The party at Ana Fey’s nightclub starts to get wild. A Japanese civilian, surrounded by cronies at a corner table, all drunk on cocktails and a self-confidence born of conquering half the Pacific, decides he wants special attention.
He beckons the club’s Italian singer: the tall brunette with the sultry voice, high heels, and shimmering gown, who’s been entertaining Japan’s forces with romantic songs in English from Ana Fey’s tiny, spotlit stage. The patron wants the singer to bring him ice for his drinks personally. The singer demurs. The patron insists—even grasps the woman’s backside. She slaps him across the face.
No one did that to one of Emperor Hirohito’s subjects in occupied Manila. The men take the singer into the club’s back room and beat her; the orchestra plays more loudly to cover her cries. But even as the drunken soldiers teach the nightclub girl “a lesson,” their blows fail to dislodge wartime’s most valuable commodity: the truth.
The singer wasn’t Italian, but American, from a small city across the Pacific Ocean. And she was no mere club beauty, but a budding spy, working to eclipse the Rising Sun. Her real name was Claire Phillips. Her code name was High Pockets—in honor of secret messages she stashed in her bra. She was fighting in the fierce shadow-contest over a city that played a key role in the Pacific theater’s brutal chess match. So the beating Phillips suffered that night—not her worst ordeal, by a long shot—was just part of the job. Years later, after the war, Hollywood made a movie about this chanteuse/agent. In I Was an American Spy, the beautiful (but fading) star Ann Dvorak embodied Claire Phillips. Another character, a fellow singer, told her: “You’ve had a good time while it lasted, but there’s a war on.”
This year brings the 70th anniversary of America’s plunge into World War II. I Was an American Spy came out in 1951, at a moment when Phillips, an obscure—even troubled—woman from Portland, tasted national celebrity. Today, few people remember the only Oregon woman ever awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Phillips lived and died in worlds nearly lost to living memory: the war, the extraordinary acts of bravery it demanded, and America’s postwar zenith.
A small local group of historians and admirers believe Phillips’s candle deserves rekindling. “This woman was rock-star famous,” says Sig Unander, a local history buff, writer, and filmmaker. “And that makes it more poignant that she’s been forgotten.” Unander is at work on a book and documentary about Phillips, and hopes to inspire a memorial to this forgotten local heroine. The World War II generation has received many accolades. But few Portlanders’ service could outstrip the drama—or pain—of Phillips’s saga.
She was born in Michigan in 1907, and arrived in Portland as a young child when her stepfather, a marine engineer, came to work in a shipyard. By her teens, a natural wanderlust emerged. In a Franklin High School photo, young Claire looks out from beneath a tangle of youthful curls with a half-smile and a subtly mischievous gleam in her eye. She soon ran away to join a travelling circus, selling tickets to a snake charmer’s show. In later years, she learned on the job as a singer and dancer in Northwest clubs. Eventually, Claire joined a musical stock company touring Far East metropolises like Hong Kong and Manila.
She was impulsive and addicted to drama. These qualities didn’t make her the greatest daughter, mother, or solid citizen. But they would make her an excellent spy.
The Philippines was then America’s largest colony. Manila, a vibrant, garden-filled city, was one of the most popular Asian destinations for westerners—and the US military’s largest Pacific stronghold after Honolulu. As Asia’s busiest port, Manila blended native Filipinos, Americans, Europeans, and Chinese. Claire met and married a Filipino man. When the marriage turned sour, she fled back to Portland with their adopted daughter, Dian.