A local man and his wife have co-written a novel based on his experiences as a secret agent during World War II
There are figures who loom larger than life in world history. People like Leonardo Da Vinci, Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill tower in history to a degree that transcends mere celebrity. They seem to embody and symbolize all the good of their age. The name Da Vinci conjures the spirit of artistic and scientific innovation we associate with the Renaissance. Lincoln led our nation through its most horrific era with profound moral courage. And Churchill represents perseverance and humanity in the face of seemingly insurmountable evil.
It’s unusual, to say the least, to hear first-hand accounts of such luminaries. Max Ciampoli has co-written, with his wife, Linda, a novel based on his experiences during World War II. The novel, Churchill’s Secret Agent, is a first-person account of his experiences as a spy and special missions operative during the war. He reported directly to Churchill.
Bigger than life
“He was, to me, the father I never had,” said Ciampoli, during a recent interview at his home near the University of Nevada, Reno. “He was very jovial. He was always happy when he was with me. He was the man we should have now to run things. And so caring! When I would come back to see him, he would always hug me. I had never been hugged before. He would always call me ‘mon petit,’ even though I was much taller than him.”
The son of a wealthy and influential businessman, Ciampoli grew up in Monte Carlo. As a boy, he would often visit his godfather in Cap d’Antibes, along the French Riviera. Churchill would vacation there, and Ciampoli first met him then. Ciampoli remembers watching Churchill paint landscapes. Churchill would give cookies to the neighborhood children.
When the Nazis invaded and quickly conquered France in 1940, Ciampoli was a 17-year-old soldier in the French Alpine infantry. Frustrated by the French defeat, Ciampoli asked his godfather to put him in touch with Churchill. Ciampoli was an ideal candidate to be a secret agent: He was strong and athletic, intelligent and resourceful, fluent in a number of languages, and, because of his financially privileged upbringing, politically well-connected.
Churchill’s Secret Agent recounts Ciampoli’s many wartime experiences. The novel is like a cross between a James Bond adventure story and a grandfatherly memoir of times long past. Ciampoli parachuted behind enemy lines, dressed in a variety of disguises, stayed with the dancer and singer Josephine Baker, collaborated with the Vatican to forge false birth certificates for Jewish children, and traveled from Lyon to Vienna in the undercarriage of trains. He rescued British pilots, destroyed secret Nazi documents, and battled French fifth column militiamen. The extraordinary stories stretch the limits of credulity.
“Everything is real but one page and a half at the end,” said Ciampoli. “They wanted a happy ending.”
Many of the names were changed, as well. Though the book holds more appeal as an episodic memoir than as a cohesive novel, it’s also strictly a series of personal recollections. There’s little cross-referencing, historical research or even many specific references to dates. It’s one man’s war experiences as he remembers them, written many years after the fact. Though the book is marketed as a suspense novel, there’s a lot of tender and entertaining personal recollections, about people, horses and food, that have little to do with the adventurous narrative.
“It’s just amazing, amazing what he went through, and just to survive and be alive, and be with me,” said Linda, a pure California girl who studied French at the University of California, Los Angeles. The couple has been married since 1991, and in Reno since 2003.
“He’s John Wayne-ish to me, just bigger than life,” said Linda of her husband. She does not mean cowboyish. Though an enthusiastic horseman, Ciampoli exudes a debonair old-world elegance. Since the war, he’s been an executive chef at prestigious restaurants, including the historic Shamrock Hotel in Houston, a horse breeder, a yacht salesman, and a classic car collector. He’s 88 years old now.
“88 … I don’t count the days,” he said.
“I do!” responded Linda. “Every day is precious to me.”
Life during wartime
Despite the intervening years, Ciampoli’s wartime experiences still haunt him. Normally suave and well spoken, Ciampoli chokes up and struggles to find words when talking about the war. The book Churchill’s Secret Agent began as a therapeutic exercise. Ciampoli had been having nightmares about his war experiences, and Linda suggested that he write down his memories as a way to purge them from his brain. He wrote them down, in French, as unedited memories. Linda edited, translated, revised, and shaped Max’s remarkable memories into something resembling book form.
“He makes light of it, but every time we had to rewrite a chapter, every time we had to go over something again, it comes up, and he has dreams,” said Linda. “The memories are so vivid in him.”
Ciampoli, normally very respectful whenever his wife or anyone else is speaking, suddenly interrupted her, his voice unusually shaky. “When you kill people, 50 percent of the chance is you’re right. That was the law of the time. Either you kill or get killed.”
“It makes him emotional,” said Linda.
“The kids, the youth, should be aware of what happened,” said Ciampoli, “to fight it, because it could happen again, and it was horrible.”