Los Angeles, California
“...War is a contagion, whether it be declared or undeclared. It can engulf states and peoples remote from the original scene of hostilities. We are determined to keep out of war, yet we cannot insure ourselves against the disastrous effects of war and the dangers of involvement. We are adopting such measures as will minimize our risk of involvement, but we cannot have complete protection in a world of disorder in which confidence and security have broken down.
If civilization is to survive the principles of the Prince of Peace must be restored. Trust between nations must be revived.
Most important of all, the will for peace on the part of peace-loving nations must express itself to the end that nations that may be tempted to violate their agreements and the rights of others will desist from such a course. There must be positive endeavors to preserve peace.
America hates war. America hopes for peace. Therefore, America actively engages in the search for peace.”
I placed the newspaper on the floral tablecloth and let the words sift through my pores, the reality of the world sinking deep into my soul like a ship to the bottom of the sea. President Roosevelt’s speech had filled me with guilt, leaving no room to question if I’d made the right decision. I hadn’t. I said no when it should have been yes. They needed me more than Jack ever had or ever would, but the thought of accepting was madness, for there was no doubt the world was looming on the brink of war. Nevertheless, a chord rang out from within; fighting would serve only to fan the fire of guilt which burst to life.
The short month of our marriage was anything but newlywed bliss. Jack had been gone two weeks already, and he wired home earlier in the day to tell me they hadn’t yet wrapped up filming. In the short time we’d been married, Jack both demanded I not register for the spring semester and criticized my apparent lack of sensibility in caring for a household.
He kept me home under the watchful eye of our housekeeper. Mrs. McCoy was a robust woman with three chins and orange hair. Though never made obvious, I knew she reported her findings to Jack. He somehow knew when I’d spent my day reading in the bay windowsill instead of getting ready for an event; knew when I received mail from Colonel Perry, though I burned them before he could read the telegrams.
I was expected at the door when he came home at night with cheap perfume reeking from his shirt and whore’s lipstick on his lapel. I never minded the thought that he sought his pleasure elsewhere, I only wished he had the decency to change clothes after visiting his whores.
One night, he sent a Parisian hatbox filled with risqué underwear wrapped in satin ribbons and a note describing how he planned to deflower my anus that evening, and I could take no more. My anus! Disgusted to absolute nausea at the thought of Jack touching my body in such a way, I sent the box back to Jack’s office with a note of my own: If you should like something in the ass, I’ve included a gift for you, Husband. Inside the box, I replaced the lingerie with a rather large carrot I pulled from our vegetable garden and tied it up with the same satin ribbon.
Jack hit me that night, and not in the usual spots which could be hidden by gowns, but across my cheek, splitting my lip. I was forced to decline visits from Mother until my lip healed and the bruising faded from purple to green to yellow. Pressed powder completed the illusion of a non-abusive life.
Marrying Jack was like seeking a deep breath of oxygen in the bottom of the ocean—idiotic and dangerous. My life was a simulated masterpiece, and I’d only begun to discover the consequences of my decisions. Since the engagement, I’d often considered the implications of the choices I made. Each day was something new. If I hadn’t worn purple the night of the Academy Awards, would I have given myself to him? If I had more champagne the night of our engagement, maybe I would’ve had the courage to throw the ruby back in his face? He was always meant to be my first regret, but I wouldn’t let it rule me.
What if I agreed to what the agents requested the morning of my engagement party? It was too late to take back a marriage, but perhaps this was the one thing I’d be able to change. They told me that I’d have to train if I were to go to Europe, and if I went now, I’d be gone when Jack came home. If I didn’t, it would surely be my third regret.
I stood with purpose and moved to the mirror in the hallway, my cotton dress wafting with grace around my calves and the umber-seam scored stockings with each step I took. It was soft in its floral glory, a garden of pastel roses in the spring and my hair the golden sun feeding them heat. I pinned a blue fedora into my hair and dabbed on a healthy amount of rouge. If I was going to sign up for my fate, be it death or life, I’d do it looking beautiful.
Snatching up the keys to Jack’s forest-green 1936 Ford Slantback, I hurried through the door with determination. The drive to the government offices in downtown Los Angeles wasn’t far, but I spent the entire time trying not to see the bread lines wrapping city blocks. I ignored the little boy on the street corner in soiled, hole-filled overalls with his dirt-caked toes sticking out of shoes much too small for him. This world existed beyond the gates of my realm, but I didn’t have time to spare them. There were no moments to contemplate every poor soul in need, because what I needed mattered more: information. If I was going to do something so crazy, there was someone who could give me just that.
“Miss! You can’t just walk in there!” the secretary called out as I breezed past her into the office of Colonel Lucas Perry. Nothing was going to stop me from barging through the frosted glass door with his name painted there and slamming it closed behind me.
