Saturday, November 7, 2015
Tale Of An American Spy
3 September 2011 at 11:42
The tale of spies is one that intrigues and stirs the imagination and the tale that I am telling today is no less than intriguing and will spark the imagination. It begins with the birth of a daughter in Sacramento, California in the year 1893. Her name was Velvalee Malvena Blucher. Her lineage was from the Hillbilly country of West Virginia and Kentucky. Both of her parents were of German Descent and hard working folk. Velvalee was going through a difficult period in her life. She had studied Japanese, but found it too difficult and started attending the University of California in 1937 and graduated from Stanford with a Bachelors of Arts Degree. Her personal life was in turmoil due to three marriages, two ending in divorce. Her third and final marriage was to Lee. T. Dickinson, a west coast commodity broker. Velvalee was a member of the Japanese-American Society and was a person well connected to the Japanese Consulate. She was entertained by Japanese Dignitaries and was invited on Japanese Warships. It is said that a Japanese Spy had her name in a book he brought from Japan.
She began collecting dolls in 1934 when a friend brought her a pair of Native Dolls from the Philippines. Her interest in dolls grew quickly and soon she and her husband borrowed 100 dollars from a friend and moved to NYC. She started to work in a department store but did not work there long before she developed a real love of dolls. She joined the Doll Collectors of America and also the Toy Collectors Club of NY, the parent company of UFDC. She lived in a co-op apt. with her brother and opened her first doll shop at 718 Madison Ave. There was an excellent article written up in the Hobby Magazine of 1938. It talked about the different nationalities represented in her collection. One of her customers was Elizabeth Hooper whom she wrote letters to, including one addressed January 9th, that said “ My dearest 'Baltimore Doll' What hour shall we talk on Jan. 28? Please let me know so that I may plan to be away from my shop to hear you. “ On June 27, 1939 she wrote saying “ I am bringing my very ill husband to John Hopkins Hospital on July 10th. Please tell me if I may room within walking distance of the hospital?” Other letters were sent to Elizabeth indicating that her husband had had the surgery elsewhere.
Meanwhile she continued to collect and amass a huge array of foreign dolls and started publishing a list for sale as early as 1939. There was great appeal of her shop at that time as foreign dolls of all types had been cut off due to the War and she had a marvelous collection of latest dolls from Paris and England. She continued to write letters to her clientele including one Senore Inez de Monanali in Argentina. The letters looked innocent enough on the surface but the astute gentleman from the FBI soon figured out that the reference to “Irish Dolls” old women- with pack on their backs in actuality meant modern airplane carriers or that “ the cite little doll shop she happened to run across where they did repair so skillfully was not a reference to the Humpty Dumpty Hospital run by Emma C. Clear in Redondo Beach, but the the condition of the battleships in Pearl Harbor. For a year the FBI shadowed the receivers of the letters, most of the, chatty and seemingly innocent til one day an Oregon collector received a long typewritten letter addressed to a woman she had never heard of before and with her SIGNATURE clearly written at the bottom of the letter. She thought to herself “Am I going mad?” The letter indicated the South American woman was going to visit them but she had no clue as to who the woman was or who had written the letter. She took the letter to her husband who suggested they take the letter to the FBI. They went over the letter sentence by sentence and all of the statements did not make sense.
The name of her daughter was incorrect and one did not just happen upon the Humpty Dumpty Doll Hospital. It was 20 miles outside of town. One sentence in the letter did make sense. Had she ever mentioned the vacant bedroom of her daughters since the daughters marriage? That did ring a bell. She had mentioned it to Velvalee Dickinson whom had mentioned she and her husband would be traveling to Oregon and the rooms were crowded. As a fellow doll collector she had offered them hospitality in her home. The FBI agents wanted to know who Velvalee Dickinson was and she told them that she was an antique doll dealer, lecturer and collector well respected in all doll circles of that day and that Mrs. Dickinson had continued to send her dolls on approval, even though she had not purchased one in a long while, yet still they came once a month.
Without realizing it she had been carrying on a long standing correspondence with Velvalee. Several other collectors had been receiving these strange nonsensical letters as well. The FBI pursued all these leads and cleared the people writing to as time went on. The letters were sent from every city the Dickinsons had stayed in and were written on the typewriters in the various rooms.
