Memoirs of an Amateur Spy etc.

The First Spy

He has practiced law in Lewiston for most of his 86 years. But when he wasn’t in Maine, Irving “Ike” Isaacson ’36 was a key player as the Iron Curtain fell over Eastern Europe after World War II. In his autobiography, Memoirs of an Amateur Spy (Stones Point Press, 2002), Isaacson adds another chapter to our understanding of the contributions of the so-called Greatest Generation.

After four years of infantry training during World War II, Isaacson was ready for the Normandy battlefields of 1944. But suddenly, the Harvard-educated lawyer was recruited into the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor of the CIA. Thereafter, Isaacson’s war and postwar duties turned to learn-as-you-go intelligence gathering and rudimentary espionage. He smuggled agents and propaganda behind enemy lines in Nazi-occupied Europe and became the first OSS spy to gather Soviet intelligence in the emerging Cold War. He also courted and married Holocaust survivor Jutka Magyar (better-known today as Judith Magyar Isaacson ’65, former dean of women at Bates and author of her own acclaimed memoir, Seed of Sarah).

With candid, unpretentious, and often humorous storytelling, Isaacson takes swipes at the notion that spy games during and immediately after World War II were always performed with brilliance. “We were total amateurs,” he writes at one point, “but we didn’t care and it didn’t seem to matter.” Indeed, Isaacson’s initial OSS mission seems almost harebrained in hindsight: He was to parachute behind enemy lines with a little printing press strapped to his back, scrounge for paper, and then print propaganda to demoralize German troops. (The plan was scrapped because of the rapid Allied advance after D-Day.) Noted Maine writer John Cole, in his review of the book, describes Isaacson as “the Errol Flynn and Scarlet Pimpernel of spies, quite untouchable, who carries us with him on this lilting tale of adventure in Europe.”

Isaacson spends five months in the liberated sector of Holland working with the Dutch Resistance, furnishing them with arms and supplies and relishing the OSS disdain for Army-type discipline and control. After V-E Day in May 1945, Isaacson and Fred Switgall, an OSS noncom of Polish origin, head to Leipzig, Germany, to set up the first spy ring against the Soviet Union. There, Isaacson meets Jutka, a Hungarian Jew and survivor of Auschwitz and Nazi slave labor camps. The note in his diary recalling the first time he saw her captures the sweet mix of interest and distraction that characterizes love, or at least keen interest, at first sight: “The girl was pretty nice looking but tall. Wearing some kind of slacks.” A few months later, they are married.

Later in 1945, Isaacson and Switgall create the first intelligence mission to Soviet-occupied Germany and Poland, areas that are intelligence black holes for the West. The pair forge papers and bluff their way through Soviet checkpoints — travel still being relatively easy even for military personnel — after which Isaacson produces a 24-page intelligence report. It’s the first hard intelligence from the area since 1939 on conditions in Eastern Europe: “1,600 miles of territory and 1,000 years of misery.”

The report, eventually forwarded to President Truman, provides a shattering perspective on the hopelessness and desolation behind what Winston Churchill will dub “the Iron Curtain” in his famous 1946 speech just a year later. That understanding would percolate from diplomatic circles to common, worldwide understanding in the years ahead.

Memoirs of an Amateur Spy
Stones Point Press, 2002
392 pages
ISBN 1-882521-09-9

Memoirs of an Amateur Spy was distributed in cooperation with Bates College, and all proceeds from book sales will be donated by the author to the College. Readers interested in purchasing Memoirs of an Amateur Spy or any book by a Bates author can contact the College Store at 207-786-6121, e-mail, or Web at

Briefly Noted

Rouben C. Cholakian ’54, Murder on the Junior Year in France,, 2000, 192 pages. From his experience as a former director of a junior-year travel program to France, Cholakian creates the character of Garabed Tourian, director of a travel program in Paris, and his quick-witted wife who find themselves faced with the mysterious death of one of their students, set against the backdrop of the French revolt of 1968.

Wanda Jones Corn ’62, The Great American Thing: Modern Art and National Identity, 1915-1935, University of California Press, 2000, 447 pages. Described by The New York Times Book Review as a “boldly argued study of American modernism,” Corn’s new book moves away from issues of style and abstraction and instead focuses on a broad examination of culture and on discourses of national identity. Key questions for interwar modernists in New York and Paris, Corn writes, were whether or not it was possible to create an art that was both American and modern, and if it was, what such an art would look like. Both European and American artists debated these questions and made art that responded to them.

Stephen Cutcliffe ’68 and Carl Mitcham, editors, Visions of STS: Counterpoints in Science, Technology, and Society Studies, State University of New York Press, 2001, 169 pages. The 20th century only intensified the intertwined technological and social issues facing society. Contributors to this book provide a vision of the interdisciplinary field of science, technology, and social studies known as STS and how the field has risen to the challenges of the times.

Stephen Cutcliffe ’68, Ideas, Machines, and Values: An Introduction to Science, Technology, and Society Studies, Rowman and Littlefield Publishers Inc., 2000, 224 pages. The field of science, technology, and social studies (STS) looks at scientific and technological advancement in connection with human values reflected in cultural, political, and economic institutions. Cutcliffe’s book examines STS as an emergent field of study in the 1960s and outlines its current interests and concerns.

Roy Fairfield ’43, Get Inspired: How to Release Your Creative Self at Any Age, Prometheus Books, 2001, 250 pages. Author of many books on education and creativity, Fairfield mines his many years of experience and his own creativity in teaching people new ways to explore their inner resources in this fun, practical, and inspiring book. The process of creativity is more important than the ultimate product, Fairfield writes, and we can all learn to be creative every day.

