Friday, June 29, 2007

Sisters of Mata Hari


Review: Yellen, Emily. Our Mother's War: American Women at Home and at the Front During World War II (2004); Moran, Lindsay. Blowing My Cover: My Life as a CIA Spy (2005). Adapted from posts that first appeared at, various months, 2006.

By Wesley Britton

Did you know the first spy film series ever made featured a girl? In 1909 and 1910, the four very short "Girl Spy" movies starred forgotten silent film actress Jean Gauntiett as a Civil War heroine fighting on behalf of the Confederacy. In fact, during the first three decades of Hollywood, there were probably more lady spies than men in the days of Victorian melodramas. In those days, little girls fought the "Huns" during World War I and older heroines battled to save their fathers, lovers, and country at the risk of losing life, limb, and--worst of all--their virtue. (note 1)

All this was mostly wild fiction with little connection to any historical fact. For most of the 20th Century, the number of real Mati Haris in actual espionage was quite small. But according to Emily Yellen's 2004 Our Mother's War: American Women at Home and at the Front During World War II, lady spies contributed much to the war effort in the 1940s.

To be fair, the bulk of Yellen's lengthy overview of the roles of women during the war years doesn't focus on spies. Many detailed chapters explore female workers in industry, the government, racial dimensions, and nearly every aspect of life at home and abroad during this period. Yellen's overview of female agents is primarily in one chapter, "Behind Enemy Lines: Spies, Propaganda Workers, and Those Who Worked for the Enemy." First are the numbers. Out of 13,000 employees in the O.S.S. (Office of Strategic Services), 4,000 were women. Most were file clerks and support staff--some very helpful in breaking codes-- in the overtly sexist organization, the predecessor to the CIA. Yellen described one Naval division devoted to code-breaking called OP 20G. By early 1944, 2,813 women worked for OP 20G, and 600 of them worked on the Top Secret program to break the famous German Enigma Code. Under the cover of working for the National Cash Register Co., these women were hired to build and keep the experimental machines going, 200 per shift for around the clock labors. They worked at a secret warehouse called "Sugar Hill" in Dayton, Ohio, but none knew for sure what they were working on. Some figured part of it out. Making wheels with 26 spokes was a clue. And the fact they were told if they said anything, they'd be shot was another.

Then Yellen provides a series of brief sketches of noted agents and operatives, and here is where readers can gain insights into what the real Sydney Bristos of their time were doing. Yellen believes the best of the lot was Virginia Hall who scoped out enemy movements, looked for good parachute drop sites, and helped create escape routes in France--all the while disguised as an elderly French woman. Code-named Diane, Hall was known as "The Limping Lady" because, in the middle of the 1930s, her left leg had been amputated from the knee down. The enemy knew what the thirty-something spy looked like, so disguises were needed. Posing as a stooped older woman was perfect for this unlikely agent. She was trained by the British S.O.E. (Special Operations Executive) as America was slow to put women into such roles. The Brits didn't see Hall or similar operatives as spies as they mainly organized networks rather than tried to get secret information.

Sexual escapades? Of course. Another American lady, Amy Pack, procured Navy codes from the Vichy embassy in Washington. At first, she was able to access confidential information during travels with her diplomat husband. Due to their unhappy marriage, she had a series of affairs and so uncovered Axis plans for North Africa from her lovers. Later, she pretended to be the daughter of one of her older amours, even helped by his wife, until the spouse found out the relationship was more than spycraft. The O.S.S. dispatched the wife off to Mexico telling her she was doing important intelligence work. But this was a ruse to keep her from blowing Amy's cover.

Some O.S.S. officers became celebrities. According to Yellen, former tennis star Alice Marble was recruited to go to Switzerland and spy on a former boyfriend. After a series of personal tragedies, Marble felt this would be her way to contribute to the war effort. So she slept with the enemy to find out about treasures Nazis were hoping to smuggle out along with their escape routes during the final months of the war. Like the later pair on television's I Spy, under the cover of tennis exhibition matches, she met her ex, photographed lists in his safe, and bolted out the front door, narrowly escaping.

