Stories of espionage and intrigue are some of the most popular around the world and have been for some time. One only needs to consider the long-lived James Bond film series to see just how captivating these stories can be. However, their far-fetched nature can blur the lines between fiction and reality for many people. For the origins of a true spy thriller one need look no further than Minneapolis, where the story of Amy Elizabeth Thorpe, Betty Pack, “Cynthia,” begins.
Born November 22, 1910, Thorpe was the daughter of Minnesota senator Cora Wells and Marine Corps Colonel George C. Thorpe. In 1915 her father was transferred to Cuba where Thrope, called Betty by those who knew her, spent much of her childhood and adolescence. When she was nineteen her high profile parents moved to Washington, D.C. and brought her to equally high profile events. Rubbing shoulders at these events Thorpe made acquaintances and became involved with many politically important people.
She was described as reserved and serious at this age, and the recipient of quite a bit of attention, particularly from a member of the British Embassy, Arthur Pack. They began an affair that led to a pregnancy and it was then insisted, either by Pack or Thorpe’s parents, that they get married. Thorpe was quoted later saying “[s]uddenly I was having an affair with Arthur Pack. Suddenly I was engaged. I don’t think for a minute he was in love with me. I know I wasn’t in love with him.” Needless to say their marriage was not a happy one. The year they married, 1936, Pack was transferred to the British Embassy in Madrid and his new bride went with him.
In Spain a civil war was just beginning between the newly established Republican, left-leaning government and far-right nationalists. The nationalists would eventually be led by Francisco Franco, a general in the militia. Several countries took sides and gave support to one or the other, but Britain and the United States chose a stance of non-intervention. However, individuals and companies from both countries found ways to aid whichever side they supported. For example, Texaco, Ford, and General Motors all continued sending oil, tires, and/or vehicles to nationalist held ports.
During this time Thorpe began having one or more affairs and utilizing connections at the British Embassy. Although not officially a spy yet, she smuggled medical aid in and nationalist leaders out in support of Franco’s forces. This didn’t last very long as her husband was transferred again in 1937, this time to Warsaw, Poland.
Her activities in Warsaw are debated among historians. Some argue she helped pass on information about the encryption device Enigma from Polish mathematicians to the British secret service, MI6. Others say this was misinformation. Either way, when Nazi occupation of Poland began the couple was sent to Chile by the British government. Here Thorpe worked as a journalist, writing anti-Nazi propaganda under a false name.
By this point MI6 had seen the effectiveness of her methods and wanted her in an official capacity. They gave her the code name “Cynthia” and sent her back to the States while Pack stayed in Chile. She spent most of the war years as mistress to various foreign diplomats in several different cities, extracting information and passing it on to MI6. This time she was working against fascist regimes and those who supported them, including Nazi Germany, Italy, and the Vichy government of France.
French officials in Washington, D.C. were her first targets. She was able to convince the French Embassy press attaché Charles Brousse, who already held anti-Nazi sentiments, to give her documents. Another target she had less luck in convincing or seducing was Brousse’s superior, Ambassador Gaston Henry-Haye. Not one to be defeated, Thorpe drugged a security guard and smuggled the French naval code books out through a window and passed them on to an FBI agent. After being photographed the books were replaced within the hour.
After her husband’s death by suicide in 1945, Thorpe married Brousse and the couple moved to the south of France. She lived at Château de Castelnou, a castle built prior to AD 990, until her death in 1963. Responding to a question about her methods for securing intelligence she said “Ashamed? Not in the least, my superiors told me that the results of my work saved thousands of British and American lives… It involved me in situations from which ‘respectable’ women draw back – but mine was total commitment. Wars are not won by respectable methods.”
Her exploits are mentioned in several books including A Man Called Intrepid by William Stevenson and Washington Goes to War by David Brinkley. Most recently history author Howard Blum wrote a biography of Thorpe’s life titled The Last Goodnight: A World War II Story of Espionage, Adventure, & Betrayal.