You’ve probably heard the story of Nathan Hale – one of Connecticut’s most famous spies. But in the 1930s, Connecticut was home to a lesser-known case of international espionage. As WNPR’s Nina Earnest reports, a Russian immigrant in Thompson became the focus of an FBI investigation for spying on behalf of Germany.
The year was 1917. The Bolveshik revolution was sweeping over imperial Russia. A young military cadet named Anastase Vonsiatsky left military school in St. Petersburg to fight the Reds. As he came from a family that had been loyal to the czar for years, the White Russian loathed the spread of Lenin’s communist message. He then took part in the Russian Civil War.
Iamartino: The story is that Vonsiatsky himself was involved in some pretty significant atrocities.
That’s Joe Iamartino, the president of the Thompson Historical Society.
Iamartino: He was shot at, he was wounded. And he somehow ended up in Istanbul.
Then how did he make his way to Thompson – a town of less than 10,000 in northeastern CT? He goes from Istanbul to Paris, trying to make some money.
Iamartino: The story is he works in a can can parlor, pulling curtains for the nudie dancers. And he somehow comes to the eye of this woman right here, who you can’t see, but is Marion Ream Stephens.
Marion was a divorcée – a very wealthy divorcée. The heiress daughter of Gilded Age capitalist Norman B. Ream had signed up to be a nurse in France during World War I – maybe to save face from her unpleasant divorce. And she was 20 years older than Vonsiatsky. But was he the sort of person who could easily attract a woman?
Iamartino: We’re told he had a very commanding presence.
Eventually, Marion returns to the United States and to Thompson, where her wealthy parents own one of many homes. The young Russian joins her.
Iamartino: So Marion has come back from France, and she’s bringing her boytoy with her. This is an unusual circumstance for a very conservative Thompson, little town in Connecticut. And I’m sure there was a lot of discussion, like who is this person? And she’s not really going to marry him, is she?
It turns out that she did. The couple married in 1922. Five years later he would become a naturalized citizen of the United States. But the townspeople didn’t take to Vonsiatksy.
Lane: He’d drive by very slowly with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth, in a convertible with the top down in all kind of weather.
That’s 90-year-old Floyd Lane, Marion’s one-time neighbor and former employee.
Lane: He looked like something out of Hollywood. He was just that different. And for a youngster, he was…I just didn’t want anything to do with him.
The Thompson Historical Society interviewed one of its founders, Elmer White, in the 1970s. The recording of White is of low quality, due to its age. He was around when Vonsiatsky came to town.
White: Nobody liked Vonsiatsky. Nobody liked him around town here. He wasn’t a likable person at all.
Within a few years, Vonsiatsky took on a new moniker.
Iamartino: Somehow he’s become Count Vonsiatsky.
Lane: Some doubt the authenticity of his being a count. I don’t think that was ever confirmed, anywhere. But let me say, he carried it off.
White: He was a phony, you know. He wasn’t anything. He really wasn’t anything.
After arriving in Thompson, the aloof Count Vonsiatsky went to Brown University for an education but couldn’t make the grade. Yet he soon was involved in a movement to destroy the ideology that drove him from his native Russia.
Iamartino: He decides that he’s going to get involved in the Russian movement to throw out the Reds. So he begins this relationship – it may have started a Brown – coming into some revolutionary thought. Revolutionary in the way of getting rid of Communism.
He led his anti-communist crusade from one of the most unlikely places – his home in Thompson, Connecticut. Marion had bought some land not far from her father’s mansion.
Iamartino: And that farm, they ended up calling it the 19th Hole. Because, across the street, Marion’s fathe wanted to play golf. So he built a golf course. And after he died, Vonsiatsky – who is now living there – says I shall learn how to play golf, too. So he learns how to play golf and lives across the street and calls it the 19th Hole.
