A Spy in the Lesbian Herstory Archives


One thing I know for sure: that LGBTQ history holds many as yet undiscovered secrets.  That is why we should be looking.  I stumbled upon the secret life of Angela Calomiris (1916-1995) while listening to an Oral History interview from the 1980s with SAGE’s Buddy Kent, aka Bubbles Kent, Exotic Dancer.  Buddy had her own story to share with Joan Nestle, co-founder of the Lesbian Herstory Archives.  But incidents that had taken place 30 years before—during the “McCarthy era”—with Angela (“Angie” to her friends) Calomiris at the center, kept cropping up.

Buddy had known Angie since the late 1930s, when both of them moved to Greenwich Village, and remembered some old Village gossip.  Talking about Judy Holliday, another Villager of yesteryear who won the 1950 Oscar for Best Actress as Billie Dawn in Born Yesterday, a role Judy had created on the Broadway stage, Buddy recalled that Angie had ratted out Yetta Cohn—Judy’s one-time lover, then lifelong friend and confidante—to the NYPD as a Communist sympathizer.  Yetta lost her job.  Judy was subpoenaed to appear before Congressional committees, and died young.

At the time of Joan’s interview with Buddy, Angie was a fixture in the Provincetown, MA, community, and had been for decades.  If not beloved by one and all, the little butch dyke (under five feet tall) did own a large rental complex on Commercial Street called “Angel’s Landing” and diverse other properties.  But back in New York, Angie had enjoyed a very different kind of celebrity, one she did not talk about.

She had reason to hush it up.  Her lengthy FBI file (1942-1965) opens with Angie’s recruitment as a “Confidential National Defense Informant” for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)—in other words a spy, informer, fink, stoolpigeon, or rat, depending on your point of view.  During her seven years of service with the FBI (1942-1949), her assigned target was the Communist Party of America (CPUSA).  She got herself recruited into the Party, attended meetings, reported back on what was said and who was there—names and addresses.  In addition, because she was a photographer, she could provide a sure means of identification for her subjects, who might change their names but not their faces.

Thanks to big wartime budget increases, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (Washington’s longest-serving bureaucrat, 1924-1972) was able to hire Angie and hundreds, perhaps thousands, of others for this domestic undercover operation that spied on Fascists (we were at war with Germany and Italy), Communists (we were allied with the Soviet Union), and any other “subversives.”  It was a time—before today’s technological advances—when government surveillance in the name of national security depended, at least in great part, on individuals paid for the information they supplied. Angie’s photography earned her praise from her FBI handlers, and more money than the average informant.

Her first FBI spying assignment was the New York Photo League (1936-1951), a pioneering organization of American documentary photographers where Angie’s skills had been developed in inexpensive classes.  The League membership included Berenice Abbott, Margaret Bourke-White, Paul Strand, W. Eugene Smith, Arthur Fellig (WeeGee), and many others of equal or lesser reputation.  While some were members of the Communist Party, others were not, and most were just struggling to make a career in photography.  But the League was under suspicion from the beginning because it documented urban life in the shadow of the Great Depression, advertised in the Daily Worker, and photographed many poor people, even poor African Americans.  Harlem was one focus, which was enough to put the League under FBI surveillance.

But Angie soon moved away from the League to concentrate her attention on New York City Communist Party branches where she rose to leadership positions, which gave her access to more names.  Her last job was “financial secretary” at the West Midtown club, whose territory included “the Hell’s Kitchen area from 38th Street to about 50th or 52nd Street from Eighth Avenue to the river west.”  In the New York of long ago, that meant “on the waterfront,” the West Side piers on the Hudson when the harbor was at the height of its extent and power.  It also meant surveillance of the longshoremen’s association, striving to be part of a militant labor movement where the CPUSA had some influence.



Of course, the question immediately arises: how and why did the FBI hire a Village lesbian to do their spying?  And how did she get away with it?  We know that many butch girls welded in shipyards during World War II, joined the armed services, maintained and repaired military vehicles, and drove for the motor pool.  Angie’s FBI service was considered by many to be of equal importance—like being a soldier—because she was fighting Communism at home.  Under the circumstances, her “moral fiber” (or sexual orientation) was not an issue.  Likewise, if Angie’s FBI recruiter, Kenneth Bierly of the New York office, did not know about her from the outset, he must have suspected something when she began a long-term relationship with his sister-in-law.

The people she was assigned to spy on did not seem to care either.  The Photo League naturally had its share of artistic types, and Sol Libsohn, one of the original Photo Leaguers, insisted that everybody knew.  “She was obviously a lesbian,” he told an interviewer many years later, “and if you think that homosexuals are not popular now, at that time they were terribly unpopular and we knew she was a homosexual but we made nothing of it.”[1] The late Walter Rosenblum, League president for years, confided later that back then he had not even known what a lesbian was.

 As for the Party, despite a more or less official position that homosexuality was a decadent manifestation of capitalism that would disappear with the revolution, we know that the membership of the CPUSA included many closeted lesbians and gay men.  A long-time activist, the late Dr. Annette T. Rubinstein, had known Angie from Party gatherings, some in her own Upper West Side apartment, and had never doubted that she was a lesbian.  Other sources identify lesbians at different levels of the Party’s organization, from the rank and file, where “a predominance of lesbians existed … as they did in the U.S. military,” to the leadership.  The example most often cited is of two maiden ladies in the classic American tradition of romantic friendships between women:  Grace Hutchins (1885-1969), labor reformer and author (and in her early years a missionary to China), and her long-time companion and comrade Anna Rochester (1880-1966), social worker and child labor activist.  Likewise, Betty Millard (1911-2010), a writer and one-time editor of the literary journal New Masses, hauled before HUAC in 1959, came out of the closet in her 80s to advocate for LGBTQ causes.

