I got an email the other day from David Raphael who was a college student back in 1962 and worked as an intern at the Peace Corps HQ. My piece on Nan McEvoy got him thinking about the ‘other’ women in the building when he arrived in Washington from Antioch College in the summer of ‘62. He was assigned to the Africa Regional Office and worked with, he said, two real power houses: Cynthia Courtney, English-speaking Africa Division Director, and Francesca Gobi, French-speaking Africa Division Director. David said that these women, and others in the Africa Regional Office, were all recruited from the Africa American Institute (AAI), which years later was exposed by Ramparts magazine as being a CIA front. Little did we know!
I met Cynthia Courtney in the late summer of ‘62 when I returned from Ethiopia and went to work in the Office of Volunteer Services (DVS).
Cynthia was one of the orginal ‘characters’ at the agency. She was a tall, demanding presense in the African Region, a woman of experience within Africa. One of her favorite tricks to get the very best PCVs for her countries, and this would be around 1964, was to go down to Selection late in the day, pull up a chair and thumb through the files of new PCVs. She was looking for ‘the best and the brightest’ for English-speaking African countries. So if you are wondering why you went to Africa, or why RPCVs thinking Africa got the best Volunteers, think of Courtney.
But my story of Cynthia has to do with a novel, The Zinzin Road, written by Fletcher Knebel and published by Doubleday in 1966. It is the first “Peace Corps Novel” and came about because Charlie Peters hired Knebel, a journalist who had a syndicated newspaper column called “Potomac Fever,” to do an evaluation for the Peace Corps. Knebel also wrote popular novels. You might have heard of them: Seven Days in May, Night of Camp David, etc.
Well, Knebel did a quick consultant evaluation of Liberia for the Peace Corps and out of that came, The Zinzin Road. It is a novel about a PCV who travels a road in the country of Kalya bringing supplies to Volunteers. A paper turner as they say. You can read it almost as fast as Knebel typed it.
However, one of the treats of the book is to try and identify the real Peace Corps Mad Men and Women who made it into the novel as ‘characters’. One of them is Cynthia Courtney.
Here is how Knebel describes the PC/W character ‘Maureen Sutherland, “….a slim, willowy young woman, stylishly dressed…She wore elongated dark glasses, and a sheaf of black hair fell loosely over one eye. Her skin, as creamy as enameled china, hinted of regular facials and a variety of expensive oils and ointments.”
Knebel goes on to describes her as someone who would frequently fly into a West African country for a brief, whirlwind fact-finding trip, which she breezily referred to as a “look/see.” And while overseas, at staff meetings, she would dominate the room by talking.
He writes: “Miss Sutherland lilted on for half an hour, festively dropping names from Lagos to Washington…she gave a glittering panorama of the world of great affairs, its intrigues, its grand policies an even its illicit loves….She concluded on a pitch of finishing-school breathlessness and looked about brightly as though waiting for applause.”
While the Peace Corps in the early ’60s was certainly dominated by Mad Men, there were a lot of talented and clever and strong Mad Women as well who could hold their own with the best of them. And Cynthia Courtney carried their flag.