More and more stories are coming to light about the operatives who worked in the shadows during the Second World War, and many of them were women. By now most people have heard about Virginia Hall, the famous “Limping Lady” of the OSS, and her exploits, as well as many others. One of the more successful operatives was Betty Pack, who was born in the United States, married a British operative, and would later work for British intelligence and the OSS as a “honeypot” or a “honey trap”—using her beauty to seduce and garner intelligence from targeted sources.
The alluring and seductive Pack, known as the “Minnesota Mata Hari,” was referred to by the OSS chief, General William “Wild Bill” Donovan, as “the greatest unsung heroine of the war.” She would conduct numerous liaisons for the Allied cause, but perhaps none was as big as when she snuck into a Vichy French embassy with her French lover and got into the safe where the codebooks were kept. She wore nothing more than her heels and pearls to throw off the security guards if the two were discovered.
Early Life and Introduction to the Diplomatic Scene
Pack was born Amy Elizabeth Thorpe on November 22, 1910 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Her father was a well-known and respected Marine Corps officer. Her mother was the daughter of a Minnesota state senator.
Because of her parents’ connections, she was introduced to the Washington political social scene. Despite Minnesota being as far from that as one would imagine, Pack—known as Betty to her family—took to it like a duck to water.
Before long, she was making the rounds on the diplomatic circuit, becoming romantically involved with several high-ranking foreign service officers. For such a young woman, she was not only beautiful, but she was also charming, intelligent, and knew how to use her wiles to curry favor.
After becoming pregnant at just 19, she married Arthur Pack, second secretary at the British embassy in Washington. He was 19 years her senior. Soon after their marriage, she gave birth to a son. Pack insisted she give the boy up to foster parents, which she did. A daughter born to the couple in 1934 did little to bring them together and by the time the Spanish Civil War broke out—Pack had been posted in Spain—the two had grown apart.
In Madrid, Betty worked both sides, smuggling rebel Nationalists to safety, transporting Red Cross supplies to Franco’s forces, and coordinating the naval evacuation of the British embassy staff from the country.
Arthur Pack was then assigned to Warsaw, Poland, where Betty began working for British intelligence. Arthur began an affair with another woman and then suffered a stroke, after which he was shipped back to England.
The British intelligence service immediately recognized her talent for seducing men and put her to work. She was given the codename “Cynthia.” Her first source was immediately smitten and told her everything she needed to know. She later wrote about this: “Our meetings were very fruitful, and I let him make love to me as often as he wanted since this guaranteed the smooth flow of political information I needed.”
In early 1939, Arthur—now recovered—was posted to Santiago, Chile. There, Betty wrote several political articles for a Spanish-English newspaper. In 1940, she was given her own assignment—back to Washington D.C. Her official cover was that of a journalist, but her mission was to obtain codebooks to Italian cryptosystems.
In Washington, Betty Pack quickly took up with an older Italian admiral, the naval attaché Alberto Lais, at the Italian embassy. Earlier, the two had been close, but not romantically involved, Lais, taking a shine to the young girl, acted as more of a father figure. Pack later spoke of their relationship as more sensual than sexual, but claimed that the admiral and his aide willingly gave up the Italian codebooks.
In 1968, Lais’ heirs sued, claiming that the admiral, who died in 1951, never gave away any codes. They were successful in court. But what followed next would cement her story forever.
Breaking Into the Vichy French Embassy
In June 1942, Pack’s supervisor, George Stephenson, assigned her to seduce a member of the Vichy French embassy. The target, Charles Brousse, was the Vichy French press attaché. He was an ace in World War I and owned several newspapers in southern France. He had also been married several times.
The Vichy were virulently anti-British in their dealings. The British, therefore, would attempt to convince Brousse that Pack was working for the Americans. She wrote in her memoirs that after their first meeting, a lunch date, the two became lovers and he quickly became infatuated with her.
Soon, Brousse, thinking that Betty was working for the Americans, was feeding her information consisting of message traffic, embassy cables, and activities of the embassy staff.
One afternoon, she telephoned Brousse to meet her at her apartment, seemingly for another tryst. But as soon as he arrived, she sprung on him what she wanted. “Our American friends,” she said, “want the Vichy French codebooks.”
Brousse told her that only the chief cipher officer and his assistant had access to the code room. It was also guarded by a security watchman and a Belgian Malinois dog.
The two hatched a plan. Brousse would tell the security guard that the pair needed a secure tryst location at night and would pay him to look the other way, using the outer office as their location. The pair would then drug the night watchman’s wine as well as his dog’s food to knock them out for a few hours.