For gay men, we need look no further than Harry Hay, founder of Mattachine, who joined the Party after participating, with his lover Will Geer, in the San Francisco General Strike of 1934.  Other founding members of Mattachine, Bob Hull and Chuck Rowland, had been active in American Youth for Democracy (AYD) in Minnesota before they moved west.  In the late 1940s, Rowland said, AYD was really a re-christened version of the Young Communist League (YCL), not “officially Communist, but it was.”  Everybody, Roland insisted, including Party leaders, knew he was gay.[2]

Then Angie’s spy career came to an end, with a calculated but risky move on her part.  She went public, which most FBI informants refused to do, because she thought there was something in it for her.  The something that would have come through FBI connections included a good, steady job in photography, with LifeLook or Newsweek, maybe for big industry, Standard Oil of New Jersey, Ford Motors in Detroit.  She also planned to cash in on the popularity informants were enjoying with the publication of a (ghost-written) book—Red Masquerade: Undercover for the FBI, 1950—which she wanted badly to turn into a money-making movie (like Matt Cvetic’s I Was a Communist for the FBI, Warner Brothers, 1951) or a long-running TV series (like Herbert Philbrick’s I Led Three Lives,1953-1956).  All these unrealized illusions we know about thanks to the large collection of her papers (correspondence, newspaper clippings, etc.) left by her Executrix to the Lesbian Herstory Archives, Special Collections Boxes #99-02, labeled “Angela Calomiris.”

Angie picked a big stage for her debut.  In April, 1949, she took the stand for the prosecution (the only woman to do so) at the Smith Act trial of the 11-man National Board of the American Communist Party.  The trial was held in the Foley Square federal courthouse in New York City, and the charge against the defendants was “conspiracy to advocate the overthrow of the American Government by force and violence.”  It was a far cry from the war years, when the Russians were our friends, Joseph Stalin made the cover of Time magazine as Person of the Year (twice, 1940 and 1943), and New York City declared a “Stalingrad Day” to celebrate the Russian victory over the German Army (February 1943).



Called to the witness stand on April 26, 1949, Angie stepped down for the last time, after an extensive cross-examination by defense attorneys, on May 3.  Discounting the weekend of April 30-May 1, she testified for six days.  Her testimony runs from pp. 5022 to 5440, a total of 418 pp. in the official trial transcript.  Testifying about her daring exploits “on the waterfront” and other timely topics, Angie made headlines in the New York press, especially in the wake of a longshoremen’s strike (Fall 1948) that had paralyzed East Coast shipping.

Ironically, she earned a more lasting fame thanks to her betrayal of the Photo League.  The catalog (Yale University Press) of the recent retrospective The Radical Camera: New York’s Photo League, 1936-1951 (2011-2013) included one of her photos, and the show immortalized her with an exhibition case, containing spy memorabilia.  In Photo League lore, Angie survives as the one who identified it as a “communist front organization” and Sid Grossman, director of the League’s photo school, as the one who recruited her into the Communist Party.  Grossman never worked in New York again, and died five years later, age 42.

Angie was also remembered by the lesbian community for many years.  Not so long ago, an old gay girl from bygone Village days, someone who had perhaps known Judy Holliday and Yetta Cohn, ran into an old friend of Angie’s in a Florida restaurant.  Without any preamble, one white-haired octogenarian screamed at the other, “How could you be friends with that squealer?” If “McCarthy era” informers, like Angie, thought nobody would remember them naming names, history—where more secrets are hiding—has proven them wrong. 




[1] Interview, Sol Libsohn, by Gary Saretzky, January 21, 2001, “Remembering the 20th Century: An Oral History of Monmouth County,” Monmouth County Library, http://www.visitmonmouth.com/oralhistory/bios/LibsohnSol.htm

[2] Chuck Rowland is quoted in Stuart Timmons, The Trouble with Harry Hay, Founder of the Modern Gay Movement (Boston: Alyson, 1990), p. 144.


The Author 
With a PhD in Comparative Literature, Lisa E. Davis worked for years in SUNY and CUNY, including the Center for Puerto Rican Studies, Hunter College. Lately, her writing has appeared in anthologies and periodicals dedicated to LGBTQ culture. Her historical novel Under the Mink (Alyson, 2001) reveals a world of drag queens and kings who worked in Greenwich Village Mafia-owned nightclubs of the 1940s.

Edit of 2-23-2024

Lisa E. Davis's book, Undercover Girl: The Lesbian Informant Who Helped the FBI Bring Down the Communist Party, was published on May 9, 2017, by Penguin Random House. Here is the publisher's description:

At the height of the Red Scare, Angela Calomiris was a paid FBI informant inside the American Communist Party. As a Greenwich Village photographer, Calomiris spied on the New York Photo League, pioneers in documentary photography. While local Party officials may have had their suspicions about her sexuality, her apparent dedication to the cause won them over.

When Calomiris testified for the prosecution at the 1949 Smith Act trial of the Party's National Board, her identity as an informant (but not as a lesbian) was revealed. Her testimony sent eleven party leaders to prison and decimated the ranks of the Communist Party in the US.

Undercover Girl is both a new chapter in Cold War history and an intimate look at the relationship between the FBI and one of its paid informants. Ambitious and sometimes ruthless, Calomiris defied convention in her quest for celebrity.