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What do James Bond, Downton Abbey, and the CIA have in Common?

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What's left of the old road.
The fictional worlds of James Bond and Downton Abbey intersect in an unexpected way with the real-life location upon which CIA Headquarters now stands.

An American millionaire, Joseph Leiter, owned a large swath of land on the western banks of the Potomac River in what is now Langley, Virginia. Joseph built his “country house” on a bluff overlooking the river and installed a macadam road (an early type of paved road made from small stones and a cementing agent). Unusual for its time, the paved road ran from the Leiter house straight through where the present-day CIA Headquarters is now located.

Joseph was a Chicago capitalist and sportsman. He inherited much his wealth from his father, Levi Leiter, who was a founding partner in the famous Chicago department store, Marshall Field. Joseph lost upwards of $10 million dollars when the wheat market crashed. He had three sisters, all of whom wed into British high society.

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Mary Leiter Curzon.
Leiter and Downton Abbey

One of Joseph’s sisters, Mary Leiter, married a British aristocrat named Lord George Curzon in 1895. George became the first Marquis of Curzon and was appointed Viceroy of India. Mary, in turn, became the Vicereine of India, the highest position an American woman had ever held in the British Empire.

The Downton Abbey character of Lady Cora Grantham is based in part on Mary Leiter.

Mary was one of the “Dollar Princesses” of the Gilded Age, nineteenth century young American heiresses who married poor but titled British aristocrats to gain status through marriage and a fancy European title.

By all accounts, the marriage between Mary Leiter and George Curzon was one of love and partnership. Together, they ruled over India on behalf of the British Empire for 6 years. In India, Mary became ill and, despite trips to England to address her heath, she never fully recovered. After 11 years of marriage to George, she died in England in 1906. George was devastated, and he hired a sculptor to create a marble effigy of his wife to lay upon her tomb. George’s own effigy was added, lying next to his wife forever in eternal sleep.

Leiter, Felix Leiter

Joseph Leiter also had a son, Thomas, who became friends with a certain famous ex-British spy turned novelist, Ian Fleming. In fact, Fleming was such good friends with Thomas and his wife, Marion, that when he created the James Bond character, he named Bond’s friend and CIA liaison contact after them: CIA Officer Felix Leiter.

Fleming’s character was actually one of the first references to the existence of the CIA in popular culture.

Although the Agency was established openly, outside of government and intelligence circles the name CIA wasn’t that well-known during its first few years. It wasn’t until the early 1950s that CIA began appearing commonly in the press and entertainment media. One of the first significant characters to represent the Agency was Felix Leiter, who appeared in Fleming’s first James Bond novel, Casino Royale, in 1953.

Fleming had no way of knowing that years later, the land Thomas’s father owned would be purchased by the US Government, and that its final occupant would be none other than Felix Leiter’s real-world employer, the Central Intelligence Agency.

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Leiter house. Courtesy of National Archives.
Leiter’s Langley Estate Becomes CIA Headquarters

Joseph Leiter died of pneumonia in 1932. Joseph had acquired a significant amount of debt, and his 43-room country house, once known as the Glass Palace, was abandoned in 1935. The following year, after the Leiter heirs and the Treasury Department reached a settlement over $70,000 in back taxes, the house and 167 surrounding acres were deeded to the US Government.

The land was destined to become part of the planned George Washington Memorial Parkway and the site of public trails and picnic areas. The National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) initially intended to use the house as a recreation center and tea room, but it burned down in a “spectacular fire” in 1945.

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Ruins of the Leiter house today.

By the mid-1950s, the CIA was looking for a site to build its Headquarters that would be secure but also convenient to downtown Washington. The Agency was able to work with the NCPC and the Bureau of Public Roads (predecessor to the Federal Highway Administration) to acquire the land they needed for what is now CIA Headquarters.

In 1959, construction of the Agency’s Headquarters building on the old Leiter property began, six years after the first James Bond novel was published.


Posted: Nov 06, 2015 10:52 AM
Last Updated: Nov 09, 2015 02:07 PM