Sunday, September 29, 2013

Two women; one mission—help the Maquis foil the Nazis

I have just returned from the medieval city of Florence, where only one ancient bridge remains of the many that once spanned the river Arno. The reason? German bombing as they retreated from Italy near the end of World War II. Before leaving for Europe, I had consumed Elizabeth Wein's Code Name Verity in one sitting. Like the story of Florence's surviving Ponte Vecchio, it plunged me back to a time when danger and destruction were the stuff of daily life. Wein's novel boasts not one, but two heroines. "Queenie" is good with languages, Maddie with machines. Both are fascinating, resourceful, and intrepid. Although the ordeals they face as they carry out their covert missions in occupied France would make most of us cower, their fictional exploits are no more incredible than those of the actual Allied agents who inspired them. (Click here for an article on the author's research. She is a pilot herself, which accounts for much of the book's verisilimitude.)
Pilots Mona Friedlander (left) and Joan Hughes wearing parachutes for a demonstration flight for the Air Transport Auxiliary Service in which they replaced male pilots, freeing them for combat duty in World War II. January 10, 1940. (Hudson/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)
I hate to give away much of the plot, because it is so ingenious and hair-raising. I very much agree with Marjorie Ingalls' summation in the New York Times,
This is a rare young adult novel entirely about female power and female friendship, with only the faintest whiff of cute-boy romance. I’d tell you more about the “Usual Suspects”-meets-“If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler” plot, but then I’d have to kill you. I do think “Code Name Verity” will appeal more to adults than to teenagers.
Salon's Laura Miller honed in on that theme as well:
Wein has written a puzzle novel whose cleverness never overwhelms its spirit and heart. Although published as YA (Young Adult) fiction, it’s a bit of an odd duck in the genre. Its accounts of Nazi torture and death camps are serious and frank (and, it should be added, quite true to the fates of the many brave young people, male and female, who fought for the French Resistance), which will make it too disturbing for some youthful readers. And there’s no dreamy romance, a apparent requirement in YA books for girls these days.
Instead, “Code Name: Verity” is about female camaraderie and valor. Maddie and Queenie, who meet in the service, instantly cross class divisions to become best friends. It wasn’t just romances that broke the rules during wartime, after all. Maddie marvels at Queenie’s improvisational daring and Queenie views Maddie’s piloting talents as a pure and beautiful art that transcends the dirty expediencies of war. For all the intricacies of its plotting, this novel is rooted in character.
Wein's plucky heroines have even engendered a rash of fan art, as in the samples below.
Excerpt from Code Name Verity
I AM A COWARD. I wanted to be heroic and I pretended I was. I have always been good at pretending. I spent the first twelve years of my life playing at the Battle of Stirling Bridge with my five big brothers—and even though I am a girl, they let me be William Wallace, who is supposed to be one of our ancestors, because I did the most rousing battle speeches. God, I tried hard last week. My God, I tried. But now I know I am a coward. After the ridiculous deal I made with SS-Hauptsturmführer von Linden, I know I am a coward. And I'm going to give you anything you ask, everything I can remember. Absolutely Every Last Detail. 

Friday, September 27, 2013

The Maid and the Queen

by Linda Thornburg, guest blogger
I thought I was changing my tack, moving as I was back to 15th-century France after writing for a week about contemporary bad girls, good girls, Wrens and Elizabeth Taylor. Clearly this was a positive, even literate turn as a guest blogger for readers of The Daily Glean. Then it struck me. Was I daft? I was now reading about the most bad ass girl of all time: voice hearing, horse riding, army leading, men’s clothes wearing, Joan of Arc, in Nancy Goldstone’s The Maid and the Queen.
After reading an obituary recently for Julie Harris, I re-watched a few of her films, Requiem for a Heavyweight, East of Eden, and an episode of Route 66. I couldn’t shake off thinking of Harris playing Joan in Jean Anouilh’s The Lark, adapted by Lillian Hellman. I mourned not having seen it.

Apart from meeting Ms. Harris backstage twice–the first time asking her to read my screenplay, and the second time having her turn down the role–my connection with her was vicarious at best. I played Joan in a college production of The Lark. 
Once you’ve stepped into the skin of the radical, truth-to-power speaking Joan, there’s no going back. You are one with all the Joans of history.
I rummaged through some boxes in the basement and pulled out my stained and tattered playbook. Joan sprung back to life.
JOAN. I want a horse. I want the dress of a man. I want an armed escort. You will give them orders to take me to Chinon to see the Dauphin.
BEAUDRICOURT. Of course. And I will also kick you in the place it will do the most good.
JOAN. Kicks, blows. Whichever you like best. I’m used to them by now. I want a horse. I want the dress of a man. I want an armed escort.
(I’ve often thought Joan’s persecutors had more trouble dealing with the men’s clothing than with her visions.)

