Code Name Pauline
Memoirs of a World War II Special Agent
By Pearl Witherington Cornioley, Hervé Larroque, Kathryn J. Atwood
Chicago Review Press Incorporated Copyright © 2015 Kathryn J. Atwood
All rights reserved.
A DIFFICULT CHILDHOOD
Pearl Witherington's father, Wallace Witherington, was the last male descendant of an ancient British warrior family, the most famous member being Sir Richard Witherington, who legend tells had both his feet cut off during the battle of Otterburn in 1388 yet continued to fight on his knees. Despite this impressive lineage, Pearl's father was an alcoholic, and this caused tremendous difficulty for his family.
Both of Pearl's parents were British citizens who were living in France when their children were born. Their oldest child, Cécile Pearl, was born in Paris on June 24, 1914, just months before the start of World War I. Pearl remained a British citizen for the rest of her life but grew up speaking French with a perfect Parisian accent, something that would be a major asset during her SOE work.
When I was born in Paris, my mother [Gertrude] wanted to call me Cecilia, not Cécile, as my first Christian name. At the town hall they wouldn't write Cecilia because they said it wasn't a French name. That's why I am called Cécile and not Cecilia. But they condescended to accept Pearl as a second name.
My father, like my mother, was from a well-to-do family. He was the son of an architect. Before he married he was secretary to a Swede who made paper for bank notes, which meant he traveled a great deal. Immediately after his studies, he led a very easy life. Not only that, but he was probably very lazy. He had no idea about taking responsibilities. In the space of nine years, he had eight children — four died very young. But he couldn't manage to give them all they needed. On top of that, he was never at home. He was a dreamer who couldn't cope; he just drifted along.
He wasn't able to waste money; he didn't have any. One of his friends who helped us financially came to see me when I was 11 or 12 years old. At the time my father was ill, and I knew he drank. Yet he couldn't pay for his drinks because he had no money. So the others paid for his drinks. I said to the friend, "If all of you, my father's friends, didn't buy him drinks, he wouldn't be in the state he's in." Well, I never saw the friend again.
People are always the same: "Do you want a drink? Have a drink. Do you fancy another? Have another." You can't imagine the misery caused by people who drink heavily. It was definitely the cause of many of our problems.
After the First World War, my father never found it in him to control his life. Having traveled all over the world, he had friends everywhere. He was very charming and spoke five languages. Every time his friends came to Paris, they said, "Let's go to see Wallace" — my father's name. He would leave home at 11 am and come back late at night, at two in the morning. That's all we saw of him. How did we manage to live? We were in that situation and we had to cope with it.
I went to the bar where he spent most of his time to get 20 francs a day via the barman, who gave me a box of biscuits with the bank note underneath it. Otherwise, I went to one of his friends who lived on the other side of the Seine — we lived in rue Vignon, just behind Madeleine church. First, I telephoned from the hotel opposite our apartment to find out if I could go. This friend lived next to the Institut de France, quai Visconti. From rue Vignon, I crossed all the Tuileries Gardens to go to his house, so he could give me the money we needed to shop for lunch.
When Mummy came back from the British hospital after Mimi, my youngest sister, was born — the only one of us who was born in the hospital — she found there was nothing to eat at home. She breastfed the baby until her skin was completely raw under her arms and her breasts, because she couldn't cope anymore. I went to ask our druggist to let us have some baby powder [formula] to make up Mimi's bottles. Then one day he said, "I'm sorry, it's been too long since the last payment, I can't give it to you." We were also shouted at by the local baker because our bread had not been paid for in goodness knows how long. This happened in the middle of the street, when we were on our way home.
Each day at four o'clock, before the market opened, I went to rummage through a bag of rotten potatoes, to pick out the best ones. Since then, I can't stand having dirty hands or things that aren't fresh.
We were never unhappy at home with Mummy — except when she argued with my father. I couldn't bear my parents' rows [fights] and I still can't stand rows at any price. If I end up in an argument with someone, it means that I have been really pushed to my limits. Rows make me ill!
One day, when I was 12 or 13 years old, Mummy received a paper from the tax office. My father wasn't at home. We didn't know where he was. "Listen," she said to me, "you have to go to see the tax collector." There was a problem with the taxes. She couldn't take care of it herself because she didn't speak very good French and, on top of that, she was hard of hearing. So I had to go down and explain our situation to the collector and work things out by myself.
Another time, when I was coming back from a walk — we didn't go to school but we went out every day — what did we find when we got to the front door? All the furniture on the pavement. Well I played merry hell [flew into a rage]. Then I was told to shut up. I didn't understand, obviously. In fact, my father hadn't paid the rent throughout the First World War.
We lived like this until 1922. That year, my uncle, my mother's brother, came to Paris with his wife and he realized what was going on. From then on he helped my mother pay the rent.
