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In the 1950s, Audrey Hepburn's face was plastered on magazines across the globe. She was a big hit. She was fresh. Harper's Bazaar, 1956

In the 1950s, Audrey Hepburn’s face was splashed on magazines across the globe. She was a big hit. She was fresh. She had style. Harper’s Bazaar, 1956

Readers, at the beginning of this year, I had entertained the idea of writing a juvenile biography of Audrey Hepburn (1929-1993) and the five years she spent in Nazi-occupied Holland as an underground resistance worker. Having read many biographies on Audrey, I was familiar with the yarns about her being a courier for the Dutch Resistance movement against the German occupation and participating in clandestine dance performances to raise money for the cause.

I must say that, after scouring tons of resources -bios, interview transcripts, old Hollywood magazine articles – I am not sure that Audrey actually participated in any underground activities to fight back against the Germans. To begin with, she was only eleven years old when the war started and sixteen when it ended. Her name does not appear – nor does her mother’s – on any government list of resistance activists.

Audrey’s Real World War II Experience

The fact that Audrey did not work in the Dutch Resistance in WWII should not detract from the knowledge that the war took a great toll on Audrey’s physical, mental, and emotional health. She suffered from the horrors of war like any other citizen in a war zone. Germans were everywhere with guns with bayonets and barking attack dogs. Everyone’s liberties were restricted. There was no way to get real news as the newspapers were controlled by the Nazis and filled with propaganda. The BBC in England broadcast reliable news but the Nazis confiscated radios. Audrey saw people executed in the streets and Jewish families loaded into cattle cars bound for death camps.

German Nazis round up Dutch Jews for deportation to Poland's death camps. WWII. Photo undated.

German Nazis round up Dutch Jews for deportation to Poland’s death camps. WWII. Photo undated.

One of her brothers went into hiding to avoid being deported to a German labor camp. The other brother was deported to Germany. Her own uncle was arrested, imprisoned, then murdered as a reprisal against saboteurs. Sometimes 900 planes a day flew over Arnhem, German, American, and British planes, often engaging in wicked dogfights and crashing nearby. The Battle of Arnhem raged in the streets of the city and outlying towns.

In the winter of 1944-1945, 20,000 Dutch people died of starvation. There was no food to eat. Schools shut down. The trains were not running so no food was being delivered.  The people subsisted on a diet of 500 calories a day. They were reduced to eating bread made from flour from crushed tulip bulbs.  That “Hunger Winter,” there was no wood to build a fire to warm even one room in the house. It was a very desperate time, with the Germans taking over people’s houses and forcing large groups of people to huddle together in small dwellings.

Dutch people strip the tram rails out of the street to use for firewood. This was the last year of the war, a desperate time of scant food and resources known at "The Hunger Winter," 1944-45.

Dutch people strip the tram rails out of the street to use for firewood. This was the last year of the war, a desperate time of scant food and resources known at “The Hunger Winter,” 1944-45.

Audrey almost died from starvation. Her body, adolescent at the time, did not develop adequately and never fully recovered from the deprivations. Her rib cage was underdeveloped, and she suffered from an eating disorder all her life. She was so malnourished that her ankles swelled up and she could barely walk. She retained stretch marks on her ankles from where the skin was stretched from the edema. She suffered from anemia and respiratory problems, too.

Nazis required all Dutch people over the age of 15 to carry an i.d. card. Here is Audrey's at age 15. Her card doesn't bear the dreaded letter, J, for Jew, which would mark her for deportation to the east for gassing at Auschwitz. 1944

Nazis required all Dutch people over the age of 15 to carry an i.d. card. Here is Audrey’s at age 15. Her card doesn’t bear the dreaded letter, J, for Jew, which would mark her for deportation to the east for gassing at Auschwitz. 1944

For a long time after the war was over, she had no stamina. She would go on eating binges, as she herself said: she couldn’t just eat one spoonful out of the jelly jar. She had to eat and eat until the jar was empty! She would then get fat, then diet herself back to rail thinness so she could compete in the worlds of ballet, modeling, stage, and screen. She forever was nervous, adored chocolate most of all, worked hard, and chain smoked, dying of cancer at the relatively young age of 63.

What They Tried to Make us Believe about Audrey’s War Time

In interviews, Audrey did not volunteer that she was a resistance worker. She didn’t really talk about the war days. Those stories were mostly generated in the fifties by her Hollywood publicists, largely appearing in popular magazines such as Modern Screen and Photoplay. Although the stories were mostly false, they entered the public lore, were repeated in article after article, and thus acquired an undeserved air of authenticity. Some of the stories include:

  •  Audrey helped a downed Allied pilot in the woods. She encountered a German patrol on the way and pretended to just be picking flowers.
  • Audrey was almost deported by the Germans.
  • Audrey hid in a basement for a month with only a few apples to eat to avoid being picked up by a Nazi patrol who wanted her for a cook.
  • Audrey delivered illegal newspapers on her bicycle.
  • Audrey danced in blacked-out homes to an audience that didn’t clap for fear they would be discovered by the Nazis (Audrey claims this part is true; how many times did she do it, though, once? Also, her ballet teacher was a Dutch Nazi, so I doubt she would have approved of Audrey dancing for the Resistance.)

However, this resistance worker that braved life and limb for country and kin did not exist except in magazine articles. That Audrey Hepburn was a invention of Hollywood’s.

The irony is that Audrey’s World War II experience needed no embellishment. It is a tale of great endurance, of courage in the face of daily fear.

The lies about her involvement with the Dutch Resistance weren’t Audrey’s fault. Myth making was show business in the fifties. Hollywood wanted control. Hollywood wanted its leading ladies squeaky clean and, if they could keep her that way, Audrey was going to be a big star.

February 12, 1952 Look Magazine featuring rising Hollywood star, Audrey Hepburn

February 12, 1952 Look Magazine featuring rising Hollywood star, Audrey Hepburn

The Hollywood image machine went into overdrive creating the myth of Perfect Audrey, the Resistance Worker, to cover up the embarrassing truth about her past and her roots. They claimed her father was an international banker (a lie) and that her mother was a Dutch noblewoman (which was true, but no one mentioned that she liked rich playboys). Hollywood created this myth because Audrey Hepburn had a lot of skeletons rattling around in her closet. As it turns out, her parents – the Dutch Baroness Ella van Heemstra and her British husband Joseph Anthony Ruston — did some very bad things with some very bad people before and during World War II. And neither of them was a decent parent to little and lovely Audrey.

