Friday, June 13, 2014

Review: The Hotel on Place Vendome

Narrative nonfiction is becoming a favorite of mine to read. It tells a story in much the same way as a novel, only this story is real. Some really great narrative nonfiction in the history realm include Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand and Priscilla by Nicholas Shakespeare (both reviewed here on the blog). I'm very pleased to add another one to the list: The Hotel on Place Vendome: Life, Death, and Betrayal at the Hotel Ritz in Paris by Tilar J. Mazzeo.

Since 1898, the Hotel Ritz in Paris has been the place where heads of state, cultural icons (writers, painters, actors), journalists, and even royalty have flocked. In the 1920s, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald frequented the Ritz, as did Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle.

But it was when the Occupation of Paris started in 1940 that things at the Ritz became quite interesting. The hotel was owned by Swiss-born Marie-Louise Ritz (she and her husband founded the Ritz in 1898) and despite her loathing for the Third Reich, Marie-Louise kept the hotel open rather than have it requisitioned by the Germans and losing it altogether.

German Reichsmarshall Hermann Goring took up residence in the Ritz as did numerous other German officials and military brass. Leading members in Parisian society, including Coco Chanel, still lived at the Ritz, though their regular luxury rooms were given to the Germans. Suddenly, the hotel became a seething hotbed of espionage and collaboration. Some of the generals involved in the plot to assassinate Hitler had their talks at the Ritz bar (and the bartender passed messages for them). French actress Arletty carried on a very open affair with German officer Hans-Jurgen Soehring. Members of the staff were involved with the French Resistance, and more than one room hid Jews and others the Gestapo were keen to find.

When Paris was liberated, the Ritz again underwent a transformation as did the entire city of Paris. Reprisals were swift and unrepentant. Women who had become "horizontal collaborators" often had their heads shaved and were paraded in the street. Arletty, even though she was a famous actress, did not escape retribution, either, though details are scarce as to what, exactly, she endured.

The Ritz was occupied again, but this time, it was under the Allies - specifically the Americans. As an official war correspondent, Ernest Hemingway returned triumphantly to the Ritz ahead of his friend and sometime rival Robert Capa, the famous photographer. Here, Hemingway indulged in alcohol and broke his marriage vows. Capa had his affair with Ingrid Bergman at the Ritz, and Coco Chanel was investigated for possible collaboration with the Germans (some thought she might be a Nazi spy), though her tangled relations with high British officials (she called Churchill friend) meant the allegations against her were never proven. Marlene Dietrich caused mischief between Hemingway's ex-wife and her new lover, a U.S. general, and enjoyed every minute of it. A top-secret Allied team even used the Ritz as their home while they sought to discover if the Germans had learned how to split the atom.

After the war, the Ritz started to fall out of favor as Hollywood became the place to be in the world, though the Duke and Duchess of Windsor were guests here while the Duke made plans to usurp his niece, Elizabeth, from the throne (the Duchess of Windsor, Wallis Simpson, effectively took care of his plans by embarking on a torrid affair with another man. The resulting scandal finished his ambitions.).

And, years later, after the Ritz had fallen into disrepair, an Egyptian businessman named Mohamed Al Fayed bought the hotel and completely renovated it. In 1997, his son, Dodi, and his girlfriend, Diana, the Princess of Wales, were at the Ritz  the night of their deaths.

Tilar J. Mazzeo does a lovely job of sweeping you into the history of this hotel. It is a history so rich with large personalities that reading the innermost lives of these people is an absolute pleasure. Her writing is rich and engaging, and peppered with such authentic, period detail that it is hard to switch back to reality after being buried in the book's pages for any length of time. That is the mark of a truly good book.

So much happened in this hotel during World War II, so many lives intersected, that it would not be a stretch to say that the Hotel Ritz played an integral role in the framing of modern Europe politically and culturally.

The Hotel on Place Vendome is a book for a wide and varied audience - those interested in World War II certainly, but also for those interested in Paris as a cultural center from the 1920s through the 1950s, and in the Ritz in particular.

