The Trial of Citizen Bedaux

ISABELLA CAMERON WAITE HURRIED to Miami on New Year’s Day in answer to Charles Bedaux’s urgent appeal. The loyal Mrs Waite had come at her own expense, because the Treasury had blocked all of her employer’s American accounts. An FBI informant had described her as an ‘extremely straightforward person, pro-British and pro-American … she is an ardent church attendant and would not stand for any nonsense’. Bedaux had hired Isabella Waite as his secretary after her first husband, a drunk who failed to support their two children, left her. It is not clear how intimate Isabella and Charles were. When he left the United States in 1937, he assigned her his power of attorney and trusted her to set her own salary. She married John A. Waite, a salesman and First World War veteran, two years later.

She arrived in Miami the day after his Immigration and Naturalization Service hearing adjourned without a verdict. The stated purpose of the four-day inquiry had been to determine whether Charles Bedaux was still an American citizen. Bedaux’s US passport had expired on 27 February 1942 and it had not been renewed. But Bedaux, despite having told his brother Gaston in April 1939 that he was thinking of restoring his French citizenship, had never renounced his American nationality. Nor had he been convicted of a crime for which it could be revoked. Mrs Waite, seeing Bedaux for the first time since his flight from the Windsor American tour scandal in 1937, noticed how much he had aged. His year behind bars, the separation from his wife and what seemed to him the blatant injustice of his arrest had robbed him of the old bravado. And his insomnia left him exhausted. Bedaux confided to her his worries, most of which were for Fern. The first thing Mrs Waite did for him was to deliver a comfortable chair, an ice box and a stove to his chauffeur’s flat above the garage in the grounds of the Immigration Detention Center.

Mrs Waite wrote a letter that evening to Albert Ramond, the man who had taken control of the Bedaux Company in 1937: ‘I will be here until citizenship difficulties are straightened out … I have the medicine. You and Link get the lawyer please … He is eating his heart out with worry about Fern. She is held hostage in France. Most important is that he knows you are standing by–so a short line to him will perhaps heal some of the wounds the Gestapo, etc., etc., etc., have made.’ Ramond contacted officials in Washington, who advised him not to visit Bedaux. Even after Bedaux called him on 4 January, Ramond avoided phoning or seeing him. His sole objective was to distance the company named for Charles Bedaux from the man himself.

John L. Burling, assistant to the Justice Department’s administrator of foreign travel control, had chaired the hearing in Miami’s Border Patrol Station. Bedaux represented himself, because his letter asking Mrs Waite and Albert Ramond for legal help arrived in New York after the hearings began. (The government apparently did not allow him to make a telephone call, nor did it inform the press that Bedaux was in the country.) The interrogations about his citizenship and his activities in German-occupied Europe and North Africa wearied, but did not unsettle, him. Burling asked if Bedaux understood the potential usefulness of the Trans-Saharan Railway, the aborted project on which Bedaux had worked, to the German army. Bedaux answered that the railway, even if the French had not cancelled it because of the high cost, would have been completed only when the war was over. Moreover, Germany’s contribution of 60,000 tons of steel to his peanut oil pipeline deprived the Wehrmacht of raw materials for tanks and other weapons of war. At one stage, Bedaux asked Burling, ‘What assurance do I have that in speaking all the truth I do not endanger innocent people?’ The ‘innocent people’ were his wife, brother and friends in occupied France. As the four-day hearing proceeded, Bedaux, despite his lack of sleep, was getting the better of Burling. Janet Flanner thought Bedaux’s candid responses might have harmed his case, but ‘he showed an ebullience, a charm, and a mixture of plausibility and candor which, coupled with his foreign-movie-star accent, might momentarily have panicked an American jury’.

Burling confronted Bedaux with a document that had been among the papers brought from North Africa along with his damning Ausweis from Otto Abetz and his cadre de mission from Pierre Laval. It was a German form with spaces for responses to questions about the Allies’ military plans in Africa, aeroplane arrivals and departures, shipping information on the port of Dakar and General de Gaulle’s signals codes. The paper, nestled among his many letters, passes and photographs, seemed to prove that he was not only trading with the enemy, but spying as well. Bedaux replied that he knew nothing of the document, insisting it must have been slipped into his briefcase during the three weeks that the French were in possession of it. If he had realized what the document was, he said, he would ‘have been insane not to destroy it’ when the briefcase was back in his possession.

