Exclusively for The Deighton Dossier, Len Deighton provides readers with the true facts about his experience of Anna Wolkoff, a White Russian with known German sympathies who was arrested as a spy in 1940 and charged with attempting to assist the enemy.
Len Deighton is a famous footnote to this story - his meeting with Mrs Wolkoff is covered extensively online and frequently referred to when discussing the origins of Len Deighton's career as a spy writer, which reportedly started with this encounter. This relationship is often referred to, but below Len gives us his experiences as he remembers them, and in doing so provides a new aspect on this little gem of wartime espionage history and a fascinating insight into the upstairs/downstairs world of life in London:
Len Deighton: "Some of the houses in Gloucester Place Mews, Marylebone [see image], where I lived with my parents, had been enlarged by making the ground floor garage into living accommodation. There were several of these ‘bijou’ homes. The one directly opposite us was owned by some sort of show-biz talent agency for transient cabaret stars. One such star was Larry Adler, who must have liked London (or the cabarets liked him) for he remained there for a long time.
A less flashy-looking home of this sort was the one next door to us. The occupant was Anna Wolkoff. She was the 38-year-old daughter of a onetime admiral of the Imperial Russian Navy. He had been the Russian Embassy’s naval attaché until the revolution in 1917. Anna’s mother had been a maid of honour to the Czarina. Granted political asylum, and naturalized, the Wolkoffs now had a ‘Russian tea room’ opposite South Kensington Underground Railway station. It was noted for its caviar and vodka and for serving lemon tea in glasses using a silver samovar. It was a gathering place for Russian expatriates whose bitter views of Lenin and Stalin had softened their feelings about Hitler and his Nazi regime. They were not all Russians. Members of the Right Club, a small organization of upper class people with right-wing views, were also to be found there. Anna Wolkoff was the club’s ‘political secretary’.
I saw Anna Wolkoff almost every day. When war started she joined the National Fire Service. Thereafter she would usually be wearing her uniform. Although she didn't mix much with her neighbours, everyone noted her volunteer service as a sign of wartime patriotism. She was a stern-faced, big-boned woman who, with hindsight, I can say looked Russian. She owned a small business as a milliner [not a dress maker as most accounts say] and her social life extended into that of her clients such as the Duchess of Gloucester and Wallis Simpson, as well as the wives of senior politicians and successful businessmen.
Anna gave my mother some remarkable hats. The only one I remember was a black velvet fez with coloured ostrich feathers. My mother only wore it briefly indoors to show to friends. My mother was on friendly terms with Anna because she cooked the food for her chic dinner parties. Anna's dinner guests were drawn from members of the Right Club and from other influential people she had come to know. In common the guests had strong aversion to Stalin's Russia and a powerful streak of anti-semitism.
Anna befriended a young American embassy employee named Tyler Kent, who had come from the staff of the US Embassy in Moscow. He now lived in a second floor apartment in Gloucester Place just one block away, and his political views echoed those of Anna and her freinds. The Right Club had a contact in the Italian Embassy [Italy had not yet declared war] and the gossip and loose talk that Anna noted, plus the secret signals that Kent had intercepted, went via the Italian diplomatic bag to Rome and then to Berlin. Kent was a code clerk at the embassy, a position that brought him into daily contact with the ambassador Joseph Kennedy, who expressed views not unlike those of Kent and Wolkoff. Kennedy had been decorated by Hitler and, even after war began, was telling all and sundry that Britain was finished and Germany would win the war. His sons had come back from trips to Germany with admiration for Germany's military might.
It was in early May 1940 that I heard cars arriving in the middle of the night. Crammed shoulder to shoulder with my parents, I leaned out of the window. They were two police cars in the mews and Special Branch officers were banging on her street door. They bundled her iinto a car and took her away to face charges of espionage. She was sentenced to ten years in prison. Kent was held incommunicado. Rumours said that it was made clear to Kennedy that if he returned to the USA and ran against Roosevelt in the coming Presidential elections (something he said would do) then Kent would be returned to face an American public trial. That would mean Tyler incriminating Joseph Kennedy. Later, some said Kent's retention in England was a secret, or maybe tacit, bargaining factor in Churchill's deals with Roosevelt. Kennedy hastened back to his home in Florida.
Whether the rumours are true or not, when, years later and thanks to a good friend, I was able to see the Special Branch arrest report, it claimed that she’d been arrested at her home above the Russian Tea Rooms in South Kensington. Anna’s true home in Gloucester Place Mews, her dinner parties and her guests, had been erased from the records. My mother (who might have identified some of Anna's guests) was never questioned, neither were any of the neighbours. Unfortunately for the men and women of MI5, who, led by the famous Maxwell Knight, had had Anna under surveillance, no one remembered to falsify the elector’s register, which recorded Wolkoff’s address as next door to us in Gloucester Place Mews."
(c) Pluriform 2015