From Prostitute To Secret Agent: The Unbelievable Life of Marthe Richard

June 18, 2023 People's Tonight 315 views

Jen Jeffers

In many ways, Marthe Richard was the original James Bond: beautiful, smart, and savvy, she used her wiles and her wits to survive. She holds a unique place among other notable women in history, thanks in large part to the insane Marthe Richard tales that pepper her colorful biography.

Born in northeastern France in 1889, she turned to a life of prostitution as a teenager. Like other historical prostitutes, though, Richard didn’t let her perceived lower position hold her back. Soon, she was arranging lucrative marriages for herself, flying planes, and joining the ranks of spies during both World War I and II. Stories about her adventures seem crazy – and Richard was a known embellisher of the truth – but the facts don’t lie. Simply put, Richard lived an extraordinary life. By the time she passed away in 1982, she had left her mark on European history.

Richard’s experiences spanned wars, decades, and countless lovers. She was a queen of her own narrative, determined to raise herself from humble beginnings to wealth and prestige, no matter what.


• A Lover Recruited Her As A Spy

Spy1Photo: Moore, William E.; Russell, James C. / via Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Richard married Henri Richer in 1914. When World War I broke out, he was killed in battle. Richard turned to her lover, a Russian named Zozo, for comfort.

Through this connection, she met Captain Georges Ladoux, France’s spymaster and the handler of the infamous Mata Hari. Ladoux immediately noticed Richard’s excellent language skills – she spoke English, Spanish, and German in addition to her native French. He offered her a job as a spy for the French counterintelligence.

• Her First Mission Was To Seduce A Glass-Eyed Naval Captain

MissionPhoto: Paris Film

In 1916, Richard was sent to spy on Baron von Krohn, a German naval captain with a glass eye. Von Krohn became instantly smitten with her, and Richard soon became his mistress and his confidante. Von Krohn recruited her as well, making Richard a double agent.

According to one of her autobiographies, Richard got through her first encounter with the captain by having a stiff drink and telling herself, “Vive la France.”

• Her Spy Work Involved Poisonous Weevils And Invisible Ink

WeevilsPhoto: Moore, William E.; Russell, James C. / via Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Richard pretended to work as a spy on behalf of German Captain von Krohn during World War I. One particularly colorful story from this period tells how he sent her to Argentina in 1917, with eight thermoses of poisonous weevils in tow. Supposedly, Richard was to use them to contaminate wheat in the ship’s hold that was being sent to Allied forces. Instead, she drowned the weevils in the sink.

Von Krohn also sent Richard back to Paris to gather information for him on weapons production. To help her, he gave her special invisible ink packaged in a tiny, seed-sized package. According to von Krohn, she could dissolve the capsule in water to produce “enough secret ink to write a book.”

• She Tricked Her Lover Into Showing Her A German Submarine

SubmarinePhoto: Unknown / via Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

After being sent to Paris with invisible ink, Richard returned to von Krohn with fake documents courtesy of French counterintelligence. The captain’s trust in her was further cemented, and he took her along on a visit to inspect a German submarine that had recently experienced engine trouble.

Using von Krohn’s own invisible ink against him, Richard took this opportunity to sketch a detailed description of the submarine, which she then forwarded to her contacts in France. She signed her work using her code name, “Alouette,” which is French for “lark.”

• She Fell For Her Target

TargetPhoto: Paris Film

It’s a cardinal rule of spycraft: don’t fall in love with your target. But by the end of World War I, Richard had developed genuine affection for von Krohn. She continued to send intelligence back to France until 1918, however.

Richard returned to France, but decided to tell von Krohn that she had been a double agent before departing. There was nothing von Krohn could do about that – the war had ended.

• She Received The Legion D’Honneur – Sort Of

LegionPhoto: Rama / via Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0 FR

In 1933, Richard was awarded the Legion d’Honneur, the highest honor in France. While Richard is frequently cited as earning the award herself, some historians suggest it was actually a posthumous honor for her late husband Thomas Crompton’s work for the Rockefeller Foundation.

• She Became Famous Thanks To A Hit Film

FilmPhoto: eBay France / via Pinterest

In 1937, a movie was made about Richard’s (fictionalized) life, called Marthe Richard au Service de la France. She became a national sweetheart.

But as World War II approached, Richard did her best to challenge this title, hanging out in the carefree French town of Vichy before moving back to Paris. There, she was rumored to procure young women for German soldiers and engage in minor swindling. She eventually joined the Resistance when the time was right.

• She Lied About Her Flying Exploits

ExploitsPhoto: Air Service, United States Army / via Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

A teenaged Richard moved to Paris in 1906, and soon took up with a rich industrialist named Henri Richer. She was always an adventurous spirit, so Richer encouraged her to learn to fly. She received her pilot’s license in 1913.

But Richard was more than just a thrill-seeker – she was a bit of liar as well. After successfully flying her plane to Burgundy, she secretly put it on a train to the countryside right outside Zurich so she could fly it into the city and claim to be the first female in the world to make such a trip.

Despite her untruth, the record was approved, and she founded the L’Union Patriotique des Aviatrices Françaises, or Patriotic Union of French Women Aviators, in 1914.

• She Fabricated Her Memoir

FabricatedPhoto: lenaweb.voila.net / via Pinterest

After World War I, Richard’s old employer, the spymaster Ladoux, decided to write a series of books about the spies he had created over the years. He focused on Richard for his second volume, but fabricated a great deal of her story – including her actual name. She had been living as “Richer,” in honor of her first husband, but Ladoux christened her “Richard” instead. The book became a massive success, and the name stuck.

Ever the opportunist, Richard chose to endorse Ladoux’s fabulist take on her life. His stories led to a lucrative career as a lecturer for her, and Richard wrote her own fully fabricated book of “memoirs” in 1935.

• She Was A Teenage Prostitute

ProstitutePhoto: Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec / via Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Born in 1889 to a humble French family, Richard – then Marthe Betenfeld – apprenticed a tailor at age 14. But she soon realized there was no money it it.

Richard soon became a prostitute, walking the streets of a local garrison town where soldiers were always looking for company. But then a soldier accused her of giving him syphilis, and she was issued a special card in 1905 identifying her as a sex worker with a venereal disease. Richard had no choice but to head out to greener pastures, and chose Paris as her next destination.

• She Went Into Politics And Outlawed Prostitution

PoliticsPhoto: flickr / CC0

After World War II, Richard was asked to run for political office. Now the notable “heroine of two wars,” Richard was elected to the municipal council. Ironically, the former prostitute worked to close brothels. The proposition passed, and in 1946, brothels across France were shuttered.

• She Went From Darling To Outcast

DarlingPhoto: By Jack Downey, U.S. Office of War Information / via Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

The move to end brothels in France was unpopular, and Richard came under harsh scrutiny around 1948. She had married a British man, Thomas Crompton, in 1926, and though he had passed away, she remained a British citizen. That had technically made her election illegal – thus, her decisions were seen as invalid.

Her enemies also denounced her reputation, stating she was involved with organized crime, had smuggled jewels, and covered up crimes. Although these accusations were found to be false, they created a great deal of tension and skepticism around her role in the community. As a result, she was dubbed “La Veuve qui clôt” – a pun on the French champagne Veuve Clicquot – which meant “The Widow Who Closes.”

Taking stands against the pill, abortion, immigrants, and sex in general, Richard soon became a bit of a laughing stock and a contradictory figure in politics. Never having regained her French citizenship, she eventually died in 1982 at the age of 93.