The Spy Who Came in from the SeaOn August 26, 2020 by Elyse
[In 1892,] a young girl singer of bewitching beauty, destined to worldwide fame thereafter, made her debut at the Costanzi Opera House in Rome in “The Huguenots.” She was “billed” alongside the celebrated tenor, Marconi. Her name was Elena Teodorini.– The Daily News, August 17, 1918
Actually, it was Theodorini, but if that’s the newspaper’s worst misprint, it’s a good day in the early 20th century.
Elena’s cosmopolitan destiny was evident from the beginning. She was born on March 25, 1857 in Craiova, Romania to parents of Greek extraction. Since she came from a family of actors, it’s not surprising that she studied singing and piano at the Milan Conservatory in Italy. In 1880, she shattered a glass ceiling—probably not literally—when she became the first Romanian singer to debut at La Scala, a renowned opera house in Milan.
At the very outset of her career she took the Roman musical world by storm, by force of the qualities of her voice and her dramatic interpretation. Soon her talents were being competed for by impresarios in most of the great European centres and in cities beyond the Atlantic.– The Daily News, August 17, 1918
She went on to perform as a soprano and mezzo-soprano in opera houses from Milan and Madrid to Lisbon and London. Her meteoric rise was underway.
I know, I know: You’re here for a spy thriller. But before you accuse me of false advertising, read a little further. I have to set the stage and get all the bad puns out of my system.
Perhaps the international stardom weighed on Elena, or maybe she really wanted to learn how to tango. In either case, a change of scenery was in order. After first performing in Buenos Aires in 1884, she:
. . . afterward became so attached to Argentina audiences that she made her home in this city. Since then she has figured in the musical and theatrical life of Argentina, although she had retired from the operatic stage.– The El Paso Herald, December 22, 1917
The feeling was mutual:
Few women ever have been so popular and so believed by the Argentine public as Elena Theodorini.– The El Paso Herald, December 22, 1917
Elena’s adopted homeland dubbed her “La Theodorini.” You know you’ve made it when you get a definite article in front of your name. She joined the ranks of such illustrious stars as Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Billy the Kid and Kenny “The Jet” Smith, who Wikipedia tells me is a sports commentator and former professional basketball player. On second thought, maybe “the” is not such a distinction.
However, unbeknownst to her adoring fans, Elena had a secret:
. . . the general public did not know, as did diplomatic circles, that she had been in recent years a great friend of Count Luxburg and a member of a circle of theatrical women who were dined and wined at the residence of the German diplomat.– The El Paso Herald, December 22, 1917
If you thought middle school was the last time lunch tables mattered, think again. Count Karl von Luxburg was Germany’s representative to Argentina during the First World War and the resident bad boy of Buenos Aires—but not the cool kind I used to have crushes on. He was more akin to the emotionally disturbed type who would set things on fire.
Like every middle schooler, Karl passed notes. In a secret dispatch to Berlin, he wrote:
. . . there has been a great change in public feeling. Government will in future only clear Argentine ships as far as Las Palmas. I beg that the small steamers Oran and Guazo, thirty-first January [meaning, which sailed 31st], 300 tons, which are [now] nearing Bordeaux with a view to change the flag, may be spared if possible, or else sunk without a trace being left [spurlos versenkt].– Count Karl von Luxburg, quoted in the American Journal of International Law, May 19, 1917
Unfortunately for Karl, the teacher caught him and read his note out loud to the entire class. In this case, that teacher was U.S. Secretary of State Robert Lansing, who published Karl’s dispatches advocating the sinking of a neutral nation’s ships. No matter how rough your middle school years were, at least you didn’t get caught suggesting unrestricted submarine warfare. . . right?
Consequently, “Count Luxburg received his passports from the Argentine government,” which is just like getting expelled from school. Elena’s parents should’ve been worried about the crowd she was hanging out with.
On October 5, 1917, Elena boarded the Spanish steamer Queen Victoria Eugenia en route to Paris “in company with a group of theatrical persons who were known to be friends of Count Luxburg.” She was reportedly coming to the aid of her poverty-stricken sister, who had lost everything during the war.
But was that all she was doing in Europe?
Teodorini had by the American authorities been long suspected of espionage. These suspicions were intensified through her incessant tripping to and from New York and Buenos Ayres, and yet, so far all efforts to establish any guilt were foiled — till, just after her embarking on October 2, on the Spanish trans-Atlantic boat, Queen Victoria Eugenia, the American police wirelessed the Anglo-French watchers, telling of their grave misgivings that Teodorini was, perhaps, bearing confidential dispatches to Germany’s Secret Service agents in Spain.– The Daily News, August 17, 1918
Shortly after the ship set sail, it was stopped and searched by a British cruiser. The sailors were looking for Karl. When they didn’t find him, they arrested some of Elena’s traveling companions but allowed her and the ship to continue on their merry way. She must have exhaled deeply and ordered a stiff drink.
