Lord Haw-Haw of MI5

William Joyce at the microphone
Haw-Haw did nothing wrong.

William Brooke Joyce, the Berlin propaganda broadcaster known as “Lord Haw-Haw,” and the last man to be executed in England for treason, was an agent for MI5. He went to Berlin in August 1939 at the behest of an old friend and spymaster, and wound up becoming the English voice of Nazi radio. Then in 1945 he was brought back to London, tried as a traitor, and hanged on January 3, 1946.

This was done to please the Kremlin, and to protect communists in the British government and intelligence services. Haw-Haw needed to be made an example of. He was a man who knew too much.[1]

It all sounds like a premise for an alternative-history novel or docudrama. “Traitor” Joyce is, after all, one of the most vilified figures of his era. But the facts in the foregoing are not only a matter of record, they’ve been extensively written about for the past fifteen years, in a never-ending stream of books and articles.[2] The revelations are all part of a vastly bigger story about wartime intelligence that’s been unravelling for decades, particularly since declassification of MI5 files began in 1999.

The story as it stands now shows that Joyce was a longtime personal and professional friend of Maxwell Knight, the spymaster known as “M” of MI5. In the 1920s Knight was director of intelligence for the British Fascists (not to be confused with Mosley’s British Union of Fascists, which came later). From the BF, Knight was recruited to government intelligence, first MI6 then MI5, where he headed up his own section targeting Communist subversion in politics and trade unions.

In the early 1930s Knight attempted to recruit William Joyce, too, whom he’d known through the BF since 1924. Joyce was by now busy pursuing a PhD in psychology, and declined. Nevertheless by 1937 Joyce was on the MI5 books, not merely as expert on Communist groups, but on the internal politics of Mosley’s BUF, which he had just quit. Knight came up with the idea that Joyce should move to Berlin, become naturalized as a German citizen and a full-fledged Nazi—Our Man in Berlin. A double-agent of sorts, except his target wouldn’t be German intelligence itself, but the Soviets.

Joyce finally made this jump in 1939, right after the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact. This was a time when the British intelligence services were being deeply penetrated by Moscow, and it was reasonably supposed that in Berlin the German and Soviet services were sharing information. He and his wife Margaret left for Berlin on August 26, and eventually found employment as broadcasters in Goebbels’s propaganda ministry. MI5’s Knight paid him a small retainer and maintained sub rosa communications with him, at least till mid-1940.[3]

The story of Joyce and MI5 intersects other famed spy and diplomatic crises of the era, notably the case of Tyler Kent, the American Embassy cipher clerk who copied illicit communications between President Roosevelt and Admiralty’s Churchill, and was imprisoned. The Kent case was a Maxwell Knight operation, in which suspected Nazi/Soviet assets were caught in a “sting” when they posted a coded message to William Joyce in Berlin.

While it mainly concerns British intelligence services, it’s ultimately an American story too; the American services at the time were little more than a junior adjunct of the British. And by birth, William Joyce was American.

Unique Venom

William Joyce may be honored someday as hero and martyr, but that may be a long time coming. He has been relentlessly demonized for over seven decades. There are many ironies here, beginning with the fact that his only real crime was lying on a British passport application. He said his birthplace was Galway, Ireland when really it was Brooklyn, New York—an offense meriting a fine of two pounds, as A.J.P. Taylor once noted.[4] Unlike such Soviet spies as Kim Philby, Klaus Fuchs, Otto Katz, Alger Hiss (etc., etc.), Joyce never sent Russian defectors or Albanian freedom-fighters to their deaths. Or stole atomic secrets. Or subverted British or American foreign policy. All William Joyce did was give Sunday night news commentaries over the wireless.

Joyce’s persecution and posthumous defamation has always seemed most peculiar. When he was brought back to England as prisoner in June ’45, Parliament rushed through a special new Treason Act, for the specific purpose of convicting and hanging him. This was still Churchill’s wartime coalition government, a very Soviet-friendly stew of Labourites and Tories, some of them actual Communists.[5] Joyce’s conviction and execution as British “traitor,” when it was clearly shown that he was American by birth and German by naturalization, was bizarre in the extreme. As is the unique venom showered upon him by journalists and history-scribblers over the past 73 years.

This spew began with an elegant essay by Rebecca West in The New Yorker, “The Crown vs. William Joyce,” in September 1945. It’s smooth and stylish, extremely readable; but it’s a tissue of lies, tabloid disinformation, and derogatory fiction passed off as rumor. And yet this profile of Joyce is still treated as a kind of primary source about the man. Collected and revised in The Meaning of Treason (Viking, 1947) and many subsequent editions and versions, it has never gone out of print. And what a source it is. Describing Joyce’s appearance in court, at the Old Bailey:

He was short and, though not very ugly, was exhaustively so… His nose was joined to his face at an odd angle and its bridge and its point and its nostrils were all separately misshapen. . . His body looked flimsy yet coarse. . . There was nothing individual about him except a deep scar running across his right cheek from his lower lip to his ear. But this … gave a mincing immobility to his mouth, which was extremely small. His smile was pinched and governessy… [A] not very fortunate example of the small, nippy, jig-dancing type of Irish peasant. [6]

West goes on about her “small, nippy” monster for two or three hundred words, then proceeds to lay into the Joyce supporters who showed up at the trial. There’s an old blond floozy, there’s a tiny hunchback, there are people who look like gypsies or madmen. Elsewhere she tells a fabulous, unsourced story about an old toff who observes Joyce’s excellent horsemanship at a 1930s weekend party, and agrees that Mr. Joyce rides well, “but not like a gentleman.” [7]  Like Joyce, Rebecca West was of Anglo-Irish background; she clearly had issues.

Much more recently we have biographer Colin Holmes, who claims to have written the first “authoritative” and “fully sourced” biography of Joyce (Searching for Lord Haw-Haw, Routledge, 2016.). Holmes is a leftist historian who admires Rebecca West very much, and strives to emulate her invective. In his universe it’s still 1945. Joyce’s fundamental and  categorical fact—Comrade—is that Joyce is a Nazi beyond redemption, and deserves to hang. Holmes completely dismisses the significance of Joyce’s MI5 involvement, denouncing biographers who focus on that aspect as practitioners of “voodoo history.”[8]

Like West, Holmes concocts fake news in his “fully sourced” biography. He advances a fanciful and quite undocumented story of how Lord Haw-Haw got his famous facial scar. When he was 18 years old and guarding a Conservative Parliamentary candidate speaking in South London in 1924—a Jewish candidate, by the way, named Jack Lazarus—Joyce was jumped and razored by what he and his nearby friend Maxwell Knight called a gang of Communist thugs. That is the story that Joyce and Knight told, and the one reported next day in the press. But in the Holmes version, the culprit was actually an “Irishwoman” who supposedly had followed Joyce all the way from Galway, where the adolescent Joyce had done courier duty for the Black and Tans in 1921.[9] The purpose of Holmes’s tale is to paint Joyce as a liar and a coward. But the evidence is not there. Like West, Holmes likes to tell an anecdote then claim it as fact.

The popular press has had a hard time framing the Joyce-MI5 story. It’s too complex, there’s too much cognitive dissonance. If you say Lord Haw-Haw was an intelligence agent on a mission in Berlin, it must mean he was secretly an anti-Nazi all those years; and a quite brilliant one at that—but if he was, then why did he get a noose instead of a knighthood, or medal at least?

Why didn’t he tell somebody about the MI5 connection at his trials? [10] The evidence is that he did not do so either out of loyalty to Knight or acknowledgment of the brute fact that such a revelation wouldn’t matter. MI5 already knew his story, and the prosecution had already stitched him up on a fake charge—that as holder of a British passport till 1940 he was liable as a traitor. The fix was in.

All this is missed by the journalistic mindset, which sees only a black vs. white, “Newspeak” simplification, with little understanding of espionage or the political situation of the 1939-40 era. Here is one example, from a few years ago. Joyce’s daughter Heather, by then well into her 80s, petitioned to have her father’s case reopened on the grounds that MI5 records proved him a British operative. The writeup in the Daily Express was predictably goggle-eyed:

Aged just 17 at his death, [Heather] has just put her name to an application to the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) which asserts that not only was her father not technically British, and therefore unable to be a traitor, but he was also a double agent for MI5 throughout the war, a protégé of the spy master who inspired Ian Fleming to create the Bond character M.

The latter is an extraordinary claim which, if true, would mean he duped both Goebbels and Hitler, and would raise new questions about the anti-communist sympathisers in Britain’s secret services.

(Daily Express, 22 May 2011)

Duped Goebbels and Hitler! What a movie this would make!

