31 December 2013

WORLD WAR I (1914-1918)

From Aphra Behn, who spied for the Bristish government in the 17th century, to the most well-known example, Mata Hari, female spies have a long history, existing in juxtaposition to the folkloric notion of women as chatty, gossipy and indiscreet. Between the founding of the modern British intelligence organizations in 1909 and the demobilization of 1919, more than 6,000 women served in the British government in either civil or military occupation as members of the intelligence community. These women performed a variety of services, and they represented an astonishing diversity of nationality, age and class.

Modern espionage was in it’s infancy in WW1 and Britain and France both lagged behind Germany’s well-developed network of spies. England and its allies scrambled to catch up and ended up employing huge numbers of women in various positions including censorship, decoding and propaganda. Young Girl Guides ran errands from office to office and soon women were actually working in the field.

Most ironic is the conflict between the popular male notion that women were of inferior intelligence and therefore couldn’t be an adequate spy and the cultural image of the wily female seductress who uses every weapon at her disposal to trick unwary men into revealing state secrets. These images were also at odds with brave female martyrs like Gabrielle Petit, a Belgium woman who at age twenty-three was shot by the Germans for espionage.

She reportedly refused to wear a blindfold before the firing squad and said, “Vive, la Belgique!” moments before her execution. If men were confused by a woman’s ability to spy, women were not, and they joined war department in various intelligence positions by the thousands.

24 December 2013

Sarah Aaronsohn (1890-1917)

Sarah Aaronsohn, daughter of Efraim Fischel Aaronsohn and Malka Glatzano, was born on 5 Jan 1890 in Zichron Yaakov, Israel. She died there on 9 Oct 1917.

She married the affluent and older Bulgarian merchang, Chaim Abraham, and followed him to Istanbul. The marriage quickly foundered, both because of a lack of shared interests and the impact of world and regional events on the couple's private life. 

None Known

The outbreak of World War I, Turkey’s joining of the Central Powers (Germany and Austria) in the autumn of 1914 and declaration of war on the Allied Powers, propelled the men and women in the Aaronsohns’ milieu to embark upon a route of action designed to benefit from the war by aiding the British to oust the Turks from Palestine. They thought that a new order in the Middle East, under the rule of Great Britain in place of a corrupt Turkey, would help achieve degrees of autonomy for Jews in Palestine. Following a short period of cooperation with the Turkish authorities, which came to an end in mid-1915, Aaron Aaronsohn and Feinberg decided on an active anti-Ottoman policy and established an espionage network, Nili (an acronym for Nezah Israel lo yeshaker, “The Glory of Israel does not deceive,” 1 Samuel 15: 29), known to British intelligence as “A Organization.” Nili developed into the largest pro-British espionage network in the Middle East.

Upon her return from Istanbul to Zikhron in November 1915 Sarah joined the underground. From at least the end of 1916 until her capture and death in October 1917 she coordinated and virtually conducted its activities in Palestine and the Lebanon area, handling Nili’s core of about forty agents, its larger circle of supporters and informers and the organization’s finances. She decoded and sifted information, encoded it and communicated with British intelligence headquarters in Cairo, making contact from the Atlit station with the British warship Managam. She also supervised the transmission by Nili of Jewish American money converted to gold to aid the Jewish population, which was suffering destitution, hunger and dislocation. In addition she liaised with the Turkish authorities (who were unaware of the underground until late 1917), the increasingly hostile community of her native colony and the formal leadership of the Yishuv which distanced itself from the organization. Though Hebrew sources compiled during the aftermath of the war present her leadership as familial, drawing on her position as the sister of the powerful Aaron Aaronsohn, British and Turkish intelligence sources never regarded her as a strong man’s aid and proxy. She alone of Nili’s top hierarchy stayed on in Palestine (Aaron traveling between Europe and Cairo and Feinberg having disappeared in 1916, in an aborted expedition to Egypt). 

She refused the advice of British intelligence to leave Palestine by sea to save herself, remained in Zikhron after Turkish intelligence uncovered Nili’s activities, dispersed the network and was arrested on 1 Oct 1917. During rigorous interrogation and torture she did not disclose any information. Having learnt that she would be transferred to Damascus prison and fearing she would break down, Sarah committed suicide, using a pistol hidden in the washroom in a wing in her parental home which Aaron occupied. She lay dying for nearly four days before expiring on 10 Oct 1917.

23 December 2013

Gertrude Bell (1868-1926)

Gertrude Margaret Lowthian Bell, daughter of Sir Hugh Bell and Mary Shield, was born 14 Jul 1868 at Washington Hall, County Durham, England. She died on 12 Jul 1926 in Baghdad, British Mandate of Mesopotamia (present day Iraq). She never married or had children.

