When Americans talk about the heroes of World War II — Gen. George Patton, Oskar Schindler, Winston Churchill — we probably should add the name Betty Pack.
A spy who collected crucial information for the Allies, Pack led a life so daring and controversial that it practically begs to become a movie — in fact, Hollywood insiders optioned her life story a few years ago, with Jennifer Lawrence the favorite to play the dazzling spy. Even if that movie never happens, Pack is finally getting her due as the subject of a recent book, as part of an exhibit at Washington, D.C.’s International Spy Museum and with a world-premiere musical at the History Theatre in St. Paul.
Twin Cities playwright Laurie Flanigan Hegge wrote the book and lyrics for “Dirty Business,” opening Saturday. After reading about Pack in Howard Blum’s 2016 biography “The Last Goodnight,” Hegge couldn’t believe that the Minnesota native wasn’t better known.
“Betty’s biggest caper, and the reason many people say she changed the course of World War II, is she stole the Vichy codebooks out of the Vichy embassy,” Hegge said, referring to the French government that cooperated with Hitler. “That allowed the United States to get into North Africa safely and helped shift the war toward the Allies. So the musical starts with her in the embassy, stealing those codebooks at the request of FDR, but then we go all the way back to her years in Spain.”
Born in Minneapolis in 1910, Pack moved to Washington, D.C., as a teenager, which may be where she picked up her love for political intrigue. She traveled extensively with her husband-of-convenience, a British diplomat. And she discovered a gift for covert activities while sneaking a lover out of Spain during the Spanish Civil War.
“You sometimes hear her referred to as the ‘Mata Hari of Minnesota’ or as a honey trap [someone who used sex to extract secrets], but that’s a surface response,” Hegge said. “She was fluent in several languages. She was extremely intelligent. She was daring, even before she was a spy. And she was fearless. After the fact, people would ask if she was ashamed about what she did, because the honey trap was her specialty, and she said, ‘Absolutely not. Wars are not won by respectable methods. If my actions saved one life, that would be enough.’
“And they saved more than one life. They changed everything.”
Hegge pointed out the hypocrisy that fictitious James Bond, who also uses sex to get information, is seen as a dashing playboy. Meanwhile, real-life women who did the same are likely to be labeled sluts. Or written out of history entirely.
The secrecy of Pack’s work is partly to blame for the lack of information. But so is sexism.
Set from 1930 to 1941, “Dirty Business” tells the story of four spies who exploited power: There’s entertainer Josephine Baker and Pack (played by Kendall Anne Thompson). There’s Vera Atkins, called “the most powerful woman in the history of espionage” by Vanity Fair. And there’s Elizabeth Friedman, a cryptographer who was instrumental in breaking the Nazis’ Enigma Code. None was given the credit they deserved.
“In Vera’s book, ‘Spymistress’ [a biography by William Stevenson], her most important sidekick is [veteran of both world wars and head of the Special Operations Executive agency] Colin Gubbins,” Hegge said. “He’s everywhere. But if you read a book about him, it doesn’t even mention Vera Atkins. It’s so easy to see the male gaze erasing women from the story and, generally, when we talk about this era of spycraft, women are wiped out of the telling.”
“Dirty Business” aims to address that.
Hegge’s many shows for History Theatre include the book and lyrics for the 2017 hit “Sweet Land.” But “Dirty Business” is nothing like that sweetly nostalgic show. In fact, Hegge’s epiphany came while working on two other History Theatre projects: the 2017 production of Robert Schenkkan’s “All the Way” and last year’s “The Great Society,” both about Lyndon Johnson and his (male) colleagues.
“I was the assistant stage manager, so my job was to sit and listen,” Hegge said. “And I felt like here’s a story that is muscular and big and theatrical and political and I could approach the story of Betty Pack that way. It gave me permission to work in a way I hadn’t before: large themes balanced with intimate moments, bringing together women who never had intersections [in real life] and allowing myself a theatricality I had never explored.”
Because Hegge went for a cinematic approach, with parallel stories “edited” together, Robert Elhai seemed a natural collaborator. The Minneapolis composer did musical orchestrations for History Theatre’s “Sweet Land” but also orchestrated many films, including “The Sixth Sense” and entries in the “Fast and Furious” and Marvel franchises.
Hegge was on a tight deadline when she first approached the fast-working Elhai about putting together a few scenes and songs for History Theatre’s 2018 Raw Stages festival (back when the show was still called “The Spy Musical”).
“Betty’s story starts in the U.S. but then she’s off to Spain, so Bob is able to use that musical vocabulary,” Hegge said. “And there’s France and then back in the U.S., where there are some jazz influences.”
In the end, Elhai wrote what he calls an “unusual” score. “The music is influenced by the time, the ’30s and ’40s, mostly the ’30s, but I also wanted to inject a contemporary-ness,” said the composer, who included an electric bass even though that instrument didn’t exist when the show takes place. “If you played a song that was written in the 1930s to someone who lived in the 1930s, it would sound edgy to them, even if [the songs] sound quaint and old-timey to us. So I’m trying to introduce some of that edginess.”
Equally cinematic are the composed themes Elhai wrote for the story’s main characters. For example, a signature sound recurs whenever Pack makes progress as a spy. And Pack’s song, “Honey in the Trap,” becomes a musical motif that recurs whenever she tries to coerce a man to give her information.
“We want to illustrate her inner thoughts, musically, because of the theme that infuses every aspect of the show,” Elhai said. “Which is that these women are not given credit for what they did. These musical themes remind us what this show is all about.”
In other words, “Dirty Business” covers much more than World War II.
“When we presented the first act at Raw Stages, it all felt so timely,” Hegge recalled. “This is really a piece about resistance. There’s urgency in telling a story not just because of these women — but because of the political climate, the reasons they needed to become spies.”
Beyond the parallels with contemporary politics, Hegge finds that the stories from “Dirty Business” resonate with her own (very un-spy-like) life.
“What I’m experiencing in my community of women is us saying, ‘Hey, we are here for each other,’ ” she said. “I think the women in the show, way back when, were holding space for each other, too.”
It reminds Hegge of a research project for which she interviewed women who assumed what had been men’s jobs during World War II. “I was talking to a woman who worked in the shipyards who said, ‘Yes, once the war was over, we did have to give our jobs back,’ ” Hegge said. “But she added, ‘We raised our daughters differently.’ ”
As for Hegge’s own daughter: “She is being raised in a time when we call out that behavior. There’s still a glass ceiling, yes, but the idea that she wouldn’t be allowed to do something? It’s just a different reality for her.”
Who: Book and lyrics by Laurie Flanigan Hegge. Music by Robert Elhai. Directed by Ron Peluso.
When: 7:30 p.m. Thu.-Sat., 2 p.m. Sun. Ends May 26.
Where: 30 E. 10th St., St. Paul.
Tickets: $25-$56; 651-292-4323, historytheatre.com.