Joanne Herring’s Wars

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Those craving simplicity should forego the irrepressible Joanne King Herring’s vastly pleasurable new memoir, Diplomacy and Diamonds: My Wars from the Ballroom to the Battlefield, which numbers among the year’s most fascinating—if ethically challenging—reads.

Herring is most famous for having been portrayed by Julia Roberts in the Mike Nichols film Charlie Wilson’s War and her depiction in George Crile’s astounding book by the same name. Herring was, as Crile accurately relates, a right-wing, big-money bombshell who helped coordinate one of the largest covert ops in CIA history from the parlor of her River Oaks mansion in Houston. Due in no small part to her efforts, Afghanistan’s mujahedeen received the billions that eventually enabled them to drive out the Soviets, an event that helped end the Cold War. That many of these “freedom fighters” eventually joined the Taliban is one of the terrible ironies of history, as well as a cautionary tale about the pitfalls of American imperial hubris.

Charlie Wilson’s War captivated millions, but for those like myself, who grew up in Houston, the story seemed more extraordinary still. Herring was a hometown celebrity, the 13-year host of a local TV talk show, and one of the great socialites of her day. In 1959, she threw what’s often referred to as the greatest party in Bayou City history—a “Bacchanal” that was lavishly documented by Life magazine, down to the black Boy Scouts she hired to serve as Nubian slaves. In 1968, when Princess Grace and Prince Rainier of Monaco came to Houston en route to San Antonio’s HemisFair, their Serene Highnesses were Herring’s personal guests. So, discovering that this glittering, glamorous denizen of the dancing class was secretly leveraging her Republican social clout to fund the mujahideen was more than surprising—like being told that Babe Paley, a socialite and fashion editor for Vogue in the 1940s, had become a gunrunner for the Sandinistas.

Herring’s politics are difficult to digest, but she makes a fabulous literary heroine, a ringer for Zsa Zsa Gabor, she boasts a worldview that blends Henry Kissinger and Lorelei Lee of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Consider, if you will, the following tidbit of advice she offers the working woman: “Impressive jewels … help tremendously in business settings. If you want to be accepted and remembered in a room full of Fortune 500 executives, wear a 20-carat diamond.” It’s probably because I’m super-gay, but I can’t resist a line like that, or the kind of lady who delivers it. Herring’s winning charm, intelligence and pluck are evident on every page of Diplomacy and Diamonds, and explain such spectacular political successes as “arous[ing] Congress and foreign heads of state … to set in motion the defeat of the greatest war machine in history.”

Herring’s adventures rival any in fiction, and I very much wish many of them were. It would certainly make for a less conflicted reading experience. Although I deeply adored reading about the time Herring’s pistol fell out of her purse at Neiman’s, or the time Jesus caused Madrid to be blanketed by an off-season snowstorm, her book is littered with other, less amusing moments. For example, Herring seems never to have met a dictator she didn’t like. In addition to being, in Crile’s words, “both matchmaker and muse to Pakistan’s Muslim fundamentalist military dictator, Zia ul-Haq,” she also yucked it up with Spain’s Franco, the Philippines’ Marcoses, Egypt’s Mubarak, and the Shah of Iran. When she writes of having “a deep affection for Zia,” I was reminded of Lady Diana Mosley, wife of Sir Oswald Mosley, head of the British Union of Fascists, rhapsodizing about Hitler’s “lovely blue eyes” in her similarly fascinating and ethically dicey autobiography, A Life of Contrasts.

Beyond Herring’s loathing of communism (“I will never accept communism. I will die first,” she writes), her political views are inconsistent. In her final chapter, she makes a compelling case in favor of a Marshall Plan for the Afghans: “If Afghanistan falls back under Taliban control,” she warns, “a fundamentalist Islamic state will have been reestablished on the border of Pakistan.” It’s a peculiar objection, considering that her adored Zia brought Sharia law to Pakistan in the late 1970s.

Even a beguiled reader like myself is moved to raise an eyebrow at the imperialist implications of Herring’s foreign policy agenda. “I will use diplomacy and diamonds,” she declares in her parting shot, “or whatever charms and strength I have left to fight this last battle.” And, if I were a member of the Taliban, I’d be shaking in my salwar kameez.

Robert Leleux is the author of The Memoirs of a Beautiful Boy. His essays and articles have appeared in many publications, including The New York Times and The New York Times Magazine. Robert is currently at work on his second book, The Living End, to be published next year by St. Martin's Press, and an oral history of Texas legend Sissy Farenthold.