S. Paul Kramer, 93; Writer, Secret Agent, Businessman
Tuesday, April 15, 2008
S. Paul Kramer, 93, who died April 6 at Sibley Memorial Hospital of congestive heart failure, was a secret agent during wartime, a businessman in postwar Latin America and a bon vivant in Georgetown. He also was a writer and raconteur with a cache of stories so rich they bordered on the unbelievable.
Family members and old friends among the Georgetown elite grew accustomed to hearing accounts that featured such real-life characters as Nelson Rockefeller, three American presidents, a would-be Nazi assassin, a Panamanian revolutionary, the last emperor of China and, of course, a suave young secret agent from Cincinnati. He provided details in a lively and engaging memoir called "Memories of a Secret Agent," self-published at age 91.
Mr. Kramer began his career in what he called "hugger-muggery" -- clandestine service -- in 1940, at the completion of his studies at Trinity College at Cambridge University. A professor who was aware of his fluency in Spanish and his dissertation on Latin America recommended him for a mysterious job involving Rockefeller, the FBI and British intelligence. The professor believed the young man's acting experience with the Cambridge Footlights also would come in handy. Insinuated onto the Rockefeller payroll, he was assigned to keep an eye on U.S. companies doing business in Latin America that were suspected of having Axis leanings. Officially, he was part of the press operation of the newly created Office for Coordination of Commercial and Cultural Relations between the American Republics, headed by Rockefeller; his clandestine task was ferreting out German, Russian and Japanese informants in the press office. Later he was assigned to shadow the Duke of Windsor when the former king came to Washington to confer about importing fresh tomatoes. He was to note any pro-Axis or suspicious conduct when the duke, known for his fascist inclinations, ventured outside the British Embassy. He detected none.
Mr. Kramer also moved into the downtown YMCA to befriend a young German who called himself Kurt Schmidt. The FBI believed the Nazis had dispatched the Milwaukee-born German citizen to Washington to assassinate President Franklin D. Roosevelt. After a few weeks' acquaintance, Mr. Kramer handed him over to an FBI agent but never learned his fate. His work, he wrote decades later, "contributed to the imprisonment, execution, murder, defection, disappearance and suicide of more people than I care to remember."
Simon Paul Kramer was born to wealth in Cincinnati. His father was one of the first neurosurgeons in the United States and an expert on psittacosis, also known as parrot fever. His mother was an heiress of the Halle department store fortune in Cleveland. The only thing she ever bequeathed her son, other than a trust fund that made him financially independent, was a $5 tie.
"I felt no genuine affection for either of them," he wrote of his parents.
He graduated cum laude from Princeton University in 1935, received a master's degree from Trinity College in modern European history and embarked on his career in espionage. Becoming a Navy officer in 1942, he learned Japanese at the Navy's language school at the University of Colorado in Boulder and spent the war years in the South Pacific and then Japan.
In September 1945, he single-handedly occupied the Japanese city of Kokura. As Mr. Kramer told the story, the 126th Infantry Regiment of the U.S. Army was supposed take control of the northern industrial city, but because of an orders mix-up, only Mr. Kramer showed up.
Fortunately, he was fluent in Japanese and possessed a sense of humor. So did the Kokura mayor, who was a retired general and former member of the Imperial Household. The two men got on famously until the occupying army arrived five days later.
Mr. Kramer also became acquainted with Prince Chichibu, the Japanese emperor's younger brother, who told him about Henry Pu Yi, the last emperor of China. Years later, Mr. Kramer acquired Pu Yi's autobiography, edited the voluminous work and had it published under the title "The Last Manchu." When Bernardo Bertolucci made his 1987 film, "The Last Emperor," based on the book, the paperback version became a bestseller.
Mr. Kramer joined the CIA after his discharge from the Navy in 1947 and worked primarily in Latin America. He left the agency in 1951. He ran several Latin American corporations but continued to frequent the shadows as an "illegal," a spy who operates outside established channels.
In 1959, he was living in Panama as head of the Panama Fisheries Corp. when the Arias family launched a coup to oust the dictator Ernesto de la Guardia. Perhaps it was coincidental, perhaps not, that Mr. Kramer was a close friend of the coup leader, Robert "Tito" Arias, and his wife, Dame Margot Fonteyn, a famed ballerina. She was briefly detained and then expelled from Panama for her role in the affair. Her husband managed to avoid arrest by fleeing in a shrimp boat provided by a source whose name Mr. Kramer declined to divulge.
A partner in Auerbach, Pollak and Richardson in New York and a consultant to the National Academy of Sciences, Mr. Kramer retired from work and espionage in the early 1960s. His inheritance and investments allowed him to spend the next four decades reading, writing, traveling and holding court in the salons of Georgetown.
His marriage to Mary Louise Belden Kramer ended in divorce.
Survivors include a daughter, Theresa Kramer of the District.