Queen of the Desert
Miss Bell

Miss Bell's lines in the sand
by James Buchan
The Guardian
March 11, 2003

In British diplomatic group photographs of the early 20th-century Middle East, amid the plumes and uniforms and the calm paraphernalia of an empire going to hell in a bucket, there is often a solitary female. The woman is slim, with a head of luxuriant hair, and neatly dressed in billowing muslin or in the pencil silhouette and cloche hats of jazz-age Baghdad.

The woman is Gertrude Bell, who is as responsible as anybody for the rickety national state first known as Mesopotamia, and now as Iraq. As a powerful official of the British administration in Baghdad after the first world war, Bell ensured that an Arab state was founded from the three Ottoman provinces of Mosul, Baghdad and Basra, but one which was too weak to be independent of Britain. "I had a well-spent morning at the office making out the southern desert frontier of the Iraq," she wrote to her father on December 4, 1921.

One of Oxford University's most brilliant students, the greatest woman mountaineer of her age, an archaeologist and linguist, passionate, unhappy and rich, Bell saw in Arab male society, and what US President Woodrow Wilson called "the whole disgusting scramble" for the Middle East after the first world war, opportunities that were unthinkable at home.

John Buchan, in his novel Greenmantle (1916), and T.E. Lawrence in his guerrilla exploits in Arabia the following year, made popular a myth that an Englishman could become an Arab - only more so. To her generation in Britain, Bell went one better. She seemed to move as an equal among the shaikhs without compromising her British femininity. Her letters to her father and stepmother, one of the great correspondences of the past century, pass easily from orders for cotton gowns at Harvey and Nichols [sic] to the new-fangled British air warfare being tried out on recalcitrant Iraqi Arabs and Kurds.

The historical waters have closed over T.E. Lawrence. Even back in the 70s, I could find nobody with any recollection of him at the scenes of his exploits in western Arabia. But "Miss Bell" is still a name in Baghdad. Even in conversations with the vicious and cornered cadres of Saddam Hussein's regime, her name will come up to evoke, for a moment, an innocent Baghdad of picnics in the palm gardens and bathing parties in the Tigris.

Yet Bell and her superior as British high commissioner, Sir Percy Cox, laid down policies of state in Iraq that were taken up by Saddam's Arab Ba'ath socialist party. Those policies were to retain, if necessary by violence, the Kurdish mountains as a buffer against Turkey and Russia; to promote Sunni Muslims and other minorities over the Shia majority; to repress the Shia clergy in Najaf, Kerbela and Kazimain, or expel them to Iran; to buy off the big landowners and tribal elders; to stage disreputable plebiscites; and to deploy air power as a form of political control. "Iraq can only be ruled by force," a senior Ba'ath official told me in 1999. "Mesopotamia is not a civilised state," Bell wrote to her father on December 18, 1920.

The Ba'ath is facing extinction. Any U.S. civil and military administration in its place will have the precedent of Bell's 1920 white paper (typically, the first ever written by a woman), Review of the Civil Administration of Mesopotamia. Sixteen volumes of diaries and about 1,600 letters to her parents, transcribed and posted on the web by the University of Newcastle library (www.gerty.ncl.ac.uk) are a must-read at the Pentagon, less for their portrait of an oriental culture in its last phase as for their perilous mingling of political insight and blind elation.

Gertrude Margaret Lowthian Bell was born on July 14, 1868 in Washington, Co Durham. Her family were iron masters on a grand scale, with progressive attitudes. In 1886, Bell went up to Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, where she was the first woman to win a first-class degree in modern history. Unwanted in the marriage market - too "Oxfordy" a manner, it was said - she taught herself Persian and travelled to Iran in 1892, where her uncle was British ambassador.

