Cover image for Our man in Vienna : a memoir
Our man in Vienna : a memoir
Conroy, Richard Timothy.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Thomas Dunne Books, [2000]

Physical Description:
xv, 313 pages : illustrations ; 22 cm
Personal Subject:
Format :


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Material Type
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E840.8.C663 A3 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Follows an unconventional diplomat from the bug-infested jungles of Belize to the sophisticated capital of Austria.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

This is not the usual diplomat's memoir of international statecraft that boasts how the author changed history. For Conroy held not prestigious posts in the Foreign Service like ambassador but pedestrian ones of consular work, handling visas and lost passports, and listening to the strange stories of the people who want them. They comprise this chronicle of Conroy's time in Vienna in the mid-1960s, and the author regales them in a mordant, self-deprecating manner that provides consistent amusement. As the gatekeeper of visas to the U.S., Conroy listened to a parade of petitioners, some truthful, some con artists, but all of whose stories had to be disentangled from immigration rules, Austrian laws, or the mirrors of espionage. Conroy says he found "sport" in "trying to make the system mete out justice," and he figuratively leans back in his chair and listens credulously, even as he confides in funny asides about the beseeching raconteur of the moment (clothes, accent) that makes the yarn bogus, genuine, or merely bizarre. A humorous relief for would-be diplomats. --Gilbert Taylor

Publisher's Weekly Review

Unlike most diplomatic memoirs, which deal with weighty matters of politics and foreign relations, Conroy's (Our Man in Belize, etc.) reminiscences are a lark. As U.S. vice consul (and later consul) in Vienna between 1963 and 1966, he seems to have dealt mostly with visa-related matters, judging from these latest sprightly recollections. Apart from a brief meeting with Simon Wiesenthal, who was operating a clearinghouse for information about the fate of European Jewry, most of the book consists of amusing if repetitious stories about eccentric, colorful, odd or desperate visa applicants. They include a mad Yugoslav inventor, a belly dancer whose Egyptian work permit had expired, an opera singer who was being stalked by another singer, an American teenage girl living in a derelict abandoned palace and a Czech gold smuggler posing as a dentist. There are tales of hair-raising escapes from Iron Curtain countries, of lovers reunited. Two of Conroy's immigration cases ended badly, with each woman dying in suspicious circumstances: one was mob-affiliated Virginia Hill Hauser, expatriate Southerner and former lover of "Bugsy" Siegel; the other, Austrian-American Ilse Schmidt, fled Baghdad, she told Conroy, after killing her bigamist Iraqi husband in self-defense. A droll observer of the human predicament, Conroy exudes a healthy disrespect for hierarchy, bosses, authority and received wisdom. While this self-indulgent memoir, which closes with his transfer to Washington as science liaison for the Atomic Energy Commission, lacks the sparkle of his Belize book, his comic misadventures nevertheless add up to a witty Thurberesque catalogue of human foibles, pretense, quirks and folly. Photos and drawings. (Aug.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Picking up where Our Man in Belize (LJ 10/1/97) left off, Conroy shares further insight into the life of an American Foreign Service diplomat in the 1960s. This time his assignment takes us to Vienna, where he was initially assigned as a visa officer. There, among other adventures, he helped an Austrian hooker and an American make their way to the United States. Conroy managed to be promoted to Passport and Citizenship Consul, where his duties included assisting Virginia Hill Hauser, who had a long affair with mobster Bugsy Siegel. However, the author never loses sight of what was most important in his career: eating enough rich Viennese food to regain the 25 pounds he lost in Belize. Blending dry wit with an uncanny gift for storytelling, Conroy's memoirs breathe life into what could seemingly be called a run-of-the-mill desk job. Recommended for larger public libraries.DJill Jaracz, MLIS, Chicago (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



