It turns out she was born Aline Griffith in Pearl River, in upstate New York. She was working as a model in New York City, but didn't drink or smoke, didn't go to clubs and wore saddle shoes and schoolgirl clothes when she took the bus to and from work.
Aline's younger brothers were serving in the armed forces during World War II and she complained that she wanted to be in the war, too, but hadn't been able to find her way in. At age 19, though, she complained to just the right person: the brother of a friend, who worked at the War Department. He told her she might receive a call and, after a couple of weeks, she did. She was soon receiving intensive training at the "Farm" (later used, famously, as CIA training grounds), and working with other agents, all of whom knew each other only by their agent names. Aline's was Tiger.
|Aline on just another weekend|
in the country
Aline's entrée was her contact, Eduardo, aka Top Hat, who was a foppish regular in society and the clubs around town––not to mention, a kleptomaniac. He had a large collection of jewelry and other gewgaws that he'd lifted from his society friends. Soon after her arrival in Madrid, Aline was spending evenings at society dinner parties, at nightclubs with one of the country's most popular bullfighters, and weekends at the country estate of Count von Fürstenberg, and his wife, the drop-dead gorgeous Gloria.
|Aline, licensed to kill|
Aline reports that on her very first day in Europe, she's taken to a casino in Estoril, in Portugal, where she almost literally stumbles upon a man in full formal evening wear who has just been murdered with a stiletto. Quite an introduction to one's first spy assignment! And people were forever sneaking into Aline's room to tell her she was the only one they could contact with vital information to pass on to the American government. Seriously? A 20-year-old girl who was supposed to be a clerk at an office? Some of those confiding people ended up dead; some Aline claims to have unveiled as German spies.
Now, I take my World War II history very seriously, but this is one of those times I decided I just had to forget about my doubts and go with Aline's tale. Why? Because it's such a hoot, that's why.
|I'm not sure what Aline's up to with all these sheep|
|I'd be laughing, too, Aline, if I had those rocks|
Aline was hardly the only woman whose memoirs describe using her position in the social world to observe the inner workings of Nazi operatives. And not the only improbable woman to be in that position, as a couple of other tales demonstrate.
You'd think it's never a bad time to be born a princess, but how about 1917 in St. Petersburg, Russia? That's when and where Marie Vassiltchikov came into the world. It's not surprising that she and her family left the country after the Bolshevik revolution. The family members wandered around Europe, and in 1940, Marie (usually called Missie) and her sister Tatiana moved to Berlin, where Missie's friends and her polyglot language skills got her a job at the German Foreign Ministry's Information Office, referred to in her memoir, Berlin Diaries 1940-1945, as the A.A., for its German short name, the Auswärtiges Amt.
Missie and Tatiana are no longer wealthy, so she does have to spend her days working. She's not crazy about some of the blowhards at the office, and wishes she could have taken the job at the American Embassy she was offered just days too late. She has access to lots of top-secret information and, one day, having been given by mistake a sheet of the special yellow-top paper reserved for particularly hot news, she decides to amuse herself with a made-up story that there had been riots in London, resulting in the king's being hanged at the gates of Buckingham Palace. She "passed it on to an idiotic girl who promptly translated it and included it in a news broadcast to South Africa." Oh, those girlish hijinks!
After Trott's execution, Missie thought it best to leave Berlin. She moved to Vienna and became a Red Cross nurse. While there, she met Peter Harnden, an American Army intelligence officer. Missie and Peter married in 1946, and the pair moved to Paris, where Peter became a successful architect. Missie was widowed in 1971 and moved to London, where she died of leukemia in 1978, leaving four children.
Bella was a society columnist for the Berlin newspaper Vossische Zeitung. She became well-known in Berlin during the Weimar era, and was a regular at parties given in high society which, once the Nazis took over, became dominated by political figures. Her friendship with several politicians, and especially foreign members of the diplomatic corps, seems to have provided her with some protection. Still, she was savvy enough to send her daughter out of the country in 1934 and, while she continued to be invited to parties, her columns no longer appeared under her own name after the Nazis had been in power for about a year.
Questions have been raised as to whether Fromm's memoir reflects actual contemporary diary entries or have been amplified with the benefit of hindsight. Either way, it's still fascinating––in the way watching a snake can be––to read about the cast of goons suddenly elevated to the heights of Berlin society. This reaches an absurd level in Fromm's description of a 1933 party during which the new Führer kisses her hand and makes small talk with her; of course, having no idea that she is Jewish.
Books like these remind me that memoirs can be so much better than history books, or even novels, if you want to get that feeling of being a spy on history.