Today on Vox Tablet, host Sara Ivry sits down with Wendy Lower, author of Hitler’s Furies, a surprising new book about the women of the Third Reich. In the same vein, we are remembering Margaret Dodd, the American writer turned socialite turned Nazi consort turned Soviet spy. Her story, though relatively unknown, is astounding. Dodd’s life shows us an alternative 1930s, through the eyes of playful young woman with a writer’s imagination and a serious knack for political shape-shifting to fit in with her partner of the moment.
Born to a middle class family in 1908 in Ashland, VA, Martha Dodd was a graduate of the University of Chicago (English major). She became the assistant literary editor of the Chicago Tribune, and spent the late 1920s writing short stories and having many lovers—as English majors are wont to do—including Carl Sandburg and Thomas Wolfe.
Dodd spent the 1930s in Berlin with her father, the U.S. Ambassador to Germany, appointed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Originally quite enamored of the Nazis, her liaisons provide a veritable who’s who of the up-and-coming National Socialists, including Rudolf Diels, then head of the Gestapo. Her memoir, My Years in Germany, deliciously chronicles many an inter-war party scene involving history’s villains; while her writing never received any critical approval, her memoir strikes the perfect balance of gossipy description and judgmental analysis of early Nazi faux pas (many involve having no sense of humor).
The previously apolitical Dodd was entranced by the “constructive work the Nazis were doing” and turned a blind eye to certain abuses she witnessed, such as a woman with a shaved head being bullied by a crowd for having slept with a Jewish man. Surely this was an isolated incident, she rationalized in her memoir, and she was too impressed with what Hitler was doing for the economy, and perhaps what Diels was doing privately, to pay it much heed.
But it didn’t take long for her to change her mind. The treatment of the Jews in Nazi Germany is narrated in Dodd’s memoir with a twinge of modern-day class-consciousness. “When I first came to Germany I was no more and no less anti-Semitic than most gentiles of my background and education,” she writes. “I didn’t like many of what were described to me as their people’s characteristics (I fell into that common category of people who said, ‘Some of my best friends are Jews, but…’), I thought they were ‘pushy’ and over-intellectual. I had the average gentile’s envy of their brilliance and accomplishment which was developed into a vague prejudice.” But she records that “As factual and thoughtful literature began to seep in, against the Nazis’ will, and replace the reams of Nazi propaganda, I began to see the German Jew in his historical role, in his good as well as his bad light.”
Prior to this change of heart, though, Dodd had an encounter that made her the envy of Deutschland. According to My Years in Germany, another of her lovers was Hitler’s aide, the Harvard educated Ernst “Putzi” Hanfstaengl. Hanfstaengl, Dodd writes “Had been calling up and wanting to arrange for me to meet Hitler. Hanfstaengl spluttered and ranted grandiosely: ‘Hitler needs a woman. Hitler should have an American woman—a lovely woman could change the whole destiny of Europe. Martha, you are the woman!'”
Dodd graciously accepted her role, deciding that “Since I was appointed to change the history of Europe, I decided to dress in my most demure and intriguing best—which always appeals to the Germans: they want their women to be seen and not heard, and then seen only as appendages of the splendid male they accompany—with a veil and a flower and a pair of very cold hands.” She went with Hanfstaengl to the Kaiserhof to hear some music, and Hitler came in with several men, sitting “unostentatiously at the table next to us.” After meeting the Fuhrer and having her hand kissed by him twice, Dodd treats the reader to three paragraphs of something quite unusual—a description of Hitler through the eyes of a winsome twenty-something with a sense of humor:
This first glance left me with a picture of a weak, soft face with pouches under the eyes, full lips and very little bony facial structure. The moustache didn’t seem as ridiculous as it appeared in pictures—in fact, I scarcely noticed it; but I imagine that is because I was pretty well conditioned to such things by that time. As has often been said, Hitler’s eyes were startling and unforgettable—they seemed pale blue in colour, were intense, unwavering, hypnotic.
Certainly the eyes were his only distinctive feature. They could contain fury and fanaticism and cruelty; they could be mystic and tearful and challenging. This particular afternoon he was excessively gentle and modest in his manners. Unobtrusive, communicative, informal, he had a certain quiet charm, almost a tenderness of speech and glance. He talked soberly to Kiepura and seemed very interested and absorbed in meeting both of us. The curious embarrassment he showed in meeting me, his somewhat apologetic, nervous manner, my father tells me—and other diplomats as well—are always present when he meets the diplomatic corps en masse. This self-consciousness has created in him a shyness and distaste for meeting people above him in station or wealth. As time went on, Hitler’s face and bearing changed noticeably—he began to look and walk more and more like Mussolini. But this peculiar shy strain of character has to this day remained.
Alas, Dodd, who might have changed the whole destiny of Europe, is unable to sustain her first impression; “When I left the Kaiserhof with the ecstatic and towering jitterbug Putzi, I could lend only half an ear to his extravagant, senseless talk. I was thinking of the meeting with Hitler. It was hard to believe that this man was one of the most powerful men in Europe—even at this time, other nations were afraid of him and his growing “New Germany.” He seemed modest, middle class, rather dull and self-conscious—yet with this strange tenderness and appealing helplessness. Only in the mad burning eyes could one see the terrible future of Germany.”
Dodd did not enter into a relationship with Hitler, but instead, hosted a party, during which one of her guests offended her by being so partisan to the Nazis as to humorlessly turn off her wireless during her party, and, as Martha muses in her memoir, “Unconsciously this may have been the turning-point of my reactions of a simple and more social nature to Nazi dictatorship.” It was around that time that “Murderous stories began to circulate,” and Dodd’s love affair with the Nazi party summarily ended.
Disillusioned with her rambunctious and party-loving Nazi friends, Dodd visited Russia where she met and fell in love with Boris Winogradov, a Russian diplomat based in Berlin. Dodd suddenly become interested and invested in Communism, and Winogradov recruited her as a Soviet Intelligence spy. Dodd used her father’s position as ambassador to access confidential U.S. documents, passing them on to the Communists. During her Berlin years, she was considered a valuable asset to Soviet intelligence. In 1936, she and Winogradov even applied to Stalin for permission to be married, but they were turned down.
Dodd returned to America in 1937 and slept with Louis Ferdinand, grandson of the Kaiser, and filmmaker Sidney Kaufman, before marrying Jewish New York millionaire Alfred Stern, who she drew into her espionage circle, and with whom she started a music publishing house from which to transmit intelligence. In the meantime, Dodd published her memoir and two novels.
While Dodd—code name “Liza”—was a strong asset while she lived in Berlin, the communists lost interest in her soon after her return to the U.S.; in their book, The Haunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America, Allen Weinsetin and Alexander Vassiliev quote a report that sums Dodd up as follows: “She considers herself a Communist and claims to accept the party’s program. In reality Liza is a typical representative of American bohemia, a sexually decayed woman ready to sleep with any handsome man.”
By 1948, she and Stern were under FBI surveillance, and in 1956 they fled to Prague. The couple, with their son Robert, shuttled between Prague, Moscow, and Cuba until Dodd died in 1990 at the age of 82.