She wrote her first travel book, Persian Pictures, and translated the libertine Persian poet Hafez into Yellow Book verse. She also fell in love with an impecunious British diplomat, who was rejected by her father. Though she was to form passionate attachments all her life, she kept them under rigid formal restraint.
Map from Gertrude Bell's Biography
The next decade she killed in two round-the-world journeys and in the Alps, where she gained renown for surviving 53 hours on a rope on the unclimbed north-east face of the Finsteraarhorn, when her expedition was caught in a blizzard in the summer of 1902. She had begun to learn Arabic in Jerusalem in 1897, wrote about Syria, and taught herself archaeology. She immersed herself in tribal politics and in 1914 made a dangerous journey to Hail, a town in northern Arabia that was the headquarters of a bitter enemy of Britain's new ally, the founder of Saudi Arabia, Abdul Aziz ibn Saud.
With the outbreak of war that summer, and the entry of the Ottoman empire on the side of Germany that November, Bell was swept up with T.E. Lawrence and other archaeologist-spies into an intelligence operation in Cairo, known as the Arab Bureau. In Iraq, an expeditionary force from India had surrendered to the Turks at Kut al-Amara on the lower Tigris in 1916. Bell travelled to Basra, where a new army was assembling. When Baghdad fell to the reinforcements in 1917, she moved up to the capital and was eventually appointed Cox's oriental secretary, responsible for relations with the Arab population.
British policy in the Middle East was in utter confusion. While the government of India wanted a new imperial possession at the head of the Persian Gulf, London had made extravagant promises of freedom to persuade the Arabs to rise up against the Turks. The compromise, which was bitterly resented in Iraq, was the so-called League of Nations Mandate, granted to Britain in 1920.
Senior Indian officials, such as the formidable AT Wilson, argued that the religious and tribal divisions in Iraq would for ever undermine an Iraqi state. Bell believed passionately in Arab independence and persuaded London that Iraq had enough able men at least to provide an administrative facade. But she had two blind spots. She always overestimated the popularity of Cox and herself, and she underestimated the force of religion in Iraqi affairs and the Shia clergy "sitting in an atmosphere which reeks of antiquity and is so thick with the dust of ages that you can't see through it - nor can they".
On June 27, 1920, she was writing: "In this flux, there is no doubt they are turning to us." In fact, the Shia tribes of the entire middle Euphrates rose in revolt the next month, and hundreds of British soldiers and as many as 8,000 Iraqis were killed before it could be suppressed. The next spring, Winston Churchill called a conference in Cairo, where Bell - the only woman among the delegates - had her way. The Hashemite Prince Faisal, a protege of T.E. Lawrence who had been ousted by the French in Syria, was acclaimed King of Iraq in a referendum that would not have shamed the Ba'ath. The "yes" vote was 96%. In place of the mandate, an Anglo-Iraqi treaty was railroaded through the Iraqi parliament.
Bell was carried away. "I'll never engage in creating kings again; it's too great a strain," she wrote with uncharacteristic vanity. She fell prey to Iraqi flattery and was given the nickname Khatun, which means fine lady or gentlewoman. "As we rode back through the gardens of the Karradah suburb," she told her father on September 11, 1921, "where all the people know me and salute me as I pass, Nuri [Said] said, 'One of the reasons you stand out so is because you're a woman. There's only one Khatun... For a hundred years they'll talk of the Khatun riding by.' I think they very likely will."
Yet she could also attend a display of the force being deployed by the RAF on the Kurds around Sulaimaniya: "It was even more remarkable than the one we saw last year at the Air Force show because it was much more real. They had made an imaginary village about a quarter of a mile from where we sat on the Diala dyke and the two first bombs dropped from 3,000 ft, went straight into the middle of it and set it alight. It was wonderful and horrible. Then they dropped bombs all round it, as if to catch the fugitives and finally fire bombs which even in the brightest sunlight made flares of bright flame in the desert. They burn through metal and water won't extinguish them. At the end the armoured cars went out to round up the fugitives with machine guns."
Bell was never liked, either in London or New Delhi, and when Cox left Baghdad in 1923, she lost her bureaucratic protector. She devoted more of her time to her old love, archaeology and established the Baghdad Archaeological Museum which, remarkably, has survived. Her letters home were more and more dominated by illness and depression. On Monday July 12, 1926, quite suddenly, Gertrude Bell died.
The official story was that years of gruelling work in the 49C (120F) heat of the Baghdad summer had proved too much for "her slender stock of physical energy". In fact, she took an overdose of sleeping pills, by accident or by intention. She is buried in Baghdad.
Thanks to crude oil, found in commercial quantities at Kirkuk in 1927, the little Iraqi monarchy survived Turkish intrigue, Saudi aggression and repeated uprisings, the worst in 1941 when pro-German officers drove the king and Nuri Said, the prime minister, into exile. But the collapse of British power and prestige at Suez in 1956 marked the end of the road. Faisal II and the royal family were murdered in a republican coup d'etat on July 14, 1958.
The Iraq of Gertrude Bell had lasted 37 years. The Ba'ath finally seized power in 1968, built a prosperous despotism in the 1970s but destroyed itself and the country in hopeless military adventures in Iran in the 1980s and Kuwait in 1990. As of yesterday, Ba'athist Iraq had lasted 35 years.
Bell's letters home
Whenever there was snow we sank in it up to the waist... I nearly took a straight cut on to the glacier, for I slipped on a bit of iced rock into a snow gully till the rope fortunately caught me. We all cut our hands over that incident, but it was otherwise the most comfortable part of the descent.
The Alps, July 18, 1902
Such an arrival! Sir Percy made me most welcome and said a house had been allotted to me... a tiny, stifling box of a place in a dirty little bazaar. Fortunately, I had not parted from my bed and bath. These I set up and further unpacked one of my boxes which had been dropped into the Tigris and hung out all the things to dry on the railing of the court.
Baghdad, April 20, 1917
I don't think I shall ever be able to detach myself permanently from the fortunes of this country.... it's a wonderful thing to feel the affection and confidence of a whole people round you. But oh to be at the end of the war and to have a free hand! 
Baghdad, May 26, 1917
Until quite recently I've been wholly cut off from [the Shias] because their tenets forbid them to look upon an unveiled woman and my tenets don't permit me to veil... Nor is it any good trying to make friends through the women - if they were allowed to see me they would veil before me as if I were a man. So you see I appear to be too female for one sex and too male for the other.
Baghdad, March 14, 1920
Have I ever told you what the river is like on a hot summer night? At dusk the mist hangs in long white bands over the water; the twilight fades and the lights of the town shine out on either bank, with the river, dark and smooth and full of mysterious reflections, like a road of triumph through the midst. 
Baghdad, September 11, 1921

