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.
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.
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.
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?
“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.
In early May 1952, with Zog back in Egypt, a group of Albanian rebels handpicked by him from his personal guard and codenamed Apple Team crossed over the Albanian border. As Yatsevitch wrote in early June of that year, “There is a basis of hope that this Apple Tree will bear a rich harvest of bitter fruit for BGGYPSY [a codeword for Communist] palates.” But that never happened. Although the details are still unclear, sometime in the early hours of June 29, Apple Team was compromised.
In a 1954 letter, King Zog claimed he had personally instructed Apple Team to make contact with his old royalist allies, the Lleshi family. On June 29, as Apple Team members drank toasts to the king’s health, the Lleshi house was raided by a Sigurimi task force—the special forces of the Albanian communists.
Zog later claimed the once-loyal Lleshis had been bought off, their patriarch Haxhi Lleshi bribed with the offer of a high post in the Albanian government. As it happened, Haxhi Lleshi became presidium of the National Assembly the next year. Whatever the reason, by the end of June 1952, the Albanian forces had Apple Team’s men, weapons, radios, plans, and codebooks—and the CIA had no idea.
The Sigurimi first made contact with the Americans using the captured agents on July 3. There were some initial telegraphing errors that might have been a member of Apple Team signaling that something was wrong, but the Americans didn’t notice. It was only in November, when the Sigurimi tried to steal more supplies and capture more prisoners by claiming Apple Team’s radio operator was hurt, that the CIA began to suspect that something was wrong.
The now-suspicious CIA went to Zog, asking him for help in confirming who they were actually speaking to in their communications with Apple Team. Via radio contact from Alexandria, Zog told the CIA to ask team member Zenel Shehi, “Do you remember in whose hands you left your silver cuff links before your departure?”
The answer was Queen Geraldine, Zog’s wife. Or, it should have been. Shehi had been the Queen’s bodyguard since they entered exile in 1939 and the two remained close—so much that they exchanged keepsakes. Shehi should have known the answer immediately, as Zog had even discussed it with him in person before Apple Team left Alexandria. Instead, though, the operator answered: “The silver cuff links are in our suitcases … Don’t bother us unnecessarily.”
Somehow, Zog was convinced that Shehi had simply become confused. Maybe the former "King Bird" was distracted by his failing health and all that was happening in Egypt, where King Farouk, Zog’s friend and benefactor, was overthrown around the same time. By 1953, Egypt had become a democracy, and Zog’s Alexandria villa quickly became a luxurious prison.
Even worse, after a year of insisting he was immune to property tax, Zog was forced to pay $3000 in back taxes to New York's Nassau County to keep Knollwood off the auction block.
If Zog was ever going to move to America, this would have been the time. But he didn’t. In addition to wanting to bring 115 Albanians along with him, there was the problem of what kind of visa was appropriate for royalty. Worried that being accepted as a “refugee” or an official “emigrant” might damage his claim to the Albanian throne, Zog refused to accept anything less than an official invitation and sponsorship. According to Jason Tomes’s biography of the monarch, King Zog: Self Made Monarch of Albania, Zog’s emigration was also delayed because the U.S. never agreed to take more than 35 Albanians.
But on September 22, 1953, after a direct petition from CIA Director Allan Dulles, the U.S. State Department finally instructed their Alexandrian consulate that Zog and his entourage were to be allowed into the United States without visas. Sadly for him, the king didn't leave the country in time. Four days later, the king’s villa was raided by Egyptian authorities, Zog was arrested, and a large sum of his gold reserves were seized. According to Egyptian officials, the monarch had failed to declare his assets or pay any taxes during his arrival and stay in their country. Although there were some suspicions of Soviet involvement, assistance did not come from the U.S. Dulles wrote on October 2, “some steps [must] be taken to ease the possibility of causing embarrassment to the U.S. Government.” Things got worse when the reality of Valuable Fiend’s failure became obvious.
After months of stealing supplies and spreading misinformation, the communists impersonating Apple Team were tired of playing around. (The location of the real Apple Team members during this time is unknown, although they were likely in prison.) On the night of October 23, after sending a series of desperate messages, the communists lured a CIA supply plane into a trap—opening fire with anti-aircraft guns when it arrived at the predetermined drop point. The pilots barely managed to crash-land on the Greek side of the border.
Having revealed their hand, the Albanians knew they had used up Apple Team’s usefulness. Shortly afterwards, the Albanian government announced the capture of all six American-backed agents and began a highly publicized trial in April 1954. Prosecutors made sure to drag Zog through the mud in the process—claiming the king had betrayed his country to the Americans—before all members of Apple Team were publicly executed.
With Apple Team dead, Operation Valuable Fiend in shambles, and Zog on trial in Egypt, the CIA decided to “let the dust settle.” There was a brief spark of hope at the end of 1953, when an agent told the king to burn all CIA documents and promised to have the royals out of Egypt the next month, but the extraction never came. Instead, when Zog was finally allowed to leave Egypt in July of 1955 after paying various fines and arrears, he and his family fled to France—by then, the king was too ill with stomach ulcers for a transatlantic voyage. That was when Zog finally sold the Knollwood Estate in New York.
His throne a lost cause, the ex-ruler also gave up on Albania. The feeling, it seems, was mutual. In 1957, The New York Times wrote of the widespread belief among the Albanian population that “the United States is plotting to return King Zog to the throne and restore a feudal system of serfdom" [PDF]. Whether it was his own doing or an after-effect of CIA meddling and Communist propaganda, Zog was seen as just another autocrat interested in his own power and not the people.
In 1959, the same year The New York Times ran an article announcing the auction of the Albanian crown jewels "to be sold to assist the dependents of King Zog I" [PDF], the new owner of the Knollwood Estate, mining magnate Lansdell Christie, had the mansion torn down. By then, it had lain vacant so long it was deemed unsafe, although local legend has it that ransacking by treasure-hunters contributed to its decay.
Oyster Bay town historian John Hammond says that piece of local lore is unlikely: Although the Times’s report that Zog purportedly purchased Knollwood with "a bucket of rubies" might have given some people ideas, in his estimation the "treasure hunting" refers to a far more common kind of vandalism—stealing scrap metal. Hammond’s certain the only "treasure" was Knollwood’s fixtures: its copper gutters, downspouts, and wiring, which proved too tempting for trespassers.
Rumor of a great treasure seems like the kind of thing Zog would have liked, had he lived to see it. The deposed king outlasted Knollwood by only two years, dying in Paris in 1961 [PDF]. Queen Geraldine, nearly 20 years his junior, died in 2002.
But Zog has seen a kind of resurrection in Albania since his death. In 2012, his remains were exhumed and reburied at the Royal Mausoleum in Tirana, the country’s capital, as part of the country’s centennial celebrations. Greeted by a crowd of more than 3000, his place in his homeland has become more certain, whatever his role in the Cold War. He is, as Prime Minister Sali Berisha chose to remember him, the "illustrious figure who laid the foundations of the Albanian state." And on Long Island, the ruins of his estate remain as silent testimony to an odd interlude in the early Cold War.