My friend Mike recently invited me over for lunch to see his new house, his new dog and the amenities of his patio area. I was impressed by all three. The dog was much like a white poodle but wasn’t a poodle. It was a Pomeranian and was friendly and seemed to live in its own cute world.
All of a sudden I said without thinking, “I used to have a Pomeranian. It wasn’t white. It was kind of black and brindle color and very sweet natured.” No sooner had I made the statement than I regretted it. You see, it is yet another story that took place during my time in Mexico when I attended Mexico City College. (I guess people who are around me wonder what story is going to jump out of my head next.)
I tried to skip the dog story and get on to something else. I could tell that my having a dog tale and not completing it was not going to fly. Oh, why did I open my mouth, I thought? My friends do not have me down as a dog person or a pet person. This caused them to have a great deal of curiosity about how a certain Pomeranian pup and I became allies. I tried to give a Reader’s Digest shortened version of the story but it looked like it just made matters worse.
So, dear readers, and friends from lunch the other day. Here is the blog version of the story I wanted to tell but did such a lousy job.
In January 1957, I went to Mexico for the second time to study. The first time had been in the fall of 1951. At that time I studied at a special school for foreigners which was run by the University of Mexico. I studied for thee quarters there. Then I hitch-hiked to California and after having a rough time sustaining myself, I joined the army. After leaving the army, I attended Mexico City College on the G. I. Bill. (Okay, where’s the dog?) Keep your shirt on. It’s coming.
They had a housing office at Mexico City College where you could acquire accommodations in a private home. They thought this was a good idea as it would cause you to speak more Spanish. I was down in Mexico by myself so room and board seemed the practical way for me to go.
Three of us MCC students lived with an older man and his wife. I do not recall her name but she was Mexican and belonged to what might be called the middle class—an almost non-existent social strata at that time in Mexico. You were either rich or poor. Anyway the Señora, as we called her, had maids to clean the rooms and cook and serve the meals but all was done by the seat of their britches. We lived in Spartan rooms at the house—almost closet sized. The food was adequate but we could tell they were totally living off of what we three roomers put into their coffers.
Her husband’s name was Vladi and that was short for Vladimir. He was Russian and had been in the Russian Revolution as an aid to Leon Trotsky, the head of the country after the peasants revolt. Then Stalin took over in a coup and sent Leon and Vladi and pals fleeing to Mexico in exile. Trotsky was eventually murdered (1940) as were several of his aids. Vladi managed somehow to keep alive.
Vladi did have some wild tales to tell about his days as a Revolutionary. While we lived in his home, he hardly left the house except with an armed guard. One of the other guys living there was named Sam Allen and his father had been the last president of Pierce-Arrow Motor Car Company. Sam was the intellectual type and was studying archeology. He had a girlfriend back in Chicago to whom he wrote daily. (Where is that damn dog?) Hold on. Pepe is about to show up.
Sam’s girlfriend didn’t like his living in the scary situation Chez Vladi and suggested that we rent an apartment. I thought it might be fun because in those days one could rent a place with a maid included for something like 60 dollars a month—and that was for a very nice place.
We settled on an apartment in the Polanco District of Mexico City which was super European and upscale. We loved it. We felt though like we were taking the food out of Vladi and the Señora’s mouths but we decided to move anyway. We had a beautiful, airy apartment on the second floor over the garage and quarters of the Señora who owned our new building. She used to be Secretary of Education for Mexico so she was pretty much up there in the snooty level.
The second floor had two apartments and we shared a lovely, plant-filled patio with a very amiable American couple in their late 40s. They were Americans also and super friendly—at least the wife was. She told us her name was Ruth and her husband was Al. She spoke of having an 8 year-old son who was living with her mother in Connecticut.
Sam, Ruth, Al and I plus their dog Pepe (aha, here is the dog!) all got along like we had known one another for a long time. We had happy hour every evening after we got in from school and they were free from what they were doing. (They always seemed busy in their apartment and had a wide range of people—mostly men—coming and going.) What fun we had. Ruth was up to everything. She said she was a writer and that Al was an international businessman who was merely taking it easy and that they ran their various ventures out of their apartment.
Life progressed just fine on our big, spacious upstairs patio. From time to time we had outdoor patio suppers. Ruth and Al would host and then it would be our turn. She had just been everywhere it seemed and at the time I was very impressed.
She even brought to our attention that the big trees in front of our apartment building on 104 Calle Campos Eliseos—that’s Spanish for Champs Elysees Street— were filled with people sleeping in them at night. These were the poorest class who truly had no place to stay. I hadn’t even noticed until she pointed several of them out to me one night. We could hear laughter and the limbs shaking.
One night after we had been in our great little apartment about four months, we heard a lot of ruckus taking place in Ruth and Al’s apartment. It wasn’t noise like they were being robbed but more like they were doing a lot of running and shuffling about.
The next morning when we got up and went out onto the patio to have our coffee, I ran into Pepe tied to our door. Pepe (was a she) had a note attached that said something to the effect that they were so sorry to have to leave on such short notice but they couldn’t take Pepe with them. So, they wanted us to have her.
Things came to light over the next few days as American FBI people from the embassy and Mexican Secret Service agents combed Ruth and Al’s apartment. Sam and I were interviewed as though we might have some information to share. They pretty soon realized we knew zero about. Ruth and Alfred.
It turned out they were Soviet spies and ran a ring in the United States, Cuba and East Germany out of their Mexico City apartment—next door to us. They were very influential in aiding Fidel Castro and his brother Raul to invade Cuba and begin their revolution. Fidel lived in Mexico at the time and surely visited them in their apartment.
They had barely escaped from Boston in the USA 3 years earlier from being sent to prison or executed along with some other big-name Soviet spies—Julius and Ethel Rosenberg who were executed by the US Government. They packed and left that night because they feared for their lives. Apparently they had been warned that they were no longer welcomed in Mexico and were about to be assassinated.
They barely made it alive out of Mexico. They went to Havana and then on to Moscow. Both died years later in Prague. Ruth’s name was really Martha—and Al was Alfred. Otto Preminger, the renown film producer, was at one time considering making a film of their lives.
So, there you have the story of how Pepe came into Sam and my lives. She stayed with us for about three months and we found her a good home—actually with the Señora who owned the building. So, yes, at one time I did have a Pomeranian dog.
If you want any more facts and information about these interesting next-door neighbors of ours, go to Google and type in Martha and Alfred Stern. I guarantee you will be surprised by what you read.
In 1957 Martha and her husband were indicted on espionage charges and, fearing extradition from Mexico, fled to Prague, using passports obtained by bribing an official at the Paraguayan Embassy in Mexico City. When they reached Prague they asked for permission to live in Russia but, after a short stay there, they returned to the Czech capital. KGB records say they spent some years in Cuba and then returned again to Prague in 1970. It would appear that they attempted to negotiate a return to America but their request for immunity from prosecution or imprisonment was rejected, and they spent the rest of their lives in Prague. Martha worked as a translator of American books and articles and died in 1990.