“How did you know to call me Ginny?” I asked the colonel, towering over his cherry desk in my petite wrath—a Fury to the Olympian god before her.
The man slowly raised his olive eyes from the papers he’d been examining, placing them on me curiously. When his answer came, it was riddled with cryptic wonder and a heavy Manhattan accent. “We make a point to know everything about anyone we need to, Mrs. Marshall.”
My heart pounded a rhythmic beat, thundering in my chest and ringing in my ears as his words sank in. “Who is we?”
The grin that lifted the corner of his mouth sent a parade of goosebumps over my flesh. He was a handsome man with dark hair curling above his ears, truly worthy of the rank of deity. “We is nobody. There is no we—”
“But you said—”
“—Officially,” he finished sharply. “We don’t exist on paper, and not in any sanctioned capacity.”
“Then why do you want me?” I demanded, placing my fists on my hips. “This can’t just be about me going to Austria and learning about the fascists.”
“I’m Greek, I couldn’t hide out with the Huns for anything. You, however... You’re the perfect Aryan beauty, you know?” Perry told me, eyes pursuing with an appreciative gleam. I felt the heated look in my toes and my spine and the back of my neck. It burned like sun on the sand. “We’ve been looking for the perfect combination of talent, brains, and . . . sex for this mission. Golden cornsilk hair, gray eyes, pale skin—we couldn’t have found a better recruit.”
“Recruit for what?” I queried against the blood pounding in my ears. “What is this, really?”
He didn’t answer right away, and rose from his desk to pour two fingers of Scotch from a crystal decanter. He extended the glass toward me, but my lack of response and hard eyes filled with lightning told him to belay the offer. Returning to sit, he spoke. “Judenrein.”
It was swift and unreal, a single word out of his mouth sent a shudder through my body strong enough to twist my stomach like a butter churn. “What is this?” I asked after many moments of quiet stillness.
“You speak German, Mrs. Marshall,” he reminded me as though I didn’t know the heaviness of what he’d just said. “You tell me.”
“Cleansed of Jews,” I answered the request with a sharp tongue, confusion and fear seeping into my words like a rotting wound. The tone and tenor of the German word meant everything terrible and evil. “What has that to do with me?”
“You will assimilate—become an Austrian—and tell us what they’re doing with the Jews. Stir up dissent within the population, mainly the students, and see if we can’t light a fire over there.”
“And how am I supposed to do that?” I asked. “Austria isn’t Germany. They aren’t Nazis. I do read my father’s newspaper, Colonel.”
“It’s but a matter of time, Ginny. Only a matter of time before all of Europe is in it.” He took his seat and motioned me into the one across the desk. “It’s a bit of a problem now that you’re married, however.”
“What does my marriage have to do with this?” I asked as though it were the most incomprehensible thing in the world.
He studied me with humor alight in his eyes, picking up specks of olive oil gold and tree bark brown. He’d been watching me for months and knew all about how I operated. He picked me because I was unafraid of societal stipulations. “I don’t know many husbands who’d let their wives traipse around Europe, setting life ablaze in their stockings and lipstick and rubies.”
Proper manners were lost on me, and I often found men in need of a reminder of the strength of a woman. “Lucky for you, I don’t care what my husband thinks.”
His eyes swept my body once more, fiery, hungry, impressed. “You’ll go into training right away, so plan accordingly,” he spoke around a grin lifting the edge of his hard-set mouth.
“I’ll be with students over there?” I asked. Nodding in affirmation, he took another sip of his Scotch. “Can I take classes? The point is assimilation as you said, is it not?”
“You won’t have time for dilly-dallying,” he challenged me with a glimmer lighting his eyes. “When you aren’t working, you’ll be planning, sabotaging, working.” Panic: it was living and breathing inside of me, growing stronger each moment. “But tell me this something. Why were you studying economics anyway? I don’t know many...well, any, women studying that. Are you trying to prove something?”
“Perhaps I can be a woman in a man’s world and still be great.” I shrugged. “And I haven’t quite had time in the last three minutes to give it much thought, Colonel.”
“I’m New York,” he interjected.
“Yes, I can tell,” I snorted. His accent was as thick as he was. “You wouldn’t do well in motion pictures with that brogue.”
“Thanks for the advice. I’ll be sure not to quit my day job,” he joked, but a somber note lit his voice. “Actually, Mrs. Marshall, it’s the code name you’ll use for me. You’ll keep it in your mind at all times. No one should be privy to this name beyond your partner and those I give you permission to tell. There will be no communicating without this name. All missives will include this name or they will be disregarded.”
We discussed the mission: things expected of me while in Europe, how long I might be there, an exfiltration plan before a Nazi invasion, and how to avoid notice by the wrong people. I’d be in quiet camaraderie with leaders who opposed the Third Reich in Vienna, including the left-wing, anti-National Socialist group whose main constituents were Jews and students from the University of Vienna.