Audrey Hepburn's father in the Alps, 1927: Joseph Anthony Victor Ruston (later Hepburn-Ruston)

Audrey Hepburn’s father in the Alps, 1927: Joseph Anthony Victor Ruston (later Hepburn-Ruston)

The Dutch Baroness Ella van Heemstra and daughter, Audrey Ruston (Hepburn) ca. 1935

The Dutch Baroness Ella van Heemstra and daughter, Audrey Ruston (Hepburn) ca. 1935

In 1953, Audrey won the Best Actress Oscar for her debut American film, “Roman Holiday.”

Even a hint of scandal would have jeopardized Audrey’s budding career; Americans had no stomach for Nazis. So the Hollywood image makers hid the truth.

What Her Parents Were Really Like

The truth can now be told: Audrey’s parents were devotees of the notorious British fascist, Sir Oswald Mosley, a Hitler wannabe, whose followers were called the Blackshirts (the British Union of Fascists or BUF). Mosley, like Hitler, blamed the Jews for all the problems Britain faced. There was no truth to this monstruous lie, but this is how fascists always derive their short-term power, by turning one group of citizens against another.

ad Mosley Speaks October 29, 1938_ACTION. No. 141, Page EfcvcrtIn October 1934, Mosley was losing steam politically so, in order to keep his following and funding, he ramped up the anti-Semitic rhetoric. At the Albert Hall in London, he addressed a huge crowd, saying,

I openly and publicly challenge the Jewish interest in this country commanding commerce, commanding the press, commanding the cinema, commanding the City of London, commanding sweatshops.” (1)

Oswald Mosley and his Blackshirts march to stir up hatred against British Jews and Communists. 1936

Oswald Mosley and his Blackshirts march to stir up hatred against British Jews and Communists. 1936

What Audrey’s Parents Did for Her Sixth Birthday

Audrey Ruston (Hepburn) ca. 1936

Audrey Ruston (Hepburn) ca. 1936

Audrey Ruston Hepburn turned six years old on May 4, 1935, in Brussels, Belgium, but neither of her parents were there with her to celebrate. Ella and “Joe” were touring Germany with a delegation from Mosley’s BUF. They were there to observe what a wonderful job the Nazis had done in restoring the German economy. Along with the infamous Unity Mitford of England, Hitler’s lackey, they toured autobahns, factories, schools, and housing developments.

Adolf Hitler and British citizen and devotee, Unity Mitford. photo undated, ca. 1938

Adolf Hitler and British citizen and devotee, Unity Mitford. photo undated, ca. 1938

Then Audrey’s parents met Hitler himself at the Nazis’ Brown House headquarters in Munich. A photo was taken of Ella in front of the Brown House, showing her with her friends Unity, Pam, and Mary Mitford. Upon her return, Ella put the photo in a silver frame and displayed it proudly in her home.

Shortly after Audrey’s parents returned from Germany, her father and mother had a terrible argument. Audrey’s father walked out on the family, leaving her, her mother, and her two half-brothers to fend for themselves. (This was Ella’s second marriage). Some said Joe was a big drinker and that had caused the split-up. Others said he was a womanizer, with a lover or two on the side. Worse, it was rumored that the Dutch Queen Wilhelmina had spoken to Ella’s father, the Baron, about Joe’s embarrassing politics and told him to tell Ella to end the marriage.

Chances are, though, that Joe just wanted to be free of domestic entanglements to pursue his rabid anti-Communist agenda. At that time, he was very active in the Belgian fascist party, the Rexists. He would soon divide his time between Belgium and England.

Audrey remembers her mother sobbing for days on end, mourning the loss of yet another husband. But Ella must have recovered herself fairly quickly because, four months later, she was back in Germany with the Mitford sisters, this time, to witness the military pageantry of a Nuremberg Rally (and have a quick fling with the sexy and much younger journalist Micky Burn).

British citizens at the Nuremberg Rally, Germany, ca. 1935-35. Second from left is Diana Mitford, who marries Sir Oswald Mosley. Third from left is journalist Michael ("Micky") Burn.

British citizens at the Nuremberg Rally, Germany, ca. 1935-35. Second from left is Diana Mitford, who marries Sir Oswald Mosley. Third from left is journalist Michael (“Micky”) Burn.

Upon her return to Brussels, Ella wrote a gushing editorial in The Blackshirt, extolling Hitler’s virtues:

At Nuremberg…What stuck me most forcibly amongst the million and one impressions I received there were (a) the wonderful fitness of every man and woman one saw, on parades or in the street; and (b) the refreshing atmosphere around one, the absolute freedom from any form of mental pressure or depression.

These people certainly live in spiritual comfort….

From Nuremberg I went to Munich….I never heard an angry word….They [the German people] are happy….

Well may Adolf Hitler be proud of the rebirth of this great country…” (2)

Ella’s article appeared in column two of The Blackshirt. To its right, in column three, appeared this anti-Jewish propaganda fiction purportedly written by someone named “H. Saunders”:

I walked along Oxford-street, Piccadilly, and Coventry-street last Saturday and I thought I had stepped into a foreign country.

A Jew converted to Christianity becomes a hidden Jew, and a greater menace. Jews have conquered England without a war….” (2)

What Ella did Next

In 1939, Baroness Ella van Heemstra, now divorced, moved with Audrey to Arnhem, the Netherlands, where her parents lived. Ella’s noble and esteemed father, A.J.A.A. Baron van Heemstra, had been the mayor of Arnhem from 1910-1920.

Audrey’s maternal grandparents, Baroness Elbrig van Asbeck and Baron Aernoud van Heemstra, pictured in Suriname (the Dutch East Indies) where the Baron was governor 1920-28.

Then, in May 1940, the Nazis invaded the Netherlands. Ella and Audrey would spend the entire war years in Arnhem, (1940-1945) yet they would not live with Audrey’s grandparents much of the time.

In May 1940, the Nazis invaded the Netherlands. Sadly, there were Dutch citizens sympathetic to the Nazi Party. Here they provide the invading troops with the Nazi salute. These Nazi sympathizers were called "NSBers." They were collaborators and were always spying for the Nazis. May 1940

In May 1940, the Nazis invaded the Netherlands. Sadly, there were Dutch citizens sympathetic to the Nazi Party. Here they provide the invading troops with the Nazi salute. These Nazi sympathizers were called “NSBers.” They were collaborators and were always spying for the Nazis. May 1940

Although he had, at an earlier time, been somewhat pro-German in his outlook, the Baron van Heemstra had changed his views. When the Nazis occupied Arnhem, they tried to coerce him to become the director of a disgraceful charity called Winterhulp. However, the Baron refused the post. Stung, the Germans struck back. As a reprisal, early in 1942, they confiscated many of his lands, houses, bank accounts, stocks, and even jewelry. German soldiers were quartered in his grand home at Zijpendaal and he was forced to move to his country homes in the small villages of Velp and Oosterbeek.

