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On Encore today, we have Australian author, Natasha Lester who was last on the show in August, 2020 with her international best seller, The Paris Secret. Encore, you may recall, is the show where we talk to authors who’ve already been on Binge Reading about their latest book.
Hi there, I’m your host, Jenny Wheeler, and today on Binge Reading, Natasha returns to talk about her latest World War II spy saga, The Three Lives of Alix St Pierre. A story that Kate Quinn has called a “triple-stranded-delight.”
American ex-spy Alix returns to Paris in 1947, determined to build a new life for herself, with a fascinating job in the house of Christian Dior.
But among the bolts of silk and Ritz cocktails an old enemy lies in wait. Alix must reach back unto her wartime past to try and trap her enemy. hoping it is not too late to build a new future out from under his shadow.
Natasha Lester The Paris Secret – Binge Reading August 2020:
Historical Fiction – Free Giveaway
Our Giveaway this week is a great range of free historical fiction, my book, Sadie’s Vow, the first book in the new Home At Last series included.
As usual, links for everything to do with this episode, how to access those free books and anything else I might’ve been talking about with Natasha can be found in the show notes for this episode on the website, The Joys of Binge Reading.com. And if you like the show, why not leave us a comment so others will find us too.
Links in this episode
Karl Wolf, Nazi SS officer responsible for many deaths: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karl_Wolff
Allan Dulles: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allen_Dulles
Galerie Dior: https://www.galeriedior.com/
Staffette: The women of the Italian Resistance: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_women_in_the_Italian_Resistance
Rita Hayworth and Gilda: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gilda
Diablesse dress Alix wears in the book: From Natasha Lester’s Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/p/Caio9ESPrFY/
Where to find Natasha online:
But now, here’s Natasha.
Introducing author Natasha Lester
Jenny Wheeler: We know from our last talk that you have got a long-standing passion for Dior, so tell us about that briefly.
Natasha Lester: I have. But this book was a bit of an accident in terms of how Dior was woven into the story, I have to say. I mean, I love his gowns.
I think he really revolutionized fashion. He is one of the few designers who can lay claim to having changed fashion so radically.
But for this one, because I was really interested in what happened to women after the war.
They had amazing independence, they’d been able to earn their own money, work in any job anywhere during the wartime, because all the men were away. And then suddenly the men came back from the war and women were actively dissuaded from working and told to return to the home and return to the kitchen. And I wanted to examine what that might’ve felt like for women.
And tied up in all of that is the New Look. And Dior is often scapegoated as being part of that re-domestication of women. But I think that’s oversimplifying it.
I think it’s much more complicated than that. And in fact, I think that actually, his aim was to celebrate women, at a time where women were told to return to the background and he was trying to bring them back to the foreground.
So in some ways, he was doing the opposite of what he’s often blamed for.
Dion was a cultural marker for gender relations
For this particular story, Dior worked well because he was such a marker for what was happening with women at the time, given the themes that I was trying to explore, and it didn’t hurt that I do love his designs and his gowns as well, I guess.
Jenny Wheeler: That’s lovely. Yes. There is a very strong theme underlying it of how things changed for women after the war and just how utterly closeted they were in a sense. I don’t think I realized that in some places a woman had to get their husband’s permission before she could work.
Natasha Lester: Yes. Oh, it was incredible to me when I was reading. I knew that there were things; like I knew women couldn’t have their own bank account, for example, at that time.
And women weren’t allowed to wear trousers into public places in Paris, and they weren’t allowed to wear trousers into restaurants in Manhattan.
So I knew there were some strange things like that going on. But I started reading Carmel Snow’s memoir, in fact, Carmel Snow being the famous editor of Harper’s Bazaar. And that was where I really began to see the way in which women almost had to be married in order to have some level of access to finances, because you couldn’t, as a single woman, own a credit card, get a loan, put it in a credit application to a bank.
Women went back to being ‘possessions’
You had to bring along a man to co-sign those kinds of applications for you. So this idea that a woman required a man in her life to be able to access those parts of society almost forced women into getting married, and it’s this very strange way of imagining society.