I didn't really have any childhood, but because of the sense of responsibility that I had to have very young, the way I had to live as a child and a teenager, I became very strong and realized that I had to fight for things in life. I didn't have any choice, given the circumstances, but that was the result.
Mummy always looked on me as the support of the family. She never had to fight when she was young. She was her father's favorite; she could ask for anything and she'd get it. She never wanted for anything when she was younger, so she wasn't prepared for coping with difficulties. She accepted help from her brother, then when he died, from her brother-in-law, and she also tried to improve things by giving English lessons and so forth. But it was not enough for six people. So eventually I started to work to meet my family's needs.
When I look back I realize my mother was very strict with us, and much stricter with me than with my sisters. I'm three and a half years older than my next sister, because Mummy lost two children in between us. You know when you are young that makes a big difference. My sisters have no idea what my life was like when I was very young. Do you know how old I was when I finally got the dress I wanted? I was 27. Until then I had worn my cousin's clothes. My aunt was fond of dressmaking, and her daughter was her model. When my cousin had had enough of the clothes she wore, or when my aunt felt like making something else, she sent the clothes to Mummy. For years that's how I was dressed, but I didn't mind. I was always very happy to see new clothes arrive. There wasn't the same materialistic lifestyle there is today. Sometimes I get very sore feet: I also wore my aunt's shoes, and her feet were slightly smaller than mine. My toes are knotted. It wasn't always very comfortable.
Mummy let my younger sisters do much more than I was allowed. I don't hold it against her, it's just a fact. I realized that my youngest sisters could go out more easily than I could. They belonged to a British sports club in Paris that organized dances, and they used to pinch [steal] my clothes and accessories to go to these events, and when I needed my things, I couldn't find them. That's the sort of freedom I never had.
I learned to write French during the three years I attended school, from the age of 13 and a half to 17. The reason I started so late was because my father had intended to send me to boarding school, but he never did. I learned how to read French on my own. Do you know how? One day a lorry [truck] was driving along the rue Royale, and I suddenly realized I could read the writing on its side. I was so surprised. However, when I saw a verb in the plural, for example "ils appellent" ["they call," pronounced "eelz ah-pell"], I pronounced it "ils appelant" [eelz ah-pell-ehnt], as if it were English and all the letters had to be pronounced. I also learned shorthand.
Mummy taught me to read and write in English, some geography and history, and a little arithmetic. Don't talk to me about mathematics; I don't know anything about math. I was not very good at history but very good at geography, and hopeless at written French. I know there are substantial gaps in my schooling, but I have always managed to put up with them, so I continue to do so. These gaps forced me to work harder, to fight, in a way, for my education. Someone once said to me, "I was always told you were very hard." I replied, "It's not me; it's life."
My schooling was very different from today's. It wasn't at all the same educational system. Moreover, I was in a bilingual school; we worked in French in the morning and English in the afternoon. We had a French dictation every morning, which I had to redo as many times as I made mistakes: I made a mistake in almost every word. Gradually it sunk in that rules in French have to be remembered. We always learned by copying everything several times: there's only one "p" in "apercevoir," copied over and over again. In three years, though, I really learned how to write French, and I learned French grammar, or at least its basics. I cannot say my French is very stylish, but I hope I don't make too many mistakes in syntax. I'm just lucky because I have a photographic memory. On Thursdays [the day off from school in France at the time], Sundays, and every evening of the week I did my homework, until I was 17.
After I left school I did a type of commercial training. I passed a British Chamber of Commerce exam in French-English commercial terms and two exams in shorthand. This bilingual school [the Paris British School] was in the rue Guersant not very far from our present flat [rue Pergolèse]. It was a fee-paying school. I think the English Protestant church paid the fees, I'm not sure, but I do know that we couldn't afford to pay for it.
We lived at that time on the rue Vignon, some distance from the school. To get there we got the tram from place de la Madeleine to the avenue des Ternes. We had lunch at school — paid for by our church, I'm sure of that. When we left school at 3:30 pm, we walked all the way home.
I read a lot, but with no logical order. Sometimes I chose books, sometimes I just read the books people lent me. I didn't buy books and didn't go to libraries. I read books I found at home, books that were lent or given to me, and sometimes I received books as presents. While in school I would sometimes read in secret until two in the morning, naughty me!
One book I read just before the start of the war was the story of a woman who was an agent during the 1914–1918 war. The book was called Louise de Bettignies: Sister in Arms by Hélène d'Argoeuvres. Louise de Bettignies helped people escape from Belgium for France, to get away from the Germans. It made a big impression on me; I thought it was something I would like to do.
I also read Gone with the Wind. Another novel that made a big impression on me was The Keys of the Kingdom by [A. J.] Cronin. It really opened my eyes to the question of religion because it is the story of someone deeply Christian but who is repeatedly at odds with the church's administration. It left its mark on me.
