The Spy Story That Sold Me My Signed Gibson Les Paul

It was a modern guitar with a recent signature by Les Paul, but it was something about the story attached to it that just hooked me. Only a few years prior, I was siting at The Iridium in downtown NY. One arms length away from me was 93 year old Les, shortly before he passed away. I had no idea about the story that would come my way in a few years. What I would do to go back there and ask him about it. I heard about the guitar and its story from an independently owned fine instrument distributer In Delaware after he purchased some items from a widow whose husband had some intriguing connections. It was an incredibly beautiful alpine white Gibson Les Paul Custom previously owned by Les himself, and subsequently signed and gifted to Les· friend. His name was Vladimir Grinioff and his wife shared about how the men had known one another for around 50 years.

Les was a generous guy, and yes he signed and gifted plenty of guitars, but I knew that the details of this transaction would give me a fun story to share forever. In 1999, Vladimir suffered a heart attack and dealt with continuous health complications after that. Prior to that, however he had led a very interesting life. Publicly, Vladimir was known to be a virtuoso pianist and classical guitarist, and had even played concerts for the likes of various heads of state, and the President of the United States. He was also a prize-winning author famous for writing two widely publicized books, including Tale of a Whistling Shrimp, a satire about life under communism in Russia, later titled The Banker’s Daughter. Vladimir took Its title from Kruschev’s statement that “We will abandon communism when the shrimp learns to whistle” published in the 1950’s, this satirical novel was particularly well received.

Vladimir’s widow supposedly shared that there was a side to him that he rarely talked about and did so typically only with those that were very close with him (Not to mention his apparent reputation as a Playboy – humorously noted in Les’ letter to Vladimir that he gave to him with the guitar.)  

The story I was told about Vladimir was made him sound more like a real-life James Bond style character. I was told he worked with double agents sharing his vested Russian/American interests, and was a fundamental collaborator wit, the political groups who eventually helped to overturn and dissolve the U.S.S.R. in the ear1y 1990s. When he wasn’t utilizing his talents as a musician and writer, Vladimir was working as an economist for the Federal Reserve Board and the United States Department of State. According to his widow, he went on to eventually retire as a consultant to the C.I.A. (See references at bottom of post.)

Makes you kind of wonder what Les and Vlad may have chatted about when they hung out. Could Les himself have influenced the take down of communism, as well as inventing the electric guitar? (Wink.) Les, you were always a true freakin’ rock star. RIP – we all miss you. 

If you’ve got any interesting Les Paul stories or other guitar related stories from back in the day we would love to hear them. With your permission, we will be happy to share your most amazing guitar stories on our blog for all to enjoy. 

Just write to us at and we’ll be sure to include your cool vintage guitar stories in our next article.

Article References

At the time of his engagement to Kathryn M. Murphy, an archivist at the National Archives, (after 1957), he was “a consultant on Russian­American affairs for the United States· (“Archivist to Marry” article)

CIA Library Electronic Reading Room; Document Number (FOIA) /ESDN (CREST) CIA-ROP75-00001 R000300240013-5:

Mrs. Thomas F. Murphy announces the engagement of her daughter Kathryn M. to Mr. Vladimir B. Grinioff, son-“W Mr. and Mrs. Boris Grinioff. of Chevy Chase. Miss Murphy is also the daughter of the late Mr. Thomas F. Murphy, former deputy governor of the Farm Credit Administration.

Vladimir Grinioff: Author of Tale of a Whistling Shrimp

University of Pennsylvania: Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts:

Copied from the UPenn Finding Aid prepared by Kelin Baldridge at the University of Pennsylvania, Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts (see link above):

Vladimir B. Grinioff was born on November 25, 1911 in Petrograd (now St. Petersburg) Russia, the son of Barts (born 1887) and Olga (born 1890) Grinioff. The family immigrated to the United States in 1917 and settled in the Washington, DC area. Grinioff attended Western High School where he appears to have been very active, participating in the school newspaper, the Breeze, the chess club, and the fencing club; playing the piano; and winning awards for oratorial contests. He continued his education at the University of Pennsylvania, graduating In 1933; at American University, graduating with the Masters of Arts degree in 1940 and writing his thesis on “Ivan Pososhkov and his ‘Book on Poveny and Wealth:’ Economic Opinions of a Russian Merchant of the Reign of Peter the Great;” and Catholic University. In 1940, Grinioff worked as an assistant statistician for the Federal Reserve Board and in 1946, he was working for the State Department in the Economic Section of the Division of Research for Europe. At the time of his engagement to Kathryn M. Murphy, an archivist at the National Archives, (after 1957), he was ·a consultant on Russian-American affairs for the United States· (“Archivist to Marry” article). In 1957, Grinioff published Tale of a Whistling Shrimp which was later titled The Bankers Daughter. This book is a satirical historical fiction detailing life under Communism in Russia. It follows the tale of a banker who is forced to cover his tracks and clear his family’s name after his daughter makes socially dangerous statements about the Communist Party. Grinioff died on December 4, 2001.

Verifying Address of Vladimir Grinioff matching Les Pauls letter to Vladimir