You know, particularly for me as a woman who’s always been able to have her own bank account and apply for a credit card and wear trousers wherever I please.
I wanted to unpick how that might have felt, once again, to have been able to wear trousers into factories during the war because that was what your work involved.
And then suddenly to have that totally taken away from you and the money that you earned to have no rights over that. That’s kind of a really tricky situation to be in and to not necessarily have the freedom to just choose to work, and to really be, I suppose, a possession in a way.
I mean, that’s really how women were. and that must have felt shocking.
Jenny Wheeler: Yes. Now there are a lot of real people who appear as themselves in the story. People like Carmel Snow, you mentioned, and I saw with interest that everybody in the Dior house, with the exception of Alix herself, were real people and you gave them their true names. There was an American publicist appointed by Dior, but it happens that unusually perhaps, he was a man.
Dior’s publicity team were tops
He had a lot of women in his team, but the publicist was a man. And I wondered, was it revolutionary to also appoint an American in Paris to that job in the late 1940s?
Natasha Lester: It’s really interesting the way in which a lot of couture house employees, why they were chosen, and basically it was because of their connections, particularly in public relations. So, the man, his name was Harrison, and Dior chose him because he was a very well connected man about town.
He knew everybody and everybody knew him. So for a director of publicity, that was quite an important job back then. And it’s the same with, like Suzanne Luling who was Dior’s director of sales. She was French, but she was primarily employed because she had this incredible book of names.
Like she knew everybody and she was married. but she was able to work because her job was really seen to be not working. It was seemed to just be chatting to other ladies of her strata of society. And so, she was able to get away with that even though she worked incredibly hard and she did this amazing job, she could get away with it because she could pretend she wasn’t working.
And so the American, who was employed as Dior director was a little bit the same. He was employed because of who he knew and his contacts. So it wasn’t that radical. Just simply because of the way in which the job was viewed at the time as being a social position, more so than a position that involved work, which it actually did.
So Harrison lasted a year because they really needed someone who could do the work, not just do the chat,
Christian Dior – savvy businessman as well as gifted designer
Jenny Wheeler: I wondered whether it was because he had good connections with American women, because it’s obvious in the story that getting the American press to be interested was an important part of the job.
Natasha Lester: Yeah, absolutely. Because Christian Dior was very savvy in that respect. He realized that to be a success, he couldn’t just rely on French customers.
That wasn’t going to sustain the business that he wanted to run. He knew that America had to be his market. There were so many people, there was more wealth there because the war, of course, hadn’t taken place on American soil in terms of mainland America, if you like.
He knew that to be successful, he had to access those people who were less affected by war and the sense of it hadn’t taken place on their kind of mainland home soil.
Jenny Wheeler: It’s very strong in fashion, but it also has got a very strong secondary story about Alix’s work in the Second World War.
She’s working with an American secret agency, and particularly working out of Switzerland, but with the Italian resistance in Northern Italy, and that was very interesting because a lot of the Second World War books talk about the French resistance, but not so much about the Italian resistance.
Tell us how you were attracted to that particular aspect.
A drastic shift from wartime to peacetime
Natasha Lester: I wanted to write this story about how things changed for women after the war, I knew I then also really had to have a wartime storyline to show how drastic that shift was, and I didn’t want to write another French set wartime storyline, because I’d done that for a couple of books.
I wanted something a little bit fresh. And so then when I found out that a woman named Mary Bancroft had worked as a spy in neutral Switzerland during the Second World War for an American organization, I was like, right, that is my story.
And then when I unraveled it a little bit further and found out that that Swiss station, the Bern station of OSS (Office of Strategic Services, the American Intelligence Agency during World War II) was responsible for dealing with the Italian partisans.
I was like, okay, that is what I want to write about. Because you know, we all know that France was occupied by the Nazis during the war. There are countless films and books about that.
But Italy was equally occupied and in fact it was almost harder for the Italians because they had been under Mussolini’s rule for such a long time, this Fascist regime.
Mothers, sisters, wives who fought the war
So the Western World didn’t know a lot about what was going on in Italy, because Mussolini closed Italy off from the world in some ways. And then, after the Nazis take over Italy, they re-establish Mussolini in the north of Italy in this kind of new Fascist state.
