Spy Sites of New York: No One Saw a Thing 

Spy Sites of New York: No One Saw a Thing

Two patrons, each carrying a Macy’s bag, joined the lunch crowd at a midtown diner. They sat on adjacent counter stools, never acknowledging one another. One finished a roast beef sandwich and departed taking a bag. Several minutes later the other, who had pie and coffee, tipped the waitress $5 tip, picked up the bag and walked out to 8th Avenue. It was an ordinary day at the diner. No one noticed the two had switched bags. No one suspected espionage. No one realized that a national secret had passed into the hands of the enemy.


On Christmas Eve of 1944, Julius Rosenberg passed a prototype of the top secret  Proximity Fuze to his Soviet handler, Aleksandr Feklisov, in a Horn and Hardart Automat on Broadway. The device, stolen from a government lab in Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, was designed to detonate an artillery shell close to its aircraft target, negating the need for a direct hit. The 15-pound Proximity Fuze was also among America’s most closely held wartime secrets and revolutionized anti-aircraft defensive armaments.

A somewhat modernized Soviet version of the Fuze brought down Francis Gary Powers’ U-2 aircraft in 1960. What began 15 years earlier with two spies meeting in a midtown budget eatery resulted in escalated Cold War tensions, headlines around the world, and cancelation of the planned US-USSR Paris summit.

That such a significant exchange occurred in an ordinary setting may seem incongruous, but for spies needing to effect a clandestine delivery, this was tradecraft at its best. Forty of the automated cafeteria-style Automats were scattered around Manhattan at the time of the exchange. Typically located on busy thoroughfares  and with multiple windows and entrances, the well-lit, busy, anonymous cafeteria’s design enabled spies to blend in with hundreds of others for brief non-alerting meetings, then disappear among hundreds of others on the crowded sidewalk. Although generations of spy fiction depicts dirty deeds in dark alleys and dive bars, the work of spies is most often conducted in unremarkable public locations.  Another chain, Bickford’s was known for its following among Beat Generation luminaries such as Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and Andy Warhol, but offered a similarly unpretentious atmosphere used by spies.

Movie theaters such as Radio City Music Hall and other film venues from Brooklyn to the Bronx were equally attractive meeting sites. Alger Hiss and Whittaker Chambers met their KGB handler in the RKO Prospect Theatre in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood. While larger theaters of the 1930s and 1940s also met espionage requirements with multiple entrances and exits along with darkness that made identification or surveillance difficult. Large moviegoing crowds enabled spies to become lost among the audience as they entered and exited the theater.

Hotels offered privacy for clandestine acts as well as residences. The midtown Hotel Taft (today the Michelangelo) on seventh Avenue was a site of multiple spy operations dating back to WWII. The hotel, then among the largest in New York, had multiple entrances and a direct walkway to the Roxy Theatre. The now defunct 6,000-seat venue known as “The Cathedral of the Motion Picture” offered additional multiple exits for anyone who entered the hotel.

After Soviet spy Alexander Orlov defected in Spain, and was on the run from Stalin’s assassins, he slipped into the US through Canada. Needing to avoid the attention of the FBI, he went to Manhattan with his family and checked into the Wellington Hotel on 7th Avenue under an alias. Like the Hotel Taft, The Wellington was a large property with multiple entrances and exits, and not far from the crowds of Times Square into which Orlov could quickly and thoroughly vanish.

Whether purposefully chosen or not, the best New York Cold War spy site award may go to Elizabeth Bentley. Her 58 Barrow Street apartment entrance was accessible only through a private alleyway obscured by a gate. Directly across the alleyway was one of the entrances to the former speakeasy Chumley’s. From its earliest days when it hosted hard-drinking authors such as Eugene O’Neill, William Faulkner, and John Steinbeck, the bar featured a second entrance around the corner at 86 Bedford that would have allowed Bentley to enter and leave her apartment unnoticed.

Many of the characteristics that influence the choice of location of legitimate businesses also meet the needs of spies. The upscale, popular Tavern on the Green restaurant in Central Park became a signal site for two important spies. Rudolph Abel, the Soviet spy portrayed in Bridge of Spies, used a sign by the adjacent bridle path to affix a thumbtack as a signal that a dead drop had been loaded or retrieved.  A few years later, GRU officer Dmitri Polyakov, recruited to spy for the US in the 1960s, also used a thumbtack as dead-drop signal, but he chose the the menu board outside the restaurant. In neither case would an extra thumbtack be noticed except by someone looking for it to appear.

During her several months in the US in 2010, Russian spy Anna Chapman favored a Starbucks on 8th Avenue and 47th Street as a location for covert communications by establishing a temporary ad hoc computer link between herself and handler passing nearby in a car. Starbucks, with hundreds of locations in Manhattan alone, is even more ubiquitous than the Automat or Bickford’s, and equally anonymous. But Starbucks was used by both sides. At the 10 Hanover Square location, a few blocks from Chapman’s 20 Exchange Place apartment, an undercover FBI agent inveigled the young spy into giving him her operational laptop for repair.

These examples illustrate that a well-planned espionage operation mimics normalcy. Just as everyday objects, like a can of shaving cream or a hollowed out book, make the best concealment devices, ordinary locations are often the best spy sites. The casual observer dismisses the spy and clandestine activity as part of the normal landscape without realizing that he or she just witnessed secret history in the making.


These and more than 200 other episodes of espionage are recounted in Spy Sites of New York: A Guide to the Region’s Secret History, now available at here and from local book sellers

Posted in True Crime.

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