Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Review: Undercover Girl: The Lesbian Informant Who Helped the FBI Bring Down the Communist Party

Title:  Undercover Girl: The Lesbian Informant Who Helped the FBI Bring Down the Communist Party
Author:  Lisa E. Davis
Publisher: Publisher: Imagine (May 9, 2017)
How acquired:  Edelweiss

What it’s About:  At the height of the Red Scare, Angela Calomiris was a paid FBI informant inside the American Communist Party. As a Greenwich Village photographer, Calomiris spied on the New York Photo League, pioneers in documentary photography. While local Party officials may have had their suspicions about her sexuality, her apparent dedication to the cause won them over.  When Calomiris testified for the prosecution at the 1949 Smith Act trial of the Party's National Board, her identity as an informant (but not as a lesbian) was revealed. Her testimony sent eleven party leaders to prison and decimated the ranks of the Communist Party in the US.

My thoughts:  When I saw this book on Edelweiss, I immediately clicked the request button. It sounded like something that was right up my alley. A little known story about an undercover informant for the FBI during the height of the Communist witch-hunt, who was also a lesbian? I couldn’t wait to read it. I’ve written about Elizabeth Bentley, who spied for the Communists, and then turned informant and this period of history has always fascinated me. My enthusiasm lasted all of five minutes.  It’s clear that the author did a great deal of research, she had access to all of Angela’s papers that she saved and donated to the Lesbian Herstory Archives, Brooklyn, read Angela’s own autobiography, as well as the newspaper reports and Angela’s FBI File. Unfortunately, Angela never really comes alive on the page.  It reads more like a text book or a thesis paper. There is very little information about Angela’s early life, other than the fact that she lived in a series of foster homes as a child.  I haven’t read Red Masquerade: Undercover for the FBI, but it has to be more interesting than Undercover Girl, even if it’s filled with half-truths.  

Angela was never a true traveler, she didn’t join the Communist Party, and then become disillusioned, as so many others did when the truth about Stalin came out. No, Angela was recruited by the FBI specifically to target the American Communist Party. They felt that she had an in because she was a photographer, and could easily infiltrate the New York Photo League, a group of amateur photographic enthusiasts, which included a number of communists among its members.  Angela was well paid for her work ($225 a month), she made sure of that. Angela claimed that she wanted to be some sort of hero, but what she really wanted was fame and glory. She volunteered for the jobs that nobody wanted, jobs that would get her the list of party members, that she could then pass on to the FBI.

Angela comes across as ruthless, ambitious, manipulative, a fame-seeker and greedy. She seems not have cared a jot about the people whose lives she ruined, as long as her name was in the papers. Her testimony led to the destruction of the New York Photo League. She was also reckless, the FBI repeatedly asked her not to give interviews before the trials were over, because it could have tainted the case and ruined chances for convictions, but Angela didn’t seem to care.  She had sworn under oath that she had not been paid by the FBI as a confidential informant. If the truth had come out, she could have been arrested for perjury, not to mention that it would have put the trial in jeopardy. The book also spends a lot of time dealing with the other informants and what their testimony was. While this was interesting from a historical perspective, it took the focus off Angela for long stretches of the book.  She also spends a lot of time speculating on the sexuality of J. Edgar Hoover, Mary Margaret McBride, and Eleanor Roosevelt, whether or not they were closeted homosexuals.

Davis briefly discusses how Angela had no qualms about informing on Communist party members who were also homosexual, for example an old girlfriend of actress Judy Holliday who was also a policewoman. That’s fascinating, in the sense, that Angela seemed to have no loyalties to anyone, not even the FBI! I wish there had been a bit more about the lesbian and gay subculture of the Village during the forties and the fifties.  Angela was hiding two secrets, that she was an informant for the FBI and also that she as a lesbian.  The author describes Calomiris as becoming a media darling from her actions, calling her "America's Sweetheart." It's a fascinating reflection on an era where America's sweetheart could be a lesbian with strong Greek features, who had to work hard to try to appear more feminine.  Angela didn’t seem concerned at all that she might be outed as a lesbian! Especially since she was having a relationship at the time with the sister-in-law of her FBI handler.  You have to admit Angela had chutzpah.

Of course, the biggest question is why the FBI, who surely knew or suspected that Angela was a lesbian, would recruit her as a confidential informant? Especially given the prevailing attitudes towards homosexuality at the time? Gay people were not only targets for violence and arrest; they were also considered more vulnerable to blackmail than a citizen of allegedly upstanding moral fiber. Well at the time, the threat of communism was more important than Angela’s sexual orientation.  Even though the Soviet Union ended up being our ally during the WWII, the FBI had been watching the Communists since the 1930’s.  It’s hard to believe that at one point, Communism is seen as a bigger threat than the Nazi’s! The FBI were willing to use any means necessary to root out communism in the United States. While the FBI was willing to overlook her sexual orientation, as long as she got the job done, the Communist Party was not so lenient. She was nearly expelled from the party (which would have jeopardized her role as an informant). Angela had do some fancy dancing to reassure the party leadership that she was as straight arrow as it were.

Unfortunately for Angela, she didn’t exactly ingratiate herself with the FBI.  She kept demanding that they find her a job, but not just any job, it had to be one that Angela felt was worthy of her talents. Working for Life or Look magazine as a staff photographer.  No starting at the bottom for Angela. While other FBI informants had movies made of their stories, no one would touch Angela’s with a ten-foot pole.  There would be no movie deal, or TV show detailing her exploits.  Instead, Angela faded into obscurity.  She took her savings, moved to Provincetown and bought a great deal of property.  She eventually moved to Mexico where she passed away in 1993.


In the end, while this book is an interesting snapshot of a tumultuous time, it ultimately fails as a biography of a controversial woman.  

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