And you’ve got people fighting against the Nazis. but once Mussolini is re-established up in the north, they have to flee to the mountains to hide because they’ve been active against the Fascist regime and now against the Nazis.
And I realize that, okay, if you’ve got these men hiding in the mountains in Italy, that’s brutal terrain. How did they survive?
And I came across the Stafette, the women who were the mothers, sisters, wives, girlfriends of the Italian partisans, who were the ones who enabled the men to be able to resist during the war because they couriered the intelligence messages to and from Switzerland. By couriering, I mean they walked them over the Alps into Switzerland.
They took the men food and clothing and arms and ammunition and guns and supplies. And without those women, those men couldn’t have actively resisted against the Nazis. But you know, who has heard of the Italian Staffette? Who remembers those women?
Forgotten heroes of WWII – Italian women
The most telling anecdote that I read was that the women spoke about the fact that they would walk 80 kilometers every day, fed on nothing but cabbage and chestnuts.
And these women were, captured by the Nazis. They were imprisoned, they were tortured, they were killed for their work. And then once Italy was liberated and the victory marches took place, the women were forbidden to march alongside the men, even though they. Worked equally as hard and suffered equally as much.
And I knew then that that was again, my story because my story was about the women who were forgotten and ignored immediately post-war. And here was another strand of that story.
Jenny Wheeler: Now without giving anything away, there is also an aspect where you shine light on what happened to some of the Nazi war criminals after the war, that some of them were actually treated very gently, particularly I seem to gather from your book, by the American authorities because they valued the intelligence they thought they could get out of them and they were more frightened about the Russians coming into Germany, so some of them didn’t even have to escape to South America, which is what we usually think happened.
They could actually stay flouting themselves around places like Paris and feel that they were untouchable.
Allen Dulles – either hated or revered
Natasha Lester: Yes, so, there’s a man called Alan Dulles, who is a character in the story. He ran the Bern station of OSS during the war, and he later became the director of the CIA. Allen Dulles is a very polarizing man. I’ve read memoirs written by people who loathe Alan, and other memoirs written by people who venerate him somewhat.
But certainly, one unequivocal fact that has come out in later years is that he allowed various Nazis to work for the CIA in intelligence roles, gathering intelligence for America because of what they knew, having had their Nazi past and you know, that is a very murky ethical line, I think.
And I discovered that when I was reading about Allen Dulles, he was running the Bern station that I was writing about, but then I also, in further reading, read about, Karl Wolf, who was, incredibly evil man and responsible for mass slayings of partisans, the, deportation of Jews to concentration camps, and he acted as a witness for the prosecution in the Nuremberg trials immediately post-war.
Karl Wolf – the Nazi that nearly got off scot- free
And he was let off after only having a couple of months in prison whilst awaiting trial at Nuremberg. And it wasn’t until later that he was rearrested and retried and finally imprisoned, but he basically got off scot-free for a number of years, even though the body count that Karl Wolf was responsible for was massive, but he was this idea immediately post-war, that information was more valuable than human lives.
And if someone could provide information, it could erase all the terrible things that they did. And so I wanted to write about how that could have been allowed to happen and what kinds of people might allow that to.
Jenny Wheeler: It was an interesting aspect to the story. Look, getting back to Dior for a moment. You go into detail about a number of these dresses. They really, that they’re very specific models that had names. I just wondered, you mentioned actually in one part, I think in the notes that you have posted quite a lot of photos of those pictures of those dresses on your Instagram account, but I was wondering if there was any museum where people could still go and see at least some of them.
Natasha Lester:. You can go to the, Galerie Dior in Paris, which is a new museum that has been created right next to the House of Dior. It’s a part of the larger house of Christian Dior in Paris, and there is one gown on display currently from the book. It’s Rita Hayworth’s Soiree gown that she wore to the premiere of Gilda in Paris in 1947.
