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Not My Job: We Ask A Master Of Disguise About 'Dose Guys'

PETER SAGAL, HOST:

One of the most interesting people we spoke to this year was somebody we had never heard of before, which was quite intentional on her part.

BILL KURTIS: Jonna Mendez worked in the CIA for decades, rising to become the first-ever master of disguise. Peter asked her if that was a real job title.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

JONNA MENDEZ: A lot of people are amazed at that title. Yeah, we had quite an effort underway in the field of disguise.

SAGAL: And there's a very famous story, just to sort of start right off with your level of expertise, that you went in to the Oval Office with the first President Bush disguised as somebody else and he couldn't tell.

MENDEZ: Yes.

SAGAL: Yes.

MENDEZ: Was wearing a full face mask, came with hair. I looked great. You know, he had been chief of CIA.

SAGAL: I remember that.

MENDEZ: So he kind of knew where the level of expertise was. This mask I was showing him was just notching it up about four levels. I mean, it was a huge leap in technology. And I told him that I was going to show him the latest disguise stuff that we had. And he's looking like, where's your stuff? And I said, I'm wearing it, but I'm going to take it off and show it to you. And he said, oh, don't take it off. And he got up, and he came and he looked. And he walked around. He said, OK, do it. So I did that Tom Cruise peel.

SAGAL: Yeah.

MENDEZ: Which should be called the Jonna Mendez Bill because I was..

SAGAL: Yeah.

DULCE SLOAN: Oh.

MENDEZ: ...Way ahead of Tom Cruise.

MENDEZ: Get into it.

MENDEZ: And I'm holding this thing up in the air. And the White House photographer took a picture of it.

SAGAL: Wow.

MENDEZ: So we have this moment captured in all time. It took me 10 years before they decided to send it to me.

SAGAL: Really?

MENDEZ: And they airbrushed the mask out of my hands.

SAGAL: What? What?

MENDEZ: In my library, you know, in the wall where you put all your good stuff, I've got a picture of myself sitting in front of the desk of the president of the United States with my finger in the air. It looks like I'm lecturing him.

SAGAL: So you got involved in the CIA back in the '60s - right? - because you were dating somebody who - or you were married to somebody who turned out to be in the CIA. Is that right?

MENDEZ: Yeah. I left Wichita, Kan., to go be in a friend's wedding in Germany. And I basically never went home.

SAGAL: Right.

MENDEZ: I stayed. I got a job at Chase Manhattan Bank. I couldn't - I'd never worked in a bank. I didn't speak German. I couldn't do math. What was the fourth thing? Oh, and I didn't have a work permit. And they hired me.

JOEL KIM BOOSTER: I'm never turning down a wedding invite ever again...

SAGAL: Yeah.

KIM BOOSTER: ...If that's how it can turn out.

ALONZO BODDEN: When they found out that you got a job in Germany with no banking experience, not speaking German, completely unqualified, was that when they realized you would be an excellent spy, like you could fake your way through anything?

(LAUGHTER)

MENDEZ: No one ever asked me that question.

SAGAL: So you got into the CIA.

MENDEZ: Yeah.

SAGAL: And did they immediately send you out on spy work, like, you know, to seduce various dignitaries and the things that we all see in the movies?

MENDEZ: No. I was the secretary for the director of this office called OTS. It was the Q.

SAGAL: Oh, you've said this before. You've compared what you did to the Q Branch in the James Bond movies.

BODDEN: Oh, my God.

MENDEZ: We made the gear, the equipment, the toys that the case officers needed.

SAGAL: Like the laser eyeglasses that turn into submarines, that kind of thing?

MENDEZ: If you brought us a good idea and it was feasible and you really needed it, we would probably make you one. But we were a little different than the movies because Q would always hand the weapons off, and James would lose them. He would break them. He would - you know, he would...

SAGAL: I'm sorry. I just imagine you watching James Bond movies and getting upset about what James Bond was doing with his tools. Like, damn it, James. Put it back in the case.

BODDEN: (Laughter).

MENDEZ: That's right.

BODDEN: I want to know - how are you allowed to tell us all this? This seems like the kind of information that we're only supposed to speculate about but never actually know these things happen.

KIM BOOSTER: They must really know the NPR audience and how threatening...

MENDEZ: We've written enough books. Everything in those books is approved.

SLOAN: What's your favorite disguise you ever did that you can tell us about?

MENDEZ: Well, it would be one that my husband did, but I helped him with it.

SAGAL: Before you go on, I should clarify for the audience that your husband - I'm assuming you're talking about - is Tony Mendez, now no longer with us...

MENDEZ: Yeah.

SAGAL: ...Who was, among many other things, the character played by Ben Affleck in the movie "Argo." That was him. That was your husband.

KIM BOOSTER: Shut up.

SLOAN: What?

MENDEZ: He's the man who told Ben Affleck that he wasn't good-looking enough to play him.

SAGAL: Whoa.

SLOAN: (Laughter).

KIM BOOSTER: It's about time someone took Ben Affleck down a peg.

MENDEZ: I know. I know.

SAGAL: Please proceed with the story.

MENDEZ: So Tony was showing our office director this new operational technique. We're going to use it in Moscow. Tony's at the end of the hall in a building we didn't use, and he's wearing a raincoat, got a briefcase. He's wearing a suit. He starts walking down the hall. He had 45 steps in 45 seconds to cover this ground. And in that 45 steps, he turned from a man in a business suit with a briefcase to an old lady in a pink scruffy thing with a shawl, gray hair, pushing a grocery cart full of...

