The Secret Cold War History of a Ruined Long Island Estate

Deep in the Muttontown Preserve of East Norwich, New York, off a series of winding trails, lies a graffitied staircase to nowhere. It’s one of just a few crumbling structures nearly swallowed by the woods—all that’s left of the Knollwood estate, a once-grand neoclassical mansion built starting in 1906 for Wall Street tycoon Charles Hudson.

Although historians call the place Knollwood, locals know it as King Zog’s Castle. The king in question is Zog I of Albania, owner-in-absentia of the estate for several years in the 1950s. While King Zog I purchased the mansion in 1951, he never lived there. In fact, he probably never even visited. His story is one of Cold War intrigue, failed CIA operations, and a lingering, unresolved exile.

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A photograph of a staircase in the ruined former estate of King Zog I of Albania

Andrew Lenoir

When Ahmed Zogolli, the boy who would become King Zog, was born in 1895, there was no Albanian throne—there wasn’t even an Albania. The mountainous Balkan region was a vassal state of the Ottoman Empire, although order was largely maintained through a feudal system of competing familial warlords. Zogolli was not supposed to inherit his father’s post as the chieftain of his powerful mountain clan—he was the only son of his father’s second marriage, and his older half-brother from his father’s first marriage had been groomed to take over. But Zogolli’s mother managed to convince the clan’s elders to pass over her husband’s first-born heir in favor of her own offspring. Ambitious as her son would later become, the future king’s mother acted as chief until he reached maturity. Meanwhile, Zogolli was raised among the ruling class in Istanbul, reading about Napoleon and aspiring to a life beyond Turkish bureaucracy. The Devilu2019s Chessb... David Talbot Best Price: $4.05 Buy New $7.70 (as of 06:20 EDT - Details)

Over the next few years, he rose slowly but steadily through the ranks. In 1912, Albania declared independence, but after a brief monarchy, the country was consumed by the fighting of World War I. Zogolli proved himself a popular military commander under the Austro-Hungarians, and when a democratic Albanian government formed in 1920, he was appointed Minister of the Interior. Within a few years, he had become Prime Minister, shortening his name to Zogu. As he continued to consolidate his power, Zogu maintained control over his feudal chieftains with displays of drinking and gift-giving. But he also had harsher methods, once pulling a gun on a drunken chauffeur and telling him, “Drive more slowly or you die.”

Zogu became president in 1925, but three years later he declared the Albanian democratic experiment a failure: A republic was too much all at once for “backward” people used to hereditary hierarchies, he claimed. Instead, he offered himself as the country’s first nationalist monarch—King Zog (dropping the u), or “King Bird,” an allusion to Albanians’ self-identification as “Sons of the Eagle.” Six days of celebration followed, during which thousands of prisoners were pardoned, state employees received bonuses of a month’s salary, and every shop and cafe displayed his picture (failure to do so meant a fine). Accounts of his 11-year-reign are mixed; historians note his love of luxury despite an impoverished population, but also his early efforts to spread literacy and electricity. “Zog is clever enough, but no hero, and he loves intrigue,” was the assessment of Benito Mussolini, according to the English explorer and writer Rosita Forbes.

The leader of Fascist Italy would also be the one to end Zog’s reign. When Italy invaded in 1939, Zog and his wife Geraldine fled with their newborn son, the crown prince Leka, waiting out World War II first in Greece and England before eventually landing in Egypt as a guest of that nation’s King Farouk, where they soon settled into a villa in Alexandria.

After the war, the royal family flew to New York, arriving in America for the first time on July 26, 1951. The New York Times reported that Zog’s trip was strictly a pleasure visit, but recently declassified CIA files reveal there was more to the story. While newspapers focused on his social engagements, the king’s most important meetings were secret ones. A few weeks after his arrival, Zog had the first of three meetings with U.S. intelligence services.

A black and white photo of King Zog of Albania at an unknown date.

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The deposed king had chosen his arrival shrewdly. Since 1944, Enver Hoxha and his USSR-backed Party of Labor had held control of the Albanian government. With the Iron Curtain closing and Cold War alliances starting to form, the United States was extremely interested in replacing the Albanian government as quickly and quietly as possible. Operation Valuable Fiend, launched in 1949, sought to do just that, serving as the first clandestine U.S. operation of the Cold War.

It wasn’t the CIA’s first effort in Albania: A few months before they started Operation Valuable Fiend, the CIA also began funding the National Committee for a Free Albania (NCFA), a United States-based group consisting of both pro-democracy and pro-monarchist politicians in exile. But the NCFA got off to a rocky start—its first chairman, the moderate Midhat Frashëri, died of a sudden heart attack within months of his appointment amid suspicions of Soviet foul play.

After that, Operation Valuable Fiend became the CIA’s top priority. So when King Zog arrived, presenting himself as the ultimate Albanian insider, Operation Commander Col. Gratian Yatsevitch—a Ukrainian immigrant turned U.S. intelligence officer—seized the opportunity to ask him some questions. First off, what was the best way to start a revolution in Albania? Summary of The Devilu2... Gabby Mackay, Smart Re... Best Price: $8.27 Buy New $7.99 (as of 02:55 EDT - Details)

“I’ve given the matter a lot of thought,” the king said, smoking cigarette after cigarette as he laid out his vision through an interpreter. He proposed personally selecting a small infiltration team of his best men to perform reconnaissance and rally any remaining Albanian monarchists. Meanwhile, the Americans and the king’s personal staff would train 10,000 Albanian rebels. Following a few targeted assassinations, Zog himself, the NCFA, and any other Albanian exile groups eager to join the fight would lead an invasion.

“At this point,” Zog said, “I will invite the UN to send representatives to ensure that formation of the new Albanian government is in accordance with democratic principles.” The king promised he had no pretensions of reinstating his regime, and the CIA documents note that he seemed frank and sincere. Still, the document notes, “it is very difficult if not impossible for a former monarch to divorce himself entirely from visions of returning to his kingdom.”

Two meetings later, at the beginning of September 1951, Yatsevitch confirmed that the U.S. government wanted to try Zog’s plan. But before returning to his Alexandria villa to await further instructions, the king decided to acquire an American pied a terre. “A bucket of diamonds and rubies was reliably reported yesterday to have been paid for an outstanding property in the Muttontown estate section of Syosset,” The New York Times reported on September 19, 1951, calling it “a deal that will bring a former member of European royalty to Long Island as a farmer resident.”

The Times was half-correct in its assertion that Zog aspired to be a “farmer resident.” He was particularly taken with Knollwood’s extensive dairy and capacity to house a thousand chickens. But Zog’s hopes ran higher than poultry: Owning an American residence meant that Zog and his family would have an easier time immigrating to the United States, which was an implicit component of his understanding with the government. If he could not be king in Albania, Zog planned to live like an aristocratic landowner in America. Once the paperwork on Knollwood was signed, he began looking into the possibility of bringing over whole families of servants with him to America to serve as the foundation for a court of over 100 people.

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