Childhood & Early Life
Tony Mendez was born on 15 November 1940 in Eureka, Nevada. His father, John George Mendez, was of Mexican ancestry and worked as a copper miner. His mother, Neva June Tognoni, had a mix of Italian, French and Irish ancestry and was employed in various fields like newspaper and hotel business. After becoming a Septuagenarian, she joined the Peace Corps in Grenada.
When he was still very young, Tony lost his father to an industrial accident. His mother remarried and he spent his childhood, not a comfortable one, with his five siblings.
Initially, he went to local public schools in Nevada, but later when his family shifted to Denver, Colorado, he attended Englewood High School and completed his graduation.
Thereafter, he went to the University of Colorado for further studies but had to drop out due to financial problems.
Tony Mendez began his career as an artist. He took up a job as an illustrator and tool designer at a big aerospace company, ‘Martin Marietta’. During this time, he also worked as commission artist at night.
In 1965, he came across a blind advertisement for graphic artists in a newspaper. Though, Mendez was not aware of who the employer was, he nonetheless applied as he found the advertisement quite exciting. His artistic skills made him the perfect choice for the job of an espionage artist that the CIA was looking for. He was hired to work in the Technical Services Division.
He worked as undercover operative abroad and most important areas during the Cold War.
He became an expert in exfiltration which meant getting people out of adverse circumstances in foreign countries. During the Vietnam War, he helped an Asian diplomat and a black CIA officer escape by masking them as two Caucasian businessmen.
In another such daring mission in 1980, he successfully managed to sneak out six American diplomats from Iran by disguising them as members of Canadian film crew. The mission became famous as ‘Canadian Caper’.
Tony Mendez retired from CIA as Senior Intelligence Service officer in 1990; however, he continued his artistic pursuits. His paintings were displayed in various galleries around the US and earned him numerous accolades.
He, along with his wife, were amongst the board of directors of the International Spy Museum in Washington DC.
He functioned as a consultant of the US Intelligence community and penned numerous pieces for their journals.
He also authored four nonfiction books after his retirement. His first book, ‘Master of Disguise: My Secret Life in the CIA’, written in collaboration with Malcolm McConnell came out in 1999 and elaborates on his experiences in the CIA.
His second book, ‘Spy Dust: Two Masters of Disguise Reveal the Tools and Operations that Helped Win the Cold War’ came out in 2002 and was coauthored by his wife Jonna Hiestand Goeser and the American journalist and author, Bruce Henderson.
His third book, ‘Argo: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled Off the Most Audacious Rescue in History’ was written in association with Matt Baglio. The book published in 2012 gives a comprehensive account of the famous rescue mission, ‘Canadian Caper’.
His fourth and final book, ‘The Moscow Rules: The Secret CIA Tactics That Helped America Win the Cold War’ was again co-authored by his wife and released few months after his death in 2019.
Apart from writing, he was frequently invited to deliver talks at various prominent organisations in the US like the CIA, Department of Defence and World Affairs Council.
He was also associated with the making of many documentaries that were aired on various channels like Discovery, Travel Channel, Canadian History Channel and PBS.
The ‘Canadian Caper’ Mission was the high point of his career. In 1979, when Iran was engulfed in turmoil, revolutionaries broke in the US embassy and held 66 people as hostages. Six American diplomats, however, managed to escape and took shelter in the Canadian embassy. Tony Mendez was assigned the task to go to Iran and rescue these six people.
He devised a bold plan to pose as an Irish filmmaker with a crew from Canada who were location scouting for a science fiction movie. He carried out extensive background work before going to Iran like creating a fake production company, creating back histories of the six people, getting a script ready for new movie ‘Argo’ and publicising the production in media.
Upon reaching Tehran, he trained the six diplomats in their new role as Canadian film crew members and also coached them how to clear the immigration process. The plan was successful and the six officials safely landed in Zurich in January 1980.
Awards & Honours
In 1980, after the success of ‘Canadian Caper’, the CIA awarded him, ‘the Intelligence Star’; however, since the mission was classified, the award had to be returned immediately.
The details of the mission finally came out in 1997 when George Tenet, the then director of CIA, asked him to share the story of the dangerous operation with the world. The same year he was awarded as one of the 50 ‘Trailblazers’ who shaped CIA’s first 50 years.
Tony Mendez was also awarded CIA’s Intelligence Medal of Merit and a couple of Certificates of Distinction.
In October 2000, he received the ‘Order of the Sphinx’ award.
In 2013, during the 50th anniversary of the Directorate of Science and Technology, the CIA unveiled a painting as a mark of respect to Tony Mendez. The painting, done by Deborah Dismuke showed Tony and other officers creating fake documents for Iran rescue operation.
Family & Personal Life
In 1960, Tony Mendez married Karen Smith whom he had met while he was still in High School. The couple had two sons and a daughter. One of his sons, Ian Archer Mendez, died in 2010 while the other, Antonio Tobias Mendez, works as a sculptor. His daughter’s name is Amanda Lynn Mendez. In 1986, Karen succumbed to lung cancer.
In 1991, Tony Mendez married his colleague, Jonna Hiestand Goeser. Together, they had a son named Jesse Lee Mendez who was born in 1993.
Mendez was diagnosed with Parkinson disease in 2009 and after a decade long battle with the disease, he passed away on January 19, 2019 at his assisted- living facility in Frederick, Maryland.
The Iran mission became the basis of the famous Hollywood movie, Argo, directed by Ben Affleck who also played the role of Tony Mendez in the film. The movie was hugely successful and went on to bag three Oscars at the 2013 Academy Awards. The movie also won two Golden Globe Award including one for best motion picture. Tony Mendez himself attended the award function and spoke about the film.