The Spy Who Loved

The Secrets and Lives of Christine Granville

Clare Mulley

St. Martin's Press

Chapter 1: BORDERLANDS

Perhaps appropriately for a secret agent, the deceptions and confusions that surround Christine’s life start with her birth [Although she was ‘Krystyna’ until 1941, to prevent confusion I consistently use her adopted name, ‘Christine’, of which, she later wrote, she was so proud]. One story has it that Christine was born at the Skarbek family estate on a stormy spring evening in 1915, and that her arrival coincided with the appearance of Venus, the evening star, in the sky. As a result she was nicknamed ‘Vesperale’. In an even more romantic version of events, she was born ‘in the wild borderlands between Poland and Russia’, to a family that was noble, ‘tough, used to invasions, warfare, Cossacks, bandits and wolves’.1 In fact Christine arrived in the world on Friday 1 May 1908. One of her father’s childhood nicknames for her was ‘little star’, but she was born at her mother’s family house on Zielna Street, in central Warsaw, now the capital of Poland. Then, however, Warsaw was technically in Russia. Poland as we know it today was not a recognized country: apart from a brief reappearance, courtesy of Napoleon, for more than a century Poland had been partitioned into three sections, each of them subsumed into the empires of Russia, Austro-Hungary and Prussia. Christine was born into a family of aristocratic patriots, loyal to a country that would not officially exist again until she was ten years old.

She was a small and seemingly frail baby, so frail in fact that her parents feared for her life, and she was hastily baptized Maria Krystyna Janina Skarbek by a local priest less than two weeks after her birth. Five years later, Christine would go through the rite a second time in Beczkowice, where her parents had moved in 1913. The record of this second event has somehow survived in the local parish archive despite a series of wars and regime changes. Written in Russian, it was dated with the Russian Julian and Polish Gregorian calendars, as both the 17 and 30 November 1913. The Church does not officially sanction second baptisms, but Christine’s parents, one a rather lapsed Roman Catholic, the other a non-practising Jew, had long wanted a more elaborate celebration of their daughter’s arrival than had been possible at her birth. Their move out of Warsaw had conveniently provided a new local parish priest with whom to make arrangements.

Two certificates of baptism, five years apart and showing three different dates, serve as notice for Christine’s birth. But she has a single death certificate, part typed, part closely penned into the printed boxes of a Royal Borough of Kensington register office form. Here her given name is ‘Christine Granville’, her occupation is listed as ‘former wife’, and although the certificate is dated 1952, her age is recorded as just thirty-seven. Somewhere between 1908 and 1952, Warsaw and London, life and death, she had changed name and nationality, left two husbands and numerous lovers, won international honours but buried her career, and cut seven years from her life.

Christine’s father, Count Jerzy Skarbek, was a charming man. Described by his cousins as darkly attractive with ‘a seductive little moustache’, and by his nieces as ‘a very handsome man of patrician beauty’, he had that enviable ability to be at once hugely popular among his male friends, and almost irresistibly attractive to women, who seemed to constantly surround him. But the Count’s dark good looks were matched by his dark intentions. He was the archetypal aristocratic cad and bounder.

Jerzy Skarbek led a privileged life, typical of the landed gentry and very far from the struggle for existence faced by much of the Polish population in the late nineteenth century. The Count had been a ‘master’ since childhood, accustomed to having a valet and a groom. It was part of the innate order of the world. And yet, arguably, Jerzy Skarbek was not a Count at all.

With the exception of some Lithuanian princely families, historically Poland’s large enfranchised class, or ‘szlachta’, did not hold aristocratic titles. It was traditional for them to regard each other as equals, to be addressed as ‘dear brother’, and even – when Poland was still an independent country – to elect the Polish king. But many of the ancient nobility became so impoverished that they were effectively peasants with coats-of-arms. And many families who sported illustrious titles, as opposed to simply having noble names, owed these to their imperial overlords, who were, as a rule, buying favours. It was the Russian tsar Nicholas I who granted the Skarbeks’ title in the mid-nineteenth century. The fact that Jerzy Skarbek was not descended from this branch of the family made little difference to his social status. He was known to be a member of one of the oldest families in Poland, and was certainly accepted as an aristocrat in the circles that he believed mattered [* Jerzy Skarbek referred to himself as Count, and was named as such in his press obituary and on his tombstone. Christine listed her parents as Count and Countess Skarbek on her British Certificate of Naturalisation, dated December 1946, and elsewhere. For Polish genealogy and titles see Tomasz Lenczewski, ‘The Marriage of Coats of Arms and Accounts’, Rzeczpospolita, 22 VII (2008)].

