Wearable technology may be all the rage but wearable publicity is a lot more fun! I must be one of the luckiest of authors as I have had a scarf designed especially to accompany my latest book, Les Parisiennes; How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved and Died in the 1940’s. It’s a fabulous pure silk scarf made in Italy but dreamt up here in London by a brilliant young designer, Emma Greenhill. Emma offered to design the scarf as she started her fashion career in Paris and spent a year there working for John Galliano and Karl Lagerfeld, really getting to grips with what it takes to create a Parisienne! Having learned that luxury matters, (she subsequently worked in fashion PR for many years for a variety of big names, most recently Hussein Chalayan), now that she is setting up her own company she is determined only to use luxury fabrics and has her scarves made in the same Italian factory that manufactures items for Gucci and Alexander McQueen – as you can tell as soon as you touch them.
It is entirely appropriate that she has made a luxury fashion item to accompany this book as being stylish, even during the Occupation when shortages were dire, was anything but trivial for Parisian women; they believed that looking your best at all times was crucial initially as a way of showing support for their husbands and sons at the front, just as the magazines told them they must, but then, when defeat overwhelmed them, continuing to try and look their best as a way of not succumbing to their German occupiers. It was even a form of resistance, to show that they had not been ground down, and it kept thousands of frightened and impoverished women employed in their ateliers, beading, attaching fur or inserting pockets and linings. So, when shortages of fabrics meant new clothes were almost impossible, women spent hours cutting down old clothes, sometimes the suits of their missing husbands, or turning two bags into one, covering wooden shoes with fabrics and creating extravagant creations on their heads that passed as hats. Many people commented on the vegetables, flowers and cascades of ribbons that now appeared on the brims of hats. So keen were Parisiennes to appear fashionable at all times that, even as they arrived in the brutal camp of Ravensbrück, the other women prisoners already inside muttered and whispered about “Those Frenchwomen”…one woman smuggled in a powder compact – an unheard of luxury – while another wore an Hermès silk scarf.
The beautiful limited edition scarf Emma has designed for Les Parisiennes has at its heart a woman on a bicycle since women in wartime Paris went everywhere on bicycles – private cars were impossible to maintain and there was no fuel. Yet, as women were legally not allowed to wear trousers at the time (too masculine!) many designers made a form of divided skirt or culottes, which were really trousers in disguise! There are many other symbols in Emma’s scarf such as the caged bird with plumage in the three colours of the French tricolour which was a brooch designed by Cartier to represent how Parisians felt during the Occupation. But, come the Liberation, the bird was freed as the cage doors were opened. As I wear my scarf I shall proclaim to the world Parisian women certainly know how to do fashion.
Les Parisiennes can be bought at all good bookshops and on line in all the usual places www.emmagreenhill.com to see a selection of Emma’s scarves.
In July, on Bastille Day, Weidenfeld & Nicolson will publish Les Parisiennes: How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved and Died in the 1940s. In October (in the book trade that’s considered simultaneous) St Martin’s Press in the US will publish Les Parisiennes: How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved and Died under Nazi Occupation.
Spot the differences!
This is not the first time that one of my books has been published simultaneously in the UK and US but I had assumed that since this book had been planned with and commissioned by both publishers together five years ago it would be the same product. Actually it is, exactly the same inside. But both publishers have chosen not only slightly different subtitles (one has the word Nazi while the other points to the fact that I have written about a whole decade) but very different jackets in which to clothe the words. Since I am constantly asked why, I shall try to explain!
The British cover tells a story. In the shadow of the Eiffel Tower (just to make sure you know where this is happening), a slightly wary, elegant Parisienne is chatting up a German officer who, even from the back, looks highly relaxed. His head is sympathetically angled to one side and he has one foot perched on a ledge. What he is saying to her we can only guess at but this cover is so wonderfully evocative that everyone who handles it will want to know what on earth is happening and (I hope) have to buy the book to find out.
The American cover is more subtle but also features an elegant Parisienne, this time she is striding purposefully towards a shelter perhaps, or a doorway protected by sandbags, but into where? This cover too has an air of mystery and needs some explanation. Paris, once defeated in 1940 was declared an ‘Open City’ which was the deal between Vichy and the Nazis which prevented it being attacked by the Germans and saved its most iconic buildings and bridges. But the sandbags were put in place in 1939, when there was huge fear of German bombings, and largely not removed until the Liberation even though it was unlikely that the Allies would bomb civilians when they needed to concentrate their fire power on German and other targets. By 1944 however the Allies considered they had to bomb strategic targets in the vicinity of Paris and there were of course civilian casualties.