But Joyce didn’t dupe anyone. When he went to Germany he seemed to be sincere in his support for National Socialism. That was his selling-point as a spy. If you wanted to send someone who would completely pass vetting by Dr. Goebbels—who better than William Joyce?

The Joyce Mission

Joyce’s precise remit is not spelled out anywhere, and he undoubtedly destroyed his own papers pertaining to his mission. In the last weeks of the war, as he moved from Berlin to Apen, Holland, and to Hamburg, and finally to Flensburg, Germany, where he gave himself up, he seems to have taken no documents other than his diaries, his employment ID papers, and a new passport made out in the name of “Wilhelm Hansen.” A couple of days after he was taken into custody, he was debriefed in Germany by MI5’s Jim Skardon—the same smooth, pipe-smoking operative who six years later would interview suspected Soviet spy Kim Philby ten times. Like Philby, Joyce gave only his impenetrable cover story, and hinted at no other agenda: he went to Germany because supported National Socialism and he opposed the war between Germany and Britain. Inevitably, as with Philby, MI5’s Skardon must have known the truth even even if he couldn’t get it on the record.[11]

But working backwards from what we know, it’s possible to make a good guess about what William Joyce and Maxwell Knight were up to. Soviet penetration of the Security Service, MI5, was very much on Knight’s mind in the latter 1930s. In 1937 the Service was reorganized. Communist subversion, a priority in earlier years, was downgraded as a target. Knight was left with his own anti-Communist section, B5(b) (aka “M” section); but most of the other sections in the MI5 “B” department (domestic subversion and counter-espionage) were now focusing on far-right, fascist, and pro-Nazi groups in Britain.[12]

Knight was aware, or suspected, that the Service had been well and thoroughly infiltrated, much as British rightist groups had been. (E.g., both Guy Burgess and Kim Philby had joined the Anglo-German Fellowship in the mid-30s, on instructions from Moscow, for intelligence as well as to sanitize their own Communist histories since their days at Cambridge.)

The one clear instance where we have direct evidence of communication between Maxwell Knight’s end and Joyce’s is the Tyler Kent/Anna Wolkoff affair. Kent, an American Embassy code clerk, was a suspected Soviet and/or German asset; in 1939 he was transferred from Moscow to London. Wolkoff was a Russian dress designer who moved in far-Right London circles and met Kent in early 1940. Maxwell Knight put together a sting operation in which Wolkoff was asked to send a coded letter to Joyce at Berlin Radio, via neutral diplomatic delegations. This letter was then intercepted by MI5/Knight and used to arrest Wolkoff. In the course of this ruse, Wolkoff’s connection to Kent was uncovered; then his accommodation was raided, where MI5 found hundreds of secret Embassy communiqués, some between Roosevelt and Churchill, as well as the membership roster of The Right Club (an organization headed by Capt. Archibald Maule Ramsay, a right-wing MP).

American Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy waived Tyler Kent’s diplomatic immunity, and Kent was subsequently convicted and imprisoned for some years, as was Anna Wolkoff. The new Churchill coalition government then used these discoveries as a pretext to round up a thousand nationalists, fascists, and peace activists, from May 1940 onwards, and imprison them without trial or habeas corpus.

Some writers have speculated that the Tyler Kent arrest was actually part of a conspiracy to bring down Ambassador Kennedy.[13] No doubt there were some who welcomed the embarrassment to JPK and his Embassy, but this outcome could hardly have been foreseen at the start. MI5’s target was not Tyler Kent but Anna Wolkoff and her circle of presumed “pro-Nazi” conspirators, who might be passing information not only to Berlin but to Moscow. Tyler Kent’s packet of papers were just a windfall that fell into their lap. If there was any such anti-Kennedy initiative by MI5, it was poorly thought out, as it could well blow up in their faces. Kennedy could have decided to protect Kent, might even choose to publicize the secret FDR-Churchill communiqués, which were illicit to begin with.

A prime security concern, during late 1939 and early 1940—the time of the “Phony War” and the German-Soviet Pact—was that information going through German channels was getting to the Soviets; and dispatches from Red spies in Britain were getting to the Germans. The German and Soviet spy services had a history of cooperation, long preceding the Nonagression Pact. [14]

This is really what brought Tyler Kent down, not some sting operation against Ambassador Kennedy. And whatever the Soviets really had on William Joyce, there can be little doubt that they knew his MI5 background, and that they believed he was a spy sent to Berlin to trace Soviet moles. At war’s end he was a Person of Interest, and he had to be got out the way.


1. From Nigel Farndale’s Haw-Haw: the Tragedy of William and Margaret Joyce (Macmillan, 2005), p. 318, discussing Joyce’s appeal before the Lords, and an emergency Cabinet meeting by the Home Secretary in December 1945, considering how to deal with the possibility that the Lord might overturn Joyce’s conviction:

“Joyce would no doubt have been honoured to know that he had been the subject of a Cabinet meeting. He would have been pleased, too, to learn that in Moscow the Kremlin was busy bringing pressure to bear on the British Ambassador regarding his case. The Soviets had been critical of the way the Anglo-Americans had conducted themselves at the Nuremberg Trial [i.e., the International Military Tribunal, which had begun a few weeks earlier] and had been monitoring the progress of the British treason trials for any signs of liberal weakness. As an MI5 memo phrased it that week: “We are worried about what the Russian reaction might be if the Lords quash his conviction.”

The Soviets had recently brought similar pressure upon the French, forcing them to condemn to death not only Pierre Laval and the ancient Philippe Petain, but such minor figures as the writers Robert Brasillach and Pierre Drieu de Rochelle. The 89-year-old Petain’s sentence was commuted to life imprisonment by his onetime protégé Charles de Gaulle, but even de Gaulle dared spare no one else.

2. “Lord Haw-Haw” was a nickname that a London tabloid columnist invented for another British broadcaster, who sounded like a comic P.G. Wodehouse figure; but it stuck primarily to William Joyce.

The most recent mainstream book dealing with the general subject of Joyce, Maxwell Knight, and MI5 is Henry Hemming’s biography of Knight, Agent M (PublicAffairs/Perseus, 2017), which has been tremendously popular and well received in England; it was recently Waterstone’s Book of the Month. The Knight/MI5 connection to Joyce has also been touched upon recently in Francis Beckett’s A Fascist in the Family, reviewed here last year, and Colin Holmes’s Searching for Lord Haw-Haw (both from Routledge, 2016). Haw-Haw: the Tragedy of William and Margaret Joyce (Macmillan, 2005) was probably the first in-depth treatment of MI5’s use of Joyce, particularly in regard to the 1940 Tyler Kent/Anna Wolkoff case.  Stephen Dorril’s Blackshirt (originally published 2005, new imprint 2017) discusses the early connections between the British Fascist movement and MI5’s anti-subversion unit, and uses MI5/Joyce information on the internal politics of Mosley’s British Union. State Secrets by Bryan Clough (2001, 2005), an early distillation of the MI5 files, suffers from an overload of conspiracy hypothesis but makes insightful criticisms of other literature. The Defence of the Realm (2009) Christopher Andrew’s “official” history of MI5, is very “sanitised,” as the Guardian wrote, but is still useful for what it shows and doesn’t.

3.  Farndale, Ibid.

4. “Technically, Joyce was hanged for making a false statement when applying for a passport, the usual penalty for which is a small fine.” A.J.P. Taylor, English History 1914-1945. Clarendon Press, Oxford. 1964.

5. Pro-Soviets in the Churchill coalition included Stafford Cripps, a House Leader, aircraft minister and ambassador to USSR; and Ellen Wilkinson, a minister of education who was a onetime Communist Party member. The Foreign Office and SIS (MI6) meantime was famously shot through with spies, beginning with Burgess, Philby and Maclean.

Regarding the Treason Act of 1945, targeting Joyce, Americans will readily notice that it was both an ex post facto law and a “bill of attainder.” The bill’s sponsors and Learned Judges justified it with the laughable excuse that it was merely a modification to Treason Acts of 1351, 1695, etc., etc.!

6. Rebecca West, “The Crown vs. William Joyce,” The New Yorker, September 29, 1945.

7. West, Ibid.

8. Interviewed by a hometown paper in Sheffield, England, Colin Holmes gave some indication of his own peculiar outlook by comparing Lord Haw-Haw to Donald Trump:
“I remember when I was writing the book I mentioned to a psychiatrist friend that I was having difficulty in understanding Joyce,” says Prof Holmes. “He said, ‘Well, we would describe him as a narcissist.’ I realised that was it. And, of course, an American psychiatrist said the same thing about Trump.” (Sheffield Telegraph, 23 Nov 2016)

9. Holmes’s story about the scar has nevertheless been picked up, uncritically, by Francis Beckett in his biography of his father, Fascist in the Family (2016), and by Henry Hemming in Agent M (2017), about Joyce’s friend Maxwell Knight. While his version might be plausible by itself, he leaves too many evidentiary holes, such as failing to provide any corroboration or transcript. Furthermore the tale is opposed by every other account of the event, and dubiously claims a dubious source: the 86-year-old ex-wife of Joyce, now dead, who was not an eyewitness, did not then know Joyce, and supposedly waited nearly 70 years before vouchsafing this nugget to an unfriendly biographer.

