Susan Elia MacNeal travels back in time to WWII to bring us a captivating story of a mother and daughter who went undercover as spies inside Los Angeles’ Nazi movement. This fierce twosome takes incredible risks to help save American democracy. Susan, welcome to the Rogues!
As Americans, we tend to think of World War II as “over there”—and not fought in the U.S. (with the exception of the attack on Pearl Harbor), but it was. And in 1940, two ordinary women—a mother and daughter—who loved their country and democracy went undercover in Los Angeles’ Nazi movement. Yes, there were Nazis in Los Angeles. And the Comforts, who fought against them, are the inspiration for my new stand-alone novel, Mother Daughter Traitor Spy.
When real-life Navy widow Grace Comfort and her daughter, Sylvia, happened upon a hotbed of Nazi spies, they contacted the police and the FBI. But to no avail—the organizations were much more concerned about rounding up Communists. Through Navy Intelligence connections, the two women joined up with Leon Lewis, to investigate the activities of Nazi-inspired groups. Also rebuffed by the FBI and LAPD, Lewis, wary of the growing Nazi threat in Los Angeles since 1933, had formed the Community Relations Committee of the Jewish Federation Council, and formed a spy ring to keep tabs on this fascist group. A few dozen courageous Americans, mostly German-Americans and Christian World War I Navy veterans, were trained as spies and posed as Nazi supporters.
The German American Bund’s Los Angeles chapter gained members as Adolf Hitler gained power. Under the leadership of the Hitler-appointed American “Fuehrer,” Fritz Kuhn, the group spread its beliefs in Aryan supremacy. Propaganda straight from Joseph Goebbels was distributed throughout the nation from Deutsches Haus, the Bund’s headquarters in downtown Los Angeles.
The Bund spread anti-war and anti-Semitic propaganda. It also led boycotts of Jewish-run businesses, especially Hollywood’s movie industry. It targeted prominent Los Angeles Jews and supporters for assassination, including Lous B. Mayer and Charlie Chaplin. It tried to slow down production, and even to sabotage aircraft factories making planes for Britain. The Bund hoped to purge the United States of Jews, people of color, and Communists—by violence, if necessary.
Sylvia Comfort, a secretary, typed up lists and took notes at Bund meetings; she was quickly sought after for her excellent secretarial skills by the highest levels of the organization. Working with Lewis, she and her mother shared the information they learned from the inner circles of the Bund with the FBI—who finally took the threat seriously after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The Comforts’ deception was ultimately so successful that the information they provided to Lewis resulted in the arrest and conviction of nine Los Angeles Nazis, for violating the wartime sedition statute.
I first learned about the Comforts in Steven J. Ross’s Pulitzer Prize-nominated non-fiction work, Hitler in Los Angeles: How Jews Foiled Nazi Plots Against Hollywood and America, the story of World War I veteran Leon Lewis, his fellow spymasters, and their undercover agents.
The book mentions the Comforts but doesn’t provide any details about their personal life. So, while much of Mother Daughter Traitor Spy is factual—I did exhaustive research with original documents located at California University at Northridge—nothing about the characters is.
While the real Sylvia and Grace Comforts arrived in Los Angeles from San Diego, my Violet (Vi) and Veronica Grace are from Brooklyn. Why? Vi’s the widow of a Navy commander, an integral part of the story. Brooklyn has a Navy Yard, just as San Diego does. Also, as a Brooklynite myself, I thought it would be more fun to view the west coast through this lens.
I wanted Veronica to already be aware of the Nazi threat to the U.S, so I had her as a student journalist at Hunter College in New York who went undercover (bit of foreshadowing there!) to cover the Nazi Rally at Madison Square Garden in 1938. (In case you want to know more, Marshall Curry’s Academy Award-nominated documentary is an excellent place to start.) I also wanted Veronica and Vi to have been a part of multi-cultural New York City. Hunter specifically was a college open to young women of all races and faiths since 1873, a rarity then.
While Veronica wants to be a journalist (inspired by real-life war correspondent Martha Gellhorn), Vi is a widow, mother, and homemaker, who’s having her own crisis of confidence as with empty-nest syndrome and menopause. I wanted Vi to have a background of service and bravery though—and everything clicked together for me as I realized she was the perfect age to have been one of the young suffragists, fighting for women’s right to vote. Having that background made Vi’s decision to go undercover in Los Angeles real to me.
It’s a privilege to tell the Comforts’ story through fiction. Though I have no idea who the women really were, or what truly motivated them to do the remarkable things they did, I hope I captured their spirit.
Not all wars were fought “over there” and not all war heroes toil on a literal battlefield. I hope that between Hitler in Los Angeles, and now Mother Daughter Traitor Spy, the Comforts are recognized for the enormous sacrifices they made to save democracy in the United States.
Rogue Readers: Have you heard of the Comforts? What’s your favorite book/movie about enemy spies inside American borders?