Tony Mendez, 1940–2019
The CIA trickster who directed the Argo plot
Mendez was born in Eureka, Nev., “to a mixed-heritage family (Italian, Mexican, Welsh) that he later credited with helping him blend in around the world,” said The Washington Post. His father died in a copper-mining accident when Mendez was 3 years old, leaving the family in poverty. He helped by digging up bat guano in caves and selling it to neighbors as fertilizer. Mendez briefly studied art at the University of Colorado “before dropping out because he had no money,” said The New York Times. Bored with his job making technical drawings for a defense firm, he answered a want ad for artists to work overseas—only later did he learn that it was for the CIA. There, he distinguished himself with his creativity and became the agency’s chief of disguise. He once helped an agent lose his KGB tail in Moscow by building a spring-loaded mannequin, which popped up in the agent’s seat when he sneaked out of his car.
After the Argo mission, the rescued U.S. diplomats came home to a hero’s welcome, but “Mendez slipped back, unnoticed and unsung,” said The Times (U.K.). His role wasn’t made public until 1997. In retirement, Mendez returned to painting and sculpting, putting on twice-yearly shows whose attendance soared after his memoirs were adapted into the 2012 hit film Argo, starring Ben Affleck as Mendez. “I’ve always considered myself an artist first,” Mendez said. “And for 25 years I was a pretty good spy.”