The Unusual Attractions of Martha Dodd

Martha Dodd.

She was not a journalist stationed in Berlin. She did not report on the heady news from a Nazifying Germany (though she had had a brief stint with the Chicago Tribune). She was no diplomat. She did not conduct official business with the militarizing German state (though her father, as U. S. ambassador to Germany from 1933 to 1937, did). She had no official, paid position at all. Yet the bestselling author Erik Larson built an entire book around her.

Exaggeration? It is true that roughly half of the source material came from her father. Without William Dodd, Martha never gets to Berlin. Without her father, Martha has no access to Nazi muckamucks: no inside story, no dangerous liaisons.

Larson called his 2011 book In the Garden of the Beasts, after the illustrious Berlin park, the Tiergarten, against which the embassy abutted. He (or his publisher) added the subtitle, “Love, Terror, and an American family in Hitler’s Berlin.” Said family included Ambassador Dodd’s son Bill and wife, Mattie. But son and wife are bit players, cited only occasionally in the nearly-400-page text. They are average Americans implied in the subtitle, foils to righteous, scholarly William and flamboyant, literary Martha.

The family‘s story is, to all intents and purposes, the ambassador’s and his daughter’s. Larson employs Dodd’s letters, private papers, official documents, and a published diary (which Martha helped edit)–as well as the views of the (mostly) men he dealt with–to tell the story that happened center stage, as it were. Martha’s extensive correspondence and a published memoir–as well as writings of the many men and women with whom she interacted–allow Larson to draw back the curtain and reveal the titillating, intrigue-filled underside of prewar Berlin. I was struck by how much this book depended on Martha.

It is through Martha that we first experience the shock of Nazi brutality run amok. On a visit to Nuremburg with friends, Martha sees a mob of SA stormtroopers, dragging, taunting, hazing a powerless woman through the streets. It is a scene straight out of a medieval witch craze. The woman’s head is shaved bald; her face powdered to “the color of diluted absinthe,” in Martha’s words; around her neck, a placard proclaiming her offense, “I HAVE OFFERED MYSELF TO A JEW.” [GB 96-97] We see the scales fall from the sheltered American’s eyes. She will never look upon Germany–or the world–in the same way again.

But Martha was not as sheltered as she let on. She was, in fact, a married woman of twenty-five, though her elopement had never been made public. Nor was it legally ended when she left to follow her father to Germany. Martha “rather enjoyed being treated like a maiden of eighteen knowing all the while my dark secret.” [GB 113] Larson puts it more directly: “Outwardly she looked the part of a young American virgin, but she knew sex and liked it, and especially liked the effect when the man learned the truth.” [GB 113]

So, through Martha we take rides into the countryside with Nazi officials, dance beside them in night clubs, and imagine what went on behind closed doors when they returned home. The liberal-minded (or willfully-blind, depending on your perspective) ambassador gave his daughter free rein to come and go as she pleased. At the embassy, male callers paid her visits at all hours. Fritz, the embassy butler, kvetched, “That was not a house but a house of ill repute.” [GB 115]

Of all her liaisons, the longest lasting and “most important of all,” [GB 120] according to Larson, was with Soviet embassy official, Boris Vinogradov, actually an agent with the NKVD, precursor to the KGB. Fascism and communism were locked in conflict in 1930s Europe (Democracy was struggling to get up off the mat after a knockout blow.) It was not difficult for Boris to turn Martha’s growing hatred of Fascism into support for the Soviet communist experiment. In short, we watch Martha become a fellow traveler, right under her father’s nose.

She goes so far as to take a — month tour through Soviet Russia and Georgia, accompanied only by a middle-aged Russian interpreter. Her report on the trip is layered with ambivalence yet, we learn from Larson, she was ultimately drawn to support the communist experiment.

That is, she “spied” for the Soviet Union for several years, both while in Germany and, after 1937, in the United the United States. (The actuality of “spying” was often much more prosaic than the term implies. It is unlikely “Liza,” her code name, passed on an information of much use to the Soviets.) A resurgent HUAC in 1953 forced Martha and her fellow-traveler American husband, Alfred Stern, into exile: first in Mexico, then in Czechoslovakia. Martha lived long enough to see Soviet tanks ride through Prague streets in 1968 and live another two decades under Soviet domination. She lived long enough to witness the Velvet Revolution, ending communist rule in Czechoslovakia, but not long enough to ever again set foot on the land of her birth.

Martha Dodd was an intriguing personality. As I said at the top of this post, she seemed to me the raison d’etre for Larson’s entire project.

So, I went to the source. Two sources, in fact.

Martha Dodd published a memoir, Through Embassy Eyes, in 1940, shortly after returning to the United States, and a novel, Sowing the Wind, as the war was coming to an end, in 1945. The latter was “clearly based on the  life of one of her past lovers, Ernst Udet” and described “how Nazism seduced and degraded a good-hearted World War I flying ace.” [GB 359] I was curious for several reasons. What was the extent of Dodd’s relationship with Udet, the wartime enemy and postwar friend of Eddie Rickenbacker? What light did it shed on the tragedy of the historical Udet? What kind of fiction did Dodd write? I used SearchOhio and OhioLink to locate a copy. There was, as far as I could tell, exactly one copy of the novel in the state of Ohio. I ordered it.

I didn’t plan to read more than a few chapters. I just wanted to get a sense. The writing in the first few pages was overwrought, not the stuff of a skilled novelist. I forced myself over three nights of sleepy, in-bed reading through the first two chapters. I moved it to daytime reading and, to my surprise, kept reading. I was reading Dodd’s novel exactly as one is supposed to read fiction: “in one sitting,” to “find out what happens.” I almost went ahead and read it in one day (not counting the fits and starts of the first two chapters).

I cannot say that Dodd’s writing created the illusion of a real fictional world, that it magically captured my imagination. No, I was compelled as a historical reader by her insider’s access to momentous historical people and events. Attempting to distinguish the fact from the fiction is my preferred mode of inquiry when reading historical fiction. Dodd’s characters were a little flat, but the full-size, historical figures behind them gave them added interest.

I went to her other source: her memoir, Through Embassy Eyes, from which Larson drew extensively. In his bibliographical note, Larson was sure to point out that the work is not “wholly trustworthy” and “must be treated with care.” He added that it “is necessarily her own rendering of people and events…and as such is indispensable as a window into her thoughts and feelings….” [GB 370] Those last three words are the crux of the matter: what did it feel like to witness Germany descend into Nazi insanity. Martha was perhaps too close to said “people and events” to be “wholly trustworthy,” yet the very closeness makes her view so valuable–if not “indispensable.”

Erik Larson could have written his book with just the input of Ambassador William Dodd and his official and social contacts. He could have, but he wouldn’t have. It’s hard to think that he would have bothered. Martha’s input gave his book spice and piquancy; sex and intrigue. There’s more to Martha’s input and her life story. Revisit this space next week for more on this fascinating figure and her writing.


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