Brousse, Amy (1910–1963)
Brousse, Amy (1910–1963)
American spy, codenamed Cynthia, who managed to acquire Italy's and Vichy France's naval ciphers, a phenomenal boon to the Allies during World War II. Name variations: Elizabeth Pack; (codename) Cynthia; (pen name) Elizabeth Thomas; (nickname) Betty. Born Amy Elizabeth Thorpe in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on November 22, 1910; died of cancer of the jaw and throat on December 1, 1963; daughter of Major George Cyrus Thorpe, U.S. Marines, and Cora (Wells) Thorpe; married Arthur Pack (a diplomat with the British foreign service, commercial counsellor in the British legation in Santiago, Chile); married Charles Brousse (a French attaché); children: (first marriage) Anthony George Pack (b. October 2, 1930), Denise Avril Beresford Pack (b. January 31, 1934).
She was the "greatest unsung heroine" of World War II, said Sir William Stephenson, the famous Canadian who directed British secret intelligence activities. Known only as Cynthia, Amy Thorpe Pack Brousse did not look like a spy, she looked like an amateur tennis champion. She was wholesome, beautiful, and well-bred, with wide-set green eyes. She was also inordinately restless.
On November 22, 1910, Amy Elizabeth Thorpe was born into a family of achievement. Her father George Cyrus Thorpe was a professional marine who had graduated from Annapolis, obtained a degree in the arts from Brown University, served in the Spanish-American War and in the Philippines after the insurrection, and received the Order of the Star of Ethiopia from Emperor Menelik. Her mother Cora Wells Thorpe had graduated cum laude from the University of Michigan, then attended Columbia, the Sorbonne, and the University of Munich. With their three children (Jane, George, and Amy), the Thorpes were a family on the move, traveling from post to post. When Amy was five, they moved to Cuba, where they lived throughout World War I.
Amy and her mother were in perpetual conflict, though not to the outside world. Cora was a social butterfly, a believer in manners and ritual, and she was very ambitious for her children. Brousse, in turn, was driven. She told her biographer H. Montgomery Hyde:
Always in me, even when I was a child, were two great passions: one, to be alone, the other, for excitement. Any kind of excitement—even fear. Anything to assuage my terrible restlessness and the excruciating sense of pressure (that came from where or what I never knew) that was only released in action, in doing, in exhaustion. I remember when we were very young and running races I always ran past the finish line and ran and ran and ran until I dropped half strangled when my endurance finally gave out…. The same drive impelled me to write a novel when I was not yet eleven.
Called Fioretta, the story was set in Naples.
The family moved from Cuba to Washington, then on to Hawaii when her father was appointed commander of the Marines at Pearl Harbor in August 1921. When his tour of duty came to an end, he resigned from the service and took his family to Europe. The girls were placed in a school in Territet, Switzerland, overlooking Lake Geneva (Riant Château) for one year. The family returned to the States, and Brousse attended Dana Hall in Wellesley, Massachusetts; she then made her debut in Washington (D.C.) society in the summer of 1929.
Befitting her family status, Amy was soon engaged to a suitable man. Arthur Pack was 19 years her senior and second secretary on the commercial side of the British Embassy in Washington. Married on April 29, 1930, they honeymooned in England where Amy discovered she was pregnant, a jot too early for those who kept monthly accounts. Pack, who was somewhat of a bully, was terrified for his reputation and foreign-service career; he wanted her to abort the child, but she fought to keep it. When her son Anthony George Pack was born in secrecy on October 2, 1930 (five months after the wedding), Pack would not allow her to bring the boy to the United States on their return. Instead, her son was boarded out to a couple in Shrewsbury (who eventually became his foster parents), and Brousse was only allowed a few surreptitious visits when the couple was on leave in England. "He was the most beautiful boy I have ever seen," she told Hyde. "He looked like Rupert Brooke in his younger years." She was to see him rarely.
One year later, as Amy turned 21, Pack was transferred to Santiago, Chile. While there, he received the Order of the British Empire from George V in 1933. Brousse made many friends, went horseback riding, and learned to speak Spanish fluently; she also had an extramarital affair. On January 31, 1934, she gave birth to her daughter Denise Avril Beresford Pack. In spring 1935, her husband was transferred to Madrid, Spain.