22 December 2013

Marthe Cnockaert (1892-1966)

Marthe Mathilde Cnockaert, daughter of Felix Cnockaert and Marie-Louise Vanoplinus, was born on 28 Oct 1892 in Westrozebeke, West Flanders, Belgium. She died there on 8 Jan 1966.

She married John "Jock" McKenna, a British army officer from whom she separated around 1951.


Martha began studying at the medical school at Ghent University, but her studies were interrupted by the outbreak of WWI.

German troops razed the village in August 1914, burning her home down and temporarily separating her family. Having trained as a nurse, she gained a job at a German military hospital located in the village, where she was valued for her medical training and her multi-lingual skills, speaking English and German as well as French and Flemish. She was awarded the Iron Cross by the Germans for her medical service.

In 1915, she was transferred to the German Military Hospital in Roulers, where she was reunited with her family who had also moved there after the destruction of their home. Around this time, she was approached by a family friend and former neighbour, Lucelle Deldonck, who revealed to Cnockaert that she was a British intelligence agent, and wished to recruit her to an Anglo-Belgian intelligence network operating in the town.

For two years, Cnockaert used her cover as a nurse and her frequent proximity to German military personnel -- at both the hospital and as a waitress at her parents' cafe -- to gather important military intelligence for the British and their allies, which she passed on to other agents in local churches. She mostly worked with two other female Belgian spies: an elderly vegetable seller codenamed "Canteen Ma", and a letterbox agent codenamed "Number 63", both of whom helped her relay messages to and from British General Headquarters. 

Her exploits during the war included destroying a telephone line which a local priest was using to spy for the Germans; and obtaining details of a planned but cancelled visit by Kaiser Wilhelm II for a British aerial attack. At one point, her German lodger, Otto, tried to recruit her to spy on the British. Cnockaert attempted to relay harmless but seemingly important information to him for a short time, but when operating as a double agent became too difficult, she arranged for him to be killed.

She discovered an unused sewer tunnel system located underneath a German ammunition depot, and placed the explosives herself to destroy the ammo dump. This operation led to her exposure and capture when she lost her watch, engraved with her initials, while placing the dynamite. In November 1916, she was sentenced to death for her espionage, but her sentence was commuted to life imprisonment due to her Iron Cross honour. She served two years in a prison in Ghent, and was released in 1918 when the Armistice with Germany was declared, ending the war.

Cnockaert was portrayed by Madeleine Carroll in I was a Spy, the 1933 film based on her memoirs.

17 December 2013

Marguerite Harrison (1879-1967)

Marguerite Elton Baker, daughter of wealthy Maryland shipping magnate, Bernard N. Baker and his wife Elizabeth Elton Livezey, was born Oct 1879 in Baltimore, MD. She died on 16 Jul 1967.

In 1901 she married Thomas B. Harrison with whom she had one child, Thomas B. Harrison II.

