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Oct 21, 2010 5:15 pm

Part Four: The Making of a Spy

Sex led Cynthia into espionage. Even as a teen, trysting with the boys was her rebellion against a mother fixed on Society, a woman who hauled her family up Washington's social ladder like climbing gear. Cynthia once described Cora Wells Thorpe, her mother, as a Persian cat, whereas she was a Siamese, the former known for its plump domesticity, the latter for its leggy extroversion. Cynthia's catty behavior led to an embarrassing departure from the National Cathedral School in Washington. She was then hidden safely away by the family at the Dana School, in Wellesley, Massachusetts, where her mother could say she led the French club.

Around the time she debuted at a formal tea dance in Washington, in November 1929, she seduced a second-tier British diplomat in the Embassy's economic section, Arthur Pack, a confirmed bachelor nearly 20 years her senior. That Christmas she became pregnant. She was aged 19. Cynthia's mother was on belay, however, and turned an unwanted pregnancy into an assault on the capital's social summit. The headline in the society pages of the Washington Star that spring read, “Washington Debutante to Marry British Diplomat,” and declared the event the “first international wedding of the year.” But the older, domineering Pack quickly became a surrogate for her mother -- formal, distant, a ambitious climber on the embassy ladder.

As the political and economic tensions of the 1930s buckled into conflict, the couple changed diplomatic postings. Cynthia seemed oblivious to the tensions. In Spain, in 1935, she was more interested in dancing at Jimmy's, a Madrid jazz club, than in the city's murderous politics. She became a kind of metaphor for the complacency of the "neutral" British legation, moving easily among the wealthy Carlists and influential fascists, and having affairs with Spanish aristocrats. But the outbreak of Civil War in July 1936 shut down Jimmy's. Bombs fell on Madrid, and the British legation fled for the safety of the French border, the resort town of Hendaye. The violence did not change the amorous and resourceful 25-year-old so much as it created a set of duties. That year, both her beneficent and powerful grandfather, H.H. Wells, a former Minnesota state senator, and her father, a stern, successful Washington attorney, were buried. In Spain, her husband and the embassy staff risked their lives, as war raked over the country in endless squalls before the greater storm. Her lover, a Carlist and an airman, had been captured by the Republican government and faced execution. These were troubling times for her. She was not yet a professional spy, but she was about to embark on a series of escapades both daring and surreptitious.

Officially, she was a thorn in the embassy's bouquet. By her own admission, "I was completely out of place as the wife of a diplomatic officer…" (HMH/59) On the other hand, she was a ready volunteer under fire. In that sense, she was a very good "embassy wife." When civil war worsened and Arthur Pack was ordered on to Warsaw in the summer of 1937, she defied her husband as well as the ambassador, by sneaking off to Madrid, a city under bombardment. Ostensibly her plans were to recover some sentimental objects left behind when she fled the city. To reach the beleaguered capital, she traveled by auto from Biarritz, in Western France where she was living, to Toulouse, where she caught a flight to the east coast of Spain, arriving in Valencia. The port town was in the hands of the elected Republican government and under siege. Valencia was the British embassy's last stand in Spain. There, she and the charge d'affairs conspired together. John Leche was a man described by some as "Blimpish," a reference to a British cartoon Colonel named "Blimp," an overdrawn, self-assured and dangerous buffoon.

Criticism aside, Leche was a trouble shooter and a willing risk taker, unafraid to enlist the services of an"embassy wife" in a potentially perilous subterfuge. Perhaps it was coincidence, or a reflection of the circles British officials traveled in, but Leche had been requested by his embassy to try to attempt to rescue or gain the release of the fascist sympathizer the Marques de Arevca. As it happened, Luis -- the Marques -- was a friend of Cynthia's from Jimmy's Place in Madrid. Luis had gone to Burgos to work for Franco, but had been captured along the route and imprisoned in Valencia. Pretending to be the sister of the Marques, Cynthia traveled with Leche in an official car to the guarded compound. Inside the makeshift prison, Leche represented himself as a British official and Cynthia's father. Together, they wandered unacosted into what was a converted civil building, the prison. Leche was fully inflated, Blimpish, distracting the guards with his grandeur, as he walked Cynthia to the room where the Marques was held. Leche the waited outside, while she located her friend Luis, telling the aristocrat, “Papa and I have come for you. Just come along quickly and calmly, and stay close to me," which he did, all the way back to Leche's official car. They casually drove off, taking their friend to a safe house. Sometime later, he was taken on board a British destroyer for France.

Life was far less exciting when Cynthia finally joined her husband in Poland, at least until she was recruited in his Majesty's Secret Intelligence Service in the spring of 1938.

Part Five: Prague Autumn

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