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Violette Morris: Pioneering Female Athlete Turned Nazi Spy10:16
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Violette Morris excelled at auto racing as well as swimming, soccer, boxing and other sports. But Morris was never accepted by French society. (National Library of France via Wikimedia Commons)MoreCloseclosemore
Violette Morris excelled at auto racing as well as swimming, soccer, boxing and other sports. But Morris was never accepted by French society. (National Library of France via Wikimedia Commons)

Violette Morris had already been dressing like a man for years when Hitler invited her to Berlin to watch the 1936 Olympics.

"It's said that she was of course an honored guest," historian and author Anne Sebba says.

Sebba has researched the life of Violette Morris — a lesbian from France who was known to frequent Parisian nightclubs in the early '30s dressed in a suit and tie.

"And she's made a fuss of in Germany," Sebba says. "The Germans think she's wonderful."

Yes, Nazi officials in 1936 thought a cross-dressing lesbian from France was wonderful. It's one odd twist in the story of a pioneering athlete who's now remembered as both a feminist -- and a Gestapo agent.

But let’s start at the beginning.

'Anything A Man Can Do, Violette Can Do, Too'

Long before Morris was tied to the Nazis, she was known for something quite basic: her physical size.

"She was described as a colossus," Sebba says.

Her biceps had a circumference of nearly 14 inches — about the size of an average woman's neck.

"But she was only 5-foot-5, so a pretty sturdy hunk of woman and very, very strong," Sebba says.

Born in France in 1893, Morris was a natural athlete. As a girl, she excelled at boxing, javelin, shot put and swimming.

"She apparently coined the motto as a school girl, 'Anything a man can do, Violette can do, too,'" Sebba says.

In 1914, at the age of 20, she married a man named Cyprien Gouraud. (The marriage was probably arranged.)

Soon after, World War I began, and Cyprien went to fight. Morris' boxing gym was transformed into a Red Cross center. She signed on to become an ambulance driver and courier. And she became valuable to the French cause, serving at the battles of Verdun and the Somme.

"It was really driving over rough and dangerous terrain, past the trenches — collecting stretchers of bloody soldiers," Sebba says. "And it was absolutely critical to get these seriously wounded French soldiers to hospital fast. And she discovered that she was really extremely good and extremely fearless."

After the war, Morris decided to give up her husband — she and Cyprien eventually divorced -- but not her pants. The trousers from her Red Cross uniform became a staple.

This was a bold move in France, where laws dating back to the Napoleonic era prohibited women from wearing pants.

A Star Athlete

But for the time being, nobody stopped the woman with the 14-inch biceps. And Morris continued to excel in sports.

At the 1921 and '22 Women's World Games, she won gold medals in the javelin and shot put. And after picking up a taste for speed during the war, she began racing cars.

"She really was the first female all-around sports person that France had produced," Sebba says. "So in the '20s, it really looked as if she was set for a glittering career. She excelled in a number of athletic disciplines."

And then everything started to go horribly wrong.

Morris' rise coincided with the creation of a new organization: the Fédération Française Sportive Féminine.

"Les Parisiennes" by Anne Sebba.
"Les Parisiennes" by Anne Sebba.

"This federation was intended to promote the idea of sport as a healthy discipline — that sport would make young girls be better mothers, that sport would give them rosy cheeks and things like that, that it was just something that they should do while they were young. And if they played sport they'd become healthy — and then of course they'd have lots of children," Sebba says.

You perhaps won't be shocked to learn that Morris and the FFSF didn't have much fraternité. Of course, there was the whole pants issue, but also: "She smoked furiously," Sebba says. "She swore. I mean her language was extraordinarily foul-mouthed."

There were also allegations that she gave amphetamines to younger players on her soccer team.

"Now all of this added together to make her exactly the opposite of what the FFSF had hoped when it was set up to produce delightful young ladies who just admired sport in an amateur way," she says.

The FFSF put up with Morris for a while, but she really hurt her own cause when she punched a soccer referee.

