Review published on April 13, 2017.
This is certainly not a book I would normally have picked up and I do sometimes struggle with biographies, but Lisa Davis has brought to life on the page the intriguing woman who was known as ‘Angie’ to her friends, although the FBI knew her as their Red ‘Mata Hari’.
After a tough childhood in a Bronx home for destitute girls, Angela sought a life as a photographer and moved to the artistic Greenwich Village, where she hoped to work with the Photo League. Also, as a lesbian, it was a place of diversity and it was considered relatively safe as homosexuality was still illegal in the 1940s when Calomiris came to fame. For whatever motives, she was recruited by Edgar J. Hoover to spy on communist sympathisers as fear of the Red Scare grew amongst those in power.
I began slightly admiring Angela, but she was a ruthless woman and the detailed research undertaken by Davis reveals the FBI file on Calomiris and the legal notes from the 1949 Smith Act trial at Foley Square Courthouse in New York at which she was a major prosecution witness.
America was moving from a position as allied friend of Russia (who knew Stalin featured twice on the cover of TIME magazine!) to a time of insecurity and continued prejudice against minorities. There are also familiar names that provide surprises such as Eleanor Roosevelt (First Lady) and later the power of Senators McCarthy and Robert Kennedy.
When Angela’s disloyalty was revealed, what would she do to recreate her life and maintain her need for fame?
This should feel like a snapshot of a previous time in America’s history but the treatment of immigrants, left/liberal leaning supporters in politics, gays and the media is suddenly all too familiar to us under a Trump presidency. However, the obsessive fear of Russia does not seem to feature today – perhaps Mr Trump needs to read this book….!
I would thoroughly recommend this as a lover of history and it adds to a growing body of work in LGBTQ non-fiction that is very revealing. It may be a niche work for general book clubs but it could certainly add to many discussions about the politics of the time.
Philipa Coughlan 4/3
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