Diablesse – the dress Alix wears in the book
It’s from the very first New Look collection. So the navy blue version of that is on display at the Galerie Dior. There was also a cream version, show on in that first show. But many of the other dresses like Compien and Cherie, the Met holds those dresses, but they’re not on permanent display.
(Metropolitan Museum in New York)
They’re part of their, archival collection and they do bring them out for various exhibitions. So, for example, Cherie was recently displayed at the, Dior Exhibition Couture in 2017, 2018.
So they do come out from time to time, but. They’re not always on permanent display. And another one, the Diablesse that Alix wears for an interview, was actually here in Australia in 2017 at the National Gallery of Victoria, (in Melbourne.)
They occasionally get let out, but they’re not always on permanent display. But definitely Galerie Dior is the best place to go to see an amazing, extensive collection of Dior gowns through the years, but particularly those first early gowns in 1947 that are harder to see on permanent display.
Jenny Wheeler: What color was the one that Rita wore?
Natasha Lester: The one that Rita wore was the dark navy blue It’s kind of sapphire blue version.
What’s coming from Natasha in 2023/24
Jenny Wheeler: That was interesting also that that was brought into the book and it really happened.
Natasha Lester: Yes, I love when you find anecdotes like that, they’re just the perfect things to complement the story. And I loved that Dior was really the first couturier who created those links between Hollywood and Couture and, and had Hollywood stars wearing couture gowns, which we think is a normal practice nowadays. But he really started that back in 1947 with Rita.
Jenny Wheeler: That’s fantastic. This book’s obviously taken a lot of research. I’m not quite sure how long you’ve been working on it, but have you had a chance to start on anything else? What’s on your desk at the moment? Tell us what your life looks like for the next 12 months.
Natasha Lester: I have a book coming out next year. I wish I could tell you the firm title for that book, but we’re still, tossing that around between the UK, Australia, and the US. At the moment it’s called The Legend of Astrid Ricard, and that will be out in Australia in, October, 2023. And in the US in January, 2024.
I’m working on the copy edit for that right now. The papers on my desk are all for the copy edit. It’s basically finished, but we’re massaging inconsistencies and repetitions and line by line details. So that one has quite a large 1970s storyline.
The battle of the fashion designers
Natasha Lester: There was a fashion battle that took place in Versailles Palace in 1973, five French Couturiers versus five American designers.
Everyone expected the French to win because French is the land of couture and fashion, but the outcome of the evening was something of a surprise to everybody. And so that battle of Versailles is the central hinge point of the whole story.
Jenny Wheeler: That sounds just like they had a similar battle. I can’t quite remember what years now, but between American wines and French wines with an unexpected outcome.
Natasha Lester: Yes, it’s always the Americans and the French wanting to be better, isn’t it?
Jenny Wheeler: Yes. Now talking about Americans, the book is out now in Australia and New Zealand, the one we’re just talking about, The Three Lives of Alix St Pierre. But I gather you’ve got a tour to the US early next year. Tell us about that.
Natasha Lester: Oh, no, I’m not touring in the us. I’ve just been touring in Europe, in fact, and I’ve just been touring in Australia, so I’m pretty much toured out right now. But the book itself is coming out in America on the 10th of January, which I’m really looking forward to. It’s my first hardback in America, so it makes it even more exciting.
Next Week on Binge Reading
Jenny Wheeler: That’s fantastic. Obviously just getting back to Astrid for a moment, that is set in Paris?
No it’s largely set in New York, actually. Part of the book is set in Paris and part of it said in Versailles, but probably 80% of it is said in New York.
Jenny Wheeler: Oh, that’s interesting. That’s great. Well, look, fantastic talking. Thanks a lot today, Natasha. It really is and all the very best with what’s coming
Natasha Lester: Thanks so much for talking to me, Jenny. It was lovely
Next week on Binge Reading for Valentine’s Day. Kate O’Keeffe and her laugh out loud, swoon worthy romcoms. We’ve got five e book copies of her latest Second Chance Love story. Never Fall For The One That Got Away. Sweet romance with a totally swoony hero.
It asks and beautifully answers, a key question. If life gives you a second chance with the one that got away, do you take it?
That’s next week on binge reading.
That’s it for today and happy reading