Joan faced the Angels. She faced the wrath of her father, who threatened to drown her, himself, if she spoke any more about soldiers and saints. She faced the mockery of Beaudricourt. She overcame the timidity of the Dauphin. She rode against greater English forces. She matched wits with Inquisitors. At her back was Yolande of Aragon, Queen of Sicily, one of the most astute politicians of the era, one of the most beautiful women in Europe, and also protector, defender and mother-in-law to the Dauphin. 
Yolande of Aragon with the future Charles VII
It’s one of those complicated, medieval, dysfunctional royal family soaps–with international consequences. The Hundred Years’ war had ravaged France. Charles VI, King of France, went mad. His cousin, John the Fearless (of Burgundy), was regent for a while, but when John became Duke of Burgundy, he set out to wrestle the crown from Charles VI and Charles' brother Louis of Orleans. The Duke got custody of Charles’ children–except for the youngest, Charles, who was spirited away by Yolande. It was messy. Louis and John’s uncle tried to reconcile the two, but John of Burgundy had Louis of Orleans murdered. The British took advantage of this family squabble. Henry V stomped the French at Agincourt. This did not help. The Burgundians sided with the British. By now, Charles VII’s older brothers had died and he became Dauphin, heir to the throne. Under the influence of the Burgundians, the English, and in his frazzled mental state, Charles VI signed away young Charles’ birthright ceding the French throne to Henry VI of England, son of Henry V and Catherine of Valois, Charles VI’s daughter.

This made the true French–as opposed to the traitorous friends of the English French–really mad.
 The Dauphin claimed the throne, even though he couldn’t get to Reims to be crowned. Facing threats to his title and life, the Dauphin invited John the Fearless to a diplomatic meeting and had him assassinated on the way. The English still held all of Northern France–Paris, Rouen, Reims. And they had laid siege to Orleans, the last barrier between the Dauphin and English invaders. For six months, the English surrounded Orleans choking off food, supplies and access. The Dauphin, having been routed by the English at Agincourt. couldn’t muster his courage to attack. Into this muddle, on a white horse, rode the visionary Maid of Orleans.

 “How,” asks the jacket cover, “did an illiterate peasant girl gain access to the future king of France, earn his trust and eventually lead his forces into battle? Was it only the hand of God that moved Joan of Arc–or was it also Yolande of Aragon?”
With accounts of political intrigue, violence, mayhem and ruin, Goldstone’s marvelous book weaves a multihued tapestry of the time and the relationship between the ambitious, powerful Yolande of Aragon and the charismatic girl warrior, Joan of Orleans–two truly bad ass French girls. 
Guest blogger Linda Thornburg is a filmmaker. She also occasionally writes her own blog Miss Boogie's Adventures. See Miss Boogie's film debut here.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Bad Ass Girls of Bletchley

