On her majesty’s service

It’s been almost 40 years since I met British diplomat Gordon Pirie and his wife, Maria, at the coffee shop at the Intercontinental Hotel in Tehran.

Iranian militants had just taken American diplomats hostage in what would be become an ordeal of 444 days.

As a reporter for Newsweek, I was trying to figure out what was going on. Gordon provided me with important insights into what was happening.

Unbeknownst to me and the rest of the world until two decades later, Gordon played an important role in saving a number of American hostages who had managed to escape the takeover of the U.S. embassy.

The Times of London provided an account of his derring-do to correct the errors of Argo, a 2013 movie about the hostage crisis that gained critical acclaim but had little to do with the facts.

Gordon and a colleague, Martin Williams, learned that the diplomats had holed up in the southeast part of Tehran.

The two men drove around and made contact with five fugitive diplomats. A sixth found his way to the Swedish embassy and joined them in hiding 10 days later.

Gordon and Williams were meant to take the Americans back to the British embassy, but as it was occupied, that was out of the question. They decided to go instead to Williams’s home in the British compound in the northern suburbs.

The Americans’ relief was palpable when they made it to the relative safety of the compound, where Maria, who is Italian, cooked up pasta.

Eventually, the Americans went to the home of Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor and were spirited out of the country on January 28, 1980, bluffing their way through passport control at the airport in Tehran as Canadians from a film crew created by the CIA for their escape.

Just as the CIA’s role in springing the Americans was not declassified until 1997, so the British decided to keep quiet fear of further inflaming relations with the Iranian regime.

Over the years, my wife Elizabeth and I spent many hours with the Piries, who moved across the street from us in Beirut and down the street from us in Rome.

We often regaled one another with memories of how Gordon, who was fluent in Farsi and several other languages, helped us bargain with Persian carpet sellers to get the best price possible.

In Rome, our apartment looked into the love nest of the Italian finance minister, who brought numerous young ladies there for his extramarital affairs. We’d turned off the lights and peered from behind the curtains to see what new woman he’d decided to wine and dine. We justified our Peeping-Tom approach as research into Italian politics!

Last year, Gordon, who was in his 80s, ran into the inevitable problems of getting older. I was able to visit him, and it was as if we hadn’t spent a day apart from one another.

Sadly, Gordon died a few weeks ago. He was a tribute to his work as a diplomat throughout the world. More important for me, he was a dear friend who will sorely missed.

2 thoughts on “On her majesty’s service

  1. A very nice tribute, Chris. Gordon was one of the best and most human diplomats I ever met. I too first came across him in Teheran and then we lived in the same building in Beirut shortly after that. We spent a lot of very good moments with both Gordon and Maria.

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