Las Vegas Sun

March 22, 2018

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Nevada man details his years as master of disguise for the CIA in a new book

Who: Antonio Mendez.

What: Book signing for his new book, "The Master of Disguise."

When and Where: Tuesday, 1 to 3 p.m. at Remax Elite, 9931 W. Charleston Blvd.; and 4 to 6 p.m. at the Pheasant Cigar, 2800 W. Sahara Ave., Suite 6A.

Cost: Free.

Information: Call 368-1700.

He has rescued American citizens from hostile foreign countries, evaded detection by the KGB (the former Russian secret police and intelligence agency) and created new identities for American spies to work in the heart of Moscow during the Cold War.

Since his mid-20's, Antonio "Tony" Mendez has protected the United States with his cunning wits and master skills of disguise for the Central Intelligence Agency. He recently revealed his more than 25 years of tricks, danger and intrigue with the agency in his autobiography, "The Master of Disguise," for which he will hold book signings Tuesday in Las Vegas.

Memories of the Cold War may be plowed under our kinder, gentler generation, but reading about the lengths of mistrust and deception of both sides during that time can still be riveting. Mendez was the man who made it possible for American spies to operate in full view of the Soviet Union's intelligence agency.

"My job was keeping them alive and in place (in disguise) and getting them out," Mendez says.

In the beginning

Mendez was born in 1940 in the small town of Eureka, Nev., about 150 miles North of Las Vegas. He rinsed his clothes in the Truckee river in Northern Nevada, scrambled over Nevada's rocky deserts to play and slept under the wide open skys of the Silver State, just as his great-grandfather had while becoming a successful miner in the 1880s.

The young boy shot rabbits, sold newspapers and peddled bat guano (excellent fertilizer), for a dollar a gunny sack in 1948 to make money for the family. Although other would-be guano peddlers tried to find Mendez's secret supply by following him into the desert, he gave them the slip everytime.

"I guess it was my first time dodging (a tail)," Mendez says.

A prank at a high school dance uncovered the natural skills of deception that would carry Mendez safely through his sometimes dangerous life. He and a buddy decided to crash a snobby social function, but only couples were allowed inside. No problem for Mendez, who puffed and powdered his face, shaved his legs and curled his lashes to give the full effect of the other half of a cooing couple. As he and his pal strolled in and succeeded to break up the snobby social, the blush on his cheeks was not just his mother's makeup. To his surprise, his costumed clowning got respect because the effort was so convincingly good, not some teenage bad-boy baffoonery.

The passion for the game of disguise had begun.

Tony's brother, John, says the spy line fit the mold from which his older brother was made. "He was always tough, I wasn't worried about him," says John Mendez, owner and sales associate for ReMax Elite offices and co-owner of the Pheasant Cigar store in Las Vegas, where his brother will autograph books.

The two sold copies of the Las Vegas Sun to passengers aboard the trains that stopped in Caliente, about 100 miles north of Las Vegas, where they lived in the late '40s. "It's interesting for me to think that here's a kid from Eureka, Nevada, and he grows up to be (an international spy)," John Mendez says.

Spy start

While Tony was working as an illustrator in Colorado in 1965 with his high school sweetheart and their three children, he was looking for something more exciting. A newspaper ad in the Denver Post, simply asking for "artists to work overseas -- U.S. Navy Civilians," would recruit the then-25-year-old Tony into the secret world of the CIA.

His mixed heritage -- Italian, Mexican and Welsh -- made it possible for him to ease into another nationality convincingly. "What you want to do if you are going to be an operations officer is you want to blend in ... You want the demeanor of Everyman, someone so boring that people don't want to look at you, notice you. My (appearance) is such that I can be in India and look Muslim or do the same thing in Russia and Latin America."

When Tony told his family he was applying for a job with the CIA, John didn't think too much about it, except that it suited his adventurous brother. He also knew not to ask questions. "I knew it was a high security situation," John says. "I have a military background so I was familiar with secrecy requirements, and I wasn't surprised that he didn't talk about it much."

It wasn't until recently, when Tony shared his harrowing experiences in Vietnam, Moscow and Iran, that his brother had a clear picture of what his brother had been doing all those years while the rest of the family worked off their mortgage and barbecued on Sundays.

"I didn't realize he had taken the risk that he had, I didn't know he was on the front lines," John says.

The brothers ended up on opposite coasts, and drifted apart as they each became successful in their fields. Tony's was just more of an actual field as he dodged bullets in Laos during the Vietnam War.

"He would appear mysteriously out of the woodwork in San Francisco," where John lived, without so much as a word about how he got there, John says. "I didn't push him on it because I recognized the security problem."

The tight-lipped Tony kept his accommplishments, and his failures, to himself -- a spy code of ethics. "The first inkling I ever had of the importance of his work was when I went to his retirement party, to the headquarters in Langley, (Virginia)," John says. "Half the people in the room were high level department heads in the CIA" who were there to pay their respect to Tony's years of hard work.

