Bernie Marcus started playing the piano at age 80. (Photo/Rob Gloster)
Bernie Marcus started playing the piano at age 80. (Photo/Rob Gloster)

Spied for Israel, worked for McCarthy, met the Watergate perps — and still going at 95

He drove Adolf Hitler’s car, was a short-term aide to Sen. Joseph McCarthy and helped Israel spy on its neighbors. He met the men who plotted the Watergate burglary, worked on secret U.S. espionage projects and built a tech company from scratch.

Not bad for a kid from an immigrant tenement in New York.

When Bernie Marcus published his memoir in July, the 95-year-old Palo Alto resident used his mom’s favorite expression to encapsulate his remarkable life journey: “Only in America.”

Writing that book, “Only in America: From the South Bronx to Silicon Valley,” gave Marcus a chance to chronicle the stories he had been telling his family for decades. It grew out of a memoirs class he has been attending for the past 10 years at the Mountain View-Los Altos Adult School.

“Last March, I had a heart valve replaced and I figured the time had come” to assemble his various stories into a book, Marcus said in an interview at the senior residence where he has lived since 2011. “And it’s good for my memory.”

His wife, Ruthie, who convinced him to join the memoirs class and then helped him edit the book, said writing about his life and putting together the book had an additional benefit — it gave him a way to direct the energy he previously focused on work or on taking care of his house and garden in Los Altos Hills.

Bernie Marcus
Bernie Marcus

“I felt he needed to be busy with something. He’s happiest when he can say, ‘What’ll I do now?’ He can’t work out in the garden here. The biggest thing I have is always trying to get him to sit down and be quiet, he doesn’t believe in naps, he needs to have his head involved in things,” she said with a laugh.

Marcus still plays the piano and often drives himself on Friday mornings to the memoirs class taught since 2004 by Sylvia Halloran, who describes Marcus as a “treasure.”

Writing a memoir has been shown in studies to be a good form of what Halloran calls “brain exercise.” She said Marcus and his stories stand out in her class of high achievers, who meet at the Hillview Center in Los Altos.

“He has done such magnificent things in his lifetime,” Halloran said. “You get a sheen after 90, and you really start to shine at 95.”

Marcus’ book tells a story familiar to many American Jews of his generation. The son of Romanian and Polish immigrants, he grew up in an Orthodox household in New York amid occasional anti-Semitism.

He was an officer in the Counter Intelligence Corps — a forerunner of the CIA — during and after World War II, serving in Germany and driving the same BMW convertible that had transported Hitler. He writes with pride about helping Jewish survivors of the concentration camps get to Palestine despite British efforts to keep them in Europe.

A U-2 "Dragon Lady" takes off from Osan Air Base, South Korea, flightline Oct. 21, 2009, during the base Air Power Day air show. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Brian Ferguson)
A U-2 takes off from Osan Air Base, South Korea, Oct. 21, 2009 (Photo/U.S. Air Force photo-Staff Sgt. Brian Ferguson)

Back in the U.S., he worked on secret programs and was in charge of the development and manufacture of cameras for the U-2 spy airplane and the first U.S. satellite. During one of those jobs, he reluctantly was assigned to work with McCarthy for a couple of weeks.

In 1967, five years after he had founded Mark Systems Inc., Marcus covertly funneled special cameras and film — with the unacknowledged assistance of the U.S. government — to Israel, which used them to spy on Egypt, Jordan and Syria in the buildup to the Six Day War.

Mark Systems’ stabilized binoculars were used by the Shah of Iran and by President Nixon, leading Marcus to meet Watergate plotters Charles Colson, Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy.

Marcus’ first wife, Molly, died in 1992 and he married Ruthie a year later. Halloran said Marcus’ background has played a big part in his success.

“His Jewishness was always a huge, important part of his work. It’s the theme of his life,” she said. “As you review his work and his dedication, you see it’s always based on that faith and community.”

Marcus, a member of Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, said he’s now working on another memoir, in which he describes a program of using special aircraft to help the California wine industry measure the size of the grape crop.

He was a featured speaker in the Residents’ Lecture Series at the Vi, the senior community in which he and Ruthie live, in late November. And he said one of his greatest joys remains exchanging stories with classmates and fellow residents.

Marcus talks wistfully of Sandy Dornbusch, a professor emeritus of sociology at Stanford and a fellow resident of the Vi, who died last year at the age of 89.

“About a week before he died, we met in the hallway downstairs,” Marcus said. “He said, ‘I don’t have long to live, but I think of the fact of two Jewish boys born in the South Bronx and look at where we are: Only in America.’ ”

Rob Gloster

Rob Gloster was J.'s senior writer from 2016-2019.