Chase your dreams. Follow your bliss. Find what you are good at, and let it consume you.
You might say that is exactly what Mildred Gillars did. After years of struggle, she finally made it in show business as one of the most infamous women in modern history: Axis Sally.
Nice Work if She Could Get It
While the nickname “Axis Sally” referred to at least two American women responsible for broadcasting Nazi propaganda during World War II, Gillars was the most famous and the only one brought back to the United States to be tried for treason. Her trial was a sensation, both because of her infamy and for her compelling personal story. The years she spent as a Nazi radio propagandist were the golden years for a woman whose life was marked by disappointments.
Mildred Gillars was born in Maine in 1900 and grew up mainly in Ohio. Her mother separated from her abusive, alcoholic father when she was six, and she grew up with a successful dentist for a stepfather. Her porcelain skin and raven curls drew admiration, as did the bright, stylish outfits other girls could not afford. From the time she was a teenager she’d been drawn to the stage, attending Ohio Wesleyan University primarily for their excellent dramatic arts department. She dropped out in her senior year to attend a for-profit acting school in Cleveland called Chronicle House.
Her parents refused to back this move in spirit or in dollars, so Mildred took a job as a salesgirl in a department store and then a waitress to pay her own expenses. Having finished her year at Chronicle House, the ambitious young woman boarded a train, heading east to try to make her mark in New York. The slim success she eked out as a showgirl and vaudeville performer faded by the end of her 20s. Her most famous performance was her involvement in an elaborate hoax meant to promote a film.
It’s an Ex-Pat’s Life for Midge
In 1929, Mildred got financial help from a man, sculptor Mario Korbel, to follow her generation’s artistic exodus to Paris. She spent six months on the Left Bank before returning to New York right on the eve of the Great Depression. Along with the American economy, her prospects took a nosedive. After two years, back to France she went, this time following an English Jew named Bernard Metz. A year or so later, her mother came to join her in Europe, and the two traveled together to Berlin. Her mother, unnerved by the political atmosphere in Germany, returned to the United States after a short time. Mildred stayed, having convinced her mother to pay for her to study music there.
Listen to an excerpt of Axis Sally
Music was not exactly Mildred’s strong suit. For that or some other reason, her mother stopped subsidizing this new pursuit. Luckily, Mildred found a place to live with an American named Claire Trask, and the Berlitz Language School hired her to teach English. By the end of the 1930s, she was doing fairly well. She was fluent in German, studying interpretive dance, and helping her friend in her job as a New York Times correspondent.
Soon, she was writing reviews of German films for Variety. At the behest of the German Propaganda Ministry, she fawned over these films, apparently unaware of the political nature of her work. But when Variety got squirmy about publishing anything along the lines of Nazi propaganda, Mildred’s publishing opportunities dried up. In 1939, the American actress-cum-film critic found herself in an increasingly uncomfortable situation in a country that was ramping up the war, along with its hostility toward non-Germans. Mildred once again found herself on the edge of poverty, ineligible for ration coupons and out of work.
Fortune would soon find her. The European Service of the Reichsradio Corporation — an arm of the Ministry of People’s Enlightenment and Propaganda — was in need of a clear American voice for its new USA Zone operation. At that time it was common for radios to have a shortwave receiver that could receive broadcasts from overseas. Having found success in broadcasting propaganda around the European countries, whose governments they were busy toppling, the German government hoped to do the same in America. In 1940, Mildred was asked to come to the Reichsradio studios in Berlin to audition. By that time, the down-and-out 39-year-old held little hope for the prospect. To her surprise, she was called back right away, and was hired to give station identifications and introduce records and musical performances. She was quickly promoted to hosting her own shows.
In the spring of 1941, the US consulate confiscated her passport, disgusted that she was not only asking to extend her stay with the Nazi regime, but was actually working for them. She could have returned to the United States with the other Americans being evacuated at the time, but she chose to stay. Back home she had no family and no prospects. Possibly under some duress, she signed an oath to Hitler in the days between the bombing of Pearl Harbor and Hitler’s declaration of war against the United States.
Her fate was sealed, and she soon became the Nazi golden girl and American icon known as Axis Sally. For years, her voice could be heard cooing treacherously to American soldiers in Europe, and appealing on behalf of Germany to their wives and mothers back home. Calling herself “Midge” on air, she eventually became the highest paid radio personality for the Overseas Service.
After the war, she was brought back to the United States and convicted of treason. She served 12 years of her 10 to 30-year sentence. When she was released, she moved into a convent and lived the rest of her life quietly as a nun and kindergarten music teacher. She died in poverty and obscurity in 1988.
Lucas, Richard. Axis Sally: The American Voice of Nazi Germany.
“Guilty of Treason!” Star Beacon, November 25, 2012. (http://www.starbeacon.com/news/local_news/guilty-of-treason/article_14043f09-96c7-592e-ba4f-aebe4eef9814.html)
“Radio Berlin Calling.” Radio Recall, February 2009. (http://www.mwotrc.com/rr2009_02/radio_berlin.htm)
Albrecht, Brian. “Ohio-bred Axis Sally’s journey from Nazi propagandist to federal pen to Columbus convent.” The Plan Dealer. (http://www.cleveland.com/books/index.ssf/2011/05/axis_sally_ohio-born_mildred_g.html)