10. Joyce did in fact play with the idea of declaring his MI5 ties, as he wrote his wife. Farndale, p. 315.

11. See J.A. Cole, Lord Haw-Haw and William Joyce: the Full Story. Faber & Faber (London), 1964. Also Farrar Straus & Giroux (New York), 1965. Joyce’s diaries, documents, and the Skardon debriefing are photographed and transcribed.

12. Antony Percy, Misdefending the Realm. University of Buckingham Press, 2017.

13. E.g., Bryan Clough, State Secrets, 2001, 2005.

14. Guy Liddell, 1940 Diaries.

Lord Haw-Haw of MI5

NOTES FROM ABANDONED DOMAINS: Maxwell Knight, William Joyce, Joseph Kennedy

Re-archived from the Wayback Machine, here is Bryan Clough’s website synopsis (circa 2001) of his book on the Wolkoff-Kent affair, which was published a few years later. The site was state-secrets.com, which currently appears to be in use, but by someone else. The Wayback link is here.

Clough was one of many researchers who were sifting through declassified MI5 files that began to become available about 1999. As this was an “early pressing,” some of his conclusions may be far-fetched or misinformed. The notion that Ambassador Kennedy was the victim of a sting operation, designed to embarrass him and get him out of Grosvenor Square, may or may not be correct. It is certainly plausible. But such an action probably would not have originated within MI5; this Security Service would have been no more than a tool used by other parties.

Conversely, the idea that William Joyce was executed to hide something seems irrefutable.

Maxwell Knight (1900-1968) and his first wife, the former Gwladys Poole (1899-1935), were leading members of the British Fascisti, Britain’s first Fascist party, which started in 1923.

In 1927, he was deputy chief of staff and she was the director of the Womens’ Units.

From 1928, they both took a lower profile and, in 1931, Knight joined MI5 as head of ‘MS’ (for Maxwell’s Section). His mission was to place ‘penetrative agents’ (moles) in organisations believed to be under Communist influence.

On 24 August 1939, Knight tipped off William Joyce (1906-1946), an American-born academic and a former member of the British Fascisti, that he had been listed for internment under Emergency Regulations enacted earlier that day. This led directly to Joyce leaving for Germany two days later – eight days before war was declared – and his subsequent career as ‘Lord Haw-Haw’, the most infamous broadcaster of Nazi propaganda.

In 1940, Knight stitched up two ‘spies’: Tyler Kent (1911-1988), a code and cipher clerk at the American Embassy in London, and Anna Wolkoff (1902-1973), a Russian-born dressmaker and artist. After secret trials, they were sentenced to 7 and 10 years’ penal servitude. Although the circumstances have aroused much subsequent commentary, it has never before been recognised that William Joyce could have exposed the frame up.

Joyce, Kent and Wolkoff had all been members of the Right Club, a secret anti-Jewish, anti-war organisation, founded by Captain Archibald Ramsay (1895-1955), the Conservative MP for Peebles.

Among the other members of the 250-strong Right Club were one Prince, two Princesses, one Duke, one Marquess, two Earls, five other Lords, two Professors, two Reverend Gentlemen, six Doctors, twelve MPs, nineteen retired Officers, and sundry others with ‘Sir’, ‘Lady’ or ‘Hon’ prefixing their names.

After the war, William Joyce’s own trial in September 1945 also aroused considerable controversy when he was found guilty of High Treason, despite being American by birth and German by naturalisation. After his case was discussed by the British Cabinet, Joyce was hurriedly ‘disposed of’ by execution, before the House of Lords had given their reasons for dismissing his appeal.

The same judge, Mr Justice Tucker, presided over the trials of Joyce, Kent and Wolkoff and, when sentencing Wolkoff in November 1940, he had pronounced Joyce a traitor. When Joyce came before him in 1945, Mr Justice Tucker had the unique opportunity of confirming his own earlier pronouncement.

State Secrets: The Wolkoff Files traces the careers of Maxwell Knight and William Joyce which continually intertwined during the twenties, thirties and forties.

After the war, Maxwell Knight also ventured into broadcasting and became a minor celebrity as a naturalist with both television and radio appearances. He is still remembered as ‘Uncle Max’, a children’s favourite.

Previous attempts to get at the facts behind the ‘Tyler Kent affair’ have been thwarted by official cover ups and even the incarceration of two inquisitive Canadian journalists. However, compelling evidence is now produced which shows that Kent could not possibly have been the ‘spy in the American Embassy’, as he had been portrayed, and that Anna Wolkoff was tricked by MI5 undercover agents, controlled by Knight, so that she could be categorised as an ‘enemy agent’.

This was Knight’s method of getting at Kent, although it is now evident that Kent was not the main target, just the means towards an altogether more important end.

Following privileged access to the Anna Wolkoff files at the Home Office – which had been classified as ‘Closed for 75 years’ – personal interviews with friends of Knight and Joyce, and a critical examination of different strands of information available within the public domain (including rare archive material), it is now possible to piece together a giant jigsaw which, after more than 60 years, clearly points to the real target of the exercise.

He was none other than Joseph Kennedy, the American Ambassador in London and patriarch of the famous clan. Hence the official actions and their subsequent sensitivity is finally exposed.

The research also firmly disposes of the long-standing myth that MI5 is merely an intelligence gathering organisation which never takes executive action and never acts outside the law.

In fact, the cases of Joyce, Kent and Wolkoff show that MI5 not only took direct executive action but it also instructed the judge on the verdicts to be delivered. It then contributed to the subsequent cover-ups.

NOTES FROM ABANDONED DOMAINS: Maxwell Knight, William Joyce, Joseph Kennedy

Notes from Abandoned Domains: One Girl’s War

This is saved via Wayback Machine from spyinggame.me. It summarizes and comments upon a memoir written by a Maxwell Knight recruit. More recent writing on Knight tends to dismiss or refute Joan Miller’s characterization of him.

One Girl’s War

Title:                      One Girl’s War

Author:                 Joan Miller

Miller, Joan (1986). One Girl’s War: Personal exploits in MI5’s Most Secret Station. Dingle, Co. Kerry: Brandon

LOC:       86223519

D810.S8 M555 1986


Date Updated:  August 19, 2015

Joan Miller was born in 1918. After leaving boarding school at 16 she found work in a tea-shop in Andover. This was followed by the post of an office girl at Elizabeth Arden. Later she was promoted into the Advertising department.

Just before the outbreak of WWII Miller joined MI5. At first she worked under Lord Cottenham who headed MI5’s transport section. However, it was not long before she was recruited by Maxwell Knight, the head of B5b, a unit that conducted the monitoring of political subversion. Knight explained he wanted her to spy on the Right Club. This secret society was an attempt to unify all the different right-wing groups in Britain. Or in the leader’s words of “co-ordinating the work of all the patriotic societies”.

In his autobiography, The Nameless War (1955), Archibald Ramsay , the founder of the Right Club, argued: “The main object of the Right Club was to oppose and expose the activities of Organized Jewry, in the light of the evidence which came into my possession in 1938. Our first objective was to clear the Conservative Party of Jewish influence, and the character of our membership and meetings were strictly in keeping with this objective.”

By 1940 Miller had become one of the most important figures in the Right Club. Maxwell Knight asked Miller to keep a close watch on Anna Wolkoff who was suspected of being a German spy. Wolkoff ran the Russian Tea Room in South Kensington and this eventually became the main meeting place for members of the Right Club.

In February 1940, Anna Wolkoff met Tyler Kent, a cypher clerk from the American Embassy. He soon became a regular visitor to the Russian Tea Room where he met other members of the Right Club including its leader, Archibald Ramsay. Wolkoff, Kent and Ramsay talked about politics and agreed that they all shared the same views on politics.

Kent was concerned that the American government wanted the United States to join the war against Germany. He said he had evidence of this as he had been making copies of the correspondence between President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. Kent invited Wolkoff and Ramsay back to his flat to look at these documents. This included secret assurances that the United States would support France if it was invaded by the German Army. Kent later argued that he had shown these documents to Ramsay in the hope that he would pass this information to American politicians hostile to Roosevelt.

