'Sisterhood of Spies' -- women in Bond's role


"Sisterhood of Spies: The Women of the OSS," by Elizabeth P. McIntosh. Naval Institute Press. 304 pages, including 25 photographs. $29.95. A blonde in a glamorous evening gown graces the old World War II poster. Almost equally eye-catching is its stern message: "Keep Mum - She's Not So Dumb!"

Women spies? Perhaps the slinky poster girl dreamed up by the British government to warn of German espionage didn't exist. But plenty of real women did spy for the Allies, decoding cables, forging documents, distributing fake propaganda and posing as socialites to pick up valuable gossip for the United States' Office of Strategic Services.

Take Amy Thorpe, code-named Cynthia, who broke into the French embassy to steal naval codes. Or Sylvia Tim Yarrow, who befriended the exiled young king and queen of Yugoslavia, dispatching reports on their activities to President Roosevelt. Or Cornelia Dodson, who traced the Nazis' covert deposits of large sums of gold, and Baltimore's own Vera Hall, who posed as a French peasant to organize air drops of supplies for the resistance movement.

From interviews with more than a hundred of these female agents, Elizabeth P. McIntosh has culled a warm, engaging collection of reminiscences about their difficult, often dangerous work during the Second World War.

In "Sisterhood of Spies: The Women of the OSS," McIntosh effectively demolishes the notion that only a few brave men can carry out the business of wartime intelligence.

Her book does more than faithfully chronicle the exploits of dozens of female spies, many who risked their lives. McIntosh also captures the women's love of adventure, their longing to be assigned overseas, a refreshing contrast to all the recent accounts portraying women in the military as victims of sexual harassment and entrenched double standards.

Of course, many women experienced discrimination while working for the OSS, the predecessor to today's Central Intelligence Agency. But as McIntosh recounts, they didn't like to let anything, even sexism, stand in their way.

Agent Betty Lussier, for example, was infuriated when military regulations barred her from joining the rest of her team at the French front. She promptly found an Air Corps pilot "who was susceptible to mild flirtation," convinced him that she "was a radio technician needed at the front," landed on her own and hooked up with a different intelligence unit.

McIntosh, a onetime newspaper columnist and veteran of both the OSS and CIA, doesn't focus exclusively on the "glamor girls" involved in direct covert operations. She also included the "invisible apron strings," those who filed secret reports, made maps and outfitted agents with counterfeit identification papers.

Each chapter is full of descriptive touches that evoke life during wartime: blackouts in Washington, $12 sheets, scarce stockings and no Kleenex in London, bombed-out houses and fields full of dead cows in Germany.

However, the book is ultimately too detailed. McIntosh is overly democratic in her storytelling; she introduces a confusing assortment of characters at times, including some who played such minor roles they could have easily been left out for the more unforgettable ones. Several chapters include roundup lists of names that aren't likely to be familiar to any readers other than OSS alumni.

"Sisterhood of Spies" is best read as a collection of short stories. In these spy stories, it's the women who speak four different languages, who break into locked safes, who scheme to make their way behind enemy lines and who refuse to crack under Nazi questioning.

It's the women who get the starring, James Bond role - and what a lot of fun it is.

Joanna Daemmrich has been a reporter with The Sun for eight years and currently covers the statehouse. She spent eight months covering gender issues at Annapolis in 1996. She also wrote about the Army's sexual exploitation scandal at Aberdeen. She is fluent in German, lived in Germany for two years as a small child and worked as a reporter at the Muenchner Merkur in Munich.

Pub Date: 6/28/98

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