Words, Wars, Weddings


From the time Leo Marks was a boy, he yearned for the world of secrecy, deceit and camouflage. At the age of eight, he discovered the game of code-making and -breaking in his father’s London bookshop, after stumbling across an edition of Edgar Allen Poe’s, The Gold-Bug.

As World War II was being played out in earnest, the young Mr. Marks, now a strapping twenty-three-year-old lad, hoped to use his strengths for the Allies, but found his mission circumvented when he failed to get into British Intelligence’s cryptographic department. As everyone else on his course heads off to Bletchley Park (“the promised land”), he is sent to what his sergeant terms “some potty outfit in Baker Street, an open house for misfits.”

Nevertheless, as the aspiring code breaker tells it in his famed and wonderfully humorous memoir Between Silk and Cyanide: A Codemaker’s War 1941 – 1945, he was right in the thick of it, “a prodigy immersed in a pasty world of subterranean old men.” Assigned with monitoring code security, common wisdom held at the time that it was easiest for men and women in the field to transmit messages by memorizing and using well-known poems.

Unfortunately, since the Germans had equal access to the classics, particularly poems, Marks readily pointed out to his doddering colleagues that “Reference books are jackboots when used by cryptographers,” insisting, instead, that agents should write their own poems (or better yet, use his), several of which were cheerily obscene.



The title of Marks memoir was taken from a question posed to the codebreaker when asked why Europe should have their cryptographic material written on silk, which was in very short supply. (Codes printed on silk and hidden under clothing was undetectable in a pat-down, whereas paper was easy to detect). Marks wryly replied that it all came down to being “between silk and cyanide,” meaning that swaths of silk would save his agents from swallowing their “optional extra,” a cyanide capsule.



Ultimately, WOKs (worked-out keys) printed on silk replaced the older methods of transmission, with code breakers composing their own original poetic creations.

“The Life That I Have” (sometimes referred to as Yours) was just such a coded poem composed on Christmas Eve 1943, originally written by Marks in memory of his girlfriend Ruth, who had recently died in a plane crash in Canada. “I transmitted,” he writes in his memoir, “a message to her which I’d failed to deliver when I’d had the chance.”



In a curious twist of events, Marks subsequently passed the poem on to Violette Szabo, an Allied secret agent during WWII, who was eventually captured, tortured and killed by the Nazis. It was made famous by its inclusion in the 1958 movie about Szabo, Carve Her Name with Pride, where the poem was said to be the creation of Violette’s husband Etienne.

The deceptively simple poem was to be made famous again, a little over a fortnight ago at the opulent Astor Courts estate, a private Beaux-Arts mansion overlooking the Hudson River in upstate New York, when the decades-old poem was included in the wedding nuptials of former President Bill Clinton’s daughter, Chelsea to Marc Mezvinsky. The 1943 poem “The Life That I Have” by WWII cryptographer Leo Marks was read aloud by a friend of the couple:



“The Life That I Have”


The life that I have
Is all that I have
And the life that I have
Is yours

The love that I have
Of the life that I have
Is yours and yours and yours.

A sleep I shall have
A rest I shall have
Yet death will be but a pause
For the peace of my years
In the long green grass
Will be yours and yours and yours.


Czech Republic, Prague, painting of old town square at night; 19th century, Jacob Johann Verreyt (1807-1872), Muzeum Hlavniho Mesta Prahy (Prague Museum)
Woman in Dark Robe, Photograph: Jim Ballard, Getty Images
Remaining Photos: Random




~ by eaesthete on 08/14/10.

9 Responses to “Words, Wars, Weddings”

  1. Poe would have loved this tale with the surprise ending as much as I have. BRAVO !

  2. Leave it to you to dig deep and find the words, the words, the words.

  3. Joan,

    Indeed! Poe would so have loved it.



    Oh dear, I do hope this is not to mean I’ve become a bit of a chatterer.

  4. Not a chance my friend. I enjoy every word in every post.

  5. What an intriguing article. I must read the bbok. Thank you.

  6. How fascinating!
    Like him, I am forever inspired by Poe’s work too. In fact I am reading “tales of mistery and imagination” {again}.

  7. What a silky smooth story. I hope the movie is as moody as that first painting. Makes me think a bit of Enigma, but it may be better than machine-made.

  8. Great story. Beautiful sentiment.

  9. The poem is beautiful. Love the story behind it and now it’s in the 21st Century thanks to a prominent wedding. Romantic, raw, sad. I don’t think spying was as glamorous as we imagined in our youth.

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