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Eli Meir Kaplan
Oct12 Tony Mendez Profile
Oct12 Tony Mendez Profile
Tony Mendez does not stand out in a crowd. With his mild manner, medium build, and soft voice, he could be, well, just about anyone.
And that’s precisely the point.
In another life, he was a master of disguise and deception, moving easily in and out of roles that masked his real life as a family man, talented artist, and, oh yes, spymaster. These faux personas ranged from boring Pentagon bureaucrat to flashy Hollywood producer.
In his role as a CIA agent, Mendez engineered the escape—or “exfiltration,” in spy talk—of six American diplomats from Iran on Jan. 27, 1980. While 53 of their colleagues were held hostage at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran—a captivity that would last 444 days—the smaller group had managed to get away, though not entirely. Able to avoid detection, but imperiled nonetheless, they holed up in the homes of two Canadian diplomats.
Enter Mendez, who cooked up a scheme so fantastical that it could only be the stuff of a Hollywood movie.
He named himself “production manager” for a fake film company, Studio Six. With the hidden diplomats assuming other cinematic roles, the “company” would purportedly scout locations in Iran for a fake sci-fi flick to be called Argo, from an inside-the-office knock-knock joke: “Knock knock. Who’s there? Argo. Argo who? Argo f--- yourself.”
And now, in what can only be called an example of art imitating life, a film by that name—chronicling Mendez’s audacious scheme more than three decades ago—has actually been produced. While he’s being portrayed by no less than Ben Affleck, the real Mendez and his family have cameo roles as extras. To coincide with the film’s opening this fall, Argo, the book, written by Mendez and co-author Matt Baglio, will appear in bookstores.
Meanwhile, Mendez, at 71, is, if no longer in hiding, quietly sequestered on a mountain slope in Washington County’s aptly named Pleasant Valley.
He’s been there, with occasional time away for undercover operations, since 1974, when he, his wife, and three children returned from seven years in Bangkok. In search of country property, he found 38 bucolic acres a mile off the paved road. Mendez and clan quickly got to work felling and debarking poplar trees and building a log cabin worthy of a young Abe Lincoln.
The two-room Mendez “mansion” had neither electricity nor running water. In their pampered life as expatriates, “The kids never picked up their socks,” Mendez says, adding, “I wanted them to learn about the out of doors, so I set out to do the Daniel Boone thing. For me, it was liberating.”
They roughed it in the cabin for two years, taking showers from a sprinkling can (with water heated on a potbelly stove), while work progressed on a more permanent dwelling nearby. All the while, for 13 years, Mendez commuted to his office in Foggy Bottom.
Today, his daughter, Amanda, lives with her two teenagers in the now wired and plumbed cabin down a gravel road from the main house. Mendez’s son, renowned sculptor Toby Mendez (see “Sculptural Integrity”), lives in Frederick, but has his studio on the property, in the same building where his dad paints landscapes one floor above. Another son, Ian, is deceased.
At the age of 50, in 1990, Mendez retired from the Central Intelligence Agency after 25 years. It was around the time that his first wife, Karen, died of cancer. He subsequently married Jonna Mendez, the woman who took his job as chief of disguise when he’d moved on. They have one son together, Jesse Lee, 19.
Both Tony and Jonna, now also retired, serve on the board of the International Spy Museum in Washington, DC. Ten years ago, they were consultants on the CBS show The Agency. Mendez has also worked on 22 documentaries.