We Need to Talk About Angela Calomiris, Lesbian FBI Informant

Second feature image via Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-DIG-DS-09971.

In 1949, Angela Calomiris — photographer, undercover FBI informant installed in the Communist Party, lesbian — served as a star witness in the first Smith Act trial. The trial, one of the longest in U.S. history, led to indictments for 11 members of the national board of the U.S. Communist Party (CPUSA) for “conspiracy to advocate the overthrow of the U.S. Government by force and violence.” It caused a media frenzy, demolished the Party, stigmatized anyone associated with it, and allowed the US government to rampantly target “subversive” groups over the next decade. And Calomiris, who worked undercover for seven years as a member of the CPUSA, played an integral role.

History is not kind to queer women. It buries them in dusty archives, relegates them to faded photos, reduces their voices to words printed in transcripts of lost recordings. If they appear at all. Lisa E. Davis, in her book Undercover Girl: The Lesbian Informant Who Helped the FBI Bring Down the Communist Party (forthcoming from Charlesbridge in May), digs through such forgotten files to unspool Calomiris’s story.

Undercover Girl Book

The first question at hand is why, in 1942, would the FBI accept Angela Calomiris, an unmarried resident of Greenwich Village, as a confidential defense informant? As it turns out, her being a lesbian wasn’t as much of a deterrent as one might expect.

In the 1940s, the FBI was still a fledgling body trying to prove its worth (and massively bloated budget). To get the information it needed, often by any means necessary, it would use just about anyone. Davis notes:

[I]f the FBI agents, or Hoover, knew she was a lesbian, and considering her masculine appearance a rather “obvious” one at that, they did not seem to mind. Reliable informers were not easy to come by, and some did not last long. It was one of those rare moments in American history when there was something worse than being a lesbian, and that was being a Communist.

Thanks to the Freedom of Information Act, and despite the best efforts of FBI censors, Davis had access to Calomiris’s complete FBI file. Based on those records, there’s reason to believe that the bureau did not necessarily find and approach Calomiris; rather, she was in the right place at the right time. She had ingratiated herself into the insular enclave of Greenwich Village from the time she left home; it was cheap, a breeding ground for creatives, and one of the only safe havens for queer women and men (the treatment of trans people is another matter) in New York at the time. Most bars and clubs struck deals with the Mafia to keep the police out as best they could.

Angela Calomiris Typewriter

Angela Calomiris at her typewriter (image courtesy of Rae Skinner)

Gay people were not only targets for violence and arrest; they were also considered a suspect population in that they were more vulnerable to blackmail than a citizen of allegedly upstanding moral fiber. Davis writes:

[I]n fact, some members believed that Angela’s sexual orientation played a part in her collaboration with the FBI. […] Other prominent queers, like Angela, took an anti-Communist stand, either because they believed there was some real threat to national security, or because it was a good cover. Nasty rumors suggest the latter.

Being outed did not seem to be Calomiris’s biggest concern, since she would go on to blow her own cover by choosing to testify publicly, and especially since that there is no record of sexual-identity-related pressure from the FBI. (In fact it was the CPUSA that nearly expelled her for “not being quite as fiercely puritanical in her private life as party rules demand.”) And during the trial she earned plenty of enemies by naming dozens of names, implicating not only Party members but other Village residents in nefarious plots. She asserted that the New York Photo League, a leftist cooperative where she had worked and studied, was a front for Communist Party activities and indoctrination; her assertions effectively decimated the institution, which counted among its members luminaries of the era like Margaret Bourke-White and Berenice Abbott.

Smith Act Trial Demo

Demonstration at Foley Square in support of the Communist defendants (image via Daily Worker / Daily World Photographs Collection, Tamiment Library, New York University, courtesy of People’s World)

She also swore under oath that she had never been compensated by the FBI for her work, and told various journalists the same thing. The press would leap on the story, casting her as the all-American patriot who had sacrificed her own financial wellbeing to help the FBI root out malignant forces trying to bring down the country. But FBI records show that she received a generous monthly salary, “relatively large for an informant,” during the years she was undercover and for at least a year after. The FBI couldn’t publicly expose Calomiris’s lie: doing so would have discredited one of its most important witnesses. Decades later, however, Jerre Kalbas, a fellow Village lesbian who’d known Calomiris for years, was asked in an interview why she thought Calomiris had taken the job with the FBI. Kalbas replied, quickly and sharply, “For the money.”

