The blond who came in from the cold
(26 March 2010: Many thanks to David from Texas who pointed out I had used the wrong Ramon Betana’s photo in my original post. As David noticed, the original photo was of the nephew (Mario Ramon Betana Monsalve) of Hilde’s conquest, Ramon Betana Quintana. I should have caught this before, but I was busy. which could be a decent excuse… but: what I’ve been tied up with the last several months was fact-checking a manuscript on the Mexican Revolution. That often meant distinguishing between various early twentieth century political figures by carefully checking for both their apellido paterno and apellido materno. My error must have been some kind of karmic payback for nitpicking with the author about those names.)
11 May 2013: some additional information, thanks to the authors of a German Wikipedia article still under development (place and date of death) and a lucky find going through book catalogs
I’ve been told that some of the great “dumb blondes” of the movies like Marilyn Monroe and Judy Holliday were anything but dumb, just smart enough to act and really good at their trade. How much more talent did it take to play the part of a really bad actress playing the dumb blond… when that may have been an act too?
Her most famous role being as the German military intelligence agent who managed to infiltrate first the inner circles of the oil industry in the United States and then the Mexican government may have been stereotypical “dumb blond” bad movie actress Hilde Krüger’s best performance. And, given that her spy ring was rolled up in March 1942, but she was never imprisoned, but went on to a long career as a respectable, but obscure, scholar, maybe we left before the final act.
The mystery starts with her birth. Some records say she was born in Berlin in 1912, while others say only that she was born in Germany on 11 September 1914. Katerina Matilde Krüger was a –er — demonstrative child. From what little is available about her early life, she appears to have demanded to be the center of attention from the time she was three.
Her first movie role (as a secretary to a psychiatric patient) was in 1934. That was a significant year for the German film industry (well… duh… Germany as a whole). Josef Goebbels, as Minister of Propaganda (and Film) saw it as part of his official duties to … um… “mentor” young, blond, big-breasted Aryan starlets. While it was other assets than her brains that first brought her to Goebbels attention, even he recognized that her real talents lay elsewhere than on the casting couch. Besides, Magda Goebbels, who was no slouch when it came to deviousness herself, told Joe to get rid of the bimbo.
This is where it gets tricky. Both the Goebbels tried to pass Krüger along to the Gestapo, which would only make sense, given that Hide couldn’t speak any foreign languages and had no experience outside Germany. But, somehow, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris — who was no horndog, but had an eye for talent — personally recruited the unpromising young starlet for the Abwehr, the military intelligence service. Canaris, a thoroughgoing military professional, despised the Nazis and everything they stood for. Torn between his German patriotism and stern Lutheran sense of morality on one hand, and his military role as spymaster on the other, Canaris was already working to bring down the Nazis from within. He would eventually be hanged in Flossenberg Concentration Camp for his part in the 1943 Generals’ Plot, two weeks before its liberation.
Canaris was unusual in another way too. He had a deep appreciation of Hispanic culture, and an abiding interest in Latin America. As a young naval intelligence officer, he had served in the South Atlantic, and was familiar with Latin American waters. In the First World War, he became a naval hero not just for his role in saving his ship, the SMS Dresden, from the British fleet at the December 1914 Battle of the Falklands, but for his subsequent escape from an internment camp after the German ship was trapped and scuttled in Chilean waters off the Juan Fernandez Islands.
Fluent in Spanish, Canaris hid in plain sight, adding to his already considerable knowledge of Latin American culture during the two years he spent looking for a way to return home, and an undercover assignment in Spain. The Latin American adventure, coupled with his work in Spain led to his promotion within naval intelligence, and his eventual appointment as head of military intelligence.
Which makes one wonder why the multi-lingual (besides Spanish and German, Canaris spoke fluent English and more than adequate French) multi-cultural, sophisticated Admiral took an interest in a starlet known, if at all, just for being a good Aryan and an easy lay. To send her to Hollywood, of course.
Some biographies claim that Hilde had a German husband, but that he was insufficiently Aryan (in other words, Jewish) whom she had already divorced, others that her first marriage was in the United States, to a German-American businessman. None of which prevented Hilde from her next performance. She may not have landed any parts in Hollywood, but someone was paying the bills for her luxury hotel suite she rented in Los Angeles in May 1940. The somebody, according to FBI records declassified in 1985, was oilman John Paul Getty.
The F.B.I. and later the O.S.S. (forerunner to the C.I.A.) had become interested in Krüger not so much as arm-candy to Getty, but as a former protege of Goebbels, who was arm candy to a lot of business executives in strategic industrial sectors. Ostensively to divorce her American husband (and, just coincidentally, because the United States was overtly backing the British and already beginning to neutralize German agents), she crossed into Mexico in 1941.
Although the Mexican government was apparently warned that she might be a German agent (which, of course, was a correct assumption), Krüger started at the bottom… working her way up from insignificant boyfriends like Ramon Betata, who was a mere undersecretary of foreign relations to Miguel Alemán Valdés, then Secretaría de Gobernación (and later President) who paid for her apartment in Colonia Roma (the accounting department back at Abwehr headquarters must have loved her expense reports!) where she also, “entertained” General Juan Andrew Almazán (then the presumptive future president) and the jilted Ramon Betata’s boss, Foreign Minister, Ezekial Padilla.
Even with that busy social calendar, and a better film career than she’d had in the United States (one of the more successful films being the 1943 comedy “Adulteria” — perhaps she was an early method actor), she still found the time for old-fashioned spy work, passing on to the Admiral information from Friedrich Von Schleebrugge and Georg Nicolaus, Abwehr agents in Monterrey. Again, there’s something fishy going on. Although Mexico did not enter the war until 22 May 1942, acting on information from the OSS, the spies were rounded up and imprisoned in March. Except for Hilde Krüger.
Juan Alberto Cedillo’s “Nazis en Mexico” (Quo, Octubre 2009) suggests Krüger was protected by her boy-friends. However, most of the agents in Mexico were not working for the Abwehr, but for the Gestapo, and Von Schleebrugge and Nicolaus were Nazis. Admiral Canaris was passing along information to the Allies at the time, and had already been involved in several attempted anti-Nazi coups. If he was spying on his own spies, he’d need spies to spy on those spies who needed spying on. Right?
Hilde Krüger, who was known to both the United States and Mexican secret services as a foreign agent was allowed to simply fade away. While most presume her enrollment at UNAM was simply to avoid the restrictions on the movement of German nationals, and to stay out of the slammer, there’s another mystery there. She dumped the boy friends and really did become a scholar. She continued to act in Mexican films for a few years, and had a role in a 1958 German movie, but any mention of her after 1942 is as a scholar.
With a degree in history (she wrote her thesis on La Malache, the Aztec femme fatale who slept with the enemy, and reinvented herself ) she became an expert on documents of the Napoleonic era… sorting the true from the false. Who better?
There is mention of a book, “Malinche, or farewell to the myths: On the relationship between Mariana de Jaramillo and Hernando Cortés” with a printing date of 1948 with a frontispiece by Josè Clemente Orozco (she DID have connections, didn’t she?), found in some on-line bookseller’s catalogs, but no copy seems to be available for love or money.
One on-line source says she died in Germany in 1988, another, written in 2004, had her still hale and hearty at the age of 92, and the Quo magazine article from last October had her still living in New York.
Who knows, maybe she’s up to something still. Thomas Blubacher: Befreiung von der Wirklichkeit? Das Schauspiel am Stadttheater Basel 1933–1945. Edition Theaterkultur, Basel 1995, ISBN 3-908145-27-9, page 104 says she died in 8 May 1991 in Lichtenfels, Germany).