On 13th April 1940 Anna Wolkoff went to Kent’s flat and made copies of some of these documents. Joan Miller and Marjorie Amor were later to testify that these documents were then passed on to Duco del Monte, Assistant Naval Attaché at the Italian Embassy. Soon afterwards, MI8, the wireless interception service, picked up messages between Rome and Berlin that indicated that Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, head of German military intelligence (Abwehr), now had copies of the Roosevelt-Churchill correspondence

Soon afterwards Wolkoff asked Miller if she would use her contacts at the Italian Embassy to pass a coded letter to William Joyce (Lord Haw-Haw) in Germany. The letter contained information that he could use in his broadcasts on Radio Hamburg. Before passing the letter to her contacts, Miller showed it to Maxwell Knight.

On 18th May, Knight told Guy Liddell about the Right Club spy ring. Liddell immediately had a meeting with Joseph Kennedy, the American Ambassador in London. Kennedy agreed to waive Kent’s diplomatic immunity and on 20th May, 1940, the Special Branch raided his flat. Inside they found the copies of 1,929 classified documents including secret correspondence between Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. Kent was also found in possession of what became known as Ramsay’s Red Book. This book had details of the supporters of the Right Club and had been given to Kent for safe keeping.

Anna Wolkoff and Tyler Kent were arrested and charged under the Official Secrets Act. The trial took place in secret and on 7th November 1940, Wolkoff was sentenced to ten years. Kent, because he was an American citizen, was treated less harshly and received only seven years. It is said that after being sentenced Wolkoff swore that she would get revenge by killing Miller.

Miller also worked in a special department of the Post office that was set up to read letters being sent by perceived subversives. Miller and another agent, Guy Poston, were given the task of breaking into the home of Rajani Palme Dutt, a leading member of the Communist Party in Britain. Maxwell Knight was interested in a locked box that he kept under his bed. However, when they opened the box they discovered it only contained documents about his wedding.

After the conviction of Anna Wolkoff and Tyler Kent, Miller began living with Maxwell Knight. However, she soon realized she was being used as a cover for Knight’s homosexuality. She left Knight and married Tom Kinlock Jones in June, 1943.

Miller now transferred to the Political Intelligence Department (PID). This involved reading and distributing top-secret cables. While in this post she identified a spy who was passing the contents of some of these cables to the Soviet Union. She was later transferred to a unit that controlled the contents of newspapers being distributed in Germany.

Joan Miller died in June 1984. Despite efforts by MI5 Miller’s daughter managed to get her mother’s autobiography, One Girl’s War: Personal Exploits in MI5’s Most Secret Station, published in Ireland in 1986.

Some comments by Roy Berkeley:[1]

Exit from Pelham Crescent at tree-lined Pelham Place. Turn L at Pelham Street for South Kensington tube station. From here you can return to home or hostel. To proceed instead to the next walk, turn into Old Brampton Road.

South Kensington is one of London’s most pleasant villages. From South Kensington tube station, turn L into the street called Onslow Square. In two blocks you’ll reach South Kensington square itself At the far side of the green turn R. Near the end of the street is 24 Onslow Square. Here, on the steps of his London home, the pro-Nazi MP for Peebles was arrested on 23 May, 1940, three days after the arrests of Tyler Kent (see Site 81, 47 Glouster Place) and Anna Volkov (see Site 41, 18 Roland Gardens; and Site 45, Russian Tea Room and Restaurant, 50 Harrington Road). Never charged or tried, Captain Archibald Henry Maule Ramsay remained in Brixton Prison for four years, his detention the result of broad new powers of the Defence Regulations enacted after the Kent/Volkov arrests.

Ramsay had been outspokenly Judeophobic since the 1920s. In the 1930s he supported the respectable Anglo-German Fellowship. In 1937 he co-founded the Link, a more extreme group devoted to friendship between England and Hitler’s Germany. A year later he started the clandestine Right Club, which continued to function after war broke out and the other groups were disbanded.

Through Anna Volkov, his avid follower, Ramsay met Tyler Kent and gained access to the documents Kent was stealing from the US Embassy (some of which seemed to indicate that Churchill was going behind Chamberlain’s back in dealing with President Roosevelt). Kent wanted Ramsay to raise a question in the Commons about the correspondence; by embarrassing both Churchill and Roosevelt, Kent and Ramsay hoped to keep America neutral and achieve a negotiated peace. Ramsay was arrested before he could make any documents public.

Ramsay’s wife was also busy in the Axis cause during Britain’s desperate days of 1940. She too was never charged with any crime. But in this very house she suggested to Ml5’s Joan Miller that the young woman change her fictitious job so as to get better information for the Right Club. Miller seemed to take the suggestion; Maxwell Knight gave her “chickenfeed” to pass along.

A total of 1,373 people (almost the entire Right Club and about 800 members of the British Union of Fascists) were arrested after the Kent/Volkov arrests. Most were freed within the year. Many testified for Volkov and Kent, with Ramsay displaying (in the words of Muggeridge) “the benighted innocence of the crazed” as, outside the courtroom, Ramsay’s “putative allies tried to blow the Old Bailey, along with all the rest of London town, to smithereens”. (Some of the most prominent pro-Nazis during WWII—Ramsay, Mosley, Petain—had fought the Germans bravely in WWI but now saw Germany as the model, not the enemy.)

During Ramsay’s long incarceration, his constituents sought unsuccessfully to have him relinquish his seat and the unrepentant Ramsay sought continually to be released from prison. Finally freed in September, 1944, he was back in Parliament the next day, meeting now in the House of Lords because of German bomb damage to the other chamber. Ramsay’s parliamentary career ended at the next general election, but his anti-Jewish diatribes continued until his death in 1956.

Fanatic Judeophobes like Ramsay were perfectly comfortable with the idea that “the Jews”, in a vast international conspiracy, were behind communism and capitalism and the Masons and the Vatican. He had no difficulty with the obvious contradictions in this theory. Nor was he alone. His obsession dovetailed neatly with Hitler’s national socialism—which was similarly anti-capitalist, anti-communist, anti-Jewish—and his Right Club of fewer than 500 members included a dozen MPs, four peers, four sons of peers, and many others prominent in British society. Ramsay himself was the scion of a distinguished Scottish family distantly related to the royal family.

Some further comments by Roy Berkeley:[2]

In the South Kensington area of London, on Old Brompton Road, one can enjoy the small shops for several blocks. Left off Old Brampton Road is Roland Gardens. See 18 Roland Gardens.

Not far from her father’s Russian Tea Room where the pro-Nazi Right Club held its meetings lived Anna Volkov, convicted in 1940 of activities useful to the German enemy. Her fellow-conspirator and probably her lover was Tyler Kent (see 47 Glouster Place), a code clerk in the American Embassy. Their arrest was MI5’s first major counter-intelligence triumph of the war.

The short, stocky, and (by all accounts) unattractive Anna Volko—38 when she was arrested—had been in London since the Russian Revolution. Her hatred of Bolsheviks and Jews assured her of friends among the Russian émigrés and the British elite; the Duchess of Windsor, for instance, was one of her dressmaking clients. Volkov became naturalized in 1935 but grew increasingly enamored of fascism, especially after visiting Germany in 1938 and meeting Hitler’s deputy, Rudolf Hess. In London, she worked in the Anglo-German Fellowship and the Link, and was secretary of the underground Right Club (see 24 Onslow Square; and Russian Tea Room and Restaurant, 50 Harrington Road).

Volkov’s activities on behalf of Germany were limited for a while to booing Churchill in newsreels and putting up sticky-back labels denouncing what she called the Jews’ war. By late 1939, however, she had met the like-minded Tyler Kent. They often spent weekends together outside London; she had transferred her car to him because he, with his diplomatic credentials, could get the petrol coupons that she, a civilian, could not. In town, she occasionally went alone to his flat to study his growing cache of documents purloined from the embassy.

Through her, some of this material ended up in Berlin, a fact soon known to the British. Soon afterward, MI5’s surveillance of her conduit (who worked in the Italian Embassy in London) and then of Volkov herself, led to Kent. Volkov and Kent were tried separately in 1940. Little was made public; at stake were no less than Churchill’s leadership and Roosevelt’s re-election. Her trial transcript remains closed until the year 2015.

[1] See Berkeley, Roy (1994). A Spy’s London. London: Leo Cooper, pp. 87-89

[2] See Berkeley, Roy (1994). A Spy’s London. London: Leo Cooper, pp. 90-91

Notes from Abandoned Domains: One Girl’s War

Céline Goes to Hollywood: Part I

Céline Goes to Hollywood: Part I

The novel-memoirs of Louis-Ferdinand Céline have a peculiarly cinematic texture, like that of rough drafts for projected screenplays. He flashes sense-impressions and side-thoughts at the reader. For the neophyte, this can make for some hard going.