Bob Labbance ’74 and Gordon Wittenveen, Keepers of the Green: A History of Golf Course Management, Ann Arbor Press, 2002, 372 pages. If all you know about golf course management is from watching Bill Murray in Caddyshack, this book is for you. Filled with nifty stories (Dwight Eisenhower installed a green on the White House lawn) and historical tidbits (ball washers haven’t changed much in 80 years), the lavishly illustrated book offers detailed insight, dating back to the 15th century, into the creation and management of golf courses, nicely placed in the context of changing times, including growing environmental awareness in the 1960s and 1970s.

Bob Labbance ’74, The Old Man: The Biography of Walter J. Travis, Sleeping Bear Press, 2000, 260 pages. Before Bobby Jones became the greatest amateur golfer in the world, others vied for that exalted title. In the late 19th century, Walter Travis was one of them, though Travis didn’t pick up the game until he was 35 years old, in the fall of 1896. Over the next eight years, Travis, nicknamed “the Old Man,” won the U.S. Amateur three times, often competing against players half his age. Labbance chronicles Travis’ colorful life, on and off the course, and offers historic insight into American golf at the turn of the 20th century.

David B. Lentz ’70, The Day Trader, Xlibris Corporation, 2000, 284 pages. Lentz, with nearly 30 years of experience in the financial services industry, pens this novel about Rich Proffette, chairman emeritus of the Wharton School, who has created the Market Equilibrium Shock Theory, widely hailed as one of the greatest economic ciphers. In the virtual world of The Day Trader, everyone from money-management gurus and underworld hackers to multinational banks and the U.S. government wants a piece of Proffette’s world — except the one true love of his life.

Jon Marcus ’82, Lighthouses of New England, Stillwater Press, 2001, 160 pages. Engaging prose from the former Bates Student staffer (and current editor of Boston Magazine) complements striking photographs in this history and tour of the fascinating lighthouses of New England (yes, Vermont, too). Marcus explains the technological evolution of lighthouses, the development of lights and lenses, their architecture, and maintenance on remote sites. Also shared is the life of lighthouse keepers, and the movement to preserve and restore lights.

Richard A. Melville ’54, A Northeast Forest, Field Notes on the Hilltribes and Fauna of Cambodia, 1959-1962, published in cooperation with the Wildlife Conservation Society and the World Wildlife Fund, 2000, 108 pages. Illustrated with 46 photographs by the author, and including a glossary and 11 lithographs, this monograph chronicles Melville’s three years living among the hilltribes of Northeast Cambodia. The rare photos give precious insight into a way of life now erased by years of warfare. The historic locality data of rare fauna has assisted current conservation efforts in Cambodia in siting infrared trigger cameras that have recorded rare and endangered species, including one new to Cambodia.

Cynthia Robbins-Roth ’75, From Alchemy to IPO: The Business of Biotechnology, Perseus, 2000, 272 pages. Nature calls Robbins-Roth’s nonfiction effort about the history and theory of the U.S. biotech revolution “a real page-turner, as full of suspense as the most exciting novel” and “by far the best book on biotechnology.” The author shared the early biotech days with many of its pioneers, and her experience offers insight into the mistakes and triumphs of those early days, and the changes that led to advances in both the science and business of biotechnology.

Matt Robinson ’96 and Pavel A. Vorobiev, Swing, Manning Publications Co., 1999, 944 pages. In its third printing and recently translated into Korean and Spanish, Swing is written for the experienced Java developer and provides an in-depth guide to getting the most out of Sun’s Swing/JFC user interface classes. Mixing real-world code examples and expert advice on advanced features, this book shows how to make use of this powerful library effectively within your own projects.

Richard St. Jean ’65, Understanding Psychological Research: An Introduction to Methods, Prentice Hall Canada, 2001, 198 pages. St. Jean, professor of psychology at the University of Prince Edward Island, presents a readable and concise introduction to a broad range of psychological research methods. Drawing on his own research, and that of students and colleagues, the author provides engaging examples of the practical application of a wide variety of methodologies.

Richard P. Taylor ’91, Death and the Afterlife: A Cultural Encyclopedia, ABC-CLIO, 2000, 438 pages. This vast compendium of information contains hundreds of entries on the sometimes obscure, complicated, and mysterious (but always fascinating) funeral customs of dozens of cultures. Taylor addresses customs and beliefs relating to death and burial in a number of broad cultural contexts and groupings, and the clear, well-written articles cover most major religious and cultural traditions from prehistoric to modern without being overly simplistic.

Kevin Wetmore ’91, Athenian Sun in an African Sky: Modern African Adaptations of Classical Greek Tragedies, McFarland & Co., 2001, 240 pages. Wetmore’s work discusses the affinity modern-day African playwrights have for ancient Greek tragedy and the factors determining their choice of classical texts and topics. Also examined are the methods by which African playwrights adapt Greek tragedy and the ways in which the plays satisfy the prevailing principles of both cultures.

Books by alumni and faculty will be listed in this section if bibliographical information (author, title, publisher’s name, date of publication, number of pages, and a brief synopsis of the book’s contents) is received. A review copy of the book is always appreciated, which will be forwarded later to the College’s Special Collections Library. Send to: Managing Editor, Bates Magazine, 141 Nichols Street, Lewiston, Maine 04240, or e-mail