New book reveals how a 1930s good-time girl became a secret agent

New book reveals how a 1930s good-time girl became a secret agent

October 24, 2020

‘Toto’ the sex-mad supermodel spy: New book reveals how 1930s good-time girl Catherina Koopman became a secret agent after the war broke out – and even smuggled Nazi secrets to the Resistance in her knickers

Hers was a life of quite extraordinary contradictions — of pleasures and perils, of promiscuity and principles, of self-indulgence and self-sacrifice

The survivor from Ravensbruck, the women’s concentration camp, was a pitiful sight. 

Stick-thin and weak from starvation, overwork and forced sterilisation, she weighed less than five stone, her muscles wasted away, her skin eerily transluscent.

It was impossible to believe that just ten years before, back in the mad, decadent Thirties before the world descended into the even greater madness of war, this wreck of a human being had been the unrivalled siren of Europe’s beau monde — glamour girl, mistress, temptress, near goddess even.

Now her face — whose exotic Eurasian beauty had graced the cover of Vogue and driven dozens of male and female lovers to distraction — was lined and grey. All that was left of her flowing hair was a rough stubble. She was scarred in body and mind.

Her name was Catherina Koopman, always known as Toto, a coquette of a name that fitted her racy, daredevil personality. 

Hers was a life of quite extraordinary contradictions — of pleasures and perils, of promiscuity and principles, of self-indulgence and self-sacrifice. 

Her story, captured in a compelling new book by Alan Frame, is an inspiring tribute to human powers of endurance.

She was born on the tropical island of Java in 1908, daughter of an upper-class colonel in the Dutch East Indies army. 

Her father was Dutch, her mother of mixed parentage, and her grandmother was said to have been a member of a sultan’s harem.

As a child she knew no fear, climbing trees and playing with poisonous snakes. Java, she later recalled, was ‘a little piece of paradise, full of light, of mysticism and mystery. It shaped me.’

She left the island at the age of 12, dispatched to boarding school in Holland and then onto a finishing school for young ladies in London’s Knightsbridge to learn deportment and flower arranging.

She was strikingly beautiful, sophisticated and very clever, speaking several languages. She had her first sexual encounter with another pupil there, beginning a lifetime of bisexual affairs.

In search of excitement and adventure, she made her way, aged 19, to Paris, then buzzing with writers like Hemingway and painters such as Picasso and Dali.

Her wide green eyes, full mouth and long sensuous body were her entree into their bohemian circles and she quickly blossomed amid the city’s social whirl. Coco Chanel, the chic fashion designer and perfumier, snapped her up — as a model and a prospective lover.

She is pictured above with Hollywood star and lover Tallulah Bankhead (near right). Tallulah liked boys too. When in England, she used to hang around Eton College on Sundays in her Bentley and pick them up for sex

After six months with Chanel, Toto — tired of being felt up by her employer during fittings for clothes — moved on to other fashion houses, posing in revealing minimalist dresses that showed off her curves and brought even more admirers. 

Vogue splashed her on its cover. She was on everyone’s invitation list, a must-have at every gathering of the smart set, drawn to big-spending princes, plutocrats and playboys and sleeping with them as she pleased, seeking, as she put it, ‘pleasure without guilt’, and getting it.

She had decided to live exactly like the loose-moralled men in her circle. Anyone was fair game — of the same sex or the opposite sex, husbands of friends, wives of friends, she didn’t care.

Among her lovers was mad, bad Tallulah Bankhead, the promiscuous Hollywood film star, who spotted Toto at a party and introduced herself with a blatant: ‘Hello, I’m a lesbian.’

They soon became lovers, though not exclusively. Tallulah liked boys too. When in England, she used to hang around Eton College on Sundays in her Bentley and pick them up for sex.

Toto adored the 30-year-old Bankhead, an actress famed for not wearing underwear on stage and flaunting herself.

Toto thought Tallulah ‘totally mad, that’s what attracted me to her. She loved to shock but I was proud to be seen with her, though it was exhausting trying to keep up.’ 

Not surprising given that Tallulah was said to have once had a queue of girls lining up outside her hotel suite in Paris and worked her way through 15 in one night. 

The fiery Toto-Tallulah fling was short-lived, burning itself out in just four months — after which Toto met the man who, one way or another, would have the greatest influence on her life, newspaper magnate Lord Beaverbrook, owner of the Daily and Sunday Express.

A quixotic and outspoken character, many people loathed him because of the power he wielded without mercy and the disdain with which he treated people.

The writer Evelyn Waugh was once asked if he believed in the Devil and replied: ‘Of course. How else could you account for Lord Beaverbrook?’ Even his great buddy Winston Churchill called him Machiavelli.