On the other hand, these impressionistic prose-sketches can provide a series of clear visuals for anyone attempting to hammer a Céline tale into a script. This is particularly true of his Exile Trilogy (aka «Triloge Allemande»), the three novel-memoirs written in the 1950s about Céline’s time in France, Germany, and Denmark in 1944-45, when he was on the run as a collaborateur, anti-semite, anti-communist, and worse things.[1]

Alfred Hitchcock is said to have storyboarded his own films well before shooting anything, so that when he got around to key scenes he’d know exactly what the angles and lighting would be. Thus the peculiar Hitchcock “style,” which is nothing more than forward-planning in place of directorial improvisation. Céline’s prose-storyboarding provides something similar.

It’s not surprising to discover that Céline drafted outlines and treatments for screenplays throughout his career, or that he spent a long time trying to get his first novel, Voyage au bout de la nuit (Journey to the End of the Night), put on screen. He networked with agents, negotiated, traveled to Prague and Hollywood. For a little while Abel Gance (Napoleon), had a rights option, then a Hollywood screenwriter/agent did.

But in the end Céline gave the whole thing up in a huge bout of despair. This was partly because the strict new movie code of the Hays Office (1934) made a faithful adaptation unlikely, and partly because his longtime American girlfriend, Elizabeth Craig, had abandoned him.

Ironically Voyage/Journey was the most conventionally structured and “sellable” thing he ever wrote. After his Hollywood misadventure, Céline’s writing became progressively more idiosyncratic and impressionistic: scenes upon scenes for films that would never be shot.

No films, alas, but we now do have a 2015 “graphic novel,” La cavale du Dr. Destouches (approximately: Dr. Destouches on the Lam) [2] that makes brilliant use of that cinematic imagination. Cavale is a kind of director’s cut of the Exile Trilogy. Just much shorter and more intelligible, although not necessarily simpler. It’s an extraordinarily lush black-and-white production, in graphite/pencil drawings and ink lettering by Paul and Gaëtan Brizzi, brothers and sometime Disney animators. And yet it’s Céline, through and through.

Christophe Malavoy’s script for Cavale achieves what is seldom done well in film adaptations, and would be particularly difficult with these three books because of their jumble of flashbacks and flash-forwards: it gives an order to narrative, without amputating half the tale. Bits of dialogue, generally sardonic, are added throughout, but do not deface or upend the story; much as backgrounds and interiors are filled in with much more precision than the original text provides. The artists are particularly good with train stations and hotels, which is good because we spend a lot of time in them.

Céline, Lucette, and Bébert take a trip. (From La cavale du Dr. Destouches.)

It’s a French publication, and unsurprisingly mostly in French—often of a highly idiomatic sort, or sometimes comically broken French, as when spoken by a German. And occasionally in English, as when our protagonist needs to talk to a Danish hotel clerk. But primarily and inevitably it’s visual. Whole pages go by with scarcely a word spoken. We follow Céline and his wife Lucette and their cat Bébert on their adventures through France, Germany, and Denmark, 1944-45.

We begin with the last weeks before “Liberation,” when the skies are darkening. Somebody keeps mailing Dr. Destouches (Céline) poison-pen letters containing nothing but a drawing of a coffin. Céline and family obtain passports and entrain for Baden-Baden. A few weeks later, due to security measures after the Hitler assassination plot, they are bundled off to Sigmaringen, where the remnants of the Vichy government are housed. Céline is told he can now be Marshall Pétain’s physician, since the regular one just got arrested. Pétain looks up balefully from his dinner. “I’d much rather die right now.”

Meanwhile—cutting back in Paris—we see the cast and crew of Les Enfants du Paradis squabbling among themselves about what’s going to happen to them when the Germans leave. They are mostly collaborateurs, of either the horizontale kind (Arletty, the actress who stars in this three-hour epic of 1830s theatrical Paris) or openly political.

Céline’s old buddy, the fascist actor Robert Le Vigan, sneers at Arletty: “At least I didn’t sleep with Germans!” And she answers: “No, you just turned everyone in to the Gestapo!”

Panicking just a bit too late, Le Vigan decides it’s time to flee. He phones Celine, and the concierge says the doctor has left town, who knows where? Le Vigan will keep coming back to the story like a bad penny. Just as he does in the Trilogy. Just as he did in Celine’s postwar life. [3]

Panic on the set. (From La cavale du Dr. Destouches.)

Not the least of this book’s charms is that it captures the essential Punch-and-Judy nature of the war in Europe. In this and most other respects the book is thereby true to the original. Céline is usually said to be controversial because of his treatment of the Jewish Question, or because he consorted with collaborationists and Nazis. But I think his transgressions are deeper and more elusive. He did not think that war in Europe a great crusade for anyone. He rejected all its pieties, ridiculing Hitlerites, Bolsheviks, Jews, whatever. Even today it’s hard to find anyone who can discuss that time and place without putting it inside some Great Moral Lesson.

That this anti-moralizing aspect of Céline has been faithfully reproduced in a graphic-novel format shows that the scriptwriter is not only extremely skillful. He actually gets Céline.


1. In order of publication 1957-69, the novels are Castle to Castle (D’un château l’autre), North (Nord), and Rigadoon (Rigodon), although the time-scheme skips back and forth among the narratives.

2. La Cavale du Dr. Destouches. Paris: Editions Futuropolis, 2015.

3. Le Vigan was essentially a non-person after Liberation. His scenes in this film were reshot with Pierre Renoir, brother of the film director, in his role. Le Vigan was sentenced to ten years in prison, was released after three.

Céline Goes to Hollywood: Part I

Céline Goes to Hollywood: Part II

Céline Goes to Hollywood: Part II

Céline and Elizabeth Craig in the Alps, 1931.

One of the saddest episodes in the life of Dr. Louis-Ferdinand Destouches, alias Louis-Ferdinand Céline, came right after he published his first novel in 1933.

Voyage a la bout de la nuit (Journey to the End of the Night) was a succés d’estime from the start and before long a bestseller too. Surely it would be soon made into a major motion picture.

Céline expected that, anyway. He had many friends in the movie business, and he thought he wrote with a screenwriter’s eye.

Almost immediately Voyage caught the attention of Abel Gance, then a leading French director, who bought a short-term option. When Gance didn’t move ahead, Celine looked elsewhere. The book had almost immediately been translated into German and Czech. He went to Prague, where German director Carl Junghans showed an interest.[1]

But Celine’s real hope, all along, was to visit Hollywood and make a Hollywood movie. Among Hollywood’s many attractions was the fact that his longtime mistress, Elizabeth Craig, had gone home to Los Angeles the previous year and never returned.

In the end he got neither movie nor girlfriend, and plunged into a despair that colored the rest of his life.

Let’s begin with some itinerary notes from Louis-Ferdinand Celine et le cinema (2011) by French critic Marc-Henri Cadier. [2]

On 12 June 1934 Céline embarks for the United States. From New York he goes to Los Angeles, then to Chicago. On 28 August he is to return to Paris. In the course of his crossings he meets actors Jean Gabin—whom he would have found sympathetic—and Danielle Darrieux.

Céline in Tovaritch

The purpose of the trip is not just the launch of the book in the United States, but also to make contact with Hollywood. It should also be noted: Céline had already established some footing there by sending a copy of Journey to Jacques Deval, the author of “Tovarich.” [Which shortly became the French movie Tovaritch (1935) in which Céline himself has a walk-on scene.]

Deval knows the film-industry milieu, has met the big players and intermediaries in the industry ; he goes back to Europe and brings actors and scenarios, and has now promised Céline that he’ll facilitate all negotiations. Later on, Deval says he wasn’t really interested in Celine’s book.[3]

Anyway, Celine’s main aim is to get to know Hollywood. On this subject, he writes [editor Xavier] Denoël on 12 July 1934 : “I have just signed a six-month option for Journey with Lester H. Yard [screenwriter and agent]. Of all the agents, he seems the most capable, the most rascally.”

But it was 1934. The dawn of a new, strict, Motion Picture Code from the Hays Office.[4] There were now real obstacles in bringing a book like Journey to the screen, with its violence and squalid settings. But perhaps, Céline hopes, this new Code just a passing fad? Hé bien!

As he says in his letter to Denoël: “The times are not very propitious to works of this genre. But maybe in six months the puritan rigors will be forgotten.” To Henri Mahé [5] he writes: “Here’s the nub of the film question. Only chastity and cheerfulness are to be tolerated. Figure it yourself.” He wonders: Does this famous modesty code of William H. Hays mean that virtue will rule forever in Hollywood? On the movie screens, at least?

