While working as a spy for the British in Washington in May 1941, Amy Elizabeth Thorpe was offered a choice: she could seduce the French ambassador, his counselor, or his aide. She chose the aide, a man named Charles Emanuel Brousse, which proved a sound decision both professionally and personally, since she ended up marrying him after the war.
Twenty years her senior and passionately opposed to France’s Vichy puppet regime installed by the Nazis a year earlier, Brousse was soon totally besotted with this elegant young American woman with deep green eyes, auburn hair, and fluent French, and began meeting her for trysts at her Georgetown home and feeding her copies of the embassy’s daily cable traffic.
Thorpe, for her part, was one of nature’s born spies. As Elizabeth McIntosh relates in Sisterhood of Spies, Thorpe had the easy confidence of America’s prewar privileged class: studies abroad, summers in Newport, Rhode Island, polished manners on the outside, a craving for adventure within. Unhappily married at twenty to a British diplomat, she traveled the world and embarked on a string of amorous intrigues that reflected a determination to keep up an unfathomable front.“I love to love with all my heart,” she wrote in her diary, “only I have to appear cool. Life is a stage on which to play. One’s role is to pretend, and always to hide one’s true feelings.” True in love, perhaps; truer in espionage.
In the spring of 1942, with America now at war and the Allied plan to invade French North Africa rapidly developing, the British were happy to lend the OSS their prize agent in Washington for a mission of incalculable importance and almost insane risk. Thorpe agreed at once and told her lover the same day what was required: steal two large books containing the Vichy naval codes from the embassy safe, slip them out to be photographed, and replace them within a few hours so their absence would never be suspected.
Brousse was incredulous. First, he was not authorized to enter the code room. Second, he had no way of learning the safe’s combination. Third, the embassy was watched at night by a guard, always accompanied by a large dog.
But the seduction of espionage being so like the seduction of love, Brousse found himself too far in to turn back. The very next night he approached the guard and confided he had a problem: he needed a place to meet the girl he was seeing; if he could use the office at night he could tell his wife he was working late. And so for several weeks in early June the couple met at the embassy night after night. The guard discreetly left the lovers alone; the dog was always greeted with a friendly pat and soon also accepted their presence.
On the night of June 19, Brousse and Thorpe arrived with a couple bottles of champagne and invited the guard to join them in drinking to their happiness. A dose of barbiturate was slipped into his drink, and as soon as the guard was out Thorpe went to the front door to admit a man the OSS had arranged to join them for the occasion: an expert safecracker sprung from a Georgia prison.
At one in the morning they entered the code room and the safecracker went to work. But the hours drew on with agonizing slowness and it was nearly four o’clock before the safe finally gave way. It was a maddening moment: there at last were the codebooks in plain view, but it was too late now to finish the job.
Brousse and Thorpe agreed to try again a few nights later. Brousse explained to the guard this would be their final night together; his wife had become suspicious. But so had the guard: as the pair waited tensely in the dark for the man to start his rounds, Thorpe suddenly sensed that something was wrong. Quickly she pulled off her clothes and told Brousse to do the same; at that moment the door flew open and a flashlight darted across them. The startled guard was greeted by the sight of a beautiful woman, wearing nothing but a string of pearls and an expression of mortified shock. “Merde,” the guard muttered and hastily withdrew, leaving them this time to finish the job without a hitch.
“One’s role is to pretend,” Thorpe had said; yet it was her skillful fusion of pretense with reality during one daring life that allowed her to pull off one of the great intelligence coups of the war.
Originally published in the December 2007 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.