By Francine Mathews
Amy Elizabeth Thorpe.
Forget those names, now that you’ve seen them.
Cynthia is the one to remember.
That’s what the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) called Betty Pack during World War II, when she was one of their most daring and successful spies. I learned about her when I was maybe thirteen, reading my dad’s copy of William Stevenson’s A Man Called Intrepid on the sly while he was gone at the office. One of my sisters probably gave it to him for Father’s Day. He had no idea it would spark my lifelong fascination with espionage. A fascination that started with this picture of Cynthia. She was the only woman in the book.
And she spoke to me. Such glamour. Such clarity. Such brilliance.
I wanted to be Cynthia.
She shows up in Intrepid in a description of how she stole the Vichy French codes from a safe in the French Embassy in Washington, by stripping naked and pretending to have sex with a Political Counselor when the night watchman came by, then opening the safe, tossing the code books out a window to a British associate to be copied, then actually making love to said Political Counselor on his couch until the code books were returned in the early hours of morning. The codes were necessary for Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of North Africa. Cynthia got them. Without them, Torch would never have happened.
I thought of Cynthia years later when I was writing JACK 1939, the story of twenty-one year old Jack Kennedy in the summer of 1939, when he traveled alone through Europe as Hitler was preparing to invade Poland. Jack was researching his Harvard senior thesis. Hitler was paving the way for the Thousand Year Reich. Their collision course is fairly epic, and based entirely on fact–but I needed a Cynthia. I named her Diana. She is an incandescent and memorable character, a former cabaret dancer married to a gay British foreign officer, a fitting counterpart to Jack Kennedy, who loves her irremediably; and readers ask me all the time if Diana was based on someone real.
And invariably I say: Yes.
An American woman code-named by the British. Cynthia.
Like my character Diana, Cynthia was a free-spirited and courageous woman who didn’t give a damn for public opinion or the conventions. Like Diana, she married a British foreign service officer because they both needed cover–Betty, a prominent Washington socialite, had gotten pregnant at 18 and couldn’t name the father; Arthur Pack, her nearly twenty years-older-British suitor, was gay and needed a convenient cover. They married. Betty gave birth to a son five months later; Arthur demanded she give him up for adoption. From that point on, the two went their separate but mutually convenient ways: Arthur gave Betty entree to high British circles she exploited to brilliant effect, and Betty allowed Arthur to live as he chose. They became, in espionage parlance, each other’s legend. Cynthia loved freely and in a highly political fashion: as the drumbeat sounded to World War II, she made a point of liasing with Italian, Vichy French and German potentates who could provide useful information–and did. She was invaluable to the Allied war effort.
But first, she was an American debutante. The daughter of a US Marine who became a Washington lawyer, Betty Thorpe-Pack had emerald eyes, Titian hair, and a mesmerizing charm. At the age of 11, she wrote a romantic novel set in Italy and entitled Fioretta–a quality certain to endear her to me.
Once she married Arthur Pack and entered the British foreign service as a loyal wife, she was transferred with Pack to Madrid during the height of the Spanish war, where she worked to smuggle rebel Nationalists to safety and coordinated the British embassy’s evacuation. In 1937 she moved to Warsaw and fully entered the British Secret Intelligence Service. By that time, Arthur Pack had suffered a stroke and had been removed from the scene to Canada for convalescence. Cynthia was enrolled in the British intelligence service and afforded twenty pounds per month to work her magic among the Polish intelligence officers attempting to break the German Enigma codes in the run-up to the German invasion of Poland. She threw herself, body and soul, into the effort, allowing a particular Polish code breaker to make love to her as often as possible because he talked more after he was physically satiated. As Cynthia informed her future contact, lover, and eventual husband–a French diplomat named Charles Brousse–“I let him make love to me as often as he wanted, since this guaranteed the smooth flow of political information I need.” Brousse was the man Cynthia pretended to make love to as she stole the Vichy code books in Washington. He was 49 years old, married, a traitor to Vichy but not to Free France, and totally in love with her. They had met when Cynthia posed as a journalist and called him for information. Eventually they became lovers. Only then did Cynthia explain who she really was–and even then, she lied. She told him she worked for the Americans, not the British Secret Intelligence Service.
