TONY & JONNA MENDEZ
Tony and Jonna Mendez are former CIA Intelligence Officers with 52 years of combined service. Both served as the CIA’s Chief of Disguise. On the CIA’s 50th anniversary, Tony was chosen as one of the CIA’s top 50 officers for its first 50 years.
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One morning during the presidency of George H.W. Bush, Jonna Mendez, then the CIA’s chief of disguise, entered the White House wearing a mask. She had originally disguised herself as an African-American man but decided that mask wouldn’t work, not least because her voice would give her away. Instead, she borrowed the face of a female colleague. “It was a little nerve-racking,” she recalls. “I hadn’t really worn it anywhere.”
SPY Historian Vince Houghton sat down with former CIA Chief of Disguise Jonna Mendez to talk about operating in VERY denied areas, and her newest book, The Moscow Rules: The Secret CIA Tactics that Helped America Win the Cold War.
Tony Mendez, the C.I.A.’s top disguise artist for many years, who died in January, took magic out of the living rooms and into the streets of Moscow. And in this memoir of arcane C.I.A. skulduggery, Mendez and his wife, who would eventually run the unit, demonstrate what a serious business it was: Every time C.I.A. operatives left the Moscow embassy with a K.G.B. agent in tow, they risked the lives of their Russian informants. They had to shake their tails. But how?
Legendary spy power couple Jonna and Tony Mendez met while working for the CIA in the Soviet Union, building the tools of espionage: the disguise kit, the camera that could hide anywhere, the cyanide pen. There they followed guidelines they called the “Moscow Rules” — now the name of a new book they co-wrote before Tony’s death. Jonna Mendez talks with Nick Schifrin about their work and mission.
What makes a good disguise? According to Jonna Mendez, the CIA’s former chief of disguise, it’s about more than cosmetology.
Jonna Mendez was undercover in the lobby of a fancy American hotel when she locked eyes with a dangerous terrorist, guarded by two armed men. A potentially fatal mistake that could have cost her life, she later found out.
It may sound like something straight out of a spy fiction movie, but that’s the reality Mendez lived as the former CIA chief of disguise who worked alongside her husband for the intelligence agency.
While Mendez became an international man of mystery, his Park Lane paintings languished in a warehouse after the hotel was demolished. A local man later salvaged them, and his daughter, Lesa Leiter of Thornton, discovered the true identity of the “A. Mendez” who had signed the pieces.
Following Mendez’s death at age 78, Leiter sold the paintings to Simon Lofts, the co-owner of Workability, a Denver co-working outfit. Lofts plans to hold a public unveiling on August 26; they’ll permanently hang in Workability’s Sherman Street office. “My father would be thrilled that his work is in the public eye,” says Toby Mendez, one of Tony’s four children and an esteemed sculptor himself, “and being seen once again.”
Jonna Mendez is a former CIA Chief of Disguise, who is also a specialist in clandestine photography. Her 27-year career, for which she earned the CIA’s Intelligence Commendation Medal, included operational disguise responsibilities in the most hostile theaters of the Cold War, including Moscow, and also took her into the Oval Office. She is the co-author, with her late husband Tony Mendez, of “The Moscow Rules: The Secret CIA Tactics that Helped America Win the Cold War.”
Perhaps no one in the world is more familiar with the crossover between science fiction and spycraft than the final panelist, Jonna Mendez, the former CIA chief of disguise, who described how she and her husband (whose work freeing hostages in Iran was dramatized in the Ben Affleck film Argo) studied the mask-making techniques from some of Hollywood’s top monster makers.