A Jew, a Woman and Churchill's Favorite Spy: Christine Granville, Flesh-and-blood Hero

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"The Spy Who Loved: The Secrets and Lives of Christine Granville," by Clare Mulley. St. Martin’s/Dunne, 432 pages, $26.99

It is fitting that the title of Clare Mulley's excellent new biography of World War II British spy Christine Granville, "The Spy Who Loved," is borrowed from James Bond. The 1977 film "The Spy Who Loved Me" is a romping adventure of international espionage, grand plots and sex, with the fate of the world hanging in the balance.

Much the same can be said of Granville's life. Said to have been Churchill's favorite spy, between the German invasion of her native Poland in 1939 and the war's end six years later, Granville worked for British intelligence, aided the resistance in Poland and France, outsmarted the SS, broke men's hearts all over Europe, hobnobbed with generals, and jumped out of planes. Dazzlingly beautiful, some have claimed that Fleming’s first Bond heroine, Vesper Lynd from the 1952 "Casino Royale," was based on Granville. While Mulley debunks this theory, its resilience is a testament to a life lived on a mythic, Bondsian scale.

As with any hero, though, Granville's adventures are more than just her own. Mulley, also the author of a well-received biography of Eglantyne Jebb, the founder of Save the Children, uses her subject's life as a window onto the bravery and tragedy of 20th-century Poland, whose independence was twice sacrificed -- to Hitler in 1939 and Stalin in 1945 -- by erstwhile allies. This large canvas adds depth to Mulley's well-researched portrayal, a fascinating and riveting account of an exceptional spy's exceptional life.

Christine Granville was born Maria Krystyna Janina Skarbek in 1908, the daughter of a spendthrift Polish-Catholic aristocrat and his assimilated Jewish, banking-heiress wife. Maria led a privileged childhood at the family manor, indulged by her father, and she was taught shooting, riding and horse racing from a young age. Inherently mischievous, she was kicked out of her first boarding school for setting a priest's cassock on fire during Mass. However, when Skarbek was 18, her maternal grandparents' bank, which had been supporting their lavish lifestyle, collapsed, and the family was forced to move to a small apartment in Warsaw. Her father, alcoholic and in debt, left her mother and died soon after.

Despite their reduced circumstances, the Skarbek family name was still a fixture of high society, and Maria frequented Warsaw's salons and balls, as well as the fashionable Carpathian Mountains skiing resort of Zakopane. After a brief marriage to a wealthy businessman, who mistook Maria Skarbek for the docile housewife type, in 1938 she wed Jerzy Gizycki, an older Polish diplomat with a lust for adventure that equaled her own.

Hitler's attack on Poland on September 1, 1939, found the couple in Johannesburg, where Gizycki had been appointed to serve as Polish consul to British colonies in Central Africa. Upon hearing the news, they boarded the first boat to England, hoping to aid the fight, even if Poland was, by the time they arrived, already lost. Partitioned between Germany and the Soviet Union, the country was occupied and its government in exile. While her husband, aged over 50, was rejected for military service because of his age, Granville was soon recruited by British intelligence. For the British, she smuggled propaganda into, and information out of, occupied Poland by skiing across the Carpathian mountains from neutral Hungary. Her first successful mission, begun in the winter of 1940, was beset by dangers: the Germans, from whom she narrowly escaped more than once, and the cold and blizzards of the mountain crossing, but also the suspicions of the fledgling and fractured Polish resistance, slow to trust a Pole working for the British, rather than for their own organizations.

Nom de guerre: ‘Granville’

Mulley describes in detail the coven of spies, journalists, diplomats and soldiers that Granville joined in Budapest. Most important among these was Andrzej Kowerski, a Polish officer who helped to secretly transport army stragglers across the border, ultimately to join the reconstituted Polish army in the Middle East. The two became lovers and, as the situation in German-allied Hungary became more dangerous, in 1941 they fled the country themselves. With aid from the British Embassy they drove across Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Turkey and Palestine to Egypt. It was then, on her new British passport, that Krystyna Skarbek adopted the nom de guerre “Christine Granville,” the name she would use for the remainder of her life.

