Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Review of The Last Goodnight by Howard Blum (2016, Harper)

Amy Elizabeth (Betty) Thorpe was born on November 22, 1910, in Minneapolis. Her father was a career soldier and her mother a socialite and they moved around and spent time in Europe before settling in Washington DC. Betty understood her allure as a young teenager and soon discovered sex, becoming pregnant as at nineteen. She quickly latched onto Arthur Pack, a British diplomat twenty years her senior, and married him. She then moved to England to have the child, which the Packs placed into foster care before heading to Chile where Pack was newly posted. The Packs moved in vaulted company and Betty took an interest in polo, had a couple of affairs, and also had a daughter. They then moved to Spain, where again she fell in and out of bed with senior nationalist figures and first drew the attention of British intelligence services. After the civil war breaks out and she moves to France but makes forays into Spain to help extract the British embassy and also to save a lover, using her charms to ferry in medical supplies and negotiate his release from a Republican prison. Her next move is to Poland, where she is formally recruited as a spy and instructed to develop contacts with senior government officials and starts an affair with the personal assistant to the foreign minister, gathering vital information in the lead up to the outbreak of war and also took part in an operation in Czechoslovakia to steal vital documents. Next it is back to Chile where her marriage breaks down and, after a couple of adventures via boat and airplane tracking diplomatic delegations, she ends up in Washington where taking the role of a journalist she practices honey trap operations against the Italian and Vichy embassies to steal cipher books. Having successfully obtained the information she was hoping to go behind enemy lines in France, but the operation was dropped after her cover was blown. After the war she lived in France with her new husband, telling her story to a fellow former spy in 1962, dying of cancer a year later.

Blum tells the story of Betty Pack’s life, who’s work as a spy was recognized by Roosevelt and Churchill and was declared by OSS chief Bill Donovan as ‘the greatest unsung heroine of the war.’ Operating under the codename ‘Cynthia’, Betty used her charm and sex to not only gather secrets via pillow talk, but also to set-up and participate in daring thefts and aid escapes. She was so determined to succeed that she would often run great risks to repeatedly try to get what her spymasters desired, and often defied their counsel. Blum charts her various adventures and offers some speculation as to her motives and psychology. While she clearly was highly charismatic, she was also quite self-centred, bloody-minded and manipulative. She fell easily in-and-out of love and had no compunction in betraying lovers. The telling is almost like a novel, though one that is a little dry and stilted, and is told as if the narrator was present and witnessed the events, yet clearly the dialogue and much of the action is speculation based on some testimony. The book is also a little oddly organized. The biography doesn’t always run chronologically and the main narrative is interdispersed with Betty’s interactions with her biographer, a former fellow spy, and their trip to Ireland. The main purpose of this thread seems to be to reveal how her story came to light and the key source of material for Blum (Hyde, her biographer, had gathered together her testimony, many letters, and other documents depositing them in a university archive on his death). It’s as if Blum has a sense that the reader will not believe some of the story and wants to reassure the reader of its veracity (at the start and end he is keen to assert it is a true telling), but in a lot of ways it’s a distraction. Despite Blum’s statements, there is little getting around the fact that the documentary sources are somewhat sketchy and based mostly on self-testimony and the story needs framing in a more circumspect and critical way than simply asserting that it is the truth. Nonetheless, Betty Pack did live an incredible life and did make vital contributions to the Allies intelligence operations before and during the Second World War.

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