“We’ll work up papers for you after you get to England,” the colonel told me as our conversation wound down. I leave for Britain within the week, stopping through New York and Canada before traversing across the Atlantic.
“Thank you, Colonel Per—”
“New York,” he corrected me. “Drop the name. We don’t use them anymore.”
“What about me? Surely, I’m not going over there with the name Virginia?” I asked, standing and slipping into her light coat and backing toward the door.
“Elsa. Elsa Brenner, I believe,” he renamed me with the maiden name of my dear Grandma Elsa. “It fits you well.”
I paused, my hand extended toward the brass handle. “I like that,” I smiled, “but what’s my code name?”
New York thought for a moment and let his steady gaze roam over her day dress, pearl watch, and fedora. “Each time I’ve seen you, you’ve been wearing pearls. That’s who you’ll be. Pearl.”
“Virginia,” Mother admonished as we sat together and picked at finger foods in the wake of my big announcement. “You can’t possibly think this is a good idea. What about Jack? What will he think when he comes home to an empty home and a missing wife?”
Daddy put a placating hand on his wife’s knee. “Ginny is doing what she thinks is best, Mabel, darling. We may not like her decision, but we can’t keep her from making it. Something impor—”
“Nothing good can come from our daughter going to Europe right now, and you know it, Arnold. She’s our only child. I couldn’t stand the thought of…” Mother trailed off. She held tight to me her whole life, and this would snip those final strings. After Daddy returned from war, they tried to have more children, but it resulted in miscarriage after miscarriage until Mother’s insides were so scarred she could handle no more attempts. “Why would she even imagine working abroad as an interpreter right now makes no sense. She’s a newlywed—”
“Whose husband has already been absent the majority of their marriage,” Daddy cut in; I loved him all the more for it. “Darling, let her go where she wants. Give her that freedom. Let Jack go to her when he returns from his adventures, but let her have her own. If war breaks out while she’s there, she’ll come straight home... Won’t you, Ginny?”
“May I speak to you in private, Daddy?” I asked, not answering a question I knew I could not. Mother glanced between the two of us, rolling her eyes and standing to make her way from the room with a huff of indignation. She was oftentimes excluded from our conversations through requests of a private audience or our breaking into German—a language Mother never picked up on. When I was certain we were alone, I whispered to my father, “I’ll be in Vienna. You’ll be able to contact me only through Colonel Perry, but Mama isn’t to know any different.”
“What’d he tell you will happen when Germany invades?” The promising note of his query stuck painfully within.
“Will they invade, Daddy?” I asked, fear gripping my stomach like a tilt-a-whirl at a carnival.
He rubbed a hand over his round cheek and nodded in solemn regret. “Without a doubt, Austria will be in the Reich by this time next year, perhaps sooner.”
Slipping to my feet, I smoothed my skirt and straightened my hat. I needed to make arrangements for the journey and my absence. “Then I shouldn’t take a year to do this . . . adventure—I believe you called it—now should I?”
“Think hard and fast, Ginny,” Daddy warned. “Your wit will keep you alive, but there will be many things you learn and see over there. Their world is nothing like yours, child.”
“So I’m learning,” I retorted, unease creeping on spider legs over my spine and up my neck. “I’ll do all I can, and then I’ll return. This is the world I was meant for.”
“This world, Ginny?” he asked. “Or that one?”
“We’ll find out soon, I suppose.”
I grew up in a lavish life, sparkling diamonds and crystals and pearls, and I’d been asked to throw it before swine and step into the darkness. This new world would make or break me, but I knew I wouldn’t stop until I’d done something worthwhile.
When the time came to leave, I packed a simple bag of clothing—the necessaries I’d need over the next few months—keeping in mind the promise of an appropriate wardrobe guaranteed me by New York. They’d provide my clothing in the tradition of the Austrian middle class as was my part to play.
I felt no stinging pain of remorse as I slipped a single paged letter addressed to my husband onto the polished oak table in the foyer. It was simple and eloquent; a note of dismissive feeling and careless abandon as I left the man I made vows to. He would come home ready to take my body and use me as he often did, but what he’d find was nothing but effortless words spelling out a lie written for me in the stars of fate.
I left contact information for the colonel at the bottom of the page, but if Jack was smart, he’d leave me be and accept our future of separation. He was anything but a pushover, though, and I, unfortunately, expected him to fight tooth and nail against every inch of freedom I took. So be it. He’d have to go through level after level of fabrications and government bureaucracy to get to me now.
I was safer in the lion’s den than with the king himself.
When I walked out the door in the late evening, hidden by the shadows of night, I bid a smirking farewell to Mrs. McCoy and slipped into a car sent by my new employers. The dragonflies and lightning bugs took flight in my stomach and mind, but I smiled in spite of them.
Change was at hand; this wouldn’t be added to the tally of my regrets, for it would surely be my greatest adventure.