The Green-Eyed Secret Agent Who Seduced the French to Steal Nazi Codes
**This is Part I of a two-part feature on one of World War II’s most fascinating spies. Tune in tomorrow for Part II**
Trust was a rare and elusive quality in the shadowy world of espionage that Betty Pack, Allied secret agent, inhabited and yet, paradoxically, it was always in the forefront of every operative’s mind. Deskman, case officer, agent in the field—they all were preoccupied with concerns about whom they could put their faith in, and who might be quietly plotting to betray them. It was not a casual speculation: survival depended on the choices they made.
And the tactic of pretending to love someone in order to win this trust was the “smoke,” as the jargon of her trade put it, that that Betty had used with great success throughout the war. She was a 28-year-old Minnesota native, born of a good family, tall, slim, and patrician, her sensible amber hair swept off her broad forehead, her emerald green eyes sparkled, her laugh naughty and uninhibited, who as the agent code-named “Cynthia” had time after time had used the bedroom to turn high-ranking Axis diplomats and military officials into traitors.
But now on a blustery afternoon in the second week of March, 1942, as she flew back to Washington from the crash meeting in a New York hotel room with first her British and then her American handlers – Betty was the rare operative who worked for both intelligence services - for the first time in her long operational career she was troubled about what she’d been asked to do.
She understood the importance of her mission. The war had not been going well. The British were still reeling from their army’s desperate evacuations from France, Greece, and Norway. America, just three months after Pearl Harbor, had begun its counter-offensive against Japan with costly and mixed results. And now the Allies were heatedly debating whether to launch their first joint attack against Hitler with an invasion of North Africa. At stake would be nothing less than the future course of the war.
Surprise would be a crucial element if the invasion were to succeed. If the Allied strategists knew the movements of the enemy fleet in the Mediterranean, if they could accurately direct bombers to their targets, it would be invaluable in deciding the timing and locations of the landings. It would help ensure that the Allied troops did not charge ashore onto the beaches of Africa and run straight into a fusillade of enemy fire.
And the code books used for communicating with the entire fleet that protected the coast of North Africa, ciphers that were the keys to a kingdom of secrets, were in the safe of the Vichy French embassy in Washington.
With the collapse of France in the summer of 1940, the country had been divided. Paris and the surrounding northern districts were placed under the harsh administration of the conquering Nazi forces. The central and southern provinces functioned, under Germany’s ever-watchful eye, as a quasi-independent version of the of the former French state; it was known as Vichy France, after the town, celebrated for its palliative mineral water, that was now the seat of government.
While Vichy behaved in every discernible way as a Nazi puppet state, Germany nevertheless allowed it to maintain France’s overseas diplomatic missions. It ran a busy embassy in Washington; even after America had gone to war against the Axis powers, its relationship with Vichy was still officially “neutral.”
Betty’s assignment was to steal the Vichy ciphers.
The British and American spymasters had ordered “Cynthia” to penetrate the Vichy embassy – a fortress of armed guards, steel doors, and locked safes – and make off with its most closely guarded secrets.
It was a seemingly impossible mission, but with so much at stake, Betty, as she wrote in her memoirs now in the archives of Churchill College, Cambridge, had boldly announced to her handlers, “I can. And I will.” But it was only in the aftermath of that rash pledge that an even more precarious operation began to take shape in her mind: She would need the help of the one person she loved, the object, Betty would say, of the only “complete love”, she had ever experienced. Now she’d need to manipulate his allegiances, betray his unwavering trust, and, not least, put him in grave danger.
* * *
Charles Brousse, the 49-year-old press attaché at the Vichy embassy, was a much married – the exasperated British intelligence file had the marriage count somewhere between three and six – World War I flying ace who was the co-owner of an influential chain of newspapers with a sizable readership throughout France’s southern departments. He was also debonair, a connoisseur of fine foods and good vintages, and a charmer with a mischievous rakish smile. After his first lunch with Betty – “I must say I was in my most sparkling mood,” she’d later boast - they had become lovers. It wasn’t long after that liaison that Betty began running him as her asset inside the Vichy Embassy.
