Cate Blanchett’s Surprising Spy History


looted valuablesGolden Globe and Academy Award-winning actress Cate Blanchett has played plenty of historical characters, including Queen Elizabeth, Katherine Hepburn, and even Bob Dylan. Her portrayal as art-historian-turned-spy Rose Valland in Monuments Men is another one—only this time, the role comes with some peculiar historical connections to Blanchett’s own deep past.

  • 14-Day Free Trial

Rose Valland became one of the most decorated women in French history for her work at the Jeu de Paume museum in Paris during the Nazi occupation. As fate would have it, the Jeu de Paume became the Nazis’ central collection and storage depot for stolen art and artifacts, where they would be sorted before being sent to new homes in Germany. The Germans allowed Valland to remain at her post, where Rose—after neglecting to inform the new overlords that she understood German just fine, thank you—went quietly about her work while keeping a close ear on the Nazis’ plans. She worked to identify each piece of art, its rightful owner, and where the item was being sent, then fed important information to the French Resistance.


    Enter your last name to learn your ancestors’ occupations.
    Enter last name


It’s another juicy role for an artist like Blanchett, and one her own ancestors could appreciate. In a strange case of life imitating art, Blanchett has family ties to both a spy and another woman tasked with preserving works or art during wartime. Only this time, it was the American Civil War. (Cate was born in Australia, but her father was a Texan.)

Oil portrait of Mary Anna Custis (Lee) with parrot by Auguste Hervieu, 1830.
Oil portrait of Mary Anna Custis (Lee) with parrot by Auguste Hervieu, 1830.

Blanchett’s distant cousin Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee was the wife of General Robert E. Lee and the granddaughter (through adoption) of President George Washington. Robert E. Lee knew a fight brewing when he saw one, and he wrote Mary a letter with instructions on what needed to be done in the face of the impending conflict. This included securing the silver plate and paintings at Mount Vernon, George Washington’s historic estate, before the Civil War broke out.

Laura RatcliffeBlanchett is also related by marriage to Laura Ratcliffe, a well-known Confederate spy. Ratcliffe won the confidence of both General J.E.B. Stuart and Colonel John S. Mosby, an elusive partisan raider who earned the nickname “the Gray Ghost.” Information she passed on to Mosby saved him from capture at least once. And while Cate has her name on a golden statue, Laura’s is engraved on a monument in Virginia:

“This large boulder, located just south of here, served as an important landmark during the Civil War, when Col. John S. Mosby’s Partisan Rangers…assembled there to raid Union outposts, communications, and supply lines. Laura Ratcliffe, a young woman who lived nearby and spied for Mosby, concealed money and messages for him under the rock. Mosby credited her with saving him from certain capture by Federal cavalry on one occasion.”

Mary Custis Lee, Laura Ratcliffe, and Rose Valland were certainly sisters in spirit. And now they share one more thing in common: a link to Hollywood—by way of Australia.

Find out what your ancestors were up to in the war—or the peace. Start a free trial.