However, her relief would be short lived. On October 25, off the coast of Cádiz, Spain, a British destroyer approached the Queen Victoria Eugenia. The ship was boarded by warrant-toting officials looking for Elena. A fellow passenger later recounted to reporters:
On being told that they were to ransack her baggage, Signorina Teodorini turned deadly pale; but, quickly recovering herself, she assumed a more haughty demeanor, demanding, “Why mine more than anybody else’s?” She assisted at the search, maintaining an attitude of apparent indifference.
Some amusement was caused among bystanders by the seizure, among other articles, of a bulky roll of curl-papers, the wrapper of which was still intact.– The Daily News, August 17, 1918
You know that feeling when all the embarrassing stuff you crammed into your school locker spilled out into the hallway in front of everyone? Elena sure did.
On being subjected to a special acid test, however, these papers appeared to be covered with curious hieroglyphical writing.– The Daily News, August 17, 1918
. . . Never mind. I don’t know about you, but my locker didn’t double as a chemistry lab.
The searchers confessed that the cypher surpassed their understanding. After an English stewardess had been fetched on board to replace Teodorini’s maid orders were given to get the vessel again under way.
While British officers could still be seen tackling their task of decipherment with all the patience of enthusiastic cryptologists, the passengers, on their part, were beginning to forget the incident in the fond imagination that they were at last nearing their port of destination. Instead of that, they suddenly found themselves alongside a French cruiser.– The Daily News, August 17, 1918
At that point, no one could have blamed them if they’d opted to swim the rest of the way.
Then Miss Teodorini’s artist acquaintances [on board the ship] learned that the suspected spy had been stripped as for the bath, when, ‘lo! and behold, inscribed on her shoulders was discovered a complete key to the mystic writing on the roll of curl-papers. Thus was delivered into the hands of Britain’s Ally Signorina Teodorini, now accused of treasonable communications with the enemy.– The Daily News, August 17, 1918
I’m not sure if a tattooed key to a code is the most devious or dumbest idea I’ve ever heard of.
Elena was promptly arrested by the commander of the French ship. She found herself in dire straits:
During her sojourn in the Argentine Republic the famous prima donna, Elena Teodorini, seems to have been caught in the toils of Count Luxburg (the Kaiser’s envoy) and his gang, and thereby to have become involved in the alleged conspiracy for the undoing of France. . . Like the executed dancing spy, Mata-Hari, it is into the clutches of the rejuvenated France that Signorina Teodorini has at length fallen.– The Daily News, August 17, 1918
These revelations go to make a chapter of a story every whit as startling as that of the ill-fated Dutch variety hall dancer, Mata-Hari.– The Daily News, August 17, 1918
Every whit as startling—but not every whit as true. Plot twist!
La Theodorini, as Argentinians have long called her, announced that she had come back to defend herself against the imputation that she had been engaged in espionage work here, of which the French authorities were reported to have accused her.– The New York Tribune, February 27, 1918
Let’s all give a slow clap for the 20th-century press’ uncanny ability to turn an admittedly egregious misunderstanding into a sensational international scandal.
Once back in friendly territory, Elena gave the performance of a lifetime as she set the record straight in a number of tell-all interviews published in early 1918.
La Theodorini could not suppress the crying that broke her words. Her paleness and the trembling that shook her lean body, told us something about the strength that animated this old lady, in an hour that could be supreme.– Joquin E. Riambau, “Conversing with La Theodorini”
As best Google Translate and I can figure, Elena picked up right where the newspapers left off. After an agonizing 24 hours aboard the French cruiser, military authorities apparently realized the error of their ways and ordered her immediate release. She was set free in Tangier and probably kissed the ground before hightailing it to Paris.
Count Luxburg? Never met him. Secret messages in curl papers? Hogwash. That supposed tattoo on her back? Don’t even start.
I admit, for a spy thriller, it’s a little anticlimactic: no bombs, no high-speed chases and no evil villain laughing manically as he presses a big red button. I can understand why the newspapers ended with the secret code and Elena’s arrest. But at least there’s betrayal.
I learned that the accusation of which I was a victim came from Buenos Aires, addressed to the North American government. I suspect two “close friends” who always showed a strange interest in my trip, and who, later, did not even remember me. . . They are foreigners. I forgive them. . . Now, am I not rehabilitated? Am I proud to have received from France, through its heroes, the honor of an apology?– Elena Theodorini, quoted in “Conversing with La Theodorini”
Considering La Theodorini was a literal prima donna, that was very magnanimous of her. We may never know who accused her of espionage, but I suspect that story, if true, would be even more compelling than her ordeal on the high seas.
The next few years of Elena’s life are a mystery. Her name doesn’t appear after 1918 in any of the English-language newspapers I scoured. After that kind of publicity, perhaps some anonymity was a welcome change. Let’s hope she spent her time mingling with a nicer crowd of friends. In 1924, she moved back home to Romania and taught in Bucharest and Athens before passing away on February 27, 1926.
The moral of today’s story: When you assume, you make an ass out of U and ME. . . and the millions of people who read your newspaper. Now that’s a lesson they ought to teach in middle school.
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Disclaimer: The modern era is far from the first to grapple with rampant “fake news.” As I am neither a historian nor journalist, I make no claims about the accuracy or lack thereof of the above sources. I assert only that they make for a good story.
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