LITERARY BADDIES

When Graham Greene Lied About My Mom

In The Quiet American, Graham Greene lied about the author’s parents and other innocents in much the same way people now twist the tragedy of Benghazi for their own purposes.

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

I had to know the risks my mother and her lover—my father—were taking in Saigon: laughing together in a jeep with balloons, living together though the Foreign Office forbade it, making love with an armed guard posted outside his official residence—as there were at so many such residences at the time, in 1950-53. I had to know how much violence they faced, as a measure of how much they wanted to be together there. And I had to know for sure that I had come from love.

Graham Greene’s authorized biographer had insulted the memory of my mother, my father, that of the young man who would become my beloved stepfather—Jim Flood—and me. Norman Sherry had written in his biography of the late English writer that my father “paid” my mother $300 when she became pregnant by him and that he then returned to his wife in England—the truth of which is questionable and far from the whole not-simple and intensely romantic story. Then when I asked Sherry in an email why he used the word “paid,” he didn’t answer me. So I was, in fury, turning many files inside out at the National Archives in Maryland. Four elderly CIA officers and many Foreign Service Officers who worked at the American Legation/Embassy in Saigon with Flood, and their wives, helped me; some said they were proud that I was making the record accurate. That’s how I found out about how Jeanne Skewes and Lydia James died, and later that Greene had used the poor women’s deaths for personal political gain.

I think of them all—my three parents, and Skewes and James—every time I hear about the attack on Ambassador Christopher Stevens and his staff at Benghazi on Sept. 11, 2012. This means I have been thinking of them plenty, too much, especially in recent months, and sometimes, recent weeks, coinciding with the impending publication of my book, The Unquiet Daughter: A Memoir of Betrayal and Love. In it, a New York journalist, born of the true wartime love triangle that inspired the one in Graham Greene’s novel, The Quiet American, searches for her father after barely surviving a bizarre youth of privilege, bewilderment, estrangement, and cruelty. Michael Shelden, the Graham Greene expert, multiple biographer, and Pulitzer prize finalist, says: “Danielle Flood is the child of an affair so much like the one described in the love triangle of Greene’s novel that she is perfectly right to make her startling claim: ‘I am a sequel he never wrote.’”

***

Somehow Lydia Ruth James, 30, and Jeanne R. Skewes, 32, lost their shoes when they were shot in the back of the head at close range just outside Saigon on March 7, 1948. But Skewes, a divorcee, was still wearing her platinum and diamond ring when their bodies were found in their U.S. Information Service jeep. She was then acting USIS chief at the consulate where James deciphered coded messages. The authorities at the time, the French Surete, said the women told their servants, when they left their home in northwest Saigon at about 6 p.m., to make dinner and seat their friends—a reporter from the Associated Press, another from United Press, and a vice consul—who had been invited to arrive at 7:15 p.m. A report from the Surete stated investigators did not believe the bullet holes in the jeep coincided with those in the bodies. So it appears it was some work to put the bodies back in the jeep, tear the American flag off the front of it, pour their jerry can of gasoline over it and set it afire in a field off the bamboo-thicket-lined road in the area between northeast Saigon and Tan-Son-Nhut airport.

***

Such assassinations affect some of us who are related to Foreign Service Officers, especially when they are working overseas, more than it does others. It has touched me to the core. You hear about Benghazi, or Skewes and James, and you think: Mom was there, in Saigon, a 20-year-old specialist equivalent to a sergeant, for four months when this happened to those women. It could have been her; maybe. Although she was born in Annam, and was part Vietnamese, her father was French, so as a French National she joined the French women’s army corps—des Auxiliaires Féminins de l’armée de Terre. But she abhorred violence; her youngest brother, Guy, repeated to me in an extensive interview, in French, that she did not want a career in les militaires. So why was she staying in Saigon?