Castle Zijpendaal (or Zypendaal in Arnhem, the Netherlands. This was the home of Audrey's maternal grandparents.

Castle Zijpendaal (or Zypendaal) in Arnhem, the Netherlands. This was the home of Audrey’s maternal grandparents.

Ella, on the other hand, had none of her father’s integrity. She liked to drink and she liked to have a good time. The way she saw it, the Germans had all the good things that she lacked. Unlike the average Dutch person, the German officers drank real coffee and real tea and champagne. They had cars, too, and petrol to put in them, whereas the Dutch citizens couldn’t even take their bicycles out into the street without the Germans commandeering them. Ella liked the good life and the German officers could give it to her. She openly fraternized with them, having them into the family home, and going out with them in their cars, even crossing the border and driving into Germany for entertainment. She even organized a cultural evening in Dusseldorf, Germany, along with the regional head of the NSDAP (the Dutch Nazi Party). She was ruthless in pursuit of pleasure.

The illegal press of the Dutch Resistance suspected the Baroness of being an agent for the Gestapo (the Nazi secret police). She worked for the German Red Cross in the Diaconessenhuis (hospital) in Arnhem, nursing wounded German soldiers. Before the war, Ella had already displayed a Nazi swastika and a German eagle on the wall of her house in Arnhem. (3) She was the worst of the worst. And this is the home and the atmosphere in which she raised sensitive Audrey.

Hatred ran so high against the van Heemstra family – because of Ella’s Nazi sympathies and her collaboration with the Germans – that, when the Allies liberated Arnhem in May, 1945, the Baron had to hang his head in shame. He felt compelled to leave town and move to the Hague. (4)

Ella van Heemstra and Audrey Hepburn, ca. 1946.

Ella van Heemstra and Audrey Hepburn, ca. 1946.

With the war behind them, Ella concentrated her energies in forging ties with people who could further daughter Audrey’s career in becoming a prima ballerina, then a model, followed by a film star. They lived in Amsterdam for a time and then The Hague before settling in London.

Audrey Hepburn as a model. 1952

Audrey Hepburn as a model. 1952

What Joe Had Been Doing

Meanwhile, in the time since Audrey’s father had left his family, he had managed to get in a lot of legal and financial trouble. From 1935-1940, “Joe” Ruston was involved in multiple questionable business transactions that kept landing his name in the news in the Netherlands, England, and Belgium. In 1938, for example, he was being investigated by both the Belgium Parliament and the British House of Commons for his involvement in a corporation with financial ties to the Third Reich:

Mr. Anthony Ruston, a director of the European Press Agency, Ltd. [was] alleged in the Belgian parliament to have received £110,000 from German industrial chiefs in close touch with Dr. Goebbels [Nazi propaganda minister] to publish an anti-communist newspaper.” (5)

His two business partners at the European Press Agency were a Nazi lawyer and a member of the Gestapo.

Curiously, a year later, Anthony Ruston officially renounced and abandoned the name Anthony Joseph Victor Ruston and adopted the new name of Anthony Joseph Victor HEPBURN-Ruston. (6) Ruston claimed to have had a Hepburn relative with blood ties to James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell, the fourth husband of Mary, Queen of Scots. But the claim was bogus. True, there was a marriage to a Hepburn in his family line but there was no issue of which Ruston is kin.

Perhaps Ruston was attempting to prove his Britishness by connecting himself with a Scottish king. War clouds were gathering over Britain and Ruston was in hot water for his connections with Germany.

In June 1940, the Battle of Britain had begun, and England was earnestly at war with Germany. Anthony Ruston was arrested and imprisoned in England under Defense Regulation 18B, as he was considered an enemy of the state for his membership in “the British Union of Fascists…and as an associate of foreign fascists.” (7) He was interned for the duration of WWII, after which he settled in Ireland.

Sources:

(1) Dalley, Jan. Diana Mosley: A Biography of the Glamorous Mitford Sister who Became Hitler’s Friend and Married the Leader of Britain’s Fascists. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000. p. 195

(2)At Nuremberg,” The Blackshirt, October 11, 1935.

(3) 1557 Documentatiecollectie Tweede Wereldoorlog. Inventory number 247 Audrey Hepburn.  Gelders Archive. Arnhem, the Netherlands.

(4) Heemstra, Aarnoud Jan Anne Aleid Baron (1871-1957). Huygens: Biographical Dictionary of the Netherlands. (online)

(5) “Banned Nazi Barrister ‘Plays Violin Beautifully,'” Daily Express, March 31, 1938. (Manchester, UK newspaper with leading circulation in the 1930s)

(6) The London Gazette, April 21, 1939.

(7) Public Record, reference # KV 2/3190. The National Archives, Kew, UK

For more on Audrey Hepburn, click here.

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Corrie’s father turned on the old table radio to warm it up. Corrie felt that the small, portable one would have worked just fine, but her father insisted on using this old one. It was to be a major broadcast, he said, and the old radio had an elaborate speaker. The prime minister of the Netherlands was to address the Dutch nation.

It was 9:15 on a Thursday night, an hour when Corrie, Father, and Corrie’s sister Betsie normally would be heading upstairs to bed. As was their custom, they had already said their prayers and read a passage from the Bible. But, this evening, they would stay up a little later.

Corrie, Betsie, and Nollie Ten Boom

Corrie, Betsie, and Nollie Ten Boom

The Ten Boom family lived above their watch shop in Haarlem in the Netherlands (Holland).

Casper Ten Boom in watch shop

Casper Ten Boom in watch shop

It was May 9, 1940. World War II was raging in Europe. The aggressive German army had invaded and occupied Poland, Norway, and Denmark. As a result, England and France had declared war on Germany. The Netherlands, however, did not and would not enter the conflict. They had declared their neutrality, the same as they had done in the first world war. Germany had respected their neutrality then and would do so again, they expected.

But every day fresh rumors reached their ears of an impending German invasion. Would Holland be drawn into the war? To calm these fears, the German Nazis repeatedly pledged goodwill to the people of the Netherlands. Many times Corrie had heard Hitler himself on the radio, promising the Dutch people that he would not invade their country.

Finally, it was 9:30, and time for the prime minister’s speech. The Ten Booms pulled their wooden, high-backed chairs closer to the radio, leaning in to listen, tense.

The parlor of the Ten Boom house in Haarlem, the Netherlands

The parlor of the Ten Boom house in Haarlem, the Netherlands

The prime minister’s voice filtered over the air waves. Tonight, it was pleasant and soothing. He told the Dutch people that there was no reason to worry. There would be no war. He knew it for a fact. He had spoken to people in high places.