On 18 January, J. Edgar Hoover cabled the FBI’s special agent in charge, San Francisco, ‘that [Frederic] Ledebur be interviewed before Bedaux’s attorney communicates with him regarding his connections with Bedaux and his knowledge of the activities of his brother Joseph’. Hoover had good intuition, or Mrs Waite and the Washington attorney she hired for Bedaux, Edmund Jones, were under FBI surveillance. Two days after the director instructed his field office to question Ledebur, Mrs Waite sent the Austrian a telegram: ‘OUR WASHINGTON ATTORNEY WILL SOON ARRANGE FOR YOUR COMING EAST SO YOU WILL BE AVAILABLE’. Ledebur was interviewed by FBI agents in Ventura, California, the day Mrs Waite sent the cable. He received it the next day, 21 January. The FBI questioned him again on 25 January in its Los Angeles office, when he was allowed to bring records to assist his memory. In both interviews, the Austrian gave details of his long association with Bedaux from their first meeting in Los Angeles in 1929 to their last in Amsterdam in 1939. He ‘denied any un-American activities’ and insisted it would have been impossible for him to film naval installations because he ‘had no idea how to operate a motion picture camera’. His loathing for his brother Joseph, who had not only been a Nazi but had betrayed his aristocratic heritage by working in trade, was a recurring theme of his answers. The FBI’s report stated that ‘in the event BEDAUX is a Nazi collaborator, he [Lebebur] wants nothing whatsoever to do with him’. The FBI report did not disclose what its agents told Ledebur about Charles Bedaux, but the count declined to go to Miami and testify for the man who had long regarded him as ‘more of a son to me than my own son’.

Deserted by his colleague Ramond and his friend Ledebur, Bedaux turned to his family. On 22 January, he wrote to his brother Gaston, ‘I received your short card asking for news. I couldn’t write before. I can today. I don’t have your card with me, my papers are at the censor’s, but I think you wrote last February, I think so, that makes nearly a year and we are ageing at a crazy speed.’

He asked how Gaston’s son, François, was doing at the Polytechnic and whether ‘François should keep an eye open to succeeding you one day in running all of the Bedaux businesses’. The letter made clear that his reconciliation with his own son, Charles Emile, had not gone so far that he would bequeath his companies to him. He suggested that Fern make the Château de Candé self-supporting by turning it into a conference centre. The letter closed with a fraternal farewell: ‘It was always my intention to live to see the years and the centuries, but it’s war, and an accident can always happen. With a long lease [on Candé], the formalities would be easier for Fern. I live only for the day when I’ll join her as well as you and your family. Your affectionate brother, Charles.’

Bedaux’s lodgings above the garage were locked at night, but guards allowed him outside during the day to sunbathe on the grass and take walks. During one of his exercise periods, he told Patrolman Joseph Swank, ‘Well, one of these days, Charles E. Bedaux will be dead and buried and then the Bedaux case will be a closed file, won’t it?’ Mrs Waite stayed in Miami to be near him. Edmund Jones, his new lawyer from Washington, tried to prepare his defence without knowing what the charges were. In the meantime, Charles Bedaux waited for his second hearing to begin on Valentine’s Day.

On 14 February, the second hearing on the citizenship of Charles Eugene Bedaux convened at the Border Patrol Station in Miami. Unlike the first, which had taken four days, this one was brief. It began at eight in the morning and would adjourn in time for lunch. Presiding officer John L. Burling announced that the Immigration and Naturalization Service had determined that Charles Bedaux was indeed an American citizen entitled to remain in the United States. After delivering the verdict, Burling reverted to his other job, that of prosecutor for the Department of Justice. In that capacity, he officially charged Charles Bedaux, US citizen, with ‘treason against the United States’. The penalty for treason, as Bedaux knew, was death.

In his flat above the garage that evening, Bedaux conferred with his lawyer, Edmund Jones, for about an hour. At ten o’clock, he said good night to his guards and went to bed. In the morning at eleven o’clock, Mrs Waite and Edmund Jones came to visit him. Unusually for a man who began his days early, Bedaux was still asleep. Mrs Waite went into his bedroom to wake him, but he could not be roused. His eyes stayed closed, and his tongue was enlarged. But he was breathing. On the bedside table lay a letter addressed to Isabella Waite:

Dear Friend,

I cannot defend my good name now without endangering those I love.

After the war my beloved wife and my son will prove that I am a good, honest, deserving American. I want you to give her this letter as a token of my undying love.

Give my thanks to all those who have faith in me.

To you dear friend my eternal gratitude for your absolute faith and devotion.

I kept the Luminal the authorities gave me.

Charles Bedaux

The Associated Press reported from Miami on 17 February that Charles Bedaux ‘is seriously ill at the Jackson Memorial Hospital’. The unsourced story continued, ‘Bedaux has been in technical custody here since late December, when he arrived by army plane from North Africa where he had been arrested on a charge of trading with the enemy. When he arrived in the United States, he was held for not having a passport.’ On 18 February, when the story appeared in the newspapers, Charles Bedaux died.

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