In September 1940, Vera Schalburg, a former dancer from the Folies-Bergère with a heroin habit and instinct for espionage, waded out of the Moray Firth with a suitcase in her hand.
She made landfall in Scotland with two male co-conspirators, ready to start life in Britain as Nazi agents. But her party did not get very far. A member of the public clocked the suspicious fatness of their wallets - and the suspicious dampness of their suitcases, which, when opened, were found to contain German sausage and a list of RAF bases.
The two men were executed and Schalburg vanished, never to emerge, into the machinery of the wartime secret state. Before that silence fell, however, the captured spy revealed her ultimate destination: the coffee lounge of the Dorchester hotel. Here she planned to meet a contact, hand over a wireless transmitter and troll the building in the hope of extracting information from Allied officers on leave. The evidence suggests that had she made it to Park Lane, her pickings would have been rich.
During the Second World War, London's grand hotels became factories for the production of careless talk. In air-raid shelters and Grill Rooms, Cabinet ministers mixed with arms dealers, con-artists, deposed royals, members of governments-in-exile and five-star refugees from across the continent of Europe. The Ritz, the Waldorf, Claridge's, the Savoy, the Dorchester: each was a kind of Casablanca.
It was concrete and steel that made them so. The Ritz, the Dorchester and the Waldorf ballyhooed the thickness of their walls, the strength of the metal skeletons that lurked beneath their skins. (The Savoy, hopelessly vulnerable on the banks of the Thames, put its faith in scaffolding and reinforcements.) The strategy worked. In his private diary, the Canadian diplomat Charles Ritchie surveyed the Dorchester and concurred: "I simply cannot believe that bombs would dare to penetrate this privileged enclosure or that they could touch all these rich people. Cabinet ministers and Jewish lords are not killed in air-raids – that is the inevitable illusion that this place creates."
Under that illusion, intrigue thrived. The intelligence agencies used bedrooms for discreet debriefings and interrogations; spies were housed on the premises to befriend suspicious guests; members of staff were encouraged to inform upon each other. At Claridge's, the rooms of a visiting American envoy were searched for hidden microphones. At the Ritz, a party of lunching socialites turned on an Austrian princess with the words, "get out, dirty spy!". At the Dorchester, Guy Burgess employed a staggeringly beautiful 21-year-old named Peter Pollock to flirt with wealthy homosexuals from neutral or occupied countries. Swiss waiters were treated with particular hostility: the Italian ones had, in the summer of 1940, been marched from the restaurants and kitchens and found new accommodation in internment camps across England.
The Waldorf hotel on the Aldwych, however, was home to the woman who, judging by the thickness of her files, caused the greatest grief to the men from MI5. She arrived from Lisbon in the winter of 1941 with a complicated story about a lover in the German intelligence service who wanted to throw in his lot with the Allies. Stella Lonsdale [pictured] was a woman with a past – several, in fact. She had two husbands on her curriculum vitae – one a White Russian exile with a long career in fraud, the other an aristocratic English jewel thief who had done time for his part in bludgeoning Cartier's London representative in a suite at the Hyde Park Hotel. Her ideas about marriage were unusual: she spent her second honeymoon in bed between her first and second husbands.
MI5 paid Stella's bills, intercepted her post, and questioned her over coffee on the Waldorf's Palm Court. The toughest interrogators, however, found her impossible to crack. "Much of Mrs Lonsdale's conversation", asserted one informer, ‘"cannot possibly be submitted in a report owing to its indescribably filthy nature." The officer assigned to her case recorded: "She is without any doubt at all a woman whose loose living would make her an object of shame on any farm-yard." Another snoop reported: "Her mind is – simply and frankly – a cesspool. Without going into details, she held forth for 40 minutes on the difference in love-making of a Frenchman and an Englishman. On another day she expatiated on the theme of animals. She apparently knows not the meaning of decency or reticence. She is sex-fanatical."
The spooks were forced to admit defeat. "I am more and more convinced that she is not quite normal," noted one MI5 officer. "I believe she hardly knows herself when she is telling the truth or lying," concluded a wardress in the prison to which she was eventually consigned. "Although I do not think she is certifiable, I should say she has a mental kink." Stella Lonsdale spent the remainder of the war behind bars.
But at the bar of the Special Forces club, where the surviving alumni of the Special Operations Executive still meet, I heard the story of a successful Nazi infiltration of one of London's grand hotels. It concerned a French agent named Raymond Couraud, a former gangster who had earned the croix de guerre in the battles of Narvik. Courand was brought to Britain to form part of a six-man assassination squad that aspired to return to Occupied France and eliminate Rommel and other leading members of the Wehrmacht.
One drunken night, Couraud got into an argument with a British colleague about the relative merits of French and English hospitality. The opinion of an unbiased third party, they concluded, would settle the argument. They found one patrolling a beach on the coast of Normandy: a German soldier whom they bundled into the back of a small boat, transported across the Channel and deposited in the ballroom of the Dorchester, where, disguised in an Allied uniform, he was taken dancing and became the willing receptacle for a torrent of cocktails. Twenty-four hours later this accidental tourist was returned, with a blinding hangover, to the beach from which Couraud and his colleagues had abducted him. The story does not record who won the bet.
The West End Front by Matthew Sweet is published by Faber.
Photograph of Stella Lonsdale c The National Archives