My husband spent January 2011 in Sudan, observing South Sudan’s long-awaited referendum on independence. He came back with all sorts of stories—some glamorous (drinks with George Clooney), some horrifying (Darfur), but none so interesting as his chance encounter with a Houston millionaire at a cafe in Juba, the capital of what’s now the Republic of South Sudan. He described her as a “nice-looking woman who spends her husband’s oil fortune hiring mercenaries to hunt down Joseph Kony’s rebels in Uganda. Like a missionary with guns.”
Who was this woman, and why had I never heard of her? Her name escaped him, and despite my expert online search skills the Internet offered no clues. Neither, really, did my husband: “She’s friends with Sam Brownback, or one of those Kansas Republicans?” Still—nada.
I mostly forgot about this bizarre episode until I picked up John le Carré’s new thriller, A Delicate Truth. In a book notable for its shaded, multi-dimensional characterizations, one static, mostly offscreen caricature stands out—and the woman our hero’s frantic Google search coughs up sounded remarkably like the one my husband had met over pizza in Juba:
…Mrs Spencer Hardy of Houston, Texas, widow and sole heiress of the late Spencer K. Hardy III, founder of Spencer Hardy Incorporated, a Texas-based multinational corporation trading in pretty well everything. Under her preferred sobriquet of Miss Maisie voted Republican Benefactress of the Year; Chairperson, the Americans for Christ Legion; Honorary President of a cluster of not-for-profit pro-life and family-value organizations; Chair of the American Institute for Islamic Awareness.
In Le Carré’s universe, Miss Maisie represents a post-9/11 strain of the American-abroad cliché: a moneyed meddler of the far right; as one character puts it, a “friend of the Tea Party, scourge of Islam, homosexuals, abortion and, I believe, contraception.” And, in case we didn’t get the idea, he drives the point home in the physical descriptions of this tiny, plastic-surgery-warped woman of indeterminate age in her ridiculous “pink chiffon dress with matching hat and high-heeled shoes with diamanté buckles.”
And let’s be clear. Situating Miss Maisie—and the nebulously evil corporation she bankrolls, Ethical Outcomes—in Houston is no accident. To people who have spent little time there, our multicultural, lesbian-led city still symbolizes America at its most grotesque. There’s the exaggerated oil wealth, and of course there’s our hometown hero, George W. Bush, whose neocon doctrine the country spent the better part of a decade promoting.
“Houston” is a convenient shorthand for those distorted American values that Le Carré thinks are wreaking havoc on the international stage, values that Miss Maisie tidily summarizes in her only speech in the novel. Egypt’s embattled President Mubarak (A Delicate Truth kicks off in 2008), she says, “is my friend. He is America’s friend, and he was put on earth by God to make peace with the Jews, to fight communism and jihadist terror. Anybody seeking the downfall of Hosni Mubarak in his hour of need is an Iscariot, a liberal and a surrender monkey.”
But might Le Carré’s Miss Maisie be more than just a symbol? Did the seasoned spy novelist, even if unwilling to flesh out her character, base the interventionist Houston oil widow on someone real—a well-heeled woman who shared pizza with unnamed Department of State staffers two Januarys ago? Please send any speculations my way. Strictest confidence guaranteed.