At the climax of World War II, a symbol of hate — a Nazi flag — was transformed into a dazzling red dress for a female secret agent. A gift from a lost love, today it is helping brighten the twilight of her life.
When 91-year-old Beatrice Jackman put the dress up for auction recently, her colorful background at last came to light, along with the fascinating story behind a romantic memento she had carefully preserved for 66 years.
And all because she needed a big-screen TV.
Symbol of hate, symbol of love
The saga of the dress begins at the climax of World War II, when Jackman’s fiance, an American soldier named Parsons, stole a Nazi flag from a balcony of the Reichstag building in Berlin. Arriving with it in a Mercedes stolen from Nazi leader Hermann Goering, the young major gave it to Jackman as a romantic gesture.
The flag was made of high-quality cotton — a rare commodity during the war. Backman had the swastika removed from the flag and took the remaining red fabric to a dressmaker, who crafted it into a scoop-necked gown. Decked out in dazzling red, she wore the dress regularly to parties celebrating the end of the war.
Jackman had more reasons than many to celebrate the Allies’ victory in vivid style, because she had spent the war fighting Nazism from the shadows. Her career as a secret agent began where she grew up: in Denmark, where she delivered government messages on her bicycle as a teen-ager.
Her resourcefulness led her to be recruited by the Danish government for the Special Operations Executive, a clandestine organization that aided local resistance movements in espionage, sabotage and guerrilla warfare against the Axis. The young secret agent worked as a translator and sheltered Danish Jews and Allied airmen who had been shot down until she was forced to flee Denmark for Sweden in 1943.
When Berlin fell to the Allies, there was no longer any reason for Jackman to flee and hide. But sadly, the jubilation of victory over Hitler was tempered by tragedy: Having survived the war, her fiance died of pneumonia just four months before they were to wed. Jackman moved to England, where she eventually married an Englishman and had a daughter.
Means to an end
Fast-forward six decades to the present day, when Jackman has outlived her husband by 10 years. The 91-year-old lives alone and still has all her faculties and a wicked sense of humor, but her eyesight is dimming — hence the need for a big-screen television.
To raise money for it, she thought of the dress, carefully preserved all these years, and enlisted the help antiques restorer Philip Douetil, her 62-year-old friend and neighbor, in bringing the stunning item to auction. “I knew about her being a member of the SOE, and then when I heard the story about the flag being taken from the Reichstag building and made into a dress, I figured it could work well or work against (the auction) because people still have a mixed reaction to (the swastika),’’ Douetil said.
“A lot of people toss around the word ‘unique,’ but this really is a case of something that is unique,’’ said Stephen Bosley of Bosley Military Auctioneers, which handled the sale.
As it turned out, the dress sold for 2,100 pounds — more than $3,200 — which is nearly 10 times what Bosley thought it might get. He attributes much of that to the colorful story behind the making of it. Many U.S. soldiers brought home Nazi flags from the war, but the appearance and the craftsmanship of the dress, in addition to its backstory, made it an item that had museums and private individuals contacting the auction house to get in on the bidding.
“It’s such a stylish dress,’’ Bosley said. “It’s like something designed by a top couture house.’’
“I was delighted for her that it managed to fetch the price it did,’’ Douetil said.
But it was all simply a means to an end for Jackman, who has shunned interview requests regarding the dress and its colorful history and prefers to move on with her life. “Her feeling is that it all happened years ago and it’s over and done with,’’ Douetil said. “Her attitude is, ‘Why is everyone making all the fuss? I would have put it in a bonfire if I knew it was going to get all this attention.’
“I’ve been telling her that an awful lot of people are very interested in her story,’’ Douetil said. “She said she gave her story to the Imperial War Museum in London a while ago, and that’s the end of it. She just figures that it was her job at that period of time, and that’s it.’’
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Bosley does not know who purchased the dress because it was done through an agent, but he has heard that it will be put away for a young girl as an investment for her future.
“I think it’s a touching and poignant end for it,’’ Bosley said. “Maybe in 20 or 30 years time, it will come out again and the story will be retold. So often the stories of these really brave people disappear in the annals of history, and sadly, we don’t hear of them. You suddenly realize what exciting careers these people had and how brave they were.’’
As for the here and now, Jackman is enjoying her new big-screen television.
“I went to see her, and she was all proud in her lounge with the flatscreen television that she could see,’’ a chuckling Douetil said. “Her story is one that myself and younger people can barely wrap their heads around, but she just wants to be able to watch her shows.’’
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