He and Toto were opposites — he frog-faced, short and stout, she elegance and beauty personified. What they had in common was huge sexual appetites. And lovers — both had slept with Tallulah.

Toto was turned on by his intelligence, his energy and his crème de la crème contacts. 

‘He educated me during our time together,’ she recalled in conversations she had many years later with his granddaughter, Laura Aitken. 

‘I was in my 20s, yet sitting down with prime ministers and presidents.’

No vacuous airhead, she listened and learned, drawn into the raging politics of that turbulent era, with Fascism on the rise and the democracies in the West confused on how to counter and contain it. She quickly settled in her own mind whose side she was on.

After meeting Mussolini, she dismissed him with contempt as ‘a ridiculous comical figure’. 

As she explained later: ‘You couldn’t live through those times without feeling burning anger and the need to do anything, absolutely anything, to get rid of Hitler and all the evil he stood for.’

She and Beaverbrook came up with a plan. As she flitted and flirted around the capitals of Europe, welcomed in all the best places (and bedded in them, too), she would keep her eyes and ears open for gossip and information, all to be passed back to Beaverbrook and, through him, to his contacts at MI6 in London.

She became — in effect — a spy, pillow talk her speciality. Here was the cocktail of glamour, intrigue, excitement and danger that suited her personality to a tee.

Her affair with Beaverbrook lasted ten torrid months and ended only when she committed the ultimate infidelity in his eyes — she fell in love with his dashing, handsome 25-year-old son, Max Aitken, who felt the same about her.

It was a dangerous, doomed triangle that the couple managed to keep secret for a month, before one of Beaverbrook’s snoopers spotted them arm in arm and told the old man. He was incandescent, calling her ‘a whore’. She laughed in his face at his hypocrisy and refused his demand to give up Max.

Beaverbrook, a man not easily thwarted and never before humiliated, lashed out. He sacked Max from his job at the Express and banned any mention of Toto in his papers ever again. 

Publicly he trashed her reputation and tried — unsuccessfully as it turned out — to have her ostracised from society. She recalled: ‘He turned very nasty. He called me ‘that black b***h’.’

What he failed to grasp — though perhaps he did, and it made his situation worse — was that she and Max were genuinely in love. This was no fling. They planned to marry. When Max proposed, Toto accepted.

Paradoxically, this gave Beaverbrook some leverage. Anxious, after his initial anger, to heal the rift with his eldest son, he proposed a reconciliation. As long as they agreed not to marry, there would be no bar to their relationship and he would bring his son back into the financial fold. He would even pay Toto an income for life.

The couple accepted the deal, even though, in Toto’s words, ‘I loved Max like no other before or after. I would have married him but this was the obvious solution. I didn’t want him to be estranged from his father so I told him to agree to the offer. It wouldn’t stop us being together. And it didn’t.’

For the next five years, she and Max lived together in a Mayfair apartment, happily, it seems, despite affairs on both their parts and her frequent trips around Europe. She was a regular at the opera houses of Milan, Venice, Versailles and Berlin, perfect camouflage for her spying activities.

Sex was her unashamed weapon in her fight against Fascism as she seduced an officer in the Abwehr, the German intelligence service, and encouraged the amorous attentions of Mussolini’s son-in-law.

‘When she slept with the enemy,’ writes Frame, ‘she did so as a spy and not as a pleasure seeker, though she never denied that the job came with benefits.’

Loosening the tongues of her targets was never a problem. Her tactic was not to ask probing questions but to casually steer the conversation. 

‘Little by little I got some good information, which I managed to remember before jotting it down when I reached my hotel.

‘At first I kept these notes in a safe in my room but then I realised I would be in big trouble if they were found. From that moment I kept them in my knickers!’

Whatever she discovered — such as confirmation that the abdicated King Edward VIII, now roaming Europe as the exiled Duke of Windsor, was cosying up to Hitler — she passed to Beaverbrook, now her friend and confidant again.

But something inside her wanted more, and, with war looming, she took a momentous, life-changing decision. She was in Florence and infiltrated a meeting of Fascist Blackshirts, relaying what she discovered back to London via a local Resistance group, whose dedication to the cause so inspired her she followed her heart and joined them.

No more watching. It was time for action. She left her plush hotel with the luxuries and comforts she had enjoyed all her life and headed for the Tuscan hills, dining on roast hedgehog, sleeping in caves and cottages, harassing the Fascist authorities and helping Italian Jews escape to safety.

She kept in touch with Beaverbrook, radioing reports of the partisans’ activities to the monitoring station in the grounds of his country estate in Surrey and receiving MI6 instructions in return. Occasionally money and supplies were parachuted in to them.

