Fascinating portrait of an accidental but very effective female American spy at the fraught early stages of World War II.
Vanity Fair contributing editor Blum (Dark Invasion: 1915: Germany's Secret War and the Hunt for the First Terrorist Cell in America, 2014, etc.) finds an intriguing, beguiling subject in Betty Pack, the Minneapolis-born wife of a British diplomatic functionary who fell into the world of espionage. Born Amy Elizabeth Thorpe to a Marine father and Minnesota bluestocking mother, Pack, “by nature a restless and solitary girl,” married the British diplomat Arthur Pack out of desperation in 1930, not only because of her pregnancy, but also to escape the provincial U.S. and see the world. After a diplomatic stint in Chile, when she recognized that she and her husband were fatally incompatible, and then Madrid, she became radicalized by the Spanish Civil War. Though she sympathized with the Fascists, she had to play both sides in order to secure supplies for the rebels as well as spring her lover from prison. At her husband’s next posting, in Warsaw, Pack was recruited into British intelligence, specifically William Stephenson’s British Security Coordination, which wanted desperately to know about the Polish attempts to crack the German Enigma code. With her excellent diplomatic cover and her reckless highflying flair, which Blum portrays with brio, Pack was enlisted to seduce high-level Polish official Count Michal Lubienski, among others. Posted next to Washington, D.C., Pack was ordered to use her skills at “discreet entertaining” to get possession of the Italian naval cipher, which she dutifully accomplished by bedding the Italian naval attaché Alberto Lais. Subsequently, and rather incredibly, she was able to break into the Vichy French Embassy and secure their naval ciphers. Reading more like a suspense novel than history, Blum’s account brings an unsung heroine to vivid life.
Occasionally breathless and torrid in description, this is a well-documented work that certainly never bores.