for himself, one that downplayed his hardscrabble immigrant origins, the vulgar striving. What he couldn’t hide — his accent, his Russian otherness — he weaponized as part of his charm offensive.

And so, as Korotkov and the others sat down for dinner, Boris turned his charm on Fedotov. He would schmooze the MGB general as if this were a power lunch at Romanoff’s on Rodeo Drive, address him as an equal, as if he had nothing to hide and nothing to fear.

It would be the bluff of his life.

When Fedotov bragged that Russia had coaxed one European nation after another into the eastern bloc, Boris interrupted to inquire about the fate of a divided Germany. The others squirmed at his blunt question, but Fedotov simply answered that the Kremlin was waiting on America and expected a resolution within a year or so.

When Fedotov brought up the arts, Boris noted that filmmakers worked toward different goals in Russia and America. Again, the others were aghast, having explicitly forbidden just such a frank comparison of capitalism and communism. But Fedotov agreed with Boris, commenting that under the Russian system artists must enlighten the problems of the world.

The worry on the others’ faces begged him to stop, as did the butterflies in his own stomach. Ignoring the others and treating his stomach with vodka, Boris kept up his act. If this was where his script ended, he would at least make the final pages interesting. Besides, he felt that familiar electricity. He was on a roll.

And then, in the middle of dinner, Fedotov suddenly turned cold. “Boris Mihkailovich!” Fedotov said, “I have here a disturbing report. It concerns you! One of our best American agents has warned against you.”

At once Boris knew just who had filed the report.

The general continued: “She said she had reason to believe you weren’t really a loyal communist, but were in fact working against us, for our enemies, like the FBI.”

If Fedotov carried a bullet meant for Boris, how would he accept his fate? How had his brother Aleksandr accepted his Supreme Penalty? Surely with dignity, and not as a coward. But there still might be a way out.

Moscow would never forget that Martha Dodd had stolen secrets from her own father to advance the Cause, but these men, all men, might be swayed by an attack on her gender. Thinking quickly, he chanced an almost absurd suggestion: “She never forgives a man for rebuffing her.”

The comment floated over the silent table. Then, remarkably, it seemed to sink in, turning Russian scowls into smirks.

And as evening turned into early morning, Boris found reassurance in the spymaster’s demeanor. Far from angry, Fedotov seemed delighted to be having a genuine conversation for once. Few in Stalin’s Russia dared to speak so frankly to a man of Fedotov’s rank. Moreover, Boris seemed to be earning the general’s trust. That much seemed clear when he brought up an apparently ongoing operation with the world’s most famous actor as its target.

“What do you think of Charlie Chaplin?” Fedotov asked. “Do you think he is actually a communist?” Fedotov continued: “Maybe someday we will give you the word to contact him and ask him to come to Moscow. We would give him anything — a villa for life and so forth. Josef Stalin wants to see him.”

Chaplin was an old acquaintance. Boris could make an approach — but he would need to find the right angle so that he as well as Josef Stalin came out ahead.

By now Boris had forgotten about his stomach. He grew even more confident when Fedotov asked whether he could help establish a backchannel to the White House through an acquaintance of his: Margaret Truman, the president’s daughter. “We are very anxious to have Truman ask Stalin for a meeting,” Fedotov explained. “We want it, but we don’t want to lose face by asking for the conference ourselves.”

Fedotov then voiced his grudging respect for the folksy politician from Missouri. “Truman is a much better man than we all thought. He has guts,” Fedotov said. “Such a stupid guy makes a fine president.”

All this candor signaled two things. First, Boris was no longer in Hollywood, where true feelings were seldom shared. Second, and more importantly, he had earned the spymaster’s approval. He couldn’t be sure whether he’d won him over in the room or if Fedotov, briefed on the interrogations by his subordinates, had made up his mind beforehand. But Boris had seen studio bosses succumb to his charm in Hollywood restaurant booths, coaxing green-lights from them over several rounds of Martinis. Now, something similar was happening in this Moscow safehouse.

Boris brought up his proposal. It was met with enthusiasm.

The spymasters agreed to invest $350,000 in Boris’ television company. To conceal its investment, the MGB concocted an elaborate cover story. Publicly, Boris would broker the sale of 50 independent American films to the Soviet Ministry of Cinematography for distribution across the communist world. Privately, the ministry would pay inflated prices, at least twice what the distribution rights were worth. Boris agreed to turn around and invest the proceeds in his new television network, putting undercover Soviet operatives on the payroll.