None Known

Her husband died of a brain tumor in 1915, leaving Marguerite and her thirteen-year-old son deeply in debt from loans taken out by the father. In an effort to repay this debt, she turned her large home into a boarding house, which did not make ends meet. In 1915, despite having only one semester of college and no appropriate training, she used her brother-in-law's influence to get hired as an assistant society editor for The Baltimore Sun. This brought in an additional twenty later thirty dollars a week. Coming from a society background and having a great facility with languages learned from European jaunts with her family, she proved to be well-qualified for this job and advanced quickly within the newspaper. By 1917 she was writing features about women's wartime labor and exposing the true fact that women work as well or better than their male counterparts.

In 1918, with the U.S. still involved in the war and Europe virtually one large battlefield, she became overwhelmed with the desire to report on the conditions in Germany. As women were not recognized as war correspondents she decided to become a spy. With an introduction to chief of Military Intelligence Division of the U.S. Army General Marlborough Churchill, she offered her services. On her application, she described herself as 5'6" tall, weighing 125 pounds; using no stimulants, tobacco or drugs; and without physical defects. Answering the question "With what foreign countries and localities are you familiar?" she replied:

"The British Isles, France, Holland, Germany, Italy, Austria, Switzerland, Northern Italy, Rome, Naples, Tyrol. I have an absolute command of French and German, am very fluent and have a good accent in Italian and speak a little Spanish. Without any trouble I could pass as a French woman and after a little practice, as German-Swiss . . . I have been to Europe fourteen times . . . I have been much on steamers and am familiar in a general way with ships of the merchant marine."

The November 11th Armistice was declared before her official hiring, but Harrison was still sent to Europe though with a new assignment: "Report political and economic matters of possible interest to the United States delegation at the forthcoming peace conference." Only her immediate family and her managing editor at the Sun knew why the War Department was sending her to Germany in December 1918. Unlike wartime spies, she would not be reporting strategic or military intelligence but political, economic and social reporting, and this would not be without risks.

Harrison spied for the United States in Russia and Japan, arriving in Russia in 1920 as an Associated Press correspondent. She assessed Bolshevik economic strengths and weakness and assisted American political prisoners in Russia. She was held captive in Lubyanka, the infamous Russian prison, for 10 months.

While there she contracted tuberculosis, and due to pressure from her influential contacts, including Senator Joseph I. France, she was eventually set free in exchange for food and other aid to Russia. She was arrested again in 1923 in China and was taken to Moscow, but was released before her trial after recognition by an American aid worker.

Mata Hari (1876-1917)

Margaretha Geertruida "Margreet" Zelle, daughter of Adam Zelle and his first wife Antje van der Meulen, was born on 7 Aug 1876 in Leeuwarden, Netherlands. She died by firing squad on 15 Oct 1917 in Vincennes, Paris, France.

At 18, Margreet answered an advertisement in a Dutch newspaper placed by Dutch Colonial Army Captain Rudolf MacLeon who was looking for a wife. She married him in Amsterdam on 11 Jul 1895 and had two children: Norman-John and Louise Jeanne MacLeod.

Mata Hari

The MacLeods lived together from 1897-1902 in Java and Sumatra where she acquired her knowledge of Indian and Javanese dances. 

They separated after returning to Europe, at which point she took to dancing upon the Paris stage from 1905, initially as 'Lady MacLeod' and soon after as 'Mata Hari', the name she retained until her execution.

She soon began touring all over Europe, telling the story of how she was born in a sacred Indian temple and taught ancient dances by a priestess who gave her the name Hata Hari, meaning "eye of the day" in Malay. Regardless of her authenticity, she packed dance halls and opera houses from Russia to France. Her attractiveness, as well as her willingness to appear almost nude on the stage, made her a huge hit. She cultivated numerous lovers, including many military officers.

Still unclear today are the circumstances around her alleged spying activities. It was said that while in The Hague in 1916 she was offered cash by a German consul for information obtained on her next visit to France. Indeed, Mata Hari admitted she had passed old, outdated information to a German intelligence officer when later interrogated by the French intelligence service.

Mata Hari herself claimed she had been paid to act as a French spy in Belgium (then occupied by German forces), although she had neglected to inform her French spymasters of her prior arrangement with the German consul. She was, it seemed, a double agent, if a not very successful one.

It appears (the details are vague) that British intelligence picked up details of Mata Hari's arrangements with the German consul and passed these to their French counterparts.

She was consequently arrested by the French on 13 Feb 1917 in Paris. Following imprisonment she was tried by a military court on 24-25 Jul 1917 and sentenced to death by a firing squad. The sentence was carried out on 15 Oct 1917 in Vincennes near Paris. She was 41.

