On Jan. 21, 1944, two FBI agents trailed a diminutive Madison Avenue doll shop owner into the safety deposit vault of a midtown Manhattan bank. As Velvalee Dickinson opened her box, the G-Men stepped forward, arrested her, and confiscated the contents of the box. Dickinson, wearing a blue hat and a plain brown coat, was barely five feet tall and weighed all of 100 pounds, yet she “fought bitterly” against the agents, according to an account in the next day’s New York Times. Despite her protests, she was apprehended quickly, and she and the box were hustled downtown to the assistant U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan.
There, the agents conducted a preliminary interview with Dickinson and counted out the savings in her bankroll. They found cash and checks totaling $15,900: Almost $10,000 was in the form of $100 bills, which the feds were pretty certain had arrived in Dickinson’s box courtesy of the Japanese government. The FBI was convinced that Velvalee Dickinson, a 51-year-old dealer in rare and antique dolls, was a spy; and they had spent more than a year building the case that would prove just that.
On appearances alone, it was hard to imagine a more unlikely Mata Hari. Dickinson and her recently deceased husband, Lee Taylor Dickinson, had lived quietly in a Madison Avenue apartment since arriving in New York from the West Coast in 1937. They’d gone east after the failure of Lee’s San Francisco brokerage business, and Velvalee’s first job was in Bloomingdale’s doll department.
Less than a year after their arrival in New York, she had opened her own doll business, run first out of the couple’s apartment and then from a storefront at 718 Madison Ave. In her shop, Velvalee catered to an upscale clientele of collectors and doll enthusiasts from all over the country, many of whom were interested in foreign-made dolls. She advertised her wares in such familiar publications as House Beautiful, House and Garden, and Harper’s Bazaar; and the author of a then-recently published guide to doll collecting, The Fascinating Story of Dolls, had singled out Velvalee Dickinson in her book as an expert in all matters concerning rare dolls. Before the Christmas season in 1943, her old employer Bloomingdale’s had asked Dickinson to make a seasonal window arrangement of her rare dolls for its Lexington Avenue store.
But even as she’d gone about her business in the preceding few months, including burying her husband in 1943, Dickinson had been watched with careful scrutiny by the FBI. In fact, the trail leading to her arrest stretched back further still, all the way to the moment, nearly two years before her arrest, when the first of a series of mysterious letters wound up in the hands of bureau investigators.
Returned to sender
In February 1942, less than three months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, a woman named Sara Gellert in Portland, Ore., had a letter returned to her in the mail. It had been sent under her name and address to someone named “Inez Molinali” at a nonexistent street number in Buenos Aires.
Its contents, written in a curiously stilted prose, contained some accurate information of a personal nature about Gellert—it mentioned her visiting an ill grandchild living in the South, for instance—but the great majority of the letter pertained to dolls and a doll hospital that Gellert was supposed to have visited while looking in on the sick grandchild. “The only fun I had while I was with them [her daughter and grandchild] was to find a wonderful doll hospital,” read a portion of the letter. “I left my three old English dolls . . . you know I have three old China head Dolls From England?”
Through the course of the next several months, four more letters arrived at FBI offices in various corners of the country. Each had been addressed to Inez Molinali in Buenos Aires; each had been returned to a sender who had no idea who Inez Molinali was; each contained some bit of personal information about the purported sender, but was clearly not written by them; and each focused on dolls.
A letter that turned up in the Seattle office of the FBI, courtesy of a Spokane, Wash., man named Maude Bowman, referenced “an old German bisque Doll dressed in a Hula Grass skirt. It is a cheap horrid thing that I do Not like and wish we did not have it about . . .”
In Cincinnati, Ohio, a woman presented to the FBI a returned letter that referred to a “Mr. Shaw” who had been ill but would be back working soon. It also read, in part: “The only new dolls I have are THREE LOVELY IRISH dolls. One of these three dolls is an old Fisherman with a Net over his back another is an old woman with wood on her back and the third is a little boy.”
Another letter wound up in Denver and made reference to looking for “a Chinese Family of Dolls” while on a visit to San Francisco’s Chinatown. Yet another letter turned up in Gellert’s mailbox in Portland. It contained a long passage about “a lovely Siamese Temple Dancer” which had been damaged, “tore in the middle, but it is now repaired and I like it very much . . .”
In all, five letters had arrived in FBI offices by August 1942. Four had been postmarked from West Coast cities, but one had been sent from New York. The signatures on the letters were reasonable facsimiles of the handwriting of each of the purported senders, but according to FBI analysis, they were forgeries.