1 The Sergeant Consular Section, Armerican Embassy, Vienna, Austria, April 1963 He sat glaring at me. I knew that look from somewhere. He drew on his cigarette while I searched my memory, mentally air-brushing out the flag behind his desk and the State Department--issue mug shot of J. F. Kennedy, and everything else in the room, leaving only the grim, death's head and those eyes, boring through my outer layers, searching for my wormlike soul. No luck. Something familiar, but not quite the same. I set to work. Mentally, I revolved his head ninety degrees. A trick I had, left over from my first job when I was a structural steel detailer. You never know when such things are going to come in handy. He exhaled thin blue smoke. A dragon breathing fire. His head now in profile (in my mind), I began inserting background details, ones that seemed to be missing. Sketched in a window, just to the left. Wasn't really there, in that windowless office, reason told me, but it ought to be. I outlined a body. Thin. That much was right, I was sure of it. The Vienna Rathaus (City Hall) Dressed in--hmmm--the dark blue suit was wrong, too diplomatic. Let's give him nondescript pants and a tweed jacket. An old one. Brown. Salt and pepper. And the body needed a bow tie. Couldn't quite make out the color, but a dark tie, nothing flashy. The tweeds didn't seem to hang right. The body should be doing something. A pose of some sort. Back bent forward, elbow on something. That's it, foot on a radiator, yes, I remembered that, elbow on knee. And chin in hand. And the scowl topping it off. I blinked and it was all gone, all my additions, but the scowl remained, it was the dominant feature of the consul general, the man who sat in front of me. I averted my eyes, looking around the room. There was a real radiator but it was off to the other side. The wrong side. And, yes, there was no window at all. Hmmm. But I was on the right track. I looked out my imaginary window, the one I had drawn on the blank wall. Outside was a river, a familiar one. All at once I knew where I was. He must have seen the astonishment in my face, for he froze, his cigarette halfway to his lips for another drag. "Baylor," I said, more to myself than to him. The image that had sharpened in my memory was that of my English teacher. One day, during the dark times of the Second World War, he had come into the classroom, black straight hair cut long for the times, and eyes hollow under almost Romanesque arched brows. He had scowled in just that way at me and two dozen other students in gray uniforms, then he had walked, a gaunt, stick figure, over to the window that looked out over the Tennessee River, just a few miles downstream from Moccasin Bend. He had put one brogan-shod foot up on the radiator, propped an elbow on his knee, supported his chin in his hand, and stared out of the window as the minutes bled out of the hour allocated for junior English. Fifteen, maybe twenty minutes went by; the class hardly breathed. Then, with a slap he brought his foot back to the floor, turned and looked at us, scowl still in place. "Vegetables," he announced, having found a category into which we all seemed to fit. Then he gathered up his papers from his desk and strode from the classroom. We sat, frozen, for another half an hour until the bell rang. "Did you say Baylor?" Consul General Philander Trudgeon asked. The image vanished and I moved forward twenty years and crossed an ocean. "Uh--It's nothing. I was just reminded of something, sort of." "You said Baylor." Trudgeon swiveled his chair around. With his back to me, he pulled a large, paperbound book from his bookcase. He turned partway back, presenting himself in profile, this time without my helpful imagination. The hair was different, I decided. Gray instead of black. A long, thin arm stretched out and groped for his spectacles. He put them on, perched near the end of his long, thin nose. He opened the book and hunted through the pages. I could see it was the stud book. Stud book was the popular name for the State Department's Biographic Register. It contained capsule information about Foreign Service officers, myself included. Trudgeon found the passage he wanted and frowned as he began to read. I rated only about six lines, but it did say where I was from. "So you went to Baylor School, did you?" "Yes, sir," I admitted. "You know that song?" "Song, sir? Which one do you mean?" I supposed there must have been a school song, but it was so unmemorable I couldn't now recall it. "You know the one, the one that begins, 'Underneath Mission Ridge . . .' " I grinned. For the first time since I had arrived at my new assignment. "You mean the one about that other school, the one on the other side of town?" "Yeah." " 'Underneath Mission Ridge stands a school of folly; where three hundred sons of bitches call themselves McCallie. They are slippery slimy bastards; they are full of--' " I left off, unsure how he would react to scatology. The death's head broke out in a smile of pure pleasure. "Yeah," he repeated. "Did you like Baylor?" "Not very much," I admitted. "Neither did I. Have you been upstairs?" "Not yet. I suppose I