The year 1936 was a momentous year for global travel. The RMS Queen Mary made her maiden voyage from Southampton, England, to New York City. Aer Lingus took its first flight (from Dublin to Bristol). H.R. Ekins, a reporter for the New York World-Telegram, won a race around the world using only commercial airlines (it took him 18 days, 11 hours, 14 minutes, and 55 seconds). And Eugene Fodor published his first guidebook, 1936 … On the Continent, a 1,200-page doorstop on Europe, the world’s first annually updated travel guidebook.
The guidebook, which for the first time was aimed at middle-class travelers and not necessarily upper-class “grand tourists,” included all the typical sights, but also for the first time encouraged interacting with locals whose worldview might be different from those of readers. “Rome contains not only magnificent monuments and priceless art treasures,” Fodor wrote in the foreword to the 1936 guide, “but also Italians.”
Eugene Fodor, who died at 85 in 1991, profoundly influenced the way Americans traveled in the 20th and 21st centuries; the company he founded, today called Fodor’s Travel, currently publishes 150 titles per year and its website gets 2.75 million visitors a month. (Full disclosure: I have at times in the last decade updated and written the restaurant section for Fodor’s New York City guidebook.)
What most people don’t know was that Fodor was a CIA spy, on their payroll for years. After this secret became public in 1974, Fodor downplayed it and outright shut down questions about it in interviews, groaning, for example, when a reporter from Conde Nast Traveler brought it up to him in in the late ’80s and saying, “Everyone seems to have forgotten what the Cold War was like. The Soviets were a real threat. As an American, you did what you could.”
Fodor was born in 1905 in the small town of Losonc, then in the Kingdom of Hungary (now in Slovakia). He eventually became a naturalized American and he was in the United States when the Munich Pact was signed (ceding the Sudetenland, the western parts of Czechoslovakia, to Hitler). He insisted he would only return to Europe in a military uniform.
Thanks to his language skills (he spoke five languages fluently), he ended up in the Research & Analysis Branch of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the World War II precursor to the CIA led by the legendary General William “Wild Bill” Donovan. The unit, innocuously named First Mobile Radio Broadcasting Company, was designed with psychological warfare in mind to spread disinformation and undermine enemy morale.
Fodor interrogated prisoners of war and wrote propaganda leaflets that were dropped in enemy territory. The unit was also responsible for working with resistance groups to carry out acts of sabotage in enemy territory. In spring 1945, he became part of an OSS operation that had him smuggled into Prague to help direct an uprising of the Czech Resistance against the occupying Germans. During that time, he also traveled to Plzen, a town in western Czechoslovakia, helping to liberate the region from the Nazis, as Russian troops advanced from the East, doing the same as they moved toward Prague and, eventually Berlin.
After the war, Fodor’s involvement with the CIA continued. Starting in the 1950s, the CIA began tapping artists, musicians, writers, and journalists abroad for propaganda purposes or for information collecting. “Travel writer” seemed like a good cover for an undercover agent in enemy territory. And a travel writer who formerly worked for the OSS was ideal. A declassified internal OSS assignment from 1946 stated that Eugene Fodor would now have the title “Intelligence Officer.” His location: Prague. His job: “gather[ing] intelligence through overt and covert means as he has in the past. He will not be expected to develop extensive agent chains, but he will be called upon to deal with local nationals on a secure basis.”
One of Fodor’s later assignments was to help foment an uprising in Hungary in 1956. The uprising happened, but the revolution that the CIA hoped would topple the Communist government did not. Fodor claimed that after 1956, he gave up the spy business.
According to documents I obtained in a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, this is not true. It just depends how much you want to believe the source—E. Howard Hunt, a veteran CIA agent and, infamously, a convicted Watergate burglar.
On Dec. 31, 1974, The New York Times published an exposé by Seymour Hersh who had obtained classified transcripts from a Senate investigation hearing in December 1973. The article publicly revealed Fodor’s involvement with the agency for the first time.
