Web Essays

Fighting the Secret War

An interview with Lynne Olson

By Katie Daniels | April 25, 2019
Tamzin B. Smith
Tamzin B. Smith

When selecting code names, many members of the Alliance spy network chose powerful and cunning representatives from the animal kingdom: Tiger, Wolf, Fox, Eagle. But Marie-Madeleine Fourcade, Alliance’s chef de résistance, chose differently: she would be Hedgehog, an animal with a deceptively unthreatening appearance who, when challenged by an enemy, becomes “a tough little animal that even a lion would hesitate to bite.”

Her code name suited Fourcade. A beautiful, glamorous young mother from an influential family, she seemed an unlikely resistance leader, a perception she used to her advantage while leading France’s largest spy ring during World War II. She was captured twice, escaping both times, and continued to build an intelligence network that provided the Allies with crucial information before the D-Day invasion. She’s also the subject of Lynne Olson’s new book, Madame Fourcade’s Secret War, which tells the story of Fourcade’s leadership of Alliance. Assistant editor Katie Daniels spoke with Olson about Fourcade’s legacy, women’s roles in the French Resistance, and how to research a book on spies. (This interview has been edited for clarity and length.)

Katie Daniels: Why isn’t the story of Marie-Madeleine Fourcade more widely known?

Lynne Olson: Before and during the war, France was a very conservative, very patriarchal country, and women were regarded as distinctly second-class citizens. French women did not have the right to vote until 1944, well after most Western countries. [Society] certainly didn’t approve of a woman as a resistance leader. Marie-Madeleine Fourcade was the only woman to head a major resistance organization and, after the war, historians basically forgot about her.

During the war, Charles de Gaulle set up this organization of people, Compagnon de la Libération, that he considered to be the heroes of the liberation. There were 1,038 people given this elite honor, and of those 1,038, only six were women. But women played an enormous role in the resistance—one American military intelligence officer said that they were its lifeblood. Marie-Madeleine headed the largest and arguably the most influential intelligence network in occupied France, but she was barred from that list.

KD: One of my favorite scenes in the book is when Marie-Madeleine meets one of her spies for the first time, and when he realizes she’s the spymaster, he shouts, “Good God, it’s a woman!”

LO: That’s one of my favorite scenes, too. It’s very, very funny. That really was the reaction of many male agents when they met her and realized that she was the chief of the network.

KD: She’s an unlikely spy in a lot of ways—she’s a very fashionable, well-to-do Parisian, and she’s a young mother with two small children. Why was she drawn to spying and what made her so successful at it?

LO: I think her upbringing contributed to it. Her first eight or nine years were spent in Shanghai. Shanghai in the ’20s was a very exciting, exotic place to live. You didn’t need a visa or a passport to go there, so it was filled with drug smugglers, and arms merchants, and warlords, people from all over the world. She loved it. She was a very strong woman right from her childhood.

She got married when she was 18 years old. She had two children almost immediately, but left [her husband] when she was still in her mid-20s and took her children to Paris, where she led the kind of life that she wanted. She learned how to fly a plane, she got a car of her own, which was very unusual for anybody in France, but especially for a woman. And she also got a job, which was another horrifying thing for a young woman to do.

She was very independent, and because she was raised in Shanghai, she had an idealized view of France as this wonderful country of liberty, fraternity, and equality. She was very much a patriot, but she had not really lived there all that long and she didn’t realize how the French had been affected by World War I. Even though France was one of the victors, that war had bled the country dry. The French didn’t want to go through that again, but Fourcade didn’t understand that. So when the French government wasn’t standing up to Hitler, that upset her a great deal.

KD: Fourcade wasn’t the only one who had to learn spycraft on the fly—many people in Alliance were civilians. What was the impetus for them to risk everything by spying on the Nazis?

LO: One of the characteristics of people like that is that deep down they’re rebels in some way. Either they don’t take orders very well, or they feel very strongly about liberty and human rights. Most of these people were not trained spies. There were some former military men, but there were also doctors, lawyers, artists, housewives, fishermen, students, even a child actor. I think it takes a special type of person to stand up for what they believe, and I quite understand why most people didn’t do it. It’s remarkable to me how many people actually did.

