Historical investigation is never easy, but deciphering gay and lesbian history often turns out
to be more than usually convoluted. The players lead at least two lives—public and private—
and secrets abound. Clues appear in unconventional sources, beyond the library and beyond
theory. If you are lucky, the search develops its own momentum. This is how the story of undercover
girl Angela Calomiris (1915-95), “Angie” to her friends, whose life was touched by extraordinary
events, revealed itself to me.
I first heard her name on an audiotape recorded by Joan Nestle and a Lesbian Herstory Archives
team in 1983. Joan was talking to Buddy Kent of SAGE (a.k.a. Bubbles Kent, a.k.a. Malvina Schwartz),
a former entertainer from the Mafia-owned Village nightclubs of the 1940s and the model for Blackie
Cole in my novel Under the Mink (Alyson, 2001). Buddy, her show-biz moniker when she played such
downtown hot spots as the Club 181 and the Moroccan Village, mentioned several “girls” from the
old days who were still around, among them an Angie whose last name sounded like “CaIamares.”
At the time, that meant nothing. I was looking for other things.
But later in the interview Buddy got quite agitated describing a Cold War moment, when Judy
Holliday went before the Internal Security Subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee (the
McCarran Committee) in 1952 and named Yetta Cohn, an old girlfriend. People have wondered how
Judy could do such a thing. But maybe the Committee already had Yetta’s name, and that was an
easy out for Judy. By that time, almost everybody had ratted on everybody, and the various
committees had more names than they could ever hope to subpoena.
But I digress. Buddy continued:
And it was a gay girl who blew the whistle. In fact, she’s around today and I don’t want
to mention her name. In fact, I wasn’t friendly towards her until quite recently. ‘Cause I
figure you can’t have somebody wear a hair shirt the rest of their lives. ‘Cause
everybody’s allowed one mistake in their life. […] During the war I think, 1946. Yeah,
‘46. Everything was with the Rosenbergs. What year was it with the Rosenbergs? That
was about the era. With the spy case. And there was “Petite feminine girl on stand tells
her undercover work for the FBI”.
Despite the fuzzy details—the Rosenbergs were indicted, convicted and sentenced in 1951—that
fragment from Buddy’s interview stuck in my mind. Then while reading Victor Navasky’s classic
Naming Names (1980), again looking for something entirely different, I came upon a list of
confidential informants who moved on to become professional witnesses. There was Herbert
Philbrick, author of I Led Three Lives, which became a Cold War TV series; Matthew Cvetic, author of I
Was a Communist for the FBI, later a major motion picture; and Angela Calomiris, author of Red
Masquerade, one of the New York Times Ten Best Books of 1950. Before hitting the talk shows (radio)
and lecture circuits, all of them had worked undercover for the FBI and taken the stand in the Smith
Act trials of the late 1940s and early 1950s–trials which decimated the leadership of the Communist
Party USA. I read Navasky’s paragraph again, Buddy’s Cold War narrative ringing in my ears and the
name Angie “Calamares.”
How bizarre and what a coincidence, I said to myself, that a name from out of the past should
sound like Buddy’s “gay girl […] with the spy case.” Angela Calomiris, I learned, was a surprise witness in
1949 against eleven members of the New York-based National Board of the CPUSA accused of
“conspiracy to advocate the overthrow of the government by force and violence.” It was a trial referred
to at the time as the Battle of Foley Square because of the daily demonstrations outside the courthouse,
and “the most blatant political trial in US history,” according to its foremost historian Stanley I. Kutler
(The American Inquisition, 1982).
But if Angela Calomiris was Buddy Kent’s “petite feminine girl on stand” who did “undercover work
for the FBI,” she was also a dyke—something the history books did not mention. For verification I went
to a source that had served me well in the past—the aging lesbian community of New York City and
environs, the gay subculture of the Great Generation that grew up in the Depression, fought in World
War II, and survived the Cold War.
“Did you know an Angie Calomiris?” I asked a couple of them.