In spite of the prime minister’s encouraging words, The Ten Booms were not comforted. The broadcast ended. They went upstairs to bed.

Five hours later and 37 miles south down the coast, 19 year old Diet (Deet) Eman woke up to noise outside her bedroom window. It was about 3 in the morning. It sounded as if someone was beating a rug. It was a steady, staccato sound – “pop-pop-pop” – only much faster. Deet lived in The Hague, Netherlands, where Queen Wilhelmina and her government were established.

Diet Eman was 19 years old when the Germans invaded the Netherlands.

Diet Eman was 19 years old when the Germans invaded the Netherlands

“This is crazy!” She thought. “Some idiot is beating rugs right now, and it’s pitch dark outside.” It’s true it was Friday morning and Friday was the day of the week that Dutch women typically beat rugs. But who would beat rugs at three in the morning?

What Diet heard was the first sound of the war. The Germans had invaded the Netherlands. The skies were filled with German parachutists falling. German Stukas dive-bombed the airfield, wiping out the Dutch biplanes. Diet’s sister’s fiancé, part of the weak Dutch army, was killed that day in the German bombing.

German parachutists attack the Netherlands May 10-14, 1940

German parachutists attack the Netherlands May 10-14, 1940

The Dutch people had been caught off guard. So many times they had readied for invasion only to discover it was a false alarm. Over time, they had grown complacent, caught in the net of Nazi lies and deception.

Some of the invading German soldiers crossed the border and parachuted from planes in disguise. They wore Dutch, French, and Belgian military uniforms and carried machine guns. Their disguises allowed them to roam freely behind the Dutch lines. It was Hitler’s idea to deceive and infiltrate the enemy; the Dutch army would be confused and not know who to shoot, the French and the Belgians being their allies. Dutch Nazis met them upon arrival and aided their sabotage activities. Other German soldiers dressed up as nuns, bicyclists, priests, peasants, and schoolboys in order to move undetected among the Dutch population. They seized key strongholds like water controls and bridges to pave the way for the German infantry.

Peace talks were underway when the Germans went ahead and ruthlessly bombed Rotterdam, the Netherlands. This was the message: If the Netherlands doesn't surrender, we will do what we did to Rotterdam to every one of the Dutch cities until you surrender.

Peace talks were underway when the Germans went ahead and ruthlessly bombed Rotterdam, the Netherlands. This was the message: If the Netherlands doesn’t surrender, we will do what we did to Rotterdam to every one of the Dutch cities until you surrender.

The German blitzkrieg crushed the Dutch defenses in five days, allowing the Germans to turn their attention then to invading France. On May 14, 1940, the Netherlands surrendered and the German occupation began in earnest. Germans moved swiftly to prepare Dutch airbases to send missiles to destroy England.

With the May 1940 occupation of Holland, Germany is poised to attack England.

With the May 1940 occupation of Holland, Germany is poised to attack England.

Queen Wilhelmina broadcasts over the BBC to her people in the Netherlands during WWII.
However, Queen Wilhelmina had foiled the Nazi plot to kidnap her and escaped, by boat, to England, where she set up a government in exile. Thanks to the BBC radio network, she was able to speak to her people for the next five years over the radio, urging them to resist the Germans.

It was revealed that the Nazis who had been trained to capture her – but had failed – had taken lessons in how to correctly address royalty. After capturing her, the plan went, a German general would come calling, a bouquet of flowers in hand, and attempt to persuade her to call off all resistance activity.

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George VI (Albert Frederick Arthur George; 14 December 1895 – 6 February 1952) was King of the United Kingdom and the Dominions of the British Commonwealth from 11 December 1936 until his death. He was the last Emperor of India, and the first Head of the Commonwealth.

George VI (Albert Frederick Arthur George; 14 December 1895 – 6 February 1952) was King of the United Kingdom and the Dominions of the British Commonwealth from 11 December 1936 until his death. He was the last Emperor of India, and the first Head of the Commonwealth.

It was Christmas, 1939, and Great Britain was at war with Nazi Germany. Like his father before him, King George VI would continue the holiday tradition of addressing the British Empire in a live radio message. That year, he would broadcast from the royal country house at Sandringham, where he and his family would spend Christmas.

The Royal Residence at Sandringham, England

The Royal Residence at Sandringham, England

King George VI and his family leave Buckingham Palace, 1939, to spend Christmas at their country house at Sandringham. Pictured are the King and his wife Queen Elizabeth, daughters Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret Rose. Princess Elizabeth would become Queen Elizabeth upon the death of her father in 1952.

King George VI and his family leave Buckingham Palace, 1939, to spend Christmas at their country house at Sandringham. Pictured are the King and his wife Queen Elizabeth, daughters Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret Rose. Princess Elizabeth would become Queen Elizabeth upon the death of her father in 1952.

You will remember that King George VI was not a man comfortable with public speaking. His struggle to overcome a debilitating speech impediment – a stutter – was immortalized in the 2011 American Academy Award-winning film for Best Picture, “The King’s Speech.” A shy, nervous man, a heavy smoker and drinker (it would kill him at 56), King George VI would have preferred to have remained the Duke of York, living a quiet, out-of-the-public eye life with his sturdy wife and two rosy-cheeked daughters.

British Royal Princesses Elizabeth (l.) and Margaret Rose. February 1939, 7 months before the outbreak of WWII

British Royal Princesses Elizabeth (l.) and Margaret Rose. This photo was taken in February 1939, seven months before the outbreak of WWII.

King George VI – born Albert, called Bertie – never wanted to be king. He wasn’t supposed to be king. He was only king because his brother David had abdicated the throne in 1936 and he, Bertie, was next in line. Nevertheless, unwillingness aside, this unlikely monarch would rise to the occasion and be the very king the British people so sorely needed in a time of great trouble.

It was December 25, 1939, the day of the broadcast. Dressed in the uniform of the Admiral of the Fleet, the tall and too thin sovereign approached the table where two radio microphones were set up, taking his seat.

King George VI addresses his people on September 19, 1939, at the outbreak of WWII.

King George VI addresses his people on September 19, 1939, at the outbreak of WWII.

Taking a few deep breaths, he began to speak, slowly yet solidly. Measuring his words carefully, he spoke from the heart:

“A new year is at hand. We cannot tell what it will bring. If it brings peace, how thankful we shall all be. If it brings us continued struggle we shall remain undaunted.”