better go on up and report to Mr. Lehar." "He'll keep. Sit down for a few minutes." It was a star-crossed meeting, as it turned out, but more about that, later. Trudgeon's office was on one side of the building lobby and across from it was the passport and citizenship section, dealing with Americans and their problems. Upstairs was the visa section, where I was being assigned, initially, processing requests of foreigners to visit or to immigrate to the United States. On upper floors were the regional office of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, and the U.S. Public Health Service. The building was a large one, prewar, but I don't know by how many years. It faced onto Friedrich Schmidt Platz, named for the architect who was responsible for the heavy stone nineteenth-century Rathaus, or city hall, that loomed over an adjacent side of the square. Within the embassy, we usually referred to our building as the Rathaus, too. Inaccurate, but easier than saying Number 2 Friedrich Schmidt Platz. Upstairs in our Rathaus, and entered from around the corner at number 7, Rathausstrasse, were apartments for some of the embassy staff and for some of the people in our mission to the International Atomic Energy Agency. In the cellar of our building was our embassy commissary. It was now a convenience but had once, just after the war, been a necessity for our people stationed in what was then a very hungry Vienna. Now, in 1963, except for such necessities as duty-free whiskey and tobacco, and such peculiar American requirements as jars of baby food, the commissary was superfluous. There was a time when the State Department, in a premature effort to promote California wines, made the commissary quit handling European wine and stock our domestic product. It was a short-lived experiment. The ambassador's wife was overheard in the commissary saying to another embassy wife, "My dear, California wine is not even good for cooking." Not strictly accurate, of course, but devastating to the State Department's trade promotion effort. More to the point was a small privately owned bar in the building, a few steps below street level, which was rumored to be supplied with potables from our commissary through some subterranean means. I never knew the truth of that and was disinclined to find out. Austrians needed their whiskey, too. After leaving Trudgeon's office, I went upstairs to report to the chief of the visa section, consul Frank Lehar, a fairly senior man, bound to make consul general, someday. For myself, I was still a vice consul, somewhat overage or what some call "long in the tooth," a horse-trading term, I understand. I might someday make consul if they didn't run me off first. "Sit down," said Lehar's strong, resonant voice, pitched somewhere between the upper limits of a baritone and the lower reach of a tenor. A good bit of nose in it, I remember thinking. The sort of voice that would stand out well against a mezzo. "Yes, sir," I said and sat, conscious that with my postnasal drip, nobody could hear me beyond the orchestra pit. Lehar. Good name, I decided. "Been to see the old man, I suppose." "Ambassador Kitteldorfer? No, at the embassy I've just spoken to the people in Admin." "Trudgeon." "Oh. Oh!" Then it occurred to me that since I was more than an hour late, Lehar had probably called down to Trudgeon's secretary asking about me. The phone had rung several times while I was there. "Consul General Trudgeon. Yes, I had a nice meeting with him." I looked Lehar over for some sign whether I should have said it was a nice meeting. I could have been more neutral. "What did you think of him?" Right. I should have left out the nice. "He must be near retirement," I said. Lehar relaxed a notch. Without saying anything bad about Trudgeon, I had suggested that he looked to be rather old for somebody who hadn't yet made it to career minister rank. Bumping up against mandatory retirement for the lower grade. "Did he say anything about me?" Ummm. A loyalty test. Tread carefully. "He asked if I'd been in to see you yet." "You hadn't." Quite true. "I hadn't." Lehar shifted in his chair. "Somebody is bound to tell you this, so you might as well hear it from me. We don't get along." "I'm sorry--Different styles--" I fumbled for something to say. I was familiar with the concept of not getting along with one's chief. "Well, no assignment--" "He has never invited me to his house." I dropped the 'is forever' part of what I was going to say. "Maybe he hasn't gotten around--" "In four years? Well, more than three, anyway." "Maybe he doesn't entertain many from the embassy. I can recall some parties I would rather have skipped--" Lehar suddenly reached for a file. Mine, probably. For the moment, the inquisition was apparently over. I had no doubt it would return one way or