Wednesday, January 5, 2011


Two events in recent weeks reminded me of a secret I've kept for almost forty years. As a former journalist, I've kept a lot of secrets over the years, and one of the recent events was the WikiLeaks controversy, which has gotten many people thinking about the nature of secrets, and whether some things should be kept under wraps, or should we aim for total transparency. Having grown up on Ian Fleming and the James Bond books, I usually side with those thinking it is necessary for some things to be kept secret. Not the sort of grand deceptions that my friend, Daniel Ellsberg, revealed when he released The Pentagon Papers, but the sort of embarrassing details about our diplomats' views of world leaders that WikiLeaks seems to be mainly composed of.

Would you want to negotiate anything with someone who, in private communications, had a negative or critical opinion of you--or someone who did not have the ability to guarantee your discussions would not be made public?

The other event was the Masterpiece Contemporary film, Framed, on PBS, about the flood-threatened British National Gallery art treasures being hidden in a mine in Wales while repairs were made--the same cave Winston Churchill used to keep them out of Nazi hands in case of an invasion during World War II.

What this all reminded me of was a time when I was a radio newsman in New York City, and my girlfriend, whom I'll call Ms. V, had a best friend, Ms. S., who was a curator for something called The Hirschhorn Collection. Her job was to catalog the thousands of paintings and sculptures, which were to form the basis of our first national museum devoted to modern art. So one quiet Sunday, Ms. S. took Ms. V. and myself down Hudson Street on the lower West Side of New York, just above Greenwich Village (where I lived at the time, further down a few blocks on Hudson). On that deserted street, there was a grubby storage warehouse, and Ms. S. unlocked a not-so-substantial door with a key she carried.

During the next two hours, we encountered one rather non-threatening guard, the only security I saw, though I imagined there was some kind of alarm system in place (or maybe not). Leaning against walls and boxes scattered all over the place on several floors, were countless masterpieces--Picassos, Matisses, Jackson Pollocks, sculptures by Alexander Calder and Auguste Rodin, and many, many others I was not familiar with. Ms. S. said they were worth tens of millions of dollars, but I suspect it was hundreds of millions even then, and certainly past the billion dollar mark now.

I've never gotten to The Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden at The National Mall in Washington, which opened about three years after my secretive journey to a warehouse in lower Manhatten. If I ever do, I wonder if I'll recognize any of the works of art I saw back then. I did have the thought at the time that it would make an amazing story, probably have gotten me a network position at least. But in those days, those more innocent days, there was a certain respect and regard for keeping secrets when one was asked to do so.

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