Toward the end of his nine-minute broadcast, he said:

“I feel that we may all find a message of encouragement in the lines which, in my closing words, I would like to say to you:”

He then read from a poem given to him by his 13-year-old daughter, Princess Elizabeth,

I said to the man who stood at the Gate of the Year,
‘Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.’
And he replied, ‘Go out into the darkness, and put your hand into the Hand of God.
That shall be better than light, and safer than a known way.’”*

He finished by saying,

“May that Almighty Hand guide and uphold us all.”

For a king not known for compelling speeches, this one would be a landmark. It united King and Country in common cause and inspired the people to hold fast. After all, at this point in history, no one knew that the Allies would triumph. Britain was to face five more years of war and brutal bombing by Hitler before the day of liberation would arrive. The end of 1939 was a shaky time and great leadership by King, Queen, and Prime Minister Winston Churchill would hold Britain steady against the Nazi aggressors.

Queen Elizabeth and King George VI of Great Britain stop at Vallence Road, Stepney, in the East End, London, to examine the debris following an air raid in the Second World War. October 4, 1945

Queen Elizabeth and King George VI of Great Britain stop at Vallence Road, Stepney, in the East End, London, to examine the debris following an air raid in the Second World War. October 4, 1945

King George VI pins a Distinguished Service Medal on Chief Petty Officer C.L.Baldwin in December 1939.

King George VI pins a Distinguished Service Medal on Chief Petty Officer C.L.Baldwin in December 1939.

Listen to the last four minutes of the King’s Christmas 1939 message here:

For more about the British Royal Family on this blog, click here.

Click here for the full text of the King’s 1939 Christmas Message plus The REAL austerity Christmas: How a nation gripped by fear kept calm and carried  on three months after outbreak of war in 1939

*“The Gate of the Year,” by Minnie Haskins (1908)

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At a 1968 British society wedding in Kent, Hollywood legend Elizabeth Taylor snaps a souvenir picture of the Queen Mum (seated), mother of Queen Elizabeth II. The Queen Mum

At a 1968 British society wedding in Kent, Hollywood legend Elizabeth Taylor cannot resist snapping a souvenir picture of "the Queen Mum" (seated), mother of Queen Elizabeth II.

“The Queen Mum,” born Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon (1900-2002), was the beloved British Royal Family matriarch from 1953 until her death at age 101. Of Scottish birth, she served as Queen consort to her husband King George VI from 1936 until his death in 1952, when their daughter Princess Elizabeth took the throne as Elizabeth II.

During the London Blitz in WWII, the Queen Mum – who was then naturally referred to as Queen Elizabeth – insisted that she and the King remain in Buckingham Palace after it was bombed by the German luftwaffe. The Queen remarked to her mother-in-law that she was more affected by the bombing of the East End of London than by the bombing of the Palace:

“I’m glad we have been bombed,” she said. “Now, I can look the East End in the eye.” (1)

British King George VI and his wife Queen Elizabeth (later Elizabeth, the Queen Mother) survey the damage to Buckingham Palace from German bombs. Both the King and Queen were in the Palace when the attack hit the palace grounds and chapel on the morning of September 13, 1940. As they made their way to the palace shelter, they felt the Palace shake under the assault of high explosive and incendiary bombs. They were unhurt. Undeterred by the danger, the royal couple vowed to stay in London in the Palace.

I am still just as frightened of bombs as I was at the beginning,” the Queen wrote to a favourite niece. “I turn bright red and my heart hammers….I’m a beastly coward but I do believe that a lot people are, so I don’t mind! Well, darling, I must stop. Tinkety tonk old fruit and down with the Nazis.”(2)

Her indomitable spirit in the face of German aggression boosted British morale to such a degree that Adolf Hitler called her “the most dangerous woman in Europe.”

Her scary skinny sister-in-law, Wallis, the Duchess of Windsor, hated and mocked her, calling her by the unflattering nickname “Cookie” behind her back, mocking her love of sweets and resulting plumpness. The Queen Mum, however, did not hide her love of fun, jokes, champagne, and good food. In the 2010 movie, “The King’s Speech,” the Queen Mum, played by Helena Bonham Carter, is shown eating candies in the backseat of a car.

Her ultimate accolade for anyone or anything was “delicious.”(2)

Elizabeth, the Queen Mother

A new book by British monarchy chronicler, Brian Hoey, gives us yet another “behind the palace walls” glimpse of the Queen Mum enjoying her sweets.  Not in Front of the Corgis, scheduled for a June 2012 release, relates this anecdote: 

Lord Callaghan, when he was prime minister (1976-1979), was a frequent guest of the Queen Mother’s at Clarence House. Once, when just the two of them were present, she was eating from an enormous box of chocolates when he arrived.  She asked him if he would like one. He said, “Yes.” She then pointed to one in the middle of the box and said, “Have that one.” During the time he was eating his one specified chocolate, she ate three more. 

She then invited him to take another, once again selecting the one he should have. This went on for the remainder of the morning, with Her Majesty always pointing to the ones he could have.

As Callaghan left, he spoke to The Queen’s Page, asking why he was offered only particular chocolates by the Queen. The Page let him in on the secret:

“Those are the ones with hard centers. Her Majesty only eats the chocolates with soft centers.”(3)

(1) Source: BBC

(2) Source: The Daily Beast

(3) Source: The Daily Beast

Faithful readers:

  •  For more on the Queen Mum on this blog, click here.
  • For more on the British Royal Family on this blog, click here.
  • For more on Elizabeth Taylor on this blog, click here.
  • For more on Wallis, the Duchess of Windsor on this blog, click here.

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Self-Portrait by Richard Avedon

Self-Portrait by Richard Avedon (1923-2004)

Photographer Annie Leibovitz doesn’t talk to her subjects when photographing them. “I certainly can’t talk to people and take pictures at the same time. For one thing, I look through a viewfinder when I work.” (1)

But famed photographer Richard Avedon had a different style. Leibovitz observed that Avedon “seduced his subjects with conversation. He had a Rolleiflex that he would look down at and then up from. It was never in front of his face” but next to him while he talked. (1)

 

 

Truman Capote, author of "In Cold Blood" and "Breakfast at Tiffany's" photographed by Richard Avedon in New York City, 1955.

Truman Capote, author of "In Cold Blood" and "Breakfast at Tiffany's" photographed by Richard Avedon in New York City, 1955.

In this way, Avedon got what he wanted from his sitter. According to writer Truman Capote, Avedon was interested in “the mere condition of a face.”

The Duchess and Duke of Windsor with one of their beloved pugs.

The Duchess and Duke of Windsor with one of their beloved pugs.

