Codename: Agent Japonica & Ventriloquist

One of the joys of working in an archive is deciphering clues and ascertaining that certain identities are really who they are.

For example, Who is Agent Japonica & Ventriloquist and is there a connection with Meyer Schapiro?

As many of Schapiro’s friends, colleagues, and scholars know, he was an adamant supporter of the resistance and the left during the 1930s to the 1950s. For instance, he corresponded with Mark Chirik, a communist revolutionary. There are records that Schapiro was to support Chirik in New York, although the archives never house records that say he in fact did. Several individuals, such as Whittaker Chambers, who defected and later renounced the Communist party, were also friends of Schapiro. Chambers is famously known for testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee and exposing the likes of Alger Hiss.

Schapiro also had many European friends and colleagues during the wartime, and there are records that indicate he might have known a certain Agent Japonica. Although a certain Blanche Charlet corresponded with Schapiro, none of the letters in the archive directly state she is THE Blanche Charlet who worked with the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) during World War II. Charlet was known as Agent Japonica and Ventriloquist and succedded Virginia Hall in France to spy for the allies against the Germans in Nazi invaded France.

While the political angle may be how Schapiro knew Charlet, it was actually through the art world. Before the war, Blanche Charlet was also a gallery owner and one of the first to represent the surrealist artist Magritte. I couldn’t confirm that this Charlet of the art world was also the Charlet of the espionage world until I came across a clue. In a 1978 letter to art critic David Sylvestre regarding Magritte, Charlet writes: “I left Belgium definitely in 1932 for France. During the beginning of the War I discovered I was British becauseg I was born in London. Mobilized in 1941, was trained as a courrier [sic], went back to France, arrested, escaped, came back in 1944, etc…”

Charlet was arrested 1942 by the German occupiers of France and later staged a prison outbreak with other French resistance fighters. Not much is known of Charlet and no definite biography has been written (although Wikipedia cites the publication A Quiet Courage: Women Agents int he French Resistance as a citation for their entry on Charlet). That Wikipedia entry makes no mention of Charlet’s role in the artistic community, nor is there any substantial source material about her ( a quick search on Google, World Cat, and a subject heading search on Columbia’s library catalog yields nothing substansive if anything at all).

Clues like these all add up to what I call archival archeology: a set of clues laid out within a collection of primary source material that all come together through an amalgamation of archival processing, research, and the hunch that something is more than meets the eye.

All these clues were found in the archives, but did not add to anything until they were pieced together.

Espionage, surrealist art , prison break-outs…all in a days work of an archivist…