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Muriel's War: An American Heiress in the Nazi Resistance.

Muriel's War: An American Heiress in the Nazi Resistance, by Sheila Isenberg, Palgrave Macmillan, 256 pages, $26.


IT IS SIMPLEST to put it this way: privilege, exotic friendships, intellectual adventure, international intrigue, and danger marked the life story of American heiress Muriel Gardiner. But that doesn't cover this woman's contribution to the history of World War II, the magnetism that drew a fascinating string of lovers to her, nor her nerve in using her wealth to save countless lives from the rolling Nazi juggernaut in the 1930s and '40s. It seems like the stuff movies are made of. And in Gardiner's case, maybe it was.

In the United States of America around the turn of the 20th century, the Swift, Morris, and Armour companies dominated the nation's meat-packing industry. The founders of these companies amassed huge fortunes. A son of Morris and a daughter of Swift married and had four children, the youngest of whom was Helen Muriel Morris. Born in 1902, raised by attractive but emotionally distant adults, this girl left her Chicago mansion at age 16 to attend Wellesley College in Massachusetts, dropped the "Helen" from her name, and upon graduation sailed off for Italy. There she took her first lover and personally witnessed the rise of Benito Mussolini and his fascist blackshirts. After that, the action never slowed.

Gardiner's father had died when she was 12 years old, leaving her an enormous trust fund. Those millions grew through investment, and by the time she reached college, she was financially independent. She secretly bestowed large sums on her school while she was there, anonymously underwrote the educations of less privileged friends, and quietly funded their travels with her in Europe and elsewhere.

After some personal adventures on the Continent, Gardiner enrolled in graduate school at Oxford University in Britain and expanded her world view. One of her new interests was psychology and the work of Sigmund Freud. She didn't receive a degree. Instead, after a short, failed marriage to a young physician, she relocated to Vienna, sought out the professional services of Freud's daughter Anna (a groundbreaking psychiatrist in her own right), and took up the study of medicine, deciding to take a degree in psychiatry. A bright, monied, good-looking, independent woman in a vibrant European capital, Gardiner was a force to be reckoned with. A friend said, "She stood out. She looked different. She behaved different. And she wore pants." After another short, unsuccessful marriage--to a young man named Gardiner--the birth of a daughter, then a romance with famed English poet Stephen Spender, she met Austrian revolutionary socialist Joe Buttinger, a charming working-class hero and autodidact.

In the years leading up to the Anschluss (Germany's 1938 annexation of Austria), the country's left and right, organized into lightly armed militias, fought openly on the streets of Vienna. Those on the right, backing the Nazi movement and the coming bond with Germany, held the edge in money, arms, and the support of many Austrian office-holders. The left had the support of Muriel Morris Gardiner. The leftist socialists, like the Nazis whom they opposed, supported clandestine organizations in Austria. But the Viennese police, supposedly neutral in the feud between left and right, frequently raided socialist meetings. In this milieu of furtive activity, Gardiner and Joe Buttinger were thrown together, helping dissidents reach the Swiss border, creating passports for political refugees, arranging hiding places and transportation. Out of this, a love affair bloomed between the heiress and the leftist organizer from the streets.

When German troops crossed the Austrian border, the situation changed. Buttinger was marked for arrest and imprisonment by the new order. Consequently, Gardiner sent her daughter and nanny out of the country one day, and Joe the next. She was to stay behind--a supposed American neutral--and help organize the anti-Nazi resistance. Going by the code name Mary, eluding police and Gestapo agents, risking the lives of others as well as her own, Gardiner kept up her underground adventures through the early war years. She then relocated to the United States and became a figure in refugee war relief. And no sooner had the Germans left Paris than she returned to Europe to work on war relief issues there.

Gardiner's relationship with Buttinger endured until his death in the 1980s. They lived in New Jersey, remained active in progressive politics, and maintained some friendships from the war years. Gardiner wrote a few books. Then, before she published her memoir of war adventures, Code Name Mary, she was made aware of author Lillian Hellman's popular book Julia and a movie by the same name that won an Academy Award. A memoir by Hellman that included some fictional elements, it revolved around a character involved in the anti-Nazi underground in the months before the outbreak of World War II. Readers who knew Gardiner said this woman reminded them of her. Hellman and Gardiner never resolved the question of whether the author's heroine was a complete fabrication. Readers of Muriel's War can reach their own conclusions.

John E. Stanchak

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
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Author:Stanchak, John E.
Publication:America in WWII
Date:Dec 1, 2010
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