To many she remains the unfortunate victim of a hysterical section of the French press and public determined to root out evidence of a non-existent enemy within, a scapegoat attractive as much for her curious profession as for her crimes.



09 December 2013

Gabrielle Petit (1893-1916)

Gabrielle Alina Eugenia Maria Petit was born on 20 Feb 1893 in Tournai, Hainaut, Belgium. She was executed by a German firing squad on 1 Apr 1916 at Schaerbeek.


At the outbreak of WWI, she was living in Brussels as a saleswoman. She immediatly volunteered to serve with the Belgian Red Cross.

Gabrielle's espionage activities began in 1914, when she helped her wounded soldier fiancé, Maurice Gobert, cross the border to the Netherlands to reunite with his regiment. She passed along to British Intelligence information about the Imperial German army acquired during the trip. The British soon hired her, gave her brief training, and sent her to spy on the enemy. She proceeded to collect information about enemy troop movements using a number of false identities. She was also an active distributor of the clandestine newspaper La Libre Belgique and assisted the underground mail service "Mot du Soldat". She helped several more young men across the Dutch border.

She was betrayed by a German who represented himself as Dutch and was arrested by the German military in February 1916. She was imprisoned at the Prison de St. Gilles (a suburb of Brussels), tried, and convicted for espionage, with the death sentence imposed on the following March 1. 

During her trial, she refused to reveal the identities of her fellow agents, despite offers of amnesty. Among such agents, Germaine Gabrielle Anna Scaron*, daughter of a local magistrate and and close friend of Mlle. Petit, was arrested with her on similar charges, imprisoned but spared and, despite the opposition of German military, released later for lack of sufficient evidence, which Gabrielle could have divulged but heroically kept secret.

On 1 Apr 1916, Gabrielle was, at the insistence of German military, shot by a firing squad at the Tir national execution field in Schaerbeek. Her body was buried on the grounds there.

Her story remained unknown until after the war, when she began to be seen as a martyr for the nation. In May 1919 a state funeral was held for her, attended by Queen Elisabeth of Belgium, Cardinal Mercier of Brussels and Prime Minister Léon Delacroix, after which her remains (and those of fellow agents A. Bodson and A. Smekens) were buried with full military honors at Schaerbeek Cemetery.
*Scaron was but one of Gabrielle's many acquaintances gathered during the two years of her active life as a British spy and Belgian heroine.

07 December 2013

Marthe Richard (1899-1982)

Marthe Betenfeld, daughter of a brewer, was born on 15 Aug 1889 in Blamont, France and died 9 Feb 1982 in Paris.

On 13 Apr 1915 she married Henri Richer, a pilot serving in WWI. She was approached by French counter-intelligence at about this time and was recruited for service based on her language skills as well as her daring personality. After her husband was killed in battle, Marthe distracted herself from grief by travelling to Spain to undertake intelligence duties. 

None Known

A postwar heroine who fooled France
By Mary Blume
The New York Times
August 3, 2006

PARIS — Later than, say, Switzerland and England but too soon for many of the French, Parliament closed the brothels of France in the spring of 1946. The measure had been introduced in the Conseil Municipal of Paris by Marthe Richard, a respectable widow in a light-colored suit and a white hat.

The public was aghast. Paris, with its world-famous houses, where the beau monde gathered and the décor was so gorgeous that guided tours were sometimes held mornings when trade was slow, naughty gay Paree giving up its birthright as the world's capital of pleasure to succumb to postwar prudery? No!

It was no secret that the better brothels during the Occupation had been frequented mostly by Germans and French collaborators, and perhaps it was time to cleanse the country's soul - but, to paraphrase St. Augustine, not yet. Still, the houses closed, their furnishings sold at well-attended auctions, and the wrath of pimps, madams and corrupt cops turned to Marthe Richard.

The Loi Marthe Richard was morally impeccable, but its initiator turned out to be very peccable indeed. Her real name was not Richard, she had no right to public office as she was a British citizen, she did join the Résistance very late in the day, undoubtedly to mask her earlier collaboration, and - best of all - she had herself been a hooker since her teens.

Police records, much sought by those wishing to discredit her after the law passed, were helpful as she had a file dating back to 1905 when, at 16, she was given the card issued to prostitutes who were known carriers of venereal disease.

Blessed with the boldness of a true pathological liar, she had covered her tracks for decades as she rose to respectability. Her past is more outlandish than sordid, but what is interesting is how the spite lingers: the French hate being fooled, and they were. Two biographies written to commemorate the 60th year of the closing of the brothels - Natacha Henry's Marthe Richard: L'Aventurière des Maisons Closes (published by Punctum) and Marthe Richard: De la Petite à la Grande Vertu (Payot) by Elizabeth Coquart - are unhumorously stern. Marthe's problem was that, while good-looking and greedy, she lacked the great courtesan's redeeming grand style. So she came to be detested as a hypocritical prude.