When the US entered the war, Cynthia worked jointly with the OSS and the SIS. She was a contrarian in a time when morals were often espoused in hypocritical ways. She did what was expedient and effective regardless of personal cost. “Ashamed? she said. “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.”
Arthur Pack was evacuated from Poland and spent the war in convalescence in Canada. He committed suicide in 1946.
But Betty? Oh, Betty.
Our Cynthia married Charles Brousse, the Political Counselor with whom she staged so many successful intelligence coups, and became Betty Brousse, one of her many aliases. After the war Charles took her away to his chateau where she died years later, a legend in her own right.
Stevenson’s account in A Man Called Intrepid of the collaboration between the SIS and the fledgling OSS has been rightly questioned for its accuracy in the four decades since its publication. But Cynthia’s story–only barely sketched in the pages of Intrepid–has been amplified in two excellent accounts: The Last Goodnight, by Howard Blum, and Sisterhood of Spies, by the late Elizabeth MacIntosh.
So I ask you, readers: Was my childish infatuation with the glamorous Betty Pack entirely understandable? Is sexpionage, as it is sometimes called, ever justified? Was Cynthia an opportunistic voyeur and adventuress–or a true heroine?
What would you be willing to sacrifice for your country in a time of war?
The best stories are indeed based on reality. I loved your character, Diane in Jack 1939, and how interesting that she was based on a wonderful true life heroine.
I hadn't heard of Cynthia, Francine. Thank you so much for telling us about her. Such daring & creativity! And Diana is a thrilling character in the same vein!
Francine, what a wonderful tribute to Cynthia! Occasionally the line between patriotism and prostitution blurs, though, it seems, only when we speak of women. The daughter of a marine? She was an American; as a nation, our mantra is (more often than not) go big or go home!
I agree, Sonja.
After reading about her who would not have wanted a life of espionage?!
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Yasmina! Thanks for stopping by!
I think Betty Pack was incredibly lucky in her survival, actually–and I have to say that when I based my character Diana on her exploits, I acknowledged the inherent risks. Diana's story is more dangerous. Cynthia was fortunate in operating WITHIN Allied countries for much of her WWII career.
What a bold woman! Such a fraught time in the world and she seemed to understand the risks and stakes. Had not heard this story and thanks for posting it.
Oh Francine – I loved this post especially because I just finished reading your great story, JACK 1939 and the whole time I was reading about Diana, I kept wondering (as others had) just who she really was — or rather, who you patterned her after. And now I know. What a courageous and totally clever "spy" that lovely Cynthia was….taking all those risks to help her country. Amazing. There were many brave women throughout history and I'm so glad we are now hearing more about them. Thanks for your article (and thanks for writing JACK 1939.)
Karna, I had complex choices in the fashioning of Diana (and I'm glad you found her a compelling character.) I knew I wanted to fashion her on the Cynthia template–the wife of a British diplomat who gave her entree to key circles in the Allied war effort–but I've also been intrigued for some time by the double "cover" required of those who had a homosexual orientation during WWII, and were dedicated to the war effort. Arthur Pack might have been charged as a criminal but for his marriage to Cynthia. By possessing a gorgeous and sexually desirable wife, his bona fides in certain circles went unquestioned. She provided him with vital cover. In turn, he gave her access to situations and people she needed to target. I built that complexity into my character Diana, whose loyalties to her gay husband–a good friend–and his lover are much more complex than anything I've discovered about Cynthia. I think the human aspect of that background is fascinating, particularly as it plays out in the World War II context of love, loyalty, and betrayal.
It's amazing how many women spies there were in WW II. It will be interesting to see how many spies are revealed from our current times. In 50 years, I wonder who they'll be talking about and what they will have done.
Love this blog, Francine. What an incredible woman. I respect her sacrifice, her commitment. Her story would make a phenomenal movie!
Enjoyed all the write-ups this week, but especially Karna Bodman's comments about how one translates experiences into novels – or even true stories. Stockwell B.