When I was 17, I left school and tried to find work, but it was very difficult for foreigners. I had to have a work permit to be able to find employment, and I could only get the permit if I was employed. Finally, an Englishman who ran a well-known clothing shop in Paris that still stands on the corner of rue Saint-Honore and the rue Duphot helped me. He had often seen us walk past on our way to the Tuileries Garden, Mummy with her three girls, all dressed the same, and a baby in the pram. Everybody in the area had noticed the four little English girls. One fine day, much later, Mummy went to see him and told him about her worries for her daughter who needed a work permit.
"That's not a problem," he replied, "I'll prepare a letter and she'll get her permit."
It was very kind of him because, after all, it was a false statement. He gave me a false letter stating he employed me. This enabled me to obtain a work permit, which meant that I could look for a job.
My father had spent a lot of time in Sweden and still had friends there. The first job I had when I was 17 was with a Swedish company, a match manufacturer. I started there in September 1931. I was in the publicity department — there were advertisements on the matchboxes. But the big boss, Kruger, committed suicide because of a financial scandal. All his business affairs and the match empire collapsed, which meant that I was out of work for at least a month.
My mother asked me to collect money by selling Alexandra roses — wild roses made of fabric — to raise funds for the Hertford British Hospital in Levallois-Perret. The hospital was allowed to do this once a year and Mummy had asked for approval from a director who represented Thomas Cook and Sons, one of the oldest British travel agencies in Paris. While talking to him she happened to mention that she was looking for a job for her eldest daughter. He said he knew someone who was looking for a young person to work with the air attaché [an air force diplomat] at the British embassy in Paris.
That's how I started working at the embassy. I was taken on for a month's trial period, but at the end of it I went home and told Mummy, "They cannot keep me; they haven't received the go-ahead from London." She fainted on the spot. Luckily it worked out in the end. I worked there as a typist for seven years, earning 1,000 francs a month, giving everything to Mummy, except for what I made giving English lessons in the evenings, until the war started.
COURTSHIP WITH HENRI CORNIOLEY
Henri Cornioley was a French native, but his father had been born in Switzerland and his mother in Hungary. Although he and Pearl had sharply contrasting childhoods — Henri's family ran a prosperous beauty salon — they were attracted to each other when they became friends on Henri's return from his military service in Tunisia during the early 1930s.
Henri was three and a half years older than me, the brother of my childhood friend Evelyne, but I didn't see him often when we were young. That's because Henri was very ill when he was a child. The doctor thought he might have tuberculosis, so he was sent to Switzerland as a preventative measure. In fact it was diphtheria. When he returned to Paris I didn't see him then because his parents sent him to boarding school.
My first recollection of Henri was in front of the Madeleine Church. I was passing the church on the way back from the market with Mummy and my two sisters. I saw him and said to Mummy, "That's Evelyne's brother." That was it.
Years later, I was strolling down the Champs Elysées [a famous street in Paris] with Henri's brother, Charles, and Evelyne. Henri walked past. It was just before he did his military service in Tunisia [in 1930]. He didn't say hello or anything — [behaving as a typical] elder brother. But on his return from his military service, he joined our group, and that's how it all started. In fact, when it started, as far as I'm concerned anyway, we were just very close friends. But one day he suddenly made it clear that his interest in me was romantic. I said, "Hold on; we can't. In any case, I can't leave Mummy and my sisters." I was 19 when we really started courting in 1933.
We started courting — in fact we got engaged — against both our families' wishes. My mother was against it because I was her only support for the family — by this time my father had died [in 1930] and my sisters were somewhat younger than myself. Mummy definitely disapproved my leaving home.
I must add, though, my mother encountered many difficulties in France. She was never used to the type of life the family led. First, we were very isolated; she rarely had the chance to meet French people, and her one idea was to get back to England. She didn't even have enough money to pay for the journey — we had nothing, no money whatsoever. They were very difficult times.
As for Henri's father, one day while Mummy and my sisters were in Wissant by the sea — Mummy earned money then by taking small groups of children there to teach them English — he trailed me round the streets of Paris telling me his son was a good-for-nothing. I told him that, for the moment, I wasn't in a position to marry Henri, but, I said, "We're very good friends. I can't say whether one day we'll marry or not, but I won't accept not being able to see him anymore."
From then on, I wasn't allowed into Henri's house. Henri's father was against us for a number of reasons. First, he needed Henri at work. Also, Henri had confided our secret relationship with his mother; it was through her he learned about us. The third reason is that his father thought that if Henri married the eldest girl of a large family, he'd find himself responsible for the lot.
I thought all this was so unfair, and I thought Mummy would help me. But when I told her about my problems, she said, "What? Turn one of my daughters out of his house? In that case, Henri cannot come to us either." (Continues...)
Excerpted from Code Name Pauline by Pearl Witherington Cornioley, Hervé Larroque, Kathryn J. Atwood. Copyright © 2015 Kathryn J. Atwood. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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