May 15, 2019

Story of French Resistance Leader Draws Overflow Crowd to Library

By Anne Levin

Despite pouring rain, it was standing room only Monday evening at Princeton Public Library, where author Lynne Olson spoke about her best-selling book, Madame Fourcade’s Secret War: The Daring Young Woman Who Led France’s Largest Spy Network Against Hitler, published earlier this year by Random House.

Interviewing the prolific Olson, who was making her third appearance at the library, was William Storrar, director of Princeton’s Center of Theological Inquiry. The story of Marie-Madeleine Fourcade is almost unbelievable — but it’s true. Born into privilege, the glamorous young mother of two headed the largest and most influential spy network in occupied France during World War II.

“She did so much to help the Allies win the war, but nobody really knows about her,” said Olson, a former journalist whose previous books include Citizens of London, A Question of Honor, and Last Hope Island. “She was the head of the largest and most influential Allied spying organization, and the only woman. I thought, ‘Why in the world didn’t I know about her? What little I learned made me what to know more.”

Olson decided she wanted to focus solely on Fourcade, who died in 1989 at the age of 79. During Fourcade’s childhood, her father was headquartered in Shanghai, “a wild, wooly city filled with Chinese drug warlords, White Russians escaping from the Bolsheviks,” and other assorted characters, Olson said. That childhood gave Fourcade a taste for danger. “It really had an impact on her. She loved risk and adventure.”

Fourcade moved to Paris and married at 18. The fact that her husband was being sent to Morocco, which had a reputation for intrigue, might have been a deciding factor for the adventurous young woman, but he wanted her to be a traditional wife. She left him after having two children. “She was a huge fan of car rallies and she could fly a plane,” Olson said. “She also worked for a radio station. She was breaking every role she possibly could.”

Fourcade got involved in helping to gather intelligence after becoming frustrated by the French people’s willingness to go along with the German occupation. Having grown up in Shanghai rather than in Paris, she had not experienced the horrors of World War I. “In 1940, no one was thinking of resisting the Germans,” Olson said. “She didn’t understand that. When the people wanted to capitulate, she just couldn’t support that.”

The young spy-in-the-making worked first for a magazine covering military action in Europe, then for a center helping displaced French military veterans, and finally as a spy for the organization known as Alliance. She soon became its leader.

Alliance was the largest and most important Allied spy network in occupied France. Its 3,000 agents collected information on German troop movements, submarine sailing schedules, airfields and anti-aircraft defenses, and the Reich’s new terror weapons, the V-I flying bomb and the V-2 rocket. “She really ran three networks,” Olson said. “She was extraordinarily resistant. She was in constant danger to her own life.”

By 1943, Fourcade was on the run from the Gestapo, which was “more brutal than ever,” Olson said. She was also pregnant thanks to an affair with a French Air Force pilot. In Lyon, she gave birth to a baby boy, but quickly returned to the business of gathering intelligence.

Among Fourcade’s most dangerous dodges of the Gestapo were a nine-hour freezing train ride into Spain, during which she was stuffed into a mailbag; and an escape from a prison cell in a military barracks, where she oiled her slim frame and squeezed through window bars, naked, with her dress in her teeth. Somehow, she made it back to Paris and eluded the enemy.

Olson first encountered Fourcade while researching her book Last Hope Island. “I had done research previously on the French and Polish resistance, but she was different,” she said. How had she managed to survive, thrive, and so heavily influence the course of the war?

“Marie-Madeleine Fourcade was unlike any other woman I have done research on,” Olson said. “Everyone I spoke to, including her daughter, said the same thing: She had an aura of authority. And she was incredibly charismatic. She just didn’t give up.”