Jerzy Skarbek certainly felt the honour of his family keenly, and any perceived slight rankled. As a child Christine remembered him rising from the table when a guest claimed descent from the last Polish king, Stanisław August Poniatowski. ‘[And I am] descended from a cobbler!’ Jerzy responded with some style, referring to the medieval Krako’w cobbler who had killed the fabled Wawel dragon by enticing it to devour a sheepskin stuffed with sulphur, and from whom he claimed descent.4 Few families boast a dragon-killer among their ancestors, let alone one who then married a king’s daughter. There were plenty more such stories in which the Skarbeks’ history was intertwined with Polish legends, and these would later fuel Christine’s own deeply held sense of personal, family and national pride. The one piece of jewellery that she wore throughout her life was not a wedding ring, but a Skarbek signet ring. This was designed with a slice of iron embedded in its face to commemorate the defiant eleventh-century Skarbek who would not bow to a German emperor for all his war chests of gold. Instead the proud Pole defiantly tossed his gold ring into the German coffers, shouting, ‘Let gold eat gold, we Poles love iron!’ The insulted emperor was later routed in a great battle when Polish swords indeed proved their might over the mercenary imperial German forces.

Not all notable Skarbeks had been so warlike, however. The nineteenth-century count Fryderyck Florian Skarbek was a highly respected economist, historian, author and social and political activist who, as president of the Charities Council, had introduced many important social reforms. Count Fryderyck had grown up on the family estate of Zelazowa Wola in the flat but not particularly productive plains west of Warsaw, where he was tutored by a distant relative called Nicholas Chopin. The estate was not hugely rich, and the house itself was quite modest, with the traditional long stretch of low rooms flanking a four-column portico entrance with balcony above. Despite the grand piano in the drawing room, it was essentially a comfortable family home, with geese and ducks free to wander on the porch. When the tutor’s son was born in 1810, he was named after the count, who had sensibly been invited to be the boy’s godfather. Fryderyck Chopin’s first printed work, a polonaise, would be dedicated ‘to Her Excellency Countess Victoria Skarbek, composed by Fryderyck Chopin, a musician aged eight’.5 Count Fryderyck probably paid for the piece to be published, which would account for its dedication to his sister, and he went on to be one of Chopin’s earliest and most ardent supporters. The Skarbek family remained immensely proud of the connection, especially when, after Chopin’s death in 1849, he was widely regarded as the embodiment of Poland’s nationalist politics and poetic spirit.

Jerzy Skarbek had inherited a noble name, a rich family history, and little sense of restraint. The Skarbeks owned acres of land, an assortment of houses, a collection of farms, and stables full of thoroughbred horses, but by his mid-twenties Jerzy’s indulgence in wine and women, roulette and racing had quickly diminished his income. In 1898 his family arranged for him to marry an exceedingly wealthy, clever and ‘absolutely beautiful’ Jewish banking heiress. In December that year, Stefania Goldfeder, newly baptized, was delighted to be embraced into the fold of one of Poland’s oldest families. The marriage was solemnized in the rites of the Helvetic Reform Church, apparently acceptable to both the Roman Catholic Skarbeks and the Goldfeders, who were non-observant Jews.

The wedding caused a scandal, albeit a minor one. No one in Warsaw had any doubts about the bridegroom’s motives, and there were some knowing smiles when the society pages chose to celebrate the Goldfeder family as belonging to ‘a class of financiers actively involved in the task of the material reconstruction of our martyred nation’. Jews, once sheltered by the Polish Commonwealth, had been heavily discriminated against by the Russian occupiers, and although there was a small assimilated Jewish intelligentsia, most Polish Jews spoke a different language, ate different food and wore different clothes. They were a source of curiosity, to be patronized or avoided. Even assimilated Jewish families were still subject to social ostracism, and if Jewish doctors and lawyers were popular it was partly because they brought with them a certain sort of professional distance. Once Jerzy and Stefania’s wedding ceremony was over, the members of the nobility and those of ‘the financial circles’ went their own ways, each with good reason to frown upon the motives of the other in this union. But while it was said that Jerzy did not marry Stefania, but rather he married her money, it is perhaps equally true that Stefania married the noble Skarbek name. The following year Jerzy bought a grand country estate at Młodzieszyn, which he felt both befitted a married man of his station, and was far enough removed to soften some of the noisier Warsaw gossip [Jerzy Skarbek is listed as the landowner of the Wechadlow estate, in the Pinczo district, where Christine probably lived until she was three years old, when they moved to Trzepnica].

Chapter 1: BORDERLANDS

 

Perhaps appropriately for a secret agent, the deceptions and confusions that surround Christine’s life start with her birth [Although she was ‘Krystyna’ until 1941, to prevent confusion I consistently use her adopted name, ‘Christine’, of which, she later wrote, she was so proud]. One story has it that Christine was born at the Skarbek family estate on a stormy spring evening in 1915, and that her arrival coincided with the appearance of Venus, the evening star, in the sky. As a result she was nicknamed ‘Vesperale’. In an even more romantic version of events, she was born ‘in the wild borderlands between Poland and Russia’, to a family that was noble, ‘tough, used to invasions, warfare, Cossacks, bandits and wolves’.1 In fact Christine arrived in the world on Friday 1 May 1908. One of her father’s childhood nicknames for her was ‘little star’, but she was born at her mother’s family house on Zielna Street, in central Warsaw, now the capital of Poland. Then, however, Warsaw was technically in Russia. Poland as we know it today was not a recognized country: apart from a brief reappearance, courtesy of Napoleon, for more than a century Poland had been partitioned into three sections, each of them subsumed into the empires of Russia, Austro-Hungary and Prussia. Christine was born into a family of aristocratic patriots, loyal to a country that would not officially exist again until she was ten years old.

 

She was a small and seemingly frail baby, so frail in fact that her parents feared for her life, and she was hastily baptized Maria Krystyna Janina Skarbek by a local priest less than two weeks after her birth. Five years later, Christine would go through the rite a second time in Beczkowice, where her parents had moved in 1913. The record of this second event has somehow survived in the local parish archive despite a series of wars and regime changes. Written in Russian, it was dated with the Russian Julian and Polish Gregorian calendars, as both the 17 and 30 November 1913. The Church does not officially sanction second baptisms, but Christine’s parents, one a rather lapsed Roman Catholic, the other a non-practising Jew, had long wanted a more elaborate celebration of their daughter’s arrival than had been possible at her birth. Their move out of Warsaw had conveniently provided a new local parish priest with whom to make arrangements.

 

Two certificates of baptism, five years apart and showing three different dates, serve as notice for Christine’s birth. But she has a single death certificate, part typed, part closely penned into the printed boxes of a Royal Borough of Kensington register office form. Here her given name is ‘Christine Granville’, her occupation is listed as ‘former wife’, and although the certificate is dated 1952, her age is recorded as just thirty-seven. Somewhere between 1908 and 1952, Warsaw and London, life and death, she had changed name and nationality, left two husbands and numerous lovers, won international honours but buried her career, and cut seven years from her life.

 

Christine’s father, Count Jerzy Skarbek, was a charming man. Described by his cousins as darkly attractive with ‘a seductive little moustache’, and by his nieces as ‘a very handsome man of patrician beauty’, he had that enviable ability to be at once hugely popular among his male friends, and almost irresistibly attractive to women, who seemed to constantly surround him. But the Count’s dark good looks were matched by his dark intentions. He was the archetypal aristocratic cad and bounder.

 

Jerzy Skarbek led a privileged life, typical of the landed gentry and very far from the struggle for existence faced by much of the Polish population in the late nineteenth century. The Count had been a ‘master’ since childhood, accustomed to having a valet and a groom. It was part of the innate order of the world. And yet, arguably, Jerzy Skarbek was not a Count at all.

 

With the exception of some Lithuanian princely families, historically Poland’s large enfranchised class, or ‘szlachta’, did not hold aristocratic titles. It was traditional for them to regard each other as equals, to be addressed as ‘dear brother’, and even – when Poland was still an independent country – to elect the Polish king. But many of the ancient nobility became so impoverished that they were effectively peasants with coats-of-arms. And many families who sported illustrious titles, as opposed to simply having noble names, owed these to their imperial overlords, who were, as a rule, buying favours. It was the Russian tsar Nicholas I who granted the Skarbeks’ title in the mid-nineteenth century. The fact that Jerzy Skarbek was not descended from this branch of the family made little difference to his social status. He was known to be a member of one of the oldest families in Poland, and was certainly accepted as an aristocrat in the circles that he believed mattered [* Jerzy Skarbek referred to himself as Count, and was named as such in his press obituary and on his tombstone. Christine listed her parents as Count and Countess Skarbek on her British Certificate of Naturalisation, dated December 1946, and elsewhere. For Polish genealogy and titles see Tomasz Lenczewski, ‘The Marriage of Coats of Arms and Accounts’, Rzeczpospolita, 22 VII (2008)].

 

Jerzy Skarbek certainly felt the honour of his family keenly, and any perceived slight rankled. As a child Christine remembered him rising from the table when a guest claimed descent from the last Polish king, Stanisław August Poniatowski. ‘[And I am] descended from a cobbler!’ Jerzy responded with some style, referring to the medieval Krako’w cobbler who had killed the fabled Wawel dragon by enticing it to devour a sheepskin stuffed with sulphur, and from whom he claimed descent.4 Few families boast a dragon-killer among their ancestors, let alone one who then married a king’s daughter. There were plenty more such stories in which the Skarbeks’ history was intertwined with Polish legends, and these would later fuel Christine’s own deeply held sense of personal, family and national pride. The one piece of jewellery that she wore throughout her life was not a wedding ring, but a Skarbek signet ring. This was designed with a slice of iron embedded in its face to commemorate the defiant eleventh-century Skarbek who would not bow to a German emperor for all his war chests of gold. Instead the proud Pole defiantly tossed his gold ring into the German coffers, shouting, ‘Let gold eat gold, we Poles love iron!’ The insulted emperor was later routed in a great battle when Polish swords indeed proved their might over the mercenary imperial German forces.

 

Not all notable Skarbeks had been so warlike, however. The nineteenth-century count Fryderyck Florian Skarbek was a highly respected economist, historian, author and social and political activist who, as president of the Charities Council, had introduced many important social reforms. Count Fryderyck had grown up on the family estate of Zelazowa Wola in the flat but not particularly productive plains west of Warsaw, where he was tutored by a distant relative called Nicholas Chopin. The estate was not hugely rich, and the house itself was quite modest, with the traditional long stretch of low rooms flanking a four-column portico entrance with balcony above. Despite the grand piano in the drawing room, it was essentially a comfortable family home, with geese and ducks free to wander on the porch. When the tutor’s son was born in 1810, he was named after the count, who had sensibly been invited to be the boy’s godfather. Fryderyck Chopin’s first printed work, a polonaise, would be dedicated ‘to Her Excellency Countess Victoria Skarbek, composed by Fryderyck Chopin, a musician aged eight’.5 Count Fryderyck probably paid for the piece to be published, which would account for its dedication to his sister, and he went on to be one of Chopin’s earliest and most ardent supporters. The Skarbek family remained immensely proud of the connection, especially when, after Chopin’s death in 1849, he was widely regarded as the embodiment of Poland’s nationalist politics and poetic spirit.

 

Jerzy Skarbek had inherited a noble name, a rich family history, and little sense of restraint. The Skarbeks owned acres of land, an assortment of houses, a collection of farms, and stables full of thoroughbred horses, but by his mid-twenties Jerzy’s indulgence in wine and women, roulette and racing had quickly diminished his income. In 1898 his family arranged for him to marry an exceedingly wealthy, clever and ‘absolutely beautiful’ Jewish banking heiress. In December that year, Stefania Goldfeder, newly baptized, was delighted to be embraced into the fold of one of Poland’s oldest families. The marriage was solemnized in the rites of the Helvetic Reform Church, apparently acceptable to both the Roman Catholic Skarbeks and the Goldfeders, who were non-observant Jews.

 

The wedding caused a scandal, albeit a minor one. No one in Warsaw had any doubts about the bridegroom’s motives, and there were some knowing smiles when the society pages chose to celebrate the Goldfeder family as belonging to ‘a class of financiers actively involved in the task of the material reconstruction of our martyred nation’. Jews, once sheltered by the Polish Commonwealth, had been heavily discriminated against by the Russian occupiers, and although there was a small assimilated Jewish intelligentsia, most Polish Jews spoke a different language, ate different food and wore different clothes. They were a source of curiosity, to be patronized or avoided. Even assimilated Jewish families were still subject to social ostracism, and if Jewish doctors and lawyers were popular it was partly because they brought with them a certain sort of professional distance. Once Jerzy and Stefania’s wedding ceremony was over, the members of the nobility and those of ‘the financial circles’ went their own ways, each with good reason to frown upon the motives of the other in this union. But while it was said that Jerzy did not marry Stefania, but rather he married her money, it is perhaps equally true that Stefania married the noble Skarbek name. The following year Jerzy bought a grand country estate at Młodzieszyn, which he felt both befitted a married man of his station, and was far enough removed to soften some of the noisier Warsaw gossip [Jerzy Skarbek is listed as the landowner of the Wechadlow estate, in the Pinczo district, where Christine probably lived until she was three years old, when they moved to Trzepnica].