So in 1928 "they simply couldn't turn a blind eye to it, so they revoked Violette's license to be a part of the French team," Sebba says.

Her auto racing license was also revoked, in part because of her pants.

Morris protested, saying, "Look around and see what you see. See the women with their knees crossed and then ask yourself which is the more immodest: their scanty dresses or my pants?"

This argument was apparently lost on French officials.

Morris' whole life had been tied to sports, and now it was being taken away.

In 1930, she sued the FFSF claiming damages — she could no longer earn money as an athlete.

During the trial, Morris stated:

"We live in a country rotten by money and scandals, governed by phrases, scoundrels and trouble makers. This country of small people is not worthy of its elders, not worthy to survive. One day its decadence will lead him to the rank of a slave. But I, if I am still there, I will not be one of the slaves. Believe me. That's not in my temperament." 

Becoming A Spy

The court upheld the FFSF's right to ban Morris, and Morris remained furious with her home country.

And this brings us back to Hitler and that invitation to the ‘36 Olympics.

"She's easy prey to switch her loyalties to the Germans, or, more specially, we should say, to the Nazis," Sebba says.

Nazi officials believed they could turn Violette Morris into a spy – and they were right.

She had plenty going for her: She had operated a car parts business, so she had access to a vehicle and fuel — plus she still knew people throughout France from her sports career. And Morris' days driving ambulances near the frontlines had taught her quite a bit.

"She could report on what the French were doing," Sebba says. "She understood the tank formations. She knew what the Germans needed to know."

 Plus, Sebba says, her size was intimidating.

"And I think that was another aspect of her use to the Germans," Sebba says.

So Morris returned to France after the Games and continued to correspond with the Nazis. She drove around the country, likely gathering information on the locations of French troops and the Maginot Line -- the fortifications on France's northeastern border.

After the Nazi invasion, Morris remained close to the Germans — though there's some debate over her exact role. One French biography paints a grisly picture.

"There is very definitely an accusation that she became a Nazi torturer," Sebba says. "She had the nickname, 'The Hyena of the Gestapo,' because apparently she derived so much sadistic pleasure from torturing people and extracting information."

Anne Sebba hasn't found any proof that Morris tortured. But she says Morris worked with the French Gestapo — she had access to black market goods and transported Nazi and Vichy officials.

The fact that Morris was a collaborator wasn't much of a secret. And that became a problem for Morris as the war began to turn against the Nazis.

"By 1944 it was clear to most people that the Nazis were losing the battle," Sebba says. "I think Violette probably knew that at some point she would be called to pay the price for her work on the wrong side."

Violette's Demise

With the allies gearing up for D-Day, there were orders from London to take out hundreds of Gestapo or would-be Gestapo agents before the invasion. Preserving the element of surprise was key. Violette Morris was on the list.

"She had to be killed before the D-Day landings," Sebba says.

The Maquis – part of the French resistance — were carrying out many of the assassinations.

"These ambushes were constant. They killed them however they could," she says.

On April 26, 1944, the Maquis spotted Morris driving through Normandy -- Anne Sebba presumes she was snooping around to see what she could see. Also in Morris' car: a family with two children.

That didn't stop the Maquis from firing.

Morris — and everyone else in the vehicle — were killed.

"The fact that she dies in a hail of bullets is almost how one expects somebody like that to die," Sebba says. 

Slipping Through Her Fingers

There are still many details about the life of Violette Morris that are subject to debate.

Anne Sebba and other historians point out that those allegations of torturing may have been played up by the French to justify the killing of those innocent children in Normandy.

On top of all that, Anne Sebba is left wondering what Violette Morris’ legacy could have been.

"You know, she could have been remembered as a great female athlete, and I wonder if that's something that ever occurred to her — that she'd let that chance slip through her fingers," Sebba says.

 You can read more about Violette Morris and other interesting characters in Sebba's recent book, "Les Parisiennes: How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved, and Died Under Nazi Occupation."

This segment aired on February 25, 2017.

Related:

Martin Kessler Twitter Producer, Only A Game
Martin Kessler is a producer at Only A Game.

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