Assessment / Research / Robert Van Nice / William Emerson

The Architect-Turned-Spy

Robert Van Nice’s years of experience in Istanbul brought him to the attention of the O.S.S. (Office of Strategic Services) during the Second World War, and he served as an agent for the U.S. from 1944-1945.  He was eager to help out in any way that he could, and was proud to be useful to his country during this time.  In fact, just before he left for his post in Switzerland, he admitted that his only worry was that the war would end before he had a chance to do his part!

For a spy, Van Nice’s work was fairly tedious.  He spent most of his days in the basement of the counter-intelligence or “X-2” building in London, searching records and files of current and past agents for useful information.  In his biography of Paul Blum, (Van Nice’s eventual OSS boss in Bern), Robert S. Greene writes of the X-2 building:

“In the basement lay the fabled Registry, the all important ‘Indexes,’ containing dossiers on every known agent since the days of Christopher Marlowe.  Buried among them was Bob Van Nice. ‘We used to haul him out, covered with dust, and take him to lunch,’ June Roman said.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of Van Nice’s own memories centered on the building itself, which he described in his interview for the book:

“The emerging Van Nice thought the building ‘well over a hundred years old,’ remembering ‘the rickety elevator with its open shaft, surrounded by a wrought-iron grille about the height of a man’s head,’ that brought him up into the daylight.  The whole place seemed to him a rabbit warren of old apartments.”

We were even lucky enough to be able to check out Van Nice’s official O.S.S. dossier at the National Archives (NARA), which had recently been declassified.  They were mostly financial records, and contained some interesting tidbits about the administrative side of the O.S.S.–all the little cogs that kept it moving.

A scan of one of Van Nice’s files that we were able to study at the National Archives.

For instance, we were amused to see that an expense sheet listed “bribery” and “purchase of information” as entire categories of cost, just matter-of-fact-ly next to accomodations and travel.

Van Nice resigned from the O.S.S. after just one year of service. From his correspondence with his mentor and benefactor William Emerson, it seems as if he was eager to return to his former life.  In one letter to Emerson, he wrote:

“I am truly torn between love and duty in this affair, for I naturally want more than anything else to return to Betty and the children. I want also to see the study of St. Sophia finished in the manner we originally anticipated.  And finally, I look with apprehension on the speed with which Americans are pulling out of Europe.  The chaos is appalling, believe me, and by leaving in great numbers as if we were returning from a summer vacation, we are contributing to the feeling of Europeans that America will again leave the Continent to drown in its own misery.”

After resigning, he returned to his true passion almost immediately, beginning work yet again on Hagia Sophia which would continue until the late 1980’s.  His letters paint a picture that I’m sure was very common for men in his situation–too old to fight, but desperately wanting to help in some way, then becoming torn between a new set of responsibilities and old ones left behind.

3 thoughts on “The Architect-Turned-Spy

  1. I had to laugh at the June roman quote. It certainly enhanced a view of the man we have been hearing about while reading the blog over time in a few simple words.

  2. Pingback: Leaving Hagia Sophia: Istanbul before World War II | icfa

  3. Pingback: Hagia Sophia Homecoming: Returning to Istanbul after World War II | icfa

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