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No one would ever have confused Velvalee Dickinson with Mata Hari.

When she first came to the attention of the FBI in 1942, the woman who would become one of the most hapless spies of World War II had the look of a schoolmarm and a feckless story to match. The daughter of wealthy parents, Dickinson had gone to Stanford University, but had never made much of a success at anything since. The university accused her of taking some books from the library and refused to award her diploma when she finished her studies in 1918. A brokerage firm in San Francisco she and her husband operated went bust. She tried being a social worker for a few years, then in 1937 moved to New York, where she took a job selling dolls at Bloomingdale’s—dolls had been a girlhood hobby.

Even the exclusive doll shop she was able to open on her own the next year was a mixed story; though located on fashionable Madison Avenue and catering to a wealthy clientele of collectors seeking rare and antique dolls, the business was apparently struggling, and Dickinson was constantly borrowing money to keep it afloat.

The only flamboyant streak in her life was her conspicuous habit of attending social functions at the Japanese consulates in San Francisco and New York, clad in traditional Japanese attire. She had apparently found an entrée into Japanese American social circles through the many Japanese farmers in California who were customers of the brokerage business, and soon she was entertaining consulate officials in her home as well.

Two months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the FBI began intercepting a strange series of letters, mailed from different addresses in the United States, to a Señora Inez Lopez de Malinali in Buenos Aires, Argentina. All had been returned, undelivered, to their senders. All described, in almost comically suspicious language, antique dolls the writer had recently found. “I just secured a lovely Siamese Temple Dancer, it had been damaged, that is tore in the middle, but is now repaired,” read one. Another told of receiving “an old German bisque Doll dressed in a Hulu Grass skirt.”

It didn’t take FBI analysts very long to match up the “dolls” with recent U.S. naval ship movements into and out of repair yards on the West Coast. The dolls’ nationalities referred to the type of ship (Siamese were aircraft carriers); the doll with the hula skirt matched a ship recently arrived in Seattle from Hawaii.

All of the supposed senders emphatically denied writing the letters. But the references to dolls got one of them thinking about Velvalee Dickinson, from whom she had ordered several dolls. The FBI discovered that the four other women whose names appeared on the letters were clients of Dickinson’s New York shop as well. Investigators also found that Dickinson’s money troubles had seemed to stop suddenly in late 1941.

When the FBI arrested Dickinson in January 1944, they found $13,000 in hundred-dollar bills stashed in her safe-deposit box, the currency traceable to funds obtained by Japanese officials before the war. At first Dickinson insisted that her husband, who had recently died, was the brains of the operation. But, facing a possible charge of espionage, she agreed to plead guilty to the lesser offense of violating mail censorship in exchange for revealing all she knew. She had been paid $25,000—a huge sum at the time—by the Japanese naval attaché, Ichiro Yokoyama, who supplied her with the simplistic jargon code and the address of the Buenos Aires letter drop.

Under the pretext of searching for dolls to acquire for her shop, she and her husband had traveled back and forth between the East and West Coasts in early 1942, gleaning information about activity at naval yards mostly through casual conversations with unwitting locals. Unfortunately for Dickinson, no one let her know that her contact in Argentina had been exposed and had fled shortly after the Pearl Harbor attack—which was why all of her reports bounced back to America, and into the hands of the FBI.

Dickinson served seven years of a ten-year sentence before being released in 1951. Three years later she vanished from public sight.