Marthe Betenfeld was born poor in Alsace in 1889 and walked the streets of Nancy, a garrison town, until she was able to move to Paris, where she met a rich and jolly fish merchant called Henri Richer, 10 years her senior. He set her up, helped her learn grammar and horse riding and when he went to the front in 1915 he married her.

Two years earlier, with Henri's encouragement, she had taken up aviation and got a pilot's license. Hanging around the airfield she met a ambiguous Russian nicknamed Zozo who became her lover. Within a month of Henri's death at the front, Zozo had persuaded France's spymaster, Captain Georges Ladoux, an incompetent whose other star was Mata Hari, to recruit Marthe for what was delicately known as "patriotisme horizontal." She was horrified, of course, as she reiterated in her five autobiographies, but, finally persuaded, was sent off to Spain to seduce Baron von Krohn, an older submarine specialist with a glass eye. When the moment came, she relates, she had a stiff drink, lay back and said, fortunately under her breath, "Vive la France."

She did well enough for von Krohn to recruit her as well, making her a double agent. What exactly she did is not clear, though anyone has to love her tale about being shipped to Argentinian 1917 by von Krohn with eight thermoses of poisonous weevils with which she was to spike wheat in the ship's hold that was destined for the Allies. (Patriotically, she drowned her weevils in the sink).

Back in Paris at wars end, Marthe soon returned to her old habits and her old - and perhaps only - passion, flying, which gave her entry to the British colony of Paris. There she met Thomas Crompton, a director of the Rockefeller Foundation in France. Their marriage in 1926 made her a British citizen, dual nationality being unavailable, and brought her respectability. She achieved glory soon after Crompton's sudden early death.

Seeking to promote himself, Ladoux had begun writing a series about famous spies he had recruited, starting with Mata Hari. For the second volume he wanted to show the other side of the coin - a heroic Frenchwoman - and remembered Marthe. His book was almost entirely made up, including the heroine's name, which he changed from Richer because there was a sewer pipe manufacturer of that name, and it was a huge success. Marthe disclaimed none of Ladoux's inventions, triumphed on the lecture circuit, and fabricated her first book of memoirs in 1935.

Two years earlier she had received the Legion d'Honneur and always neglected to state that in truth she was accepting a posthumous reward for Crompton's Rockefeller Foundation work. Neat, but the best was yet to follow.

In 1937 a film came out, "Marthe Richard au Service de la France," starring Edwige Feuillère, a fine French actress even better at virtuous renunciation than Garbo. Erich von Stroheim inevitably played von Krohn and Feuillère was intensely noble as she confirmed that she would sacrifice her purity to revenge the murder, invented by the scenarist, of her entire family at the gloved hands of horrible von Krohn.

By then Marthe could do no wrong, although of course she did. She spent the first two years of the war in Vichy, which a collaborator described as "gay as Deauville at its height," and eventually returned to Paris where it was said that she procured girls for evenings attended by Germans, practiced some small time swindling, and joined, or affected to join, the 
Résistance at the opportune time.

When at wars end French women were enfranchised, Marthe was recruited to run for the Municipal Council on a ticket grouping Résistance factions. She was probably chosen to head the anti-brothel campaign because she was famous but politically obscure and thus expendable if it failed.

It passed, but for Marthe there was nothing but trouble ahead, and it is interesting that her present biographers swallow all the sordid revelations about her without inquiring into whom the tales might have served and whether they were true. Even the copious police reports were filled with such phrases as "is said to have" and "may have been."

She was a charmless mythomaniac and, as the problems of prostitution became ever more complex, an easy prey for lazy journalists while she faded into great old age: She was gabby, contradictory and often downright silly as she pronounced against the pill, abortion rights, immigrants, feminism and sex in general. "Abstinence has helped me age so well," she informed France-Soir.

She died in 1982 at the age of 93, never having succeeded in regaining French citizenship. Her ashes at Père Lachaise bear the label Marthe Crompton and not the well-honored, if fictitious, name of Marthe Richard.

06 December 2013

Despina Storch (1894/95-1918)

Despina Davidovitch, daughter of a Bulgarian father and German mother, was born on 1 Jan 1895 in Istanbul (perhaps Constantinople). She died 30 Mar 1918 at immigration headquarters (Ellis Island) where she was held pending deportation to France on suspicion of being a spy.

