I’ve noticed the same absence of an image in the case of my first cousin, Austin Caperton Brown, who died on the railroad track at Princeton, New Jersey on May 8th, 1954. Her obituary calls her death a suicide.
I heard of her only once, when my mother, around the time of Austin’s death, said she had been an unattractive young woman, who was so short-sighted she had to wear glasses and, when she took them off, ran into the furniture: she was “clumsy.” Yet a war-time letter from my father to my mother describes meeting Austin at a party at Cliveden, an English country house, and noticing, as she came down the stairs, that she looked very much like Mary Bingham. Austin was wearing one of her aunt’s cast-off dresses.
A few years ago, nibbled by the curiosity I feel when I come upon the traces of a woman who has been disappeared, I embarked on an attempt to find out what happened to Austin—whom I never met—with the able help of research provided by Sally Denton and Jim Hougan, both of whom know the ins and outs of archives and records and Freedom of Information requests.
Some fascinating hints were revealed: Austin’s parents—her mother was my mother’s oldest sister, Rose—couldn’t afford to send their bright daughter to college, and so my mother stepped in to fund her education at Radcliffe, Mary Bingham’s alma mater.
But this was after Austin spent several years during World War Two working in London and Brussels at the same time that my father was engaged in a variety of occupations in London. It is impossible to find out what Austin was doing, although it may have been some version of U.S. undercover work, a suspicion underlined by her going to work, later, for two CIA-sponsored radio programs in New York.
And that was after she dropped out of Radcliffe when my mother stopped paying her tuition. Mother was not pleased by Austin’s grades and also couldn’t understand her taking courses in Slavic languages and history—which perhaps prepared her for her work, after dropping out of Radcliffe, at Radio Liberty, the broadcasting station of The National Committee for a Free Europe.
There, she would have used her knowledge of Slavic languages to translate or even prepare propaganda broadcasts to countries behind the Iron Curtain as the Cold War swung into high gear.
She would have known various spies and double-agents and may have been privy to government secrets that put her at risk. This was also the time when the CIA was experimenting with LSD, dosing unsuspecting victims, which led to several suicides. And it was also the time when girls from Radcliffe, Smith and Wellesley were routinely recruited by the CIA to form relationships with Soviet diplomats at the U.N—Austin lived in an apartment close by—in the hope of their worming out secrets.
All of these possibilities make it seem likely that when Austin telephoned hr sister-in-law on the day of her death to complain that she was being pursued by the Soviet Secret Service, this was not a symptom of paranoia but a terrifying real-life threat which might have something to do with her decapitation on the Princeton railroad track.
Why is it interesting or worthwhile to continue to wonder about the fate of my first cousin?
First of all, because as a writer, I am committed to the truth, whatever form it might take. It seems unlikely that Austin died because she was short-sighted, or clumsy, or had to drop out of college. Of course there may have been some family conflict—she had come to Princeton to visit her mother, who was in the hospital, and was met by one of her brothers. Perhaps the family was beginning to suspect that she was gay, or protesting her unconventional lifestyle in New York. She was part of a perhaps “bohemian” theatre group in New York, and was writing plays; one of them, called “The Reckoning,” was published by Samuel French, quite an accomplishment, but it was never produced and has since disappeared.
What did she know, or fear, about a “reckoning”?
There is another reason to search for her story, and that is that we are living—again—in an age of extraordinary surveillance, the facts of our lives revealed electronically, and our fingerprints required if we are going to skip airport lines. Austin may have been a part of the government sponsored spying that has been a crucial part of U.S. history, blooming like some hideous cactus flower, set in thorns, during the Cold War, and continuing to flourish today. Many of us now accept government surveillance as a necessity and no longer question its aims—or the fate of perhaps innocent or naïve citizens who become its operatives.
Austin, coming down the grand staircase at Cliveden, Nancy Astor’s estate—known as a nest of spies—during a party at the height of the Second World War, wearing her aunt’s still-beautiful cast-off dress, may have felt that she was playing a part in a sort of romance: the romance of U.S. superiority which has seduced so many and continues to seduce today. She could never have imagined that, a decade later, she would meet a terrible death on the railroad tracks; or that her story would be rapidly submerged and her image lost.
All secrets cry out to be revealed, especially a secret which may have cost a woman her life.