by Linda Thornburg, guest blogger
While we’re on the subject of good bad girls and bad good girls, and while Daedalus Books’ Forum topic is Hidden in Plain Sight, let’s look at some of the bad ass good “gels” of World War II.
The notched and numbered wheels of the bombe, the clacking lettered keys of the Enigma, the lines of code scanning across the screen in the opening of The Bletchley Circle: Cracking a Killer’s Code beckoned me into Sinclair McKay’s The Secret Life of Bletchley Park.
The bombe 
Along with an eclectic set of cryptographers, mathematicians, scientists, linguists, translators, chess players, professors, undergraduates, antiquarians, museum curators, and general wunderkinds of the era, Bletchley Park was home to thousands of ordinary British girls. Many of them were billeted in spare rooms of townsfolk. Quietly slipping from their beds and riding their bicycles to work a midnight shift, these unassuming “gels” were cracking the codes of Hitler’s military. 
Alfred Dillwyn “Dilly” Knox, senior cryptographer and so-called mastermind of the Enigma team, had a volatile side and preferred working with women. "He certainly had a most enlightened approach to the employment of women at the period–one might even be tempted to call it positive discrimination." Knox’s female staff at “the Cottage,” a series of shabbily built huts that served as the decryption nerve center, became known as “Dilly’s Fillies.”  Knox selected the brightest and the best young women to come through Bletchley to work in his code-breaking team. Running the bombe machines was exclusively the work of Wrens.
Wrens working on the Colossus
The initial recruiting for Bletchley’s men and women came through old-school and social connections. It was thought if you could trust the father, you could trust the daughter with top-secret work. 
The Hon. Sarah Baring, (née Norton) was the daughter of the 6th Lord Grantley. She did the Season in 1938. When war broke out, she worked for a time at Vogue, and wrote some articles for the Baltimore Sun. Then she went to do her bit building Hawker Hurricanes, single-seat fighter planes.
She was recruited from Hawker, along with her friend Osla Benning. They were summoned to the Labour Exchange in London, where they were tested in German language skills. At 17, Sarah had been sent to Munich to broaden herself and learn German. She was fluent. Olsa attended finishing school in Austria. They passed, and were ordered to report to “Station X” in Buckinghamshire. When they arrived at Bletchley, they were assigned to Hut 4.
The Hon. Sarah with first husband William Waldorf Astor during the 1954 general election campaign
Enigma machine
“Nobody explained anything,” she recalled. “Pieces of paper in German would come through and you had to take out any salient information, put it all on to a filing card with the coordinates, and index it. The information we were dealing with was obviously decrypted. Even then we didn’t know the whole picture. We just did what we were told.”
The Hon. Sarah eventually worked in Hut 8 with Alan Turing. In 1939 then 27-year-old Turing came up with the code-breaking algorithm of the bombe, an electromechanical computing machine that could find settings for the German Enigma. The breaking and deciphering of the Enigma codes gave Allies access to Nazi troop, bomber, and U-boat movements, shortened the war by several years, and by all accounts assured Allied victory.
Alan Turing
(To add a little dish to today’s gleaning, and in keeping on topic, of changing definitions of good and bad. In 1952, Alan Turing, father of computing, code-breaking savior of the British and Allied Forces in World War II was arrested for homosexuality under Section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885. He was sentenced to chemical castration (hormone therapy), labelled a sexual deviant and classified as mentally ill. Ostracized from society, unable to continue his government work (or find anything else) because he could no longer get a security clearance; Turing took his own life in 1954. In July, 2013, 59 years after his death, Turing was pardoned by Parliament.)
Not all of the women who worked at Bletchley were former debs. Jean Valentine, a Wren, was a working-class girl from the Scottish town of Perth. She started working the bombe and went on to break Japanese codes in Ceylon. Mavis Batey, who worked closely with Knox, was a “fiercely intelligent middle-class girl.” Bletchley’s sundry cast of characters came from all walks of life to do some of the most important work of World War II. 
Bletchley staff from Hut 6
McKay has engagingly captured the work, lives, time and atmosphere of Bletchley Park.
In line with The Secret Life of Bletchley Park is Jennet Conant’s revealing account of Julia and Paul Child's World War II service in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in the Far East, A Covert Affair.  Conant’s book also describes their entrapment in the McCarthy hearings. And don't miss this opportunity to catch any missed episodes of the BBC drama The Bletchley Circle: Cracking a Killer's Code.
Guest blogger and codebreaker Linda Thornburg is a film writer and director. Her film, Oh Dear: A History of Woman Suffrage, cracked a code of silence around the 19th-Century American feminist movement.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Nothin' Like the Real Thing: Burton & Taylor

by Linda Thornburg, guest blogger
BBC America has been hyping their new biopic, Burton and Taylor, for months now in preparation for its October premiere. In the trailers at least, Helena Bonham Carter seems to have a real shot at getting Taylor right. I'm less certain about Dominic West's chances for bringing Richard Burton. Helena Bonham Carter certainly has the look, the voice, and the acting chops. I'm hoping she'll bring the life spark that Michelle Williams brought to Monroe in My Week with Marilyn. While it's fascinating and sometimes scary to watch actors of all stripes take on icons of screen and stage, the magic always resides in the original.
Richard Burton, George Segal, Sandy Dennis and
Elizabeth Taylor in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf
Lucky for us, film preserved the magic of Richard and Liz. The spark that was Burton and Taylor resides no place more exquisitely than in Mike Nichols’ visceral 1966 adaptation of Edward Albee’s Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Still regarded as one of the best films of the 1960s, Nichols’ directorial debut in film won five Oscars and launched his Hollywood career. 
Taylor’s brilliance as the frustrated, alcoholic wife of a small-town college professor, played by Burton, won her a second Academy Award for Best Actress. Burton was also nominated for arguably his best screen performance ever, but he lost to Paul Scofield (A Man for All Seasons).
Other Oscar winners included Sandy Dennis (Best Supporting Actress) for her portrayal of the fragile, slightly unbalanced Honey. Haskell Wexler won for Best Cinematography, Black & White. In 1966 there were Oscars for Black & White and Color in several categories.
Burton and Taylor's performances in this classic American film are still powerful, still relevant, and still the real thing. 
Check Daedalus Books' DVD selections for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and other classic Elizabeth Taylor films. 
You might also like Furious Love: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and the Marriage of the Century an unsparing yet sympathetic exploration of "the most notorious, publicized, celebrated, and vilified love affair of its day."