It was the contents of the letters, however, that caught the serious attention of authorities. From the very first letter through each of the four that followed, cryptographers were in agreement that all the talk of dolls was actually coded missives written to inform “Inez Molinali” of West Coast defense systems, and the comings and goings of U.S. Navy ships in harbors stretching from Seattle to San Diego.
The “three Old English dolls” were ships damaged at Pearl Harbor and under repair in San Francisco. So, too, was the “Chinese Family of Dolls,” which turned out to be seven ships being worked on in Bay Area docks in the months after that initial attack. A U.S. Navy destroyer named the USS Shaw—obviously the sick Mr. Shaw of the Ohio letter—had had its bow blown to smithereens in Hawaii and was also at a West Coast harbor for fixing in early 1942.
The “lovely Siamese Temple Dancer” was determined to be the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga, which had been severely damaged in its midsection, and was traveling between Puget Sound and San Diego at the same time that the letter to Buenos Aires had mentioned its repair. The “German bisque Doll” with its “Hula Grass skirt” was yet another ship of the Pacific Fleet in Seattle for work contemporaneous to the date of the letter.
The code employed by the letter writer to send all of this information to South America was by no means sophisticated, especially for wartime cryptographers who already had deciphered the enormously complex systems of messaging devised by both the German and Japanese governments.
There was also an obvious clumsiness to the means by which these secrets were being sent to “Inez Molinali” at an address that didn’t exist (even the name Molinali was wrong—the real contact, it would turn out, was supposed to have been a woman named Inez Molinari). By the time the last letter had arrived in FBI hands, even the biggest piece of the puzzle—the whodunit—was pretty well determined.
It turned out that all of the letters had been returned to people who were, in fact, doll enthusiasts and collectors, and each had done business with a Madison Avenue doll shop owner named Velvalee Dickinson. In addition, they all had supplied Dickinson with their addresses, samples of their handwriting in the form of correspondences, and small details of their personal lives, either through personal conversation or letters. As to why they might have been chosen as unwitting accomplices by Dickinson—at least two of these customers had developed bumpy relationships with the shop owner, not paying promptly enough for dolls that Dickinson had sent them.
It was pretty obvious to the FBI by the fall of 1942 that this same Velvalee Dickinson had been trying to pass military information about the Pacific Fleet to Japanese operatives in South America. Exactly why she was doing it, and whether she might have confederates working with her in this country, remained a mystery. Through the next year and a half, the FBI watched her, retraced her steps, and snooped further into her past.
Born Velvalee Blucher in Sacramento, Calif., in 1893, Dickinson graduated from Sacramento High School and attended Sacramento Junior College, the University of California at Berkeley and Stanford University, from which she earned enough credits to get a bachelor’s degree in 1918 (the degree wasn’t awarded until 1937, however, because she failed to pay for several Russian books she had “borrowed” from the school).
After leaving Stanford, she worked in a bank, married, and was quickly divorced. By the mid-1920s, Velvalee Blucher was in San Francisco, where she met Lee Dickinson and had taken a job as a bookkeeper with the California Brokerage Company that he owned. They were married in 1926.
Dickinson was a produce broker; she arranged for the handling, shipping, and sale of agricultural goods from a number of Imperial Valley farms in central California, including several owned by Japanese Americans. Put in charge of these accounts, she became fascinated with Japanese culture. Velvalee and her husband joined the Japanese-American Society of San Francisco and became regulars at Japanese Consulate functions in the Bay Area. She collected tokens of Japanese culture, wore kimonos to social events at the consulate, bought numerous books on Japanese art and history, entertained Japanese guests in her home, and became friendly with officers in the Japanese navy, as well as individuals at the consulate whom the FBI labeled “high Japanese government officials.”
These good times in San Francisco didn’t last for the Dickinsons. By the mid-1930s, the brokerage was failing, as was Lee’s health. The family fell into severe financial straits, and borrowed money from a number of friends and family. By 1937, the firm was broke, and the Dickinsons decided to move to New York, where Velvalee founded her doll business and once again established connections with Japanese society. She joined the Nippon Club in New York, cultivated a relationship with the Japanese consul general, and, most significantly, developed a relationship with Ichiro Yokoyama, a Japanese naval official stationed in Washington, D.C.
A miraculous ‘coincidence’
Despite her Madison Avenue address and growing reputation as a doll expert, Velvalee Dickinson’s business was not a great success. Nor did Lee Dickinson’s heart condition improve. Velvalee’s disputatious nature manifested itself as stresses mounted. She began quarreling with almost everyone who did business with her, including housekeepers, employees, landlords, and the ad reps from the magazines in which she tried to sell her dolls.
