The Weekly Quill — Corporate America Pulls a Garbo

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Distilling the Illusion of “Strong” Balance Sheets


“A river cuts through rock, not because of its power, but because of its persistence.”

Jim Watkins, American author


The great Greta Garbo had nothing on the persistence of Juan Pujol Garcia’s capacity for elusion and illusion. Though both were born into the humblest of circumstances in Europe within seven years of one another, Garbo Lovisa Gustafsson was discovered early on. At the age of 15, Stockholm’s thriving film industry caught sight of striking beauty in advertisements she made for the department store that employed her. By 1925, when she was 20, she had set sail for the United States where she’d signed a contract with Louis B. Meyer to film two movies for a salary of $400 a week, an unprecedented sum for an undiscovered starlet. Until she retired at the age of 36 to become one of history’s most enigmatic recluses, she knew only fame and fortune.

On February 23, 1939, seven months before war broke out between Britain and Germany, Garbo won her third Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role for Ninotchka. By then, Garcia’s life was all but washed up, at least on paper. Born in 1912, he had botched his studies, flopped as a chicken farmer, and his marriage was on the outs. Undeterred, this veteran of the Spanish Civil War was determined to succeed at one thing in life — taking down his totalitarianism nemeses, Francisco Franco and Adolf Hitler. Garcia was undeterred at being rebuffed by MI5 and U.S. intelligence when he approached them to be a spy. Unlike most of history’s most notorious sleuths, he was anything but well-educated and well-healed sleuths; he had no connections or credentials.

Rejection being old hand at this point, Garcia set out to fake it. Step One was approaching the Germans as a fascist sympathizer. Skirted off to London with nary a word of the English language in his vocabulary, he diverted himself to Lisbon. There, he set up a façade, sending postcards of Big Ben and other tourist hot spots to Nazi Germany alongside fabricated “reconnaissance” gathered purely from the radio and newspaper reports of troop movements, all the while bemoaning the gray, depressing London weather.

In a stroke of genius, he raised his stature by creating a spy ring numbering 27 including a British censor in the Ministry of Information, a Cabinet office clerk, an American soldier stationed in London, a Dutch airline stewardess and a sympathetic Welshman. The Germans giddily funded Garcia’s expanded network. When word leaked to MI5 of a veritable cavalcade of snoops right underneath their thumbs, they went berserk. Proving that timing can be everything, Garcia re-approached the Brits, who finally saw the err of their initial judgement.

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