 

Some, though, felt that Avedon’s impulses had a cruel edge, showing the face in a harsh light. Here’s a case in point: In 1957, Richard Avedon scheduled a New York City appointment to photograph the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, formerly King Edward VIII of the United Kingdom and Wallis Warfield Simpson of Baltimore. The Windsors were very practiced at putting on happy, regal faces for the camera and Avedon anticipated that. As a royal pair, they were endlessly photographed since they had nothing better to do with themselves since the Duke abdicated the British throne in 1936, giving up crown and kingdom, and moving to France with Wallis.

But Avedon didn’t want that kind of stock photo of the royal pair. According to another fellow photographer, Diane Arbus, Avedon knew that the Windsors were avid dog lovers and would use this knowledge to cruel advantage.

Valet in livery of the Bois de Bologne, Paris, home of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor with pugs Mr. Disraeli, Mr. Chu, Trooper, Imp, and Davy Crockett

Valet in livery of the Bois de Bologne, Paris home of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor with pugs Mr. Disraeli, Mr. Chu, Trooper, Imp, and Davy Crockett

 

In 1997, Sotheby's auctioned off the contents of the Paris home of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Included in their possessions were these pug pillows arranged at the foot of the Duchess' bed. Although Wallis, the Duchess, was fastidious about cleanliness, she allowed the pugs to sleep in the bed with her. "“Paper money for the Duchess was either ordered new and crisp from a bank or wash cleaned and ironed by the housemaids; coins were always washed. Each evening, just before dinner was served, two maids could be found carrying bedsheets through the halls by their corners; the bed linens, having just been ironed, were destined for the rooms of the Duke and Duchess. Wallis could not stand wrinkles in her bed….Once the bed was made, a plastic sheet was spred atop the satin eiderdown so that the pugs could climb onto the bed with Wallis; there she would feed them the hand-baked dog biscuits prepared fresh each day by her chef. Usually the pugs slept on the bed with her, although the Duke’s favorite might disappear through the boudoir to his own spot at the foot of his master’s bed.” The Duchess of Windsor: The Uncommon Life of Wallis Simpson by Greg King

In 1997, Sotheby's auctioned off the contents of the Paris home of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Included in their possessions were these pug pillows arranged at the foot of the Duchess' bed. Although Wallis, the Duchess, was fastidious about cleanliness, she allowed the pugs to sleep in the bed with her. "“Paper money for the Duchess was either ordered new and crisp from a bank or wash cleaned and ironed by the housemaids; coins were always washed. Each evening, just before dinner was served, two maids could be found carrying bedsheets through the halls by their corners; the bed linens, having just been ironed, were destined for the rooms of the Duke and Duchess. Wallis could not stand wrinkles in her bed….Once the bed was made, a plastic sheet was spread atop the satin eiderdown so that the pugs could climb onto the bed with Wallis; there she would feed them the hand-baked dog biscuits prepared fresh each day by her chef. Usually the pugs slept on the bed with her, although the Duke’s favorite might disappear through the boudoir to his own spot at the foot of his master’s bed.” The Duchess of Windsor: The Uncommon Life of Wallis Simpson by Greg King

This is what he did: When Avedon arrived at the appointment to photograph the Windsors, he got them seated just as he wanted them then told them a lie. He explained how, on his way to meet them, his taxi had accidentally run over a dog in the street and killed it. As the Windsors flinched with sympathetic horror, Avedon clicked the shutter – and caught their expression. Here is that photo.

The Duchess and Duke of Windsor, New York, 1957. Photograph by Richard Avedon

The Duchess and Duke of Windsor, New York, 1957. Photograph by Richard Avedon

The photograph caused an international sensation. Some said it made the Duchess look like a toad. British Royalists were outraged at the unflattering portrait. But Avedon defended lying to the couple to conceive the portrait, arguing that his photographs tended to show what people were really like.

If that was indeed true, the Windsors appeared to be two very dreadful people, a suspicion already aroused by their most ungracious familiarity with Adolf Hitler and his Nazi cronies in the pre WWII years. While living in an elegant Paris home provided by the French government on a lavish income bestowed on them by the  British government, the Windsors regularly made pro-fascist remarks to the press as well as disparaging comments about their lack of loyalty to either of  their host countries, France and Britain. They palled around with British traitors like Oswald Mosley and wife Diana Mitford in the French countryside until the Duke’s brother, the reigning King George VI of the United Kingdom got wise to the danger and shipped them off to the Bahamas for the duration of the war.

Avedon once remarked that the Windsors loved dogs more than they loved Jews.

(1) Leibovitz, Annie. Annie Leibovitz at Work. New York: Random House, 2008.

Readers: For more posts on this site on Annie Leibovitz or the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, scroll down the right sidebar: Categories: People.

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1936 The Year of Three British Kings: George V, Edward VIII, George VI

1936 The Year of Three British Kings: dad George V and his 2 sons - George VI & Edward VIII

The year 1936 brought many changes within the British monarchy. In January of that year, the first monarch of the House of Windsor, King George V, died and his son, Edward VIII ascended the throne. King Edward VIII though was not destined to rule long. He had a married American mistress – Wallis Warfield Simpson – who was in the process of divorcing her second husband. The King’s choice of sweetheart would soon bring him tumbling down.

Wallis Warfield Simpson, Duchess of Windsor (1896-1986). Wallis' second husband Ernest Simpson couldn't keep her happy. She was accustomed to a grander style of living than he was capable of providing. She found that way of life with the then Prince of Wales, who ascended to the British throne in 1936 as King Edward VIII. The King was obsessed with Wallis, showering with jewels and clothes and taking her on expensive cruises - while she was still married to Mr. Simpson. Wallis had cast her spell.

Wallis Warfield Simpson, Duchess of Windsor (1896-1986). Wallis' second husband Ernest Simpson couldn't keep her happy. She was accustomed to a grander style of living than he was capable of providing. They were living well beyond their means and having to fire servants when, in 1931, she was introduced to the playboy Prince of Wales, who ascended to the British throne in 1936 as King Edward VIII. The King - called "David" by his friends and family - dropped all his other married girlfriends and became obsessed with Wallis, showering her with jewels and clothes and taking her on expensive ocean cruises - while she was still Mrs. Married Simpson.

The King shocked the nation – already reeling from the King’s scandalous behavior of appearing in the society pages with Mrs. Simpson – by announcing that he planned to marry Mrs. Simpson.

The British people and the government would never have accepted Mrs. Simpson as their queen. Divorced people were not accepted at court, especially ones with two living ex-husbands. Although the King was not forbidden to marry Mrs. Simpson, Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin advised him, on religious and political grounds, that he must make a choice between the throne and marrying Mrs. Simpson – or the government would resign.