Then, using their relationship with General Donovan and his OSS contacts, they were furnished with a safecracker, the individual known only as the “Georgia cracker.” At first it went perfectly: The watchman and his dog were sound asleep, knocked out by phenobarbital. The safecracker got the safe open, but there wasn’t time to get all of the codebooks copied and returned, so the team retreated.
The lovers made a second attempt, this time without the safecracker, who provided Betty with the combination. She attempted several times, but couldn’t get the safe open. They would make one final attempt at it.
In a fantastic book about Pack, “The Last Goodnight” by Howard Blum, the author writes about what happened next. On the third try, the lovers had entered the Vichy embassy but had not seen the watchman or heard the dog. Betty thought that seemed ominous. She had a great idea, one that was simplistic, yet brilliant in its design.
Abruptly, Betty jumped up from the divan and was pulling her dress over her head. She tossed it on to the floor.
Brousse stared at her with astonishment.
Now she had wriggled out of her silk slip. She hurled it away and it landed next to the discarded dress.
“Have you gone mad?” Charles asked, anxious and confused.
She continued to undress, pulling down her stockings. “I don’t think so,” she said as the nylons were added to the pile on the floor. “But we shall see.”
“Suppose someone should come in!” Brousse pleaded. “What are you thinking?”
“I am thinking just that,” Betty answered, as she unhooked her brassiere. “Suppose someone does come in!”
She pulled down her panties and with one foot gracefully kicked them towards the rest of the clothes.
She stood naked except for the strand of pearls around her neck. She had no modesty, no inhibition. She held herself easily and confidently.
Now that she had undressed, she explained her strategy more fully to Charles. “What are we here for?” she demanded rhetorically. “We are here to make love. Who makes love with clothes on if they can be taken off?”
“If you wish to help me, you will get up and start undressing yourself too!”
Her tone had been sharp and insistent. She needed him to understand that every moment mattered.
Brousse still had not grasped Betty’s plan, but he trusted her. He took off his jacket, undid his tie, and had removed his shirt. He was unfastening his belt when the door opened.
A bright cone of light scanned the room, coming to a sudden halt when it focused on Betty. The light held steady, illuminating her nakedness.
“Oh, la la,” said Betty in a voice more playful than shocked. She tried to cover herself with her hands, but her modesty was half-hearted and deliberately careless. She wanted the watchman to get a good, long look. Regardless of any suspicions that had been previously brewing, it was important that he now understood the couple had entered the embassy with only one thing on their feverish minds.
“I beg your pardon a thousand times, Madame,” muttered the watchman as he finally extinguished the flashlight. Flustered, he hurried off, closing the door firmly behind him.
A peal of triumph in her voice, Betty told Charles, “There was method in my madness.”
The two lovers then went to the window and, using a flashlight, signaled the safecracker to enter through the window. The safe opened on the first try. On the ground, an OSS man, who held a ladder for the safecracker, took the code books and scurried off.
The copying of the code books was completed and they were returned by the OSS man at 4:30—just minutes before the cleaning crews would arrive to clean the offices. The codebooks were placed back in the safe and the lovers strode out of the embassy as if they didn’t have a care in the world. They went back to her hotel where the OSS men had all of the copies of the codebooks in hand. Days later they were in the hands of the British intelligence codebreakers at Bletchley Park.
The English and Americans soon used the Vichy codes to their advantage. Most importantly, in the upcoming invasion of North Africa, called “Operation Torch.” More than 30,000 Allied assault troops landed on beaches east and west of Algiers, relying on intelligence gleaned from the Vichy’s decoded messages.
After the North Africa invasion, Pack would work for both British intelligence and the OSS, but none of her subsequent work would have the intrigue of her standing nude in an office, wearing only pearls and high heels while stealing a foreign government’s codes.
Life wasn’t kind to any of the major players in this story. Arthur Pack committed suicide in 1945. Brousse divorced his wife and he and Betty Pack married. In what should have been a storybook finish, the two moved to the Château de Castelnou, a French medieval castle in the commune of Castelnou in the Pyrénées Alps.
But Pack would die of throat cancer in 1963. Several years later, Brousse would die of electrocution—killed by his electric blanket. Much of the castle was damaged in the resultant fire.
Pack never felt remorse or shame from her methods of garnering information. In her obituary, it was written, “She used sex like James Bond uses a Beretta.” She was quoted after the war in an interview saying she was motivated by patriotism:
“Ashamed? Not in the least. My superiors told me that the results of my work saved thousands of British and American lives…It involved me in situations from which ‘respectable’ women draw back—but mine was total commitment. Wars are not won by respectable methods.”
There is a film in the works about Pack and her exploits, and reportedly Jennifer Lawrence is set to play the auburn-haired beauty.