Sleeper Agent

Sleeper Agent illustration

Sometimes the clues that should have been warnings are lost in a blur, only to be seen in hindsight. Caught in the need to move ahead, most people rush, like speeding trains, past the truths and half-truths tucked into the terrain they thought they knew. And so it would be for a man and a woman one evening in 1948 at New York City’s Grand Central Palace, each soon to learn the timeless cost of missing clues.

It was September 19, the last day of the Golden Anniversary Exposition commemorating the 1898 consolidation of the city’s five boroughs, a celebration that had begun in late August with one of the most memorable opening ceremonies in New York history. After a black-tie dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, a torchlight procession of invited guests walked east to Lexington Avenue where for ten blocks, from Forty-Second Street north, all electric signs were turned off and street lamps dimmed to the level of gaslights 50 years before. Led by their hosts, New York mayor William O’Dwyer and David E. Lilienthal, the head of the US Atomic Energy Commission, the men and women, at least a hundred, stopped at the Forty-Seventh Street entrance to the Grand Central Palace where they joined thousands of opening-night guests along with fifty thousand or more spectators crowding the sidewalks of Lexington. Then, all at once it seemed, everyone looked up. At the top of the Empire State Building were two planetarium-projector-size telescopes aimed at Alioth, the brightest star in the Big Dipper.

What happened next was a new atomic-age ribbon- cutting. At exactly 8:30 p.m., the light streaming from Alioth activated photoelectric cells in the eyepiece of each telescope. This energy pulse moved through telegraph wires to the fourth floor of the Grand Central Palace where it excited a uranium atom, causing a switch to flip and current to be sent to ignite a mass of magnesium woven into a blocklong strip of ribbon on Lexington Avenue. The flaming magnesium cut through the ribbon, making loud crackling sounds, as bright lights returned to the area and the mayor announced the official start of the anniversary celebration: “It is highly appropriate that we open this Golden Anniversary Exposition with energy from the uranium atom. One of the biggest features here is ‘Man and the Atom,’ the most complete exhibit on atomic energy ever assembled.”

To be sure, the multifaceted exhibit on the fourth floor of the Palace was extraordinary, especially in the way that it explained the erudite topic of the atomic bomb in layman’s language, demonstrating how atom smashers and nuclear fission worked and even linking the most fear-laden weapon in human history to the cause of peace. Throughout the month of the Golden Anniversary, the exit polls revealed that the most popular exhibit was the one that took the narrative of the atomic bomb from fear to fascination. “‘Man and Atom’: Best Show in New York” one September newspaper headline read.

Such rave reviews may have inspired the man and the woman meeting for a date at the Grand Central Palace to visit the exhibition before it shut down on the nineteenth. Or their interest may have been instigated by the current relevance of atomic energy issues, such as the hot debates over international control of nuclear power or by the ever-mounting allegations of Soviet espionage during the war at the labs where the first U.S. atomic bombs were developed. Nearly every day in the month of September, there had been news about the suspected wartime spies. On the Saturday when the man, whose name was George Koval, invited Jean Finkelstein to the exhibit, the New York Times lead story centered on a soon to- be-released report that would unveil “a shocking chapter in Communist espionage in the atomic field,” exposing previously unknown individuals allegedly tied to a spy ring partly based in New York City.

But Koval told his date that his reason for wanting to visit the Palace exhibits was to meet old friends there, former colleagues from the war years when he worked at the atomic energy plants in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He was certain they would come to see “Man and the Atom” — and see it with him. Out of respect for the man she believed she might marry, Jean agreed to his suggestion. And, having read reviews of the exhibits, such as the scale model of the Oak Ridge gaseous diffusion lab and the animated panels demonstrating how plutonium, a highly radioactive element, was produced, Jean was eager to go. Oak Ridge. Plutonium. Radioactivity. These were things her boyfriend knew a lot about, but she did not. And she wanted to know everything about this man: his interests, his past, and whatever part of his scientific knowledge she could learn.

Jean had first met George Koval one night in March 1948 at a bowling alley near the campus of the City College of New York. She was a 21-year-old part-time student at CCNY, and he was a 34-year-old member of the same honorary fraternity in which her brother Leonard was active, both men having been recent classmates in CCNY’s department of electrical engineering. That night the fraternity was competing for a bowling league title. And Leonard wanted his sister to meet his “interesting and rare friend,” an electrical engineer who could recite verses from Walt Whitman and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Years later when asked about that evening, Jean said only, “It was serious from the start.” She would remember Koval as slender with broad shoulders, standing about six feet, appearing very masculine. He had short, straight brown hair, brown eyes, and very full lips, making his broad smile all the more attractive. A clean-cut guy, only two years out of the U.S. Army, he typically wore a dark navy blazer and khaki trousers. And though he never seemed to be clothes-conscious, he looked smart, urbane, more like a seasoned New York intellectual than a former soldier born and raised in Iowa, which he was. Still, it must have been his Midwest upbringing that caused traces of innocence to seep through his streetwise exterior. Or perhaps it was his curiosity about everyone and everything that surrounded him. Koval was like a cat, always watching and ready to act, with a playful mix of enthusiasm and caution.

