The Queer Bird in Exile

The Tiergarten after the Russian offensive, with the Reichstag building in the background (photo credit epl.1)

Martha and Alfred Stern lived in an apartment on Central Park West in New York City and owned an estate in Ridgefield, Connecticut. In 1939 she published a memoir entitled Through Embassy Eyes. Germany promptly banned the book, no surprise given some of Martha’s observations about the regime’s top leaders—for example: “If there were any logic or objectivity in Nazi sterilization laws Dr. Goebbels would have been sterilized quite some time ago.” In 1941 she and Bill Jr. published their father’s diary. The two also hoped to publish a book-length collection of letters to and from Dodd and asked George Messersmith to let them use several that he had posted to Dodd from Vienna. Messersmith refused. When Martha told him she would publish them anyway, Messersmith, never a fan of hers, got tough. “I told her that if she published my letters, either through an irresponsible or responsible publisher, that I would write a little article about what I knew about her and about certain episodes in her life and that my article would be much more interesting than anything that would be in her book.” He added, “That ended the matter.”

These were compelling years. The war Dodd had forecast was waged and won. In 1945, at long last, Martha achieved a goal she long had dreamed of: she published a novel. Entitled Sowing the Wind and clearly based on the life of one of her past lovers, Ernst Udet, the book described how Nazism seduced and degraded a good-hearted World War I flying ace. That same year, she and her husband adopted a baby and named him Robert.

Martha at last created her own successful salon, which from time to time drew the likes of Paul Robeson, Lillian Hellman, Margaret Bourke-White, and Isamu Noguchi. The talk was bright and good and evoked for Martha those lovely afternoons in the home of her friend Mildred Fish Harnack—although now the recollection of Mildred was bordered in black. Martha had received news about her old friend that suddenly made their last meeting in Berlin seem laced with portent. She recalled how they had chosen a remote table at an out-of-the-way restaurant and how pridefully Mildred had described the “growing effectiveness” of the underground network she and her husband, Arvid, had established. Mildred was not a physically demonstrative woman, but at the close of this lunch she gave Martha a kiss.

By now, however, Martha knew that a few years after that meeting Mildred had been arrested by the Gestapo, along with Arvid and dozens of others in their network. Arvid was tried and condemned to death by hanging; he was executed at Berlin’s Plötzensee Prison on December 22, 1942. The executioner used a short rope to ensure slow strangulation. Mildred was forced to watch. At her own trial she was sentenced to six years in prison. Hitler himself ordered a retrial. This time the sentence was death. On February 16, 1943, at 6:00 p.m., she was executed by guillotine. Her last words: “And I have loved Germany so.”

FOR A TIME AFTER leaving Berlin, Martha continued her covert flirtation with Soviet intelligence. Her code name was “Liza,” though this suggests more drama than surviving records support. Her career as a spy seems to have consisted mainly of talk and possibility, though the prospect of a less vaporous participation certainly intrigued Soviet intelligence officials. A secret cable from Moscow to New York in January 1942 called Martha “a gifted, clever and educated woman” but noted that “she requires constant control over her behavior.” One rather more prudish Soviet operative was unimpressed. “She considers herself a Communist and claims to accept the party’s program. In reality ‘Liza’ is a typical representative of American bohemia, a sexually decayed woman ready to sleep with any handsome man.”

Through Martha’s efforts, her husband also aligned himself with the KGB—his code name was “Louis.” Martha and Stern were very public about their mutual interest in communism and leftist causes, and in 1953 they drew the attention of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, chaired then by Representative Martin Dies, which issued subpoenas to have them testify. They fled to Mexico, but as pressure from federal authorities increased, they moved again, settling ultimately in Prague, where they lived a very noncommunistic lifestyle in a three-story, twelve-room villa attended by servants. They bought a new black Mercedes.

At first, the idea of being an international fugitive appealed to Martha’s persistent sense of herself as a woman of danger, but as the years passed, a weariness overtook her. During the couple’s first years of exile, their son began exhibiting signs of severe psychic unrest and was diagnosed as schizophrenic. Martha became “obsessed”—her husband’s term—with the idea that the commotion of their flight and subsequent travels had caused Robert’s illness.

Martha and Stern found Prague an alien place with an unfathomable language. “We can’t say we like it here, to be perfectly honest,” she wrote to a friend. “Naturally we would prefer to go home but home won’t take us yet.… It is a life of considerable limitations intellectually and creatively (also we don’t speak the language; a great handicap) and we feel isolated and often very lonely.” She spent her time housekeeping and gardening: “fruit trees, lilacs, vegetables, flowers, birds, insects … only one snake in four years!”

