Undercover agent: York grad discusses her life as a CIA spy
published May 23, 2012
Shirley Perry (MBA ’84) spent the most frigid days of the Cold War behind the Iron Curtain—working as an undercover CIA operative in Soviet-occupied Vienna, Austria. During the late ’50s and early ’60s, she travelled the Middle East and Europe. In the 70s, she journeyed with a theatre group to Russia, land of the erstwhile enemy, before founding the American School of Luxembourg. When she returned to North America in the 80s, Perry decided to complete an MBA and chose the program at the Schulich School of Business.
Perry has lived a life truly different from the ordinary and in her book, After Many Days: My Life as a Spy and Other Grand Adventures, she shares some of her remarkable stories.
Perry began her career with the CIA when she was just 23 years old. She was studying English and drama at Washington University in St. Louis when she saw a bulletin board posting for an interesting job available overseas.
“I was looking to get out of town and do something exciting,” said Perry. “So I made an inquiry about it and found out it was for a job with the CIA. Back then, the agency was still in its formative years. And, although I’m sure they still do it today, they heavily recruited at campuses.”
Perry seemed to meet all of the agency’s requirements – intelligence, writing skills and the ability to communicate well, as well as speak a foreign language.
“I spoke German, so that was very helpful. As an English major, I was able to write and express myself well. And drama was a big help as well because you had to role-play a lot in the agency and pretend you were somebody who you were not, so that was a bonus for me.”
After graduation, Perry was off to Washington, DC. Soon after training, she was sent into the field for her first overseas assignment. It was to Vienna, Austria, where the CIA was gearing up for the Cold War against the Soviet Union.
“The Soviets were the Western world’s pre-eminent enemy and to be assigned to the Soviet desk was the most plum assignment of all. I think I was about 24 years old and it was the most exciting time of my life!
“I don’t know how that happened, really. It was my good luck! The people assigned to the Vienna station were hand-picked and they were tremendously effective. I write about my colleagues and our community of ‘spy souls’ in great detail in the book. We were a very close-knit cohesive and productive cadre.”
In the book, Perry writes about her first operational duties and her contributions to the deceptions that took place during the Cold War.
“In the early 1950s, the Western intelligence agencies knew nothing about the Soviet Union. We had zero intelligence on their strategic plans, on their military capabilities or on their leaders. Our target was to find out as much as we possibly could and I was able to play a role, although not major, still significant, in the recruitment of the very first Soviet source that any Western intelligence unit managed to recruit. That was one of the most exciting periods of time.”
Vienna was the CIA’s prime recruitment station. “It was the easternmost outpost for allied intelligence. After the Second World War; the enemy country was divided into four sectors among France, the US, Great Britain and Russia. This division placed Vienna 90 miles behind the Iron Curtain in the Russian sector. To get there, you had to drive through Soviet-occupied territory.”
One Thanksgiving, Perry and two other young women decided to go to Salzburg, in the American zone. They were going to take the military train, nicknamed the Mozart, which went through the zone, until one of their colleagues offered to drive. Halfway through the Soviet zone in Austria, the car broke down.
“It was snowing, it was cold and the heater didn’t work and we were sitting there hoping that because we weren’t checking in at the exit point, the military police would realize something had happened and they would come after us. When we heard the sound of a military vehicle, we thought, ‘Oh good! The American MPs have found us.’ Well, MPs found us, but they weren’t American. It was the Soviet police and we were taken into custody and put in jail.”
Perry and her friends were separated from their driver so they couldn’t communicate. “We had our cover stories ready, so we just sat and waited. A Soviet private sat in the cell aiming his AK47 right at us the whole time and we were scared. Time dragged on and we never thought we would get out of there. At one point, they brought in sandwiches and tea but we waited until they started eating them first before we touched ours. In the wee hours of the morning, we heard a big kerfuffle and sure enough, the American MPs had found us. We were released and when we finally made it to the exit point, we spent the rest of Thanksgiving, very gratefully, in safety with our friends.”
All three of the passengers in the car were CIA agents with different cover stories. To this day, Perry is unable to disclose her cover story because she does not have permission from the CIA to do so. Everything she wrote in her book had to be approved by the agency and she went back and forth with them several times to make revisions. “Even after this long a time, I wasn’t able to write everything I wanted to about my experiences with the CIA. I was amazed by the amount of information they still did not want released, but I guess for good reason!”
Shirley still manages to write about a lot of other exciting adventures she had with the CIA in her book. She shares stories about how she met her husband, an army counter-intelligence officer, on her way back from a ski-trip and how a travel ban didn’t stop her from going on her honeymoon.
One of the main reasons she wrote her memoirs was to be able to share her story with her children. “When they were younger, they couldn’t quite understand the significance. Now, I hope they realize how unique my experiences were, during a unique time. The Cold War was a seminal time in history, battling the Communist threat was unlike any other time. And the story had not been told by someone with my perspective before – as a young woman over there, working for the government, in one of the most dangerous places in the world at the time – so I think it serves its purpose well.”
After she left the CIA, Perry’s life continued to be adventurous. Her husband took a job with the Bank of Boston which led to assignments throughout Europe. When he was sent to open a branch in Luxembourg, Perry could not find a school for their two young children. So, with the help of other American companies there, she founded the American School of Luxembourg, which is still in operation.
After Luxembourg, her husband was sent to open the first Bank of Boston in Canada. “So we moved to Toronto and lived there for four years. My kids were in high school at the time and that’s when I went to Schulich to get my MBA – it was one of the best decisions I ever made.”
A liberal arts graduate who had been out of the workforce for quite some time, Perry thought earning a professional degree in business would be the right pathway to a career, so she applied to the Schulich MBA program.
“I realized my credentials were somewhat behind the times, so that was my main motivating factor to go back to school. What was appealing about Schulich was that the school really welcomed students who had been out in the workforce and had real-world experience. I also liked the flexibility of the program because I had a lot of duties as the wife of a bank president and couldn’t really enrol in a full-time program.”
At Schulich, Perry specialized in organizational behaviour because she wanted to “study the culture of companies”, as well as international economics because she was “intrigued by the dynamics of international trade and economics.”
After she graduated, Perry worked at Arthur D. Little, a consulting company in Toronto. When her husband was sent back to Boston, she found an ad for a position with the Canadian Consulate General. “They were looking for an officer to handle academic relations as well as economic and political matters. “I had an MBA from Schulich and out of 200 applicants, I got the job! I can really thank Schulich for that because my degree really put me over the top in their selection process. I felt very well prepared for the job there because of my time at Schulich.”
Today, Perry works full-time at a law firm in Mississippi doing market research, where she says she’s still benefiting from her Schulich days. “I draw on the lessons and the strengths I learned at Schulich. It’s been a continuing asset for me throughout my career.”
June 1 9:52am: Edited to remove the final paragraph.Undercover agent: York grad discusses her life as a CIA spy,