Sam McManis

October 21, 2012

Discoveries: What's the code, Velvalee?

Far and away the most notorious traitor ever to trod on Sacramento soil, a truly despicable character bent on undermining all that was right and good in the world – no, Kings fans, we're not talking about a Maloof brother – is back to haunt our lives once more.


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Far and away the most notorious traitor ever to trod on Sacramento soil, a truly despicable character bent on undermining all that was right and good in the world – no, Kings fans, we're not talking about a Maloof brother – is back to haunt our lives once more.

But just until Saturday. Then she'll be lost in the mists of time, at least for another year.

She is Velvalee Dickinson and, unless you're a member of the Greatest Generation or some crack historian, the name probably means nothing to you. But once, she was Sacramento's gift to international espionage, an infamous divulger of state secrets, our very own Tokyo Rose.

This prim and proper woman, born in Sacramento in 1896 and a resident of our fair city until going away to college at Stanford, became known as the "Doll Woman" during World War II. She was convicted in 1944 of sending hidden messages about U.S. and allied naval maneuvers to Japanese agents in South America – though, to her dying day (circa, 1980), she denied doing so.

You can catch Velvalee, and hear her shameless dissembling of how she really was only a humble dollmaker and not a spy, at the final two performances of the Historic City Cemetery's annual "Lantern Tour," in which noted Sacramentans rise from the grave to tell their tales.

Actually, all the "performances" are sold out – this Halloween-themed spectacle is the Historic City Cemetery's most popular event – but if you can somehow scare up tickets (scalpers, maybe?) you really should check out Velvalee's story in all its Grahame Greenean noirishness.

Though she's not what necropolis folks would waggishly call a "permanent resident" of the Historic City Cemetery, Velvalee's parents are both buried there. So, the thinking goes, the daughter's spirit probably pays its respects on the grounds every once in a while.

Other historical Sacramento figures, such as coffee magnate Nathaniel Dingley and socialite Mary Woolsey, also will be on hand. And fortunately for ticketholders, Velvalee will appear Friday and Saturday night in the protean form of one Connie Clark, a longtime cemetery volunteer and an apparitional actress.

"I'm really just part ham and part cheese," she said.

Clark, 63, downplays her talent. Nobody can breathe life into the dead like she can. Folks are still talking about her show-stopping turn as heiress and celebutante Aimee Crocker at July's "Beer, Babes and Brawls" history event. This being a family newspaper, we can't get too explicit. Let's just say it featured a tête-à-tête between Aimee and a boa constrictor.

So, yeah, Clark really gets into her characters.

For Dickinson, it meant that Clark needed to comb declassified FBI records and extrapolate what possibly might have motivated this woman to turn against our country.

"That's the way we do it for our historical characters," Clark said. "We take the information we have on a person and the time period, and we build a story around it. Now, (Velvalee) was very upright. College- educated, graduated from Stanford. She looked like a school marm. She was not a pretty woman. I'm sorry. She wasn't."

What? Aren't all spies supposed to be dashing figures. You know, like, lethal Bond girls?

"Yes," Clark said, laughing. "And, of course, that's the way I look (in real life). "But Velvalee was very dowdy. Wore big, round glasses."

In a way, that's just the type of disguise a spy would want to cultivate. Don't draw attention to yourself. Of course, for a Stanford graduate, it seems Velvalee was one decoder ring short of a smart spy tool kit.

Velvalee's modus operandi, apparently, was to write letters to foreign agents using language hidden in missives ostensibly about dolls she sold. The envelopes bore the return addresses of her unwitting customers. When one letter came back "return to sender," the jig was up and the Feds came busting down Velvalee's door.

"She would write things like, 'I now have three wonderful Old English dolls that were (repaired) at a doll hospital,' " Clark said. "What the FBI actually figured out it meant was that there were three English warships being repaired and sent back to sea."

Because little is known of Velvalee, who avoided the death penalty in a plea bargain and disappeared after being paroled from prison in 1951, according to the FBI's website, Clark has had to employ some poetic license to get at the heart of the character.

"Velvalee is unique because she's from the 1900s and, usually, the stories are of people from the early days of the cemetery – 1850 to 1900," Clark said. "In Velvalee's case, I've got to be somewhat secretive and mysterious. Since her doll shop was on Madison Avenue in New York, I'm giving her a little bit of an upper- class (demeanor).

"But maybe she was resentful of (high-class New Yorkers) because she didn't have the success she felt she deserved. I've developed the character's attitude based on that."

Yeah, always count on a Sacramentan, even in death, to cultivate an inferiority complex, right?

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