Sporting Champion, Feminist Icon, Nazi Spy? The Extraordinary Life of Violette Morris

She broke numerous athletics records, chose to have a mastectomy to help her fit into a motor car better and had love affairs with the likes of Josephine Baker. Now a new book wants to set the record straight on the woman accused of betraying the French Resistance

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Violette Morris. Her slogan was “Anything a man can do, Violette Morris can do better.”
Violette Morris. Her slogan was “Anything a man can do, Violette Morris can do better.” Credit: Roger-Viollet / Maurice-Louis Branger

It was a dreary gray morning. April 26, 1944. The fancy Citroën car was cruising along a country road in Normandy when the engine suddenly spluttered and came to a halt. Unbeknownst to the occupants of the car, the engine trouble had been caused deliberately. Armed resistance fighters suddenly emerged from a hiding spot and sprayed the car and its five passengers, including two children, with bullets.

Only one was the real target: the 51-year-old driver, Violette Morris. The former Olympic champion was one of the early 20th century’s great feminists, but was destined to be consigned to the trash heap of history due to her collaboration with the Gestapo.

Her bullet-riddled corpse was taken to a nearby morgue and for months no one came to claim it. Eventually, she was buried in an unmarked communal grave for the homeless and unknowns. An ignominious end for someone who held 200 titles and records in athletics, boxing and auto racing; who fought for women to be allowed to compete alongside men in sporting events; and who was open about her sexual orientation and had public love affairs with other women.

A new book, “Femme qui court” (“Woman Running”), by Gérard de Cortanze, has just been published in France. De Cortanze, a literary critic and prolific poet and author, has written a gripping book based on Morris’ life story. In it, he seeks to breathe new life into the little-known story of this bold, boundary-breaking woman.

In the early 1930s, for example, all of Paris was talking about her lawsuit against the French Women’s Athletic Federation for its ban on competitors wearing short pants, as per a directive from 1800. She lost, with the judge ruling that “It is well-known that pants are not standard attire for women, and therefore it is within the federation’s authority to uphold the ban.” She was also ordered to pay court costs.

Author Gérard de Cortanze. “I didn’t find any proof that she had ties with the Gestapo.”Credit: Ulf Andersen / Aurimages / AFP

Dazzling sporting career

Morris was born in Paris in April 1893, the sixth daughter of Baron Pierre Jacques Morris and Élizabeth Sakakini, who came from an elite Jerusalem-Arab family. Violette Morris was educated in a convent, where the physical education classes were taught by British teachers who were amateur athletes. When World War I began, she volunteered to serve as an ambulance driver at the front and showed incredible bravery. This attracted the notice of commanders, who also used her as a courier, where her uncommon speed and strength were an added advantage.

After the Great War, she launched a dazzling athletic career that was unprecedented in scope. She set new French records in the discus and shot put, and held the European and world records in these events from 1921 to 1924. She eventually amassed 50 medals in international competition. She also played on the first-of-its-kind women’s soccer team and the French water polo team. She competed in bike races, boxing and Greco-Roman wrestling matches – often against men. She learned to fly and perform aerial acrobatics, and rode a motorcycle.

But once she discovered car racing, that became her great love. So much so, in fact, that in 1930 she underwent an elective mastectomy to make it easier to fit into the cockpit of a racing car.

Personal invitation from Hitler

Morris was also a very colorful figure outside the world of sports. She was often seen dressed in men’s attire, sporting cropped hair and a monocle. She smoked two packs of cigarettes a day and cursed with abandon. Her slogan was “Anything a man can do, Violette Morris can do better.”

Intellectual and bohemian Paris embraced her, and admirers crowded around her at nightclubs and theaters. Josephine Baker, the great singing sensation of the era, conducted a love affair with Morris, which ended when Morris left her for theater actress Yvonne de Bray. The latter was the favorite of writer and director Jean Cocteau, who also became one of Morris’ closest friends.

Josephine Baker.

The Nazi chapter of her life began in 1936, when she received a personal invitation from Hitler to be a guest of honor at the Berlin Olympics. Opinions are divided as to the nature and extent of her collaboration with the Nazis, and later with the German occupation forces in France. Tried in absentia by the French resistance, she was accused of spying for German intelligence and of passing Allied military plans to the Germans.

She was also accused of giving the names of members of the French Resistance to the Gestapo and of participating in the torture of prisoners, particularly women prisoners. She was also said to have made huge profits from the black market sale of fuel confiscated by the German army.

But in his book, De Cortanze questions some of the accepted lore about Morris. The resistance trials were secret and no written record was kept for safety’s sake. So is it possible that Morris was a victim of the fear and hatred that prevailed in those days? Did her image and lifestyle make her the perfect scapegoat?

“Femme qui court” by Gérard de Cortanze. Credit: Albin Michel

“There is no proof of the things she was accused of,” De Cortanze says. “If I thought she were guilty of them, I wouldn’t have written the book about her. I couldn’t have done it. Because of my own family story: My maternal grandfather fled from the fascism in Italy; my paternal grandfather was in the anti-Nazi resistance. I wouldn’t write a book about people who informed on Jews or tortured other people. In writing the book, I relied on numerous historical sources and archival material. I didn’t find any proof that she had ties with the Gestapo.”

Whatever the case, this is a fascinating book about a woman who was ahead of her time, who ran faster than her contemporaries, who generated a huge clamor in her lifetime and a thudding silence after her death. A woman whom the women’s liberation movement of the 20th century could have adopted as a symbol, were it not for her bleak end.

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