September 21, 2023 | Rome, Italy

Peter Tompkins

By |2018-03-21T18:17:16+01:00March 1st, 2004|Interviews|
Peter Tompkins in 2003. Photo by Marianna Bertagnolli.

ust an ordinary omelet, remembers the cook, arching his enormous eyebrows. Yet consider the diner: Hauptsturmführer Erich Priebke, a captain and the chief of Rome’s SS counterespionage teams, a participant in the Ardeatine Caves massacres, and later a convicted war criminal. But in the kitchen of a Rome apartment six decades ago, Peter Tompkins didn’t recognize his visitor. He saw little more than a Gestapo official hungry for a late-night snack.

Tompkins recalls pouring Priebke a shot of brandy: a post-omelet chaser to help get the officer into the mood for the evening’s chief attraction – women.

“The best part of living in Rome,” says the one-time Allied spy, “is my memories.”

And what memories they are.

These days, Tompkins, a buoyant 84, divides his time between his wife’s apartment on the Gianicolo and a house in Ninfa, south of Rome. He is the author of some two dozen books, including a best-selling 1970s foray into the supernatural, “The Secret Life of Plants.”

But it is his wartime recollections that got author Robert Katz’s attention — he is cited often in Katz’s recent history, “The Battle for Rome: The Germans, the Allies, the Partisans, and the Pope, September 1943-June 1944.”

Katz mentions Priebke’s encounter with Tompkins in his account, but not the kitchen scene.

Priebke appeared at a “curfew party,” one of many such gatherings organized by the youthful Tompkins and members of the anti-Fascist resistance movement. Tompkins, raised in Rome and fluent in Italian, worked undercover for the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor to the CIA. He’d been smuggled into the capital in early 1944 to help coordinate Allied and partisan resistance as pressure mounted on the city, which fell to Gen. Mark Clark’s U.S.-led forces in June.

Women were the life of these clandestine parties (“There would have been no Resistance without the women,” says Tompkins), held mostly in elegant Parioli apartments. “You can’t have four or five men sitting around smoking in a dark room with overcoats. So we had bright lights and pretty girls.”

A female partygoer asked Tompkins if a second woman at a nearby gathering could join them with a “friend.” The least suspicious thing, Tompkins recalls, was to bring them over. “So I put a long, thin knife in my coat. I didn’t know that he (Priebke) also had a Luger in his boot.”

The meeting between the American-born, European-educated spy and the German captain was awkward. Tompkins introduced himself under one of his many false identities, Roberto Berlingieri, a cousin in a large family Priebke “had dealings with,” according to author Katz. Says Tompkins: “I had cigarettes. I had to do something with my hands. If you’re facing the Gestapo, you’re kind of nervous.”

What Tompkins did with his hands was cook. Once fed, the officer “went off to fondle the girls.” Knives and Lugers were never drawn, says Tompkins.

Priebke, who will turn 100 in 2013, was sentenced to life imprisonment five years ago for his role in the March 1944 reprisal massacre of 335 Italian civilians in the caves, near the Appian Way, which followed the ambush of 33 German troops on Rome’s Via Rasella.

Tompkins, born in Athens, Ga., spent much of his childhood in Rome, raised by artist parents who moved to Italy to study art. After schooling in England and stints at Harvard and Columbia, Tompkins returned to Rome, working as a freelance correspondent until the U.S. entered the war in December 1941. “I realized the only way to know what was going on was in the secret services,” says Tompkins.

Once back in the United States, he was recruited by William “Wild Bill” Donovan, the maverick head of the OSS, a fledgling intelligence organization that included military officers, show-business figures and intellectuals. Eager for agents who could blend into local society in Nazi-occupied nations, the OSS dispatched Tompkins to North Africa where he received a crash-course in paramilitary techniques and radio operation. He was then parachuted back into Fascist Italy. But the airdrop, set for Rome, was aborted, so Tompkins landed instead in Salerno, gradually making his way north to the capital.

He used forged documents identifying him as Federico Caetani, the fictitious brother of his Harvard classmate Camillo Caetani, who was of noble descent. “I figured the Germans and Fascists were still impressed with nobility,” Tompkins says.

Once in Rome, he dropped Caetani’s identity and made his way secretly to his pre-war home, the Palazzo Ricci on Via Giulia. There, he found his family’s servants, and hid with them briefly.

“They risked being shot for hiding my radio and documents. They didn’t think twice about it, and I didn’t have any doubts that they would be that way.”

At times, after he’d entered Rome society, Tompkins feared female intuition might betray his cover. Most women, he remembers, sensed that he didn’t move like a native, though he was never discovered. “The hardest thing for an American to mask is the way he walks and dances. It’s a different gait.”

He also worried about language, but his shift between regional accents also failed to arouse suspicion. “My first governess was from Florence when I was four or five. Once you pick up that Florentine cantilena, you never lose it. On the train and traveling, I would obviously use Roman. If I wanted to be more sophisticated, I switched to Tuscan. If I wanted to be really smart, I put on a Milanese ‘r.'”

Maintaining his various disguises was another challenge. At different times he was an Italian air force major, a corporal in the colonial police and a simple policeman. “Keeping all those identities straight on the tram was a challenge. If they stopped you, they asked you everything. Sometimes I had to memorize two identities to go from one place to the next.”

Tompkins was never questioned during his six-month stint, but others were less fortunate, hauled off to SS headquarters on Via Tasso where they were interrogated and often tortured. Women — employed as couriers, cycling kilometers to deliver messages — often fared badly with Fascist captors. “They [Fascist officials] would beat and rape [them]. After they were done raping they would close [the woman] in a telephone booth with rats all night.”

Tompkins left Rome after the liberation, but returned in the 1950s, where he reveled in what he describes as “five years of Hollywood on the Tiber.” He directed and acted in minor roles, working with Mario Soldati and others. Later, he would turn to script-writing.

“I remember the day (former Rome Mayor Francesco) Rutelli decorated me with the Grand Officer of the Italian Republic award. We were in the Campidoglio, on his office balcony. He said, ‘You see that street, where Gregory Peck took Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday?'”

Tompkins didn’t miss a beat. “I was in that film,” he answered.

Editor’s note: Peter Tompkins died in January 2007.

Kristine Crane is Associate Editor of The American and the author of the "L'Americana" column. She lives and writes in North Central Florida. She was formerly a Fulbright scholar and journalist in Rome, where she helped found "The American." She is originally from Iowa City.