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January 17, 2013

Move over, James Bond — seven decades later, lady spies receive their due

This week, an article I wrote in tribute to some courageous female spies appeared in the HuffPost, and I wanted to rerun it here. These are just a few of the remarkable women who inspired Velva Jean’s own spy journey in Becoming Clementine. I’ll be highlighting others soon…

Nancy Wake died in 2011 at the age of 98. The Germans once described this former World War II spy as “the white mouse” because of her ability to evade capture. She killed a Nazi officer with her bare hands. She ordered the execution of a fellow female spy, because she believed the woman was working for the Germans. Before her death, the United States awarded Wake the Medal of Freedom, Great Britain presented her with the George Medal and France gave her its highest military prize — the Legion d’Honneur. As the New York Times reported, “Ms. Wake received so many medals for her wartime service… that she lived out her old age on the proceeds from their sale.”

If only this were true of the other daring women who spied in World War II — some 3,000 in Britain’s SOE (Special Operations Executive), and an estimated 4,500 in America’s OSS, or Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor to the CIA. Last October, the head of Israel’s national Intelligence agency stated, “Women have a distinct advantage in secret warfare.”

Before the war, a good number of these women had been stay-at-home wives and mothers. But wartime found them going to work in Washington, D.C. or in England as code breakers and intelligence analysts, or dropped into France or Africa as couriers and spies. They worked with the French Resistance and the Allies to recover missing or captured agents or prisoners of war. They gathered invaluable, critical information. They helped downed pilots and Jews escape over the Spanish border. They hid precious works of art from the Germans. Before the war’s end, many would be captured and executed by the enemy.

Yet most will never be recognized and too many of them are already forgotten. However, recently the spotlight has been cast on a few of these brave heroines.

On November 8, 2012, seven decades after the death of an Indian princess, a statue was unveiled in London. The statue bears tribute to the courageous and beautiful Princess Noor Inayat Khan — Britain’s only female Muslim war heroine — who was the first woman radio operator dropped into France by the SOE.

She was the descendant of Tipu Sultan, the 18th century ruler of Mysore. Her father was Indian, her mother American. Noor Inayat Khan grew up in luxury and comfort, playing the harp and writing stories. She later studied child psychology at the Sorbonne. At the end of 1940, the family fled France (escaping to England by boat) before the government surrendered to Germany. Khan joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force as a wireless operator, and was recruited by the SOE in 1942. She was sent back to Paris a year later. There, under the codename Madeleine, she sent vital messages to London while trying to evade the Germans. In October 1943, she was arrested and tortured, but she refused to talk. In September 1944, at Dachau, she was executed by the SS. She was 30.

England’s Princess Royal dedicated the statue at Gordons Square not far from the house where Noor was living when she left on her last mission. Sir David Richards, the Chief of Defence Staff, said at the November 8 ceremony, “We owe our freedom to women like Noor Inayat Khan.” A film of her life is now in the works.

In October of 2012, George Clooney announced his latest project — a movie titled The Monuments Men (based on the book The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History by Robert M. Edsel), starring Daniel Craig, Jean Dujardin and Cate Blanchett as Rose Valland, an art historian and member of the French resistance.

Ms. Valland was an employee at the Jeu de Paume Museum in Paris. The Germans took over the museum in October 1940 and used it to store paintings and other works of art stolen from private French — mostly Jewish — collections. Valland was the only museum worker allowed to stay on. In the eyes of the Germans, she was nothing to worry about. She was quiet and plain, a dowdy spinster who followed instructions. But, unbeknownst to the Nazis, Valland spoke German, and because of this she was able to track the shipments of stolen artwork from Paris to locations throughout the Reich. On August 1, 1944, days before the Liberation of Paris, she notified the French Resistance that the Germans were planning to smuggle out five boxcars filled with art. The Resistance stopped the train from leaving Paris. Thanks to her efforts and her meticulous, covert record-keeping, hundreds — if not thousands — of pieces of artwork were located and returned to France.

Elizabeth Peet McIntosh grew up in Honolulu, where she learned Japanese and yearned to travel and have adventures overseas. Her father worked for the Washington Herald as a sports editor, and Betty, as she was called, soon followed him into reporting. She was working as a correspondent for Scripps Howard near Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked. She soon left Hawaii for the Scripps Howard bureau in Washington, D.C. In 1943, she was covering an exhibit of sleeping bags stuffed with chicken feathers at the Department of Agriculture (not exactly the grand adventure she’d dreamed of as a girl), when she was approached by an official from the OSS. He said, “Are you interested in a secret overseas assignment?” She didn’t hesitate: “Yes.”

