BY BRIAN LIBBY
In the new issue of Portland Monthly magazine, I had the opportunity to write about one of the more compelling personal stories that I've come across in my roughly 14 years as a journalist.
Claire Phillips ought to be one of the most beloved citizens this city has ever produced. And for a time in the 1940s and '50s, she was just that. But this woman, who was known alternately as "High Pockets" (for the secret messages stashed in her bra) or "Manila Mata Hari" for her daring exploits, has been forgotten by 99 percent of our citizenry.
Now, Cornelius, Oregon writer Sig Unander and a few others, including local architect and honorary Philippine Consulate Richard Woodling, have embarked on a quest to honor the memory of a woman who risked her life in World War II to spy on the Japanese. Someday, if things go well, there should be a statue to Claire in a prominent Portland locale. She is for all intents and purposes a war veteran and war hero, but because she never officially belonged to the American military, there has been no promotional machine or wave of historians to tell her story.
But this was not always the case. Claire Phillips was the subject of a 1951 Hollywood film called I Was An American Spy, starring Scarface moll Ann Dvorjak. She is the only woman from Oregon to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Her memoir, Manila Espionage, was briefly a national sensation. The popular radio show "This Is Your Life" devoted an episode to her, which included Claire being given a free home in Beaverton and a new Packard. But within a decade, Claire Phillips would be dead from alcoholism-related meningitis.
Back during the war, Claire Phillips owned a nightclub in Manilla while the country was occupied by the Japanese. She had created Club Tsubaki specifically for the purpose of luring Japanese officers there, to be pampered and liquored up in hopes they might divulge their secrets. Claire was beautiful and charming, but her husband had also been killed by the Japanese in a prison camp. She possessed the bravery of someone half-naive and half lusting for revenge. And her plans worked. An entire Japanese submarine squadron was once wiped out in the Pacific because of Claire's tip to American soldiers.
Here's a passage from the story, about the time when, as a cocktail lounge singer in another Manila club, a tortuous moment prompts Claire to come out swinging:
The party at Ana Fey’s nightclub starts to get wild. A Japanese civilian, surrounded by cronies at a corner table, all drunk on cocktails and a self-confidence born of conquering half the Pacific, decides he wants special attention.
He beckons the club’s Italian singer: the tall brunette with the sultry voice, high heels, and shimmering gown, who’s been entertaining Japan’s forces with romantic songs in English from Ana Fey’s tiny, spotlit stage. The patron wants the singer to bring him ice for his drinks personally. The singer demurs. The patron insists—even grasps the woman’s backside. She slaps him across the face.
No one did that to one of Emperor Hirohito’s subjects in occupied Manila. The men take the singer into the club’s back room and beat her; the orchestra plays more loudly to cover her cries. But even as the drunken soldiers teach the nightclub girl “a lesson,” their blows fail to dislodge wartime’s most valuable commodity: the truth.
The singer wasn’t Italian, but American, from a small city across the Pacific Ocean. And she was no mere club beauty, but a budding spy, working to eclipse the Rising Sun. Her real name was Claire Phillips. Her code name was High Pockets—in honor of secret messages she stashed in her bra. She was fighting in the fierce shadow-contest over a city that played a key role in the Pacific theater’s brutal chess match. So the beating Phillips suffered that night—not her worst ordeal, by a long shot—was just part of the job.
Claire had been raised in Southeast Portland and attended Franklin High School. But the city she knew was different from today: There weren't young people flocking here to create a kind of hipster Utopia. Portland was a quiet city of shipyards and saw mills. Claire Philips was a thrill seeker, and she left the city to join a traveling song-and-dance troupe before even finishing high school. As a result, I can't help but wonder if, somehow, the city failed her.
For generations, talented and ambitious people from painter Mark Rothko to foodie James Beard have had to leave if they sought fame and fortune. Today that drain of our best minds is not so large. But local history here has entire genre of such people who became expatriates. To honor Claire with a public memorial wouldn't just be a way of honoring a war hero and sexy spy, but a chance to acknowledge all those who have departed Portland to find adventure elsewhere.
Speaking of which, if a Claire Phillips monument does get built, where might it go? My first thought is the Rose Quarter. Of course Memorial Coliseum is already an architectural memorial to veterans. Why not put a statue of Claire Phillips, the woman Douglas MacArthur personally recommended for the Medal of Freedom, within a few feet of Oregon's biggest war memorial? A Claire statue could anchor a new riverfront esplanade beside the Broadway Bridge - a space currently used as a parking lot for Rose Garden employees. Or it could be part of a newly landscaped and activated space between the arenas. Either way, I think honoring one of the most dramatic and heroic of Portland stories dovetails seamlessly with our new reborn east side Mecca.
After all, Claire would class up the place, as this passage may indicate:
The Tsubaki Club enjoyed a view of Manila’s docks, which, in 1943, teemed with Japanese naval and merchant marine ships. It was the hot new place, opened by the Italian-born Filipino gal known as Madam Tsubaki, who used to sing at Ana Fey’s. Tsubaki also boasted Ana Fey’s former head dancer, Fely Corcuera, who was fluent in Japanese. (Meanwhile, an affluent Chinese businessman, along with Madam Tsubaki’s pawned diamond rings and watch, supplied the club’s initial stake.) Corcuera dressed in a kimono and regaled Imperial Navy boys with traditional Japanese songs. Afterward the floor show—with dancers wearing little more than gold satin G-strings, coconut shells, and headdresses fashioned with turkey feathers—went deep into the night.
And then there was Madam Tsubaki herself.
Six decades later, the writer Hampton Sides described the Tsubaki Club’s proprietress in his book Ghost Soldiers: “She … dressed in a white evening gown with a plunging neckline and a slit halfway up her thigh …. Her olive skin would glitter with jewels.” Each night, Madam Tsubaki greeted patrons and escorted them, as Sides tells it, “through the cream-colored bar, past the dancing stage with its curtains of lavender satin, to the rattan settees along the back wall.” There, Madam Tsubaki cuddled up with her club’s most prominent guests and asked questions in a pidgin of Spanish, Japanese, Tagalog, and English: When do you leave Manila? Where will you go next?
A saucy dance revue. Doting waitresses. Cocktails. What war-weary sailor wouldn’t relax and let a few details slip?
Claire's story wasn't all glamourous dance numbers and cocktail evenings, though.
Phillips spent her days—and her club’s profits—on another mission: smuggling food, notes, and medicine to American POWs held at the Cabanatuan prison camp outside Manila. For these men—sick, starving, prone to maltreatment and random execution—she was both a practical and emotional tether to the world. One imprisoned soldier wrote to Phillips: “You’ve done more for the boys’ morale in here than you’ll ever know … You deserve more gold medals than all of us.”
For her part, Phillips always signed her dispatches: “Yours in war, High Pockets.”
Eventually, the Japanese caught Phillips. Interrogators shot water into her mouth from a hose. “Guards held my head so that I could not move,” she wrote. “I held my breath. A Nip noticed this and hit me in the abdomen. I gulped the water down … drowning on dry land … then oblivion.” Captors burned her skin with cigars until she awakened. By the time American troops liberated her prison on February 10, 1945, she had lost 55 pounds.
If you'd like to get involved in the campaign to build a memorial and monument to Claire "High Pockets" Phillips, or if you or someone you know came into contact with Claire before her passing, please contact Sig Unander, the primary keeper of her flame, at email@example.com.