Before he was a spy, ‘Argo’s’ Tony Mendez was an artist. He still is.
The artist was a spy. In some of the world’s most dangerous places, his cover was often his palette. And his painter’s eye made him a master of disguise and subterfuge during a storied CIA career that is the subject of an Oscar-nominated movie starring Ben Affleck.
Now retired, Tony Mendez is not easy to find. He has hidden himself along a rocky road in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Western Maryland, where he and his wife, Jonna, another former spy, have traded the art of deception for artistry of a different sort.
Their secluded red carriage house on 40 acres in Knoxville, about 15 miles from Frederick, is connected to a large gallery and studios. Tony paints. Jonna shoots photographs. Antonio “Toby” Mendez, Tony’s son, shows up every day to sculpt. They work quietly and in seclusion, save for their twice-a-year gallery showings for art buyers risking their mufflers to spend thousands of dollars. They don’t even interact much with one another while they work.
“If I’m in the middle of something, and one of them came in and said I should make something yellow, that would be blasphemy,” Tony said not long ago, sitting in his living room and wearing a black leather jacket with a CIA emblem. “We leave each other alone.”
Their solitude has been interrupted lately by brave limousine drivers fetching Tony and Jonna for trips to Hollywood and New York with Affleck, who plays Tony in “Argo,” an acclaimed film about the daring rescue in January 1980 of six American diplomats during the Iranian hostage crisis.
The publicity machine for the movie, up for five Golden Globe Awards on Sunday night and seven Academy Awards next month, has nudged a reclusive family into public view. For the ex-spies, it has been unfamiliar terrain. For the artists, it has been great for business, particularly Tony’s landscapes.
A few months ago, at the family’s most recent showing, 600 people came through over a weekend, more than doubling the normal foot traffic. The family ran out of food for two days in two hours. Tony sat in a director’s chair in front of an “Argo” poster — his glasses and graying beard a colorless contrast with his younger, glamorous doppelganger — and signed copies of a book he wrote about his rescue operation.
And he sold 16 paintings, including a deep, intense oil work of two rowboats at Fletcher’s Boathouse along the C & O Canal. Natoma Vargason, who runs a Boonsboro gallery that sells works by the family, said Tony could have sold the painting “dozens of times.”
A wealthy investor in Baltimore, there with his family, snagged it for about $4,000, the top price for one of Mendez’s works. It’s the family’s first Mendez painting. “It’s so forceful in its subtlety,” the investor said, declining to have his name published. “The rustic nature of the boats. Its exquisite beauty. The water is shimmering. It really spoke to us.”
The painter’s biography inspired them too.
“This is a painting that stands alone on its merits,” the buyer said. “But there’s some pride that goes along with saying, ‘This guy is an amazing artist and on top of that, look what he did for his country.’”
An artist first
Antonio Mendez, like most spies, has led a double life. He always believed his primary calling was as a painter.
He took up sketching and watercolors as a boy growing up in Nevada and Colorado. Even then, he showed a knack for dissembling. His first disguise: posing as a girl for a school dance. He became Denise, and she danced among the boys. “My first cover operation,” Mendez said.
He pursued a career as an illustrator before a friend gave him a help wanted ad that read, “Artists to Work Overseas — U.S. Navy Civilians.” He liked the idea of working abroad, so he went to the interview. It was conducted — strangely, he thought — in a dingy motel room. The interviewer handed him a paper that said, “TOP SECRET— NO FORN DISSEM.”
“Then my eye moved down the page,” Mendez wrote in “The Master of Disguise,” one of his memoirs. “I was staring at a recruitment guide prepared by the Central Intelligence Agency, Technical Services Division.”
Mendez joined the agency in 1965 and became an expert forger and disguiser. He eventually went abroad, often working undercover as an artist. His speciality was spiriting people out of countries before they were killed, as he — played by Affleck — does in “Argo,” when he dreamed up a fake movie to whisk six U.S. diplomats out of Iran. That was his second life — as a spy, a deceiver.
“I’ve always considered myself to be an artist first, and for 25 years I was a pretty good spy,” he often says.
Mendez, now 72, retired from the CIA in 1990. His clandestine career was revealed in 1997 when the CIA declassified the Argo mission and honored him as one of its 50 best officers of its first 50 years.
