On Oct. 21, 1940 — a little over a year before Japan launched a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, hurtling the U.S. into war — two men ambled down Sycamore Avenue to the Masquers Club, a still-active actors’ club founded by British expats in Hollywood in 1925, for its annual Trafalgar Day dinner.
One of them cut a dignified figure in a tuxedo. It was Alan Mowbray, an English film actor known for playing butlers and aristocrats.
Mowbray, then 44, was a busy man in Hollywood. In addition to his acting career, the World War I vet founded the British United Services Club (BUSC) of Los Angeles — a group of Col. Mustard types who’d gather at the Masquers Club in uniform to reminisce. (That club, too, is still in operation, and meets at the Altadena Town & Country Club.) In 1933, Mowbray co-founded the Screen Actors Guild, using his own savings to help fund the fledgling union.
The other man, an American, was a lot more rumpled than Mowbray. Mowbray said he was a screenwriter friend; in truth, it was FBI Agent Eddie Cochran. The plan was for Mowbray to introduce Cochran over dinner to the cliquish BUSC gang as his pal doing research on the British military for a script.
Cochran was there to observe one attendee like a hawk: Frederick Rutland. A fixture in Los Angeles Times society columns, Rutland, 54, was a smooth and dashing fellow, famous in his native England for being a World War I hero — among his daring feats, he was the first to successfully fly a plane from the deck of a warship, earning him the highest levels of military decoration.
Rutland — who settled in Hollywood in 1933 and maintained a well-to-do existence in a home on one of the Bird Streets of Beverly Hills — had come under FBI suspicion for some less-than-heroic activities. In September 1939, Mowbray quietly tipped off the feds that he suspected Rutland was involved in a spy ring for the Japanese, possibly stealing airplane and aircraft carrier plans and monitoring the activities of the U.S. Navy.
If the SAG founder was right, this was no ordinary spy. Rutland wasn’t the cloak-and-dagger type — he was one of the best known, and most well-liked, figures in L.A. society circles. “Squared jaw; well poised; highly intelligent; good personality; modest; gives appearance of affluence and breeding,” read the 300-page FBI dossier on Rutland, which was only recently declassified.
Less than two years after that dinner, on July 23, 1943, Rutland would be back in England facing a pair of MI5 interrogators, who grilled him about his activities in La La Land, according to a 3,000-page MI5 file declassified in 2000.
Who was funding his lavish lifestyle, affording him a butler, several cars and the finest private-school education for his children? What, exactly, was his relationship to the Japanese butler of a Hollywood superstar? And who was the mysterious Irishman he’d installed as a night janitor at the Lockheed warplane factory?
The answers to some of those questions would go to the grave with him. But Mowbray’s suspicions ultimately proved correct. Rutland was indeed spying for Japan.
His code name was Agent Shinkawa.
From early on, it was clear that Frederick Rutland was destined for greatness.
The son of a day laborer with no formal education, he joined the Royal British Navy in 1901 at age 15 as a “second class boy” and quickly rose through the ranks, ultimately becoming a major. By 30, he became internationally famous after he flew a seaplane off the HMS Engadine during the 1916 Battle of Jutland. That earned him the Distinguished Service Cross. Later in the war, he tied a rope to his waist, climbed down a moving ship and swam out to save a sailor who’d tumbled overboard. That earned him the Gold Albert Medal, First Class, “for extreme and heroic daring in saving the lives of others.”
But after an adultery scandal tarnished his reputation in the British military, Rutland saw no future in it and hoped to leverage his fame elsewhere. That opportunity arose when he was approached by Shiro Takasu, a Japanese naval attaché, in December 1922 with an attractive job offer. Rutland retired from the Navy in 1923 and moved to Japan for four years, where he earned a high salary as a consultant for Mitsubishi, teaching pilots how to land on aircraft carriers.
Relations between England and Japan were generally good at that time. Even so, red flags went off for British naval officers who noted on a trip to Japan that Rutland was treated as a VIP by the Imperial Japanese Navy, even given the seat of honor next to its highest-ranking general at a military parade. Rumors began circulating that Rutland was a traitor to the crown.
