Skip to main content
Mata Hari performing an exotic dance

6 seductive sex spies from history

Image: Mata Hari | Public Domain

Spying has always been a booming business, particularly during conflicts between countries. During WWII the Nazis used sex and seduction as a weapon to try and win the war and regulated 22 brothels in France hoping to extract vital information from intimate pillow talk.

This article highlights notorious spies who allegedly used sex as one of the most important tools in their arsenal.

1. Princess Stephanie Julianne von Hohenlohe

A princess by marriage, the cigar-smoking Stephanie Hohenlohe was herself Jewish by heritage but became Adolf Hitler’s most trusted female spy and propagandist for the Third Reich. She was known as ‘Steffi’ to her friends and during her bed-hopping with high-ranking Nazi generals and aristocrats, she was considered highly dangerous by both Britain’s MI5 and America’s FBI.

Her list of acquaintances was a ‘Who’s Who’ of powerful people which included British newspaper magnate Lord Rothermere, publisher of The Daily Mail. Stephanie’s charm offensive on behalf of Hitler may have encouraged Rothermere to support the Nazi Party through his paper during 1937/38.

As one of the few women Hitler allowed to be present during private talks with his generals, Princess Stephanie became the target of jealousy by British aristocrat Unity Mitford, a rival for the Fuhrer’s affections. Hitler eventually became suspicious of the ruthless social climber believing she was a double agent for Britain. In reality ‘Steffi’ was an amoral and cunning operator driven purely by self-interest and the acquirement of wealth.

Described by the US authorities as a spy 'worth 10,000 men' she was eventually arrested in America and sent to an internment camp in 1941. She was released after the war but barred from Britain. Hohenlohe continued to enjoy high status and celebrity as a journalist for American and German magazines until she died in 1972.

2. Mata Hari

One of the most famous female spies during WWI, Dutch-born Margaretha Geertruida Zelle was better known as the infamous 'Mata Hari'.

Zelle was an exotic dancer and courtesan who spied on behalf of the Germans during World War I. She used her dancing and seductive powers to extract information for the German authorities through her sexual encounters with high-ranking men from the Allied forces, in particular the French.

The alluring Zelle also forged romantic links with men such as Captain Vadim Maslov, a young Russian pilot serving with the French army. It is alleged that after he was wounded, she agreed to spy for France if she was allowed to visit her lover in hospital.

As a Dutch citizen, Zelle was able to cross national borders freely making her a useful tool for her spymasters. In 1916, Zelle’s cover was blown by her spymasters who had become frustrated with the quality of her intelligence. Subsequently convicted of being a spy for Germany, Zelle was executed by firing squad in 1917, a useful scapegoat for the French who could blame the failures of their wartime campaign on her spying.

3. Roald Dahl

In a recent biography about the famous author of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, Roald Dahl is said to have been employed as a secret spy for the British government when serving as an RAF officer. The kind of undercover work the young and dashing Dahl was asked to do was less eavesdropping with hidden surveillance equipment and more about extracting information between the sheets.

As an RAF attaché and ensconced in the Washington Embassy in 1942, his paymasters in the British government were keen for him to gather information from wealthy and influential women in America who held pro-Nazi views or had alliances with Britain’s enemies. His conquests include Millicent Rogers, heiress to an oil fortune, and ’sex-mad’ Clare Booth, a right-wing congresswoman and wife of Time magazine’s publisher.

Booth - 13 years Dahl’s senior - held anti-colonial views and detested Churchill. Dahl was required to keep close to her, which took the form of sleeping with Booth over three nights to unearth her political motivations.

Exhausted by his sexual assignations, Dahl requested to be taken off his assignments but was simply told to ‘close his eyes and think of England’.

4. Anna Wolkoff

Anna Wolkoff was a Russian-born spy in Britain who once remarked, ‘Hitler is a god. It would be wonderful if he could govern England.’ She was associated with the infamous Russian Tea Room in London’s wealthy South Kensington, which acted as a hub for pro-Nazi supporters and anti-communists. Although lacking the kind of beauty and glamour associated with other female spies of the day, Wolkoff used her sexuality like a spider luring flies to her network to plot espionage and propaganda campaigns.

Fervently antisemitic, Wolkoff blamed Jewish competition for putting her designer clothes shop in London out of business, as well as hating communists for deposing Tsar Nicholas II and murdering his family. MI5 kept an eye on Wolkoff and her associates’ activities, particularly when she became a member of the Right Club, a right-wing organisation attracting upper-class fascists and founded by politician Captain Archibald Maule ‘Jock’ Ramsey, a leading light in the British fascist movement.

After bedding and developing a relationship with an American diplomat at the US Embassy and trying to smuggle documents and coded messages to the Russians, Wolkoff was eventually arrested when she was duped by double agents working for MI5 and MI6. She was sentenced to 10 years of penal servitude and killed in a car accident in Spain in 1973.

5. Gustave Beekman

In 1942, a 55-year-old Swedish-born florist, Gustave Beekman, lived in a townhouse in Brooklyn at 329 Pacific Street. The house gained a scandalous reputation as a brothel for men to meet men and more seriously as a ‘spy nest’ for America’s enemies. It became the most famous ‘house of assignation’ in the country.

Beekman’s party house became popular with a wide range of customers from businessmen and Wall Street investors to workmen and members of the forces. Furnished with comfortable sofas and a catering menu of snacks and a buffet, the bedrooms upstairs were rented by the hour. Soon government agents set up posts to observe the comings and goings at the establishment. They noted that many of the clients were foreigners – German-born, Nazi sympathisers and Nazi agents.

Arrested with several sailors, nonmilitary men and other high society clients, Beekman was put under pressure from the FBI to provide information. The investigation revealed details that suggested enemy agents had used the brothel to entice sensitive information from young servicemen.

Despite being exonerated over accusations of purposely running a spy ring Beekman was charged with one offence, sodomy, and sentenced to 20 years in prison. He was released at the age of 78 in 1963.

6. Salon Kitty

Salon Kitty was a high-end brothel in Berlin that attracted high-rankers in diplomatic and official circles. It became one of around 22 brothels commandeered by the Nazis for spying on officers, soldiers and officials.

Reinhard Heydrich, architect of the Holocaust, chose the brothel after its owner, Madam Kitty Schmidt, was arrested for transferring profits to British banks. Facing the threat of being sent to a concentration camp, she agreed to continue managing the establishment as a spy nest.

While shut down for 10 days the building was renovated and wired with hidden microphones hidden in bedroom walls. A selection of prostitutes known for their skills in sexual seduction, were employed.

One of the first victims caught talking carelessly was Italy’s foreign minister, Count Gian Galeazzo Ciano, who was recorded criticising Hitler. Several other high-ranking clients were also arrested, imprisoned and in some cases executed for pillow talk that indicated treachery to the Nazi party.

As the war dragged on the clientele of Salon Kitty dwindled as more men disappeared to the front. After a bomb hit the top floor in July 1942, the SS sealed off the building and removed the microphones. Kitty Schmidt, like her working girls, was sworn to secrecy and kept her vow of silence out of fear that she would be sent to a concentration camp.