By December 1936, King Edward had made his decision. He used his power to expedite Wallis’ divorce from Ernest Simpson [divorces took years back then] then, declared to his kingdom – the United Kingdom, Canada, and India – that it was impossible to carry out his duties “without the help and support of the woman I love,” and gave up the throne. Edward became the only monarch in the history of Great Britain to voluntarily abdicate. Edward’s younger brother, King George VI, then ascended the throne. Edward did marry Wallis and they became the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, settling in France until World War II began.

 

Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon [pictured] was Wallis’ sister-in-law. She was married to King George VI, the Duke of Windsor’s younger brother who ascended the throne following his  1936 abdication. Elizabeth was known as “The Queen Mum” in later years, after King George VI died in 1952 and their daughter, “Lilibet,” became Queen Elizabeth II. Queen Elizabeth II’s mother – also called Queen Elizabeth when she was queen – died in 2002 at the age of 101.  The Queen Mum hated Wallis, the Duchess of Windsor, and was determined that Wallis would never reenter British society after causing the abdication crisis. She also blamed the Duke and Wallis for the premature death of her husband George VI in 1952 upon the stress of his reign as king – again, because of her brother-in-law’s abdication to marry Wallis. Wallis wasn’t so happy with the Queen herself and returned her hostile sentiments, ridiculing the Queen’s fussy style of confectionary dress by nicknaming her “Cake.” Wallis had never forgotten the snub that King George VI gave her – at his wife Queen Elizabeth’s insistence – of refusing to allow Wallis to be referred to as “Her Royal Highness.”"The Queen Mum" in later years. Queen Elizabeth II's mother died in 2002 at the age of 101. She hated the Duchess of Windsor and the Duchess of Windsor returned her sentiments, calling her the dowdy duchess [when the Queen Mum was the Duchess of York] and "Cake" for her confectionary style of dressing.

The abdication and the subsequent exile to France of the newly titled Duke and Duchess of Windsor turned out to be a gigantic blessing for the UK, because, by September of 1939, Great Britain would declare war on Nazi Germany. It was a good thing King Edward VIII had been replaced with the level-headed King George VI and his queen, Queen Elizabeth (known later as the Queen Mum). They had the good sense to see the threat a Nazi Germany presented and the courage to lead the British people through the terrible bombings of Great Britain by the Nazis. King George VI began his reign as a reluctant king. He was a nervous man with a pronounced stutter who never wanted to rule. But, with Queen Elizabeth by his side, they were able to summon the strength from God and selves to help the British people endure the war and oppose the Nazi regime.

“When war broke out in 1939, George VI and his wife resolved to stay in London and not flee to Canada, as had been suggested. The King and Queen officially stayed in Buckingham Palace throughout the war, although they usually spent nights at Windsor Castle to avoid bombing raids. George VI and Queen Elizabeth narrowly avoided death when two German bombs exploded in a courtyard at Buckingham Palace while they were there.”

So, as history would have it, Great Britain owes an enormous debt to Wallis, the Duchess of Windsor, for spiriting the Duke away before he could do any real harm. At the time, it seemed a great sadness for the Duke to have to give up the throne because convention wouldn’t allow for him to be married to the Duchess. But now we know that it would have been a disaster for him to be King during World War II. Because, as it turned out, both he and the Duchess were  Nazi sympathizers. They held their wedding ceremony at the Chateau de Cande in Mont, France, the home of Nazi collaborator Charles Bedaux.

Within months, Bedaux had arranged for them to travel to Germany to dine with Adolf Hitler. It was widely believed that Hitler planned to install the Duke back on the British throne after the Germans had conquered England. The Duke was desperate for a kingdom and made no secret of his fondness for fascism. Fortunately,the Duke’s brother, the King, got wind of his brother’s nefarious activities and schemes and, at the start of the War, whisked him and the Duchess off to a British island [the Bahamas] far out in the Caribbean. Had  Edward been the British monarch during WWII, not George VI, we might today to looking at a frighteningly different world order.

King George V, the Duke of Windsor’s father, never thought much of his son David. He was disgusted by his son’s playboy ways and inability to grow up and settle down.

The King [George V] was reluctant to see Edward inherit the Crown, and was quoted as saying of Edward [the Duke of Windsor]:”After I am dead, the boy will ruin himself in 12 months.”

George V knew his son well. King Edward VIII…or “David,” the Prince of Wales,  the Duke of Windsor, – he had so many names, it can be so confusing – was self-indulgent to the point of self-destruction. King Edward VIII’s reign as monarch was one of the shortest in British history, lasting  only 325 days, or about 11 months, one month less than his father had so sagely predicted. Edward never did have a coronation ceremony. He was never crowned king.

Readers, for more on the Duke and Duchess of Windsor on this blog:

See “Wallis, the Duchess of Windsor” and “Coco Chanel, Nazi Lovers, and the Windsor Set.”

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Wallis Warfield marries the former King Edward VIII of Britain on June 3, 1937, in France. The day before the wedding, the Prince's brother, the new British king, George VI, sent him a letter granting him and Wallis new titles: the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. The titles were hollow; there was no dominion of Windsor to rule. Even worse: the King's letter contained a bomb - the Prince, despite his abdication of the throne, could continue to "hold and enjoy...the title, style or attribute of Royal Highness," but his bride, the Duchess, could not, nor could any of their offspring. She, though a duchess, was denied what her sister-in-laws would enjoy - that her name would be preceded by the magic initials 'H.R.H.' "What a damnable wedding present!" Windsor shouted. (J.Bryan III and Charles J.V. Murphy,

Wallis Warfield (Simpson) marries the former King Edward VIII of Britain on June 3, 1937, in France, after he gave up the British throne to be with her. Wallis Warfield Simpson was an American divorcee. For the King to have married her and tried to install her as his Queen would have precipitated a constitutional crisis in Great Britain....The wedding day dawned bright and sunny. It was Wallis' third wedding; her dress was not white but blue. Blue was also the mood. The day before the wedding, the former king's brother, the new British king, George VI, sent Edward a letter granting him and Wallis new titles: the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. The titles were hollow; there was no dominion of Windsor to rule. Even worse: the King's letter contained a bomb - the former king, now titled the Duke, despite his abdication of the throne, could continue to "hold and enjoy...the title, style or attribute of Royal Highness," but his bride, the Duchess, could not, nor could any of their offspring. She, though a duchess, was denied what her sister-in-laws would enjoy - that her name would be preceded by the magic initials 'H.R.H.' At her entrance, no women had to curtsey, no men to bow. She would not be referred to as "Her Highness" but with the lower form of "Her Grace." "What a damnable wedding present!" Windsor shouted upon reading the King's letter. (Bryan III, J. and Murphy, Charles J.V., The Windsor Story. New York: Dell, 1979.)

