An homage to Lillian McCloy

Lillian T. McCloy 1926-2023

Lillian Thorbjorg McCloy (nee Sveinson) was 100% Icelandic and a true Viking in spirit. Her husband Frank called her Thor, because she got things done; she was feisty and strong and talented and sharp-witted. You didn’t mess with Thor. And that came in very handy as the wife of an undercover CIA officer, moving all over the globe with three kids in tow.

Before her CIA journey, she was already a force to be reckoned with. She was born the seventh child in a poor working-class family in Selkirk, Manitoba, Canada. At the age of 14, she graduated from high school and proceeded to attend a small business school. In her late teens, she worked full-time for lawyers and small businesses, while in the evenings, she sang with a big band and a four-piece jazz band. She was even the runner-up to be a regular singer on a popular variety show on Canadian TV.

She moved to Vancouver in her twenties and, on the heels of heartbreak, took a train to San Francisco where she landed a job as the notorious lawyer Melvin Belli’s executive secretary and her first task each morning was to feed his cranky parrot a jigger of bourbon. It was in SF that she met Frank McCloy, who had just come home after four years of serving as a Marine Corps jet fighter pilot and was unsatisfied working as a commercial pilot for what was then Howard Hughes’ new airline.

Their first two children, John Kevin McCloy and Kristin Louise McCloy , were born one year apart in San Francisco. They were toddlers when the family moved to “The Farm” in Langley, VA, where Frank trained to become a deep cover officer for the CIA.

Their third child, Johanna McCloy, was born during a training program in PA, and three months later, they were sent to their first international post in Madrid, Spain where they lived for seven years.

Other countries followed. Lillian tells her own CIA stories with aplomb, so be sure to read her entertaining and illuminating memoir to fill in this amazing part of her life. You don’t want to miss it. (An excerpted story titled “Mrs. Spook” is also featured in Dare to be Fabulous.)

After Frank died. Lillian bought a home in Oakland, California, but that home burned to the ground in the Oakland hills fire of 1991. Once again, Lillian was left to start over; this time, with nothing. Only the statue of Buddha remained from her garden.

She lived a quiet life in her newly built home in the Oakland hills for the next 15 years. Always a great writer, it was then that she decided to pen her CIA memoir, sitting at the kitchen table every morning, typing away on her IBM typewriter. (Her memoir, Six Car Lengths Behind an Elephant: Undercover & Overwhelmed as a CIA Wife and Mother was published by Bordertown Publishing when Lillian was 90. The book garnered blurbs from authors like Pico Iyer and John le Carré, and currently averages 4.4-stars with over 110 reader ratings on Amazon.)

When Lillian started to go blind from macular degeneration, she moved to an assisted living community named Waters Edge Lodge in Alameda, where she lived for her 12 remaining years. Her family unit expanded there with the care and love of long-time staff members, some of who  took to calling her “The Mamas,” like her children did.

Lillian died on January 26, 2023 just after turning 97 years of age. She said “I’ve had a great life, and I’m ready to go.”

Three big cheers for Lillian. Here’s to you, Thor! May you be enjoying martinis and great laughter in the sky with Frank and all your fabulous friends and family members. You lived a wonderful life. And you’ll be very missed on this Earthly plane.

Lillian shares her desired exit song (recorded in June, 2022.)


– Johanna
(Book editor and daughter)

UPDATE: The San Francisco Chronicle ran a feature article about Lillian McCloy in their Sunday paper on February 12, 2023: “Lillian McCloy, whose memoir of life married to a CIA officer thrilled spy novelists, dies at 97” (The full article may only be accessible to subscribers. If it is not appearing in full and you would like to read it, please contact Dare to be Fabulous.)

If you’re on Facebook: comments, remembrances, and condolences are also welcomed under Bordertown Publishing’s Facebook post.

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7 months ago

I just read the bio in the SF Chron and was moved to get your mother’s book. A truly inspiring lady. RIP

Douglas Baker
Douglas Baker
7 months ago

Nice memory of Mama Thor!

Joan Stewart
Joan Stewart
7 months ago

My wonderful, fabulous aunt, always Dadda in my heart, and my mom’s incredible sister was special to me. I will always remember at Amma & Avi’s home in Winnipeg, fascinated watching Dadda & Lorraine getting ready for work, and applying makeup. A girl watching glamor happening before me was incredible!
We had too few conversations through the years but I cherished every one. My aunt Dadda was genuine and direct, but always gave her love, humor, and support. I so loved her. Dadda & my mom together again with their Icelandic family. Our moms will be forever be missed.