A Woman on a Mission

Remembering Patricia Warner ’49, a WWII spy and Congressional Gold Medal recipient

By Anna Fixsen ’13JRN

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Recent headshot of Patricia Warner
Patricia Warner '49

Patricia Warner ’49, an alumna whose World War II spy missions were worthy of the silver screen, died September 26 at home in Lincoln, Massachusetts. She was 99 years old.

During her covert operations for the Office of Strategic Services (a forerunner of the CIA), Patricia went undercover as a flamenco dancer in Spain to recruit informants and collect intelligence. As noted in the Boston Herald, one of her sons used to call her “the last leaf on the tree” of these special female agents.

Patricia Rosalind Cutler was born May 21, 1921, to an affluent New York family. The Wall Street Crash of 1929 took its toll on the Cutlers’ finances, but they still managed to send Patricia to private schools, and she was photographed as a debutante in Vogue. Patricia soon met Robert Ludlow Fowler III, a Harvard grad and a member of the U.S. Naval Reserve, and they were married in 1942. 

But the fairy tale shattered almost as soon as it began. Robert was deployed to the South Pacific and was killed just a few months later in the Guadalcanal campaign. Patricia, 21 years old and pregnant, was devastated.

Patricia channeled her grief into action. In the spring of 1943, she joined the OSS, leaving her newborn, Robert IV, in New York with family and traveling to Washington, D.C., London, and ultimately Spain. “I asked, ‘Were you out for revenge?’” remembers Joe Dwinell, an editor for the Boston Herald who is writing a book about Patricia’s life. “She said, ‘Wrong word. I was out to finish what [Robert] started.’” 

Once in Madrid, Patricia went undercover in the unlikely guise of a flamenco dancer. She performed at bullfights, letting her heels stomp, her castanets clack, and her skirt swirl. “I just let myself go,” she told Dwinell. After, she flitted around bars to pick up shreds of information from loose-lipped Axis sympathizers and others and then relayed her findings to her superiors in Morse code.

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Patricia Warner in Spain dressed as a flamenco dancer
Warner in Spain, undercover as a flamenco dancer

Patricia completed her time with the OSS in the spring of 1945, but for much of her life, she kept her exploits a secret. In 2019, Patricia was recognized for her wartime service with the Congressional Gold Medal.

Spycraft marked just one chapter of Patricia’s extraordinary life. After her OSS tenure, she returned to New York and enrolled at Barnard to study international relations. She turned down a Fulbright scholarship and in 1951 married Charles G.K. Warner, a professor of French history and a schoolmate of her first husband. Academia took the Warners all over the country, but activism remained close to Patricia’s heart. In 1965, she participated in one of the historic marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, during which she apparently spent a night in jail, her family says.

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A young photo of Patricia Warner as a child in black and white
Patricia Warner as a young girl at the Chapin School in New York City
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A headshot of a young Patricia Warner when she entered Barnard
Warner’s ID photo when she entered Barnard

The family entered a trying period in the early 1970s when her daughter developed anorexia, a disorder that at the time wasn’t well documented or understood. Warner flung herself into existing literature and established the Anorexia Nervosa Aid Society in 1978 — then the only self-help group in New England for people suffering from eating disorders. Patricia, who was later recognized by President George H.W. Bush for her efforts, went on to write a memoir about her daughter’s battle with anorexia. 

Even as the years wore on and her second husband passed away in 2006, “she never [really] retired,” says Chris Warner, the first of her five children with Charles. Well into her 90s, Patricia was known for twinkling eyes, sharp wit, and lively games of backgammon and Scrabble. “Of all her causes, family was most important,” remembers granddaughter Addie Warner. And family and friends surrounded her to the end. The last time Joe Dwinell saw Patricia, he says, she squeezed his hand and said, “Never give up.”

Latest IssueWinter 2021

In this issue, learn about three alums who have devoted their careers to racial justice.