The Countess of Romanones, mother of three and grandmother of thirteen, María Aline Griffith, passed away in December of 2017. Normally, this would just be a byline in a Spanish newspaper. The Countess, however, was an American model, journalist, author, socialite and World War II spy.
Born in New York on May 23, 1923, to William and Marie Dexter Griffith, she was educated at the College of Mount Saint Vincent in Riverdale, N.Y. studying History, Journalism, and Literature. She was an attractive young woman and was pursued by modeling agents, finally signing with Hattie Carnegie in Manhattan.
In the 1940s she was frustrated at her inability to help the war cause due to her young age. While on a date with a friend of one of her modeling colleagues, she expressed her anger and found that her escort was part of the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor to the CIA. She quickly found herself in a newly founded spy school in Virginia, learning how to use different types of weapons, parachute from an airplane, pick locks and pockets and other deeds of espionage, including murder and if necessary, suicide.
She was sent to Madrid and was assigned to a job as a clerk for the United States Embassy and joined the elite social crowd as a cover. She believed a socialite would be less likely to be suspected of spying, as many who are born into Spanish aristocracy do little more than shopping, wearing the latest fashions, jewels, and makeup trends and attending parties and highbrow social functions. It was at one of these functions that she met Luis Figueroa y Perez de Guzman El Bueno, the Count of Quintanilla, who would later become the Count of Romanones.
In 1947, when the couple began serious talk about marriage, she admitted her work as a spy, but the Count did not take her seriously until she introduced him to the founder of the OSS, Bill Donovan, who confirmed her stories. Once the Count was convinced of his new bride’s double life, he insisted that she stop; which she did until the thrill of danger summoned her back in 1954. Now a Countess, she embodied the façade she had started when she first came to Spain. Some of her closest friends were high powered celebrities, such as Jaqueline Kennedy Onassis; Wallis Warfield Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor; Hollywood producer and author, Dominick Dunne and actress Elizabeth Taylor.
In a People Magazine interview in 1990, she claimed, “Espionage becomes like a drug. It makes life very exciting. You know things other people don’t know—you’re always going under the surface. I was trained as a spy very early, and it became a part of me. I got accustomed to living with a certain amount of tension. I would have frightening encounters and I would be quaking and I couldn’t tell Luis.”According to Spanish publisher John Gates, “She was extremely popular. There’s an awful lot in Madrid that was done on a social level. She was probably very effective in being able to move around. She’s very open and very upbeat. She has a great sense of humor and she’s drop-dead beautiful.”
After her husband’s death in 1987, the Countess began writing about her escapades as a spy. In 1987 she published the first book in her Spy series, The Spy Wore Red. The Spy Went Dancing was released in 1990, and The Spy Wore Silk in 1991. Her books are considered non-fiction, but many critics claim she embellished and sometimes even made up the missions for which she credited herself.
In 1994 she released The Well-Mannered Assassin, featuring a main character based on IlichRamírez Sánchez, better known as the terrorist, Carlos the Jackal. While she admitted it was a fictional tale, she emphasized that she did personally know Sánchez, through work he had done as an employee of her husband. She continued her writing career publishing End of an Epoch in 2016, chronicling her life as a Spanish Countess.
Whether or not the Countess actually did the things she wrote about remains to be seen, but she certainly had an interesting and exciting life worthy of a Hollywood movie.