“Oh, sure, but I didn’t like her,” said one. “She was very mannish.”
“But she talks in her book…” I said.
“Angie wrote a book?” came back the quip. “You gotta be kiddin’.”
“No, no, she talks in the book about picking out the right dress for the trial and doing her hair.”
“That would be the only time she ever wore a dress!” replied my informant.
I asked another woman who knew Angie well, “Why do you think she did it [worked undercover]?
It was a very risky thing to do.”
Angie’s old friend looked at me puzzled and replied, “You know, I really don’t know. She didn’t talk
about it.” My informant paused. “You know she ran Angels’ Landing in P’town for years. We used to go
up there.”
No, I didn’t know that Provincetown’s favorite lesbian bed and breakfast had belonged to Angela
Calomiris, the notorious FBI undercover agent.
But gay people had suffered inordinately during the Cold War. Many received dishonorable
discharges from the military and lost GI benefits. Others lost government jobs because they were
considered a threat to national security. From the opposite side of the spectrum, Harry Hay, founder
of the Mattachine Society, gave up his Communist Party membership, along with wife and children,
because he felt he could not be open about his sexual orientation. People feared exposure and
blackmail from all sides. For example, Navasky quotes a rumor that Jerome Robbins turned informer
to keep investigators from publicizing evidence that he was a homosexual. In fact, gay-baiting often
went hand in hand with Red-baiting at committee hearings, as revealed in recently released
transcripts (see the New York Times, May 6, 2003) of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s closed-door sessions.
Because she was a member of that despised minority, I had surmised that Angie was probably
blackmailed into working for the FBI. She had my sympathy. I would talk to people in P’town and
consult a young colleague at UMass-Amherst, Veronica Wilson, who had just finished a dissertation
“Red Masqueraders: Gender and Political Subversion During the Cold War, 1945-1963.”
But first, I went to Australia, for the Gay Games 2002 and attendant cultural festivities. I happily
shared a podium with my old friend Joan Nestle, who now lives in Melbourne.
“Darling, I’ve got this great story for a new book,” I told her. “It’s about a lesbian FBI undercover
agent.” I babbled on. “During the war, from ‘42 to ‘49, she worked for them, then helped send the
National Board of the Communist Party to prison. Her name was Angela Calomiris. A real charmer!”
Joan smiled. “Of course,” she said, “we have her papers at the Archives. When you get back, just
call up and they’ll get them out for you.”
“But how? when? who?” I stammered. “You’ve got her papers?”
“Yeah, I was there when they came in.” Joan looked smug. “Two friends brought them down
from Provincetown after she died.”
“Nobody knows that you have them,” I said, thinking of previous
Google searches for news of Angie.
But Joan was right. There they were in Brooklyn: mountains of
clippings, correspondence, schedules and scripts for radio appearances
(including Eleanor Roosevelt’s show), notes for and drafts of her book,
awards, death threats, TV and film proposals, and much, much more.
From what I have seen, an interesting picture emerges. Angie
does not seem to have been a victim of blackmail but a willing collaborator,
a national hero on the front pages of all those New York dailies
only old-timers remember—the original Sun, the Journal American, the
World Telegram, the Herald Tribune. She prospered from the sale of her
book, wrote personal letters to J. Edgar Hoover, and hobnobbed with
Kenneth Bierly—a shadowy Cold War figure who outed Communists,
former Communists, and fellow travelers in Counterattack and Red
Channels. For a fee, he also produced the research to exonerate them.
My work continues. I agree with Angie, who saved everything,
that her story belongs to the world. I would like to tell it as a slice of
Cold War history that brings together an unlikely cast of characters.
But I would never have known where to look without the voices
of Joan and Buddy Kent. While I was happy to be guided in my search
by them and by the gentle hand of fate, others may not be so
fortunate. More oral histories and better information networking
would help scholars find their way into the complex world of lesbians
and gay men from the recent past whose lives were mostly lived
undercover—and not for the FBI. u
Lisa E. Davis is a writer whose works include Under the Mink (Alyson, 2001).