Amy Elizabeth Thorpe, code-named ‘Cynthia,’ was a World War II version of the legendary Mata Hari.
By Wilfred P. Deac
She was born Amy Elizabeth Thorpe on November 22, 1910, in Minneapolis. Family and friends called her Betty. William Stephenson, who ran Great Britain’s World War II intelligence activities in the Western Hemisphere, would one day give her a code name–“Cynthia.” She reputedly was one of the most successful spies in history.
Amy Thorpe’s father was a U.S. Marine Corps officer, which put travel high on the family agenda. By the age of 11, she had used postcards and guidebooks to provide the Neapolitan setting for a romantic novel she wrote, titled Fioretta. A copy found its way to a young-at-heart naval attaché named Alberto Lais at the Italian Embassy in Washington, D.C.
Her father’s resignation from the service to study law brought Amy Thorpe to the U.S. capital, where she met Commander Lais. The Italian officer’s platonic relationship with the adolescent he called his “golden girl” undoubtedly contributed to her appearance of maturity. By the time she made her debut in Washington society, 18-year-old Thorpe was beautiful, well-bred and graceful, with green eyes and amber-colored hair. She exuded a magnetism that drew men to her.
An affair with Arthur Pack, second secretary at the British Embassy and 19 years her senior, evolved into a mismatched marriage and gave her a second citizenship. Amy Thorpe Pack gave birth to a son five months after the wedding, but for a variety of reasons she turned the infant over to foster parents. A daughter, born in 1934, did nothing to help the eroding union.
Arthur Pack was transferred to Madrid on the eve of the Spanish Civil War, where Amy Pack immersed herself in secret operations. She helped smuggle rebel Nationalists to safety, transported Red Cross supplies to Franco’s forces, coordinated the destroyer evacuation of the British Embassy staff from northern Spain, and meddled in diplomatic affairs. Those activities ceased when she was denounced to her Nationalist friends as a Republican spy, apparently by a jealous woman.
In the fall of 1937, accompanied by her young daughter and a nanny, Amy Pack boarded the Warsaw Express in Paris to, in her words, “become a member of his Britannic Majesty’s Secret Intelligence Service.” She was quickly “adopted” by a group of young men working for the Polish foreign ministry, a situation facilitated by her husband. Arthur Pack, now an official at the embassy in Poland, had informed her he was in love with another woman. Shortly afterward, he suffered an attack of cerebral thrombosis that landed him in an English nursing home.
Amy Pack was recruited by the British intelligence and allotted an entertainment allowance of 20 pounds sterling to cultivate her high-placed Polish sources. Of her first official male conquest, she would later tell a biographer and future lover, “Our meetings were very fruitful, and I let him make love to me as often as he wanted, since this guaranteed the smooth flow of political information I needed.” Pack met her next target at a dinner party hosted by the American ambassador. The handsome Pole seated next to her was a personal aide to foreign minister Jósef Beck. Although married, the aide was sufficiently impressed by his dinner companion to send her pink roses the next morning.
From him Pack learned Polish experts were working on overcoming the threat posed by Germany’s Enigma enciphering machine. The extent of her contribution to the “Ultra secret” that gave the Allies a crucial edge over the Nazis remains a matter of conjecture. In fact, however, Britain would owe its ability to decode so much of Germany’s World War II radio traffic to the efforts of the Poles, who had cooperated with the French in working out the Enigma system.
In Prague, Pack obtained conclusive proof of Hitler’s plans to dismember Czechoslovakia. For reasons that remain unclear, in the fall of 1938 the ambassador ordered her to leave the country. The following April, having called a domestic truce, a recuperated Arthur Pack and his wife traveled to South America, where he took over his embassy’s commercial section in Santiago, Chile.
When World War II started, Amy Pack offered her talents to the British intelligence service. She soon was writing political articles for Spanish- and English-language newspapers in Chile. Britain was then gearing up its intelligence and propaganda efforts in the hemisphere, placing them in the spring of 1940 under the British Security Coordination (BSC), headed by Canadian William Stephenson.
