Murphy versus Bedaux

ON THE MORNING OF 2 JANUARY 1943, Charles Bedaux and his son were making plans for their survey of the Sahara pipeline route at their auberge in ’Ain Koussa near Algiers. Suddenly, French police came to the inn and arrested them again. The gendarmes confessed that they were obeying American orders, because the French authorities had nothing against them. Most French officials in Algeria had cooperated with the Vichy regime more than Bedaux had and were unlikely to indict him for doing business with the Germans as they had. The policemen could not tell Bedaux why the Americans wanted him.

Two days later, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover wrote a confidential memorandum on Bedaux’s arrest for his senior staff, Clyde Tolson, E. A. Tamm and D. M. Ladd. The memo stated that the army had told Hoover:

There are six documents connecting Bedaux with the Germans: (1) A passport. (2) Bedaux’s permit to pass between the occupied and unoccupied zones. (3) Bedaux’s document of release from the internment camp at Compaigne [sic], dated October 1, 1942. (4 and 5) Two documents issued by the German commander in France designating Bedaux as an expert in economics and calling for recognition of the French government and asking all authorities to assist Bedaux. (6) Telegrams from Bedaux to his French associates complaining that the Nazis had not carried out their agreement to obtain gasoline and tires for him. General Eisenhower does not consider it advisable for political reasons to hold the trial in North Africa.

At 3.15 that afternoon, senior Justice Department, FBI and army intelligence officials discussed Bedaux in Washington in US Attorney General Francis Biddle’s office. Colonel Pierce of Army G-2 said that he would ‘inquire of General Eisenhower whether it was agreeable for a representative of the FBI to proceed at once by plane to North Africa for the purpose of getting [an] investigative report upon which appropriate prosecution could be initiated … It had been indicated by General Eisenhower that he did not want to try these two men in Africa because of the peculiar local situation.’

The French held the two Bedauxs for five days, until American Military Police arrived to take charge of the pair. The MPs incarcerated them in a shed at one of their posts in Algiers. When Bedaux protested at the appalling conditions, the MPs moved them to a base just outside Algiers. According to Gaston Bedaux, father and son were ‘lodged comfortably in a villa near El Biar’, the diplomatic quarter overlooking Algiers.

On 10 January, the army informed the FBI that Eisenhower ‘requested an FBI agent be sent to Algiers’. Assistant director Percy Foxworth and agent Harold E. Haberfeld were summoned to Washington to receive yellow fever injections and instructions for their journey to Algiers. Foxworth, who had led the investigation of Bedaux in the United States, would at last have the opportunity to question the man whose life he had painstakingly dissected for the past year. FBI Agent D. M. Ladd wrote to Hoover on 10 January that he had asked the War Department for its complete file on Charles Bedaux. Bureaucratic competitiveness asserted itself, as Ladd wrote to Hoover:

I have had photostatic copies made of the entire file, unbeknownst to the War Department, and a photostatic copy of this file is attached here for your information. It will be noted that the top serial is a radiogram from General Eisenhower which briefly outlines the information available concerning the subject Bedaux. It does not appear that there is much of an espionage case from the facts set forth in this wire, which contains nothing beyond definite dates. (Author’s italics.)

Two days later the FBI’s Percy Foxworth and Harold Haberfeld reported to the Pentagon for military briefings on their impending trip to North Africa. The War Department gave them an appointment for yellow fever vaccinations the next morning in the Pentagon dispensary. Foxworth appeared uneasy about the journey. G. O. Burton, an FBI agent who drove the two men to the War Department, wrote that day that ‘Mr. Foxworth attempted to secure from the Colonel information about the trip such as type of plane to be used.’ Burton took Foxworth and Haberfeld the next morning to the Pentagon for their inoculations and then to Gravelly Point Airport for a 10.50 a.m. flight to Miami, Florida, in a four-engine Douglas Aircraft military transport. From Miami, they would go to Natal, Brazil, to fly to one of the nearest points in Africa to the western hemisphere, either Accra or Dakar, and on to Algiers. Because military transports flew only in daylight, the two FBI men were not scheduled to see Charles Bedaux in North Africa for five days.