Before long, the FBI had enough evidence amassed and had confiscated dolls that had cryptic messages inside. One in particular comes to mind. It was a penny wooden doll that had a tiny purse on the front of her dress. Inside was a message concerning treasonable information given to her by Japanese Allies. When confronted by the FBI, she immediately turned the spotlight on her dying husband by saying he had contracted with the Japanese Government for $25,000 to learn and betray our secrets. As her husband was dying this seemed like the easy way out. It was ascertained that her complete doll business had been built up in order to betray our government,as her knowledge of dolls was brought to question on one of her Ca. trips to Mrs. Gustav Mox. The Mox collection filled rooms in a Santa Monica setting and Mrs. Mox one day gave a garden party to which Velvalee was invited. Everyone present was very excited, as we would be today to see a Coleman present at one of our soiree's and her Granddaughter was particularly looking forward to showing off her grand collection of the many fine French dolls in their collection.
When Velvalee saw the showy dolls dressed as various Queens with costumes of hand embroidered satin with royal purple capes and ermine tails and jewelry she said “ Oh, you collect those?” No one in the East would have them. We have a whole cellar full of them and you can have them for a song.” This statement was made to Eleanor St. George, whom was also attending the party. Little Bonnie Jean Mox, in her first party dress, promptly burst into tears that could not be quieted and wept her heart out in her Grandmothers arms because she thought as everyone else did, that this was the premier doll judge in the country. Things were quiet at the doll party for a few moments until Velvalee discovered a large case of Parians, Chinas and Bisque. She said, “now these are the kinds of dolls we love,” entirely missing the fact that they were Emma Clear reproductions and a real old case of the aforementioned dolls were right next to this case. There were many more of these faux pas in her dolling days and such episodes tended one to surmise that she was not the knowledgeable doll judge she made out to be. Speculation exists that someone more clever than her actually set her up in the doll market for an elaborate cover.
An update to this account was given by the Colemans in the Fall issue of the Dolls News 1992, a magazine about and for the UFDC or United Federation of Doll Clubs, one of the longest running clubs for people that collect antique dolls. They state “that many people wanted to know what happened to Velvalee after her prison sentence.” The Colemans had acquired some early Janet P. Johl books and while looking through them one day, a newspaper clipping fell out entitled “End of the Spy Trail for the Lady Of The Dolls.”. It was published in The Sunday Mirror Magazine, April 6, 1952 and was copyrighted by King Features Syndicate INC. The Colemans state that the article describes the spy activities of Velvalee Dickinson and also tells of her release on parole after being sentenced to ten years.
The following is a quote from the newspaper article and from the Doll News referenced above and says, “ Amid the enormous public interest engendered in the conviction and death sentence of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for wartime A-Bomb espionage, the release from prison of New York's infamous woman spy of WWII passed completely unnoticed. Mrs. Velvalee Dickinson, who worked with the Japanese while the Rosenberg's were spying for Russia, was convicted not of espionage, which she certainly committed, but of violation of the censorship law, to which she pleaded guilty. Fined $10,000 dollars and sentenced to 10 years in prison, she was lately and quietly released on parole, and given a job in a hospital ( the location the Mirror magazine has agreed to keep secret. Her story, hitherto told only in bits and pieces during her trial, (understandably, since the newspapers of the period were occupied with more vital war news), is here related by Karl Singer....condensed from his latest, “The Worlds 30 Greatest Women Spies” and is currently published by Wilfred Funk.”
This is an updated article from The Boston Globe:
A Doll With A Dark Past: Owner Seeks Truth About It's Role In WWII Spy Network. Boston Globe, Tuesday, September 11, 2001 by Tara H. Arden Smith, Globe Correspondent. Third Edition, Metro Region section. Page 1 B
Cambridge- When she saw the doll for the very first time, black eyes glinting through the war – darkened window of a Madison Avenue bookstore, she strained on her tiptoes for a better look.
Drawing sharp breaths amid January frost, 13 year old Lee Lawrence Pierce pushed her nose to the plate glass. The gypsy rag doll appeared haunted. Certain a story of sorrow was somewhere inside, Pierce determined, right then, that she would make the doll her own.
On the day she came back for it, thin wrists sagging beneath her brimming sack of nickels and dimes, the doll was gone from the window. But Pierce's disappointment was short lived. It's owner had left town and Pierce was able to buy the doll from the bookstore proprietor.
Within days, there was a fearsome knock on the door of her Grandmothers New York apartment. Two Federal agents burst in and snatched the doll;when it was returned a week later, there was a course, zigzagging stitch across its smooth cotton neck, evidence of a crude decapitation.
That was 1944. A decade later, as a young woman working for the US state Department in Buenos Aires, Pierce made a shocking discovery. Her Doll, her most cherished possession had been a clue in one of the most extraordinary treason cases of WWII. The doll's owner had been the first American woman to face the death penalty on charges of spying for a wartime enemy.
Now, 57 years after staring mesmerized through that bookstore window, Pierce has filled her Huron Avenue home with dolls. And there, on the top shelf of her display cabinet in the front parlor, is the doll that Pierce loves, and hates, the most.