By 1928, he was back in London, working for his brother-in-law’s truck manufacturing company. “The guy was quite the thrill-seeking adrenaline junkie. He was just bored to tears,” notes Ron Drabkin, who is writing a book about Rutland. “Presumably, once you have flown a rickety 25-horsepower plane off of a large board placed on a battle cruiser turret, a quiet life as a salesman doesn’t appeal.”
The boredom lifted when Takasu reconnected with Rutland in London in 1931 and made another tantalizing proposition: How would he like to move to sunny Los Angeles and rub shoulders with movie stars as an emissary for the Japanese Navy? The City of Dreams, Japanese officials had determined, would be critical in any future wars, and having a man on the ground — particularly a decorated white man — would prove beneficial. Relations between the U.S. and Japan, who had fought on the same side in World War I, had been going steadily downhill since the 1920s after the U.S. banned Japanese immigration. Things got much worse with 1932’s Stimson Doctrine, a U.S. policy of non-recognition of territorial changes executed by force — introduced after Japan’s hostile conquest of Manchuria in late 1931.
“I don’t think that Rutland’s role in the U.S. is understandable without acknowledging the importance of race, namely the anti-Japanese sentiment and legislation in Hawaii and the West Coast [at that time],” says Max Everest-Phillips, who serves on the British diplomatic force, speaks Japanese and has written about Rutland. (Everest-Phillips points, for instance, to the hundreds of Japanese Americans who were placed under surveillance in Hawaii prior to the Pearl Harbor attacks.) “This determined the intelligence officers of the Japanese Navy to invest so heavily in a Western source.”
Rutland set out for Los Angeles in 1933 via ship, stopping in Japan along the way to meet with Japanese officials and discuss his mission. It was, according to Drabkin, “to set up and build his sources and network in the United States while reporting continually to Tokyo on U.S. war preparations. The orders to the spies were to get pictures and technical information on U.S. Navy ships and aircraft. Initially the biggest targets were Los Angeles, including Long Beach and the warplane factories in Santa Monica and Burbank. Hawaii, specifically Pearl Harbor, was also in the mix.”
It was decided by Takasu — who by then had been promoted from attaché to Japan’s director of naval intelligence — that Rutland would meet with Japanese officials once annually, at locales throughout the Americas and Asia. Between those visits, he’d send handwritten letters to a dead-drop address in Japan. Return communications to Rutland were sent to a post office box and always began, “Dear Fred,” and were signed, “Auggie.” In the event of war, he was to gather intelligence and deliver it to the Japanese embassy in Ottawa, Canada.
As Takasu informed Rutland in a top-secret memo, all communications were to occur outside the knowledge of the Japanese embassy in Washington to avoid detection. Rutland would be referred to in internal communiques as “Shinkawa,” a Japanese word meaning “new river.”
Rutland was to be paid 6,200 pounds sterling for his first year of service, the equivalent of $465,000 in 2021. (The person who issued his checks was Eisuke Ono, a Japanese banker who had recently emigrated to San Francisco. That same year, in 1933, Ono welcomed a baby daughter into the world: Yoko Ono, who’d later have her own significant role to play in British-U.S. relations.)
A few months after his arrival, Rutland was joined by his second wife, Dorothy, and his two children from a previous marriage, Freddie and Barbara. (The couple later had two children in L.A. — David and Annabel.) The following year, he founded Rutland, Edwards & Company, a stock brokerage with its offices on Sixth Street near the Los Angeles Stock Exchange. He purchased a house with a swimming pool on Warbler Place in the hills above Robertson Boulevard, joined a number of social clubs and enrolled his children in exclusive private schools.
According to FBI files, Rutland was popular among his peers and “always picked up the check” when they dined together. Still, fellow members of the British United Services Club couldn’t help but notice that he was the only stockbroker at the club who never tried to sell anyone any stock, according to Rutland of Jutland, a 1963 biography by Desmond Young.
Rutland made little secret of his ties to Asia — on the contrary, before one trip to Shanghai in 1939, reporters were invited to a “bon voyage” pool party that was covered in the Los Angeles Times — and, according to the FBI, he held regular badminton parties at his home for British and American naval officers, where he passed around canapés while keeping his ears attuned for developments.
