A Brief Logline:
Hitler’s favourite opera star is a British spy! Margery sings for his birthday at the Berghof, hears about the new Tiger tank and realises how urgent it is to get this information to Churchill whilst being shadowed by an SS thug. Margery also conceals escaped British airmen in her luxury Berlin apartment and meets MI6 agent John Brown in Stalag IIID when singing to the PoWs. John also obtains the location of a tank factory before facing torture.
A Short Résumé:
It was her beautiful mezzo-soprano singing that melted the heart of one of the most evil men in history. From humble beginnings in Wigan, Margery Booth, by sheer determination and armed with the magical gift of a magnificent singing voice, rose to be one of the top opera stars of Europe.
Courted by Egon Ströhm, a wealthy business man and heir to a brewery fortune, Margery succumbed and married him. Although the union was initially successful, it ultimately proved to be a disaster and after the war in Europe ended Margery eventually divorced him.
Through her husband’s contacts in high society in Germany she rose to the top and her highly acclaimed performances drew the attention of none other than the Führer himself, Adolf Hitler, who on one occasion personally delivered 200 red roses wrapped in a swastika flag and, totally enamoured of her, continued to ogle her from his private box throughout all her performances before taking her out to dinner.
Margery had, however, been recruited by MI6 whilst MI9 had recruited John Brown, a former but now disillusioned member of Mosley’s infamous Fascist Blackshirts. Through the SOE it was designed for him to be captured on the Normandy beaches in order that that he could work as a spy behind the lines in a PoW camp.
As a guest at Hitler’s Berghof near the “Eagle’s Nest” at Berchtesgaden Margery saw the new Tiger tank and managed to get its secrets back to Hardy Amies in London. She also rubbed shoulders with the top ranking Nazi hierarchy so was able to listen to all the gossip and infighting although the evil Müller continued to follow her every move. Now totally trusted by Hitler, was allowed to visit PoW camps where she not only sang but also was able to contact John Brown, thereby collecting secret plans and diagrams which she then forwarded to SOE.
At one stage Margery was suspected by the SS who were infuriated by her singing of “There’ll Always be an England” and “Jerusalem” and moved in to search her, but John thrust some secret plans down her dress when they weren’t looking. They escaped the search unscathed, but henceforth Margery was forever known as the “Knicker Spy”.
In the closing days of the war she was arrested again but managed to escape during an Allied bombing raid just as she was about to be tortured. After a long trek with refugees also leaving Berlin she eventually reached the American lines. Then nearly shot as a presumed collaborator, it was her distinctive Lancashire accent which miraculously saved her as an American soldier recognised it, having had been in Lancashire before the war.
Margery Booth’s story is one of the most amazing – and until now untold – stories of the war, and I have been privileged to research and write it for Imperial Film Productions and now on IMDb as Margery Booth: The Spy in the Eagle’s Nest.
This then is her story. Ralph Harvey – screenwriter.
The story of Margery Booth begins in Hodges Street, Wigan, where she was born in 1905. Her mother was a good musician so encouraged Margery to sing. She was good and perhaps would just make it into the Wigan Operatic Society but never in a million years would Ada imagine her daughter to become an international star! Margery was 9 when Ada was widowed so they took in a lodger, Jake, to help with the income. Poor Jake worked nearby where the only local industry was at the mill. It was long hours, poor pay and many of the old-timers became deaf due to the extremely loud spinning machinery. This was to be Margery’s future, as epitomised by Jake, unless, of course, she could find a career in singing. A few years later Margery’s mother marries again. This time, to a wealthy business man in Southport, enabling Margery to have professional singing lessons. This was just the beginning. She is soon with a top tutor in Knightsbridge in London, taken to New York, is acclaimed by German professors and eventually wins a place at the Guildhall School of Music.
