The spy who is said to have inspired 'Casablanca'

 

ESPIONAGE: The Nine Lives of Otto Katz By Jonathan Miles Bantam, 366pp, £20OTTO KATZ (1895-1952) was a Stalinist agent of first-magnitude international stardom. He was a good-looking, seductively charming opportunist of James Bond savoir faire and adaptability, who was equally at ease among champagne socialists, left-wing intellectuals, publishers and film-makers on both sides of the Atlantic.

During a career of conspicuousness and longevity unusual in his line of work he was probably the most influential communist propagandist in western Europe and the US from the late 1930s until the worst of the cold war.

He was a Jew, born in Czechoslovakia and acutely aware of his country’s history of pogroms. He was always motivated most fervently by anti-anti-Semitism, even when it eventually became apparent that Stalin himself was an anti-Semite. In Katz’s heyday his campaigns against Nazi Germany and fascism in all its manifestations, except during the brief embarrassment of the Soviet-German pact, were in harmony with the aims of his Soviet bosses. For a long time he was given extraordinary freedom to travel to and from places such as Berlin, London, Paris, Madrid, Mexico City and Hollywood, with access to lavish funds.

Katz’s melodramatic adventures began when he fell for an actress in the German theatre in Prague. He eloped with her to Berlin, where she became his first wife and the mother of a daughter, while he found employment with Willi Munzenberg, a publisher of newspapers and magazines known as the Red Millionaire, and quickly mastered the sort of journalism in which facts are bent to fit editorial policies.

According to Jonathan Miles, “it was as if Katz had joined a red Randolph Hearst, a Communist Warner Brothers and the Red Cross all rolled into one. It was comforting for the extravagant young man to watch Munzenberg stylishly settling into his successful entrepreneurial role. The personal barber, the fashionable clothes, the chauffeur-driven Lincoln limousine and the habit of dining in the best restaurants appealed to Katz. Here was an employer who could bankroll the smart lifestyle Katz enjoyed, while the work would provide him with a serious focus,” for Munzenberg had been a friend of Lenin’s and was a key player in “the powerhouse of the Communist International”.

“Katz had the chutzpah to cover secret work with flamboyance and panache,” writes Miles, whose own prose is gaudy with flamboyance and panache. But how could even the most lurid stylist exaggerate the atrocities committed by the rival dictators of the 20th century? Katz’s “flair for making connections and charming people,” Miles goes on, “his defiance when confronted by his enemies, his language skills and able scheming made him appear a very attractive asset for the Soviet secret services. Katz’s incorrigible love of Western luxury and indulgence – if it were carefully controlled – could make him an effective wolf in sheep’s clothing”.

He was selected for espionage training at Comintern’s International Lenin School, where he found what a dreary city Moscow was and how much he preferred consorting in Berlin with people as congenially interesting as George Grosz, Bertolt Brecht, Billy Wilder, Christopher Isherwood and Claud Cockburn. The Irishman noticed that Katz “made love to every good-looking woman he met and was a great deal more than averagely successful,” but doubted Katz’s claim that he was once married to Marlene Dietrich, although she was well known for not being fussy about which men and women she slept with. Katz’s real second wife, Ilse, lasted until the end of his life, in spite of his many casual deviations. This book contains plenty of colourful gossip.

When the Nazis blamed communists for the Reichstag fire, Berlin became too hot for Katz, so he moved to Paris. There he edited The Brown Book of the Hitler Terror, an international best-seller showing that Goering, “a psychotic morphine addict”, masterminded the fire. Katz went on to England, Spain and the US, under various aliases, sometimes surveyed by local intelligence agencies but, surprisingly, survived unscathed. Bantam Press says Miles used recently released FBI, MI5 and Czech files to strengthen his research.

The FBI believed that Katz was behind the organisation of the International Brigade against Franco in the Spanish Civil War, reported that Katz was “credited with the murder of Trotsky”, even though he arrived in Mexico three months after Trotsky’s death, and discovered that Katz was largely responsible for the establishment of Hollywood’s Anti-Nazi League. Katz was so popular with Hollywood’s liberal intelligentsia, including Lillian Hellman, Peter Lorre, Ernst Lubitsch, David O Selznik, Dorothy Parker and Charlie Chaplin, that he was said to be the model for the heroes of Watch on the Rhineand Casablanca(Victor Laszlo, the Paul Henreid part).

Stalin’s way of abruptly turning against his most talented followers brought about Katz’s fate. The Czech archive enabled Miles to relate all the ghastly details of what happened to Katz as one of the Prague Fourteen – the secret-police arrest in the night, the tortures in prison, the false confession, the show trial, the execution. His widow’s agony was prolonged for 10 years after his death.

After Stalin died Katz was rehabilitated and Ilse was given his last letter to her. Miles supplies the text, a treat for readers who enjoy wallowing in misery.