KD: In any autobiography, there’s going to be a certain way you present yourself and your actions. Are there decisions that Fourcade tries to sugarcoat in her memoir?

LO: She doesn’t really self-aggrandize. Everything I’ve read about her and the interviews I’ve done, it all squares with everything she says. One thing she does do in her memoir, which you don’t get from other people’s books, is that she talks about her own fears: how terrified she was, the mental strain of running this network, always fearing that this day is going to be her last, fearing for the safety of the people who she was working with, feeling a sense of guilt that she was putting them in harm’s way.

She writes about how she smoked incessantly. I didn’t put it in the book, but when she got to England, the deputy head of MI6 tried to get her to stop smoking, but she couldn’t. She needed it. She portrays herself as very human—it’s not like she’s this Amazon woman going out fearlessly. She talks about her fears and how difficult it was for her.

KD: One of the more fraught subjects in the book is one Fourcade wrote very little about, and that’s her relationship with her children. She had to make a lot of tough decisions about her family—at one point, her 12-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter had to be spirited away to Switzerland because the Gestapo was going to use them as hostages. How did she work through this?

LO: She thought that her responsibility to her country was more important, at that point in time, than her responsibility to her children, and I think that caused her great guilt. She never owned up to her sense of guilt in her memoirs, but she clearly did feel guilty just from the way she describes the fact that she did not see her kids for years.

Early on after establishing her network, she picks up her son Christian at boarding school and on the way home, does a little bit of spying. She explains to him what she is doing and that this is the reason he doesn’t get letters from her, because it’s not safe for her to write to him. Then she asks if he understands, and he clearly doesn’t. That’s one of the points in her memoir when I really picked up that she was feeling very guilty.

KD: What is the most significant piece of intelligence that the Alliance spy network discovered?

LO: One was providing a 55-foot-long map of the beaches in Normandy, where the Allied forces landed on June 6, 1944. It was incredibly detailed, showing all the gun emplacements, all the fortifications, all the antitank nests, everything. It was a coup for the Allied planners of D-Day.

Another was information about the development of the V-1 and V-2 terror weapons that were used by Hitler late in the war. That came from [Jeannie Rousseau] a young, very pretty Parisian woman who became friends with a number of young German officers, some of whom were working on the V-1 and V-2s. She would go to their parties and flutter her eyelashes, and they started talking about what they were involved in to try to impress her. She had a photographic memory, and she wrote it all down [afterward]. Hitler had hoped that these weapons would be ready to prevent D-Day from happening, but because of the work of this one young woman and others, [the Germans] delayed the first firing of these weapons until the day after D-Day.

KD: How does your writing process work, especially with a historical book about spies who have not left the most accurate or detailed paper trail?

LO: This book was in many ways one of the easiest that I’ve done, and certainly one of the most fun. It is such an astonishing story, filled with detail. If you have that, that’s gold.

I do tons of research before I start writing. I read like crazy, and if there are people around who I can interview, I interview them. I acquire as much material as I can, hopefully a lot of it from primary sources like letters and diaries. Then I sit down. In my mind, I don’t have an outline, but I know how the chapters are going to be and what’s going to be in those chapters. I just take all the material and kind of shuffle it. I don’t know what I’d do without a computer. I don’t know how people did it before computers, it is so much easier.

Writing for me is often drudgery, but [Madame Fourcade’s Secret War] really wasn’t. It’s a serious book about members of the resistance and what they faced, and I talk a lot about Vichy and the politics of France, but there is always action going on—that made it fun.

KD: Most of your books have been about either individuals or countries during World War II. What keeps drawing you back to this subject?

LO: Because there are all these stories that really haven’t been told sufficiently. All of my books have been about unsung heroes, people who made a difference, but who have, for whatever reason, fallen into the cracks of history. Every time I do a book, I find another story to follow. I don’t know if [World War II] will ever run out of stories. You think they’ve all been told, but they haven’t—just look at Marie-Madeleine Fourcade.

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