October 25, 2020

CONFIDENTIAL: Isobel Steele, Girl 'Spy'


HOME FROM NAZI DEATH THREAT ‒ Isobel Lillian Steele, American violinist, yesterday told the true story of her four months in German prison as a suspected spy. It is a story of intrigue, hate and suspicion. She's shown in the Hotel Tudor reading telegrams that greeted her arrival.

This installment of our Confidential series spotlights Isobel Steele, a 23-year-old American who had gone to Berlin in 1933 to study the violin. At the time, the country was in chaos; the new Nazi regime had already muzzled the press, rescinded most civil liberties, and decreed that police could detain enemies of the state indefinitely without formal charges.

Young and rather naïve, Steele socialized with a louche crowd of minor aristocrats, centered around the dashing Baron George Sosnowski, a Polish spy (who used the "arts of Casanova to obtain military secrets from impoverished noblewomen," according to the News). Steele too was infatuated with him.

The Baron was soon arrested by the Gestapo, and Steele wrote an on-spec screenplay about him, which came to the attention of the police. She was jailed on August 10, 1934 on suspicion of espionage ‒ guilty by association ‒ and eventually transferred to Berlin's dreaded Moabit Prison.

There she languished for four months, until her plight began to generate headlines in the United States. After the intervention of the American Consulate, she was finally deported in December, 1934. When her boat docked in New York harbor, she was besieged by a crowd of reporters, but quickly ushered away without comment by a representative of the Daily News. To whom she had sold her exclusive story.

Quarters were booked for her in the Hotel Tudor, no doubt for its convenience for the reporters and photographers working in the Daily News Building. The photographs above, made in her hotel room, accompanied her exclusive story.

For the next few years, Steele kept the story alive with magazine articles and a memoir. In 1936, the inevitable exploitation movie was released, above. The Times review dismissed it as a "crudely produced and performed" feature that was "less an exposé of Nazi persecution than a mirror for Miss Steele's rather amazing unsophistication."

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