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Velvalee Dickinson was born in Sacramento, California, graduated from Stanford University, married three times, and then in the early 1930s moved to New York City where she eventually opened her own exclusive doll shop on the prestigious Madison Avenue. It was there that she built her reputation as an expert in rare, antique, and foreign dolls. She traveled extensively around the country lecturing and exhibiting her dolls while building a wealthy clientele that included Hollywood stars, members of high society, and other collectors.
When medical bills started to accumulate because of her husband’s poor health and business started to fail with the onset of World War II, she accepted the role as a spy for the Imperial Japanese Government. By hiding coded messages in her correspondence about dolls, she was able to pass on to her Japanese contacts critical military information about the US warships. After surveilling Velvalee for over a year, the FBI arrested her and charged her with espionage and violation of censorship laws. She became the first American woman to face the death penalty on charges of spying for a wartime enemy.
Velvalee Dickinson: The “Doll Woman” Spy is a carefully researched glimpse into the “Doll Woman’s” life as a collector of dolls, and as the highest paid American woman who spied for the Imperial Japanese Government during World War II.
This is a difficult book to describe; not a bad book at all, just hard to verbally describe. Let me start out by saying that at first it was not what I expected. I had in my convoluted brain that it would be more story like. A story about a woman spy who liked dolls. And it was that. It is exactly what it says it is, biographical. But as I continued through the book, I found that Barbara Casey had a way of flowing from facts to an interesting piece of descriptive writing. Really sort of back and forth, creating a nice flow for reading a non-fiction book.
The above may well be the style of the author as I have not read her other books. It is better researched than any dissertation. It is laid out beautifully. Every source, every credit and an Index to die for. Being a retired librarian, I tend to go to the back of the book first. I was overwhelmed at the work and organization. This isn’t just well-written, it is a book which obviously involved a LOT of time and work.
Having said the above, I want to say that this book does encompass true crime, biography and of course non-fiction. It is also a history lover’s read. The people and the places as well as the instances are all here, but as I said earlier it seems to flow well and read easily.
In looking at previously published works by Barbara Casey I found all have very good reviews. Obviously, a good author to check out.
Read an excerpt...
As intrigued as Eunice (Kennedy) was of these three women—Iva Toguri D’Aquino, Mildred Elizabeth Gillars, and Lilly Stein—Eunice was especially drawn to Velvalee Dickinson, now 56 years old and 29 years her senior—the former owner of a prestigious collectable doll shop on Madison Avenue in Manhattan who had been convicted of spying for the Japanese during the war. By the time Eunice met Velvalee, the “Doll Woman” had already been at Alderson a little over four years, spending her time writing letters to her brother, Oswald, and asking him to send her things like “bobbie pins,” reading the publication Cathedral Bulletin, learning how to play the electric organ, writing magazine articles, and reading books such as Citidal by A.J. Cronin and The Razors Edge by Somerset Maughan. She also took care of a yellow male cat “which will soon be a father,” she wrote to her brother.
It is ironic that on the very day Velvalee was given the maximum sentence of ten years in prison at Alderson and a $10,000 fine for violation of the censorship laws, J.P. Kennedy, Jr., son of ex-ambassador Joseph Kennedy and Eunice’s brother, was killed when a Navy bomber he was piloting exploded in flight. And only a year earlier, in August 1943, another brother, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, had been seriously injured by the Japanese in the Solomon Islands, an injury that caused him chronic back pain for the rest of his life.
Some speculate that Eunice felt sympathetic toward Velvalee because she, like Eunice, had graduated from Stanford University. In fact, by strange coincidence, Velvalee belatedly received her degree the same year that Eunice graduated from Stanford. Or maybe it was because she believed Velvalee’s story that it had been her husband, Lee, who spied for the Japanese and not her. So many of the women Eunice had met and counselled through her work in social services, after all, had gotten into trouble because of their controlling and manipulative husbands or boyfriends. Or it could have been that Velvalee had worked in social services for a time while living in San Francisco, an interest and passion that Eunice also shared.
AUTHOR Bio and Links:
Barbara Casey is the author of several award-winning novels for both adults and young adults, as well as book-length works of nonfiction, and numerous articles, poems, and short stories. Her nonfiction true crime book, Kathryn Kelly: The Moll behind Machine Gun Kelly, has been optioned for a major film and television series. Her nonfiction book, Assata Shakur: A 20th Century Escaped Slave, is under contract for a major film. In addition to her own writing, she is an editorial consultant and president of the Barbara Casey Agency. Established in 1995, she represents authors throughout the United States, Great Britain, Canada, and Japan.
In 2018 Barbara received the prestigious Albert Nelson Marquis Lifetime Achievement Award and Top Professional Award for her extensive experience and notable accomplishments in the field of publishing and other areas. Barbara lives on a mountain in Georgia with her husband, and three pets who adopted her: Benton, a hound-mix; Reese, a black cat; and Earl Gray, a gray cat and Reese’s best friend.