Saturday, January 9, 2010

Code Name Cynthia: The Life of Elizabeth Thorpe Pack


Betty Pack was blond, beautiful and a spy. Daring and courageous, she wasn’t afraid to her use her beauty as well as her brains in her quest for information that would help the British and the Americans in their fight against Hitler during WWII. She had the uncanny ability to target the right men in power, and then she seduced them. Recruited in 1938, she was active as a spy until 1944 when her cover was compromised. Betty’s contributions have been downplayed by some in the intelligence community because of the method in which she obtained it. They claim that others were able to pass on the same information. But Betty was able again and again to acquire information that her handlers considered to be of great value.

Born on November 22, 1910 in Minneapolis, as Amy Elizabeth Thorpe, her family called her Betty. Her father was an officer in the United States Marines, by the time Betty was 9 years old she was well traveled, having lived in Cuba, Rhode Island, Florida as well as Hawaii. Highly intelligent, Betty was able to absorb ideas and languages quickly, although she grew bored easily. After Betty’s father retired from the Marines and an extended trip to Europe, the family moved to Washington, where he began to practice maritime law. Betty longed to be back in Europe. A loner by nature, Betty didn’t invite close friendships with other girls, and her experiences marked her as different from the other kids at her school. She also began to rebel, flouting the rules. She was expelled from one school for setting a bad example. A little book called Fioretta that she had written when she was 11, about a blind girl who sang on the streets of Naples, had come to the attention of the Italian embassy. The ambassador and his staff soon adopted her as a pet. Commander Alberto Lais, a 40ish naval attaché, was also charmed by her. While Betty was at boarding school, they used to meet for tea, which caused quite the stir amongst her classmates.

Although both her parents were college graduates, for some reason they didn’t encourage Betty to go to college. Instead, she made her debut in Washington society when she was 19. She had grown tall, and willowy, with amber blond hair and flashing green eyes. Soon Betty was turning heads, male ones anyway. Her secret weapon was her cool demeanor, which made it seem as if she were above it all. But underneath her seeming coolness, she craved excitement.. She soon met her future husband Arthur Pack, who was 38, twice her age, and an under-secretary at the British embassy. With the confidence of a young girl, she seduced him. It wasn’t hard. Sexually precocious, she had already lost her virginity at 14. After only a few weeks, he proposed. When they were married on April 29, 1930, Betty was 4 months pregnant. Arthur convinced her that a baby born 5 months after the wedding would ruin his career. The couple went on a lengthy honeymoon which allowed Betty to give birth abroad. When their son Anthony was born on October 2, 1930, he was immediately packed off to foster parents. Betty wouldn’t see her son again for several years.

They were ill-suited from the start. Besides the age difference, they were temperamentally different. While Betty was passionate and vivacious, Arthur was emotionally unavailable. On the surface, Betty was the perfect diplomat’s wife. She worked to promote Arthur’s career, entertained, stretched his salary as far as it would go, and picked up languages easily. But after awhile, Betty grew bored. Looking for excitement, she began to cheat on Arthur. Not even the birth of a daughter Denise in 1934 helped their eroding marriage. When Arthur was transferred to Madrid, Betty took her first tentative steps in the spy game. Not long after their arrival, Spain was torn apart by Civil War. Sympathetic to Franco, Betty helped smuggle 5 Nationalist rebels to safety, transported Red Cross supplies to Franco’s forces, and coordinated the evacuation of the British Embassy staff from Northern Spain. She also kept her ear open to pick up tidbits of information that might be useful to the British. Aided by one of her lovers, Betty tried to find out information about another former lover who was being held by the Loyalists. Using her feminine wiles, she managed to get 17 prisoners released from the Loyalist prison in Valencia including her lover. However, she was denounced to her Nationalist friends as a Loyalist spy, apparently by a jealous woman. This would not be the first time that a jealous woman ended Betty's time as a spy.

In 1937, Arthur was transferred to the British embassy in Poland. Soon after they arrived, Arthur suffered a stroke. While he recovered at a rehab facility on the Isle of Wight, Betty began an affair with a young Polish diplomat who spilled information about Germany’s interest in the Sudetenland. Betty passed the information on to an SIS contact at the British embassy. Soon she was recruited as an agent who encouraged her relationship with her lover. “Our meetings were very fruitful, and I let him make love to me as often as he wanted, since this guaranteed the smooth flow of political information that I needed,’ she later wrote in her memoirs.

Betty was in a unique position to be useful. She was charming and vivacious, intelligent and made friends easily, especially with men. On the minus side, she could sometimes be indiscreet and had a tendency to fall for her targets. Still she was incredibly well connected and not just in the diplomatic community, but also amongst the highest echelon of Washington society. It was unspoken between Betty and her handlers that her information might come from pillow talk. Through her relationship with the young Polish diplomat, she’d met a number of high ranking Poles. Soon Betty met her next target at a dinner party. His name was Michel Lubienski and he ran the office for foreign minister Josef Beck. Smitten, he sent pink roses to her the next morning. Through him, Betty learned that Polish experts were working on decoding Germany’s Enigma enciphering machine. While traveling with Lubienski in Prague, she also obtained conclusive proof about Hitler’s intentions to dismantle Czechoslovakia. Her idyll in Poland ended when Lubienski’s wife found out about his affair and complained to Beck who took it up with the British ambassador. Despite the information she'd been able to obtain, she was now a liability and she was asked to leave Poland.