Getting Mendez talking about his life is a thorny operation. Though he has a sharp, dry sense of humor, he can be taciturn with strangers, even on his best days.
Last week in New York, after an appearance together on “Good Morning America,” Affleck recounted watching the movie with Mendez at the Toronto Film Festival. The audience went wild afterward. Affleck said to Mendez: “This is about your life. These people are applauding you and your achievements. What does that feel like?”
Mendez was silent for a moment and then replied, “Yeah, it’s great.”
Affleck spent hours with Mendez prepping for the movie. The actor — he was also the director — fished for as many details as he could pry loose. Mendez showed him around the CIA and the District. They wound up developing a funny rapport, and it has deepened as the two have met with Oscar voters and reporters.
Asked what he first thought of Affleck, Mendez paused and then, in a typical monotone voice, replied, “I thought he was a little overbearing.”
Affleck laughed and retorted, “The guy thinks he’s in the [expletive] Catskills. It’s unbelievable. It’s a CIA guy, and he’s doing shtick. Tony Mendez will be at the HaHa Hole.”
Affleck’s affection for Mendez is palpable, and he was fascinated by his paintings, though he couldn’t work them into the film.
“It’s extremely unusual, it seems to me, to have a guy who does this job who is also an artist,” he said. “Those two things seem at odds — an operative and an artist. But when you look at the art itself, you see the fastidiousness and the detail, and I think that speaks to his character and why he was successful.”
Art was often Mendez’s cover story, and in the annals of quirky covers, his was novel in that it was both a deception and a reality. He set up a studio wherever he traveled, painting when he had time, often capturing scenes he saw on his missions. Over his kitchen sink in Knoxville, there is an oil painting of a goat wandering on the fringe of a jungle in Southeast Asia.
“The cover a lot of time is that you’re a tourist,” Mendez said. “You gotta dress down. You gotta style yourself. The artist thing was great because artists are nuts. You can start talking about art and put the guy to sleep very quickly. If he wants me to do something on the spot, I can do that, too.”
Toby Mendez, 49, as a boy, often went into his father’s studio, where he played with tools and fashioned wood into miniature boats and toys. Today, he sculpts for public and private clients. He sculpted the Thurgood Marshall monument at the Maryland State House and several baseball players at Camden Yards in Baltimore and Fenway Park in Boston.
Jonna — Mendez’s second wife; his first, Karen, died of cancer in 1986 — takes her cameras around the world shooting streetscapes, familiar territory in her own spy days.
“I did photography at the CIA,” said Jonna, 67. And she paused. “Very different photography. Have you ever been in the Spy Museum? Some of my cameras are in there. One’s in a button. One’s in a pen.”
Recapturing their solitude
Tony and Toby have been showing their work at the family gallery since the late 1980s, and Jonna joined them a few years later.
Toby makes a good living as a full-time sculptor. Tony and Jonna don’t depend on their art to live; they have healthy pensions and income from books and the movie. But their regular collectors are loyal and passionate and often become family friends.
One is Barbara Spicher, a music professor at Hood College in Frederick. She has 12 of Tony’s paintings and several of Jonna’s photos and Toby’s sculptures.
It still floors her that Tony and Jonna were spies. “I don’t get to meet many of our covert operatives,” she said.
The family is looking forward to getting back to their old lives. Tony and Jonna haven’t had much time to work.
“I think the 15 minutes will be up soon,” Jonna said.
They keep loose connections to the CIA, interviewing job candidates and occasionally sending memos. And they serve on the board of directors at the Spy Museum, where Tony led a counterfeiting class not long ago.
“He taught everyone to perfectly forge Vladimir Putin’s signature,” Jonna said, as a smile materialized on Tony’s face. “And then he sent them into the world.”
Tony has been slowed a bit by health problems, but he was proud of the Fletcher’s Boathouse painting, which he painted with a palette knife instead of a brush. He hopes to do more paintings like it, a series.
When Toby saw it, he told his father, “Don’t touch it.”
When Jonna saw it, she told her husband, “Don’t sell it.”
But it went out the door.
“My favorite painting,” Tony said, “is the next one.”