Alumnus Michael Burke’s life reads like an adventure story—
several of them, actually.
BY DENNIS DRABELLE | Illustration by David Hollenbach | PDF download
My candidate for the most visceral prose ever written by a Penn graduate is this firsthand account of parachuting in World War II: “The hole in the plane’s belly through which one jumped looked like a straight-sided water barrel. One at a time we were to swing our legs into the hole, feet together, rump edged forward on the rim, one hand beside each thigh, palms down against the deck, head up and, at the jump master’s command, push off, snapping the body straight, standing at attention in space, head up, dropping straight as a candle, holding an attention posture as we dropped, waiting for the static line attached to the plane to snake the silk canopy out of the canopy’s pack strapped to each back and for the rush of air to fill it out.”
That kinetic passage—embellished by a warning not to look where you’re going (i.e., down), lest your body go “tumbling end-over-end”—comes early in Michael Burke W’39’s memoir, Outrageous Good Fortune. Burke, who attended Penn on a football scholarship when that freebie was still licit, possessed virtually every skill that a go-getter needs: athleticism, charm, articulateness in person and on paper, and an eye for the main chance. His stomping grounds included New England, Philadelphia, several countries on the European continent, Hollywood, Manhattan, and eventually the Ireland of his ancestors; his career encompassed spy-craft, the movies, the circus, major-league baseball, and showbiz; his friends included Ernest Hemingway, Gary Cooper, and Marianne Moore. By the end, Burke had racked up a series of jobs and experiences about which most boys—and men—can only daydream.
Michael Burke was born to middle-class parents (his father was a Yale Law grad) in 1916. As a boy in small-town Connecticut, he excelled at baseball and basketball. But in high school another sport took precedence: he became “possessed by football.” Courted by several colleges, he chose Penn after visiting the campus and being wowed by the grandeur of Franklin Field. At the time, the university as a whole was possessed by football: “In our senior year,” Burke recalled, “Penn played before more people than any other college in the nation except the University of Southern California.” That same year (1938), against Cornell, Burke covered himself with glory by making two pass interceptions—“twice Brad Holland, Cornell’s All-American end, and I leaped for the ball together; both times I came down with it”—as the Quakers played the heavily favored Big Red to a scoreless tie.
“You’ve got to be a football hero,” the old song goes, “to get along with the beautiful girls”—and, the lyricist might have added, “to get ahead of the scrambling boys.” A few years after graduating—now married and selling maritime insurance in New York City—Burke was invited to a dinner party in Washington, DC. There he met “Wild Bill” Donovan, a former Columbia quarterback who had seen Burke play. In short order, the younger man agreed to go to work for Donovan’s Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the CIA.
At a time (1943) when Donovan needed a victory to overcome bureaucratic resistance to him and his new agency, Burke gave him one. He went on a mission to smuggle out of Italy an admiral named Eugenio Minisini, who had invented “an electromagnetic device for detonating torpedoes as they passed beneath the hull of a ship.” With his country about to be invaded by the Allies, Minisini agreed to place himself in US custody rather than let his technology fall into German hands. Burke helped the admiral elude the pursuing Gestapo, but his real contribution was to fly back to Washington and persuade Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox to authorize use of military aircraft to whisk Minisini and his family to the States.
A year later, Burke’s wartime service reached its apogee. Applying the technique outlined in the first paragraph of this article, he and a colleague parachuted into Alsace after the D-Day invasion. On being surrounded by members of the French Resistance, Burke managed to remember his password: Le renard a couru (the fox has run). At the time, the region was still German-occupied—a burden that Burke was assigned to help lift. Encountering the Americans, an elderly Frenchwoman teared up and said, “To think that General Eisenhower has sent two officers to free our little village.” Other local women had an ulterior reason to be pleased: they couldn’t wait to get hold of the Americans’ silk parachutes and turn them into underwear.
Burke’s account of the danger-filled weeks he spent as a guest Resistance fighter is moving and piquant. The most memorable vignette occurs when he and a French colleague enter a hurriedly abandoned Gestapo office and notice three photos hanging on the wall: one of Hitler, one of Himmler, and one of Claude, the very man standing at Burke’s side, under whose picture the legend “greatest terrorist of the region” had been scrawled. “Claude smiled shyly,” Burke writes, “half-embarrassed, half-pleased.” While recounting the deaths of several comrades and some close calls of his own, Burke conveys the constant wariness felt by those who operate behind enemy lines: “If this tension were a sound it would be the single shrill note of a piper playing at a distance, audible if you stopped to listen.”
Between missions, Burke barhopped in Paris with Hemingway, who called him “kid,” and got to know a fellow OSS man named Moe Berg, who has become renowned for the variegated hats he wore: major league baseball player, lawyer, superspy. One of Berg’s intelligence coups dated back to the 1930s, when, Burke noted, as “a private citizen lecturing at the University of Tokyo, Moe used the hospital room of the wife of the American consul, whom he didn’t know, to get access to the hospital roof and took panoramic film shots of the city with a 16-mm Bell and Howell movie camera. It was his film that General Doolittle used [in] planning his famous bombing raid on Tokyo in 1942.”
When the war ended, the adventure quotient of Burke’s life declined markedly. His marriage was ending too, and in a glum mood he moved into the Penn Club in Manhattan. There he got another of his lucky breaks: a phone call asking if he would like to be a consultant on a movie about espionage. Off to Hollywood he went.
While training to become a secret agent—a regimen that had entailed learning how to send a message by wire, wrangle a collapsible lifeboat, and fire a submachine gun—Burke had marveled at the boy’s adventure aspect of it all: “I felt like a character out of a low-budget film or novel.” Now, along with another OSS grad, a Dutchman named Andries Dienum, he was advising the great German émigré director Fritz Lang on the not-so-low-budget “Cloak and Dagger,” starring Gary Cooper and Lilli Palmer.
Lang was especially keen on bringing a fresh approach to a scene in which one man kills another with his bare hands. In his biography of Lang, Patrick McGilligan describes the pretend mayhem that developed one night as the two ex-spies tried out bare-handed holds at the director’s behest. “After dinner, Burke and Dienum … rolled around on the floor for what seemed like hours, Dienum remembered, acting out variations of weaponless struggle. The director hovered over them, ‘making a square with his fingers,’ in Dienum’s words, ‘to get the shots’. … According to [actor] Marc Lawrence, the fight was described by a single line in the screenplay. On the set, Lang spent six days filming the scene, ‘using extreme close-ups of my fingers poking and tearing at Gary’s mouth and distorting parts of his face.’”
Burke had looked good enough inside the square of Lang’s fingers to warrant a screen test, but the only comment made by the producer who watched it was, “Jesus, you’re a tall son of a bitch,” and that was that.
Life in Hollywood had its perks. Burke met the woman who became his second wife, and when the Navy gave him a medal for his war exploits, the Warner Bros. wardrobe department supplied him with a uniform in which to receive the award as Cooper looked on. But a lack of steady work sent Burke to New York, where he wrote for radio, provided subtitles for foreign films, and borrowed money from his dad to make ends meet. Now in his early thirties, Burke credited himself with “two skills: football and guerrilla warfare. It was too late by far for football, so when the knock came at the door, I was prepared to become a mercenary in the underground war.”