It was still horrendously dangerous when her lover, the man who would become my father, arrived, almost a year later. I have thought hundreds of times of him—and her—in Saigon then as I read and wrote about: a French publisher being assassinated in his car on his way home for lunch; the riot where 4,000 students and workers protested the two U.S. destroyers docked downtown, the turning over of 15 trucks or buses, the tearing down of U.S. and French flags; the grenades rolling down the aisles in the cinema, or blowing up outside a casino or hotel, in sidewalk cafes, in cars and on the rue Catinat. When I was in utero, there was a double-assassination suicide bombing just outside Saigon that was considered, in a 2003 U.S. study, a terrorism classic.

And then Jim Flood, the young Foreign Service Officer who my mother did marry, who I thought was my father for many years and always think of as “Dad,” came to Saigon in early 1951. He was a Saigon Legation/Embassy information officer and some 20 years later the U.S. Consul in Madras. In between, while I was going to school stateside, he worked in other dangerous places, including, in the ’60s, Seoul, where my little sister said she watched two fighter planes in a dogfight in the sky from her schoolroom window.

You worry. Yes, Foreign Service Officers get paid extra to work in places that are most dangerous, but for us who love them, the money means nothing. The fretting is a suffering. It can be a torment. Every time you hear of an FSO killing, you think it could have been that someone you love. When Benghazi happened, I asked an elderly foreign service officer who had been a colleague of Dad’s in Saigon if it was my imagination or what, that I felt injured by what happened to Ambassador Stevens, as if we were all physically connected somehow as State Department family members, even though Dad is dead. In college, when I worked for Associated Press photos, I saw many gory images but was never affected like I was by the one of Stevens dying as he was carried to a Benghazi hospital in his pieta-like stance. Dad’s colleague said he felt it, too.

***

For the deaths of Skewes and James, the French Surete blamed a local band of five Viet Minh, which, the American Consul General told the U.S. Secretary of State in a now declassified letter, fit in “suspiciously well with French desires…” Seven months later, an American missionary came forth to a U.S. Vice Consul with a report relayed by an old Annamese man who witnessed the killings. He said Skewes, driving the jeep, hadn’t stopped when the French military shouted to do so. Shots were fired from the military post. One of the women screamed. Shortly after that, the old man heard more shooting. The prostitutes who frequented the post said the soldiers who had been posted there were transferred, and the military post, one of those tower-like structures near the perimeter of Tan-Son-Nhut airport, was pulled own. In February 2008, an elderly retired CIA officer told me that just before he was posted to Saigon in 1951 as a young recruit from Princeton, he had learned about Skewes and James and that the identity of their killers was termed “murky.”

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***

I hope I speak for other relatives of Foreign Service Officers, dead and alive, when I say how revolting it has been to see the Benghazi State Department staff deaths played with as political toys. The use of the dead—especially the assassinated, the executed—as political silly putty is to disrespect, mock, and disallow all that is sacred in death, life, and the passing on to another realm. It derides the spiritual world that’s all around and within us. It is uncivilized.

I had wondered if there was some other-worldly reason for my finding out about Skewes and James, who had no children. The State Department said there was no budget for their hearses or a headstone for Skewes, who was buried in the European cemetery in Saigon. James’s parents had her remains shipped home, where she was laid to rest near the Hillsdale, Indiana, farm where she grew up. Poor James. A week before she died, some 150 French and Vietnamese in a convoy outside of Saigon were killed; she had asked for a transfer. It took a while, but then I learned that Skewes and James’s deaths, too, had not escaped being played with for political purposes.

It was the English author Graham Greene, who very much disliked Americans, who did this. In February 1952, in Saigon, he became “visibly angry,” U.S. Vice-Consul Tom Peck said, because Peck had shortened Greene’s U.S. visa from a year to a month, per the attorney general’s edict—because Greene was a communist. It has been rumored that Greene wrote The Quiet American, his anti-American novel, in retaliation for his visa problems with the U.S.

CIA officer Charles Baker said, shortly before he died in 2005, that Greene was especially keen to spend time at length in the U.S. then because he had business and a lot of money there. Greene brought up his American Legation visa problems in Saigon repeatedly in communications to his lover, Catherine Walston; he wrote to her on Feb. 4, 1952, after telling her of complaining of his visa problems to the press, and that on that date, he “thought today of a new novel.” His authorized biographer said Greene began work on The Quiet American in March. These visa problems occurred in the wake of a significant two-car bombing on Jan. 9, 1952—one of the most destructive explosions in Saigon to that date.