I am in awe of the research involved in this endeavor, and Tilar J. Mazzeo deserves high praise for producing such an outstanding piece of narrative history.

Friday, June 06, 2014

70th Anniversary of D-Day

70 years ago, the biggest invasion force in history stormed the beaches of Normandy, France. Thousands died. Thousands were wounded. And thousands survived to keep on fighting.

May we remember their sacrifices always.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Memorial Day

As I sit here on my couch and gaze outside at the beautiful spring morning, a mourning dove coos, my Snoopy flag wafts gently in the breeze, and my two cats drowse under my chair.

There is no gunfire erupting, no house-to-house combat, no tanks rolling down the street, no riots.

It is calm. Peaceful. Serene.

This is what freedom looks and sounds like.

And men and women fought and died so that I may enjoy it and live my life in such a way as I see fit.

To those who fell in service to their country, sacrificing their lives, I say, Thank you. I will never forget.

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Giveaway and Review: David Kahn's "How I Discovered World War II's Greatest Spy"

Ah, espionage, that shady world of codes, shadowy figures, and vital information. Warfare isn't the same without it, and some say, wars cannot be won without it.

David Kahn, arguably the expert on intelligence, brings together several stories of World War II espionage as well as other fascinating tales of secret communication in How I Discovered World War II's Greatest Spy and Other Stories of Intelligence and Code, published by CRC Press.

This book is a collection of some of Kahn's previously published essays, a handy volume for finding out some of the best of Kahn's work. Many articles appeared in scholarly publications that are not readily accessible to the general public, and this is indeed welcome news to historians of military intelligence, both professional and independent. Historians and researchers will especially appreciate the meticulous notes for each article.

Kahn's articles provide a wide range of topics. Some tackle more intriguing questions that have haunted us for years such as this classic: Did President Roosevelt know about the attack on Pearl Harbor? He also addresses a similar conundrum in why Nazi Germany's supposedly "superior" Aryan spies were absolutely awful in the intelligence game.

Enigma, The Cold War, and the intricacy of cryptology are examined, as well. Thus, this book isn't just for World War II enthusiasts, but anyone who is intrigued by intelligence and espionage. Kahn's writing is superb, drawing you in immediately, and holding your attention long after bedtime has come and gone.


If you'd like to win a copy of Kahn's hardcover book, here's how to enter! Just do ONE of the following and you'll be entered to win!

1) Leave a comment on this post with your email.
2) Follow me on Twitter @WW2HistoryGal
3) If you're already a Twitter follower, simply tweet me with the hashtag #KahnGiveaway

Giveaway is open to U.S. and U.K. residents only.

Winners will be notified via Twitter or email. Contest ends at midnight May 20, 2014. No purchase necessary to enter.


The winner is !

Thanks to all for entering!

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Book Notes: "A European Past" and "City of Women"

Here's a few notable books on World War II that I've read in the past year or so, but never had the opportunity to write up a full review. That's why I'm introducing a new feature here at my blog: Book Notes. These will be concise reviews of WW2-related books all in one post.

Without further ado...

A European Past
By Felix Gilbert

Felix Gilbert grew up in Germany and witnessed first-hand the rise and reign of Adolph Hitler. He left Germany in 1933 and went to exile in England before eventually joining the U.S. Army. Later in life, he became a noted historian. He's brutally honest in his writing, and offers an uncompromising look at Germany between the two world wars.

City of Women
By David R. Gillham

This is gritty, realistic fiction at its best, a lush, highly readable novel of Berlin during World War II. Sigrid Schröder's husband serves in the German Army while Sigrid waits behind for him on the homefront. But Sigrid has many secrets, including a Jewish lover, and her involvement with the Resistance. This story has so many twists and turns that it's a definite page turner. Sigrid's character grows and changes a great deal from beginning to end as she faces questions of morality and guilt in a world that is seldom black and white.

