The mysterious Doll Shop Lady was a spy.

Velvalee Dickinson ran a nice little doll shop on Madison Avenue and spied for the Japanese.
Velvalee Dickinson ran a nice little doll shop on Madison Avenue and spied for the Japanese.

“She put up a scrappy little fight,” I said, as I showed a photo of the owner of a doll shop to my friend, Anthony.

“That mousey little woman was carried off kicking and screaming? Trying to gouge eyes and bite big burly men?” Anthony asked, as he looked at the image of a plain woman with thick-lensed glasses. She could have been a librarian or a Sunday school teacher.

“Yes, she was.” I grinned.

“It seems so odd that a person with a name like Velvalee would even think about being that aggressive.”

“Yes, and the whole intrigue was very much like the drama behind the lost bones of Peking Man.” The mystery around Peking Man is one of my favorite topics. I throw it out to discuss whenever I can.

Anthony did not disappoint. “You mean like when Janus tried to meet that other little woman on top of the Empire State Building to look at possible photos she had of the bones, and she ran away, frightened of being spied on, before he could get any information from her?”

“Yes, exactly—just that kind of eerie drama and intrigue—a real life drama that could play out on Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” I replied.

Anthony could not resist. “What was the drama that involved Velvalee?”

“She had been under surveillance for some time and in November of 1941, a nicely-attired Japanese man made a visit to her quaint doll shop on Madison Avenue and delivered a neatly wrapped small bundle to her. Important people were watching, shall we say, and they continued to watch. The man seemed nervous and rushed. He told her he might not be able to come again. Velvalee suggested that they meet in Honolulu next time. He replied, ‘No, no, not Honolulu,’ and was gone. This incident was how it was reported later in a 1944 edition of Saint Louis Sunday Morning.

“How very odd! What was in the bundle? Money?”

“Yes, they think it was a large payment. There were several reasons that the FBI was interested in Velvalee, and one of them was that operating her doll shop cost much more than it made. Yet, this widow woman was getting a lot of extra money from some secret source.”

Then Anthony wanted to know, “What other incidents caused suspicions about her clandestine activities?”

“It is rather complicated, but in January of 1942, some suspicious letters were returned in the U.S. mail and marked as undeliverable. They were sent from different areas of the USA, but were mailed to Senora Inez Lopez de Molinali. Postal censors grabbed them. All of the letters were bound for Argentina, and the American women who supposedly wrote them said they had not sent them, but admitted their penned signatures on the typed letters looked uncannily accurate. The suspicious letters had been turned over to the FBI by postal censors. What intrigued the FBI even more was that Argentina had become a fascist hot spot.”

“Something tells me Velvalee was behind them.”

I added a juicy tidbit. “Indeed, she was. They had all been written on typewriters that she had checked out to use from a hotel where she had once stayed, Hotel Peter Stuyvesant in Manhattan.”

“Well that was sneaky, but not infallible, eh? What was the content of the letters?”

“They all said something like, ‘I have three dolls you may be interested in. One is of an old fisherman with a net on his back, another is a lady-doll with wood on her back, and the third one is a child-doll.’”

“I take it this was a code?”

“Yes, she was trying to alert special agents in Argentina that there were three ships in San Diego harbor that were unknown to them. One was an aircraft carrier with an anti-submarine net, the next was a battleship with a wooden deck and the child-doll was a destroyer. She had information that they were undergoing repairs but would be in action again, soon. What Velvalee did not know is that the agent in Argentina had been hastily pulled out of the location before she knew it, and she sent the letters to that address, unaware.”

“How do you think this little mousey woman became involved in all of this espionage, anyway?”

I filled in some blanks. “She and her husband had once lived in California and became very friendly with Japanese clients of this third husband’s produce brokerage firm. They even joined the Japanese-American Society. When the brokerage collapsed and they were ousted from the society because they could no longer pay the dues, they were re-instated with the help of a Japanese diplomat.”

“Very interesting! What happened next?”

“This third husband of Vevalee’s, Lee Taylor Dickinson, became very ill, so they moved from San Francisco to New York City in 1937. She first got a job in the doll department at Bloomingdale’s and that is what gave her the idea to have her own doll shop. She ran it out of her apartment for awhile and then moved it to a storefront on Madison Avenue. She tried to appeal to big collectors and even took out ads in some ritzy magazines. After her husband died, in 1942, she had more free time to step up her Japanese ties and joined several Japanese clubs in the city.’

“This is so bizarre.”

“Yes, tiny, milque-toasty, Velvalee Dickinson, with a degree from Stanford was arrested in a Manhattan bank in January of 1944. She created quite a scene, screeched out the demand that she did not want to be photographed, and dramatically squealed that she wanted to be able to take her phonograph and record collection to jail with her. Request denied. She was being called by various rags, ‘The War’s Number One Spy,’ and was charged with espionage and violation of war-time censorship codes. She appeared in court, dressed to the nines, wearing white gloves. She provided histrionics for the judge and begged for mercy. She then accepted a deal. She got ten years and a $10,000 fine. She was paroled in 1951 and died without any notice in 1961, after working in a hospital for a few years.”

A few seconds lapsed then Anthony asked, “I wonder where she was getting the military information that she was trying to funnel to other people. Who was giving it to her?”

“That part is murky, or maybe classified. I never did understand that and I have read several accounts. The best information I have ever seen on the Velvalee Dickinson Case was written by Smithsonian author, David Sears and was published on March 2, of 2016. If you ever find out where she was getting the information, I would like to know, myself, of course.”

Sara Marie Hogg is the author of Quite Curious, a collection of stories about the unknown and unexplained.

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  • Caleb Pirtle

    Sara: I sometimes think that’s why we become writers. We see people every day and wonder what secrets they possess. When we find out, it is often shocking. But it’s another story waiting to be told.

    • Darlene Jones

      Truth is often stranger than fiction – and we build our fiction from it.

      • Sara Marie Hogg

        When I was a tot, I first overheard about the mysterious Ozarks rain barrel that overflowed itself as if by magic. Then there was a walnut storm in a nearby community. I was then hooked on this stuff and have remained so. Thanks, Darlene, for commenting.

    • Sara Marie Hogg

      I always do that in train stations and airports. During the Vietnam era, I spent a lot of time at Love Field, and I wondered about all the stories of the people I saw and what their fate would be. Thanks, Caleb.

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