At the OSS training facility in Bethesda, Maryland, she learned to shoot a .32-caliber pistol. She swore an oath never, under any cost, to reveal OSS secrets. And then she was sent to India. Her mission: to create deadly propaganda by concocting “fake but authentic-sounding rumors, news stories and radio reports to make the enemy citizenry think their troops were losing and that they should give up.” From there, she was sent to China (with fellow spy Julia Child), where she unknowingly participated in a plot to kill Japanese soldiers, delivering a bomb disguised as coal to a Chinese secret agent. She was one of the few women assigned to the OSS division of Morale Operations.

After the war, she went to work for the CIA, authored a memoir and the book Sisterhood of Spies: The Women of the OSS. In March of 2012, the 97-year-old was honored as one of the 2012 Virginia Women in History by the Library of Virginia.

In an era when most women were expected to stay at home and tend to the house and the children, these were women ahead of their time. When the war in Europe ended in May 1945, there were 460,000 women in the military and over 6.5 million in civilian war work. In Nazi Germany, Hitler forbade women to work in German weapons factories because he felt that a woman’s place was at home. Seventy years later, we continue to honor the courageous spying women who — thankfully — did not agree with that.

At the recent ceremony for Noor Inayat Khan, Princess Anne said she hoped the new statue will “remind people to ask: Who was she? Why is she here? And what can we achieve in her memory?”

December 13, 2012

71 years later, a spy girl’s haunting account of Pearl Harbor

Becoming Clementine was read in its early stages by a woman named Betty McIntosh. At 97, she is America’s most famous living female spy. During World War II, she served in the OSS and, after the war was over, in the CIA. She has also authored four books, including one named Undercover Girl, a memoir of her years as a secret agent. When she offered her review of the book, I was (understandably) petrified. After all, she had lived what I’d only researched and written about. She was there.

Here is what she said:

“Reading this splendid novel allowed me to vicariously share wartime adventures with a sister spy. Velva Jean had everything that was required of us operatives in OSS (Office of Strategic Services), a forerunner of the CIA. She had the courage to survive undercover behind enemy lines in constant danger. She carried out life-threatening orders without question and bravely faced capture. Becoming Clementine is a spellbinding spy saga.”

Relief. Tears. Gratitude. That’s the only way I can describe how I felt.

Before she was a spy, Betty McIntosh was a reporter. Elizabeth Peet McIntosh grew up in Honolulu, where she learned Japanese and yearned to travel and have adventures overseas. Her father worked for the Washington Herald as a sports editor, and Betty, as she was called, soon followed him into reporting. She was working as a correspondent for Scripps Howard near Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked. She soon left Hawaii for the Scripps Howard bureau in Washington, D.C.

In 1943, she was covering an exhibit of sleeping bags stuffed with chicken feathers at the Department of Agriculture (not exactly the grand adventure she’d dreamed of as a girl), when she was approached by an official from the OSS. He said, “Are you interested in a secret overseas assignment?” She didn’t hesitate: “Yes.”

At the OSS training facility in Bethesda, Maryland, she learned to shoot a .32-caliber pistol. She swore an oath never, under any cost, to reveal OSS secrets. And then she was sent to India. Her mission: to create deadly propaganda by concocting “fake but authentic-sounding rumors, news stories and radio reports to make the enemy citizenry think their troops were losing and that they should give up.” From there, she was sent to China (with fellow spy Julia Child), where she unknowingly participated in a plot to kill Japanese soldiers, delivering a bomb disguised as coal to a Chinese secret agent. She was one of the few women assigned to the OSS division of Morale Operations.

This past week, on December 7, Betty McIntosh’s account of the attack on Pearl Harbor– deemed too disturbing and graphic at the time she wrote it– was published for the first time.

Hono­lulu after Pearl Harbor: A report published for the first time, 71 years later

By Elizabeth P. McIntosh

On Dec. 7, 1941, when Japanese planes attacked Pearl Harbor, I was working as a reporter for the Hono­lulu Star-Bulletin. After a week of war, I wrote a story directed at Hawaii’s women; I thought it would be useful for them to know what I had seen. It might help prepare them for what lay ahead. But my editors thought the graphic content would be too upsetting for readers and decided not to run my article. It appears here for the first time.

