UNDERCOVER GIRL: The Lesbian Informant Who Helped the FBI Bring Down the Communist Party, By Lisa E. Davis (Imagine!)
By Jim Fouratt
“Who knew?” was my first response when I read the new book by our Charles Street neighbor, the retired Academic Dr. Lisa E. Davis. It certainly is no different from Under The Mink: A Novel in delicious surprise value. In her latest excavation of lost history, in Undercover Girl, Davis introduces us to Angela Calomiris, a woman that no one would have mistook for a heterosexual female—except J. Edgar Hoover and his militia of anti-Communist snoopers.
Angela was born in 1916 to Greek-American immigrants and was brought up on the Lower East Side. She lived through the crash of 1929 and knew how the loss of jobs destroyed families, etc. Angela moved across town to Greenwich Village as soon as she was of age. She wanted to be where lesbians lived.
Angela wanted to be a photographer. Poor, she took menial jobs and started studying at the low-cost, politicized Photo League. There, she was recruited into the Communist Party and slowly rose to the rank of Financial Secretary. The mid-1940s were becoming a time of increased surveillance. In her role as Financial Secretary, Angela was privy to the real names and finances of the Party. While working as a photographer at the Photo League, she volunteered to become an FBI informant. Her motivation, she said, was to be “a hero.” Hoover saw that Communism, after World War II, was becoming a threat. The Russians had been our allies and he knew Russia actually stopped Hitler’s troops. Receiving large government funding to stop Communism, J. Edgar welcomed Agent Calomiris, and gave her a handler and a stipend.
When the Smith Act was passed, 12 leaders of the Communist Party were arrested and put on trial in D.C.—10 of the men were white and two were black. One was an elected City Council Member. The trial became a template for Joe McCarthy and the House of Un-American Activities’ “RED SCARE” blacklist and witch-hunt.
Davis is an excellent researcher and peppers the pages with facts while, at the same time, in a Damon Runyon-style, keeps the readers from drowning in information by vividly capturing the personalities of all players.
Calomiris tried to platform her trial celebrity into a revenue stream. She was helped by anti-Communist Eleanor Roosevelt on her radio show etc., not because of Sapphic sisterhood but because of her “brave” undercover work. She published a ghost-written book, which tried to femme her up (unsuccessfully). Most of her lesbian friends walked away because she had exposed a closeted NYC lesbian cop and her lover as Party members.
Angela took her sleuthing skills to real estate and bought property, dirt cheap, in Provincetown, Massachusetts and moved there while always keeping her Village apartment. In P-town, no one knew of her role in destroying the U.S. Communist Party, the Photo League, and the lives of its members.
It is a fascinating, readable book. It is timely too given the political landscape we live in today, with Russia in the news and right-wing gay men using their class and money to support Alt-Right politics. (The now-deposed Breitbart Senior Editor Milo Yiannopoulos and new tech billionaire Peter Thiel spout the Ayn Rand politics of greed and selfishness called Objectivism.)
Lisa E. Davis will be at the Bureau of General Services-Queer Division, to read from UNDERCOVER GIRL, sign books, and answer your questions on May 10th at 201 West 13th Street at 7:00 p.m.