Amy Pack left her husband and sailed to New York, where she was given her code name, “Cynthia,” and an assignment to set up shop in Washington, D.C. As her cover, she posed as a journalist. Her first major assignment was obtaining the Italian naval cryptosystem. Given her mission, it was only logical that Cynthia look up her old friend Alberto Lais, now an admiral and naval attaché at Italy’s Washington embassy. Virtually all published accounts say that Cynthia pried from the 60-year-old admiral the Italian navy’s code and cipher books, as well as plans to disable Italian ships in U.S. ports to prevent their seizure. The literary consensus is that Cynthia’s amorous success contributed to British victories in the Mediterranean. The lady herself, who described her relationship with Lais as “sentimental and even sensual rather than sexual,” said she received the ship sabotage information directly from the admiral and access to the sensitive books from his assistant with Lais’ full cooperation.
Heirs of the admiral sued a British author in an Italian court for defamation in 1967, insisting Lais (who had died in 1951) had not betrayed military secrets, and won. In 1988, Lais’ two sons protested publication of the seduction account in David Brinkley’s best-selling Washington Goes to War and persuaded the Italian defense ministry to publish denial ads in three leading East Coast newspapers.
Cynthia’s next assignment was one that assured her place in the intelligence hall of fame. The Vichy French government, established after France’s collapse in 1940, was vehemently anti-British. Posing as an American journalist, Cynthia phoned the French Embassy in May 1941 and introduced herself to Charles Brousse, the press attaché. Right away, Brousse–49 years old, several times married and anti-Nazi–was besotted with Cynthia.
The relationship began with elicited material and intelligence tidbits. But by July, Cynthia felt confident enough to make a false flag recruitment, telling Brousse she worked for the Americans. The French official soon was offering his mistress embassy cables, letters, files and accounts of embassy activities and personalities. Before long, to foil FBI surveillance, she moved into the hotel where Brousse and his wife lived.
“London would like to have the Vichy French naval ciphers,” Cynthia was told in March 1942. Informed of her latest request, Brousse threw up his hands. Only the chief cipher officer and his assistant had access to the code room. The cipher books were in several volumes, locked in a safe. A dog-escorted watchman guarded the premises at night.
After a series of stymied efforts, Cynthia finally tried the direct approach–burglary. Tapping his friendship with William “Wild Bill” Donovan, head of America’s Office of Strategic Services (forerunner of the CIA), the BSC’s Stephenson acquired the services of a thug nicknamed “the Georgia Cracker.” Brousse was to tell the embassy night watchman that he needed a discreet place to conduct an affair and was prepared to pay him to look the other way. The couple would then visit the embassy for several nights to get the guard used to their presence. On the night of the burglary, they planned to slip the watchman a drugged glass of champagne. After that, they would admit the safecracker, go to the ground-floor code room, open the safe, pass the cipher books to a BSC man waiting on the tree-shaded lawn below and then wait for the volumes to be returned after they were photographed.
All seemed to go as planned. The pentobarbital knocked out the guard as well as his dog (whose food had been drugged). The Georgia Cracker coaxed open the old Mosler safe, but there was not enough time to remove and copy the books, and the intruders had to beat a hasty retreat. A second attempt, made without the Georgia Cracker, was foiled when Cynthia could not get the safe open, even with the combination.
Entering with Brousse’s key for a final try, the couple had nervously positioned themselves on their usual sofa in the embassy when Cynthia’s intuition told her something was wrong. Impulsively, she arose and removed her clothes. “You haven’t gone mad?” asked Brousse, looking at his lover, who was by then clad only in a necklace and high heels. She persuaded him to also start undressing. A door suddenly opened, and a flashlight beam stabbed the darkness. As it focused on her, Cynthia quickly placed her slip in front of her.
“I beg your pardon a thousand times,” said the watchman. He turned his flashlight aside and, suspicion allayed, returned to his basement room. Cynthia let in the safecracker. The rest was a milk run.
The Vichy ciphers, whether those obtained by Cynthia or from another source, were used to great effect when the Allies landed in French-held North Africa in November 1942. With the United States now in the war, Cynthia worked for the U.S. Office of Strategic Services as well as for the British. She considered herself a patriot. “Ashamed? Not in the least,” she once said. “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.”
The rest of Cynthia’s story pales after her earlier adventures. Arthur Pack killed himself in 1945. Brousse and his wife divorced, and the modern Mata Hari married Brousse. In storybook fashion, they settled in a medieval castle on a mountain in France. The end of their story was tragic, however. On December 1, 1963, Amy Thorpe Brousse died of mouth cancer. Her husband was electrocuted about 10 years later by his electric blanket. Part of their fairy tale castle was also consumed in the ensuing fire.