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Book Review: ‘A Woman I Know,’ by Mary Haverstick



A WOMAN I KNOW: Female Spies, Double Identities, and a New Story of the Kennedy Assassination, by Mary Haverstick

Near the beginning of her new book, Mary Haverstick quotes James Angleton, the head of the C.I.A.’s counterintelligence division during the Cold War. Angleton described the world of spycraft as a “wilderness of mirrors,” where no one could be trusted and nothing was quite what it seemed.

This was not the terrain Haverstick, an acclaimed filmmaker, thought she was entering when she decided to make a movie about the so-called Mercury 13, a group of female aviators tested to be the first women astronauts, only for the program to be canceled.

Haverstick gravitated to the story of Jerrie Cobb, a Mercury 13 member and pugnacious pilot, who went on to spend her adult years delivering medicine and supplies by plane to the Indigenous people of the Amazon. When Haverstick first contacted her, she was told that Cobb, then in her mid-70s, was “still flying the Amazon skies every day,” Haverstick writes.

Jerrie Cobb eventually agreed to participate in Haverstick’s film. During the research, however, a strange encounter ensued — the first of many surreal events sprinkled throughout this fascinating, if ultimately unsatisfying, book.

Haverstick says she befriended a “high-ranking woman” who worked in espionage at the Pentagon. When this Department of Defense mystery woman visited Haverstick’s office, she warned that the old government documents Haverstick had collected were “classified and needed to be in a vault.”

Alarmed and intrigued, Haverstick decided to investigate, if only to ensure her movie project was “on solid footing.” She discovered a trove of C.I.A. records about a woman named June Cobb — who had a near-identical biography to Jerrie Cobb and had served as a covert agent in the U.S. government’s Cold War-era assassination and regime-change operations.

“What was the statistical probability,” Haverstick writes, “that two girls named Cobb of identical description and similar ages would be involved in aviation from Ponca and Norman, Okla., with both in the Civil Air Patrol, both being Spanish speakers, both traveling to that remote tribal region and then leaving with a jungle-borne disease, while also being involved in top-secret U.S. government programs?”

By her own admission, Haverstick is not an investigative reporter — or at least she wasn’t at the start of this decade-long project. By the end, she’s a regular at the National Archives and fluent in the jargon of America’s intelligence bureaucracy. In “A Woman I Know,” she distills a prodigious amount of research into a fast-moving story.

Her conclusions? Harder to buy. She comes to believe that Jerrie Cobb was a skilled intelligence operative for whom June Cobb was but one of several false identities used as a disguise.

Haverstick not only believes this female superspy — possibly “among the most daring spies who ever lived” — participated in the attempted overthrow of Fidel Castro, she theorizes that Cobb is a missing link in the story of the Kennedy assassination, either as an accomplice to Lee Harvey Oswald or, more improbably, a second shooter at Dealey Plaza.

The proximities between June and Jerrie, the C.I.A. and Castro and Oswald raised my eyebrows. But proximities aren’t proof — and we may never know. Cobb told Haverstick that she was not June Cobb, nor was she at Dealey Plaza when Kennedy was killed. She died in 2019.

As a fresh history of U.S. espionage, “A Woman I Know” is an absorbing read. As a smoking-gun investigation into the Kennedy murder, it’s less convincing. Even Haverstick admits that, after years spent in the wilderness of mirrors, she still wasn’t sure what to believe. Of Jerrie Cobb’s life story — or stories — Haverstick writes: “She has still eluded me.”

A WOMAN I KNOW: Female Spies, Double Identities, and a New Story of the Kennedy Assassination | By Mary Haverstick | Crown | 544 pp. | $35