On that March afternoon, Betty telephoned him as soon as her plane landed in Washington. Tingling with amorous anticipation, he had hurried over to her apartment in the Wardman Park Hotel.
Betty quickly pulled away from his embrace. “But it is not for that I need you, but something else,” she said according to her memoirs. Then she explained how “our American friends” – Betty still had not revealed that she was also working for the perfidious British and that His Majesty’s Secret Intelligence Service was the source of his monthly stipend– had asked her to obtain the naval ciphers.
“You can’t be serious, ma cherie,” she recalled Brousse answering. “Or else they are lunatics. C’est de la folie.”
“I have never been more serious in my life,” Betty shot back. “There’s a war going on, and if you, who swear you love me, will not help me, then I will either work alone or with someone else who will help me.”
“You don’t understand the precautions that are taken to guard the ciphers,” Brousse tried. The code room was a stronghold. He couldn’t simply walk in and “borrow” the naval code books unnoticed. There were two thick books, each about the size of a Washington telephone directory; it would be impossible to slip them casually into his suit jacket pocket, as he did with a cable.
At night, he continued wearily, the cipher books were locked away, the naval ciphers in a safe in the naval attaché’s office. There was an impressive lock on the door, and an armed night watchman accompanied by a snarling dog patrolled the floors.
Betty listened to his warnings without interrupting. She knew she could not puncture his caution with reason. Instead, her persuasion took another tact. “Why it is impossible for me to be angry with you,” she purred. “Though you refuse me this small thing and look at me with those reproachful brown eyes of yours.”
Brousse smiled, and then he kissed her. This time Betty returned his passion. When he took her hand, she decided that she would continue the briefing in the bedroom. Perhaps in the course of things she’d hit upon an operational strategy later.
As things worked out, it was Brousse who came up with “the idea for the perfect crime.”
* * *
It was an idea, Ellery Huntington, who had been an All-American quarterback and a Wall Street lawyer in two former lives and who was now Betty’s Office of Strategic Services’ (OSS) handler, would say only a Frenchman could have conceived. And he had found himself growing annoyed as Brousse rolled it out with a showman’s flair—slow, deliberate, and archly dramatic.
What if, Brousse began as the three of them met in Betty’s apartment, he was to confide to Andre Chevalier, the embassy night watchman, that Betty was his girlfriend?
A good cover story was built on reality and Betty, Huntington reasoned, would have little problem passing herself off as Brousse paramour. Go on, he ordered, cautiously intrigued.
And what if, Brousse continued, he was to complain to the watchman that he had no discreet place to take his lover? She lived with her parents and he had a wife.
Huntington wasn’t sure where this was going, but he heard nothing so far he could object to. Chevalier would know Brousse was married. And anyone who lived in Washington was aware the hotels in the wartime city were overcrowded.
And what if, Brousse asked, triumphantly removing the final veil, he appealed to Chevalier, one Frenchman to another, to allow him to bring Betty to his office at night so that they’d have a place to be alone?
Huntington gave it some thought, his lawyer’s mind looking at the idea from all angles and trying to find a flaw.
Brousse, though, continued. What true Frenchman would not want to cooperate with l’amour? And as further inducement, he’d offer the watchman some money for his troubles. They’d have access to the embassy at night. The rest would be easy.
Once again, Huntington doubted anything about this op would be “easy.” And while he could find a few dozen flaws in the plan and even more uncertainties, he also knew the clock was rapidly ticking. The date for the North African invasion had not yet been set, but he suspected it would be soon. Getting the ciphers was crucial.
“Ok,” he agreed at last. “It’s worth a try.”
* * *
Routine, went the maxim, was a friend to any operation. The more things seemed to be moving along as usual, the greater the chance for any mission’s success. And so Betty and Brousse conscientiously went to work establishing a routine with the watchman.
Early in June, Brousse had made his pitch to Chevalier, a handful of dollars was hastily exchanged, and the bemused watchman announced that he’d be glad to make the nighttime embassy available for their trysts.