His investment firm wasn’t Rutland’s only business endeavor. He also founded an aircraft-sales company and rented office space across the runway from the Douglas Aircraft Company plant in Santa Monica, offering him a front-row view of the new warplanes coming and going and giving him ample opportunities to chat with Douglas employees.
He did most of his socializing just west of the Douglas plant at the Del Monte Club on Windward Avenue, a Prohibition-era speakeasy founded in 1915 (which still operates as Townhouse, billing itself as “the oldest saloon in Venice”).
Rutland had no contacts at the Lockheed plant in Burbank, but the Japanese Navy was keenly interested in the goings-on there, as Lockheed was producing a cutting-edge, twin-piston engined fighter called the P-38. So Rutland, a skilled social facilitator, introduced himself to a Lockheed employee at the Del Monte Club, who told him they were hiring a janitor.
Rutland enthusiastically recommended Raymond Alexander Barry, an Irishman he knew through a friend, Frankenstein star Boris Karloff. Barry, a gruff former member of the Irish Republican Army, lived in a small flat in Hollywood, three blocks from Hollywood and Vine.
“He listed very impressive references on his job application, including Karloff and the brother of Douglas Fairbanks,” says Drabkin. “Clearly, he was in the Hollywood scene — but it was curious he would then decide to become a janitor in an airport factory at least 40 minutes away.”
Rutland pushed, saying Barry was a good man and badly needed the job, until the club member relented and hired him. Barry later became a target of keen interest to the FBI, as the secrets of the P-38 Lightning leaked not very long after his arrival at Lockheed, with information about the plane being listed in the 1939 German Manual of Aviation.
Takasu’s successor, Arata Oka, later lost a briefcase containing Rutland’s name during a drinking binge; it fell into MI5’s hands and landed Rutland atop its spy watch list.
Also mentioned in the FBI files is Toraichi Kono, longtime butler and body man to Charlie Chaplin. The silent-film star was a Japanophile who toured the country with Kono in 1932. (Chaplin was nearly killed on that trip when a coup d’etat erupted and Prime Minister Inukai Tsuyoshi was assassinated. The 11 naval officers behind the plot hoped that also killing Chaplin would start a war with the U.S. But Chaplin decided at the last minute to watch a sumo wrestling match with the prime minister’s son, sparing his life.)
“After that, they went back to the States,” says Hiroyuki Ono, a Kyoto-based film historian and author of a 2009 biography of Kono. “Then Chaplin met Paulette Goddard. And Kono did not get along with Paulette Goddard. So he quit the job.”
Seeking a new source of income, Kono exploited his wide network of Japanese sources in Los Angeles to become a spy for the Axis nation, an FBI investigation concluded. (There are some who dispute this interpretation, including Ono, his biographer, who feels Kono was coerced into signing a confession and only wished to be a bridge between American and Japanese cultures.)
In the fall of 1940 at the San Francisco World’s Fair, Kono ran into Al Blake, a vaudevillian actor he’d met on the set of Chaplin’s 1918 World War I comedy Shoulder Arms — a reunion that would ultimately lead to Rutland’s downfall.
Both men lived in apartments in Hollywood at the time and struck up a friendship. Six months before Pearl Harbor, Kono introduced Blake to a friend in the Hollywood Hills. The friend introduced himself as a “Mr. Yamato,” and asked Blake who his closest contact was in the U.S. Navy. (Mr. Yamato was, in fact, Itaru Tachibana, a Japanese spy.)
Blake said he knew a yeoman named Jimmie Campbell serving on the USS Pennsylvania, a battleship docked at Pearl Harbor. But Blake was lying. He went to the Office of Naval Intelligence and reported the two Japanese men.
Thus began a risky counter-espionage maneuver in which Blake met up in a Honolulu hotel room with a bogus Jimmie Campbell, with both men fully aware of the Dictograph planted by Japanese intelligence in the arm of an armchair capturing their every word. That provided enough evidence to arrest both Kono and Tachibana in a raid at the Olympic Hotel in L.A.’s Little Tokyo in June 1941.
How Rutland connected to all of this was revealed 80 years later when the FBI dossier was declassified: Among the materials found in Tachibana’s hotel room was a note “concerning a contact and meeting which Tachibana had at the home of Major Frederick Joseph Rutland.”
J. Edgar Hoover’s men at the FBI, following Mowbray’s tip, had wiretapped Rutland’s phones — they operated out of the Associated Telephone Company, a 1937 art deco building in Santa Monica that now houses the restaurant Cassia — and were confident they had the goods on him.
By November 1940, the Japanese Navy was moving staff, funds and espionage plans to Mexico in anticipation of a war. An informant had tipped the FBI off that Rutland was in the process of setting up a spy operation in the small border town of Mexicali, Mexico, under the guise of a bottling plant. Rutland had already driven across the border several times to meet up with Japanese agents stationed at a Tijuana brothel called the Molino Rojo, with FBI agents tailing him the entire way.
The agency was ready to move in on its man. But the Office of Naval Intelligence intervened. The orders came from Capt. Ellis Zacharias, the Southern California ONI chief, who stunned the G-men by revealing that Rutland had been working with him as a double agent.
“CAPTAIN ZACHARIAS HAS BEEN IN CONTACT WITH SUBJECT [Rutland] FOR PAST YEAR AND SUGGESTS NOTHING FURTHER BE DONE UNTIL ZACHARIAS HAS OPPORTUNITY TO DISCUSS SUBJECT,” read a teletype message from Zacharias’ office. “ADVISE IF NEW CIRCUMSTANCES HAS MADE ADVISABLE REOPENING CASE.”
From there, Rutland’s cat-and-mouse jig was up. After spending 20 days in jail, Kono and Tachibana were released. Hoping to avoid war with Japan at any cost, State Department officials decided not to prosecute all three men for espionage, as a big spy trial would have dominated headlines and inflamed tensions.
Kono was placed in a Japanese internment camp — along with 120,000 American citizens of Japanese descent who were swept up in the racist paranoia of wartime. There, he operated the projector on movie nights, like he’d done for screenings at Chaplin’s estate. He was not released until seven years later, in 1948.
Tachibana was returned to Japan in the summer of 1941, where he became a key architect of the Pearl Harbor attacks, using what he’d learned in the U.S. to pinpoint the timing for maximum damage.
As for Rutland, he posed a unique problem for both the U.S. and British governments. Save for that teletype from Capt. Zacharias, details of his supposed counterespionage activities on behalf of the Americans are virtually nil. By contrast, the MI5 and FBI dossiers tracking his suspicious and potentially treasonous movements amount to nearly 5,000 pages.
Specifics about his re-entry into the United Kingdom on Sept. 30, 1941, remain classified to this day. “The details of his return are for the most part redacted from the FBI files,” notes Drabkin. What is known is that he was transported by plane at a period of great danger, when German U-boats prowled the Atlantic and air travel was highly restricted. It is clear, Drabkin continues, “that he had the VIP treatment.”
Back in England, he started out as a free man, as there was no proof he spied against his homeland. He endured his MI5 interrogations, explaining that he was totally innocent because during the time in question, Britain and Japan were not yet enemies. And furthermore, he said, he took Japan’s money but gave them nothing in return. He even offered to return to Mexico and double-cross the Japanese by feeding them false intelligence.
But then Pearl Harbor happened, and Rutland was ordered detained under Defence Regulation 18B. The former World War I flying ace and national hero was thrown into Brixton Prison with a sordid array of fascist sympathizers and suspected Nazi spies. He remained there for two years until December 1943.
Rutland never returned to the United States, where his wife and children remained. (Several American descendants are thought to exist, but attempts to reach them proved unsuccessful.) Disgraced and despondent, on Jan. 28, 1949, Rutland took his own life by inhaling gas.
In a suicide note addressed to his eldest son, he wrote: “My life has been an adventurous one, always full of excitement. I have always told myself that so long as life was worth living, I would live it to the full, and when it no longer held any real interest, it would be time to go.”
This story first appeared in the Jan. 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.