The big two-car bombing, burning 13 cars, killed at least 12 persons, including two small children, and wounded some 25. Body parts were seen in the trees, and car parts were blown a block away from this downtown vicinity where the daughter of the British minister and more than half a dozen U.S. Legation wives, one with a 2-year-old, and employees were shopping or working.

Greene said he based the single-car bombing in The Quiet American on that double bombing, but in his fiction, he upped the casualties to 50 dead and blamed its central character, young Foreign Service Officer Alden Pyle, for making it happen.

Vietnam scholar Joseph Buttinger in 1967 wrote that Greene used his novel, taught in college classes on and off for decades, to accuse the Americans in Saigon of fomenting the bombing. Newsweek, in its 1956 review of The Quiet American, indicated Greene had created this anti-American work due to his American visa problems. In his New Yorker review, A.J. Liebling called the book “Greene’s nasty little plastic bomb” and said Greene was calling the Americans in Saigon “murderers.” In reality, French and American sources suspected the bombing was the work of renegades and terrorists (many of the 10-15 Vietnamese political factions were suspected to be involved in terrorist activities in Saigon at the time) led by the self-appointed General Trinh Minh The.

While I was working on my book, I was reading this and thinking: Americans in Saigon; that would be Dad. (It took a while to sink in, it was so in-your-face.) Dad involved in a bombing? His sister, Sue Flood, in Pittsburgh, had found in Graham Greene’s authorized biography Norman Sherry’s description of Dad, my mother, and my birth father—the love triangle in Saigon—and Sherry’s comparison of Dad to the Quiet American character, Pyle, as she took post-retirement courses at Carnegie Mellon. She had written to me, saying the similarity between what happened between my three parents and the narrative in The Quiet American was “amazing.” So I spent a lot of time combing through everything I could find about how Greene used fact in his fiction. I had to know the truth. That’s how I came upon this:

Though Greene even quotes some of his Vietnam diary notes verbatim in The Quiet American, he never mentions Skewes and James or anyone like them in it. But some 25 years later, in his nonfiction book commenting on some of his writing, Ways of Escape, Greene asks who supplied the bombing material to the suspect, General The. “There was certainly evidence of contacts between American services and General The. A jeep with the bodies of two American women was found by a French rubber planter on the route to the Holy Mountain—presumably they had been killed by the Viet Minh, but what were they doing on the plantation? The bodies were promptly collected by the American Embassy and nothing more was heard of the incident. Not a word appeared in the press.”

Greene is not accurate about this. The women, Skewes and James, were not found by a rubber planter: declassified State Department communiqués say their bodies were collected by the French military.

There is no rubber plantation on the aerial photograph of the site of their execution, which took place in the area—about 20 minutes away from the women’s home in northeast Saigon—off an extension of what was then called the rue Eyriaud des Vergnes, a secondary road to Tan Son Nhut airport. Official reports stated that their bodies were in a field or rice paddy.

The Holy Mountain, to which Greene refers, is seven miles northeast of Tay Ninh, home of the CaoDai military religious sect, and about 6o miles from Saigon. The self-proclaimed “General” The had defected from the CaoDai army in the summer of 1951 and, according to U.S. Minister Donald Heath (soon to be the first ambassador to Vietnam), “took to bush.”

The Associated Press story of the deaths of Skewes and James was published March 9, 1948 in The New York Times, in many U.S. newspapers including Stars and Stripes, and in Populaire, a local Saigon newspaper; and there was a long letter to the editor about it published in The Bangkok Post, reportedly from the Vietminh.

Last but not least, the women died in 1948, almost four years before the car bombings in question.

Rest in peace, ladies.

This essay was adapted from reportage in Danielle Flood’s memoir-cum-journalism, The Unquiet Daughter: A Memoir of Betrayal and Love, to be published by Piscataqua Press on Sept. 1.