An Intriguing Life

Title:                      An Intriguing Life

Author:                Cynthia Helms

Helms, Cynthia (2013) with Chris Black. An Intriguing Life: A Memoir of War, Washington, and Marriage to an American Spy Master. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers,

LCCN:    2012033938

F200.3.H45 A3 2013


  • In search of a Life of My Own — Maldon — World War II and the Boat Crew Wrens — Coming to America — Annus Horribilus — Mrs. Richard M. Helms — Two Oaths — Exploring the World — The Legal Case — Life Goes On.


Date Posted:      November 11, 2015

Reviewed by Hayden Peake[1]

In his book, The Man Who Kept the Secrets[2], Thomas Powers concentrated on Richard Helms as the professionals’ intelligence officer-the secrets keeper. Helms’s wife, Cynthia, was mentioned briefly only three times and listed in the index under “Helms, Mrs. Richard.” Readers learned more from her 1981 book, An Ambassador’s Wife in Iran.[3] And now, in An Intriguing Life, she tells how she became a DCI’s wife and the adventures they shared. It is an extraordinary story.

Cynthia Ratcliff was born in Britain, the youngest of six children in a family that was “land rich and cash poor,” (p. 18) During WWII, her brother Len was a pilot who flew more than 70 missions for the Special Operations Executive (SOE). The war interrupted her education, and, “to do her part,” she joined the Wrens (Women’s Royal Naval Service·WRNS) and learned to pilot boats that carried crews from ship to shore. Her most important passenger was Queen Elizabeth (later the Queen Mother). It was during the war that she married her first husband, a Royal Navy doctor. After the war they moved to the United States, where he continued his studies. Twenty four years and four children later, she divorced her husband to marry Richard Helms.

Most of An Intriguing Life is devoted to her life with Helms. At the time of their marriage, finances were tight and Cynthia satisfied a long-time ambition and went to work for the first time—Helms was CIA’s deputy director for plans, but he lacked independent wealth and they had to rent a house. She writes easily about her relationship with Dick and their social life. Though she says she doesn’t like to be thought of as part of the “Georgetown set”—they didn’t live in Georgetown—they certainly were in terms of their party-going and friends. She tells anecdotes about many, including Sandra Day O’Connor, the Alsop brothers, Katharine Graham, Frank and Polly Wisner, Robert McNamara, and Pamela Harriman, to name a few. Her comments about Dick are sometimes surprising: “He had 11 toes and his shoe size was eight; he was utterly useless around the house … and an absolutely terrible automobile driver. . . We would sometimes read spy stories to one another . . .he found le Carré too dark and cynical.” (pp. 96· 97) When he finally decided to write his memoir, he “worked on the book everyday,” dictating at first then writing in longhand. (p. 183) It was published just after he died in October 2002. Helms had read the final draft.

On the professional side, she covers Helms’ conflicts as director of central intelligence with the Nixon White House, and how he became ambassador to Iran—Nixon had suggested the Soviet Union. It was while in Iran that he was investigated for the Senate testimony that led to his “badge of honor” conviction, a story she tells at length; pointing out the untenable position into which Senator Stuart Symington, who they considered a friend, had placed Helms.

The Helms’ post-Iran years were spent in Washington at their Garfield Avenue home, where they entertained interesting people ranging from the Reagans to a KGB defector (unidentified) who, in answer to Dick’s question, acknowledged that Alger Hiss was a Soviet agent. (p. 172)

An Intriguing Life concludes with some comments on Cynthia’s active, current life in Washington. She attends the annual briefing at CIA headquarters for “former directors and their spouses,” where she visits the Director’s Gallery to view the portrait of “Dick Helms, my one true love.” (p. 186) Cynthia Helms has given us and her grandchildren a fascinating look into the life of a very private man and the wife he adored.

[1] Peake, Hayden B. in The Intelligencer: Journal of U. S. Intelligence Studies (20, 1, Spring/Summer 2013, pp. 116-117). Hayden Peake is the Curator of the CIA’s Historical Intelligence Collection. He has served in the Directorate of Science and Technology and the Directorate of Operations. Most of these reviews appeared in recent unclassified editions of CIA’s Studies in Intelligence. These and many other reviews and articles may be found on line at

[2] Powers, Thomas (1979). The Man Who Kept the Secrets: Richard Helms and the CIA. New York: Alfred A. Knopf

[3] Helms, Cynthia (1981). An Ambassador’s Wife in Iran. New York: Dodd, Mead [LCCN: 80025090]

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