[The First Lady of the USA has a busy day]
She had received the winners of a painting contest sponsored by a national association of handicapped persons. Then, [the designer] Ladbury himself, just arrived from London, had appeared for a preliminary fitting of new dresses and gowns she hoped to wear in Moscow and London. Without rest, assisted by her personal maid Sarah Keating, she had plunged into a search for an old college scrapbook that Guy Parker needed as research for the autobiography he was ghostwriting for her. Next, she had hastened downstairs… to receive the delegation of Girl Scouts and their leaders and pass out special awards to those who had performed outstanding community service. With less than five minutes to spare, she had gone with Nora to the Yellow Oval Room upstairs, where the gathering of press representatives had been having tea while awaiting her arrival.
observations: My good friend Prashant C Trikkanad recently talked about this book on his excellent blog Chess, Crosswords and Comics. The name of the post was ‘Sex in Fiction’ and he revealed that as a teenager this was one of the books that he enjoyed for its risqué content – but that it was also a good Cold War thriller with a twisty plot and a surprise ending. The plot sounded high concept & intriguing so obviously I had to read it: especially after enjoying a recent book on the Argentine First Lady Eva Peron - on the blog recently.
So this is the plot. The KGB has groomed a young actress to impersonate the First Lady of the USA, and at a key moment they organize the substitution. The real First Lady, Billie, is held in Moscow, while Vera takes her place. This is a short-term plan (covering a specific political crisis) and they think the sub can get away without having sex with the President. But they thought wrong. So the Soviets need to find out from the prisoner Billie what kind of sex she has with the President – most other things in her life they were able to check up on, but not this one. So perhaps a handsome young KGB man could go to bed with her and find out? And then pass on his observations?
This is a truly jaw-dropping plot point, and I can truly see where teenage boys will have loved this book – there are two sexual encounters with the two First Ladies and both are described in enormous detail, if in rather a clinical, matter-of-fact tone.
In addition to this – while talking about Patricia Ferguson's excellent Aren’t We Sisters? the other day, I mused that internal gynaecological examinations really don’t turn up in books very often, et voila, here’s another one inside a month. Again, quite unnecessary detail.
The whole impersonation plot is mind-boggling and you just have to suspend your disbelief and stop asking questions (eg were their feet the same size?), and wondering how on earth you could keep this secret when there was a huge staff of people in Moscow working towards training the young woman. You just have to rattle along with the plot – and the ending, as Prashant says, is extremely well-done: you don’t know how he’s going to get out of the situation he has got his characters into, but the final twist is a real humdinger.
It’s a weird mixture of sex talk and the Famous Five : ‘The key is in the pocket of the velvet suit model, the black velvet outfit on the mannequin’, for goodness sake. Meanwhile, at a secret meeting overheard by one of the goodies, each person introduces himself and then they run over their nefarious deeds to date, which is handy for the eavesdropper.
I am immensely grateful to Prashant for introducing me to this splendid book – it reminds me somewhat of the recent US TV series The Americans, which I also enjoyed.
The picture, from the US National Archives, shows First Lady Rosalynn Carter – obviously, not a Soviet spy – with some Girl Scouts in 1977.