24 July 1934: “It happens that my coming here has brought a lot of bad publicity, which I put up with to arouse the attention of the film people, the only ones who interest me.  No doubt we’ll see offers during the winter. $20,000.”

So film people were the only ones to interest Céline?

A month later, 30 August, he writes a lady friend: “Nothing’s happening in American cinema. It’s all a journalistic concoction—nothing more. I came to United States for another reason entirely, very personal, and that’s it. There’s no way Journey can make it to film, for a thousand reasons. I never worked for Hollywood. They don’t know me either.”

What to make of this? Where’s the truth?

In reality this trip to the United States was not only motivated by the book publication and its film adaptation. There’s another reason, well established: to find Elizabeth Craig in Los Angeles. She was an American dancer with whom Céline lived for some years in Paris, but who had left the previous year. Céline wants to convince her to return to France.

After Céline dedicated Journey to her (incidentally, she once confessed to never having read a line of the book!), Elizabeth Craig had gone home and become Mrs. Ben Tankel. The despairing Céline realized the reconciliation was a pipe dream. In consequence Céline he showed irritation with her and made up stories, such as saying that “Elizabeth has given herself to gangsters.”

 *   *   *

But just who was this Elizabeth Craig? Before Céline met her, Elizabeth Craig (1902-1989) had been a minor player in silent films in Hollywood. (Two Cecil B. DeMille films, Manslaughter, 1922, and The Ten Commandments, 1923; apparently in roles too minor to be included in cast lists at imdb.com, etc.) In New York she danced in the Ziegfeld Follies. With her parents in 1924 she went to Paris, where she studied dance.

She met Céline in Geneva in 1926 when he was a young physician working for the League of Nations. They would live together for seven years.

Of their relationship in Paris, an acquaintance remembered them as an “an idyllic couple, a bit conventional.” Elizabeth had red hair and green eyes, full lips. «Elle était charmante, brilliante et bonne» recalled the friend.[6] 

Elizabeth occasionally made trips back home to see her family, and in 1933 she said her mother was dying. Celine saw her off, accompanying her on the train from Gare St-Lazare to Le Havre. He saved his railway ticket, and stuck it to the wall of their flat in Clichy. Clearly Elizabeth was expected to return. But she didn’t. Thus Celine’s sad journey the following year to retrieve her, using the convenient pretext of selling his novel to Hollywood. “She lives in a cloud of alcohol, tobacco, police, and low gangsterism, with a certain Ben Tankle [sic],” Celine wrote a friend, after seeing Elizabeth in California. [7]

Interviewed shortly before her death in 1989 by Alphonse Juilland, Elizabeth said she couldn’t really see spending her life with Céline because his interest in her was mainly physical. He would not have liked her when she got old.[8] And he was too much of a depressive, she said in a video interview.[9] 

Elizabeth finally married Ben Tankel in 1936. The fact that he was a Jew continually piques the interest of commentators on Céline. “One of the reasons that pushed him to write Bagatelles pour un massacre,” writes Brami, in a typically pat observation.

Hunting down the source of Céline’s antisemitisme is a favorite game of critics. The subject has an eye-grabbing appeal. But it’s unlikely that Céline got that way because he lost his mistress to a fast-living quasi-mobster. In that video interview above (generously festooned with horrific cartoons), Elizabeth Craig says Céline was probably always that way.

 *   *   *

A new book by Céline biographer Jean Monnier offers a somewhat saucier spin on La Belle Craig than we have usually been given.[10] Sensual and amoral, Elizabeth leaves Céline for Benjamin Tankel because Ben offers more money and fun. She denies that her real-estate mogul is a gangster, although his biggest client was Mafioso Jack Dragna. 

Monnier’s Elizabeth Craig: une vie celinienne is frankly and unfortunately a work of imaginative fiction, inspired by the spindly threads on Céline correspondence and Elizabeth’s end-of-life interviews.

Life with Benjamin was a great pleasure party. . . His ambition was to make money in the fastest way possible, and spend it even faster. We went out almost every night. . . He demanded the best table and left huge tips. . . I was his trophy, and he showed me off with pride.

Not only is it a fictional memoir, but one in which verisimilitude is not its saving grace. We get scenes of Ben and Elizabeth guzzling champagne and caviar with Mickey Cohen and Bugsy Siegel. Gangland convictions and assassinations are dropped in oddly, as though ripped from old headlines, as are political and social issues. 

In February 1942, three months after the Japanese attack, President Roosevelt signed a decree for the deportation of all the Americans of Japanese origin. Their goods were all to be confiscated by the War Time [sic] Civil Control Administration. However, the majority of this population was in agriculture, a field in which they excelled. On the eve of being deported, these farmers had no choice, finding a buyer was all they could do to save something.

What an extraordinary digression for an old chorus girl looking back on her life!

Actually this one is a plot device. Our fictional Elizabeth goes on to tell us that Benjamin and his mob friends were able to profit from the misery of the “deportees.” Even though it was paradoxical that Benjamin never saw the parallel between the “deportation” of the Japanese and the endless persecution of his own people, the Jews.

But anyway the episode has a happy outcome:

We worked hard and made a lot of money. Benjamin decided to treat me to a little luxury. He took an apartment in the Sunset Tower, Hollywood’s most chic address.

The depiction is comic and ludicrous, like Bertolt Brecht’s Chicago—but, I suspect, not intentionally so. The author is merely concocting a French-tourist version of America in which there is no real difference between fact and fiction. He gratuitously name-drops people and places, often with telling errors. (Siegel’s mistress Virginia Hill is “Virginia Hills”; McCarty Drive in Beverly Hills is “McCarthy Drive.”)

Monnier has obviously seen a lot of films about gangsters and Hollywood. No doubt he wrote this in expectation of inspiring yet another one. Céline may make it into the movies yet.


1. Carl Junghans, aka Karl Younghans, was a pro-Communist actor and director in Berlin the 1920s, then went to Prague, and back to Germany for a while where he worked with Leni Riefenstahl on Olympia (1936). Then, to France; to the USA after the start of the war; and finally back to Germany. He is said to have had an affair with Vladimir Nabokov’s sister-in-law and to be a possible inspiration for Nabokov’s character Humbert Humbert. See http://nabokovsecrethistory.com/news/meet-carl-junghans-propagandist-literary-inspiration-camera-obscura-lolita

2.  Marc-Henri Cadier, Louis-Ferdinand Céline et le cinema.  St-Etienne, France: Editions M.H.C. 2011.

3. A slightly different account appears as “Impossible Voyage” in La Rumeur Mag, 2014.

4. Although a Motion Picture Production Code from the “Hays Office” had been in existence since 1930, it did not have any real teeth until July 1934. At that point, studios were forbidden to release commercial films that did not have a Production Administration Code certificate of approval. Thus Céline was pushing his racy novel. just as the strict code came into effect. It was all over the pages of Variety during Céline’s visit. Hélas!

5. Henri Mahé, 1907-1975. Painter and film director, friend of Céline.

6. Éliane Tayar, quoted in Emile Brami’s Celine à Rebours. Paris: Archipoche. 2011.

7. Brami, Ibid.

8. Alphonse Juilland, Elizabeth and Louis. Paris: Editions Gallimard. 1994.

9. Elizabeth Craig parle de Céline, on YouTube.

10. Jean Monnier, Elizabeth Craig: une vie celinienne. Paris: Robert Laffont. 2018. 


Céline Goes to Hollywood: Part II

The Gospel According to Goldberg

Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics is Destroying American Democracy

By Jonah Goldberg
Crown Forum, April 2018
Hardcover list price $28.00


Anyone expecting Jonah Goldberg’s Suicide of the West to be a new meditation on James Burnham’s 1964 classic [1] about the moral degeneracy of liberal democracy is in for a laugh. Having borrowed Burnham’s tasty title, Goldberg goes off in another direction entirely, often inverting Burnham’s argument.

James Burnham thought the ideology of materialism and moral permissiveness was destroying the West’s ability to defend itself and survive. (He was thinking in Cold War terms, but his basic thesis is still applicable today.) Jonah Goldberg thinks egalitarian ideas and amoral acquisitiveness are just swell, and we need to appreciate them more.

“Don’t put the miracle of liberal-democratic capitalism at risk,” Goldberg summarized his thesis in National Review.[2] For Burnham, the spurious, unworkable ideas of “liberal-democratic capitalism” were precisely the problem.

