Sometimes watching a thriller or a James Bond movie you might start to wonder whether supermen and/or superwomen exist in real life. With the greatest pleasure I can say that yes, sometimes they do but still their existence is full of problems. The book I am going to review here presents such a rare creature. She was an exceptional woman and her career, although secret for most of her life, was truly extraordinary. Her name was Krystyna Skarbek but she was more widely known by her British alias, Christine Granville.
She was born in 1915 and grew up in newly-created Poland. Her father, the Polish Count Jerzy Skarbek, died when she was a child; her mother was a rich heiress of a Jewish banker. You might wonder why a count married a Jewish heiress. As it is not a fairy tale no romance was involved. He did it for filthy lucre – leading a riotous life, count Skarbek used to spend money like water and his family had already been impoverished. Now you might ask for a change why a rich girl wanted to marry a roisterer with a title although she wasn’t in love with him. Apparently that marriage was her ticket to truly aristocratic milieu – generally European Jews wanted to assimilate rather badly at that time and some of them were not beneath selling their daughters off for a pretty name and a title.
Krystyna, their second child, grew up an unmanageable tomboy; she was even expelled from a private Swiss finishing school for it. After the death of Jerzy, Krystyna had to work – by that time her mother’s dowry would have dwindled into almost nothing. Although her health deteriorated because of bad working conditions she still enjoyed life. She adored skiing and she met her second husband on a ski run (the first husband was a major mistake and they divorced very quickly). It should be added that men were quite simply mesmerized by beautiful young countess; she was that type of woman who could pick and choose among offers in practically every circumstances. It was one of her assets but also the thing that cost her life. And like James Bond, fidelity was never her strong suit.
Life started to be dangerously interesting after the WWII broke out. Christine and her husband came to London after the Nazis invaded Poland. The British wartime espionage organization, the Special Operations Executive, was just gearing up, and Christine volunteered her services. She had a lot to offer – she spoke Polish, German and French fluently, she knew well the occupied countries and most of the skiing instructors on the mountainous Hungarian border. She decided to travel to Budapest and go from there to occupied Poland by crossing over the dangerous Tatra Mountains on skis. Skeptical at first, the SOE eventually agreed to support her plan. Christine was a strong-willed woman and an excellent skier; accompanied by one former member of the Polish Olympic ski team, she made it over the mountains several times and began engaging in undercover reconnaissance and recruitment. The fact that each time she endangered her life seemed to have no effect on her. Being a highly efficient agent she organized several astounding escapes from Poland in the winter of 1939-40. She could not persuade her mother to come, though; apparently the countess thought her rank and age would protect her. Unfortunately the Nazis made few exception; countess Skarbek, as a Jewess, was relocated to the Warsaw ghetto and murdered later in a concentration camp. I suppose it stimulated Christine even more to fight the Nazis in her own way.
During her career as a spy she evaded capture by the Germans multiple times. I don’t want to describe all these brushes with certain death in detail, let me mention just two I considered the most remarkable.
Once she was stopped by two German soldiers at a border crossing and lifted her arms to reveal two live grenades, pins already pulled. The Germans fled; Christine pitched the grenades and dashed across the border. She was the first woman to be dropped into France from Algiers—landing in the Vercors in 1944 as “Pauline Armand,” she performed with tremendous valour. Among other exploits she saved the life of Francis Cammaerts, the man who headed up the behind-the-lines S.O.E operations in southern France, in a truly flamboyant style. In 1944 Cammaerts and two of his colleagues were captured and imprisoned by the Gestapo. Christine talked her way into the jail by pretending to be Cammaerts’ wife, then bluffed the German officer in charge into thinking that she was also the niece of the British Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery; that the British were only hours away; and that the commandant could either wait to be slaughtered or hand over Cammaerts in exchange for a large bribe and make a run for it. He accepted her offer and believed her without second thoughts! Small wonder some people were so jealous of her many successes and decorations that they started spreading rumours that Christine was actually a double agent. These aspersions cost her and her partner, another Polish spy, even a temporary suspension of spying assignments.
Image via Wikipedia
|Movie version of Christine, Vesper Lynd|
Really difficult times four our heroine come when the war was over, though. Christine, coping so well during the war, now experienced great difficulties in getting her bearings. She was no longer a useful agent and a soldier, she was a mere emigrant and, like thousands of her compatriots, she was left by the British to her own devices and the situation was far from rosy. She had left her diplomat hubby, she didn’t exactly have any profession and didn’t know English well. What’s more, she hated office work and repetitively declined any cushion office positions her friends managed to find for her. After a short spell in London, during which she tried and ditched different jobs, i.e. as a shop assistant in Harrods (imagine that!) she opted to work as a stewardess with P&O until something cropped up. It never did. She was murdered by an obsessed, mentally retarded male admirer outside the Kensington hotel where she temporarily resided in 1952.
Only after her death her life started to excite the wider public as some new facts were uncovered by sensational newspapers, mainly considering her colourful private life. Allegedly after the war Ian Fleming, a famous author of James Bond novels, had an affair with Christine. They split up very soon but her war achievements and personality made a huge impression on him. Fleming supposedly told a close friend that Christine “literally shone with all the qualities and splendors of a fictitious character”. It’s now generally assumed that Christine was Fleming’s inspiration for the first Bond girl, Vesper Lynd. One of the arguments is that “Vesperale” was Christine’s nickname when she was a child, because (just like Vesper Lynd) she was born during an evening thunderstorm (and “vesper” means “evening” or “evening star” in Latin). Moreover, Fleming’s description of Vesper is similar to that of Christine, both physically (dark hair, dark eyes, wide mouth, no make-up) and in terms of her personality (“She was thoughtful and full of consideration without being slavish and without compromising her arrogant spirit…She would surrender herself avidly, he thought, and greedily enjoy all the intimacies of the bed without ever allowing herself to be possessed.”From Ian Fleming’s first James Bond novel, Casino Royale.”
Image via Wikipedia
The remarkable life story of Christine Granville, one of the most successful women agents of the Second World War, is simply riveting. Ms Masson tried very hard to get all the facts right, interviewing Christine’s relatives, friends and war-time collaborators. The authoress sounds very credible as she met the Countess briefly on a P&O cruise ship after WW2 in person and was instantly impressed by that strange, professional stewardess who attended her. When she heard about the tragic murder of Christine she decided to write a biography and it took her several years to gather all the information necessary. I do appreciate her dedication and diligence as many people close to Christine, disgusted by the articles featured in sensational press, didn’t want to talk anymore. I also liked the fact that our heroine was presented as a well-rounded character with her flaws and assets. The part about Ian Fleming was added later (the book was published the first time in 1975) and I loved that connection because during World War II Fleming was actually just a spy supervisor. I suppose Christine hands-on experience must have been invaluable to him – as personal assistant to the British Director of Naval Intelligence, he saw combat only once, when he and his boss watched from afar as Canadian and British troops carried out an assault at Dieppe. What a pity we will never know what other James Bond adventures were based on Christine’s military career.
To be absolutely honest I think some parts of this book ought to be written in a less passive style; after all its heroine was anything but passive and boredom was her greatest enemy. I do admit there were pages which I couldn’t call exciting to say the least of it. I understand that it is a biography and rendering facts as they really were should be the most important task of any biographer but nobody said a factual book must be a dull affair.
If you are fond of real-life kick-ass heroines do read this book. The story of Christine might be sad but it has one major advantage over fantasy bios – it rings so true. I loved it.