“Tell them I am clean and honest Polish girl… I like to jump out of a plane even every day.”
How is this not a woman’s story not a movie yet?! Her name was Christine Granville, and there was nothing about her that was ordinary. She was rumored to be Winston Churchill’s favorite spy. She may have been the inspiration for Ian Fleming’s first Bond girl, Vesper Lynd. Men found her irresistible, and she didn’t do much to resist them.
She was born Maria Krystyna Janina Skarbek to a Polish count and a Jewish banking heiress, and when Nazi tanks began to roll through Poland, she was determined to find some way to fight. She went to London, introduced herself to the British secret service, and offered to ski into Warsaw to distribute British propaganda.
She was recruited into Section D, which would later be known as the Special Operations Executive (S.O.E.) – an espionage unit established by Churchill to operate behind enemy lines. Armed with a British passport and her new name, she was hungry for the chance to see some action. She had to wait a little while. British and Polish forces bickered endlessly about what to do with her. The Poles called her a liability. She proved to be anything but. She crossed the mountains between Hungary and Poland at least six times, hiding from the Nazis on slopes littered with frozen corpses. She was usually joined by a lover, the one-legged war hero Andrez Kowerski.
Her exploits really do read like a movie. Whether bribing her way past guards with a glass necklace, helping thousands of Poles escape, tricking Nazis into helping her with her stalled car, or convincing the Gestapo who caught her that she had TB by biting her tongue and spitting blood at them, Granville always made it out. In France, three of her colleagues were captured and sentenced to execution. Christine posed as the leader’s wife, bribed her way in, and convinced the prison warden that the fortress was surrounded by Allied troops. Within a few hours, the men were free.
If this were a movie, Granville’s story would end with her dancing in the streets with her lover and celebrating their role in the defeat of Nazi Germany. But she never got her happy ending. Poland-already demolished during the war (one Polish radio transmission sent just after the fall of Warsaw, said simply “Absolutely everyone has lost absolutely everything.”) was essentially handed over to the Soviet Union at the Yalta Conference. Christine, a half-Jewish, Polish woman, was simply no longer any use to the people in power. Although her male colleagues were showered with honors and found meaningful work after the war, Christine found tepid work as a sales assistant, hotel attendant, telephone operator and a stewardess on a shipping line.
That last job is what did her in. She had a brief affair with a man who worked on the ship. He became obsessed with her, and eventually stabbed her to death in a hotel lobby. This man’s last words before he went to the gallows- “To kill is the final possession.”
If this book were fiction, I’d have called it unbelievable. Granville was a force to be reckoned with, and the declassified war records and testimonies from her friends and colleagues and lovers (sometimes those three were the same person) painted a compelling picture. However, Christine’s voice is usually missing from the narrative. Only a handful of her letters survive. Unlike some of the men she knew, she never wrote her account of the war, and it was difficult to parse through peoples’ perceptions of her to get a glimpse of the real woman. Nonetheless, The Spy Who Loved is a fascinating read about a great unsung heroine.