Josephine Baker was another celebrity to help the cause, in this case an African-American singer-dancer who'd emigrated to Paris. She smuggled messages across Europe that were written in the margins of her sheet music in invisible ink. Notes about what she observed were said to have been hidden in her underwear. Julia McWilliams--later the famous "French Chef" Julia Childs--was rejected by the military for ordinary duty as she stood over six feet--no uniforms were made for such as she. She began work as a research assistant, then helped develop a shark repellent that kept Jaws and his brethren from prematurely exploding mines and ultimately bothering astronauts in splashed-down NASA spacecraft. For the O.S.S., she became an office worker, said there was nothing heroic about it, and that she did jobs men wouldn't. "It was all that was available for women," she said, but the job was the best opportunity to travel overseas. In the Far East, she met her future husband, Paul Childs, a fellow O.S.S. officer.

Elizabeth P. Macintosh was another American who served in the China/Burma/India theatre. A former journalist, she was sent out to provide morale busting propaganda among Japanese troops. This was "Black Propaganda"--lies, rumors, and innuendoes
supposedly coming from the enemy's own headquarters. ("White Propaganda," of course, was the truth dispensed from Allied channels.) One of Macintosh's operations was to alter postcards Allies had captured from Japanese soldiers. As they already had the censor's stamp on them, she cleverly had the messages changed to tell stories of defeat and poor morale and then smuggled them back into the enemy's mail delivery. Some of these operators paid the cost of covert work. Mildred Fishe Harnack was an American living in Germany who helped smuggle Jews out of the country. After providing intelligence to both the Americans and Russians, she was captured in 1942 and was the only woman executed by special order of Adolf Hitler.

Yellen also provides sketches of Mata Haris not always working for the Allies."The Red Spy Queen," Elizabeth Bently, was an American traitor who worked for the Soviet Union before and during WW II. She was one of the figures later sparking the McCarthy Era in the 1950s. She helped coordinate a large espionage ring in the U.S. against the Fascists for the KGB, but turned on them after World War II and reported to the FBI. Another traitor was Mildred Gillors, an American who served as a disc jockey for Hitler during the war. Known as "Axis Sally," she went into POW camps posing as a Red Cross worker and got captured Gis to record tape messages saying they were for the folks back home. Instead, she took the tapes and broadcast them, interjecting her own commentary that was invectives against President Roosevelt and Jews.

Later in her book, Yellen described the lives of women who didn't know what their husbands were doing in Chapter 11, "Inside the Secret City: Wives and WACS in Los Alamos." These were the wives of scientists and military personnel on the hidden mesa in New Mexico where the atomic bomb was created. Here, she describes the inadequate housing, provisions, mud, cold, dust, and isolation of a community sharply divided and mysterious. All the mail was routed to PO Box 1663--the only address listed on birth certificates issued at Los Alamos--a town that technically did not exist. Oddly, townspeople below wondered what was going on--are they making window wipers for submarines up there? So a covert mission was created. Women were sent into town to leak it was all about a new electronic rocket. They thought the natives would report the leaks to the military police. Surprisingly, no one cared. No reports were filed. So the electronic rocket mission was a failure in counter-espionage.

In this wide canvas, Yellen doesn't always provide in-depth background on various topics. For example, her chapter on movie actresses is surprisingly thin. She maintained that Hollywood movies of the era changed women from leisure, luxury-loving dolls into harder females showing they could take it on the chin alongside the boys, ready to do their bit for the war effort. Then again, she notes, the pin-up industry went into high gear during the war, with Hollywood's finest garter-belted legs and polished smiles on display in footlockers all over the globe. Betty Grable, the queen of the pin-ups, perhaps best represented the American ideal of womanhood--the sexy girl next door who was both alluring and accessible. But Yellen's short notes on moviedom don't support such claims, as there were ample examples of hard-bitten, determined women leads long before the propaganda films beginning after Pearl Harbor. Before then, Greta Garbo was Mata Hari in 1931, Marlene Dietrich was Dishonored in 1934, and Alfred Hitchcok began his use of independent leading ladies in The 39 Steps in 1935, to cite but a few. 2 On this topic, at least, it seems clear Yellen's focused research on the 1940s didn't include much digging into what came before.

Still, the book is a fine contribution to histories of the war years, adding much to a better understanding of the culture of this dramatic era. For espionage buffs, Yellen's short sketches might intrigue readers to look for more about these overlooked heroines of times past. Any female interested in what their mothers--or grandmothers--lived like during the 1940s, well, this book is indispensable.