While agents Foxworth and Haberfeld were heading to Miami, the State Department at last disclosed Charles Bedaux’s arrest to the press. ‘Charles E. Bedaux, friend of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, has been arrested on charges of trading with the enemy,’ the New York Times reported on its front page the next morning. ‘Secretary of State Cordell Hull said today he had been informed of the arrest but had no details.’ Cordell Hull’s claim of ignorance would not stand even a cursory scrutiny of the voluminous correspondence that he and his department had exchanged on Charles Bedaux for the previous two years. The FBI was dismayed that the State Department had leaked Bedaux’s arrest to the press, D. M. Ladd calling it in a memorandum ‘quite disappointing’. Someone, probably in the State Department, told the New York Times and Time magazine that Bedaux had gone to North Africa to corner the orange crop, but no press report mentioned his pipeline. Bedaux, held incommunicado in Algeria, was not permitted to see journalists and tell his story.

The New York Times interviewed Albert Ramond, who had taken control of Bedaux’s American company in 1937. Ramond explained that his former boss was ‘a man who loves danger for the sheer pleasure of seeing whether he can get out of it’. Ramond defended Bedaux: ‘He was a good American, naturalized twenty years ago, and he had always a soft spot for his native France. I cannot conceive his selling out to the enemy.’

Gaston Bedaux recalled that the press in Paris also reported Charles’s arrest, but dropped the story ‘for a long time’. Information about his brother was difficult to obtain. ‘Communications between Africa and us was [sic] totally interrupted,’ he wrote. Fern, who had heard nothing from Charles since his first arrest, was effectively a hostage at Candé against her husband’s return. All she knew by mid-January was that the Americans were holding him.

Although the State Department informed the press that Bedaux stood accused of ‘trading with the enemy’ with a maximum penalty of ‘ten years’ imprisonment, a $10,000 fine and forfeiture of property used in the offense’, no one told Bedaux of what he was accused. He and his son could not prepare a defence until they knew what the charges were. They gradually adapted to US Army routine. They ate in the soldiers’ canteen and shared their bathroom. When the MPs got to know Bedaux better, they stopped posting an armed guard outside his door.

Confinement was forcing father and son into an unaccustomed intimacy. Until now, they were almost strangers. Waiting in the desert, they had time to discover why they never liked each other.

Percy Foxworth and Harold Haberfeld of the FBI did not reach Algiers to see Charles Bedaux as planned on 18 January. Foxworth had been right to show concern about the ‘type of plane to be used’. Soon after their military aircraft took off from the airfield at Natal, Brazil, for the eastward crossing of the Atlantic, it crashed. Everyone on board died. The FBI sent two other operatives to Algeria, but they did not have Foxworth’s long experience investigating the exploits of Charles Eugene Bedaux.

The loss of the two FBI men’s lives apparently tormented Bedaux. His brother Gaston wrote that Charles Junior told him of the ‘sadness and disheartenment of his father. He was distressed that his own life had caused the death of two men.’

Charles Eugene and Charles Emile Bedaux had been cooped up together before–for two weeks at the Compiègne internment camp in September 1942 and more recently in Algiers. Theirs was an unusual distinction, that of having been prisoners of the Germans, French and Americans. In Compiègne and Algiers, they shared quarters with other prisoners. Now, they had only each other in the villa outside El Biar guarded by American Military Police. Circumstances were forcing father and son into the intimacy that they had avoided all of 33-year-old Charles’s life. There was little alternative but to speak more meaningfully than they had before. The father thought they might as well tell each other their life stories. After all, they were almost strangers.

For Charles Junior, the monologue could not have been easy. He had once viewed his father in heroic mould, as most other little boys do. His earliest memory was of flying above the French countryside in a two-seater aeroplane piloted by his father. That had been in the spring of 1914, when flying was a novelty, France was enjoying its final days of peace and Charles Emile was four. France and Germany went to war in August, and Charles Senior volunteered as an American for the French Foreign Legion. Charles Junior’s mother, Blanche, took their son home to Grand Rapids, Michigan. Thus began the first of many separations from his father.

