As a biographer, it helps to like your subjects. You develop feelings for them. You even whisper advice: avoid Constantinople; do not marry that woman. You will them to find some kind of meaning in their lives, if only so you can, too.
I liked Eric Erickson in the beginning. I still do, but it's different.
Erickson's legend was that of a classic American adventurer: he was born in Brooklyn, worked the oilfields in Texas, and served in World War I as an intelligence officer. He was a dashing, self-made millionaire and playboy who charmed women from the South of France to Yokohama.
And then in the middle of World War II, while living in Stockholm, he volunteered for a spy mission so danger-filled it was almost ludicrous: Erickson posed as a Nazi collaborator, hung a portrait of the Führer in his apartment, “disowned” his Jewish best friend and travelled to wartime Berlin, where he met and bamboozled Heinrich Himmler, all the while locating the top-secret synthetic oil plants that kept the Wehrmacht running. He passed the coordinates to Allied Bomber Command, who attacked and destroyed the plants, helping to end the war early and potentially saving thousands of American lives. “Hitler was a lunatic,” he later said. “I wanted to crush him.”
And then he was almost completely forgotten.
Erickson possessed the rarest trifecta in World War II espionage: he was important, even receiving the Medal of Freedom for his work. He was brave. And he was American. I became obsessed with finding out the truth about his life.
But I quickly learned that Erickson was unlike anyone I’d ever written about. He had secrets that were multi-dimensional, folded inward on each other.
He'd lied about his age, for starters. He was a full seven years younger than he claimed to be. And after months of research, I found he hadn't been an intelligence officer in World War I after all. In fact, he'd been a student at Cornell, pledging Beta Theta Pi and romancing co-eds while men died at the Western Front. The first lie had opened up a gap in his biography, so Erickson had simply created a past as a spy for himself.
Other Erickson myths had been created by Hollywood and the publishing industry. In 1958, the author Alexander Klein wrote The Counterfeit Traitor about Erickson's life, and four years later Paramount released a hit film. William Holden played the spy.
I expected that the film would be, like “Argo,” bad with the facts. And it was. The thrilling escape from Germany had never happened, among many other things. But the book, too, turned out to be dodgy. That time Erickson killed a Gestapo agent in a Berlin phone booth? Klein had ginned up that one, and Erickson played along.
I began to feel that Erickson didn’t want me to find out the truth about his life. Writing about him was a caper in itself, like hunting a brilliant mole.
My next discovery was, however, altogether different. Erickson hadn't begun working for the OSS in 1939, it turned out, out of patriotism and anti-Nazi feeling. It had been 1942. And he wasn’t pretending to be a Nazi collaborator as part of his cover. He'd actually been one all along. Erickson’s business ledgers for 1939 alone showed he'd earned millions in oil deals with the Third Reich, a fact he tried to hide for decades. And he'd kept on making money until he'd been placed on the Allied black-list and his brother in America had been forced to disown him.
Erickson wasn’t a Nazi, by any stretch. But he didn’t mind making money off them. Becoming a spy, it turned out, was an act of atonement.
I felt my heart sink. This wasn't the discovery -- or the Erickson -- I wanted. 1942 was four years after Kristallnacht, three years after the invasion of Poland. No one could remain confused about Hitler in 1942.
I tried to place the new information in context. I went to Stockholm and talked with Sweden’s pre-eminent WWII historian, who explained that trading with Germany was considered a matter of national survival – if Sweden didn't give Hitler the raw materials he demanded, invasion would likely have followed. And American businesses like Standard Oil were doing business with the Third Reich right up until 1941, weren’t they?
True enough. But context only takes you so far. To make millions off Hitler while he was destroying Europe was a terrible thing. I couldn't feel the same way about Erickson. I couldn’t locate him morally. And unless I knew who he was, I couldn't write about him.
I took a few weeks off from the book.
What brought me back to my subject were two things, buried in Erickson's personal papers, which I'd discovered in Stockholm’s national archives. The first was a letter to a Mr. Barnes, who'd bought the Erickson family home in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Erickson thanked Barnes for allowing him to see the house during a visit in the early ‘60s. “It is strange,” he wrote, “that one of the most inexpensive and greatest things a man is born with is courtesy and unfortunately, much too few people use it.” After Barnes made it clear he was black, in a time and place when racial tension was high, Erickson responded: “A man's race, his religion or his color has in my life made no difference to me at all. All that I judge people by is their decency.”
So much of Erickson's life was a front. He lied to stop Hitler, and he lied to make money and so that people would admire him. But here was a private letter he didn't have to write. It was the fact that he had nothing to gain that convinced me that Erickson, behind the confabulations, had decency in him.
The second thing I found was a series of photos and letters from a woman named Anne-Maria Freudenreich. In the book, she's known as “Frau Marianne Möllendorf,” a beautiful OSS spy that Erickson had supposedly fallen for during the war.
Cue the hot Aryan love interest, I’d thought when first reading The Counterfeit Traitor, assuming Klein had made up Frau Marianne, too. But here were snapshots from the actual person. Anne-Maria was lovely, elegant, with a look of vulnerability in her eyes. Here was her last letter to Erickson, written in a delicate longhand; nearly forty years ago, her hands had folded the heavy stock into an envelope and dropped it in a Berlin postbox. The spy had saved it until his death. “My love!” Anne-Maria wrote in it. “May all your wishes come true in 1945. I always think of the beautiful and happy hours we spent here in Berlin. When will you come again?”
On the back of one, someone -- probably Erickson -- had written “executed by the Gestapo, Moabit Prison.” The execution is detailed in the book. And though, in the files, Erickson admits cooking up scenes and anecdotes, there wasn't a single word about Anne-Maria or her death being fake. “I was infatuated with her …,” Erickson said after the war. “If she was alive, she’d undoubtedly be my wife.”
Anne-Maria was real. And Erickson had loved her. It showed me that the spy had paid a price for his mission inside Germany. It grounded the story in pain and sacrifice, as all World War II stories should be.
It's possible, perhaps even likely, that Erickson has more secrets out there, letters to Anne-Maria lying in a desk drawer somewhere. Perhaps I'll receive an email from her family beginning, “Actually ...” and will have to go back and revise the story. It wouldn’t shock me. Erickson is too large and slippery a character for me to be convinced I know everything about him.
Spies deceive. Then again, so do we all. For the biographer, writing about someone like Erickson is excellent practice for writing about everyone else.
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.