Lane: We’d see him quite frequently over there, and he was unique in his golfing game. He was a very poor golfer, among other things. Around the golf links, he was very politically active. He used those links to assemble pretty large crowds of people, upon occasion. Although we didn’t know what was going on nor did we care much, certainly it always caught our attention. We wondered, what is this? What is this?
Iamartino: We’re starting to get into late 20’s, early 30’s. And he starts to get more of a revolutionary zeal to replace the Communists when the Communists are thrown out.
In most of his photographs, he’s posing in some kind of military uniform. Why? Because he founded his own fascist organization in 1933, the All Russian National Revolutionary Party. With access to Marion’s money, he began to print professional newspapers, hold conclaves at the golf course and travel the world meeting with officials who also despised communism.
Iamartino: He’s starting to visit anyone who’s against Communism. Well the socialists were against Communism. Well the Nazis were socialists.
Iamartino: And he’s meeting with representatives from Hitler, and he supposedly met Hitler himself.
That’s a pretty big claim. Is there any evidence to support that fact? Official FBI historian John Fox says State Department records reveal his international travels but only to a point.
Fox: He was at least wealthy, possibly a prominent supporter from another country that high officials from Italy or Germany might have met with him. Would it have risen to the level of a Hitler or Mussolini? Um…I don’t know.
Elmer White, in his 1970s interview, said that Vonsiatsky wasn’t so secretive with his shifting loyalties.
Unidentified Woman: Were you aware of any Nazi sympathizers in the Thompson area?
White: That was Vonsiatsky. He was a Nazi sympathizer. He didn’t try to cover it up any, he put a great Nazi flag, out in front of his house.
But it wasn’t just the flag that grabbed the town’s attention.
Iamartino: In his home, Vonsiatsky was very, very prepared. Inside his office, he has a rack of guns ready to go, bullets are embedded in the house. And he has what can be considered an armory. He has tear gas, he has all kinds of weapons.
Lane: That was something that was shocking. You’d see all these rifles lined up against the wall, hanging from the wall and so forth. You know, what are they for? He could have supplied the arms for a militia.
He could not be so active in his fascist activities without attracting attention. Elmer White explains.
White: Well the FBI were wise to him. They were wise. They’d been watching him for a long time.
Vonsiatsky began to associate with the leaders of pro-Nazi group the German American Bund. The Bund, largely comprised of ethnic Germans, sought to spread Nazi propaganda in the United States. FBI historian John Fox describes the bureau’s efforts to keep an eye on Vonsiatsky.
Fox: What he got caught up in was trying to aid the efforts of another person to go back to Germany with information about US military bases and disposition of troops around the country and that sort of thing. Just as we had entered the war.
The person in question was Gerhard Kunze, a man connected to the German American Bund. Kunze was arrested in Mexico in 1942 by local authorities just as he was preparing to leave for Germany in a small boat.
Fox: Once they got interested in Vonsiatsky, they’d bring him in for questioning. He tended to be fairly open about what he was involved in, at least the public side of things. Through searches of his premises, they found other evidence that linked Vonsiatsky to Gerhard Kunze.
He is tried and convicted under the Espionage Act of 1917. He was sentenced to five years in a federal penitentiary. One of his prosecutors – Thomas Dodd, future Connecticut senator and father of Sen. Chris Dodd.
Floyd Lane shared his reaction to his conviction.
Lane: Oh good enough. Good enough. Served him right, you know.
The so-called Count Vonsiatsky lived out the rest of his life in the U.S. and passed away in 1965. He and Marion eventually divorced after he reportedly became involved with another woman. He is laid to rest in a granite crypt in Thompson that is topped by a Russian Orthodox cross, where he is interred with both Marion and the wife that followed her.
Iamartino: I can’t tell you how Marion feels being in there with his wife, his other wife, yet they’re in there together. All three of them.
Yet many still wonder why Marion – an unconventional woman who had access to all the world could offer – brought him to Thompson at all.
Lane: You know, well, what did the lady think? Well if you know what a lady thinks, you have an uncommon aptitude that none of us have.