When the conversation finally drew to a close at half-past five in the morning, the MGB officers who had writhed at Boris’ petulance were in for a final shock. With his private car waiting outside, Fedotov dismissed his chauffeur and announced that he would drive Boris back to the hotel himself.

Outside the Metropol, Fedotov got out of the car and kissed Boris on the cheek, three times. As Boris climbed into bed next to his blissfully ignorant wife, the words of the MGB general rang in his ears.

“If there is anyone you don’t like,” he said, “anyone who is annoying you and you don’t want around anymore, just let me know.”

Martha Dodd may have come to Boris’ mind. But the double agent had another way of getting back at Martha for what turned out to be her very correct suspicions.

As America’s only human intelligence source inside the MGB — not even the CIA had cracked that nut — Boris gave J. Edgar Hoover, who personally monitored his case from the director’s office, interagency bragging rights. More importantly, his detailed recollections of Moscow, catalogued in Headquarters file 100–202315, provided intelligence leaders with rare glimpses of their adversary’s inner workings.

Boris also helped stave off Soviet interference in an American election, and that intelligence coup came with a satisfying dose of revenge.

Immediately after he identified Martha Dodd and Alfred Stern as Soviet agents, the FBI placed them under 24-hour surveillance, tapping their phones, checking their mail, and searching their trash cans. What they learned was troubling. The Sterns had recently become close friends with former vice president Henry Wallace, who was challenging Truman in 1948 under the banner of the Progressive Party. In fact, Martha Dodd Stern had persuaded Wallace to run.

When Wallace asked Martha to work as his speechwriter, she went straight to the Soviet consulate and asked for talking points. When Moscow kept silent, she voiced her frustration to her handler. “Why aren’t there any instructions from there?” she demanded. “Do they really think nothing should be done or nothing can be done?”

Later in the race, when Wallace’s campaign was lagging, Alfred begged for some prominent Soviet figure to give a speech recalling the nations’ shared sacrifice in defeating Nazism. “We need this right now,” he pleaded, acknowledging that Wallace couldn’t win at this point, but reminding Moscow that more votes for Wallace could spoil Truman’s re-election.

“It’s possible to do a great deal through Wallace,” Martha reiterated to her handler, “but we need to receive direction.”

They never did. Moscow was aware that the Sterns were under surveillance and was reluctant to partner with them again, especially on such a sensitive operation. In the end, Wallace did not collude with Moscow, and America’s first election of the Cold War was not compromised.

Instead, a federal grand jury summoned Boris and listened with interest as he recounted the secret history of American Recording Artists. Sealed indictments followed. Rumors of a pending prosecution found their way to Martha and Alfred Stern, who fled first to Mexico City, before realizing Mexico wasn’t far enough. One pitch-black morning, the “Escamilla” family — a mother, father, and 11-year-old son carrying Paraguayan passports — boarded a KLM flight for Montreal, connected to Amsterdam, and then caught another flight to Zurich. By the time American authorities caught up to them, the “Escamillas” had ducked behind the Iron Curtain.

Justice of a sort had been done. But the Sterns were not Boris’ only quarry — far from it. As with so many Hollywood promises, the television money never materialized and Boris was denied his dream. But Moscow gave its man in Hollywood a new assignment, one the FBI would want to monitor with care. Boris was to recruit ten prominent Americans to defect and resettle in the Soviet Union.

Recalling his conversation with Fedotov, he proposed starting with Charlie Chaplin.

Nyet.

Moscow had someone else in mind for its first catch: America’s most controversial physicist, a target so coveted that Moscow had already assigned him the codename CHESTER. Boris Morros was ordered to recruit the architect of the atomic bomb, J. Robert Oppenheimer, self-proclaimed “destroyer of worlds.”

“Do you think you could do it?” he was asked.

Boris had never met Oppenheimer. In fact, despite his impressive Rolodex, he had few friends in the halls of science. But his life as a movie producer, music mogul, spy, and double agent had taught him a thing or two about where a good bluff could lead you.

“Yes, it’s possible.”

Nathan Masters is a writer and the Emmy Award-winning host and executive producer of Lost L.A., a public television series about Los Angeles history.

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Nathan Masters
Truly*Adventurous

Nathan Masters is a writer and the Emmy Award-winning host and executive producer of Lost L.A., a public television series about Los Angeles history.