“Perla's scary, isn't she?” Pierce queries softly, eyebrows arched. “She feels like a demon sometimes. But if you can get past that and be open to her, you can feel how painful her story is and how scared she must be. I've always wanted to protect her from whatever it is that's been haunting her all this time.”
For almost six decades, Perla Negra- so named for her eyes of real black Mexican pearls-has stared at Pierce from the doll cabinet with an oddly beseeching gaze. Lately, it's led Pierce to think about Velvalee Blucher Dickinson, the spy who owned the doll.
Years ago, Pierce fixed the doll's eyes, darkening the gleaming white that had surrounded the Pearls, to make the eyes less human. Still, their intensity unsettles Pierce even now.
As her hearing fades and her arthritis gets worse, Pierce has resolved to discover the rest of her doll's secret story: whether Perla Negra was used in the bookstore window to signal new information that Dickinson had gathered for Japan. Solving that mystery, Pierce hopes, will end her first doll's long purgatory as a possible accomplice in treason- and explain her own relationship to a doll that has allured and terrified her for six decades.
The Doll Collector's House
In the parlor of the Cambridge home where she has lived for the last 33 years, Lee Lawrence Pierce looks to her best dolls, more than 50 from every corner of the world, for stories. Off her kitchen, behind
a thin curtain, a hundred more stand ready to greet any visitors with rows of grin-hardened faces.
“Dolls can be challenging,” Pierce mused during one in a series of recent interviews at her home. “If you think like they have some human characteristics, it can really be very overwhelming.”
There's the pigtailed Polish doll that she was given by a Czech colleague at Radio Free Europe, where Pierce worked in the years after the war. The doll, blonde-haired and in traditional Polish peasant dress, was handed off from her young Polish owner to a Czech friend as the Nazi's raided the girl's Krakow home. The Czech friend, herself later sent to a concentration camp, hid the doll outside the camp gate having promised to protect it. After escaping, she finally retrieved the doll on her third escape attempt and eventually entrusted her to Pierce.
“Every doll has a life because someone love and lives with it. And if the dolls are with us, they see everything,” Pierce said.
Most of Pierce's dolls reflect her fascination with worlds she doesn't know. She treasures stone Buddhas as much as the Chinese dragons, as much as Haitian Voodoos, as much as the Mexican gypsy rag doll who became Perla Negra.
It was this first doll that sparked the fascination, and the doll whose life story has become so eerily intertwined with Pierce's own. As a State Department employee, Pierce says she lived on the same street in Buenos Aires to which Dickinson mailed her secrets to the Japanese agents. It was on that street that a missed pickup eventually alerted US authorities, sparking Dickinson's downfall.
Pierce did not know then of the street's connection to Dickinson.
But now, in heaps of faded papers, Pierce collects clues about Perla's former owner, and sifts through the responses to decades of queries to the governments of the United States and Japan. This month, her search will take her to the libraries of London, where she will rummage archives looking for her next lead.
“My Perla fille” she calls one expanse of paper, arm outstretched. “This is where we live.” What Pierce most wants to know is this: Did Velvalee Dickinson loan Perla Negra to the bookstore owner, Dickinson's neighbor and landlord, with the specific intention of using Perla as a signal doll? Did the doll's intermittent, and changeable position in the store's front display window mean anything? If so, what?
And how many people did it kill?
Velavalee Dickinson would be over 100 years old now and is almost certainly dead. But the most detailed records about Dickinson's case, long requested by Pierce, have been held back by the FBI because no one can prove she's not alive. The agency says that releasing the files would be an unwarranted invasion of Dickinson's personal privacy.
But not if Pierce can prove that Velvalee Dickinson has really passed away. To claim a copy of the death certificate, she needs the name Dickinson used at the end of her life, and a place.
All that Pierce has gotten the FBI to reveal is that Dickinson was a renowned Manhattan doll collector who traveled the country showing her dolls in the homes of carefully selected clients. The clients, FBI documents show, tended to be the wives of well-placed officers on the US Navy vessels in the South Pacific.
Over tea and doll talk, Dickinson would gather information on ship' placements and conditions crucial details that she would relay to her Japanese Government employers via coded letters that discussed the destroyers as if they were dolls.
On Jan. 21, 1944, Dickinson was arrested and charged with spying on behalf of wartime Japan. One of a handful of known female spies, the first American woman to face execution for espionage-Dickinson pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and served 10 years in the Federal Reformatory for Women in Alderson, W. Va.
No records of Dickinson's life or even names she may have used after her release from prison have been obtainable.
