The Spy Who Came In from the Closet

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THIS IS THE STORY of a lesbian FBI informant who worked undercover in the American Communist Party from 1942 to 1949, and who testified at the 1949 trial of the Party’s leadership in New York City’s Foley Square. Like all the Communist trials of the period (including that of the Rosenbergs) it was a conspiracy trial, which meant that no overt act was alleged. Under the 1940 Smith Act (officially the Alien Registration Act), the charge was “conspiracy to advocate the overthrow of the U.S. government by force and violence.”

A witness for the prosecution, and the subject of my investigation—Confidential National Defense Informant Angela Calomiris—“Angie” to her friends—was not exactly the kind of heroic figure most GLBT people were looking for. Nevertheless, during the fifteen minutes of fame that she managed to stretch into almost five years, she enjoyed considerable celebrity. If anyone in the anti-Communist network (FBI, press, American Legion) thought she was a lesbian, they didn’t say so. And even if there was a hint that she was a little “different,” she was still their All-American Girl, fighting bravely against an alien and dangerous philosophy. It was one of those rare moments in American history when there was something worse than being a lesbian—and that was being a Communist.

Red MasqueradeAngela Calomiris (1916–1995) was a little butch dyke (under five feet tall, weighing about 100 pounds) from Greenwich Village. She was not only masquerading as a Communist for her undercover assignment; she was also trying to pass for straight. Old friends of hers with whom I spoke said that Angela dressed up and “put on earrings” to go to the Party meetings she had to report back on. The very unreliable book she published (written by a ghost writer), Red Masquerade: Undercover for the FBI, included a lot of girlie talk about having no immediate plans to marry, avoiding romantic entanglements with male comrades in the Party, choosing fetching outfits for the trial, and doing her hair. Since she was the only female witness for the prosecution, the New York press seized the opportunity to talk about her wardrobe and compare her to Mata Hari. As far as the spy business was concerned, she came out better than did Mata Hari, the Dutch-born double agent who was executed by the French as a German spy during World War I. But Calomiris was on shaky ground of her own. The short hair that she described as a “slightly waved bob” was described by the press as “cropped.” One Village acquaintance remarked, when told about Angie’s description of picking out just the right dress for her appearance on the witness stand, retorted: “That would be the only time she ever wore a dress!”

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