For seven ghastly, confused days, we have been at war. To the women of Hawaii, it has meant a total disruption of home life, a sudden acclimation to blackout nights, terrifying rumors, fear of the unknown as planes drone overhead and lorries shriek through the streets.

The seven days may stretch to seven years, and the women of Hawaii will have to accept a new routine of living. It is time, now, after the initial confusion and terror have subsided, to sum up the events of the past week, to make plans for the future.

It would be well, perhaps, to review the events of the past seven days and not minimize the horror, to better prepare for what may come again.

I have a story to tell, as a reporter, that I think the women of Hawaii should hear. I tell it because I think it may help other women in the struggle, so they will not take the past events lightly.

I reported for work immediately on Sunday morning when the first news — Oahu is being attacked — crackled over the radio, sandwiched in a church program.

Like the rest of Hawaii, I refused to believe it. All along the sunny road to town were people just coming out of church, dogs lazy in the driveways, mynas in noisy convention.

Then, from the neighborhood called Punchbowl, I saw a formation of black planes diving straight into the ocean off Pearl Harbor. The blue sky was punctured with anti-aircraft smoke puffs. Suddenly, there was a sharp whistling sound, almost over my shoulder, and below, down on School Street. I saw a rooftop fly into the air like a pasteboard movie set.

For the first time, I felt that numb terror that all of London has known for months. It is the terror of not being able to do anything but fall on your stomach and hope the bomb won’t land on you. It’s the helplessness and terror of sudden visions of a ripping sensation in your back, shrapnel coursing through your chest, total blackness, maybe death.

The vision of death became reality when I was assigned to cover the emergency room of the hospital.

The first victims of the Japanese-American war were brought there on that bright Sunday morning.

Bombs were still dropping over the city as ambulances screamed off into the heart of the destruction. The drivers were blood-sodden when they returned, with stories of streets ripped up, houses burned, twisted shrapnel and charred bodies of children.

In the morgue, the bodies were laid on slabs in the grotesque positions in which they had died. Fear contorted their faces. Their clothes were blue-black from incendiary bombs. One little girl in a red sweater, barefoot, still clutched a piece of jump-rope in her hand.

Firefighters from the Hickam Air Force Base carried the victims in. The men had a red T marked on their foreheads, mute testimony of the efficiency of first-aiders in giving tetanus shots to ward off lockjaw. The body of a man with a monogrammed shirt, H.A.D., was marked DOA (dead on arrival), trundled off to make room for victims who were still breathing.

There was blood and the fear of death — and death itself — in the emergency room as doctors calmly continued to treat the victims of this new war. Interns were taping up windows to prevent them from crashing into the emergency area as bombs fell and the dead and wounded continued to arrive. I had never known that blood could be so bright red.

Returning to the city, I felt a mounting sense of fear as Honolulu began to realize that more was in the air than an Army alert.

I went to a bombed store on King Street, where I often, in times past, stopped for a Coke at the cool drug counter.

Seven little stores, including my drugstore, had nearly completely burned down. Charred, ripply walls, as high as the first story, alone remained to give any hint of where the store had been. At the smashed soda fountain was a half-eaten chocolate sundae. Scorched bonbons were scattered on the sidewalk. There were odd pieces lying in the wreckage, half-burned Christmas cards, on one, the words “Hark the Herald” still visible. There were twisted bedsprings, half-burned mattresses, cans of food, a child’s blackened bicycle, a lunch box, a green raveled sweater, a Bang-Up comic book, ripped awnings.

I ran out of notepaper and reached down and picked up a charred batch of writing paper, still wet from a fire hose. There was, too, the irony of Christmas tinsel, cellophane, decorations. A burned doll, with moving eyes, singed curls and straw bonnet, like a miniature corpse, lay in the wreckage.

That Sunday after dusk there was the all-night horror of attack in the dark. Sirens shrieking, sharp, crackling police reports and the tension of a city wrapped in fear.

Then, in the nightmare of Monday and Tuesday, there was the struggle to keep normal when planes zoomed overhead and guns cracked out at an unseen enemy. There was blackout and suspicion riding the back of wild rumors: Parachutists in the hills! Poison in your food! Starvation and death were all that was left in a tourist bureau paradise.