When I was first shown the UK cover (yes, authors are consulted!) I was worried the picture was almost too good and therefore must have been staged or even doctored. But, as I should have realised, the truth is always more interesting. It is a genuine photograph by Roger Schall who was given special permission to take pictures in occupied Paris (others were not and if your were caught with a camera there were serious consequences). He had also published during the Occupation several books of views of the monuments of Paris and of France, under the imprints of Verlag Schall, Odé and Kremer with captions in German and obviously directed at a German audience. According to a French museum curator, Catherine Tambrun at the Musée Carnavalet, Schall was probably paid by the Germans to take photographs during the Occupation and the most obvious destination for such photographs would have been the German propaganda magazine Signal. He used his talent to survive. Is it worse than a vegetable seller?
This is another kind of deal, then, and as my book tries to make clear, surviving in Paris was for almost everyone, dependent on doing some kind of deal. After the war this was often punished as collaboration and it was assumed there was a sexual element to many deals. Sometimes there was, but it was rarely as clear cut as that. I have tried over the last few years to understand where the line between survival and collaboration should be drawn and it shifts constantly. I think my two covers lead you enticingly and with great style into that debate.
There’s a huge anniversary at the end of this week and everyone in the literary world and beyond is getting very excited about it. Publishers have spent years preparing books on the great man while scholars are falling over themselves to find something new to say, reinterpreting the will or the plays, discovering a greater depth to what he really meant, why he mattered to suffragettes and just how much did he know or invent?
But, excited though I am about Shakespeare, there’s another date this week that’s been exercising me and I am not talking about the Queen’s 90thbirthday. April 24, one day after the big birth and death date, marks thirty years since the death of Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor. I’ve been called by a number of journalists wanting to know how the public perception of That Woman has changed in the thirty years since her death. A German radio station has even prepared an hour long programme on the significance of the Abdication eighty years on…German? Yes, for reasons not difficult to fathom.
To most who ask, I answer that the change came in 2011 with the discovery of 15 unpublished letters which I detailed in my biography of Wallis. But this week I learned another intriguing fact. I am in Jersey to give a talk about Wallis and am told (blushing because I did not know) that Wallis’ first mother-in-law, the mother of Win Spencer, was a Jersey girl! Agnes Lucy Hughes married Earl Winfield Spencer of Chicago in Jersey’s Town Church at St Helier on 10th December 1887. Her magnificent cream silk wedding dress was made by one Madam Henry of New Street, St Helier and was recently restored for about £4,000 by the Jersey Museum for an exhibition which, after it was first shown in Jersey, travelled to America. Now I am intrigued: Agnes was apparently already living in Chicago when she met Earl Winfield Spencer but obviously Jersey mattered enough to her to return there for her wedding. Their unfortunate son, Earl Winfield Spencer Jnr., a handsome pioneer naval aviator, is known to history as the first husband of the infamous Wallis Simpson. But less well known is that another brother, Dumaresq Spencer, died fighting in World War One – a war for which he volunteered and did not have to fight since America initially did not join in the war. I am reminded of him as I walk past Dumaresq Street in Jersey – another clear indication that Jersey was of considerable importance to the Spencers since Dumaresq is one of the oldest names associated with the Island.
Does it matter? Yes actually, it does. I have always known that Win Spencer’s mother was deeply patriotic – so much so that when Dumaresq was killed in World War one she was quoted as saying that if she had another son she would gladly give him to the war effort. I could not understand such exaggerated patriotism. Now I almost do.
But in fact, I was excited to come to Jersey because of its relevance to my forthcoming book, Les Parisiennes, How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved and Died in the 1940’s about women in wartime Paris, when it was occupied by the Germans. I have tried hard not to be judgemental in the book since, after all, how can those of us in Britain, who were not invaded, understand the pressures of a Nazi Occupation? But the Channel Islands of course were occupied. Nowhere could they understand quite as well as here in Jersey and Guernsey what Occupation meant on a daily basis. So, I can’t wait to return to Jersey and talk about this rather different subject. Well … perhaps not so different. If we hadn’t had the Abdication 80 years ago not only would we not be celebrating such a long reign by our present Queen but, who knows, we might not be celebrating anything much at all. But that is to enter into the ‘what if’ territory from which most sound historians run a mile. But,just occasionally, it’s irresistible as well as amusing to contemplate. And that is why anniversaries matter; they make us stop to think of how we got to where we are.