Dickinson's years of espionage are detailed in several FBI memorandum compiled in September 1944, just after Dickinson had begun to serve her sentence. The reports describe a prim, middle-aged woman who forged close ties with Japanese-Americans during seven years working for a stock brokerage that handled major accounts in California's Imperial Valley.
In 1937 , Dickinson moved to New York to launch a business selling rare and expensive dolls. Her clients soon included women across the country, and she often traveled to their homes to show them new dolls- and casually ask about their husbands, especially those serving on Navy ships.
Though the FBI 's first firm evidence of Dickinson's espionage is a returned letter she sent to Buenos Aires in February 1942, she is suspected of relaying information on US destroyers before Japan's Dec. 7, 1941 attack on Pear Harbor. The surprise bombing raid killed or wounded more than 3,500 Americans and decimated the US Pacific Fleet in less than two hours.
In a personal response to inquiries from Pierce dated Dec. 9, 1960, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover wrote that Dickinson's communications with the enemy “became known as 'doll letters' since they related primarily to the location and condition of 'dolls.' Under the code which the Japanese gave Mrs. Dickinson to use, these 'dolls' actually were various types of American naval vessels.”
According to FBI records, one awkwardly written Dickinson letter”contained the words 'Distroyed Your' and in the same sentence made reference for a Mr. Shaw who had been ill but would be back to work soon.
This letter was written a short time after it became known the the USS Shaw, which had its bow blown off at Pearl Harbor, was being repaired in a West Coast shipyard and would soon rejoin the fleet.”
Hours before Dickinson's arrest, Pierce met the anxious collector, sleek in a rigid black shirtwaist and tight curls, on her way out of town. Trailed across the country and back, Dickinson knew by then that the FBI was close behind. And Pierce, with her mother at the bookshop owned by Dickinson's affable landlady, had just picked up the doll.
What Pierce now remembers about her one encounter with Dickinson brims with the meticulous detail of a frightened childhood memory. Pierce had begged the bookstore owner, Jo Kimball, to allow her to touch the doll.
“There's nothing I can say that would describe how I felt when I first looked at her in that bookstore window.” Pierce said. “I hated dolls then, and had never had one before, but she was from another universe, and I had to know why she looked so scared.”
At first, Kimball said No, the doll wasn't hers to loan. But furtive glances and a few whispers later and the doll was in Pierce's arms.
Then abruptly, from behind a curtain dividing the bookstore form the rest of the building, a woman appeared. She looked huge, Pierce says, and cruel – though in FBI records Dickinson is described as petite and quite pretty. The woman grabbed the doll and stormed away.
In tears, Pierce vowed to go back for her.
A day later, life-savings in hand, Pierce found the doll face-down on the desk in Jo Kimball's office. Kimball told her to just take the doll home, for her owner had left her behind.
Pierce recalled “ being barely able to breathe, and as soon as I had her all I could do was run out of the room.”
For one night, Pierce was thrilled, gazing at her mysterious booty and waiting for the moment when some revelation might make that little girl her doll's confidante.
But then the Federal agents appeared.
“I knew there was something wrong with her, and I knew it was my job to protect her.” Pierce recalled. “I knew that I shouldn't let them take her away, even though I had no idea how I knew what they had come for, or what was wrong with her..... or what they thought she did.”
Hunt For Witnesses
Few alive today remember Velvalee Dickinson or her dolls. Becky Moncrief, the president of the United Federation of Doll Clubs, the largest doll collectors' organization in the country, says that even in the doll world, it would take a real “old timer” to know whether any others of Dickinson's known dolls are still out there.
Pierce, though , hasn't lost heart. She's on a hunt for witnesses, any who might still be alive and could tell her whether Perla Negra's irregular placement in the display window of Young's Bookstore was a signal to Dickinson's cohorts.
Somebody, she says, must have noticed something.
“I need to know if my doll was used in a way that led to people being killed,” Pierce said.
This is the end of the account as we know it and my thanks to the sources of this article which also include contemporary newspaper accounts of the day. The Colemans state that there are inconsistencies, as will all news accounts done by many different people and sources; Dorothy and Elizabeth Coleman and The Doll News Of Fall 1992 and Winter 1991; my friend Rene Mandell for the updated Boston Globe article on Sept. 11, 2001, and last but probably the greatest source who actually traveled in the same circles and gave a first hand account, Eleanor St. Georges great book, The Dolls Of Yesterday, copyright 1948 published by Charles Scribe's & Sons.
Thank you to all that have completed the reading of this lengthy tale. I have enjoyed the telling and I hope all enjoy the reading.
Til next time, Kimmee
Velvalee died in the 1980's and much mystery surrounds her life and death.