Guest blogger Linda Thornburg is the Writer-Director of the award-winning film  Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing, adapted from the novel by May Sarton. 

Monday, September 23, 2013

What would YOU risk to sabotage the Nazi agenda?

"The best-selling author has made a career of capturing the classic cloak-and-dagger days leading up to World War II, bringing the era to life like a literary version of Casablanca."—CNN

In Mission to Paris, Alan Furst's 12th novel, his hero is a Hollywood star of Austrian extraction making a film in Paris at a very questionable time: late summer of 1938. The fascinating nature of the people he meets (for good and for ill) and the escalating intrigue of the situations in which he finds himself makes you want to gobble the book down in one sitting. It's a prickles-at-the-back-of-your-neck kind of experience, as you watch through his eyes the evolving events that will shortly spark the second World War. (Click here for an audio extract. )
"This is the romantic Paris to make a tourist weep. . . . In Furst’s densely populated books, hundreds of minor characters—clerks, chauffeurs, soldiers, whores—all whirl around his heroes in perfect focus for a page or two, then dot by dot, face by face, they vanish, leaving a heartbreaking sense of the vast Homeric epic that was World War II and the smallness of almost every life that was caught up in it."—The New York Times Book Review. 
Below: Maxim's, the famous Belle Époque restaurant in Paris where members of the political warfare unit of the Third Reich (the"Ribbentropburo") try to bribe Shahl into furthering Hitler's propaganda aims by judging a contest of German films about mountain climbing. Furst lived in Paris for eight years, and has a passion for the city and its myriad environs.

In the 1930s there were so many different conflicts going on between the British, the French, the Russians, the Germans, the Spaniards, the Romanians and so on. The intelligence services for all these countries were all battling during what was a very difficult political time. I wanted to read a panoramic spy history of the '30s, and when I went out looking for it, I discovered there was no such thing. I was astonished. So I thought, "Well, I'll write it."—Alan Furst, CNN interview

Click here to read an excerpt from Mission to Paris

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Bad Girls, Then and Now: Lisbeth Scott, Cleo Moore, Gloria Grahame, Piper Kernan, et al.

I’m a huge fan of OITNB. (Get the memoir that inspired the Netflix hit by Piper Kerman here.) 
Not since the Post World War II Era have on-screen bad girls so captured the hearts, minds and measurable viewings of the American psyche.
Kerman’s book and the series eloquently created by Jenji Kohan and her amazing cast is one of the most honest representations of women and women’s relationships in media history. It has humanized inmates and transformed our notion of “bad girls.” More important, it has blown apart the old dichotomy of good girl or bad girl, the dualism of good and evil women.
Western culture has been fascinated, even dominated by, images of bad girls vs good girls since the dawn of time. Consider Eve, Medea, Grimms' wicked Queens and stepmothers, Bette Davis vs the Madonna, Snow White, Donna Reed. 
The archetypes have proscribed the acceptable behaviors for women and the transgressions for which they lost their men, their reputations, their fortunes, their children, and often their lives, for thousands of years up until…well, current times.
Fifties bad girls of film noir were played by a flock of sultry women, including Cleo Moore (cf One Girl’s Confession jacket blurb: “Mary Adams is a bad girl because she’s just too sexy to be good. She decides to even the score even if it means doing time”) and Women’s Prisonwith Ida Lupino, Jan Sterling, and noir favorite Audrey Totter.
Gloria Grahame was another hot bad girl in Human DesireThe Big Heat, and The Glass Wall.

