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Award-Winning Author's Latest Biography Focuses on Jewish Special Agent

Shalom Life speaks to Clare Mulley on the dangers of researching spies, and on 'The Spy Who Loved', her latest biography on the Jewish special agent who inspired 'James Bond' creator Ian Fleming

By: Zak Edwards
Published: October 16th, 2013 in News » World
The Spy Who Loved, by Clare Mulley

When in Poland researching her latest book, Clare Mulley thought she lost her mind as she exited the flat she was using in Warsaw. Coming out of the building, the award-winning biographer told us in an interview, "An officer in full Nazi uniform came charging at me, shouting at me in Polish." The man even pushed the barrel of his machine gun to her neck while continuing to shout at her.

"I thought I had gotten so obsessed that I had just lost my marbles or something," the author tells me, but it turns out she’s completely sane: they were just filming a World War II drama for Polish television.

Such an event had Mulley 'practically crying on the pavement'; Jewish-Polish special agent Krystna Skarbek, the subject of Mulley's latest biography: The Spy Who Loved: The Secrets and Lives of Christine Granville, however, was all too familiar with these very types of situations.

As Mulley puts it, "Krystyna always kept her cool."


(Krystyna Skarbek a.k.a. Christine Granville)

Krystyna Skarbek, later known as Christine Granville, was one of the most accomplished and successful special agents of the Second World War, responsible for the multiple prisoner extractions and intelligence operations that helped secure her homeland and the Allies’ victory.

Her exploits are said to have inspired characters in post-war pulp novels, in particular, Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond series. Part of what made Christine so successful was her very purposeful mystique, which offered her researcher little in terms of first-hand material.

In a world of Wikipedia, Mulley strongly believes in the power of hands-on research, of talking to people directly and digging through archives, which help in discovering information about a secret agent.

Much of the usual channels that Mulley used in her first bio about Save the Children founder Eglantyne Jebb, such as family records and well-documented British archives, are simply unfeasible with Christine. "She was a special agent and trained to keep everything a secret," Mulley explains.

"A lot of the official records have been destroyed, either by accident or on purpose." This made Mulley's research that much harder to conduct but also that much more rewarding. Mulley’s travels saw her retracing Christine through multiple countries, from Poland to France, finding the more obscure records, all of which offered irreplaceable experiences and information that don’t normally show up in the first few hits of Google.

Mulley’s research found her meeting with former acquaintances, family members of Christine’s lovers, and a variety of primary sources that digital research just cannot provide. "I would never, ever trust Google," the author says. "Unless you go to these places, you cannot do the research proper."

Besides, no search engine can put you in the middle of a World War II drama with irate Nazi-uniformed actors. Such an encounter brings insight that the internet cannot provide. Thankfully, any skim of Christine’s Wikipedia page, which reads like the old pulp novels she inspired, leaves readers begging for something better. Mulley’s encounters and research, whether they be Nazi-uniformed soldiers or meeting with family members able to offer first-hand encounters or rare artifacts, add another dimension to trying to learn about a life shrouded, very purposefully, in lies.

"Even this [her encounter with the Polish television crew] is useful," Mulley says about trying to tap into her subject’s viewpoint and experience. "Christine was arrested more than once. If she had been caught, she would have been shot immediately."


(Clare Mulley)

Mulley is very focused on the facts, but such a subject lends certain qualifications to the term. After all, a woman who told lies about herself regularly (her death certificate confirms that Christine managed to change her name, nationality, and even birth year during her lifetime) has layers of truth within her shrouds of mystery.

Mulley discusses Christina’s Jewish heritage in similar terms, that it reveals certain "emotional truths" that help paint a more complete picture. Although her mother was from an assimilated Jewish family, Mulley believes Christine’s combined family history of Catholic, Jewish and Polish aristocracy helped her in her wartime exploits.

"She was considered to be Jewish by many other people," Mulley explains. "She wore her faith quite lightly."

This in-between space, where she traversed multiple social circles while never quite fitting in, meant she was used to "fighting for her corner." And if things got too exciting, she had more than a few tricks up her sleeve: one of the times she was captured, Christine faked tuberculosis by biting her tongue until it bled.

She, of course, got away with it.

This and any many more stories about Krystyna Skarbek are in Mulley’s biography, available in hardcover and ebook formats. Next month, The Spy Who Loved is also getting translated into Polish, which Mulley says "feels like Krystyna is finally going home."

Related articles: World War II, Holocaust, Nazis, Jewish News, Clare Mulley, James Bond, Ian Fleming
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