“My staff ran a media operation known as Continental Press out of the National Press Building in Washington,” Hunt said during his 1973 testimony. “We funded much of the activities of the Frederick D. Praeger Publishing Corporation in New York City. We funded, to a large extent, the activities of Fodor's Travel Guides, distributed by the David McKay Corporation.”
In his 2007 memoir American Spy: My Secret History in the C.I.A., Watergate, and Beyond, Hunt claimed that the CIA, starting in the late ’50s or early ’60s, had bankrolled Fodor’s guidebook company: “We… even published a popular series of travel books—the Fodor Travel Guides. Our reasoning behind the guides was that typically most foreigners only got to know Americans through touristic ‘Ugly American’ stereotypes. So, we hoped to change that impression by people in other countries to come visit ours, enjoy life in the United States, and get to know America better.”
“We’d undergo his losses,” Hunt said of Fodor in the 1973 Senate hearing, “and he was on the CIA payroll and may still be for all I know.”
But that wasn’t the only reason that the CIA wanted to use Fodor and his company as a covert weapon in the Cold War. It was not unusual for the C.I.A. to use artists, writers, journalists, musicians and others for their own gain during the Cold War—both covertly and overtly. Three years after George Orwell’s death, a film version of Animal Farm was released in 1954. It was a fairly faithful rendition of the book, but instead of Orwell’s finale, in which both the humans and pigs are left in egregious light, the film removed the humans, leaving only the dirty pigs, i.e., the fascists. The silent producer of the film was, in fact, the CIA, and it was none other than E. Howard Hunt who visited Orwell’s widow to successfully wrest the rights from her so they could make the more overtly anti-Soviet version.
The agency saw in the abstract art of modern artists like Pollock, de Kooning, and Rothko a kind of very American assertive individualism and so promoted their work abroad, often funding exhibitions. The CIA first funded the Paris Review, and one of its founding editors, the novelist and naturalist Peter Matthiessen, was a spy. Jazz greats Dave Brubeck and Louis Armstrong, among others, were sent around various parts of the planet on CIA-funded tours. Sometimes the artists knew the U.S. government was paying for it. Other times, as in the case of Nina Simone, who was sent on a 1961 tour of Nigeria underwritten by the agency, the performer had no clue.
So it wasn’t surprising to learn from Seymour Hersh’s New York Times exposé that the CIA’s involvement with Fodor went even deeper. When Hersh interviewed Hunt for his Times story, the former agent revealed that the travel books had provided “cover” for CIA agents eager to travel in foreign countries disguised as travel writers. Fodor would later admit this was true, saying, “I told them to make sure to send me real writers, not civil engineers. I wanted to get some writing out of them, and I did too.” In fact, in 1956 Fodor sent some travel writers/CIA agents to Hungary to help rouse a potential revolution against the ruling Communist government.
In a declassified letter that Hunt sent to Fodor on Jan. 13, 1975, two weeks after the Times article appeared, Hunt tried to make amends. “I want you to know that I greatly regret the embarrassment caused you by the New York Times’ revelation of my executive session testimony given in confidence to the Ervin Committee more than a year ago… and I did so on the assumption it would not be publicly revealed.”
And then he added, “The UPI story of today’s date quotes you as stating that you and I never met, or had any dealings, and that of course is not accurate…. There should be a record of at least one meeting between you and me at a CIA office in Washington.”
In an internal CIA memo dated Jan. 24, 1975 that I obtained through a FOIA request, about four weeks after the revelations became public, Fodor called one of his contacts at the agency to express a worst-case-scenario situation that could come from being exposed as an agent. Fodor was from a Hungarian town that is now in Slovakia and his Czech-born wife, Vlasta, still had family in the Soviet-controlled Eastern Bloc. “I feel like I should let [Hunt] know how he endangered the safety of my family with his revelations, if only to prevent further disclosures and public controversy,” Fodor is quoted in the memo, implying there was possibly more information on his involvement that could come out.
In the memo, it states that the agency recommended to Fodor that he just “give a simple, sterile acknowledgement” of his past activities with the agency and leave it at that.
After that, Fodor downplayed his involvement with the CIA, chalking it up to a patriotic duty, even going so far to say that during the early Cold War nearly every American in Europe had been approached by the agency.