“[When] you start doing a job you must
do it fully and shut all softness away.”
Ot’s unfair when people underestimate the intelligence of a woman just because she likes to go out and party. Not every nerd prefers to spend downtime alone in front of a video game or curled up with a comic book; some of us like to recharge our brain batteries by going out and socializing with people—socializing with, slash spying on. Which brings us to one Elvira Concepción Josefina de la Fuente Chaudoir.
Elvira grew up in Paris, where she enjoyed a pretty posh lifestyle. Her dad was rolling in fertilizer money (not literally, though, because ew) and had been assigned as the Peruvian chargé d’affaires (like an ambassador) to the Vichy regime set up by the Germans in France. Highly educated and openly bisexual, Elvira had twice the brains of everyone around her and was consistently bored with a life that didn’t offer her much opportunity to use them. At age twenty-three she eloped with the Belgian stock trader Jean Chaudoir. Four years and many affairs later, she realized that she had “nothing in common with her husband” and bailed to the south of France with her (super-rich by marriage) best girlfriend. The two of them partook in Elvira’s favorite activity—losing at gambling—until the Germans invaded, prompting Elvira to jump in a convertible and head for England. There she found herself at loose ends: she was almost broke (despite trying her best to gamble her way into some money) and summarily rejected from a government job. When she failed to hold down a translating gig at the BBC, she ended up spending most of her time hanging out drinking at the Ritz. One day she happened to complain about her financial and fun-times woes to the right person—an RAF officer—and shortly thereafter came face-to-face with the assistant chief of MI6.
Lieutenant Colonel Claude Edward Marjoribanks Dansey not only had the most British name ever to Brit but was also described by one wartime historian as “corrupt, incompetent, but with a certain low cunning.” Nevertheless, Dansey knew the value of a smart woman whom other people assumed to be stupid, and he was well aware of Elvira’s debts—around a thousand pounds (nearly sixty thousand dollars today). In fact, he knew so much about her life that Elvira was pretty sure he’d been tapping her phone. Put that together with an impressive circle of wealthy, important friends and a Peruvian diplomatic passport, and Dansey had a hunch Elvira would make the perfect secret agent—he hoped the Germans would think so, too. In return for one hundred pounds a month, Elvira was to wander around the South of France doing pretty much what she would be doing otherwise—playing bridge poorly and drinking—until a German Abwehr (secret service) agent inevitably approached her with a similar offer, a process called “coat-tailing.” Money and a chance to use her wits? Obviously, Elvira was instantly down.
So in 1942, at age twenty-nine, Elvira stocked up on invisible ink to use in passing messages back to England and got busy doin’ her thing (which was, again, being really terrible at gambling, but now with the British government’s money). Dansey knew he’d put his faith in the right woman. Sure, MI6 worried about the huge, raucous parties she threw and the potential of blackmail over her “Lesbian tendencies” (the MI6 files always capitalize Lesbian when they talk about her, as if they thought she was from the island of Lesbos). Her MI6 assessment said she was a “member of the international smart gambling set” who was “very intelligent and quick to grasp essentials” and had “a quick brain but is probably rather lazy about using it.” Surveillance said she preferred the “high spots”; police said “drunken men and women in the small hours” showed up at her apartment all the time. Deputy Chief Constable Joseph Goulder noted that she “favors the companionship of women who may not be careful of their virginity.” But ultimately MI6 knew Elvira was never sympathetic to the Germans and that all these things were to their advantage. Smart boys.
Finally, after months without a bite (during which time Elvira started to tire of the “people who get all the food they want, who wear lovely clothes, and who, though dancing is forbidden even to them, spend their nights gambling in the casinos” in the midst of a war), Elvira was approached at a Cannes casino by a Nazi collaborator named Henri Chauvel, and she went to work. He introduced her to his German friend Helmut “Bibi” Bleil, a freelance spy. After a week of charming Bibi over dinners and moaning about her financial hardships (which, true, but still), Elvira finally got an in when Bibi asked if, hey, maybe you could move back to England, and my friends will pay you eighty-eight pounds a month disguised as alimony from your ex-husband if you let us know what’s goin’ on back in Britain? Heck, yes, Elvira said. Bibi gave her a code name, Dorette, and a bottle of German invisible ink, talking it up as the greatest invention in the world. “You will have to be terribly careful and never tell a soul about it,” Bibi said. “Because, if you do, you will be the first to pay….I always act on intuition, and I feel I can just trust you. If I am wrong, it will ruin my whole career.”
He was, and it did. Elvira immediately informed MI6 what was going on, and just like that she became part of an elaborate network of spies across Europe called the Double-Cross System or, even radder, the XX System (it’s two crosses, see). Overseen by the so-called Twenty Committee (Roman numeral humor!), the system took Nazi spies—who were typically not people like Elvira, but rather Germans who had either been captured or willingly turned themselves in—and made them into double agents who could then be used to feed the Nazis misinformation. Elvira’s MI6 case officers Christopher Harmer and Hugh Astor gave her the code name “Bronx,” for the cocktail she would drink when meeting with them. Elvira, a “very competent letter-writing agent,” sent letters ostensibly full of girly mundanities (like, you know, make-up and stuff, I guess) to the Banco Santo Espirito in Lisbon, which would transfer them to Bibi. Between the lines, in invisible ink, she would give the Germans just enough false information to steer them wrong without arousing suspicion—for example, thwarting gas attacks by telling them how ready Britain was for retaliation, mixed in with things like “Shortage of kitchen utensils.” She kept all this from her girlfriend Monica Sheriffe, who was a racehorse owner and never knew a thing about Elvira’s job.
But the Germans were getting anxious. They knew an invasion was planned; they just didn’t know when. Since the mail was so slow, they came up with a faster way for Elvira (whom they trusted as one of their most “reliable agents”) to get them information: she would send a money order to her Lisbon bank, and its wording would indicate the details of the attack. “Send 80 pounds which I need for my dentist” would mean the attack would be on the Atlantic in a week’s time; thirty pounds would mean Denmark, ten the Balkans, and so on. As part of “Operation Fortitude,” an XX System plan to divert Nazi attention from the real invasion at Normandy, Elvira, being the most clever, sent a telegram asking for fifty pounds, indicating the Bay of Biscay, along with a letter describing how she’d wheedled the information out of a certain drunk RAF captain (whom she’d never met IRL and who barely even drank in the first place). When the boats landed in Normandy, an entire German tank division was chilling in the Bay of Biscay, doing not a dang thing. D-Day was a success.
Elvira continued to love life the most, and the Germans continued to trust her—even after D-Day! When in 1944 the Nazis failed to meet her as agreed in Madrid (a meeting at which she might have been interrogated about the whole Bay of Biscay incident), she wrote them the angriest, most spoiled entitled-girl letter that has likely ever been penned: “Absolutely livid about the uselessness of the journey which was expensive and disagreeable. You let me down.” To the Nazis! Who then apologized and asked very nicely to keep working with her! What a queen.
After the war, Elvira lived out the next fifty years in the south of France, running a gift shop and living off her inheritance—which would run dry by 1995. A month before her death, however, she received a five-thousand-pound check in the mail from the director general of MI5. Sometimes all you need to know is that you’re still appreciated. And that not every geeky gal is an introvert. Or, you know, good at counting cards.