Here Margery meets the man who is to change her life forever. In London is Doktor Egon Ströhm, a lover of opera, a doctor of law with a view to opening a practice in England. It is 1925, so Europe is still at peace. Next stop is Switzerland for a rest following a breakdown in health and from where she is encouraged to visit Berlin. Sudden fame! Margery is signed by the Berlin Opera House at 500 Marks a week! [ie £25 or $32 then, equivalent to £3,315 or $4,266 at today’s values!]
Two years later she meets Hitler for the first time when singing in Potsdam, and again in 1933 at the Berlin Opera House attended by both Hitler and Goering. Afterwards Hitler goes backstage to her dressing room where she remembers telling him “But you know I am English” and he replies “That is something to be proud of” followed by 200 red roses “The biggest bouquet I have ever seen. They were wrapped in a red band carrying an enormous swastika.” Margery returns to England a few times, notably for her debut at Covent Garden in 1936 where she becomes a regular singer. After another brief trip to Berlin Margery and Egon return to marry in Southport. Now known as an International prima donna and married to a German, it takes no time for British Intelligence to note that she is also friendly with Herr Hitler! During one of her regular visits to Covent Garden they “invite” her to British Intelligence Headquarters for a meeting. After establishing that neither she nor Egon are Nazi sympathisers there follows further questioning and upon being asked if she regards herself still as British she replies “Like Blackpool rock!” Thus she is recruited by MI6 and undergoes some training by Hardy Amies, introduced to John Brown who (unbeknownst to him at the time!) will also be a British spy in Berlin and is given a French girl (Sylvie) as a dresser/aide. Margery continues to sing in England, notably at the Queen’s Hall in Wigan for the coronation concert in 1937.
After a brief holiday in Southport in August 1939 Margery returns to Berlin just days before war is declared on 3rd September. Margery continues to perform at the Berlin Opera but now constantly shadowed by Karl von Müller. a nasty SS thug and probably working for the Abwehr, Germany’s Intelligence Service. Hardy Amies has warned Margery to look out for him, so she is very wary, although when invited to dine with him, she says sagely to Sylvie “It is good to keep your friends close, but your enemies closer still!” Margery’s husband Egon is also helping the war effort for England and aids escaping British airmen, especially those shot down after bombing Berlin. They stood little chance with the furious civilians who had just lost their homes and worse. Backstage at the Opera House made a perfect initial cover amongst the stagehands who were mostly forced labour so very anti-Nazi. Egon was aided by the theatre manager who was constantly questioned by von Müller. Their next hiding place on the escape line was Margery’s luxury Berlin apartment. Very safe until an SS officer unexpectedly appears with an invitation from Hitler to sing at his birthday! Bolting to another room to hide, one of the airmen drops his wristwatch on the sofa…
Margery usually attends Hitler on his birthday every April and it was at one of these that Jodl presents him with the Tiger tank. As data is provided, Margery overhears most of this and, like the good singer she is, memorises these numbers as a tune. John Brown, now an MI6 spy in Stalag IIID but also working undercover for the Nazis, is passed details of the Tiger’s existence whilst Margery is singing to the PoWs there and radios this to London. Back at the Opera House these numbers are encoded and soon at Bletchley Park, delivered to a delighted Hardy Amies, confirming John Brown’s earlier message. Churchill thus warned, gives instructions for a Tiger to be captured and delivered to No 10 Downing Street. This eventually happens in North Africa, but that is another story!!
Hitler is still enamoured by Margery and invites to dinner, so we see his charming social side… Lighter moments in our story are set in a Bier Keller and a raucous Night Club, so there is much singing and drinking too – along with intrigue! The war comes to an end and Major Worrall parachutes dramatically into the PoW camp just days before the allies arrive. In Berlin Goering overhears Margery make an indiscrete comment and she is arrested and tortured. John Brown is also arrested and suffers at the hands of the Gestapo. After dramatic escapes they both give evidence at the War Crimes Trials at the Old Bailey in London where, oddly enough, the film begins!