Martha learned during this time that one of her ex-loves, Rudolf Diels, had died, and in a fashion wholly unexpected for a man so adept at survival. After two years in Cologne, he had become regional commissioner in Hannover, only to be fired for exhibiting too much moral scruple. He took a job as director of inland shipping for a civilian company but was later arrested in the vast roundup that followed the July 20, 1944, assassination attempt against Hitler. Diels survived the war and during the Nuremberg trials testified on behalf of the prosecution. Later, he became a senior official in the government of West Germany. His luck ran out on November 18, 1957, during a hunting trip. As he was removing a rifle from his car, the weapon discharged and killed him.

MARTHA GREW DISILLUSIONED with communism as practiced in everyday life. Her disenchantment became outright disgust during the “Prague Spring” of 1968, when she awoke one day to find tanks rumbling past on the street outside her house during the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. “It was,” she wrote, “one of the ugliest and most repugnant sights we had ever seen.”

She renewed old friendships by mail. She and Max Delbrück launched a spirited correspondence. She addressed him as “Max, my love”; he called her “my dearly beloved Martha.” They bantered about their increasing physical imperfections. “I am fine, fine, just fine,” he told her, “except for a little heart disease, and a little multiple myeloma.” He swore the chemotherapy had caused his hair to grow back.

Other men fared less well in Martha’s retroactive appraisal. Prince Louis Ferdinand had become “that ass,” and Putzi Hanfstaengl “a real buffoon.”

But one great love now appeared to burn just as bright as ever. Martha began writing to Bassett, her former husband—the first of her three great loves—and soon they were corresponding as if they were back in their twenties, parsing their past romance to try to figure out what had gone wrong. Bassett confessed he had destroyed all the love letters she had ever sent him, having realized “that, even with the passage of time, I could never bear to read them, much less would I want anyone else to share them after I’ve gone.”

Martha, however, had kept his. “Such love letters!” she wrote.

“One thing is sure,” she told him in a November 1971 letter, when she was sixty-three years old. “Had we stayed together, we would have had a vital, varied and passionate life together.… I wonder if you would have remained happy with a woman as unconventional as I am and was, even though we would not have had the complications that came to me later. Still I have had joy with sorrow, productiveness with beauty and shock! I have loved you and Alfred and one other, and still do. So that is the queer bird, still lively, that you once loved and married.”

In 1979 a federal court cleared her and Stern of all charges, albeit grudgingly, citing lack of evidence and the deaths of witnesses. They longed to return to America, and considered doing so, but realized another obstacle remained in their path. For all those years in exile they had not paid U.S. taxes. The accumulated debt was now prohibitively high.

They considered moving elsewhere—perhaps England or Switzerland—but another obstacle arose, the most stubborn of all: old age.

By now the years and illness had taken a serious toll on the world of Martha’s recollection. Bill Jr. had died in October 1952 of cancer, leaving a wife and two sons. He had spent his years after Berlin moving from job to job, ending as a clerk in the book department of Macy’s in San Francisco. Along the way, his own left-leaning sympathies had caused him to run afoul of the Dies Committee, which had declared him “unfit” for employment by any federal agency, this at a time when he was working for the Federal Communications Commission. His death had left Martha the sole survivor of the family. “Bill was a very swell guy, a warm and fine person, who had his share of frustration and suffering—maybe more than his share,” Martha wrote in a letter to Bill’s first wife, Audrey. “I miss him so terribly and feel empty and alone without him.”

Quentin Reynolds died on March 17, 1965, at the not-very-old age of sixty-two. Putzi Hanfstaengl, whose sheer size had seemed to make him invulnerable, died on November 6, 1975, in Munich. He was eighty-eight. Sigrid Schultz, the Dragon from Chicago, died on May 14, 1980, at eighty-seven. And Max Delbrück, presumably with a full head of hair, passed away in March 1981, his exuberance quenched at last. He was seventy-four.

This great withering was very sad and raised powerful questions. In March 1984, when Martha was seventy-five years old and Stern eighty-six, Martha asked a friend, “Where do you think we should die if we could choose? Here or abroad? Would it be easier if the survivor was left here with painful memories? or to get the hell out and go alone to a new place; or is it better to go together and then be bereft and saddened by unrealized dreams and no or few friends in a new environment but still having had a few years to establish some sort of home abroad?”

Martha was the survivor. Stern died in 1986. Martha remained in Prague even though, as she wrote to friends, “Nowhere could be as lonely for me as it is here.”

She died in 1990 at the age of eighty-two, not precisely a hero but certainly a woman of principle who never wavered in her belief that she had done the right thing in helping the Soviets against the Nazis at a time when most of the world was disinclined to do anything. She died still dancing on the rim of danger—a queer bird in exile, promising, flirting, remembering—unable after Berlin to settle into her role as hausfrau and needing instead to see herself once again as something grand and bright.

Bassett, old loyal Bassett, outlasted her by another six years. He had forsaken the magnificent copper beech of Larchmont for an apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, where he died peacefully at age 102.

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