Friday, June 24, 2005

The spy who loved it

A new biopic of a beautiful Polish spy working for British intelligence during WWII, and based on a biography written 30 years ago by an English grandmother, tells the story of a life full of courage, intrigue, love and murder.

Krystyna Skarbek was born 30 miles from Warsaw in 1915, the daughter of Count Jerzy Skarbek. She spied for the allies behind enemy lines, broke many hearts in the process - including author of the 007 novels, Ian Fleming - only to meet a grizzly end after the war at the hands of a jealous admirer.

The film – which will star Polish actress, Liliana Komorowska - is based on a relatively obscure biography written in 1975, by the English author, Madeline Masson. When I telephoned her at her home in a small village in West Sussex, England, I asked her how she felt last year when a Canadian film company rang up and told her that they were going to be paying well over 100,000 dollars for the film rights. The 92-year-old grandmother just laughed: “I was quite surprised, dear.”

“After that,” she went on, “a kind of bun fight ensued between publishers who wanted to reissue the biography.” She finally settled on the British publisher, Virago, who will be releasing a new, up-to-date version of the biography this October.

And it’s a life perfect for film. After finishing school in the 1930’s, Krystyna Skarbek decided to enter the Miss Poland beauty contest, which she won. She then met a Polish diplomat, fell in love and promptly married. When the Nazis invaded Poland the couple were living in Ethiopia. They fled to London, where Krystyna, forever looking for adventure, hooked up with the British Secret Services.

Originally posted in Budapest, she slipped into Poland to monitor Nazi troop movements. Caught by the Gestapo not once, but twice, she managed to get away both times. Her Jewish mother, though, still trapped in Poland, was caught by the Nazis and executed.

When not in Poland, Hungary, or in Egypt, Krystyna worked in France, where her fluent French enabled her to pass off as a local. Finally, in 1945, she was awarded the converted George Cross, nominated by an obviously smitten Winston Churchill.

But the pressures of being a spy during wartime affected her marriage, and, then known under the alias, Christine Grandville, she divorced in 1941. She went on to have many affairs, mostly with fellow agents.

Biographer, Madeline Masson – who has now written thirty books, and is currently writing her thirty-first - is angry at the way she thinks Krystyna has been treated by her homeland in print. “There is a scurrilous book about her in Polish, written in 1998, (Miloscnica) which dwells on her love life, but almost ignores her bravery.”

One of the lovers was always rumored to have been Ian Fleming, who at one time worked alongside her at British intelligence headquarters in England. Since the biography was written in the 1970’s, many secret wartime documents have been released, and they confirm the stories. “I am absolutely certain she had an affair with Ian, “says Madeline, who also worked for a short while in France for MI6 as a currier. “But Fleming had a wife who was pregnant, so he, quite understandably, didn’t want that talked about very much.”

In fact, he was so enraptured by Krystyna, that she became the inspiration for the double agent character in Casino Royale, Vesper Lynd.

But after the war, Krystyna found herself bored, out of a job, and her inheritance taken away by the Polish communists. Staying in England, she drifted into a number of dead-end jobs. One of these was on a cruise liner, where she met steward, George Muldowney. Krystyna liked George as a friend, but George, captivated by the vivaciousness of the Polish ex-spy, fell madly into an obsessive and jealous love.

One day, in 1952, he could stand it no longer and stabbed her to death.

I suggested to Madeline Masson that there were parallels between her and the subject of her biography. “Oh no, dear, I did get sucked into the secret service, but I always tried my best get out of it. I am not as brave as she was. And I have always been quite old fashioned, you know!”

The biography of Christine Granville will be published by Virago Press in October 2005

This article was originally published in the New Warsaw Express


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Agnieszka said...

I always wondered what makes a woman so unforgettable... my grandma has that... still so many worshippers on their knees... so many gifts and flowers...