She married Frenchman Paul Storch when she was 17 years old. Though they later divorced, their former marriage created a peculiar situation due to Paul's service in the French army while his ex-wife was suspected of spying for France's enemies.

Madame Nezie
Madame Hesketh
Madame Davidovitch
Madame Despina
Baroness de Bellville

Despina was a frequent guest at parties due to her beauty, a fluency in French and her dancing skill. At many parties she had no difficulty getting in contact with military officers who served for Allied forces and ambassadors of countries engaged in war.

She was accompanied almost everywhere by a mysterious Baron Henri de Beville. While in Madrid, Despina and the baron were noticed contacting German agents. After the couple became aware of the suspicions they quickly left Spain for Havana. They later made their way to the United States, accompanied by Mrs. Elizabeth Charlotte Nix (a German woman) and a man who purportedly was a French count named Robert de Clairmont. As soon as the "curious quartet" arrived in the U.S. they were placed under suspicion by the Department of Justice.

Authorities later seized a safe deposit box held for Madame Storch in a New York Bank. It contained important correspondence, with notable people from around the world, some of which was coded.

At first the co-conspirators were not aware of the scrutiny they were under. When it became known to Storch, she attempted to send her trunks to Panama, but they were intercepted. Realizing the danger they were in, the Baron and Storch obtained French passports and made plans to flee to Cuba. After their plans became known to the Justice Department, all four were arrested on 18 Mar 1918 and send to Ellis Island. The authorities tried to follow a suspicious money trail left by the four, but were not able to prove nor disprove that espionage had taken place. Eventually, the four were deported from the U.S. as "undesirables".

While on Ellis Island they all became ill. Three recovered, but Despina died on March 30 of what was described as pneumonia. At the time, authorities believed she died of natural causes, but some publications later indicated she could have bitten on a poisoned capsule.

Her funeral took place on 1 Apr 1918. The New York Times wrote:

"An exquisitely carved white coffin containing the body of Madame Despina Davidovitch Storch, the most romantic spy suspect America has yet known, was placed in a vault on the east slope of MOunt Olivet Cemetery, Maspeth, Queens yesterday afternoon. Thus was drawn the curtain on a life which in twenty three years knew more diplomatic intrigue than even the popular fiction spy heroine is given by Oppenheim and others."

Elsbeth Schragmüller (1887-1940)

Elsbeth Schragmüller, daughter of Carl Anton Schragmüller and Valesca Cramer von Clausbruch, was born 7 Aug 1887 in Schlusselburg, Kingdon of Prussia, German Empire. She died in Munich, Bavaria on 24 Feb 1940.

Mademoiselle Docteur
Fraulein Doctor
Fair Lady
La Baronne
Mlle. Schwartz

You don’t know her by name, but her legend lives on. A 1969 movie titled Fräulein Doktor, starring Suze Kendall in the title role, gave us the clichéd Nazi dominatrix character, one who would flourish in that flick, the subsequent Ilsa series starring Dyanne Thorne and in countless films and TV shows.

Screenwriter Diulio Coletti based his Nazi spy lady on Schragmüller, who had some of the same attributes. As one of the first generation of women allowed to study in German universities, she received a commission upon joining the German Army. Because she was, for a time, their only female officer, they allowed her to design and wear a special uniform made of leather, which she accessorized with her ever-present riding crop. The similarities end there, however, for Schragmüller was never a Nazi, and had retired from active service long before WWII. In fact, she passed away in 1940, years before the war ended.

Historically, many regard Schragmüller as an important spymaster, who ran a school for espionage in Belgium that trained Axis spies during WWI. There, she would recruit Allied soldiers (mostly through blackmail) and others interested in becoming spies, and train them. She put her riding crop to good use on the mentally slow. She would also intimidate the hell out of her students by slowly, methodically, loading a revolver in front of the entire class and aiming at someone giving her a stupid response.

After training her spies, she dispatched them into the field and administered their reports. She was so successful at eliciting important Allied information that she had to create a legendary ruse to throw the enemy off the track.

After resigning her commission, Schragmüller spent a good deal of her time taking care of her invalid mother in Switzerland. During the 1920s, she lived in nearly total obscurity. But after their ascension to power in 1933, the Nazis, completely unbeknownst to her, re-fashioned her as something of a folk hero. For PR reasons, the Nazis looked for her, and found someone claiming to be the heralded spymaster. The Nazis celebrated this woman for about a week until news reached the real Dr. Schragmüller, who briefly came out of seclusion to expose the impostor.