Velvalee Dickinson, a Stanford grad who’d worked in the financial industry, moved to New York City from San Francisco in 1937, where she soon opened a shop that sold collectible dolls. But by 1942, she’d added a third entry to her resume — or at least she really, really tried to: spying on behalf of Japan.
Velvalee’s interest in Japan stretched back to her West Coast days, when she and her husband ran a brokerage firm that worked with Japanese farmers and truck drivers; through those connections, she met Japanese diplomats and military officials. She was a confirmed fan of Japanese culture, too, according to Historynet:
The only flamboyant streak in her life was her conspicuous habit of attending social functions at the Japanese consulates in San Francisco and New York, clad in traditional Japanese attire. She had apparently found an entrée into Japanese American social circles through the many Japanese farmers in California who were customers of the brokerage business, and soon she was entertaining consulate officials in her home as well.
Her husband — who’d been helping her run the Velvalee Malvena Dickinson Doll Store, located at 718 Madison Avenue — passed away from a heart ailment in 1943. By then, she’d built up a decent mail-order business for her dolls ... and she was already on her home country’s radar for participating in what seemed like some mighty fishy business. The FBI’s blog entry on her notes:
The FBI’s interest in Mrs. Dickinson stemmed from a letter about dolls intercepted by wartime censors because of its unusual contents and brought to the Bureau’s attention in February 1942. The letter, purportedly from a Portland, Oregon woman to an individual in Buenos Aires, Argentina, dealt with a “wonderful doll hospital” and observed that the writer had left her three “Old English dolls” for repairs. Also mentioned in the letter were “fish nets” and “balloons.”
FBI Laboratory cryptographers examined the letter and concluded that the “three Old English dolls” probably were three warships and the doll hospital was a shipyard where repairs were made. They further concluded that the fishing nets referred to submarine nets protecting ports on the West Coast and that the reference to balloons was intended to convey information about other defense installations on the West Coast.
The Portland woman’s letter, it turned out, was not an isolated curiosity, as four other women reported receiving mysterious return-to-sender missives, typewritten with what were later found to be forged signatures. The only thing the women had in common was their interest in dolls — and the fact that they’d all done business with a certain New York City doll merchant.
The FBI matched one of the letters to Velvalee’s own typewriter, and based on the postmarks, they were able to trace the others back to typewriters made available to hotel guests in cities up and down the West Coast. Hotels that the Dickinsons had juuuuuust happened to have been visiting at the time the letters were sent in early 1942.
What the aspiring spy didn’t realize is that her Buenos Aires connection had fled after a blown cover, hence all those “Address Unavailable” bouncebacks, which meant that her Japanese contact was robbed of the chance to parse Velvalee’s her doll-themed coded missives:
“I just secured a lovely Siamese Temple Dancer, it had been damaged, that is tore in the middle, but is now repaired,” read one. Another told of receiving “an old German bisque Doll dressed in a Hulu Grass skirt.”
It didn’t take FBI analysts very long to match up the “dolls” with recent U.S. naval ship movements into and out of repair yards on the West Coast. The dolls’ nationalities referred to the type of ship (Siamese were aircraft carriers); the doll with the hula skirt matched a ship recently arrived in Seattle from Hawaii.
But Velvalee’s real downfall came when the FBI started looking into her finances. Despite attracting customers from around the country, she’d been struggling and borrowing money ... until 1942. In 1943, four $100 bills in her possession were traced to Japanese officials. A subsequent search of her safe deposit box revealed $13,000 in similarly traceable bills; the trail led directly to Yuzo Ishikawa of the Japanese Naval Inspector’s Office in NYC.
The FBI arrested Velvalee in January 1944; after a plea deal was reached, she admitted to sending the Argentina-bound letters, and that her primary contact had been Japanese Naval Attaché Ichiro Yokoyama, who’d solicited her spying services on a visit to her doll store in November 1941. (She also blamed the whole thing on her late husband, though the FBI found evidence to the contrary.) In August 1944 she was sentenced to 10 years and a $10,000 fine, and was paroled in 1951. Her post-release activities (did she return to the world of dolls??) are unknown.
Images via Fbi.gov