The Last Goodnight: A World War II Story of Espionage, Adventure, and Betrayal
By Howard Blum
510 pages, $28.99
By Stephanie Shapiro
“The last person to whom you say good night is the most dangerous.” According to the spy lore that Howard Blum loves to mine for material, this warning is, or at least used to be, passed on to CIA trainees about the perils lurking in the bedroom.
Betty Pack was one of those perils, at least to the enemies of England during World War II. An American married to a British diplomat, she worked not for the CIA but for the British Secret Intelligence Service, unknown even to her husband for several years. So much for the attentive husband. That problem, though, was not serious, since on her wedding night she realized that she detested the man she had married.
“A Blonde Bond” was Time magazine’s title for Betty in its obituary. To find a worthy comparison for Betty’s exploits, the writers had to use a literary character and to switch genders. How hot was she? Blum declares that even now, nearly 53 years after her death in 1963, some pages from her 65-page FBI file have been officially removed at the request of one or more foreign governments, and others closed until the year 2041.
During her greatest caper, removing codes from the Vichy French government’s embassy in Washington, having them photocopied and replaced before sunrise the same night, all while stark naked except for a silk slip, she had a moment of having to choose whether to risk arrest by the FBI or by the Vichy embassy’s Nazi-trained security thugs lurking in a nearby park. (She picked FBI, and the two suspected G-men eventually left without her anyway.) Oh, and she also had to crack the aged, creaking safe containing the codes. The British government trained her to crack safes.
She hated Arthur Pack from their wedding night onward, because she was already pregnant and he, not sure if he was the father, demanded that she have an abortion. The cold-blooded compromise they worked out during their honeymoon in England was to put the baby into immediate foster care there and then to report for duty in Washington.
Betty visited her son about three times during the next 20 years, and when she finally reconciled with him, he did not like her very much. Later, her adult daughter died under questionable circumstances. The two births occurred among at least two abortions and a spontaneous miscarriage. Blum hints that Betty was so wounded by Arthur’s immediate and enduring emotional abuse that, “Now she was capable of anything.”
As the wife of a British diplomat in pre-World War II Santiago, Chile; Warsaw, Poland; and Madrid, Spain, Betty did not attract much attention beyond the jealousy of other diplomats’ wives. A wife who went clothes shopping with Betty one day suggested that Betty might want to wear underclothes, then told everyone in their circle all about it. Betty Pack did not have similar problems with men, though.
On orders from her British supervisors, Betty had to schedule into most days in Madrid romantic interludes with the diplomat she was spying on. She also had to find time for dalliances in a secret and tacky hideaway with the priest with whom she was studying to convert to Roman Catholicism – plus show up for bedtime at night with Arthur. With Betty having to dress and undress so many times a day, skipping the underwear makes a certain amount of sense, under the circumstances.
The true love of Betty’s tangled life seems to have been Charles Brousse, “suave, gallant, mature, and so very French in his devotion to his passions, (that he) had swooped her up after the war and led her out of a staid America.” She even posed as his stepdaughter on one espionage assignment, using the dead stepdaughter’s identity documents. And Brousse was the brains behind their triumph infiltrating the Vichy embassy – and getting out alive.
Charles Brousse performed various public relations duties at the Vichy French embassy in Washington, and Betty’s bosses wanted her to wangle some information out of him. Blum exults: “She felt a heady confidence, certain that what she had to offer would persuade the suave, absurdly handsome egotist sitting smugly across from her to commit treason.” Yes, he was married.
Their eventual superior would say later, with both admiration and wonder, that it was an idea only a Frenchman could have conceived. Betty and Brousse befriend Andre Chevalier, the embassy’s night watchman. She lived with her parents, and he had a wife, they tell him, with nowhere to, uh, socialize.
“What true Frenchman,” Blum speculates, “would not want to help l’amour along?” So with the help of champagne and a little Nembutal for Chevalier and his Alsatian dog, they come and go at the embassy and lighten the monotony of the watchman’s long, dreary shift with, as Blum put it, “the sounds of their passion.”
When Chevalier seems suspicious, Betty strips down to her strand of pearls and urges Brousse to follow suit. He unfastens his belt just in time for the door to open and the watchman to mutter, “I beg your pardon a thousand times, madame,” not, however, in much of a hurry to douse the flashlight.
“Two days later the ciphers were in the hands of the wranglers at Bletchley Park,” in England, where cryptologists from several nations were cracking the Nazis’ Enigma code machine among other matters of life and death.
Blum goes to great lengths to establish the accuracy of “The Last Goodnight.” Not only does he avoid the fallback device of trying to imagine what a character is thinking or feeling, he documents everything. If words are in quotation marks, he says, they are a direct quote or verified in interviews. There is no fiction here, although he does remind us that intelligence agencies may differ in their versions of event.
“The Last Goodnight” delivers location, location, location and real characters who changed the world and won wars. Who knew that Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a fan of espionage and met regularly with the millionaire Vincent Astor and a circle of like-minded movers and shakers? Betty did. And she did her own moving and shaking along with them, in her own silky way. And solving the Enigma code? Well, there were these two lovers in Warsaw …
Stephanie Shapiro is a former News reporter and editor.