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From the Editor: Outliers

Big Sur and George Koval, atomic spy

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James Conaway first visited Big Sur when he was a writing fellow at Stanford University in 1963. "I was completely floored by the beauty and the separateness of the place," he recalls. "It was unlike anything I had ever seen. The light there is incredible, to say nothing of the scenery. It seems to reduce life to essentials; none of the distractions that we think of in an American landscape. Poor TV reception. It's hard to make cellphone calls. You're sort of thrown onto yourself." Since that first visit, the author and former editor of Preservation magazine has gone back a dozen or so times, but, he says, in all those visits he got to know only a few of the people who call Big Sur home. "I'd always wanted to know who lived up these canyons. It was very difficult if you didn't know your way around or didn't have access. So I had this romantic notion about who might live there and what they might do. It was this assignment that made me go up and talk to them. It was great because they all lived up to what I imagined they'd be like." His story, "California Dreamin'," begins on page 56.

Formerly a music critic for the San Francisco Examiner and Time magazine, Michael Walsh writes novels and screenplays about foreign intrigue and espionage. So when senior editor Tom Frail read about an American spy who played a key role in the Soviet Union's acquisition of the atom bomb, he asked Walsh to look into it. And quite a tale—"Iowa-born, Soviet-Trained," page 40—it turned out to be. In Sioux City, Iowa, where the spy—George Koval—was born, Walsh found Koval's high-school yearbook. He turned up Koval's fellow students at the City College of New York—including one in suburban Washington, D.C., who re-established contact with Koval after a 50-year silence and kept in touch with him through the last five years of his life. Walsh even tracked down Koval's family in Moscow. "It was quite a long and unexpected journey," says Walsh. And a fascinating one. "Koval was an American citizen. He was a huge baseball fan. Yet when he and his parents moved to Russia, he was recruited as a spy and sent back to the United States. He lived this double life. He believed in the Soviet system, and yet I think he was torn between his American-ness and his Russian-ness. And at the time they were not totally incompatible, because America and the Soviet Union were Allies. It was a difficult moral choice for him. We can't endorse the choice he made, but it was one he had to live with for the rest of his life."

About Carey Winfrey
Carey Winfrey

Carey Winfrey was Smithsonian magazine's editor in chief for ten years, from 2001 to 2011.

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