Gerald Davis, then a West Virginia University undergrad, called his father after he met Frank Kearns.
“I met the personification of James Bond,” he told his father.
“There was nothing about him that wasn’t cool,” Davis, 60, said as he sat in his Forest Lake home last week. “He drove an old Fiat Spider convertible. He didn’t wear suits and all that other kind of stuff like the rest of the professors. He wore the stuff that he wore in the bush half the time.”
Kearns, an award-winning CBS News foreign correspondent who reported in Africa, Europe and the Middle East in the ’50s, ’60s and early ’70s, had returned to his alma mater as the Benedum Professor of Journalism in 1971. The school, Davis said, would trot Kearns out to share war stories, tales of a reporter who had escaped death more than 100 times. Kearns asked Davis to work for him in a work-study program.
On Feb. 10, 1976, Davis answered the call that added another element of intrigue to Kearns’ career. It was Daniel Schorr of CBS. Kearns took the phone, and his face went pale, Davis recalled. Kearns motioned for him to leave.
That night, CBS News reported that Kearns and another foreign correspondent worked for Central Intelligence Agency while they reported. The cover of the man who personified James Bond was blown. Or was it?
In “Frank Kearns: American Correspondent,” a documentary that premieres on ETV tonight, Davis tries to uncover the truth about Kearns. Davis wrote, directed and produced the one-hour film co-produced by Davis’ Greenbriar Group Films and West Virginia Public Broadcasting.
The film includes interviews with family, friends and colleagues of Kearns, who died in 1986. Part biography and part investigation, “Frank Kearns” is a film Davis wanted to make three decades ago in graduate school. Kearns was the chairman of Davis’ graduate committee, but Kearns said no to Davis’ proposed masters project.
“I didn’t plan on him saying no,” Davis said. “He was a very modest guy. He said, ‘Find someone else who’s more interesting.’”
What is more interesting than an undercover spy? Kearns vehemently denied he was a CIA operative, but the film produces evidence, though not definitive proof, that his life was intertwined with the agency.
During World War II, Kearns was the head of counterintelligence in Paris. He worked with James Eichelberger and Miles Copeland, friends who would become CIA agents stationed in Egypt. Kearns began his broadcast career in Egypt. In the film, historian Scott Lucas said that in an interview with Copeland before he died Copeland told him that the CIA provided an apartment for Kearns in Cairo, Egypt’s capital. But in his memoir Copeland wrote that Kearns refused to accept any official status with the CIA.
The American intelligence community and the federal government have been under intense scrutiny in recent months, most recently because of the leaks on data collecting by Edward Snowden, who worked for Booz Allen Hamilton, a National Security Agency contractor. In May, the Associated Press reported that the Justice Department used a secret subpoena to obtain phone records of reporters and editors. In April, The New York Times reported that for more than a decade the CIA has delivered bags of cash to the offices of Afghanistan’s president.
So much for the goodwill built by “Argo,” the 2012 film that won an Academy Award for best picture. Ben Affleck portrayed a CIA agent who led an operation to extract six U.S. diplomats from Iran during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis. The operation’s cover was the making of a movie.
In an interview for the film shot at her French chateau, Copeland’s widow, Lorraine, disputes her husband on Kearns. Copeland’s cover in Egypt was that he was employed by Booz Allen. (The Copelands’ youngest son, Stewart, is the drummer for The Police. Last month, he asked Davis to send an express copy of the film to France. He watched it with his mother the night before she died.)
The film’s subject isn’t the only CIA connection. At one time, co-producer Chip Hitchcock worked for the CIA, editing film for the president’s daily briefing book. And Hitchcock’s mother was once the director of the CIA’s Central America desk.
Hitchcock, Davis said, believes Kearns was CIA. But Davis?
“I take a different view, and it could be my naivete or my desire that Kearns is not CIA,” Davis said. “I don’t doubt that he had an extra close relationship with the guys (Eichelberger and Copeland). But I look at it as being military buddies. The three of them working together formed an extremely close bond during the war.”
Davis’ distinction is that while Kearns probably shared information with his CIA friends, he wasn’t on the agency’s payroll. Does he think Kearns aided the CIA?
“Absolutely,” Davis, who is called Jerry by friends, said. “You have relationships. You utilize those relationships that were clearly beneficial to Kearns. He could back channel stuff to the agency. They could set him up, don’t waste your time with this guy, talk to this guy.”
The film notes that foreign correspondents were routinely debriefed in Washington.
“If you were running intelligence, you’d be derelict if you did not run through every source you could find,” Davis said.
The other CBS correspondent the network revealed was working for the CIA was Austin Goodrich. Davis said the film contains the only on-camera interview with Goodrich, who died earlier this month, talking about his CIA service.
Davis, a semi-retired health care executive has lived in Columbia for 18 years with his wife, Judy Davis, the executive vice president and chief legal officer for BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina. Davis, who began his professional career in public radio and TV, made “Frank Kearns” with $120,000, which included travel to France and England for interviews. It was recently nominated for a regional Emmy. A companion book, “Algerian Diary: Frank Kearns and the ‘Impossible’ Assignment for CBS News,” will be published in the spring.
Davis has reason to celebrate the film’s success. In late 2011, he was diagnosed with mantle cell lymphoma, a rare form of cancer. Last summer he underwent a bone marrow transplant. Davis said the transplant pushed his survival time from two years to six to eight years.
“The bitter irony is way back in my career, I was the guy who used to say to the press, ‘We don’t pay for bone marrow transplantation because it’s experimental’,” he said. “I’ll be damned, it’s saved my life.”
After “Frank Kearns” was screened at the St. Augustine Film Festival in January, a woman approached Davis and said she and her husband lived in an apartment directly under Kearns in Cairo in the ’50s. She said her husband was CIA, but she didn’t think Kearns was.
“I would know because my husband would tell me,” the woman told Davis.
Every year Davis files a Freedom of Information request for Kearns’ files. He receives the same form letter in response, that the agency can “neither confirm nor deny the existence or nonexistence of the requested records.”
When asked if he worked — currently or previously — for the CIA, Davis said no.
Pressed further, he added, “I’ve never been approached, best I can tell.”
Reach Taylor at (803) 771-8362.