“Though documents and interviews would someday expose parts of the truth about Koval’s escape from America, some questions would never be answered, like what he was thinking as he watched the New York skyline diminish and the ocean’s vast expanse draw near.”

When asked about Koval, Jean would say he was suave and spirited, but also cut from rugged rock. Few people knew his solemn side, which she believed may have been rooted in a distressed childhood that also would have explained why he avoided detailed discussions about his past. However, he did tell her that he was born in Sioux City on Christmas day in 1913, that he was 17 when he left home, and that shortly thereafter both of his parents had died. As an only child, that was the end of his family, he told her. She listened and had no reason to doubt his story. Besides, there was so much more to talk about, such as baseball, his ultra-passion. Koval could reel off the history and complete stats of every big-league pitcher in 1948. He was even renowned among friends for his skills as a shortstop.

During the months of planning her life around him, Jean was not on the hunt for evidence of anything negative. Why would she be? Occasionally she noticed that he went out of his way to validate his sincerity. He also had a tendency to suddenly be silent, as though a part of his machinery had abruptly shut down. He was always precise, never diverging from the norm and never saying more than he meant to. And he was very punctual.

But on September 19, he was late — and he seemed quite agitated about it. From the start of the evening, he was not the smooth, charming companion Jean had known thus far, and the longer they stayed at the Grand Central Palace, the more troubled he seemed to be. Possibly to ease his anxiety, they were on the move constantly, visiting every exhibit, but always returning to “Man and the Atom,” likely to be certain they hadn’t missed the arrival of his friends. Nothing could distract him, not even the popular model of a 200,000- volt generator, used in atomic experiments, which had the capability of creating fierce electrical energies; it was on display in a compartment where viewers could enter and watch their hair stand on end.

Koval wasn’t interested. He seemed like an actor who had forgotten his lines. Anxious. Distant. Alone. The exposition shut down at midnight and the couple stayed until the last second. No friends, no former colleagues from Oak Ridge, no war buddies ever arrived. Then, taking the subway back to the borough of the Bronx, where each of them lived, they had what Jean would later describe as “a lovers’ quarrel, which had never happened before.” With time, the reason for the spat would fade, but not the memory of how he “seemed to be picking a fight.” When he walked her to the apartment where she lived with her parents, whether he said “good night” or “goodbye” was a detail she could never recall.

In the weeks ahead, Jean left him alone, as advised by her brother Leonard and guided by her own instincts. Such a standstill must have required remarkable discipline, especially considering the exchanges they could have been having about the two rousing battles consuming front-page news: one in sports and one in politics. In baseball, two underdog teams were headed to the 1948 World Series: the Boston Braves, which hadn’t won a pennant since 1914 and the Cleveland Indians, absent from the winner’s circle since 1920. It was the kind of contest that Koval, as a dedicated champion of the underdog, would closely follow. And in politics, there was a continuing blast of intriguing headlines about Soviet espionage in New York, including atom bomb spy networks. One headline read, “Spies in U.S. Are ‘On Run.’ ”

Still, Jean resisted a daily urge to hear his voice. And when she finally had to talk to him and made the call, the land lady answered, telling her that Koval wasn’t there and wouldn’t be back for a while, a long while — perhaps never again. He didn’t live there anymore, she said, and at that very moment he was on a ship heading to Europe. He had left “yesterday morning, with only a duffle bag.”

For Jean, it must have seemed like sudden thunder on a clear day. After calling her brother, who said he knew nothing about Koval’s leaving town, she contacted the man she believed to be Koval’s closest friend, Herbie Sandberg. He confirmed that Koval had departed from New York on October 6, with a plan to work as a manager at the construction site of an electric power plant in Poland. Sandberg didn’t know when his friend would return nor did he have a forwarding address to offer her. He did know that Koval left on a transatlantic liner called the SS America, from Pier 61, and he remembered that it had rained that day. But nothing more.

Though documents and interviews would someday expose parts of the truth about Koval’s escape from America, some questions would never be answered, like what he was thinking as he watched the New York skyline diminish and the ocean’s vast expanse draw near. Was he remembering the last time he had left America, in May 1932, with his parents and his two brothers on a ship leaving from Pier 54 bound eventually for the Soviet Union, or the details of his father’s stories about being a Russian immigrant and seeing America for the first time in 1910? Did he have the manner of a professional, lacking last-minute hesitations or sentimentality, as the ship passed by the great statue symbolizing the freedoms of the country that was his birthplace? And did he struggle to push back all thoughts of what and whom he was leaving behind?

By November, Koval would be living in the Soviet Union, in Moscow, with his wife of 12 years, Lyudmila Ivanova Koval, and he would soon reunite with his 65-year-old father, Abram; his mother, Ethel, then 58; and Isaiah, one of his two brothers. What he told them about his past eight years in America on a “business trip” for Soviet military intelligence is unknown. But one certain fact is that George Koval left the U.S. just in time. And, as anyone who knew him would likely say, his timing was always nearly perfect.


Sleeper Agent: The Atomic Spy in America Who Got Away, by Ann Hagedorn

An excerpt from Sleeper Agent: The Atomic Spy in America Who Got Away, by Ann Hagedorn. Copyright © 2021 by Ann Hagedorn. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Published February 2022