Polish native Christine Granville, born Krystyna Skarbeck, was, purportedly, Winston Churchill's favorite spy. A contestant for Poland's national beauty contest in 1930, she married twice and had a number of lovers. She was Britain's first female secret service agent. To say that her life is the stuff of legend is to put it mildly. Clare Mulley's newest biography The Spy Who Loved: The Secrets and Lives of Christine Granville sifts through the stories, fabrications, and tall tales surrounding this World War II secret agent to discover who Granville really was. The resulting biography brims with details and vignettes about her colorful life.
The daughter of a Polish aristocrat, Count Jerzy Skarbek, Granville enjoyed an indulgent childhood on a lush plantation in Poland where she ran with the horses and stayed indoors as little as possible. She craved freedom, was independent, charming, beautiful, fearless and stubborn.
When Germany invaded Poland in the fall of 1939, Granville was married to a Polish diplomat stationed in South Africa. She arrived in London, and aided by her friend and respected journalist Frederick Voight, convinced the British Secret Service that her assistance would be vital to defeat Britain and Poland's common foe, Germany. Her first mission, probably designed to prove her courage and commitment to Britain, found her skiing into Poland in the winter of 1939 through the dangerous Tatra Mountains to distribute leaflets to the Polish people encouraging them to stand strong against Germany. Her professionalism, tenacity, and level-headedness continued to prove to the British that her involvement was essential. She eventually provided evidence of Germany's plans to invade Russia weeks before British command believed the German forces to be ready. Later, she supported the preparations for the Allied invasion of France.
Perhaps the most important aspects of Granville's personality were her abilities to remain calm despite any provocation and to find creative solutions for tough problems. Arguably, most spies would have these strengths, but Granville's many contemporaries believed that she particularly excelled here. Stories highlighting her skills abound. Granville routinely relied on her beauty and men's assumptions about women to get herself out of stressful situations. During one episode when she and her companion were being interrogated and searched, she blithely straightened her skirts and took a seat on her luggage to wait. The German officer never asked to search her luggage, and she never let on that she was nervous or had anything to hide. They were dismissed without the officer having any idea that all incriminating evidence was in fact safely stowed in Granville's luggage. Another episode involves her quick-witted decision during an interrogation in a Budapest prison to bite her lips until they bled. She then began to cough up the blood in a dramatic manner, affecting a severe case of tuberculosis. The interrogating officer, growing nervous that he would contract the disease, had her medically examined for the deadly airborne illness, which at the time had no vaccine. The doctor, clearly on Granville's side, agreed that she had tuberculosis she was released. As these and similar stories quickly circulated, Granville became popular among the service agents for her intelligence and courage. After the war, she won multiple medals for her efforts.
The post-war years however, were tough, since Granville found the predictable days of peace, dull and unanimated after the wartime excitement. Unwilling to work as a civil servant in an office, she finally found work as a maid on cruise ships, a job that, though below her skill level, allowed her to travel. Since the British passengers often discriminated against foreigners, Granville's first voyage was very challenging. She started a relationship with Dennis Muldowney, a porter (and former merchant marine) aboard the cruise ship, who fell hard for the former spy. Once the frustrations of the sea passage were over and Granville was once against amongst friends in London, her interest in Muldowney waned. He, however, grew increasingly obsessed with her and stabbed her to death when, months later, she told him that he was to leave her alone. It was a harsh ending for the brave woman who had evaded Nazi capture dozens of time during WWII.
After her death, Granville's life immediately became the stuff of legend, as the British press speculated about the "Beautiful Polish Countess Turned British Agent" who died at the hands of a jilted lover. Some thought her death was motivated by the NKVD (the secret service organization that was the predecessor of Russia's KGB). These stories were soon squashed when it was determined that Muldowney acted independently and for his own cruel reasons. Later, it was suggested that Granville inspired Ian Fleming's female spy character Vesper Lynd, in the first James Bond novel, Casino Royale. Many of the people who knew her best rallied to protect Granville's story from being sullied by the press. This fierce protection snuffed out a few early biographies and ultimately worked to keep her story from being as popularly known as it probably should be especially considering Granville's status and successes.
There have been a few biographies about Christine Granville, but Mulley's analysis of new sources suggests that she intended for this biography to be the most complete version of Christine's life to date. Using letters, government documents, and personal accounts by people who knew Granville, Clare Mulley approximates the character of this fascinating woman. "Approximates" is the best verb to describe Mulley's portrait because little source material from or by Granville exists. Because of this and despite Mulley's best efforts to provide a thorough presentation, Granville remains elusive. One of her early potential biographers abandoned the project because there was "not enough information." Mulley, herself, was only able to locate eleven letters written in Granville's own hand. Obviously, a secret agent would hold details of her life close to her chest, but, in addition to the conscious withholding of secrets, there was also Granville's storytelling, her efforts to create legends around her own exploits.
In the end, this biography insightfully explores Christine's ineffable qualities and illuminates a little-known, but fascinating character from history. Christine was indeed a spy who loved. She loved freedom, Poland, a handful of interesting men, and a life full of adventure. Fans of WWII history, espionage, or James Bond will be delighted by this real-life spy story.
This review was originally published in July 2013, and has been updated for the May 2014 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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