The two of them began arriving arm-in-arm every night. They would settle into Brousse’s office, or looking for variety, they’d move to one of the two ground floor salons where there was a comfortable divan. And the sounds of their passion would echo through the halls of the dark, deserted embassy. The clamor reinforced their cover, and happily no acting was necessary.
It was three weeks after they had started spending their nights at the embassy that Huntington called Betty and uttered the code word for a flash meeting. The night for the burglary had been set.
It would be in three days, on June 19th, 1942. The day had been chosen, he explained, because it coincided with Winston Churchill’s arrival in Washington. The Vichy security force would not be expecting anything to occur that might derail the talks. But what he didn’t share with Betty was his knowledge that one purpose of this conference would be to select a date for the invasion of North Africa. The secrets the codes would unlock were essential.
* * *
When the cab left the Wardman Park on that June night the sky was already ominously dark, and in the course of the short ride to the embassy a hard rain had begun to fall. The man at the wheel was known as the Georgia Cracker; actually a Canadian, he was a professional thief the OSS had recruited from a Georgia prison. Betty and Brousse sat in the back. Two bottles of champagne were cradled in the Frenchman’s arms. Betty had two doses of Nembutal in her purse—one for the watchman and another for his Alsatian dog.
“As soon as Chevalier opens the door,” Huntington had instructed, “show him the champagne.” “Let him know you’re celebrating, and you want him to join in.” “Everything depends on that,” Huntington had reminded.
Brousse greeted the watchman as if he were an old friend and delivered the lines from Huntington’s carefully written script: It’s the anniversary of the day Betty and I met and we hope, Andre, that you’ll be kind enough to join us for a celebratory toast. Out of habit rather than for any covert reason, Brousse had selected the vintage with some consideration and he’d normally have treated the champagne with more respect, but tonight Brousse raised the two bottles high and shook them like billy clubs to get the watchman’s attention.
Chevalier said he would be delighted to celebrate with them. He suggested they share a toast in the privacy of his basement office.
Which was precisely what the spies had hoped he’d say. A good deal depended on the watchman’s not wanting to get caught with a drink in his hand while on duty.
Downstairs in the small, stuffy room, Brousse twisted the cork from one bottle. At the same time, Betty went down the hall to the water cooler to find three paper cups. She passed the big Alsatian laying stretched by his water bowl, and the dog jumped to his feet and began barking menacingly. The dog was a terror.
Betty returned and began to fill the cups.
It was important, Huntington had said, that you establish the etiquette early on. Let the watchman see that Betty’s the one who’s pouring the wine. When she’d first heard the instructions, they had seemed reasonable enough. Only now her hand was shaking as if she suffered from palsy.
She managed to fill the cups, and brought them over to the two men.
Brousse made his toast, but Betty did not hear a word. Her mind was focused on what she’d have to do next.
As soon as the cups were drained, Betty announced that it was her turn to make a toast. She wanted to thank Monsieur Chevalier for all his kindness.
Even if the watchman was reluctant to have another drink, Huntington had correctly predicted, he couldn’t turn down a toast in his honor.
Betty returned to the table. She checked to make sure Brousse had positioned himself in front of the watchman.
“Don’t hesitate,” Huntington had warned. “Make your move and keep on going.” Which Betty now decided was the stupidest thing she’d ever heard. How would she be able to do anything if her hands were paralyzed?
But all at once she’d recovered and, to her own amazement, she was opening her purse. She reached in and grabbed one of the tiny vials filled with Nembutal. Then she stopped. The champagne first, she remembered Huntington had instructed. She filled the cup; and then she emptied the powder into the wine.
There might be a few grains of undissolved powder in the liquid, Huntington had explained. But no one would notice unless he was looking for something. And if the watchman is on the alert, then it’s already too late.
Trying not to stare at the faint traces of the drug floating in the champagne, she handed the cup to Chevalier.
She’d prepared a short toast, but the words she’d rehearsed had vanished. Still she managed something, and then the cups were again raised.
Betty watched as Chevalier gulped it all down. Had he tasted the drug? Was he suspicious? She imagined him reaching for the revolver in his shoulder holster. She could hear him shouting the command for the Alsatian to attack. But Chevalier merely continued beaming at the couple with a paternal affection. Betty at last gratefully drained her cup too. Never, she told herself, had she needed a drink so badly.
