Thomas Powers

Thomas Powers is the author of nine books. He lives in Vermont where he is completing his tenth, about his father.

Fire or Earthquake: Joan Didion’s Gaze

Thomas Powers, 3 November 2022

No American writer​ ever revealed more in a photograph than Joan Didion. She was small, five foot one and three-quarter inches tall, which she fudged on her California driver’s licence as five two. She weighed nothing. Somewhere there must be a photograph of her beaming with delight but I’ve never seen it. With age, her neck thinned. Her arms were like birds’ legs. Her face...

Stone got his only glimpse of the fighting in a battle zone twenty or so miles north-west of Saigon. He made the trip riding pillion on a motorcycle with a friend. He felt that honour required he share the danger of the troops, however briefly. A deeper, in some ways even scarier impression was left by the Saigon underworld with its war-wounded and homeless street kids, its teenage prostitutes and thieves, and its ‘skag-bars’ selling heroin in multiple user-friendly forms – as a booster in cans of beer, as an additive in cigarettes, or as a powder for snorting or injection. War was the business of the day – ducking it, waging it, arguing about it – but next to war came drugs. It seemed to Stone that among the writers he saw, a ragged mix of big names and the unknown, everybody was a user or a dealer. On Perry Lane, drugs had been a form of recreation; in Saigon their sale and consumption was of a different order of magnitude. Stone’s dozen days in Saigon were all passed in the shadow of the war. Everybody was in it, somehow, and talked about it non-stop, but the talk never went anywhere. It ran into the war and came to a full stop. The war refused to be won, or lost, or understood.

When​ I think of J.D. Salinger now – not the books but the man – the thing I find hardest to understand is the moment when, in his early thirties, he began to hide his face. In 1952 he hired the photographer Antony Di Gesu to take a series of portraits. With his prominent nose, jaw and cheekbones he looks as ruggedly confident as a prizefighter – in early life he was a...


The Monster Plot

10 May 2018

Thomas Powers writes: Jefferson Morley merits a good scolding. His offence wasn’t daring to ask ‘if Angleton was running Oswald as an agent’ but the words that follow. Here is Morley’s full thought on page 265 of his book: ‘Was Angleton running Oswald as an agent as part of a plot to assassinate President Kennedy?’ The problem with that sentence, so close to the end of his book, is that...

James Angleton​, chief of counterintelligence at the CIA for twenty years, was not the ideal spy. The ideal spy is a mouse-coloured blur in the crowd, someone like George Smiley, described by his wife as ‘breathtakingly ordinary’. There was nothing ordinary about Angleton. Once experienced, his history, his appearance, his manner, and his stubborn refusal to be clear were all...

War on Heisenberg

M.F. Perutz, 18 November 1993

Did the German physicists make no atomic bombs during the Second World War because they wouldn’t or because they couldn’t? This is the question which Powers addresses in his extensive...

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Spies and Secret Agents

Ken Follett, 19 June 1980

Anthony Summers’s argument is remarkably simple. There is a tape-recording of the gunfire which killed President Kennedy. The third and fourth shots are too close together to have come from...

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