Charles Senior was discharged in December 1914, without seeing action, after an accidental injury to his foot. He came home to Michigan, and the family took a rest on Michigan’s northern peninsula amid the wild Indian country of woods and rivers that Hemingway wrote about from his own childhood. Back in Grand Rapids, while his father grew rich and began to make himself famous as a businessman-engineer, young Charles’s world dissolved. Charles Senior’s affair in 1916 with his secretary, a young woman named Kathryn Glarum, caused tension at home. Blanche somehow convinced the mistress that they were both victims of her husband’s licentiousness, and both women left Bedaux. Blanche embarked on a tour of the Orient, taking young Charles and Kathryn with her. Aged seven, the boy would not see his father for six years.

In Japan, Blanche learned that Kathryn was communicating with her husband and sent the girl back to the United States. Continuing her eastern voyage with young Charles, Blanche met an American millionaire named Alfred Bagnall. Bagnall was, as Bedaux then aspired to be, a millionaire. Like Bedaux, he worked as an engineer–not of efficiency, but of electricity. He brought Thomas Alva Edison’s electric lighting to the Orient, first to the streets of American-occupied Manila, then to Japan. Sixty-year-old Bagnall was a philanthropist, whose charitable donations were often unsought and anonymous. When 27-year-old Blanche’s divorce became final, they married and moved with Charles Junior to Bagnall’s ranch in Orange County, California.

In the prison villa at El Biar, the son must have told his father about his education at the Harvard School on Venice Boulevard in Los Angeles, growing up in California during Prohibition and other aspects of his life about which the older man knew nothing. His first post-divorce meeting with his father took place in 1922, when, aged 13, the boy went to New York. It was a stiff, formal encounter in his father’s suite at the Ritz, and it did nothing to bring the absent father and abandoned son closer. The glamorous stepmother, Fern Lombard, was in the room the whole time. A few questions and answers were all the boy recalled of the meeting.

In 1929, aged 20, Charles Emile returned to New York to see his father again. He had finished school and was contemplating university, although he was already older than usual for entrance. On this occasion, his father received him in his office on the sixty-third floor of the Chrysler Building. Charles sat through two business meetings, one with IBM chief Thomas Watson, before his father took him out to lunch. As in 1922, the session was uncomfortable. Yet, some of his early admiration for his father must have lingered, because the young man said he wanted to study engineering. He hoped to enter Harvard, but his father said Yale would be better. The son went to Yale.

The long discussion at El Biar, over days and nights between meals with the MPs, would have tried any father and son–especially two with mutual resentments. But it was leading to an understanding of a kind. Charles Emile enlightened his father about Albert Ramond, his former employee who had taken control of the American Bedaux company in 1937. It seemed that Ramond’s wife had attempted to seduce young Charles in the summer of 1930, while they were together in the Ramonds’ country house in north Michigan. He turned her down, more from youthful panic than moral qualm, because she was nearly ten years older than he was. The spurned woman told her husband that the youth had made a play for her. Enraged, Albert Ramond confronted the boy and swore revenge against his family. The revenge came in 1937, when he seized control of Bedaux’s company.

When Charles Senior’s turn came, he took even longer to regale his son with the adventure that had, until then, been his life. From sandhog to multimillionaire, semi-literate Montmartre street tout to friend of kings and presidents, he had enjoyed a life that was nothing if not eventful. There had been countless lovers, year-long safaris, financial achievements and scandals, his passion for Fern, exploring British Columbia for a safe route to Alaska, all leading to what should have been his greatest accomplishment and adventure: uniting the two halves of Africa with a pipeline across the Sahara. His regret at not having seen more of his son was mitigated by a belief that Blanche had taught the boy to hate him as she did.

On Wednesday evenings at El Biar, Charles Senior withdrew from his son. He said that Fern, a devout Christian Scientist, would be praying then and he wanted to share the moment with her. It was obvious to the son that his father missed her. Towards the end of Charles Senior’s days-long narrative, he told his son that his Austrian friend in Paris, Count Joseph von Ledebur, was part of Germany’s anti-Nazi underground. Charles Junior later told his father’s biographer, Jim Christy, that his father concluded, ‘It is better that you don’t know what I have done to deceive the Germans. Just remember the words Schwarze Kapelle. I shall say no more.’ Schwarze Kapelle, German for Black Orchestra, meant nothing to the son. He told Christy that the exchange of life histories helped him to understand his father. But he still did not like him.

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