By Will Nash '20
St. Albans School has given rise to many leading politicians, scholars, and artists who have changed the world for good in a variety of ways. However, some alumni live in the annals of history for acts of infamy. Tyler Kent is one such alumnus.
Tyler Kent was born in the city of Yingkou, Manchuria, in 1911. His father was a member of the U.S. Diplomatic Corps, stationed as the U.S. Consul in Yingkou. Kent graduated from St. Albans School in 1929, and went on to attend Princeton University, majoring in history. He also studied at George Washington University, the University of Madrid, and the Sorbonne, where he mastered Russian. Upon finishing his schooling, Kent landed a job at the State Department and found himself stationed in Moscow from 1933 to 1936 as the cipher clerk to William C. Bullitt, the first U.S. Ambassador to the newly-formed Soviet Union. Kent soon came under suspicion from the Embassy staff for engaging in espionage for either the Soviets or the White Russians. Without any concrete evidence with which to prosecute, the State Department transferred him to the American Embassy in London in 1939. This decision proved to be ill-advised, as in his new capacity, Kent arguably had more access to classified information. As a cipher clerk in London, Kent handled direct communications between Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty at the time, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt. As soon as Kent arrived in London, he was frequently seen in the company of suspected German and Russian spies such as Ludwig Matthias, a possible German agent being tailed by Scotland Yard. One of his favorite haunts in London, the Russian Tea Room in South Kensington, was a known rendezvous for White Russians led by Admiral Nikolai Wolkoff, the former Imperial Russian naval attache, and his wife, a former maid-of-honor to the Tsarina. It was through Anna Wolkoff, their daughter, that Kent met Irene Danischewsky, the wife of a British merchant with Russian ties and incidentally the aunt of Helen Mirren the actress. The two struck up a relationship, and Danischewsky became Kent’s mistress and closest confidante. Through Anna Wolkoff, Kent also met Captain Archibald Maule Ramsay, a British Member of Parliament and a virulent anti-Semite. Ramsay was the founder and head of the Right Club, a group of anti-Semitic fascist sympathizers who sympathized with Adolf Hitler and opposed British entry into war with Nazi Germany. According to Ramsay in his autobiography, “The main object of the Right Club was to oppose and expose the activities of Organised Jewry, in the light of the evidence which came into my possession in 1938. Our first objective was to clear the Conservative Party of Jewish influence, and the character of our membership and meetings were strictly in keeping with this objective.” Through his friendship with Ramsay, Kent, an anti-Semite himself, became a member of the Right Club, and Ramsay later gave Kent a ledger that he called “the Red Book,” a list of all the 150 members of the Right Club, including many influential British politicians. At this time, Kent had been stealing classified documents from the American Embassy for more than a year, taking almost 2,000 official documents back to his flat and storing them in his filing cabinets. One night, Kent invited both Wolkoff and Ramsay to his flat to show them the secret documents. Anna Wolkoff made copies of the documents and sent them to the Nazis through the neutral Italian embassy. Through wireless messages intercepted by MI8, it is known that they were received by Vice Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, the head of the Abwehr, the Nazi military espionage service. However, unbeknownst to the conspirators, MI8 had infiltrated the Right Club and was able to trace the source of the leaks back to Tyler Kent. In a dawn raid on May 20, a unit of MI8 officers and policemen stormed Kent’s flat, discovered the trove of documents, and arrested Kent on charges of violating the Official Secrets Act. On October 23, after months of secret detention, Kent was tried in Old Bailey courtroom on charges of stealing documents that “might be directly or indirectly useful to an enemy" and later giving them to Wolkoff. He was also accused of stealing Ambassador Kennedy’s own documents and correspondences. On November 7, 1940, Kent was convicted and sentenced to seven years in prison on the Isle of Wight. Kent was eventually released in the autumn of 1945 and put on a boat from Tilbury back to England. Back in the United States, Kent married a wealthy divorcee and moved to Florida. With his newfound money, he purchased a pro-segregation Florida newspaper with links to the Ku Klux Klan. He continued to be a subject of suspicion for Soviet collaboration, with the FBI launching six investigations against him between 1952 and 1963, all proving inconclusive. In his later years, Kent’s luck took a downturn, and in 1988, Tyler Kent died alone and broke in a trailer park in Texas.