Lisa E. Davis's fascinating new book, Undercover Girl: The Lesbian Informant Who Helped the FBI Bring Down the Communist Party, recovers one of the mostly forgotten stories of the Red Scare, America's Communist witch hunt of the 1940s and 1950s. The book tells the story of Angela Calomiris, a young photographer who was the only woman to testify for the prosecution at the 1949 Smith Act trial against 11 members of the American Communist Party, and her subsequent attempts to capitalize on that notoriety.
Davis, a historian and writer in New York, first came across Calomiris's existence while listening to a 1983 interview with an entertainer known as Bubbles/Buddy Kent in which Kent mentioned a lesbian who had "outed gay girls to the FBI," including Yetta Cohn, a member of the NYC police department and actress Judy Holliday's girlfriend at the time. The informant was Angela "Angie" Calomiris, a Greenwich Village photographer.
Using papers that had been given to the Lesbian Herstory Archives after her death in 1995 (the recognition-starved Calomiris had saved just about everything—correspondence with the FBI, journalists, and fans; newspaper clippings of both good press and bad), Davis takes as balanced a view as one possibly can of the photog turned fink, but Calomiris doesn't come off well. There is, of course, the glaring fact that she was an FBI informant who ended up on the wrong side of history. But even beyond that, Calomiris was often dishonest, manipulative, conniving, hypocritical, and hungry for fame—someone who, in the words of the FBI, "might be inclined to capitalize on her position as a former Bureau informant." Moreover, she was ruthless, betraying her own mentors and colleagues, including Sid Grossman, a respected photography teacher, whom Calomiris painted as a heartless Communist. Grossman never worked in New York again and often said she had ruined his life.
A noteworthy element (not so subtly hyped by the book's publisher in the subtitle) to Calomiris's story is her identity as a lesbian during a time when being gay was still illegal and gay people were seen as perverts—police routinely raided bars and arrested the patrons. Being gay was also seen as a security risk; in 1950, the front page of the Washington Times-Herald implied that Soviet agents targeted heterosexual female civil servants by "enticing them into a life of Lesbianism." However, as Davis writes, the 1940s and 50s were "one of those rare moments in American history when there was something worse than being a lesbian, and that was being a Communist." The FBI, for their part, knew of Calomiris's orientation and chose to ignore it because of the access she granted them to the New York Photo League, which was their real target.
Calomiris was often dishonest, manipulative, conniving, hypocritical, and hungry for fame—someone who, in the words of the FBI, "might be inclined to capitalize on her position as a former Bureau informant."
Calomiris went undercover as a member of the Communist Party in the New York Photo League from 1942 through 1949. Toward the end of her stint, she was actually asked to leave the CP because she was a lesbian. But Calomiris refused to leave the party and demanded a trial regarding the accusations; the party never pursued the issue, allowing her to remain a member, though she was demoted in position.
Calomiris's risky decision to testify and reveal her identity was one that she hoped would pay off with opportunities: fame, money, prestige. Instead, it led to the destruction of the New York Photo League (which never recovered, having lost too many of their members, including Grossman, considered by many to be "the heart" of the organization) along with the loss of her own standing in the close-knit photography community.
Her thirst for fame only worsened matters. After testifying in the first of the Smith Act trials, the last of which occurred in 1958, she was told by the FBI not to speak publicly until after the case's appeal was over. Instead, Calomiris went on a full-on media offensive, appearing on radio shows (including that of Eleanor Roosevelt, whom she liked to say she knew) and penning (with the aid of a ghostwriter) a splashy tell-all called Red Masquerade: Undercover for the FBI. ("A second masquerade would have been pretending to be straight in order to pull all that off," Davis snarks in the book.) Calomiris's accounts of her time as a spy are filled, like her testimony, with inaccuracies and exaggerations, including constantly telling the press that her work had gone unpaid, which further infuriated the FBI. The truth was that, not only was Calomiris paid, but she was paid quite well by the end of her time as an informant, pulling in $225 per month, over $40,000 a year by today's standards.
FBI director J. Edgar Hoover himself complained that he "pretty well disgusted with this woman," who was "doing us great harm."
Calomiris had hoped to leverage her FBI connections into a job in photography and she aimed high. She wanted not "mere assignment work," but the title of staff photographer at LIFE. The feds put together packages that talked up Calomiris's skill, but it didn't help. The bureau's contact at LIFE deemed "her talents not up to [their] standards." Another interview she landed with Ladies' Home Journal was, by all accounts, a disaster for her. She was admonished for damaging the careers of other photographers and was told the editors could not trust her. Again she turned to the FBI for help finding a job, but by this point they had little interest in helping Calomiris—FBI director J. Edgar Hoover himself complained that he "pretty well disgusted with this woman," who was "doing us great harm." This was likely devastating to Calomiris; although she lied about almost everything else, the one thing she was completely honest about was her desire to be a photographer. "If you were an informant, you were a hero for a few years," Davis explained. "But after the smoke cleared, nobody wanted to know you,"
Shunned and unable to work in photography, Calomiris lived out the rest of her life quietly on Cape Cod, where she became a successful property owner. Not she won many friends there, either—Calomiris was said to "have no conscience," often making bad deals and undercutting friends, and rumors about her past never went away. She died in 1995 in Mexico, where she had moved, hoping the warmer climate would make it easier for her to breathe with the emphysema she had acquired from a life of chain-smoking.
Davis, who says she began working on this book in earnest sometime around 2003, could not have predicted how timely and relevant it would become in the current political climate. "People are good and decent, as Anne Frank said," said Davis. "When you let a minority like this trash [President Trump] take over and they employ people like Angie, we have to stop them."
Follow Britni de la Cretaz on Twitter.
Undercover Girl: The Lesbian Informant Who Helped the FBI Bring Down the Communist Party will be published by Charlesbridge on May 1.