"`I hope it's all worth it.' Emma had turned from me and was looking out toward the misty rain flicked street. `I mean, you would know. I am just counting on that fact. That you, and whoever it is you work for, that you guys know more than someone like me.' As it turned out, neither I nor the people I worked for knew any more than Emma. The myth of the all-knowing, omnipotent Central Intelligence Agency turned out to be just that, a myth. And it was shattered not just for all its employees but for all the Americans whom we failed in a single day."
(Lindsey Moran, Blowing My Cover, 2005)

Turning from World War Ii to the Cold War, if Lindsey Moran's Blowing My Cover: My Life as a CIA Spy (2005) were ever to be filmed, it would most likely be destined for the Lifetime Channel with some title like "The Spy Who Couldn't Get A Date" or "Sleeping Alone for the CIA." While there are glimmers into actual undercover work with few revelations into areas not already widely known, Moran's autobiography is probably of most interest for any young woman pondering joining the CIA. It's not a world Sydney Bristo would recognize.

The memoir opens with Moran's early thoughts about becoming a spy, a mix of Bondish dreams and misgivings about what the job would actually be. After sharing her education and first attempts to join the CIA, Moran describes the training at "The Farm "and her learning her life would now be a series of lies to friends, family, and potential boyfriends. We pick up tidbits such as Mormons make for good recruits because of their squeaky-clean past and that the disguise experts, in her opinion, are over-hyped hairdressers.

Then, because of her previous time spent in Bulgaria as a student, Moran was assigned to that region where she learned her work would be boring and banal. She notes if the American taxpayer knew how much money was wasted on useless informants and exorbitant dinners at high-class restaurants, there'd be a revolt. Her job, like all case officers, wasn't to do any actual espionage but rather recruit natives to do the work through entrapment, appeals to patriotism, or, mainly, bribes. While she served in Macedonia during the period when Albanian rebels created unrest, we learn next to nothing about the political contexts of what was going on. We do get quick glimpses into embassy attacks and the unpopularity of Americans as the Macedonians resented the U.S. supporting the rush of Albanian refugees into their country. While the locals poison American cats as a protest, and we learn bands played in gloating refrains after 9/11, rarely is Lindsey in a life-or-death situation. And that only happened by misadventure as when three Macedonian soldiers mistake her on a bicycle for a unit of Albanian guerillas. More telling, she said while her superiors knew her assets and contacts were fruitless and pointless, she was told to keep running them as it was a "good career move." Sadly, this observation has turned out to be rather typical of her era in spycraft as has been explored in many books on the slide of the CIA during the 1990s.

More personal revelations crop up along the way as when Moran told of how having a foreign-born boyfriend endangered her original signing on for the agency, that her love-life was run by paperwork she had to fill out for every weekend retreat, and that simple intimacy was thwarted by her vague responses to men asking about her employment. With this as a backdrop, Moran resigned from the CIA in the wake of the Second Iraq War as she knew well it was a diversion from anything to do with any real war on terror and then found herself happy in a more normal life. To her credit, the tone of her book isn't the bitter, angry exposes published from the 1960s onward but rather reads like a look back at years of disappointment on every level. It's a human portrait, not an attempt to tell readers that undercover operations are dirty work. The CIA is shown as a sexist, lumbering bureaucracy which enjoyed the gamesmanship of the Cold War but completely inept In understanding how to deal with groups who despise U.S. interests on other grounds. On the other hand, it's difficult not to see her many passages on failed relationships as whining. From the get-go, she knew deception was part of the game and you'd think agents would expect rather intrusive interests in outside relationships. Again, little is new here, but this perspective might be eye-opening for those wondering just what CIA case officers actually do and what life might be like should a reader have their own fantasies about becoming an agent in the 21st century.


1. A number of these films are discussed in Chapter One, "When Spies Were Silent I: Leading Ladies and Victorian Melodramas (1898-1929)" from my Onscreen and Undercover: The Ultimate Book of Movie Espionage (Praeger, 2006). Chapter Five, "Fighting Hitler and His Heirs: Film Nazis from the 1930s to 2005" looks at movies including female characters.

In addition, among other sections, Chapter One, "THE 39 STEPS: Creating a Genre" from my 2005 Beyond Bond: Spies in Fiction and Film notes the neglected attention given to the important roles of independent women in early spy films.

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