She admitted later to being ‘frightened much of the time. We all knew what we were risking.’ As for the sacrifices her new life on the run entailed, ‘I missed not visiting the hairdresser most, though one of the village girls occasionally cut it. I missed the privacy too, living from place to place with so many men.’

She also missed Max, who had married in 1939. He was an RAF fighter pilot ‘and I prayed that he would be safe. I understood why our relationship had to end. He had to try for the conventional life of a wife and children. But my love for him would never dim.’

In January 1941 she was arrested and imprisoned in a series of squalid jails, constantly interrogated and sexually molested. All this she endured until the summer of 1943, when Mussolini was overthrown and, in the chaos that followed Italy’s surrender to the Allies, she was able to walk out of her prison.

Here was her chance to flee to somewhere safe, but instead she joined another partisan band, one woman with 250 men, their target now the Germans who had taken control of Italy.

‘Call it unfinished business, but I was determined to carry on fighting. I would be letting down everyone if I opted for an easy time and ran away. I suppose I might have made a different decision if I had known what was in store for me.’

She managed another year of active resistance work until once again she was caught. Surrounded by a mob of Fascist militiamen, rape and a violent death seemed certain — until she used her charms to persuade a young officer to look after her, though all he got in return was a peck on the cheek.

When he let her go, she decided it really was time to escape the battlefront for a while, to recuperate, get her strength back. She travelled in secret to Venice, where she had friends, and stayed for two weeks, posing as a Belgian baroness.

One day she was in a cafe near the Rialto when German soldiers demanded to see her papers. She was searched, arrested and handed over to the SS.

This time there was no escape. A car took her to Milan, from where she was herded onto a train to Berlin and then by cattle truck 50 miles south to the unspeakable inhumanity of the Ravensbruck concentration camp.

There, as Prisoner 77370, the one-time glamorous Vogue model was stripped, shaved and given a thin blue-and-white striped dress to wear. The only ornament was a red triangle designating her as a political prisoner.

The horror was immediate and shocking. She expected it to be like the Italian prisons she had been locked up in, but ‘on my first day I saw prisoners pushing wheelbarrows containing dead bodies. I didn’t realise at the time — how could I? — that this was the norm in this awful place.’

The truth dawned. They were here to be worked to death and thus exterminated. She asked herself: ‘Did I want to survive if this was the life I had to endure?’

But survive she did. Despite the back-breaking work repairing roads. Despite starvation. Despite forced sterilisation carried out without anaesthetic. Just as death seemed certain — and even welcome — a miracle saved her. 

In April 1945, the Swedish Red Cross organised a mercy mission to rescue as many Ravensbruck inmates as possible. SS commander Heinrich Himmler agreed a deal, hoping to put himself in the Allies’ good books as Nazi Germany neared defeat.

Toto was called with a group of other women to go to the showers. They feared the worst. 

A car took her to Milan, from where she was herded onto a train to Berlin and then by cattle truck 50 miles south to the unspeakable inhumanity of the Ravensbruck concentration camp. There, as Prisoner 77370, the one-time glamorous Vogue model was stripped, shaved and given a thin blue-and-white striped dress to wear. Prisoners are pictured above at the camp in 1945

But water, not deadly gas, rained on them before they were given clothes and told they were to be freed. A fleet of white buses arrived at the camp gate and they set off for a neutral country.

Her ordeal was over. She was unrecognisable from the beautiful young thing that had dazzled Paris and London — but she was alive. For the next 15 months, she convalesced at a lakeside house in Switzerland, recovering her strength and dealing in her mind with the trauma of what she had been through. ‘Gradually the nightmares went, for good.’

In their place came a new lover, Erica Brausen, owner of an art gallery — a lesbian married to a gay man — who marked a slight return to Toto’s previous lifestyle as she and Erica, the oddest of couples, cruised their way round European high society.

They stayed together for the next 45 years, despite Toto’s affairs with both men and women that drove the possessive Erica mad. 

So mad that, when Toto had a stroke in 1991, Erica refused to let friends visit, jealously keeping her sweetheart for herself, and filling her with morphine.

After three months in an airless room with the curtains always shut to block out the light, Toto died, aged 82. 

Her corpse lay in her bed for eight days, Erica sleeping beside her at night and laying a fresh red rose on her every day — a bizarre and sad ending for one of the 20th century’s most vividly vibrant and life-enhancing characters.

Toto & Coco: Spies, Seduction And The Fight For Survival by Alan Frame is published by Kelvin House at £11.99. © Alan Frame 2020. 

To order a copy for £10.19 (offer valid to 30/10/20), visit or call 020 3308 9193. 

Free UK delivery on orders over £15.

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