I talked with evacuees. From Hickam, a nurse who had dropped to the floor in the hospital kitchen as machine gun bullets dotted a neat row of holes directly above her; from Schofield, a woman who wanted me to send word to her sweetheart “somewhere in Honolulu” that she was still alive; from Pearl Harbor, a nurse who wanted scraps of paper and pencil stubs to give to the boys in the hospital who had last messages they wanted sent home; a little girl named Theda who had a big doll named Nancy and who told me in a quiet voice that “Daddy was killed at Hickam.”

At the office there were frantic calls from all sorts of women — housewives, stenographers, debutantes — wanting to know what they could do during the day, when husbands and brothers were away and there was nothing left but to listen to the radio and imagine that all hell had broken out on another part of the island.

It was then that I realized how important women can be in a war-torn world.

There is a job for every woman in Hawaii to do.

I discovered that when I visited the Red Cross centers, canteens, evacuee districts, the motor corps headquarters.

There is great organization in Honolulu, mapped out thoughtfully and competently by women who have had experience in World War I, who have looked ahead and foreseen the carnage of the past seven days and planned.

September 25, 2012

Happy Birthday, Becoming Clementine!

Becoming Clementine is out today, and it’s a strange feeling. Truman Capote once said, “Finishing a book is just like you took a child out in the back yard and shot it.” As horrific as that image is, I understand what he means. For months and months, I’ve researched and outlined and written and edited. I’ve lived and breathed and slept this book. And now it’s out there, beyond my reach, making its way around the world into the hands of strangers.

The first time I ever saw one of my books on a bookstore shelf– The Ice Master at Brentano’s in Century City, California– I wanted to scoop up every copy and race back home. As I was standing there, thinking this, a man walked over and picked up the book, read the inside flap, thumbed through the pages, and then set it down again. Suddenly, I stopped wanting to run away with the books. Instead I wanted to grab that man and drag him back over and make him buy it. How dare he put it down!

Five books later, the experience really doesn’t get any easier.

So: deep breath.

Welcome, little book.

Be safe.

Be well.

Be still my nerves.

Please order and like and spread the word!

September 3, 2012

Becoming Clementine Giveaway!

Velva Jean’s third adventure finds her in occupied France during World War II… as a spy.

Elizabeth McIntosh, author of Sisterhood of Spies, and one of the most celebrated spy girls of the OSS, says, “Reading this splendid novel allowed me to vicariously share wartime adventures with a sister spy. Velva Jean had everything that was required of us operatives in OSS (Office of Strategic Services), a forerunner of the CIA. She had the courage to survive undercover behind enemy lines in constant danger. She carried out life-threatening orders without question and bravely faced capture. Becoming Clementine is a spellbinding spy saga.”

And Pam Jenoff, bestselling author of The Kommandant’s Girl and The Diplomat’s Wife, writes, “Becoming Clementine is a spirited tale of courage, honor and loyalty. Jennifer Niven succeeds in not only illuminating an important and little-known role played by women during the war, but creating an unforgettable and heartfelt story that will resonate with readers far and wide.”

Becoming Clementine will be released September 25, but you can enter now for your chance to win an early bird copy and a $25 gift card to the International Spy Museum’s Spy Store!

To enter, simply follow me on Twitter, like me on Facebook, and enter your name and email address here.  The winner will be announced Monday, Sept 10 at 5:00 pm PDT.

In the meantime, read an excerpt, watch the trailer, and pre-order your copy now!

February 9, 2012

The Women Who Spied

Filed under: writing — Tags: , , , , — jennifer @ 6:58 pm

Three days after handing in the copy edited manuscript, I am still recovering. I’m back at work on Velva Jean in Hollywood (that’s not the title, by the way), but I’m still feeling a little too depleted to write anything vaguely coherent.

So for now, I wanted to share some of my research for Becoming Clementine. As most of you know, it’s the third book in the Velva Jean series, in which she learns to spy. (Have I mentioned how challenging but fun it was to research this book?)

Women spies run in my family, although none of them, to my knowledge, spied in World War II. They spied in the Revolutionary War and the Civil War. One of these women, Jane Black Thomas, was a Revolutionary War hero and South Carolina’s first feminist. She not only spied for the Patriots; she single-handedly fought off—with a sword—a battalion of Tories to protect a crucial supply of ammunition and the family home. Is it any wonder I’ve always been intrigued by spies?

I came across this video last spring. It’s long, but it’s fascinating! (The first female spy featured could almost be Velva Jean…)