Friday, February 28, 2014

My New Book: Nebraska POW Camps

It's been quite the journey, but all the hard work has been worth it.

My book, Nebraska POW Camps: A History of World War II Prisoners in the Heartland" published by The History Press, is now available for pre-order.

Official Release Date: April 15, 2014

About the Book

During World War II, thousands of Axis prisoners of war were held throughout Nebraska in base camps that included Fort Robinson, Camp Scottsbluff and Camp Atlanta. Many Nebraskans did not view the POWs as “evil Nazis.” To them, they were ordinary men and very human. And while their stay was not entirely free from conflict, many former captives returned to the Cornhusker State to begin new lives after the cessation of hostilities. Drawing on first-person accounts from soldiers, former POWs and Nebraska residents, as well as archival research, Melissa Marsh delves into the neglected history of Nebraska’s POW camps.

Pre-Order Here:

It will also be available as an ebook for Kindle, Nook, and Apple. Details to come.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Priscilla: The Hidden Life of an Englishwoman in Wartime France

Many of the stories that come out of Wartime France are about those who risked everything to fight the Germans. Brave men and women fought in the Resistance or hid Jews or did whatever small act of civil disobedience they could to take a stand against the Nazis.

This is not one of those stories.

Instead, this is a story of survival, of guilt, of shame, and of collaboration.

When author Nicholas Shakespeare was young, he used to go with his parents to his aunt and uncle's house in rural England. His Aunt Priscilla always mystified and fascinated him at the same time. Who was this woman, really? He didn't find out until after she'd passed on and he was gifted with a treasure trove of her wartime letters, journals, and photographs.

Priscilla had been a British citizen living in France during the Occupation. But her documents revealed a very different person than what he'd previously thought.

In what must have been an exhausting search, he went to archives, followed leads, tried (and sometimes found) people who knew her. More and more of the puzzle began to fill in, but it was creating an astonishing picture. In short, if Priscilla had not returned back to England in 1944, after the liberation of France, she would have had her head shaved and been paraded around the town as a German collaborator.

It may be easy to immediately dismiss Priscilla after reading such a damning conviction. But that is one thing you simply cannot do when reading Shakespeare's remarkable book. For Priscilla: The Hidden Life of an Englishwoman Living in Wartime France shows just how blurred the lines of survival and collaboration were during this time of upheaval, especially for women.

Priscilla's unconventional upbringing brought her to France at a young age to live with her mother, leaving her father, a noted BBC broadcaster, behind in England. Those formative years in France, especially exposed to the loose morality of her mother, left a mark on Priscilla. When Priscilla got pregnant out of wedlock and had an abortion, she chose marriage to a French aristocrat old enough to be her father to save her. It didn't. Priscilla wanted to be loved in all the ways a woman can be loved - but her husband couldn't provide it for her.

When the Germans came to France, Priscilla became part of a world where the line between friend and enemy was frazzled. At first, she tried to keep her head down, stay out of sight. But then she was put into Besancon, a concentration camp for British subjects where she suffered unspeakable conditions. After her release (who pulled the strings to release her?), she had affairs with numerous men, and some of them turned out to be connected to the highest members of the Nazi party. Was it a matter of survival that she became involved with these men, poor judgment, or a need to be loved? Was she blind to their activities? The record suggests not. Why, then, did she stay with them? It's a complicated question and one that has a multitude of answers.

What Shakespeare does, and does very well, is to ask a question about France itself. When the war was over, of course everyone was a patriot in France - just as everyone had been against Hitler and against the Nazi party in Germany. But this simply wasn't true. Priscilla symbolizes France in her bid to survive the war, and her own questionable, some would say unforgivable, decisions mirror those made by the French government and other French collaborators.

Written using a novelist's style with intimate details of life in Occupied France (and it is done very well considering Shakespeare is a noted novelist), Priscilla is a gripping read. Yet it challenges our notion of good and evil and more than anything makes us ask ourselves the question, "What would I have done?"

The answer may surprise you.