In fact, it seems her queer contemporaries are some of the only ones who didn’t forget Calomiris. In another interview, Greenwich Village dance and drag performer Buddy Kent would dredge Calomiris up from obscurity while talking about what had happened to a lover of well-known 1950s movie star Judy Holliday: “that was this dyke who put the finger on one girl who was on the police force and she was going with Judy Holliday. And she [the girlfriend] never really came out of it well. She was in therapy after that.”

Publicity photo of Buddy “Bubbles” Kent (image via Lisa E. Davis’s personal collection)

It can be both a triumph and a sorrow to unearth the stories of our forebears. Some give us courage, remind us of the work worth doing. Others are chilling to reckon with, something like a lighthouse flashing across a great distance, warning of the perils that may be ahead.

After Calomiris testified, and while the Red Scare swept the U.S., she published a tell-all book to widespread acclaim; she even appeared on the radio show Today with Eleanor Roosevelt, during which the former first lady declared her “a young lady of great courage.” But her notoriety was short-lived, and afterwards she would accomplish nothing more remarkable than a well-chosen real estate purchase of a few beachfront condominiums in Provincetown, Massachusetts, which she called Angel’s Landing. She died in Mexico in 1995, but Angel’s Landing still exists. The outdated rental website includes low-res photos of a cluster of clapboard houses, sunbleached, stark against a startling blue sky. “One of Provincetown’s best kept secrets,” it boasts, with presumably no irony intended.

Maree lives in Berlin and is usually carrying some sort of Tupperware product on her person. She's written for Marie Claire, The Rumpus, and Teen Vogue, but still has not fulfilled her lifelong dream of seeing a real blue-footed booby. You can find her on Instagram, Twitter and probably the dance floor.

Maree has written 24 articles for us.

16 Comments

  1. Calomiris’ move against communists is especially interesting in light of the rhetoric of the period that equated lesbians /with/ communists, as both were secretive figures who couldn’t necessarily be singled out of the larger population based on appearance alone. For more on this, the book Cold War Femme: Lesbianism, National Identity, and Hollywood Cinema is fascinating.

  2. If you’re interested in 1950s lesbians who were scientists and kicked ass and led double lives while working for the government, I’d recommend A Thin Bright Line by Lucy Jane Bledsoe. It’s based on a true story.

  3. Ok, I get it, our community is not made of saints, buy why in the holy name of Jebus, are we celebrating this woman? She was part of very successful campaign to violate the civil (even human) rights of many people.

  4. why celebrate someone who helped destroy the burgeoning US left at a key moment? why celebrate someone whose actions on the part of the state very likely hurt communists and socialists who were queer themselves?? why encourage your readers to beg for historical scraps???

    • I don’t see this article as celebrating her? It’s merely informative. It’s just as valid for us to learn the history of our not-so-wonderful forbears as it is to learn about the good ones.

  5. Hi. I wrote the book, not to celebrate but to explain what happened to the American Left after WWII–what we have come to call “the McCarthy era.” It is difficult for us to imagine the strength of that Left and the optimism coming out of the 1930s-40s. Calomiris is just an example of how and why–in some detail–that hope was lost. Time to try again to make a better world. The opposition, then as now, is all about the money.

  6. This article is absolutely fascinating! It is important to know our full history/herstory, not whatever sanitized version the moment and/or the community most prefers. While Angela Calomiris clearly helped the FBI’s (often illegal) efforts to destroy not just the American Communist Party, but also more generally leftist groups, activists and thinkers, it is also important to remember that the Communist Party of the time officially and unofficially abhorred homosexuality. In fact, the rampant homophobia on the left only really started to abate once the LGBT movement proved itself to be a formidable organizing force of its own and LGBT activists came out and were recognized as some of the most central activists in many of the civil rights/liberation movements.

    I think it is also important to remember that unless one is LGBT for political as well as sexual/identity reasons – which was most usually the case with women who were/are political lesbians – being LGBTQ is not necessarily in and of itself something that will guarantee a certain political or social perspective. Being marginalized and oppressed – especially in the era during which Calomoris lived – doesn’t necessarily mean one becomes more enlightened or aware of the connection between your oppression and that of other people’s.

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