Spy stuff

All Tony needs to do to re-live the past is close his eyes and the smell, fear and excitement rushes back to carry him back over the years and into the trenches of the spy world. But he has kept his feet firmly enough on the ground to have a solid family life and be able to walk away from the CIA with a future.

"It's all about deception, about living a lie," he says. "So you have to develop a moral compass, wether it's a good lie or not. A good lie is for the good of the country and if it comes down to lying to family or neighbors, then that's what you do. Out in the field you develop layers (of disguise) that (make you) impervious to that kind of thing. It's about being so boring no one is going to ask (about) you."

When the disguise unravels and the enemy knows who you are, Tony says, a spy must adapt. A spy in the open is still a spy. "It is the knowledge game when it comes down to it," he says. "You use wits and cunning and stealth, no guns. If sources get caught, they are executed. The trial is not that long."

Tony would create disguises for other agents, top military officials or Americans who were in the right place at the wrong time and needed to get out of harm's way. This brought him to the front lines of the Cold War, face to face with the piercing blue eyes of a KGB agent who questioned his false documents, or working with Hollywood's movie magic elite to create better disguises for the field.

Tony has made thousands of fake passports, visas and other official paperwork to create aliases. "We are so good at making them that we are good at catching them," he says. "We've caught several hundred cases of terrorists trying to come into the country."

But there are alternatives to being captured and tortured by the enemy -- there really is such a thing as a suicide pill. "They (spies) could take it instead of (torture)," he says.

And you thought that was just a movie gimmick. Actually, the movies haven't been too far off in the details of spy-dom, but they have exaggerated the level of excitement. Spies sweat over passports and detection, but they drive boring cars and lead normal lives when not on the job.

"Things are a lot more elegant, we are not blowing them (the enemy) up before the blow us up," Tony says. "This clandestine activity is the alternative to blood being spilled ... whoever's."

In 1980 Tony was asked to bring out six Americans from the powder keg that was Iran. The American Embassy had just been taken over and the employees and officials held hostage. Tony had the opportunity and ability to free six fearful Americans hiding in Iran. "There were six people in harm's way and that was my job, to get them out," he says. "I've executed 150 operations like that, but this was dangerous."

As the six laid low at the homes of Canadian government officials in Tehran, Tony plotted to get a crew of CIA agents into the country to help get the "house guests" out of Iran.

Under the guise of a Canadian movie crew, Tony and a smattering of agents went to Tehran armed with passports, Hollywood history and even a fake ad in Variety and The Hollywood Reporter for an upcoming movie. Tony had the disguises down to every detail, such as matchbooks from Hollywood restaurants and a logo for the fake production crew.

"The code of the spy is never to celebrate any successes or explain the failures," he says. "It's kind of an advantage to only have the failures out there and not comment on them and get a rep of a gang that can't shoot straight."

Meanwhile, at home, Tony had waiting for him a strong marriage and three children who never -- and couldn't -- ask him how his day was or where he'd been or when he'd leave again for where. "What it's all about is saving lives. If that's what you do in your job then you learn to compartmentalize that," he says.

Post-Cold War

Tony was there when the Berlin Wall, long a symbol of the Cold War, crumbled to the ground. But that doesn't mean the world is a safer place now that the tensions between Russia and the United States have been diffused.

"Then you knew where the enemy was and now you don't know where they are," he says. "All those spies, they are still out there. Where are they today? They have a marketable skill. They have commodities with which they can help an adversary. It's the commodities that are a problem."

He says even the English and the French are looking out for themselves now when it comes to gathering information. After all, this is the information age. "Our so-called friends are spying on us" for industrial secrets, Tony says. "Their intelligence services are spying on those (visiting) business officials and go into their hotel room and check on their mail."

The end of the Cold War did not mean the end of national security. "There is an unbroken chain of countries from Iraq to North Korea that are working on the bomb right now," Tony says.

Spy game over

The CIA recently celebrated its 50th anniversary in operation and rewarded Tony with the coveted Trailblazer Award in 1997.

He now resides in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Maryland after a 25-year stint with the CIA. Since 1990 he has taken up his old hobby of painting and getting back to basics -- family and living a relatively simple life. His wife of more than 20 years died in 1986 of lung cancer, and Tony has since gotten married again, to a fellow disguise master for the CIA.

Although he is proud of the job he has done, it is sometimes a bit hard to open the doors to his past and let the memories, good and bad, wash over him. Yet he says it's important that the truth be told of what thousands of nondescript Americans do every day for the good of the country.

"It's time that we shared some of these successes with the public at large, for now is the time for them to recognize that we need an agency of this sort," Tony says.

"We need PR (public relations) because people can't see the threat."