Magazine article America in WWII

Muriel's War: An American Heiress in the Nazi Resistance

Magazine article America in WWII

Muriel's War: An American Heiress in the Nazi Resistance

Article excerpt

Muriel's War: An American Heiress in the Nazi Resistance, by Sheila Isenberg, Palgrave Macmillan, 256 pages, $26.

IT IS SIMPLEST to put it this way: privilege, exotic friendships, intellectual adventure, international intrigue, and danger marked the life story of American heiress Muriel Gardiner. But that doesn't cover this woman's contribution to the history of World War II, the magnetism that drew a fascinating string of lovers to her, nor her nerve in using her wealth to save countless lives from the rolling Nazi juggernaut in the 1930s and '40s. It seems like the stuff movies are made of. And in Gardiner's case, maybe it was.

In the United States of America around the turn of the 20th century, the Swift, Morris, and Armour companies dominated the nation's meat-packing industry. The founders of these companies amassed huge fortunes. A son of Morris and a daughter of Swift married and had four children, the youngest of whom was Helen Muriel Morris. Born in 1902, raised by attractive but emotionally distant adults, this girl left her Chicago mansion at age 16 to attend Wellesley College in Massachusetts, dropped the "Helen" from her name, and upon graduation sailed off for Italy. There she took her first lover and personally witnessed the rise of Benito Mussolini and his fascist blackshirts. After that, the action never slowed.

Gardiner's father had died when she was 12 years old, leaving her an enormous trust fund. Those millions grew through investment, and by the time she reached college, she was financially independent. She secretly bestowed large sums on her school while she was there, anonymously underwrote the educations of less privileged friends, and quietly funded their travels with her in Europe and elsewhere.

After some personal adventures on the Continent, Gardiner enrolled in graduate school at Oxford University in Britain and expanded her world view. One of her new interests was psychology and the work of Sigmund Freud. She didn't receive a degree. Instead, after a short, failed marriage to a young physician, she relocated to Vienna, sought out the professional services of Freud's daughter Anna (a groundbreaking psychiatrist in her own right), and took up the study of medicine, deciding to take a degree in psychiatry. A bright, monied, good-looking, independent woman in a vibrant European capital, Gardiner was a force to be reckoned with. A friend said, "She stood out. She looked different. She behaved different. And she wore pants." After another short, unsuccessful marriage--to a young man named Gardiner--the birth of a daughter, then a romance with famed English poet Stephen Spender, she met Austrian revolutionary socialist Joe Buttinger, a charming working-class hero and autodidact. …

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