Arthur and Betty tried to get their marriage back on track. Arthur was appointed back to the Embassy in Chile, but Betty was eager to get back into action. When World War II was declared, she offered her services to the SIS. She wrote reports about which prominent Chileans were Nazi sympathizers which were sent to London. By this time her marriage to Arthur had dissolved into friendship. Despite her affairs, she had been a loyal wife when it came to his career. But now she had a mission, the fight against Hitler. She soon left Arthur and her daughter and sailed to New York where she went to work for the British Security Coordination (BSC). She was given the code name ‘Cynthia’ and sent to Washington, DC with the cover of a journalist. Her first major assignment was to obtain the Italian naval ciphers. Lucky for Betty, her old friend Alberto Lais was again the naval attaché at the Italian embassy. Betty seduced him, and used his affection for her and the United States to obtain the ciphers. She told him that it would help not only America but Italy as well. Lais told her to contact the cipher clerk directly. With a little bit of bribery, the cipher clerk gave the ciphers to be photographed and then returned to the Embassy.

Her next assignment involved the Vichy French government. Once again posing as a journalist, Betty made the acquaintance of Charles Brousse, the 49 year old press attaché. Brousse was married to an American, that didn’t prevent him from falling hard for Betty, who at the age of 32 was at the height of her beauty. Initially, Betty obtained her information the usual way, through pillow talk, but soon she felt that she could get Brousse to turn on the Vichy government. She told him that she was working for the Americans, not the British. Brousse was also vehemently Anti-Nazi. Soon her lover was eagerly providing his mistress embassy cables, letters, and files. Betty moved out of her house in Georgetown and into the Wardham Hotel where Brousse and his wife lived to make it easier for them to meet and to evade FBI surveillance.

The British and the Americans wanted more, the Vichy French naval ciphers. This time it would be more complicated. The ciphers were in several volumes and locked in a safe. Getting the ciphers this time would involve old-fashioned burglary. Betty and Brousse cooked up a plan to use his office for his affair, deluding the guard as to their actual reason for being at the Embassy late at night. While Betty and Brousse drugged both the guard and his dog using pentobarbital, the safe-cracker hired for the occasion got the safe open but there was not enough time to photograph the information and get the ciphers back in time. A second attempt was bungled when Betty couldn’t get the safe open, even with the combination. A third and final attempt was more successful, although it involved Betty and Brousse hastily undressing when Betty sensed that the guard was on his way. Catching them in flagrante, the watchman hastily apologized and went back down to the basement. The Vichy ciphers were photographed and returned with none the wiser. The information contained in the ciphers was used to help the Allies when they landed in French North Africa in November of 1942.

After the war, Betty was asked if she was ashamed of the way that she had obtained her information. She replied, “Not in the least, my superiors told me that the results of my work saved thousands of British and American lives. It involved me in situations from which ‘respectable’ women draw back, but mine was total commitment. Wars are not won by respectable methods.’

Nothing in the rest of Betty’s life could compare to the excitement and drama of her life during the war. Worried about his health and depressed, Arthur Pack committed suicide after the war. Brousse and his wife divorced, and he and Betty married. He bought her the Chateau Castellnou where they lived until Betty’s death in 1963 from throat cancer. Not the most maternal woman, her relationships with her children were strained. Her son, Anthony Pack, died in 1951 while fighting in Korea just as they were finally developing some kind of relationship. Charles died 10 years after Betty in a fire caused when he fell asleep with his electric blanket on.

Sources:

Mary S. Lovell – Cast No Shadow: The Life of the American Spy Who Changed the Course of World War II

6 comments:

Linda said...

Wow. I've never heard of her, but she certainly fits your header quote, doesn't she?

This definitely needs to go onto my TBR mountain. Thanks for sharing.

dave hambidge said...

I too had never heard of this woman. Was she daring, daft or desperate?

Evangeline Holland said...

She sounds amazing! I am always fascinated by women spies, and how much derision is heaped on the backs of those who used their sexuality as a weapon--and yet, the men with whom they slept with are rarely ridiculed. I'll definitely pick up this book.

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I agree Evangeline. The hypocrisy kills me. The information that she provided was backed up by other sources, but because she was sleeping with her targets to get the information, it was somehow suspect. None of her lovers in Poland at least suspected that she was a spy. In DC, they were quite happy to help out the Americans, not the British. Winston Churchill and a few others were not as squeamish when it came to how spies got their intel, as long as it won the war. Wartime is not the time to be too polite about how you get information.

What's also interesting about Betty is it started because she was craving excitement but then she genuinely wanted to help.

Ilaria said...

The claim that she got hold of the Italian naval cipher is false and this has repeatedly been demonstrated in court.
The ciphers were never acquired through intelligence by the British,they were decrypted in Bletchley Park.

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