The father of modern espionage

03/21/2014 1:00 PM

03/22/2014 8:45 PM

Not quite cricket: that’s what American diplomats once thought of spying.

“The whole idea of espionage ran against the grain of American culture,” said Douglas Waller, author of “Wild Bill Donovan: the Spymaster Who Created the OSS and Modern American Espionage.”

Some agreed with the sentiment attributed to former Secretary of State Henry Stimson: “Gentlemen do not read other gentlemen’s mail.”

Stimson later served as Secretary of War during World War II.

“Stimson soon changed his mind on that,” Waller said.

Waller appears in Kansas City this week in connection with the Truman Library exhibit “Spies, Lies and Paranoia: Americans in Fear.”

Donovan, who headed the Office of Strategic Services, helped pioneer the kind of gadgets on display at the library.

He hired an inventor who developed exploding candles and bombs that appeared to be lumps of coal that could be shoveled into a steam locomotive’s firebox. Such gizmos intrigued his boss, President Franklin Roosevelt.

“Roosevelt loved spy stories,” Waller said.

Waller speaks at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Kansas City Public Library’s Plaza Branch, 4801 Main St. His appearance is co-presented by the Truman Library Institute.

In need of a hero

If the most iconic superhero grew up on a Kansas farm, he first was imagined on a Cleveland playground.

That’s where bullies often found Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel.

“Jerry was a little too short, wearing glasses a little too thick,” said Larry Tye, author of “Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero.”

Siegel, Tye said, “needed a hero.”

He wasn’t alone. Superman’s first comic book appearance occurred in 1938, late in the Depression, with war on the horizon.

“The country needed a hero, to give itself a sense it could do things beyond what many skeptics thought it could,” Tye said.

For such a hero, audiences suspended disbelief. One example: a pair of eyeglasses rendered Superman the mild-mannered Clark Kent in the eyes of the otherwise hyper-alert Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen.

That seemed especially so in the 1950s television series starring George Reeves.

“Sometimes he seemed to be winking to us in the audience about how dumb Jimmy and Lois were,” Tye said.

Tye speaks at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Central Library, 14 W. 10th St.

For more information about both authors, go to

KCLibrary.org.

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