BY MARY COOK – In 1941 she took over the staggering work of running Alliance, France’s largest spy network, a corps of 3,000 agents. She described herself as merely “the wife of an officer, mother of a family, member of no political party, and a Catholic.” In reality, however, Marie-Madeleine Fourcade thought like a man.
Lynne Olson, author of “Madame Fourcade’s Secret War,” spoke previously to Friends of Boca Grande audiences when presenting her best-selling books, “Citizens of London” and “Last Hope Island.” She reminded the February 5 Community Center crowd that a French wife in Fourcade’s time was expected to run her house well and to stay in it, caring for her husband and children. In the patriarchal culture of France, women were allowed no property ownership, and no voting rights until 1944.
Her lecture outlined the tale of Madame Fourcade, with emphasis on its being a previously untold story of an unrecognized heroine, a woman whose striking World War II importance has been eclipsed by male heroism of the day.
Fourcade, the charming well-connected “blonde woman with porcelain skin and high cheek bones” was centered not on conventional society but on “the soul and honor of France.” Maybe, 3-packs a day of Gouloises aided, but mainly her creativity, steel nerves and “uncommon audacity” made even Hitler a shaky match for her. From the outset of taking control at Alliance, she supervised thousands who relayed undercover messages, recruited other spies and couriers and gathered intelligence about German troop build-up and movement, submarine launch schedules and airfield installations. She treasured each agent, thinking of them all as beloved family. While Alliance intelligence work underlies the 55-mile-long map of Northern coastal France that led to the invasion of Normandy, Fourcade, herself, also undertook many missions on her own.
In taking on new identities for these assignments, she dyed her hair five times during the war. She used countless creative devices, such as full mourning dress, granny glasses, forged papers and a “dental masterpiece” that transformed her mouth. A policeman friend acted as her bodyguard in some travels. If a situation looked suspicious, she posed as his prisoner. Seeing danger while on foot in rural areas, Fourcade disappeared from Gestapo eyes by crop-picking along with field workers.
She escaped imprisonment by the Nazis twice, most notably from a stuffy cell in Aix, France. She was aware of her own profuse perspiration, prompting a 3:00 a.m. attempt to escape through the bars on her cell window. Naked, bathed in sweat and clenching a summer dress in her teeth, she managed to slip miraculously through the bars. When a truck rumbled by, she forced herself back through the bars, dropping into the cell. A second agonizing try was successful and, finally wearing the dress, she hid in a mausoleum in the cemetery across the street.
In August 1944 she and a doctor, who was also her deputy, borrowed a Red Cross ambulance to work their way through France toward Germany. The objective was to rescue hundreds of captured Alliance spies in prisons and concentration camps in Germany. They proceeded eastward smoothly, telling German officers at each roadblock that they were “French collaborators traveling with the fleeing troops to aid the wounded.”
A day away from the expected liberation in 1944, she arrived in Paris, where she “began recovering her former self” with a hair salon visit and a new beige Hermes suit. In later years she continued work as a member of the European Parliament. Hermes suit and all, the role of an aristocratic wife and hostess was never to be her desire.
Lack of recognition for her role in Allied victory did not seem to faze her, but she wished that thousands of Alliance workers would be remembered. “I should like to know,” she wrote, “that they will not be forgotten, that the divine flame that burned in their hearts will be understood.”
Lynne Olson’s talk was part of the History and Heritage series presented by Friends of Boca Grande Community Center. For more information, contact 964-0827.