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: