English Lavender & the KGB

Journalists from around the world stood in a semi-circle before her, their arms and voices raised as they jostled to ask questions. Among the impatient crowd, all of whom were men, television cameras rolled and flash bulbs flared. Behind her, standing on the street outside, members of the public pressed themselves against a wall of glass to spectate on the event unfolding within. It was Monday, 16 July 1956 and Marilyn Monroe was in London. The Hollywood Star was attending a press conference at the Savoy to talk about her new film, a musical comedy that was soon to commence shooting at Pinewood studios, The Prince and The Showgirl. Wearing a black knee-length dress, matching heels and white opera gloves, Monroe was sitting beside her husband, Arthur Miller, who appeared agitated and crumpled, and her director and co-star, Sir Laurence Olivier, who was poised and quite perfect. Playing with a recently lit cigarette in her right hand, Monroe seemed confident, but her smiles were hard rather than happy; she was bracing herself for the cross-examination.

One of the more impertinent journalists asked about her nocturnal dress: “Do you still sleep in Chanel no. 5?” An impossibly large grin stretched across Monroe’s face. “Considering I’m in England”, she began coquettishly, “let’s say I am sleeping in Yardley’s Lavender”. Monroe’s interrogators delighted in her wickedly smart retort and she looked justifiably jubilant.

The Savoy press conference is depicted in Simon Curtis’ film My Week with Marilyn (2011) and Yardley continue to clarify the connection between Monroe and one of their best-selling fragrances. Of course, whether Marilyn Monroe actually wore Yardley’s Lavender perfume was never really the point (and she may not have worn Chanel, either: records from perfumer Floris show that an order for six bottles of ‘Rose Geranium’ were placed by Monroe’s personal assistant Dorothy Blass in December 1959). Her quick-witted response did much to demonstrate her guile, which contemporaries doubted. The comment also added to Monroe’s libidinous allure, which was, and remains, central to her critical and commercial appeal. The significance that Yardley beauty products assumed for Monroe during the 1950s was momentary, but it is possible – and certainly interesting to ponder – that her riposte, delivered at a time of heightened tension in the Cold War, provided inspiration for Soviet spies. Far from the public eye, hollowed tins of Yardley Aftershave Powder were being used by members of the Portland spy ring to send British nuclear secrets to Moscow.

The activities of the Portland spy ring were exposed on 7 January 1961 by Polish-born triple agent Michael Goleniewski (codenamed ‘Sniper’ by the CIA and ‘Lavinia’ by MI5), who had defected to the United States. Goleniewski alerted law enforcement agencies to a mole at the Royal Navy’s Admiralty Underwater Weapons Establishment on the Isle of Portland in Dorset. Apparently, details of Britain’s first nuclear submarine, HMS Dreadnought, had been leaked to the Soviets. Names were not disclosed, but suspicion quickly focused on former sailor, likely alcoholic and suspected security risk, Harry Houghton, who worked at the facility. Minimal surveillance soon revealed the other members of the spy ring: Houghton’s mistress, naval clerk Ethel Gee and Konon Trofimovich Molody, who masqueraded as Canadian Gordon Lonsdale, an apparently successful entrepreneur who sold jukeboxes and bubble-gum machines. Completing the sextet were quinquagenarian vintage bookseller Peter Kroger and his wife Helen, whom Molody frequently visited.

The Krogers appeared to live a frugal life at 45 Cranley Drive, an unassuming bungalow in Ruislip, Middlesex. The impression of banality was purposefully deceptive. The couple were actually Morris and Lona Cohen, KGB agents. They had met in America, where they were born. Lona’s parents were Polish; Morris had a Ukrainian father and a Lithuanian mother. A graduate of Columbia University, in the 1930s Morris had fought in a volunteer division during the Spanish Civil War against General Franco. Whilst in Spain, he met Amadeo Sabatini, a long-serving Soviet spy, and gained his entrée into the world of espionage. Morris Cohen appears to have stayed loyal to the Americans during the Second World War, but on his return to the States, and as the Cold War began, he resumed his work for the Russians. At some point before 1954, he and Lona relocated to London, and to Cranley Drive.

The Krogers’ bungalow was no ordinary suburban residence. Upon entering the property in 1961, Special Branch officers discovered the bathroom had been converted into a dark room. The attic space contained a 74-foot radio aerial and a transmitter capable of reaching Moscow. Bank notes totalling $6,000 were also seized. Most surprising of all was the array of unassuming household bric-a-brac the couple possessed: a cigarette lighter with a false bottom, a torch with hollowed batteries, drinking flasks with secret compartments and metal tins of Yardley Aftershave Powder that contained microfilm with radio contact times. Details of the haul were disclosed at the spies’ trials. Molody, as go-between and mastermind, was sentenced to twenty-five years in prison; the Krogers to twenty. In each case, the sentences were commuted and the spies were exchanged for British subjects who had been incarcerated by the Soviets. Harry Houghton and Ethel Gee served the full length of their fifteen-year sentences. In a sort-of happy ending, they married a year after their release, in 1971.

The exposure of the Portland spy ring came at a time of acute anxiety in the Cold War. In October 1957, the USSR had launched the Sputnik satellite into orbit around the Earth. The Americans were unable to match this feat until 1958. Understandably, they were deeply concerned at how quickly the Soviets had progressed in the Space Race; espionage was suspected. Three months after the Krogers’ home was raided, Fidel Castro declared his revolution in Cuba to be Socialist. This act humiliated America’s new president, John FitzGerald Kennedy, who received a drubbing from the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, when the pair first met in Vienna in June 1961. Recalling the incident at a later date, JFK admitted, ‘He beat the hell out of me’. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, as the threat of Nuclear Armageddon threatened, there was good reason to believe the Communists were gaining the upper hand in the Cold War.

Simultaneously stoking and sating people’s paranoia about Mutually Assured Destruction, a new genre of spy fiction provided fantastic stories about the enemies in people’s midst. The villains thwarted by Ian Fleming’s James Bond were invariably larger than life caricatures with melodramatic schemes for world domination. The foe that surfaced in John le Carré’s novels, the first of which, Call For The Dead, was published in 1961, seemed all the scarier for their apparent normality and ability to hide in plain sight.

Two weeks after the police raided Cranley Drive, Marilyn Monroe divorced Arthur Miller. She spent much of the next six months recovering from physical illness and depression. News of the Portland spy ring’s discovery may never have reached her. If it did, it’s anyone’s guess whether the spies’ use of Yardley products recalled to her mind the comment she had made in the Savoy five years’ earlier. It is tempting to think the Krogers and their spy masters were attentive in 1956 and that they had been influenced by Monroe’s remarks. How better – and cruelly ironic – to disguise confidential secrets heading into Communist Russia than in containers depicting a popular brand associated with one of the Capitalist West’s best loved Stars.

An edited version of this article first appeared in Article Magazine.

1 Comment

  1. Quite an interesting read here, Benjamin. I remember learning about Sputnik when I was in school and how it was suspected that Marilyn had something to do with the espionage ring of that time. Wild history and quite frankly, I don’t believe nothing I’ve been taught by the “institution” 110% anyway.

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