THE WASHINGTON POST – The life of a young woman named Gertrude ‘Gertie’ Legendre was so exotic that it sounds like the plot of a stage play or a motion picture. Gertie was raised in privilege in the Old South, moved with her family to New York, the United States (US) at the height of the Jazz Age and took up big-game hunting in Africa in her 20s, where she was befriended by Haile Selassie, the emperor of Ethiopia.
In fact, she served as the inspiration for both a Broadway play, Holiday, and its Hollywood movie, starring, almost inevitably, Katharine Hepburn as “an amusing, sometimes abrasive society girl who wants to escape the confining expectations of her family’s fabulous wealth”.
Yet Legendre’s early exploits, as colourful as they were, serve as the prelude to the even more exotic life story that Peter Finn reveals in A Guest of the Reich: The Story of American Heiress Gertrude Legendre’s Dramatic Captivity and Escape From Nazi Germany.
With America’s entry into World War II in 1941, “the American idyll was over,” as Finn writes, and Legendre’s adult life began in deadly earnest.
The tale Finn tells so compellingly in A Guest of the Reich opens in newly liberated Paris in 1944. Legendre, then 42, was an officer in the storied Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the wartime intelligence agency that was the precursor to the CIA. With her two children in the care of a nanny in New York, and her husband heading home for his first leave since he was commissioned after Pearl Harbour, Legendre seized an opportunity to visit the headquarters of Genenal George Patton in Luxembourg before going back to the US – an excursion that “might well be her last chance to get close to the front in order ‘to smell the fighting’.”
Finn is the national security editor of The Washington Post and a co-author (with Petra Couvée) of The Zhivago Affair, another work of nonfiction about a real-life event that was compared by critics to a John Le Carré novel. The same blend of factual precision and tense storytelling is on display in A Guest of the Reich, which offers an insider’s perspective on an aspect of Nazi Germany that has mostly escaped the attention of historians and journalists.
The mission to Patton’s field headquarters was cut short when Legendre and her fellow officers blundered into German-held territory. Under enemy fire and at risk of capture, they burned their OSS credentials, which “were deeply incriminating and could lead to their being branded as spies, tortured, and possibly shot.” When German soldiers emerged from the forest and ordered them at gunpoint to put their hands up, Legendre earned a new badge of distinction: She “had just become the first American woman in uniform to be captured by the Nazis.” As Legendre saw it, she was fated by her own nature to put herself in harm’s way.
“I felt a dreadful sense of guilt,” she said of her capture. “Danger and adventure, they quickened the pulse and challenged me. I wondered why I was made that way.”
Founder and Firector of the OSS William Donovan regarded her capture not merely as a misadventure but as a dire threat to combat operations. Legendre possessed top-secret information about the French resistance, which was openly engaging the Wehrmacht, and Donovan feared that Legendre would turn out to be, in his words, a “loose cannon”.
What he did not know was that Legendre, now held in solitary confinement in Germany and under Gestapo interrogation, was standing up courageously to questioning by “employing her best ditzy girl act,” which prompted her captors to treat her as “a curiosity”. When she was allowed to join the other American prisoners of war, some of them feared she was “an English-speaking stooge planted by camp authorities to pick up information”.
Legendre’s ordeal in German captivity is described in harrowing detail but also with an acute grasp of the physical and psychological trials that the Nazis inflicted on their prisoners.
Her expert interrogation by a Nazi officer who had once lived in the US included a line that has become a cliche in countless war movies: “We have ways of finding things out.” But he also recognised that his prisoner, “with her impeccable connections, was a potential ally for his own postwar survival”.
When the capture of Legendre was announced by a German news agency, a Swedish newspaper reported that the famous American woman was convinced that she would be able to escape and “get a Hollywood contract without difficulty”.
Her celebrity brought her a kind of security that was rarely afforded to the enemies of Nazi Germany: “She was now seen not as a prisoner of war but as a ‘special prisoner’ whose social standing and contacts could be exploited,” Finn explains.
Adolf Hitler himself ordered her transfer to the Berlin headquarters of the Gestapo. Although the Gestapo’s victims already included OSS officers who had been captured behind the lines, she survived the additional interrogations and, remarkably, ended up at a luxury hotel in Bonn, “one of Hitler’s favourite places to stay before the war”.
Here Finn takes us through the looking glass into what he calls “a parallel Nazi detention system whose relative privileges stood in stark contrast to the horrors and barbarism of the death camps”. Her confinement turns abruptly from horrific to phantasmagorical. “My, I wonder what in the world is going to happen next?” Legendre thinks to herself, recalling Alice in Wonderland. As fascinating as Finn’s account has been so far, her experiences in the last days of the war – and the act of courage that finally led to her liberation – are worthy of the Hollywood contract that Legendre reportedly dreamed of.
As much as we know about World War II, A Guest of the Reich satisfies the reader’s curiosity about what actually happened to the Americans who found themselves on the ground in Nazi Germany during wartime. In that sense, Finn’s book occupies some of the same terrain as Erik Larson’s “In the Garden of Beasts.” Yet, just as Legendre herself was a unique figure in history, her saga is like no other that has so far reached us out of the belly of the beast.