another. Lehar opened the folder and hunted through the papers. "You've had some visa experience." A statement; certainly not a question. "Yes, sir. Zurich and Belize." "Ummm." I wasn't sure what that meant so I kept quiet. I suspected that 'Ummm' was a superior officer's way of saying that a third assignment, one after another, as visa officer was no recommendation. The low road to oblivion, maybe. "There are six officers in the consulate. Counting the consul general." "I see." What he said was clear enough but I wasn't sure what he was driving at. "But two are new minted." "Oh." Must be rotational officers, out on their first assignment, trying out in different offices. "That means you are the fourth man and the other two don't count." "Oh. I see. Well, I'm used to that. I was on the bottom in Belize, too." I was beginning to understand that Vienna was not all the step up that it had seemed months ago when I got my travel orders in Belize. Maybe my chief back there had been right; they still hated me in Washington. Abruptly, Lehar got up out of his chair. "You'll want to meet the staff and have a look at where you'll be working." Later, I looked at the small group of customers waiting patiently to see me and then, to put off the inevitable, I walked over to the window and put my foot on the radiator. Elbow on knee, chin in hand. Uncomfortable, but then I wasn't as thin as my old English teacher--It came to me, Mr. Hitt, that was his name. I scowled, anyway, for practice. I wondered if Hitt was still alive. Likely; what's twenty years? Like Mr. Hitt, I stared out of the window. No view of the Tennessee River, just the dark gray Rathaus. Not only was I not Mr. Hitt, but this wasn't Baylor, either. And certainly not Belize. Nothing in Belize remotely like the Rathaus. This must really be Vienna. I looked for the Danube. No sign of it. Window in the right direction but too many buildings in the way, I supposed. Looked a bit to the right. Couldn't see the famous Ferris wheel either. Groped for the German word--Reisenrad, that's it. Maybe my German would come back, but it was appalling how much I had forgotten since my time in Zurich. Stood on tiptoes. No sign of the Reisenrad, buildings in the way of that, too, though the Prater park must be over in that direction, somewhere. Looked for men dressed in overcoats, standing in doorways. Thought I saw one. Occurred to me that most of what I thought I knew about Vienna came from the movies. Maybe a little bit from operettas and such, but that wasn't very much up to date. A Fiaker ambled down the street, the clip-clopping of the horse hooves quite audible through my closed second-floor window. Rosalinde, disguised as a Hungarian countess, on her way to Prince Orlofsky's party? No, wrong time of day, but maybe operettas weren't entirely dead, after all. As I turned from the window, prepared to get down to work, my eye was caught by a long, dark blue car parked by the side of the Rathaus. Italian, by the look of it. A Lancia, maybe. The lower parts of a man protruded from its open hood. Something familiar about him. I squinted to see him better. No improvement. I searched my memory for associations. No luck. Couldn't be Harry Lime hanging out of the car; too thin. Maybe Harry was still around but he wouldn't be my problem. After all, as Lehar said, I was only the fourth man in the consulate. I breathed in the fresh Austrian air and decided that even if I was only number four, it beat being on the bottom in Belize. The best evidence that I had moved here from Belize was negative: the whole city of Vienna was not crowding into the visa section, waiting to try their stories on the new visa vice consul. When I took over the consulate's visa operations in Belize, it was only a few hours before the word had spread around the city that a new, and perhaps more gullible, "visa mon" had arrived. Smiling local people swarmed into the office to try me out. But Vienna had hardly noticed my coming at all. I thought. The day proceeded as I should have expected. The people wanting to go to America were almost all qualified. People with jobs, families, and homes to come back to. People with enough money to make the trip to America and stay in a hotel instead of in somebody's servants' quarters. People who could pay for a restaurant meal and not have to wash dishes or bus tables for it. Tourists and business travelers, you might say. Real ones. Little remarkable about these people except that some Austrians brought in more documentation than I would have expected, and many seemed to think it peculiar that they were asked to swear to the truth of the statements they had made on their applications. Cultural differences, I supposed. Excerpted from Our Man in Vienna by Richard Timothy Conroy All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.