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Before the hostages, before Iran, and before Ben Affleck, Tony Mendez was just a young artist trying to make it in Denver. Then, in 1965, the 25-year-old answered a newspaper ad placed by the U.S. Navy, which was looking for artists to work overseas. The job catapulted Mendez into a career with the CIA that included orchestrating the rescue of six Americans from Iran, as portrayed in the 2012 film Argo. Still, he continued to paint nearly until his death this past January. “He liked to say, ‘I was always an artist,’ ” recalls his widow and fellow CIA officer, Jonna Mendez, “ ‘but for 25 years, I was a pretty good spy.’ ”
Born in 1940, Mendez moved to Colorado when he was 12. After graduating from Englewood High School, he studied art at the University of Colorado Boulder for a year then worked odds jobs to support his young family. He also took commissions—among them, two large oil paintings (19th-century Denver streetscapes re-created from photos) for Washington Park’s Park Lane Hotel in 1964.
In the CIA, Mendez’s ability to reproduce anything he saw made him a master forger. He proved to be a skilled chameleon, too, and for a time served as the agency’s chief of disguises, using a talent he’d honed at Englewood High: When neither he nor his buddy scored prom dates, he dressed up as a girl and went as his friend’s sweetheart. Eventually, he became an expert in the art of “exfiltration,” or getting assets out of dangerous situations. During the 1980 Iran hostage crisis, Mendez snuck six Americans out of Tehran by having them pose as a Canadian film crew. The incident inspired the Affleck-directed, Academy Award Best Picture–winning Argo.
While Mendez became an international man of mystery, his Park Lane paintings languished in a warehouse after the hotel was demolished. A local man later salvaged them, and his daughter, Lesa Leiter of Thornton, discovered the true identity of the “A. Mendez” who had signed the pieces.
Following Mendez’s death at age 78, Leiter sold the paintings to Simon Lofts, the co-owner of Workability, a Denver co-working outfit. Lofts plans to hold a public unveiling on August 26; they’ll permanently hang in Workability’s Sherman Street office. “My father would be thrilled that his work is in the public eye,” says Toby Mendez, one of Tony’s four children and an esteemed sculptor himself, “and being seen once again.”