The “Mary Martin Note”: Some Background from CP USA and Venona Files, 1933 and 1943

In early 2006, while checking one recently developed clue in the files of the U.S. Communist Party (CP USA), the name “Mary Martin” suddenly jumped out at me from an early 1933 note:

Miss or Mrs. Martin
Dark blonde, medium height, heavy bust, medium weight
Speaks English, Lettish, German, Russian.
Was in Boston for few days, then to Washington – now has gone to Pittsburgh.
Married to American army captain.

Mary Martin was the name on one of the key items of physical evidence in the Alger Hiss perjury trials – the so-called “Mary Martin note” in Alger Hiss’s handwriting.

The “stoolpigeon” lead seems to have come from J. Peters, a CP USA functionary then in charge of organizational matters, including what was called special work, and it created quite a stir. On March 20, 1933, a Communist Party functionary named Israel Amter queried one “JP” (an abbreviation which in CP USA files often stands for J. Peters) as to the origins of his information on “a Miss or Mrs. Martin.” Amter also wrote a letter to comrades in Pittsburgh, obviously in response to their request for information about “a Miss or Mrs. Martin,” saying that the description given by other comrades did not fit the one provided by the Pittsburgh group, and that the report Amter had received about this person was “rather a wild report:”

She admits so many things that she is liable to be a neurotic. For example, she admits being a spy, that she is Canadian born, brought up in a convent, married a French legionnaire, was a war nurse, was wounded, arrested by the Germans as a spy, she admits being a spy here, has only been here eight months, says she works within the YMCA, is acquainted with the District Attorney here, …

The story Amter was getting looked so wild that he decided to conduct an investigation to “find out whether she is a spy or just a nut.” 1 Thus far, I have been unable to find any follow-up to this investigation in CP USA files, which American comrades used to forward to the Comintern in Moscow.

It seems that Mary Martin was picked up by Soviet radar at least once again, 10 years later, in a February 12, 1943 Soviet Naval Intelligence cable that was partially decrypted in the course of the Venona operation. The cable said:

Concerning Ivan Bogdanov. His real name is BOGDANOVICH. He has been in prison several times in the country of residence for [D% petty] theft. He is connected with a woman – a spy with the [B% cover name] “Maria Marten.” You [and] your assistant are to cease contact with him. Details by letter. [[2. Naval GRU, Moscow to Washington N 254, 12 February, 1943.]

“Maria Marten” was a phonetic translation from a Russian decrypt, hence the disparity in spelling. March 1949, when the FBI was investigating Mary Martin in view of the forthcoming Hiss perjury trial, was most probably too early for the FBI to have seen the Venona decrypt of the “Maria Marten” cable and used it to help them put some pieces of the puzzle together.

  1. Stoolpigeon Miss or Mrs. Martin, undated; Amter to JP, March 20, 1933 – CP USA files, fund 515, description 1, file 3150, pp. 26, 18, 21, RGASPI.