Goldberg also tempts the reader with an intriguing subtitle—”How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics Is Destroying American Democracy”—but never really illustrates this point. The casual book-browser is invited to think Goldberg is going to say something about the New Right, the alt-right, or maybe white nationalism. But Goldberg’s theorizing about the origins of identitarianism is just so much tendentious fluff.

Here’s his explanation of the new “tribalism”: it’s all because social media, online porn, and videogames aren’t fulfilling enough.

The young Muslim men who left Europe and America to go fight for ISIS had every form of entertainment and distraction available to them, but they find it unsatisfying. The same goes for the alienated and numb cadres who swell the ranks of neo-Nazis, antifa, and countless other groups. They crave meaning that our leading institutions no longer feel compelled to provide, or are even capable of providing, at least for those who need it most.

Of course he begs the question of what these radicalized “young Muslim men” were doing in Europe and America in the first place, and how they came to be there, or why they react as they do. Surely, being transplanted to an alien culture must be disturbing enough. It is an actual, objective situation. There is no need to spin theories about why their lives might be “unsatisfying.” And as for Goldberg’s “neo-Nazis” and “antifa” (presumably he means Western identitarians and their opponents, most of whom do not wear those titles), surely they too have some real-life concerns beyond being bored with videogames.

On occasion he names the alt-right, without saying much about it other than that it formed part of Trump’s support in 2016. “Consider the emergence of the so-called alt-right,” he writes (implying that there is another, genuine one out there someplace):

The reason to fret about the growth and (relative) popularity of the alt-right is not that its adherents will somehow gain the power to implement their fantasies. No, the reason to be dismayed by them is that these intellectual weeds could find any purchase at all. They should have been buried beneath layers and layers of bedrock-like dogma with no hope of finding air or sunlight. But such is the plight we face. The bedrock is cracked. The soil of our civil society is exhausted, and the roots of our institutions strain to hold what remains in place.

Just as any civilization that was created by ideas can be destroyed by ideas, so can the conservative movement. That is why the cure for what ails us is dogma…
(pp. 343-344)

Yes, the cure is dogma.

But rather than dismissing this all as something like the babbling of a street-corner crazy, let’s take a little tour of Goldberg’s basic theses.

Basically, Goldberg’s Suicide of the West is a religious tract. He believes in miracles. Or rather, the Miracle. The Miracle is capitalism, which according to Goldberg is responsible for nearly all technological and social advancement in the past three hundred years.

Alas, Goldberg isn’t clear in his own head on what he means by capitalism. In political parlance it often gets confused with the idea of a “free-market economy.” And that free-market ideal is probably what Goldberg mainly intends. You are free to run your lemonade stand where and however you want. The trouble is that, quickly and inevitably, your free-market movement intersects with government power. If your zoning board (controlled by financial interests, perhaps Snapple) doesn’t want you to have a lemonade stand in front of your house, then you don’t have a lemonade stand anymore. You’ve been out-maneuvered. And this truly is capitalism at work. (Goldberg wouldn’t necessarily be fazed by this. He’d tell you it’s okay if you don’t make your $5 per day at your defunct lemonade stand, because you can buy a bottle of Snapple for a two bucks.)

Goldberg wants to equate free markets and free enterprise with capitalism, but they are distinctly different. Capitalism is a political system whereby private economic interests get to control not only their means of production and sales, but the government itself, by means of cartels, political funding and lobbying. This is how the term was understood a hundred and more years ago, and it is because of such abusive behavior that we had things like the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. It is why Teddy Roosevelt prided himself on being a trust-buster. Theodore Roosevelt did not consider himself “pro-capitalist”; quite the contrary. Nor did most American politicians prior to the 1950s, when, in response to Communist propaganda, some conservatives embraced the term and deliberately confused finance capitalism with the ideal of an efficient, smooth-running market economy. “Conservatives” like Goldberg are now so married to their ideal of “free-market” capitalism that they’ve put old-style conservative values—e.g., social stability, traditional morality—in the wind.

In Goldberg’s world, capitalism, free enterprise, and globalism are all interchangeable concepts; different names for his Miracle, and responsible for the Improved Standard of Living he claims to see throughout the world in recent centuries. If you demur that technology and innovation were really responsible, Goldberg will tell you technology and innovation are merely by-products. They would not have come into being or spread around the world without the capitalist Miracle.

Goldberg presents his thesis in a glib, chirrupy style, like a college-freshman debater of several decades back, who came to campus armed with the more practical works of Ayn Rand (Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal). He shows his intellectual prowess by sprinkling his talk with survey-course summaries of Great Thinkers. Two favorites are John Locke, with his Treatises on Government in support of the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688; and Max Weber, of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Goldberg offers those works as seminal capitalistic texts. That point is arguable, but their relevance to Goldberg’s Miracle is hazy. Locke, to Goldberg, is a promoter of religious tolerance and economic freedom, as well as an opponent of royal absolutism in the person of King James II. In reality it was James who was the apostle of tolerance, specifically for Protestant Dissenters, Nonconformists and his fellow Catholics. Such liberality enraged the “tolerant” Locke. Furthermore, James’s “absolutism” was mainly his insistence that the Crown should have supreme authority in restraint of financial manipulators. As a political propagandist for those financial interests, Locke necessarily favored a weak, tractable monarch and a free rein for the money men. And so the Glorious Revolution was born, with weak, tractable William of Orange supplanting James Stuart and chartering the Bank of England. Even at its birth, capitalism was less a system of economics than a type of government.

As for Max Weber, Goldberg accepts unquestioningly the dubious theory that fatalistic Calvinism invested “Protestantism” (a broad category) with a recondite doctrine or ethos that enabled Protestant businessmen to outperform Catholics. Politics, geography, and quasi-secular organizations probably had at least as much to do with this phenomenon. But since Goldberg is taking us on a magical Miracle tour, an occult belief in a “Protestant Spirit” is as good an explanation as any other.

Overall, Goldberg’s historical vision is pure Whig School of History: We once dwelt in darkness, in poverty and ignorance, our lifespans short, our existences nasty and brutish; helplessly in thrall to absolute monarchs and the obfuscatory mumbo-jumbo of prelates who told us to suffer now and get pie in the sky later. But then we threw off royal pomps and wicked priestcraft, embraced the ballot box and the cash ledger, and moved into the broad sunlit uplands of progress, freedom, and liberal democracy for all.

Except, Goldberg warns—and this is ostensibly the point of his book—the sunlit uplands are darkening. The Miracle worked so well that we have forgotten it, or no longer believe in it. Or perhaps we see right through it. Anyway, we are moving backwards into tribalism, darkness and filth.

To give the book quantitative heft, Goldberg includes a long Appendix full of charts and statistics, to prove that we’ve never had it so good.  I’ll give just a couple of snippets here, since the examples are tiresomely repetitive:

World per capita GDP rose from $467 in A.D. 1 to a mere $666 in 1820. Deirdre McCloskey estimates that, prior to the Industrial Revolution, pretty much everybody lived on $3 a day. [My comment: But whatever did they buy that cost $3 a day, anyway—that they didn’t make or grow themselves?]

Global GDP has soared, from an estimated $150 billion in A.D. 1 to more than $50 trillion as of 2008. Observed macroscopically, we are closer to Eden than Eden ever was.

(p. 357)

A moment’s thought suggests all sorts of objections to this hallelujah-nonsense. What does a hundred-fifty billion dollars even mean for the time of Caesar Augustus, an age when nearly all wealth was in the form of real property (generally inherited) and livestock? This estimate is no more than an economist’s game, like measuring 18th century income in Big Macs. Let’s say John Q. Publius, goatherd, could buy only three new goats per year for his herd in 1 A.D.; but now, thanks to the Miracle of capitalism, his descendant can buy a thousand goats, thereby providing us with plenty of good cheap goat meat for our daily lunchbox. Except the descendant probably isn’t raising goats, we’re not slavering over goat meat, and these GDP numbers are essentially meaningless. You cannot translate monetary and intangible values from a long-ago age to the present day.

Inevitably Goldberg drags out the old saw about how we all live longer lives now. Another triumph of the Miracle! Except that life expectancy really hasn’t risen substantially in recent decades, once you factor-out reduced infant mortality, factor-in its modern substitute, abortion, and subtract artificial end-of-life support apparatus. Surely, if rising life expectancy were a real thing, we should be living to 140 years nowadays, instead of barely surpassing our great-great-grandparents’ three-score-and-ten.