The financial strains were miraculously relieved, however, shortly after Pearl Harbor. Suddenly, the Dickinsons had enough money to bankroll a pair of extended trips to the West Coast, during which they visited friends, family, and business associates in cities stretching from Seattle to San Diego. In preparation for the first of these trips, Velvalee sent post cards to a number of her West Coast customers, notifying them of her visit.
Back in New York in the fall of 1942, Velvalee Dickinson and her doll shop had new and very interested observers. As the FBI gathered the evidence that would make their case against his wife—including details of the West Coast trips, family finances, personal histories, her connections to Japanese officials, and technical evidence linking the typewriters used to write to “Inez Molinali” to the hotels in which the Dickinsons stayed on the West Coast—Lee Dickinson died, and 1943 passed into 1944.
The final links in the chain connecting Velvalee Dickinson to a sponsor were those $100 bills confiscated from her safety deposit box. They were traced to a Japanese-American bank in California, which had distributed them, in November 1941, to a Japanese naval attaché named Ichiro Yokoyama, who had obviously passed them on to Dickinson.
The case against Velvalee
The arrest of Velvalee Dickinson was front-page news in New York and elsewhere around the country. She would remain in the public eye, off and on, for the next few months, as her case wound its way to a conclusion.
With all of the evidence collected against her in more than a year of work, however, the federal government still felt uncomfortable charging Dickinson with the crime of espionage, a federal offense subject to the death penalty. The problem was that the material gathered against her was largely circumstantial: No decoder could determine with absolute certainty the meaning of the encrypted letters.
So instead of espionage, the government charged Dickinson with violating censorship laws, which prohibited citizens from passing confidential information to foreign sources. Meanwhile, the government continued to build its case, held Dickinson in jail, and when she failed to make bond, continued to interview her in the hopes that she would confess to being a spy for the Japanese.
But it was hard to get a coherent story of any sort from Velvalee Dickinson. She was, as might be expected, distressed at her arrest and evasive in subsequent interviews with the FBI. When presented with evidence showing that the bills in her safety deposit box had come from Japanese sources, she blamed her husband. She claimed that despite his infirmities, Lee had somehow arranged to spy for the Japanese, and that the $25,000 that suddenly appeared in their apartment in November 1941 were his ill-gotten gains.
In August 1944, Velvalee Dickinson admitted her guilt. According to a final FBI report on the case, she said “that she had typed and prepared the five letters addressed to the individual in Argentina, and that she had used correspondence received by her from her customers to forge their signatures thereon.” She also confessed to visiting the Bremerton Navy Yard in Seattle and the Mare Island Navy Yard in San Francisco and “stated that the letters transmitted information about aircraft carriers and battleships damaged at Pearl Harbor.”
Velvalee Dickinson was found guilty of violating wartime censorship laws and given the maximum penalty of 10 years in federal prison and a $10,000 fine. She was sent to the Federal Correctional Institution for Women at Alderson, W.Va., made famous 60 years later by Martha Stewart.
Dickinson spent the next seven years at Alderson before being conditionally released in 1951. She reported to a probation officer for the next three years and then quietly disappeared from public view.
No deep psychological motive was ever suggested in FBI files or elsewhere as to why Velvalee Dickinson did what she did. By all accounts, she had a deep love for Japanese culture and a desperate need for money. Apparently these, mixed with a temperament better suited to the company of dolls than people, led Dickinson to a world that probably seemed to her as make believe as any other.
Tim Brady wrote about The Birth of a Nation in the January/February 2006 issue of the magazine.
Velvalee Dickinson: The One and Only
It is a remarkable fact that for all the fears about Japanese espionage in the United States during World War II—the paranoia that prompted the creation of the notorious system of Japanese-American internment camps across the country—only one person was known to have passed military information to the Japanese government after Pearl Harbor, and that was Velvalee Dickinson.
Exactly how she was enlisted and engaged by the Japanese remains a mystery, as does any explanation of why Japanese intelligence agents would hand over large sums of money to a would-be spy of such unproven ability. It is known that Japanese intelligence gathering, in the years prior to World War II, was centered on its embassies and consulates. When these were closed in the United States with the onset of war, Japanese officials lost vital intelligence gathering means. Perhaps in the frantic days leading up to the attack on Pearl Harbor, with the knowledge that its official presence in the United States was coming to an end, employing Velvalee Dickinson, a businesswoman with connections on both coasts, seemed like a risk worth taking.
As for “Inez Molinali”—she was actually Inez Molinari, the wife of a fairly well-known Buenos Aires scholar who had fascist sympathies, and actual ties to Japanese diplomats. The Molinaris were not spies, however, nor did either of them collect dolls. When the story of Velvalee Dickinson broke in New York in 1944, they were taken in for questioning by Argentine police, exonerated, and made a public denial of any knowledge of Dickinson, or her spying.—TB