This is a story about a man named Rudolf Ivanovich Abel. He was a colonel in the KGB—a master spy, a mole deeply embedded in the United States, and the central hub of a massive, all-consuming espionage network that threatened all that we hold near and dear.
Well, that’s not totally true.
He was also Emil Goldfus, a kindly, unassuming, retired photofinisher and amateur painter, developing his craft with a group of fledgling Realist artists living and working in Brooklyn in the 1950’s.
Of course, that’s not entirely true either.
* * *
What is undeniable is this: At seven a.m. on the morning of June 21, 1957, a naked, sleep-deprived and bedraggled Emil Goldfus, a fifty-ish man, answered a persistent rapping on the door of his shabby room in the Hotel Latham on East 28th Street.
In marched three F.B.I. agents, who directed the target of their early-morning interrogation to find a pair of undershorts and sit on the bed. Calling him “Colonel,” they peppered him with questions about his identity and matters relating to espionage, warning him that a refusal to cooperate would result in his immediate arrest. Goldfus remained mostly silent, grunting one-word, often contradictory or false responses, and denying everything.
After about twenty minutes, the INS joined this impromptu breakfast klatch and took the subject into custody for violating immigration law. The Feds gathered up various bits of evidence that were strewn about the one-room lodging, including identification cards listing his name as “Martin Collins” and “Emil Goldfus,” hollowed-out coins, shaving materials, cufflinks and pencils containing tiny, secret compartments, a shortwave transmitter, photos of other known agents and various devices for both creating and deciphering coded materiel.
On August 7, 1957, my father, Burton Silverman—a young artist fresh out of the Army—was walking down the street on the way to his layout and graphic design job for the then-liberal New York Post when he caught a glimpse of a blaring headline at a newsstand: “RUSSIAN COLONEL IS INDICTED HERE AS TOP SPY IN U.S.” and the sub-header, “Suspect Said to Have Used Brooklyn Studio to Direct Network.” The lede further stated that he was, “The most important spy ever caught in the United States.”
For my father, it was a moment of extreme unreality. The face staring back at him from the newspaper was his good friend Emil, not some KGB spook. How could Emil be a “master spy,” or even a common, everyday spy? He was an amateur painter, a fine guitar player and a charming older gentleman. How could that man be the enemy? He was frozen in his tracks, transfixed by the image, unable to reconcile the contradiction of the man he knew (or thought he knew) with the words in print staring back at him. It was as if a hole in the fabric of his universe had suddenly opened up under his feet.
* * *
So yes, a spy. In New York City. In Brooklyn. Emil Goldfus wasn’t a daring man of mystery, furtive and dripping with enigmatic sexuality, draped in a leather trench coat, a cigarette dangling from his lips, being pursued by a tuxedoed hybrid of James Bond and Jason Bourne. He was a balding, middle-aged man with a wiry build and a sharp bony profile, who seemed to wear nothing but gray. Okay, so he did have a trench coat—or at least a bulky raincoat.
Burt Silverman met Emil Goldfus in the winter of 1954, in the elevator at Ovington Studios, a building where he and many of his friends and professional colleagues rented space on Fulton Street in Downtown Brooklyn. “I was just out of the Army at the conclusion of the Korean War,” Silverman says. “I got a space in the possibly last artist-only studio in the city, and I often slept there because I still couldn’t afford my own place and was commuting from my childhood home.”
There stood a courtly, oddly dignified stranger, in baggy pants, a rumpled raincoat and a floppy, oddly casual hat. There was a brief exchange of mumbled hellos and, even though they exited on the same floor, nothing else was said.
“He had this accent,” Silverman explained. “You just couldn’t place it. There was a strange, rolling ‘r’ sound when he said my name—Burrrrrt—as if he had a Scottish burr, though he explained it with a story about an aunt from Scotland that had raised him.”
A few weeks later, Silverman was working late at night when Goldfus knocked at his door and asked to borrow a cup of turpentine. They struck up a conversation, the older gentleman admiring the artwork he saw and referring to a nineteenth-century Russian landscape painter Silverman had never heard of named Isaac Levitan.
Over the next few months, a friendship began to form. Though Silverman was the much younger man, he was the far more talented artist. Goldfus’s paintings were earnest, but amateurish. The younger man took on the role of teacher, instructing him on how to prepare canvases, what brushes to use, the basics of color theory and how to render the human form.
Goldfus also—slowly, guardedly—shared a few bare-bones details about his life: how he’d been a student in Boston, but had traveled around the country working as an accountant, then as an electrical engineer and finally as a photo finisher, though he’d also spent some time in Pacific Northwest lumber camps. He played the guitar brilliantly (for an amateur), and made a concoction called “jungle coffee” by boiling the grounds directly in milk on the stove.
He was also a frequent visitor to Silverman’s studio, accruing a vast amount of knowledge just by spending time with him and watching him paint, saying nothing.