Boris Morros


Boris Morros

Two in a row. Airing on TCM right after the Dore Schary movie was a 1937 comedy with Carol Lombard, Fred MacMurray, and Dorothy Lamour called Swing High, Swing Low.

“Music by Boris Morros,” it said in the credits. My bleary eyes opened and I perked up. Here was another Painting the Culture Red connection. The man who arranged Fred MacMurray’s pretend trumpet solos (jazz soundtrack pretty good, though there was too much of the wah-wah-wah of the trumpet mute) was also a Soviet intelligence asset who later became an American intelligence asset.

A pianist born in St. Petersburg in 1895, Boris Morros came to the United States at the age of 27 and worked for Paramount Pictures as a producer and head of its music department. His musical credits include Stagecoach and Hotel Imperial, and his producing credits include the Laurel and Hardy movie The Flying Deuces.

Morros was by most accounts a cultured con man of the florid, Mitteleuropa type. His assistance to the Soviets wasn’t in ferreting out state secrets (there weren’t any at Paramount) but in helping KGB agents set up businesses in the United States to mask their spying. The historians John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr write that in the 1930s, Vasily Zubilin, a high-ranking Russian spy, “used the cover of a Hollywood talent scout, a status provided by Boris Morros’s film company.” (Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America, 1999)

For his part, Morros said that his motive in engaging in these activities was to ensure that care packages he sent to his family back in the Soviet Union got delivered.

His colorful memoir, My Ten Years As a Counterspy, came out in 1959, and was adapted into a film called Man on a String the following year. He was portrayed on screen by Ernest Borgnine.

The memoirist Morros is caustically entertaining if also utterly self-serving. He describes the KGB agents of his acquaintance as moochers off the wealth of the Kremlin. He says they padded their expense accounts and pressed him for funds to bail out their unworkable business ventures.

After 1944, the above-mentioned Zubilin was no longer Morros’s KGB handler. That honor went to a hapless-seeming man named Jack Soble. In 1949, after an employee of the U.S. Department of Justice had gotten arrested on a Manhattan street with her Soviet handler, Soble began to worry that his spy network, too, would be found out.

Writes Morros:

He kept going back to the subject again and again, analyzing what had gone wrong and why. And he never stopped pounding away at me on the need for safety, safety, safety. He was warning the man who was happily turning in all he said and did to the FBI!