The fact that most people don’t live into their second century probably has a lot to do with why people like Goldberg can push their Progress cult with little fear of contradiction. Offhand I can think of a dozen ways in which the America of a hundred years ago was a better place than what we have now. Look at school textbooks and graduation requirements, for one thing. (Could today’s average graduate student even pass a standard high school exam from 1918?) For another, look at basic transportation. The hollowed-out communities you see in Upstate New York and elsewhere—once thriving, now practically ghost towns—they were served by cheap, reliable, efficient networks of railroads and light-rail tramways that could take you from Saratoga Springs to Schenectady, or Hornell to Meadville, in a half-hour. (Privately owned transport too; not that it strictly matters.) People liked their trains and trolleys, but the Miracle of capitalism decreed that we must all buy motorcars instead, and make the automobile and gasoline and insurance companies rich. So the legislators and town fathers were paid off, tracks were ripped up, and nowadays you can’t get there from here.


1. James Burnham, Suicide of the West: an Essay on the Meaning and Destiny of Liberalism. Originally published in 1964 by The John Day Company; later editions published by Regnery, and Encounter Books. A good online summary from the Claremont Institute is here: http://www.claremont.org/crb/basicpage/if-destruction-be-our-lot/

2. Jonah Goldberg, “Suicide of the West,” book excerpt. National Review, April 30, 2018. https://www.nationalreview.com/magazine/2018/04/30/jonah-goldberg-suicide-of-the-west-excerpt/

The Gospel According to Goldberg

‘Zine Master Adam

Remembering Adam Parfrey of Feral House Books, April 12, 1957 – May 10, 2018

Adam Parfrey in Hollywood, 1990

Adam Parfrey, the publisher of humor and esoterica who parlayed a 1980s “‘zine” sensibility into a durable niche publishing house, has died in his sleep at his home in Port Townsend, Washington. He was 61.

His main publishing imprint, Feral House, specialized in topics of pop culture, far-right politics and conspiracy theorizing. Adam built his career on a magpie interest in weird, outré subjects, and he brought a satirical and anarchic sensibility to most of them.

He first came to prominence thirty years ago with Apocalypse Culture (1987) an anthology of essays about cult beliefs and conspiracy theories, published by Amok Press, of which he was a co-founder with his friend Ken Swezey. It carried a cover-blurb endorsement from J. G. Ballard:

Apocalypse Culture is compulsory reading for all those concerned with the crisis of our times. This is an extraordinary collection unlike anything I have ever encountered— a remarkable compilation of powerfully disturbing statements. These are the terminal documents of the twentieth century.

Sample chapter headings: “The Unrepentant Necrophile,” “Schizophrenic Responses to a Mad World,” “The Case Against Art,” “Eugenics: The Orphaned Science,” “The Theology of Nuclear War.”

Adam soon left Amok and set up Feral House, originally based in Los Angeles, and put out such titles as Technological Slavery: The Collected Writings of Theodore J. Kaczynski; Secret Agent 666: Aleister Crowley, British Intelligence, and the Occult; Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr.; Citizen Keane (about the painter of big-eyed children); Republican Party Animal, by David Cole; and Cad: A Handbook for Heels (a lavishly illustrated parody of 1950s “men’s magazines”).

Feral House’s latest offering is a memoir by the French yé-yé singer of the 1960s, Françoise Hardy (The Despair of Monkeys, and Other Trifles).  Adam arranged a May 3 book-launch party for it at New York’s SoHo Grand hotel. The party went on, but Adam wasn’t there.

Adam Parfrey was born in New York City, and grew up mainly in Los Angeles. His father, Woodrow Parfrey, was a successful character actor, first on Broadway and in television dramas of the Playhouse 90 sort. In Hollywood, Woodrow worked constantly till he died of a heart attack in 1984, also age 61. In films (Dirty Harry, Papillon, The Flim-Flam Man) he played a lot of shifty-eyed grifters and grocers. On some television programs he was almost a regular supporting player (five appearances on The Man from U.N.C.L.E.,  four on Bonanza).

But the role people always asked Adam about was the one in which his father was totally unrecognizable, as he had been made up as an aristocratic orangutan in Planet of the Apes (the 1968 film and the 1974 TV show). Adam sometimes accompanied his father to the set.

“What was it like, having an orangutan judge as a father?” people always asked him, according to Adam. And he would reply,  “Oh, I just figured everyone’s father did this. Got up, went to work, played an orangutan in the movies.”

After high school, Adam attended University at California at Santa Cruz, but dropped out before graduation. In New York City he got a job in The Strand bookstore and with a co-worker created an elegant graphic-arts fanzine, Exit. Briefly he moved to Portland, Oregon, where he became friends with Keith Stimely, former editor of the Journal of Historical Review and aspiring biographer of Francis Parker Yockey. Keith was half-heartedly pursuing a masters in history at Portland State, which he soon gave up, along with the Yockey biography. (He wrote a book about desktop publishing instead.) Some years later Adam passed Keith’s Yockey information to one Kevin Coogan, who turned out a very different sort of biography from the one that Keith Stimely had planned (Dreamer of the Day, 1999).

Returning to L.A., Adam published Apocalypse Culture, founded Feral House, and did freelance writing, most of it imaginative and transgressive. He dashed off a piece for Larry Flynt’s Hustler about “Nazi skinheads,” and perpetrated an elaborate hoax in the pages of LA Weekly, about a secret gang of fag-bashers who called themselves the Blue Boys. He rented a rambling old frame house to live and work in, and decorated his office with art displayed for shock value. Most memorably there was a semi-pornographic poster of Shirley Temple in black SS regalia, posed against a huge and brilliant Hakenkreuz banner.

He became a feature writer and part-time editor for the San Diego Reader, where he interviewed old film directors and investigated a sex-therapy group for crippled people. He contributed a short weekly column called HelL.A., all about what was new and degenerate in the City of the Angels. No shortage of material there. The L.A. Riots happened (April-May 1991), famously triggered by a police beating of the drugged-out, unlicensed black “motorist Rodney King.”

Adam’s home, including the Feral House office, was then one mile east of Paramount Studios, in a borderline slum he called Baja Melrose. During the riots he seriously feared for his safety. In his Reader column Adam wrote that he was going to buy himself a pump-action shotgun, and move the hell out of HelL.A. as soon as he could afford to.

And move again he did, soon enough. Feral House published Nightmare of Ecstasy and sold the film rights. Tim Burton made it into Ed Wood, a black-and-white comedy with Johnny Depp as the weirdo director. Adam settled into a loft in Portland, Oregon.

Portland wasn’t lively or sociable enough, though. In L.A., Adam’s friends included such interesting characters as videographer/cartoonist Nick Bougas (aka A. Wyatt Mann of “le happy merchant” fame) and actor Crispin Glover. So back to L.A. Adam went, this time to an old house in Venice, big enough for the headquarters of Feral House, as well as Adam and his girlfriend, and her pet ferret.

When he made a major move again, in 2009, it was to a remote town he’d known about from his youth. For many years Port Townsend, WA was widely known as the home of libertarian-anarchist mail-order publisher Loompanics Books.

It is sometimes remarked that Adam trimmed his political sails as the years passed. This rebel publisher who once easily consorted with such rare and odd birds as Boyd Rice, Keith Stimely, and Tom Metzger, appeared to have turned into a fearful normie or even goo-goo leftist. In e-mail and on social media, he would sneer at “conspiracy theorists” and “black helicopter people.” In the last couple of years his Facebook postings were often routine denunciations of Donald Trump and his supporters.

I suspect that what really happened was the effect of the internet and social media in general. More than anything else, Adam Parfrey was a showman and exploiter of oddities. Cults and weirdnesses were his stock in trade. Indeed, they were the stock in trade of most of the ‘zine world in the 1980s. And that world is the ground wherein flowered Apocalypse Culture and Feral House.

But in the ‘zine world you wouldn’t get ten million followers, all ready to misinterpret you and instantly slot you as friend or foe. Adam balked at that. He was very much a print man. He never really acclimated himself to InterWebz Land.

In recent months, Adam decided to write a memoir. He talked with me about this a few weeks ago. He was trying to refresh his memory with lurid details about some mutual friends we’d known back in the 1980s and 90s. It was apparent that his memory had grown very foggy. He’d forgot some things, and made up others to plug the gaps. I didn’t find it particularly off-putting. He had been living in the boondocks, deeply engrossed in his publishing business. And he’d passed through so many circles of friends in his moves hither and yon. From the West Coast to New York and Hoboken; to Portland, OR and then to Los Angeles; back to Portland, back to L.A., and then finally Port Townsend on the Olympic Peninsula.

But he had also suffered a concussion in automobile accident some twenty years back, and believed he was suffering from fluid on the brain. This, along with a lifelong diabetic condition, possibly led to his recent stroke. On Monday, I am told, he suffered a fall. On Tuesday he was sleeping, and I gather he never woke up.

‘Zine Master Adam