They arrived four years after Alphonso XIII had walked away from the throne, and a struggle for control was being waged by the leftists (called the Popular Front, or Republicans, and
made up of Socialists and the working class) and rightists (called the Falange, or Nationalists, and composed of landowners, middle class, and the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church). When the Packs moved to Spain, the rightists were in power, but the country, with continual strikes, was drifting toward revolution.
Brousse was a perfect handmaiden for a diplomat. She was enthusiastic about each country, learned the language quickly, and jumped into the social swirl, where she was popular with local high society. Her husband encouraged her friendships, especially those he considered useful. Brousse fell in love with a Spaniard, a senior officer in the Spanish Air Force, who worked at the Air Ministry. With the outbreak of Civil War in Spain, the Packs had to evacuate Madrid in July 1936; they set up their embassy at the French border town of St. Jean-de-Luz. From the sidelines, Amy became involved with the International Red Cross in Burgos, raising funds for medical supplies for Francisco Franco's forces. Since Britain was still recognizing only President Azaña and the Republicans, the British Embassy was less than amused by her efforts.
One year later, following a transfer to Warsaw, Poland, Arthur Pack was diagnosed with a cerebral thrombosis and was invalided home to London to recover. Brousse remained in Warsaw with their daughter until they could ascertain whether or not he would be able to return to his post. She continued to be invited to diplomatic dinners by the Polish Foreign Office and became friends with those in high places. One night in March 1938, a diplomat divulged to her that Hitler was about to invade Czechoslovakia and that Poland planned on gaining from the invasion. She then told a friend at the British Embassy, unaware that he was the principal agent for His Britannic Majesty's Secret Intelligent Service in Poland. He told her to learn all she could, that British Intelligence was extremely interested.
She learned that in the carving up of Czechoslovakia, "Poland was to get the frontier region of Teschen, to the southwest of Cracow, where there was a Polish minority living under Czech rule," wrote biographer Hyde. "She duly reported this piece of news to [her liaison], who relayed it to London. After the Munich agreement, the Czechs were forced to hand over the Teschen district to Poland, who insisted on her share of the spoils, much to the disgust of all her friends in the West." Amy Brousse had become a secret agent.
She was told to cultivate Polish contacts and to entertain discreetly, returning hospitality, for which she was given £20 a month.
At one of these dinners I found myself sitting beside a fascinating and madly attractive young Pole, whom I shall call Jan. He told me that he was very close to Colonel Beck, the Polish Foreign Minister. In a sense, he was in charge of the minister's private office. This meant that all confidential and even top secret departmental papers passed through his hands…. When I heard what his job was, I would have made a dead set at him, even if he had been as ugly as Satan. But happily this wasn't necessary.
She began an affair with her Polish connection.
Brousse was in Warsaw for one year before she returned to her husband, now convalescing in St. Jean-de-Luz. In April 1939, Pack was again posted to Santiago, Chile. When Hitler invaded Poland in September 1939, she was enraged; she was also aware of the pro-Axis feeling in Chile at the time. Under the pen name Elizabeth Thomas, she wrote a pro-Allies column in Spanish in La Nación, pouring out a steady stream of inflammatory articles. When the German Embassy in Chile, aware of the columnist's identity, eventually put up a squawk, Brousse decided to leave Chile to save face for the British Embassy. She also got in touch with the British Secret Service in London to tell them that she was available.
In August 1940, after writing a letter confessing her dalliances so that her husband might start proceedings for a divorce and save his career, she left for New York to meet with British Intelligence. She was given the codename Cynthia. Told to move to Washington D.C. with her daughter, rent a house, and start entertaining, she was also told to look up an old friend, Albert Lais, now the Italian naval attaché in Washington, and determine why he had been sent there. Amy soon managed to pry the key to Italy's secret cipher from the naval attaché's office. Wrote Time magazine in her obituary, "British Intelligence thereafter proved uncannily adept at forestalling Italian fleet movements, notably in the March 1941 sea battle off Greece's Cape Matapan, where the Royal Navy crippled Italy's numerically superior force."