Perhaps the most prominent bad girl of the late 1940s and early 1950s was Paramount’s Lizabeth Scott. According to Eddie Muller ("The Czar of Noir"), Scott appeared in more noir films than any other Hollywood actress: more than twenty by his count, including The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, Desert Fury, I Walk Alone, Pitfall, Two of a Kind, and Bad for Each Other. Scott was often compared with Lauren Bacall and Veronica Lake, and her dark blonde hair, husky voice, and smoky sensuality made her perfect for the noir femme fatale.  Scott played opposite some of Hollywood’s most popular leading men, among them Van Heflin, Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, and Charlton Heston. 
In the 1947 thriller Dead Reckoning, with Humphrey Bogart, Scott’s billing was equal to his. Scott’s bad girl image on screen made her career, but her outing as a bad girl off screen ended it. 
In 1954, Confidential magazine called Scott one of "Hollywood's…baritone babes" a euphemism for lesbian. Confidential also said Scott’s name was found on a list of clients of a prominent Hollywood call girl. Scott sued, but the case was thrown out because Confidential, a New York corporation, couldn’t be sued in California. Scott never spoke about the accusation, the lawsuit, or her private life. Her career, however, tanked.
In the 1950s, bad girls on screen had to be good girls off-screen or lose everything—just like their characters. 
In 2013 on-screen/off-screen Piper Kerman or Chapman, former drug mule, part-time lesbian, and ex-con, gets a book deal, a hit series and her man!
Makes me want to buy a pack of Virginia Slims to celebrate.  Abortion rights, VA divorce laws, and Right-Wing notions of rape notwithstanding, looks like bad girls have come a measurable distance. 
Check out performances by Lizabeth Scott, Gloria Grahme and Evelyn Keyes on Bad Girls of Film Noir, Vol. 1 and of Cleo Moore, Ida Lupino, Jan Sterling, and Audrey Totter on Bad Girls of Film Noir, Vol. 2
Guest blogger Linda Thornburg is a filmmaker, playwright and bad girl who thought she was just a good girl. Her play "Leap of Faith" tells the story of two women who lived in a bed. 

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The 39 Steps: original version

by Linda Thornburg, guest blogger
I had never read the book. (Oh come on, most of you have only seen the Hitchcock version.) I couldn’t put down John Buchan’s 1915 thriller The 39 Steps. The writing is so visual I could understand why Hitch picked it. It drips noir.
“I had a cigar in my mouth, I remember, as I pushed open the smoking-room door. The lights were not lit, which struck me as odd. I wondered if Scudder had turned in already.
I snapped the switch, but there was nobody there. Then I saw something in the far corner which made me drop my cigar and fall into a cold sweat.
My guest was lying sprawled on his back. There was a long knife through his heart which skewered him to the floor.”

Christopher Hitchens dubbed Buchan “The father of the modern spy novel.” Buchan’s Hannay is the prototype of the man-on-the-run staple and the forerunner of the quick-thinking, hard-drinking characters of Dashiell Hammett.
“I went into the darkened smoking-room where the rays of morning light were beginning to creep through the shutters. I breakfasted off a whisky-and-soda and some biscuits from the cupboard. By this time it was getting on for six o’clock. I put a pipe in my pocket and filled my pouch from the tobacco jar on the table by the fireplace.
As I poked into the tobacco my fingers touched something hard, and I drew out Scudder’s little black pocket-book…”

No wonder it has been adapted for three film versions, a TV movie, and a Broadway hit. The Broadway version is essentially a send-up of the Hitchcock film; nevertheless, Buchan's story is the basis. Media may change, but story is essential. This is good story.
So good, in fact, Hitch borrowed a classic scene from it for North by Northwest. Hitch, I’m devastated.
The 39 Steps has been continuously in print since it was first serialized by Blackwood’s Magazine in August and September of 1914. (And we think we invented the cliffhanger with Dallas. Millennial apologies to Homer, Collins, Dickens, Dumas, Stowe and Pearl White, The Perils of Pauline.) This gorgeous edition of  The 39 Steps has a forthright, personal introduction (with a mild dis of Hitchcock), by Buchan’s grandson, Toby Buchan.
Be sure to check out Daedalus Books' Forum pages on all things espionage. Tune in for tomorrow’s DG episode on Bad Girls of Film Noir. (On and off screen.)
Guest blogger Linda Thornburg is a filmmaker and writer. In days of old, all of her characters would have been considered "bad girls."