Interfaith Community Relations in Bradford
In anticipation of this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day and the importance of respecting other communities, I’ve been thinking about a day I spent recently in Bradford where I witnessed a warm coming together of Muslim and Jewish communities. It’s not what you’d expect from reading an average diet of British newspapers or listening to George Galloway, former MP for Bradford West.
I went to visit the synagogue in Bowland Street, Bradford, where my grandmother, the music hall star and Bradford pantomime favourite, Miss Lily Black, was married more than a hundred years ago. The synagogue, founded in Moorish style in 1880 and now a Grade 2 listed building, is desperately in need of funds for repairs if it is to survive. I’d wanted to see it for years but, with the once flourishing community in decline, I knew I could put off my visit no longer. In 2013 the synagogue was saved from closure only thanks to a fund raising effort mounted by the secretary of a nearby mosque, together with the owner of a popular curry house, a local textile magnate and the leader of the local Jewish community, Rudi Leavor. This released much needed funds to repair a leaky roof. It’s a start. After a most delicious lunch at the Sweet Centre curry restaurant, next door to the synagogue, I was reassured by owner Zulficar Ali that he was keeping an eye on the beautiful old building.
Lily was married in Bradford because, barely out of her teens, she had converted to Judaism. She obviously thought it was better to have the ceremony outside London, where she had grown up in a working class haberdasher’s family without much money, left school at 14 and struck out on her own as an artist’s model and actress. In seven years she had made a career for herself and travelled around the country performing, but what did she know of life beyond the stage?
According to Ernest Aris, who went on to become famous as a children’s illustrator and who often drew Lily for several Bradford newspapers, she was “delightful, the most charming Principal Girl this city has seen since Madge Crichton played Cinderella at the Royal. She will make a great hit,” Aris predicted of her while she was starring in Robinson Crusoe at the Prince’s Theatre, “she is sprightly without being vulgar, she has a sweet voice and a personality which would melt even the heart of a Free Church Councillor!”
Ernest Aris clearly had a soft spot for Lily, who was, he added, enshrined in his susceptible heart. However, while performing at Bradford, Lily met and fell in love with my grandfather, Leo Hirshfield from a Birmingham silver making and jewellery family, when he came to try and persuade her to be photographed for a Raphael Tuck postcard. She was only 20 when she accepted his proposal of marriage, converted to Judaism and the couple were married in Bowland Street synagogue on September 25, 1910.
Lily was sufficiently famous for a reporter to attend the wedding. He commented “there were only a few of us present and among the witnesses were Mr and Mrs Henry Cohen of Leeds (Leonora Cohen was the militant suffragette who became famous in 1913 when she flung an iron bar into a jewel box at the Tower of London. She was remanded in prison and went on a hunger strike) and Mr Jacob Moser, Lord Mayor Elect of Bradford. The bride wore a sensible gown of grey silk and was addressed by Rabbi Dr Strauss who told her that “you, my dear bride, have idyllic Ruth of old as your example. You like her have said and verified the touching words whither thou goest, I will go, thy people shall be my people and thy god my god.”
There was a small reception held at the Midland hotel and, immediately upon marriage, Lily gave up performing and rarely talked about her years on the stage. For seven years she had had had a stellar career touring the country and working hard and long hours. She was also in demand as an artist model largely for her spectacular thick and curly reddish gold hair. Now all she wanted was a comfortable and secure home life and she and Leo produced three children, Desmond, who became Lord Hirshfield, a labour peer, Norman who became a Conservative councillor and Mayor, and my mother Joan, who married, in 1946, Major Eric Rubinstein. I was born in 1951 my sister Jane in 1948.
I wish I had asked her more questions as there is so much I now want to know. I am so thrilled at last to have seen the synagogue where her new life began and happy to know that there is new life in the area which is keen to preserve the past. Zulfi Karim, Secretary of Bradford Council of Mosques, who is on the board at the Central Westgate mosque a few hundred metres up the road from the synagogue said: “It makes me proud that we can protect our neighbours and at the same time preserve an important part of Bradford’s cultural heritage.”