SAGAL: Wait a minute, a grocery cart?

SLOAN: Where'd you get a grocery cart? That's where you come in.

SAGAL: I was with you up until then.

KIM BOOSTER: Get this lady out of here. She's a witch. She's not - she's a witch.

SAGAL: I did read where you said that you could make a man into a woman or a woman into a man. But something about the character of the CIA agents - the men didn't want to have to become women.

MENDEZ: No, they didn't (laughter). Neither did U.S. Marines.

SAGAL: Really? How often did you have to ask a Marine to become a woman?

MENDEZ: Now and then.

SAGAL: (Laughter) Wait. Was that professional or just a private interest of yours?

(LAUGHTER)

BODDEN: I want to know if your child won the Halloween contest every year.

MENDEZ: Always.

SAGAL: Really? So are you at all serious? And if so, can you tell us about some of the disguises or costumes that you helped your child create?

MENDEZ: Oh, I remember one from "Cats," where We can just do - we can do a great cat face. I remember one that was a bunch of pumpkins attached to each other. And then we discovered that no one could go to the bathroom all night because the whole patch had to go. And, you know...

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: Wait a minute. Your child and his - I'm assuming it was a son - were all pumpkins attached to each other. So they all walked around as a group?

MENDEZ: Actually, that was Tony and me.

SAGAL: (Laughter) Oh, I see. You'd think two experienced CIA agents would realize that if they're attached by the stem...

MENDEZ: I know.

SAGAL: ...They'd have difficulty.

MENDEZ: We really get - we got into that stuff.

SAGAL: Well, Jonna, it is a pleasure to have you here. But we have in fact invited you here to play a game we're calling...

KURTIS: Disguise? Sure, but how about those guys?

SAGAL: We were thinking you're an expert in disguise, but what do you know about those guys, meaning, of course, the Mafia? Answer 2 out of 3 questions, correctly, and you'll win our prize for one of our listeners - the voice of their choice on their voicemail. Bill, who is Jonna Mendez playing for?

KURTIS: Jillian Edwards of Orlando, Fla.

SAGAL: All right. You ready to do this?

MENDEZ: I am.

SAGAL: All right. Here's your first question.

SAGAL: All right. Here's your first question. John A. Gotti is the son of John J. Gotti, the famous Mafia don. But his friends and relatives realized that Junior was not cut out for the family business when he said what - A, quote, "wait, you mean Dad's not in the sanitation industry?" - B, quote, "Let's make him an offer, see if he refuses and, if so, consider our other options"; or C, quote, "I love Cracker Barrel, especially the country-fried steak"?

MENDEZ: I don't know much about the Mafia, but I'm going with C.

SAGAL: You're right.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

SAGAL: Turns out that the young Mr. Gotti fell in love with Cracker Barrel when he was visiting his father in prison in Illinois, and his various family members said, yeah, no. All right. That's one correct. Second question. Mafia guys are known, of course, for their colorful nicknames. Why was Salvatore Vitale, an underboss in the Bonanno family in New York, known as Good Looking Sal? Was it, A, before he became a made man, he modeled menswear in the J.C. Penney catalog; B, he once foiled an attempt on his life by spotting his would-be assassin behind him in a mirror; or C, because he insisted that his underlings call him Good Looking Sal?

MENDEZ: No idea. So I'll guess A.

SAGAL: You're going to guess A. No, he was not a model before he became a made man. He just insisted that everybody call him Good Looking Sal. Apparently, you didn't say no to Good Looking Sal. I don't know if you were allowed to pick your own nickname - would you go something that - you know, that complimentary? I don't know.

MENDEZ: Some people would.

SAGAL: I guess so. All right. Last question. If you get this, you win it all. Prosecutors believe that the dumbest mobsters ever were the two sides involved in a 2011 crooked deal in New York in which what happened - A, one side sold cocaine, which was really crushed-up sheetrock, to the other gang for money, which turned out to be counterfeit; B, one gang a sold a building they didn't own to another gang, which tried to tow it away; or C, a gunfight broke out when two gangsters showed up at a party wearing exactly the same pinstriped suit.

MENDEZ: They're all so good. I'm going with A again.

SAGAL: You're going to go with A again. You're right. That's what happened.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

SAGAL: The guy's trying to sell the cocaine, wasn't really cocaine. They got money that wasn't really money. Twenty-three men ended up in jail when all the dust - the sheetrock dust - settled.

BODDEN: Well, that explains one of my Saturday nights a couple of weeks ago.

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: Bill, how did Jonna do on our quiz?

KURTIS: Jonna got 2 out of 3. That means she is a dyed-in-the-wool winner for us.

SLOAN: Yay.

MENDEZ: Love it.

SAGAL: Jonna Mendez is the former chief of disguise for the CIA and the co-author of "The Moscow Rules." More information can be found at themasterofdisguise.com. Jonna, or whoever you may really be, thank you so much for being on our show. It was a pleasure to talk to you.

MENDEZ: This was as fun as I thought it would be. Thank you.

SAGAL: That's very good to hear. Thank you.

MENDEZ: Bye-bye.

KURTIS: Bye-bye.

SLOAN: Bye-bye.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "(YOU'RE THE) DEVIL IN DISGUISE")

ELVIS PRESLEY: (Singing) You're the devil in disguise.

SAGAL: When we come back, an actor who plays starring roles in which you never see his face and a woman who travels to places you've never been. We'll be back in a minute with more of WAIT WAIT... DON'T TELL ME from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.