A Spy's Family Is Divided by His Portrayal on Film

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Former CIA Director William Colby comes off as cold, mysterious and ultimately suicidal in his son's recent documentary, The Man Nobody Knew. The rest of Colby's family disagrees.

The documentary, by Carl Colby, examines Colby at length, and paints a portait of diligence and duty to country that came cloaked at all times in secrecy. (The Atlantic spoke at length with the younger Colby about the film.) 

But Colby's step-mother and his siblings attack the film's portrayal of William Colby in interviews with The Washington Post, saying the son distorted the father's image to make a more gripping film.

For the Colby family, the movie is yet one more turbulent moment stemming from the career of their patriarch, whose CIA directorship in the 1970s is one of the agency’s most controversial. And even though [Sally] Shelton-Colby, the spymaster’s second wife, has been kept at a distance by most of Colby’s biological children, their grievances with the film have united them, at least in principle.

“Let me be very blunt,” said Shelton-Colby, 67, a foreign policy professor at American University. “I think Carl portrayed his father in the way he did to sell his film. Carl didn’t know his father. . . . He was not the cold, insensitive, unfeeling person that Carl portrayed in that film.”

Some of the disagreement may have been inevitable. Carl Colby didn't interview his three siblings for the film, or his stepmother, but did interview his biological mother about her late ex-husband. And William Colby died under circumstances that have never been fully explained: he disappeared while on a canoe trip, his body found days later, his death chalked up to a stroke or heart attack.
The film also investigates the most controversial aspects of Colby's work, including the Phoenix Program, the CIA's attempt to combat Viet Cong spies in South Vietnam during the Vietnam War.

Even though the movie shows Bill testifying before Congress, saying that he issued an order against assassination, Paul, the youngest brother, said he still believes the film slams their father as a “mass assassin.” (In his memoir “Honorable Men,” Bill wrote that the vast majority of Phoenix deaths occurred “in combat actions” with Vietnamese and American military forces.)

Paul, who lives in Alexandria, also hates how the movie splices images of their dad with violent archival footage — rows of Vietnamese corpses and a notorious clip of a Vietnamese prisoner being shot in the head. Earlier this year, when Paul was shown the film, he told Carl that it would be “unethical” to keep it as is. Paul said the Vietnamese prisoner’s killing was not part of Phoenix, that his dad wasn’t even in Vietnam at the time of the shooting and that the footage is a “total smear of my father.”

The quotes from the family members show real bitterness and hurt, emotions that may have been inevitable, given the subject matter. In John Meroney and Sean Coons' interview with Carl Colby from The Atlantic, his memories of his father paint a cool, calculating and well-read man, one who was accustomed to wartime and post-war calculations — about policies and human beings — that could look cruel, but that were sometimes necessary. Notice this exchange, about one of Bill Colby's favorite movies, the Orson Welles classic The Third Man

He could recite the dialogue from the scene at the top of the Ferris wheel. It was actually kind of chilling. Joseph Cotten plays a character called Holly Martins, and he's confronting Orson Welles, who is Harry Lime, for trafficking in adulterated penicillin. Children are dying in hospitals in Vienna. "Don't be melodramatic," Harry Lime tells him. "Look down there. Tell me—would you really feel any pity if one of these dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you £20,000 for every dot that stopped, would you really tell me to keep my money—or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare?"

And your dad would recite this scene?

He loved it. Including the most famous part where Harry Lime gives his speech—"In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love. They had five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did they produce? The cuckoo clock."

But Harry Lime is a racketeer.

That's what I said to him—"Harry Lime is immoral." But dad would just shrug, as if to say,That's life.You see, I think dad lived in the Harry Lime world, not the Holly Martins world.

 His father, Carl Colby says in that interview, would have appreciated his film. At the same time, you can see why some of his survivors didn't.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.