In 1937, after King Edward VIII had given up the British throne to marry his American divorcee, Wallis Warfield Simpson, the two tiny, trim party animals were exiled to France, where they were doomed to live a life of idle nothingness. They were given the new but hollow titles of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Accustomed to a lifetime of adulation and privilege yet denied a kingdom, the Duke (and the Duchess), set about creating an imaginary realm of their own that would given them the validation they craved as royals. This new kingdom:

“…was a region whose borders were outlined in society pages, peopled mostly by glamorous nobodies lucky enough to have been born into wealth. It was an ornamental place, whose citizens, according to Andrew Bolton, the curator of ”Blithe Spirit” [a past costume exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum], were unsurpassed ”in the beauty, elegance and craftsmanship” of their dress. For self-indulgence, they were also hard to beat.”

The people who congregated around the Duke and Duchess were dubbed the “Windsor set.” They were all-consumed with the photographic image.

“They arranged those lives to suit the lens. Voluntarily estranged from the real aristocracy, the Duke of Windsor, with the aid of his wife, the former Wallis Warfield Simpson, set up a parallel court composed of people like Elsie de Wolfe, the interior decorator and social arbiter; Mona Bismarck, a gorgeous adventuress who was the daughter of a stableman on a Kentucky horse farm; and Daisy Fellowes, whose fortune derived from sewing machines and who had the distinction of being one of the first people on record to alter her nose surgically.”

the Duke and Duchess of Windsor at home with their precious pug dogs. The Duchess, the former Wallis Warfield Simpson, often appeared in her stylish best in public with a pug tucked under one arm. It became a fashion trend - to carry a dog around with you when away from home.

the Duke and Duchess of Windsor at home with their precious pug dogs. The Duchess, the former Wallis Warfield Simpson, often appeared in her stylish best in public with a pug tucked under one arm. It became a fashion trend - to carry a dog around with you when away from home.

Granted, the Windsors were despicable people, dining with Adolf Hitler in 1937 and hobnobbing with fellow Nazi sympathizers and British ex-pats Oswald Mosley and wife Diana Mitford. Nevertheless, the Duke and Duchess – and their fancy friends – obsessed with clothing,  had tremendous style.

Adolf Hitler kisses the hand of the Duchess of Windsor as her husband the Duke looks on, admiringly. The Duke and Duchess of Windsor visited Germany in 1937 before WWII broke out across Europe. They were outspoken supporters of Nazi fascism and suspected of spying for Germany. At the beginning of the war, the Windsors were whisked out of France to safe haven in the Bahamas, where the Duke served out the war years as governor. There he could do Britain little harm - and he was less likely of being kidnapped by the Germans who were reportedly interested in installing him as a puppet king in a conquered Great Britain under German rule.

Adolf Hitler kisses the hand of the Duchess of Windsor as her husband the Duke looks on, admiringly. The Duke and Duchess of Windsor visited Germany in 1937 before WWII broke out across Europe. They were outspoken supporters of Nazi fascism and suspected of spying for Germany. At the beginning of the war, the Windsors were whisked out of France to safe haven in the Bahamas, where the Duke served out the war years as governor. There he could do Britain little harm - and he was less likely of being kidnapped by the Germans who were reportedly interested in installing him as a puppet king in a conquered Great Britain under German rule.

Fashion designer Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel (French, 1883-1971) at Lido Beach in 1936

Fashion designer Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel (French, 1883-1971) at Lido Beach in 1936

"Evening Dress," 1938. Gabrielle ("Coco") Chanel. Black Silk Net with Polychrome Sequins. The Metropolitan Museum of ARt, New York. Special Exhibit: "Blithe Spirit: The Windsor Set" The decoration of sequined fireworks on this evening dress, which was worn by the Countess Madeleine de Montgomery to Lady Mendl's seventy-fifth birthday party in 1939, is a fitting climax to le beau monde of the 1930s. It was the end of an era when, on Sept. 1, 1939, Parisians heard an early-morning radio announcemen from Herr Hitler in German, at once translated into French, that "as of this moment, we are at war with Poland." The thirties were over; the Second World War had begun.

"Evening Dress," 1938. Gabrielle ("Coco") Chanel. Black Silk Net with Polychrome Sequins. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Special Exhibit: "Blithe Spirit: The Windsor Set" The decoration of sequined fireworks on this evening dress, which was worn by the Countess Madeleine de Montgomery to Lady Mendl's seventy-fifth birthday party in 1939, is a fitting climax to le beau monde of the 1930s. It was the end of an era when, on Sept. 1, 1939, Parisians heard an early-morning radio announcement from Herr Hitler in German, at once translated into French, that "as of this moment, we are at war with Poland." The thirties were over; the Second World War had begun.

The Windsors were famous for their elegant Paris dinner parties, creating a demand for expensive clothes and jewels for them and their guests. Thus, the prewar years in France from 1935-1940 were rich in the decorative arts, putting trendy fashion designers front and center. It was a time when Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel was “rethinking the suit” to allow for the way women really move and Elsa Schiaparelli* was designing lobster dresses with surrealist Salvador Dali.*

Then Hitler invaded Poland and World War II shattered the fantasy world of endless cocktail parties and silk and organza gowns made to order. The Germans invaded and occupied France.

Shockingly, Coco Chanel spent the war years living at the Ritz in Paris with a Nazi officer. After the war was over, Chanel was arrested by the free French for suspicion of collaborating with the Nazis. She purportedly offered this explanation for sleeping with the enemy:

 “Really, sir, a woman of my age cannot be expected to look at his passport if she has a chance of a lover.”

It is generally believed that Winston Churchill  intervened with the French government, convincing them to let his old friend Coco Chanel escape to Switzerland rather than be paraded through the streets of Paris with her head shaved like other female Nazi collaborators.

Women accused of being Nazi collaborators are humiliated after the liberation of France, 1944. © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis

Women accused of being Nazi collaborators are humiliated after the liberation of France, 1944. © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis

Jackie Kennedy in her pink Chanel suit and pillbox hat, riding through Dallas in a motorcade just minutes before a sniper kills her husband, President John F. Kennedy

Fast forward 19 years. It's November 22, 1963. Jackie Kennedy,* in her pink Chanel suit and pillbox hat, is riding through Dallas in a motorcade just minutes before a sniper kills her husband, President John F. Kennedy

*For more on the Kennedys on this blog, please see right sidebar – Categories – People  – the Kennedys.
See “Wallis, the Duchess of Windsor,” which follows this blog post.

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