Then asked to penetrate the Vichy French Embassy in Washington, she decided to pose as an American journalist. She contacted the French press attaché and asked for an interview with Ambassador Henry-Haye. The attaché was a married man named Charles Brousse. Initiating an amorous liaison with Brousse, she soon learned that he despised Henry-Haye as well as Pierre Laval, prime minister of Vichy France and an open collaborator with the Germans. Charles was soon sharing valuable information about Vichy underground activities in America. When he learned the Vichy French embassy was about to abolish his post, he had the choice of being transferred back to France or staying in the U.S. where he would work at a lower level with lower pay. Brousse convinced him to stay in America. Since Charles was bitter toward the British, she told him she was an American agent and convinced him that this would be a patriotic way to help her country by divulging secrets of the Vichy Embassy. He agreed. "From then onwards," wrote Hyde, "there was a steady flow of information passing through her hands. This eventually included every happening of importance of which the ambassador had knowledge and deciphered copies of every current official telegram received by and despatched from the Embassy, as well as telegrams of older date which Charles contrived to extract from the chancery files." The information exposed what had long been suspected by British Intelligence. The Vichy ambassador to the States was collecting information in America that could hinder the British War effort and passing it on to Vichy and the Nazis in France. One telegram to France's Admiral Jean-François Darlan apprised him of the condition of every British warship docked in American waters for repairs and refitting.
In March 1942, Amy was called to New York and asked to obtain the impossible: the Vichy French naval ciphers. Unbeknownst to her, they were needed for the British-American invasion of North Africa in order to ascertain the composition of the French fleet. By now, the U.S. had entered the war, and the British Service was working closely with American Bill Donovan and his O.S.S. (Office of Strategic Services). At first, she told the British her chance for success was nil; by the time she reached Washington, she was determined to supply the ciphers.
Brousse soon learned that the code room at the Vichy French Embassy was accessed by only two men—the chief cipher officer and his assistant—and that it was guarded night and day. She also learned that the chief cipher officer was retiring. When a meeting with him proved fruitless, she met with his assistant and tried to convince him that his loyalty was to the French people, not to a treasonous government. Again, she had no luck. She told her superiors that, as far as she was concerned, burglary was the only way in. Using a romantic ruse, Charles Brousse then convinced the Embassy doorman that he needed a trysting place. Thus Amy was allowed into the Embassy with Charles while the doorman gallantly looked the other way. The couple met there night after night, as the guard grew used to their presence. On an appointed evening, she secretly let a locksmith, known as the Georgia Cracker, in the front door. Together, they snuck down to the code room, picked the lock of the office door, and, after three attempts, figured out the combination of the safe. At approximately 1 AM, they retrieved the cipher books and handed them to a confederate outside the embassy who took them away to be photographed; the cipher books reappeared promptly at 4 AM, and Amy returned them to the safe. When Hyde asked in later years if she had been afraid something might go wrong, she replied:
I was not afraid of going to prison, or being shot, or being bitten by the dog. I was afraid of making a mess, especially as we knew there were two FBI cars sitting down the street at the corner of Constitution Avenue and Wyoming Avenue watching every move. If anything had gone wrong, there would have been repercussions on the SIS, on the State Department and all over the place.
Brousse saw intelligence service as the firstline of defense. "Nothing either in cold warfare or hot warfare can be done without good intelligence work," she told Hyde just before her death in 1963. "It is the basis and fundamental principle of everything else, of lives and policies, and of not making mistakes as in the recent Cuban disaster at the Bay of Pigs. A secret intelligence service should attract intelligent people and honest people and patriotic people just as the armed forces do." When American and British troops landed in North Africa they met with little resistance because of the ciphers. Her efforts changed the course of the war.
After World War II, Arthur Pack committed suicide, and Amy married Charles Brousse. Her son, whom she began to know later in life, was killed in action in the Korean War. A heavy smoker, Amy Brousse died of cancer of the jaw and throat on December 1, 1963. By a special dispensation of the French government, she was allowed burial, under the shade of a favorite cedar, on the grounds of the castle of Castellnou, where she and husband Charles Brousse had spent their days following World War II. Of those last days, she said to Hyde, "I hope and believe I was a patriot."
Hyde, H. Montgomery. Cynthia. NY: Farrar, Straus, 1965.
Time magazine (obituary). December 20, 1963.