Then they waited. It was a celebration and naturalness was the foundation of good cover. “Act like you’re having fun,” Huntington had said.
As instructed, Betty was the first to leave. With a demure tactfulness, she explained that she wanted to go upstairs to freshen up. As she walked out to the hall, she paused to pet the Alsatian. But instead she dropped the powder into the dog’s water bowl.
Dogs have a different metabolism than humans, Huntington had explained. A much larger dose will be required. So Betty had prepared herself: it would take a few moments to empty all the drug into the Alsatian’s bowl. But she had not anticipated the noise it would make. The powder pelted the water like a driving rainstorm.
Upstairs, Betty once again waited. She tried not to, but she could not helping checking her watch. What was taking so long?
Charles finally appeared and announced that Chevalier was asleep.
And the dog? Betty feared the big Alsatian more than the armed watchman.
Charles assured her that he was dozing like a puppy.
* * *
Standing at the embassy door, Betty clicked the flashlight on and then quickly extinguished the light.
The Cracker left the taxi and hurried up the embassy steps.
Betty led him to the door protecting the code room. Brousse waited in the front salon; he was the babysitter. If he couldn’t keep anyone from heading to the code room and discovering what Betty was up to, he had his fallback prepared. He’d be the shocked lover, the man who’d been played for a fool by his mistress, the secret agent.
The lock on the code room door seemed formidable, a big steel device. But the Cracker impressed Betty by dealing with it handily.
The way to the naval attaché’s office was a complicated maze in the darkness, but Betty had studied the floor plans. She guided them forward without delay. Minutes later the Cracker was seated on the floor in front of the attaché’s safe.
The Cracker studied the safe and then complained that it was older than he’d been led to believe. It could take a while to open.
The room was pitch dark, and Betty focused her flashlight on the dial. Suddenly a cone of light illuminated the circle of numbers.
“Write this down,” the Cracker ordered. He read off the number where the dial had been set; he would need to return to that position before they left. Then he went to work.
With a stethoscope dangling from his neck, the instrument’s bell pressed against the steel safe, the rubber earpieces in his ears, he patiently turned the dial and listened for the sound of the tumblers falling into place..
Betty watched in complete silence; she knew better than to disturb him. She did her best to hold the flashlight steady, yet it soon felt like a dead weight in her hand.
“Four left five,” the Cracker called out after a while.
Betty wrote it down.
The next setting came more quickly: “Three right twenty.”
Suddenly there was a noise. Someone was coming! But it was only Brousse checking to see how things were proceeding. “Get back!” she snapped at him brusquely, and he immediately retreated
“Two left ninety-five.”
And an eternity later, a conclusive whisper: “Now I’ve got it.”
The Mosler door swung open and she shined the flashlight on its shelves. In the glow she saw the cipher books. The prize was within her grasp.
But Betty’s triumph was short-lived. For now when she looked at her watch, Betty saw that it was after 2 am. The code book would need to travel to the Wardman Park, be photographed page by page, and then returned—all before the watchman awoke from his drugged sleep, or the morning cleaning crew arrived just before dawn. Huntington had warned that the ciphers must be back in the safe and the two agents on their way home by 4 am. Any later, and they’d run the risk of being discovered.
And if the cipher books were not returned to the safe, or if she was discovered, or if there was no time to put things back as they were, then all would be lost. The codes would be changed, and this time they would be placed under armed guard. Everything risked and nothing accomplished. She would never get another chance.
She instructed the Cracker to close the safe.
Yet no sooner had Betty given the order than she told him to stop. She reached into the safe and ran her fingertips across the cover of each book. It was a lover’s caress. And it was also a silent promise: She would return to hold them in her hands. At last she slammed the safe shut.
“Let’s get out of here,” she told the Cracker.
**To find out what happened next, tune in tomorrow for Part II**
Excerpted from The Last Goodnight: A World War II Story of Espionage, Adventure, and Betrayal. Copyright © 2016 by Harper. Reprinted with permission from Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.