Lunch with the Countess

La Condesa de Romanones | Crumbs de Vie

La Condesa de Romanones and I in her home in Madrid

Life can be unexpected. When young Aline Griffith, born in 1923, was growing up in upstate New York, she longed to travel the world as a journalist. Little did she know that by 1947 at the age of 24, she would be working as an American spy in Spain and married to a count from one of the country’s oldest and most powerful families. Many years later, she would be sitting in her dining room eating chocolate mousse and whipped cream with me. And so my story begins.

I stood perplexed at the closed gate, debating whether the only visible button was a doorbell or an alarm. As I reached hesitantly to flip the switch, a voice called out from behind me, “you must be here for lunch!” and I spun to see la Condesa de Romanones, a woman I knew only from her books, walking briskly down the street and not 10 feet away, a black wide-brimmed hat pulled low over one eye. Spies can be stealthy.

After exchanging pleasantries, the Countess led us through the gate and up a flight of outdoor stairs to the house. As I stepped from the lush patio through the large front door, my eyes danced about the room before me, from the mirrored entryway where the Countess adjusted her perfectly coiffed hair, to the exquisite porcelain vases perched on polished wooden pedestals, to the wall covered from floor to ceiling in shelves of neatly stacked leather bound books. We stepped into the living room and settled ourselves on gilded settees among a lifetime’s collection of paintings, sculptures, furniture, and rugs that would rival any museum exhibit.

Our conversation quickly shifted to the Countess’ lifelong career as an American spy. She had been working as a model in New York City in 1943 when she was recruited by the OSS from over 200 women to be a secret agent. At only 20 years old, the Countess was sent for training at “The Farm” outside of Washington D.C. where she learned to live without an identity, pick locks, kill silently with a knife, and speak in code. She was soon sent to Madrid, with a mission of infiltrating high society and gaining access to a network of distinguished friends from whom she could gather critical information about the war. While there was a strong culture shock in moving from the most advanced nation on the planet to one where horse-drawn carriages stood in place of taxis, the Countess fell in love with Spain, not to mention a count, and would continue her undercover work in the country for more than 30 years.

Stepping down into the latticed dining room, where the Countess has hosted such friends as Audrey Hepburn, Ava Gardner, and Henry Kissinger, we sat at a small round table overlooking the enclosed pool and discussed the restoration of La Pascualete, a 13th century Romanones family estate in southern Spain. The Countess spent years personally renovating the once forgotten property and is now the proud owner of a historic palace with a pool, airport, golf course, and most importantly, world-famous cheese. And because restoring a 13th century estate wasn’t enough of a challenge, the Countess studied paleography and spent several years reading ancient documents and piecing together the history of her prestigious family as far back as 1232, uncovering stories of revenge, loyalty, religion, and war. Certainly, the Countess has secured a place for herself in the illustrious history of the Romanones name.

While I could have questioned the Countess for hours about her adventures, our lunch drew to a close. We walked back to the entryway of her home, pausing to take a photo in front of the Goya painting hanging in her living room. She kindly signed and presented me with a copy of The History of Pascualete and urged me to return to Madrid, once again impressing me with her generosity. We said our goodbyes and parted ways, she to dress for a dinner with several foreign diplomats and I to mentally replay the wonderful afternoon that I won’t soon forget.

La Condesa de Romanones is an inspiration: as a government agent who helped saved countless American lives, as a Spanish grandee who has uncovered hundreds of years of history for her adopted country, as an international jet setter who has improved relations between the United States and Spain, as a mother and grandmother who has raised an impressive family, as an author who has amazed and inspired readers around the world, and as a woman who accomplished these achievements in a time and place where women were expected to do little besides dress well. They say that you should never meet your heroes, because they will never live up to your expectations. I’m pleased to report that that’s not true.

No one tells the Countess’ stories better than she. I strongly recommend that everyone read these remarkable books:

  • The History of Pascualete (1963)
  • The Earth Rests Lightly (1964)
  • An American in Spain (1980)
  • The Spy Wore Red (1988)
  • The Spy Went Dancing (1991)
  • The Spy Wore Silk (1991)
  • The Well-Mannered Assassin (1994)
  • El Fin de una Era (2010)

Learn more about La Condesa de Romanones at the links below:

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A French Christmas Market

French Christmas Market - CrumbsdeVie

French Christmas Trees

It’s been quite some time since my last entry and we have a lot to catch up on: lunching with countesses, oven-less Thanksgiving, castles galore! Indeed, there are many posts to come. But first, I must share with you a tale from yesterday. I feel I owe you a warning in case you ever find yourself at a French Christmas market.

I spent yesterday working in my apartment with the curtains drawn, only to find that by the time I finished, the sun had already set. Determined to leave my couch, I took myself on a walk to the nearby Christmas market where I wandered through the warmly lit stalls, surrounded by overjoyed children and vendors selling handmade ornaments. Although the trees were a tad smaller, the Christmas lights glimmered not with a golden glow but with a bright blue tint, and the Santa was certainly less plump, I concluded that French Christmas markets live up to the joy of their American counterparts, perhaps with just a bit more angst.

But as I stood admiring the seasonal baked goods of a particularly jolly boulanger, I noticed that the odd music drifting through the market was getting closer. Naturally, upon hearing such a clatter, I turned to see what was the matter, only to find that I was within an arm’s reach of my worst nightmare: dancing mimes on stilts.

Suppressing a shriek of terror and nearly knocking over a stall in my clambering backwards, I ran from the most unsettling thing I have ever seen: three winged mimes with white painted faces swaying on stilts to the eery mechanical music of a sound system pedaled along by a fourth swaying mime. From my pitiful hiding spot behind a scraggly French Christmas tree (American Christmas trees are much better hiding spots) I marveled at the fact that the nearby Parisians seemed entertained by this sight and regained enough good sense to whip out my camera. So here you have it, a French Christmas market complete with dancing mimes on stilts. You have been warned: