April 4, 2009
Kay Gimpel grew up on the Prairie, fled the restrictive
imperatives of the Depression for the cultural capitals of
England and France and spent the war in London, working for
the Special Operations Executive as an increasingly
significant interpreter and liaison for Allied agents behind
Life was treacherous but acute, because social niceties,
such as chaperones, had been suspended, and death was a
concrete, full frontal reality, rather than an amorphous
concept. As Ms. Gimpel said later, "most of the agents who
went overseas never came back, so you lived for the moment."
That toll included Frank Pickersgill, her friend from the
University of Manitoba, who was tortured and hanged with
piano wire from a meat hook at Buchenwald in September,
"She really was my mother's best, truest, closest friend,"
Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff said, describing the era in
which his mother, Alison Grant (later Ignatieff), and Ms.
Gimpel lived together in London and worked in various
branches of the secret service as "the most important years"
in either of their lives.
"There was a strong sense of being where history was
happening, bombs were falling, ultimate things were on the
line and they were there working with extremely brave men
and they were extremely brave women. It was the making of
them both. They never glorified it, they never romanticized
it, they didn't even talk about it that much" he said.
Initially, the flawlessly bilingual Ms. Gimpel worked as a
junior officer in RF, the section of SOE that worked with
the Free French Forces supporting General Charles de Gaulle,
briefing agents on what they could expect to find on the
ground in France. "This was mere routine, but from the
agents' point of view it was jolly useful," said M. R. D.
Foot, official historian of SOE, the wartime British
sabotage organization set up by Winston Churchill in July,
As the war progressed, Ms. Gimpel moved on to AL (Air
Liaison), eventually heading the section, the only woman to
have such a senior position, said Mr. Foot.
"Her job, which was very difficult, was to provide the link
point between SOE's demands for air help and what the air
forces could supply. There were two squadrons of Bomber
Command practically entirely devoted to working for SOE and
eventually four squadrons of the United States Army Air
Force," he said. "It was her job to tell the air men
precisely where to go, and when I say precisely, I mean
which field in which to drop their stores. Scores of
thousands of Resisters in France and Belgium and Holland
owed their weapons and their supplies to arrangements made
When peace finally came, she married Charles Gimpel, a
Resistance fighter and concentration camp survivor.
Together, with his younger brother Peter, they opened and
ran a London art gallery, Gimpel Fils, showcasing post-War
avant-garde paintings and sculptures by artists such as
Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson and Alan Davie.
Almost certainly it was Ms. Gimpel who sparked her husband's
interest in the Canadian Arctic and the gallery's decision
to celebrate the coronation of Elizabeth II by hanging the
first show of Inuit art, then known as Eskimo art, in London
That exhibition, only four years after the Canadian
Handicrafts Guild in Montreal had its sensational first sale
of carvings from the North by artist and collector James
Houston, was the first sampling Europeans had of the
elemental beauty of Inuit art.
Later, Mr. Gimpel made six treks to the Canadian Arctic,
"rambling with my camera," as he described it. His
photographs and essays were published in magazines and
displayed in exhibitions and eventually collected in Between
Two Cultures, with a biographical text by cultural historian
Ms. Gimpel "was the main spring of the Gimpel gallery," said
Mr. Foot, pointing out that it was Ms. Gimpel who insisted
that all gallery transactions be conducted in Swiss francs.
"No other currency was accepted," he said. "In the period of
ups and downs with the pound sterling and for the dollar,
the Swiss franc remained dead steady and the Gimpel
gallery's income also remained dead steady."
Kathleen (Kay) Moore was born in 1914, the middle child and
only daughter of Harold Henry Moore, an Irish-born
journalist and his wife Katherine Helen Chapman. Her
parents, who had met at The Mail and Empire newspaper in
Toronto where he was a reporter and she a secretary,
eventually settled in Winnipeg where Mr. Moore worked at the
Winnipeg Free Press as a reporter and then as an editorial
writer. When Kay was 8, her younger brother Terrence died of
diphtheria. Not long afterward, her desolate mother began a
slow, painful decline from kidney disease - taking to her
bed and sometimes holding Kay in her arms, fantasizing that
she was embracing her dead son. Mrs. Moore died in an
institution in 1930.
In his own grief, Kay's father, who had served as a major in
the forestry corps in the First World War, tried to run the
household on a military model with his teenage daughter as
an unofficial second-in-command - a role that she, a
high-spirited and independent girl, found onerous. Porridge
was only one of the issues that divided them. He insisted
there was no better way to start the day, while she loathed
After high school Kay went to the University of Manitoba in
the early 1930s where she studied French language and
literature, and graduated with such distinction that she
went to Paris on a scholarship in 1936 to study at the
Sorbonne. Even there, in the city of light, there were
frustrations because she, a foreigner and a woman, was not
allowed to do primary research in the national archives.
She stayed in Paris after finishing at the Sorbonne, working
at the British embassy and living in the Hotel Lenox with
Mary Mundle, a Scottish woman, according to historian
Jonathan Vance in his book about Frank Pickersgill and Ken
Macalister, Unlikely Soldiers: How Two Canadians Fought the
Secret War Against Nazi Occupation.
After Germany invaded France in May, 1940, the embassy was
evacuated and Ms. Moore and Ms. Mundle sailed for England.
Ms. Moore joined the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY),
which was really a front for her involvement with the SOE.
Ms. Moore and Ms. Mundle, who also worked for the RF Section
of SOE, shared living quarters - three floors above a dairy
at 54A Walton Avenue in Knightsbridge - with Alison Grant,
who had arrived from Toronto in the mid-1930s to study art
on a Massey family scholarship, and was now attached to
Military Intelligence Section 5 (MI5).
Their flat, dubbed the Canada House Annex, was approved as a
"safe" house by SOE and became a meeting place for many
agents looking for a few days ease before going to the
continent or returning from a mission.
Besides Mr. Pickersgill and Mr. Macalister, one of them was
probably Ernest Gimpel, the Jewish Resistance fighter for
the Free French, whose code name was Charles Beauchamp.
Born Aug, 5, 1913, in France, he was the elder son of René
Gimpel, an art collector and dealer and friend of Monet,
Proust and Renoir, and his wife, Florence Duveen, the
youngest sister of English art dealer Joseph Duveen. After
doing his French military service in North Africa as a
trooper in the turbaned chasseurs d'Afrique, Ernest Gimpel
lived in London, where he worked for an interior-design
company. He returned to France after the outbreak of the
Second World War and enlisted in a French tank regiment in
November, 1939, was wounded in the defence of the Maginot
Line, and then headed south after the fall of France in
June, 1940, and joined the Resistance. He was arrested,
horribly beaten, and managed to escape his captors, only to
begin the brutal cycle over again and again.
Through the Resistance network, he was brought to England by
submarine in September, 1942. There he joined the Free
French Forces and returned to France on Nov. 25, 1943. Two
months later, he was arrested by the Gestapo, tortured and
deported to Germany where he was sent successively to
Buchenwald, Auschwitz and Flossenburg. Released on April 24,
1945, by the advancing Allied troops, his first words
apparently were: "Where is Kay Moore?"
Not too far away, as it turned out.
After the liberation of Paris in August, 1944, Ms. Moore
went back to France with a contingent of Allied personnel
and began the task of sifting through the avalanche of
materials about Allied prisoners of war.
"My mother's memory is of Kay going to find Charles and he
being down to skin and bones," with the number 185663
tattooed on his left arm, said Mr. Ignatieff. They were
married in London on Aug. 29, 1945. For a honeymoon, she
took him to see cousins in Westmeath, Ireland, where he
began to recuperate from his physical and emotional war
In November, 1946, Charles (who retained the first part of
his code name, but reverted to his original surname) Gimpel
and his younger brother Peter, opened the Gimpel Fils
gallery on Duke Street (then South Molton and now Davis
Street) in honour of their father René, a collector and
author of Diary of an Art Dealer. The senior Mr. Gimpel, who
had also joined the Resistance, died in Neuengamme
concentration camp in 1944.
Before the war, the brothers had stored some of their
father's inventory - he had specialized in 18th-century
French, Impressionist and non-representational painting - in
a locked garage in a London mews. Amazingly, the London
garage was neither bombed nor looted during the war, and the
canvases had suffered nothing more serious than several
years' accumulation of dust and dirt. This artistic
stockpile became the basis of the brothers' first show,
"Five Centuries of French Painting," and was then used as
the collateral to acquire new works and artists.
"I don't think she ever made policy decisions on the choice
of art," said Kay Gimpel's son René, "but she became
intimately involved with my father in approaching the
artists and courting them to join the gallery."
Ms. Gimpel had a discerning eye and a retentive memory,
traits that she enhanced with a "legendary" card index on
which she scribbled telling details about the clients, which
she could retrieve and decode with panache and dispatch.
"People would come in, after an absence of two years, and
she would say 'how is your little dog Toto,' or some such,"
said Mr. Gimpel, who described his mother as being in
command. "She ran the family and she set the rules at the
Even after her husband died of cancer in 1973, and her son
René became the gallery's director, Ms. Gimpel continued to
work there, retiring only in the late 1990s, when she was in
her late 80s. Throughout her career, Ms. Gimpel's personal
and domestic support system was an Irish woman named Bridgid
(Bridgie) Ferry. She arrived as a girl in the late 1940s to
do housework and child minding and was still there six
decades later, the glue between generations of Gimpel
children and grandchildren, and Ms. Gimpel's companion and
most trusted of family retainers. The two women - both in
their 90s - continued to play Scrabble, do The Times
crossword and entertain all and sundry, although Ms. Ferry
did bridle occasionally at Ms. Gimpel's salty tongue.
Kay Gimpel was born January 2, 1914, in Strathcona, Alta.
She died at home of pneumonia, a complication of heart
disease and emphysema, in Chelsea, London, on March 19,
2009. She was 95. Ms. Gimpel, who was predeceased by her
husband, Charles, leaves two sons, René and Charles, five
grandchildren and her extended family. A memorial service is
planned for May 12 in London.