For the next several years, Granville cooled her heels in Cairo, undertook a brief reconnaissance mission in northern Syria, and trained as a paratrooper and radio operator in Algiers. It was only in July 1944, a month after the Allies' landing at Normandy, that Granville undertook her most dangerous mission, parachuting into occupied France. Working with the resistance in the country's south and in the Alps, Granville coordinated Allied drops of weapons and supplies with forces on the ground, sabotaged rail lines, battled the German army in their assault on the resistance stronghold of the Vercors, and brazenly rescued comrades captured by the SS.

Though Granville was cleared to parachute into Poland during the Warsaw uprising in the autumn of 1944, bad weather and bureaucracy repeatedly delayed the mission. When the plan was finally cancelled, the following spring, after the Germans had reduced Warsaw to rubble and the conquering Red Army had installed a Communist provisional government, Granville was on an air base on Italy's Adriatic coast, still waiting for the order to fly home.

In the years after the war, Granville struggled to find her place. Insultingly dismissed from the service with only a month's salary, Granville was at first unable to secure British citizenship, much less employment with the British government. To her frustration, and unlike men with similar wartime records, Granville was offered only secretarial work and demeaned with official letters exhorting "hope you're being a good girl!"

She spent most of her days in the cafes with Polish aristocrats and ex-partisans, eventually joining a cruise line as a stewardess. There, on a four-month voyage to Tahiti, Granville met and became romantically involved with fellow steward Dennis Muldowney. Though Granville soon lost interest, Muldowney became increasingly jealous and obsessed. In a fit of rage, he stabbed Granville to death in London's Shelbourne Hotel in June, 1952.

From the beginning of "The Spy Who Loved," Mulley weaves Granville's story with Poland's 20th-century political history: from Marshal Josef Pilsudski's stunning defeat of an invading Bolshevik army in 1919, when Granville was 10, to Britain and America's betrayal of Poland's freedom to Stalin at the 1945 Yalta conference, a betrayal that echoed Granville's own post-war fate. This not only provides the reader with helpful historical background, but also reflects the central place that Poland and Polish patriotism played in Granville's life. Granville did not become a British spy because she was particularly enthralled with espionage, or with England, but in order to fight for her country. As Mulley tells us of the courage of the Polish army, reforming to fight with the Allies even after the country's defeat in 1939, and of the bravery of the Polish resistance - the largest in occupied Europe - Granville's sentiments become easy to understand.

Anti-Semitic slurs

If Polish patriotism was Granville's primary motivation, her Jewishness is a more elusive influence. Granville was Jewish like Marx or Wittgenstein: importantly, but also tangentially. Mulley describes Granville's father's anti-Semitic slurs, within earshot of her mother, and the cold shoulders and Jewish jokes she suffered as a young adult. However, from the evidence of her later life, Granville never developed a Jewish identity as such. What remained, instead, was a life-long sense of limbo, halfway between Polish patriot and alien other. From this perspective, the split identity of British agent working for Poland suited her perfectly.

If Granville's Polishness and Jewishness are recurring motifs in "A Spy Who Loved," her life as a woman is the book's true theme. It would have been easy to tell Granville's story scandalously, as a life of sin which ends with retribution at a jilted lover's hand. Granville was a fiercely independent woman who liked sex and had lots of it. Though Andrzej Kowerski was her closest companion, Granville had a man in every port, if not more than one: British spies, Afghan princes, French resisters and Polish officers. Mulley, however, resists the temptation to be tawdry. "The Spy Who Loved" is an exemplary feminist biography, which, without ever slipping into didacticism, takes its subject, her desires and her choices seriously. Mulley is frank in discussing Granville's sex life, but never lurid or pornographic. With a few exceptions, the male characters come and go, flitting on and off the book's stage like the minor characters they are. Christine Granville remains.

This is what is ultimately so pleasing about "The Spy Who Loved." Mulley has succeeded, in a genre not known for its feminism, in taking a Bond-worthy spy adventure and turning it on its head. Granville is neither a femme fatale nor a woman in distress, but a strong, complex, brave and compelling hero, one whom we can love as much for her weaknesses as for her triumphs.

Samuel Thrope is a Golda Meir postdoctoral fellow at the Hebrew University. He has written for the Christian Science Monitor, the Jerusalem Report, Tablet and other publications. 

'The Spy Who Loved,' by Clare Mulley. Credit: Courtesy

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