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A Chicago Heiress Who Helped Jews Escape the Nazis

In 1928, Nanee, a young heiress, leaves behind a circumscribed—and dull—existence in the Midwest for what she hopes is a far more exciting life in Paris. But what she finds is more than she ever bargained for, and the brutal events of the 1930’s change her from an idle adventuress into an unlikely heroine, helping desperate Jews flee the impending Nazi menace.

This is the premise for The Postmistress of Paris (Harper), which draws from the real-life experiences of Chicago heiress Mary Jayne Gold. Seasoned historical fiction novelist Meg Waite Clayton talks to fiction editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about how she came to write this suspenseful novel. 

YZM: How did you first hear about the real life Mary Jayne Gold and what drew you to her story? 

MWC: Mary Jayne Gold came to me through a bit of a Rube Goldbergian research path. I followed a story about Truss Wijsmuller (the real heroine on whom my last novel, The Last Train to London, is based) being arrested by the Gestapo in Southern France after the war started. So I was poking around the Côte d’Azur to see what more I could learn about that, and came across both the French internment of Jewish artists and writers at Camp des Milles and the efforts of Varian Fry to smuggle them out of France. Some of the artists and rescuers lived together at Villa Air Bel– and who doesn’t love an old French villa in Provence where artists and writers and thinkers hung out together, drinking wine and playing games? Oh, yes, and evading arrest by Vichy and the Nazis. 

One of the earliest photos I saw of Villa Air Bel was Danny Benedité literally hanging art from the plane trees on the belvedere, and that fascinated me. It didn’t take much more research to discover that that bit of it — everyone living together at Villa Air Bel — was thanks to Mary Jayne Gold.

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YZM: What was one particularly fascinating thing you learned about her? 

MWC: She intrigued me for so many reasons, starting with the fact that she grew up north of Chicago, not far from where I spent most of my growing up years, although I definitely lived at the dodgy end compared to her. What drew me to her was who she was: an heiress living in Paris when Hitler invaded, who might have gone home like most Americans did, but instead stayed and risked her life to help strangers. There are so many reasons to love Mary Jayne Gold: she flew airplanes when few did, and even fewer women. She was quite irreverent, and complicated. But most importantly, she had a huge heart, and a lot of guts.

YZM: How closely did you follow the facts; when and why did you diverge from them? 

MWC: The Postmistress of Paris is heavily fact-based fiction inspired by the real Mary Jayne Gold, the history of Camp des Milles and the experiences of the men interned in France, efforts to escape, and the actions of Fry and others who helped them. To the extent I use real names, the actions of those characters hew closely to the real history.

But it is fiction. What I set out to do was to tell the story of how people tried and sometimes managed to escape, and the dangers and courage that involved. And fictional characters carry most of the story. 

YZM: Some of your characters are based on other historical figures, and you’ve said some are composites.

Edouard is a photographer who has escaped Germany for France. His experiences are based on real experiences, but he is not based on any one person. I researched real refugees from the Reich who ended up in France, then poured what I learned into Edouard and his toddler daughter, Luki, who is also fictional. Edouard’s path from Germany to Paris to Sanary-sur-Mer—finding freedom only to end up interned at Camp des Milles—was pretty typical for German refugees living in France as the war began.

Nanée is a little more closely drawn from two women involved in the effort to help smuggle refugees out of France. She is one bit Mary Jayne Gold: like the real Mary Jayne Gold, she flies airplanes, has a dog named Dagobert, rents Villa Air Bel, and works with Varian Fry. But Nanée also draws in very crucial ways from a German refugee named Lisa Fittko, who helped others escape over the Pyrenees. I combine the acts of Gold and Fittko into a single character so that the reader doesn’t have to leave one protagonist behind and join another late in the novel. And Nanée’s personal story, especially her love life, takes a very different path than either Fittko’s or Gold’s, largely to allow me to explore and reveal the emotions people experienced in these circumstances, and the challenges and personal sacrifices, through Nanée and Edouard’s relationship.

By fictionalizing, combining characters, compressing information and choosing some details while leaving others on the cutting room floor, I mean to tell this story in a way that I hope allows readers not only to understand this history, but also to feel it in their hearts.

YZM: The research for this book must have been fascinating—Paris and Marseille during the 1930’s and 1940’s, the avant-garde art scene in both places,  aviation; tell us about your process. 

MWC: One of the loveliest things about being a writer is that I get to spend my days learning about what I find fascinating. Another, of course, is that I get to spend months at a time in Europe and call it “work.” 

I like when possible to go to the places I’m setting a new novel fairly early in the process. I wander about as and where my characters would, imagining myself as them. I like to return again when I have a solid draft, as invariably there are things I didn’t know I needed to know and even places I didn’t know I needed to visit until I got those first words on the page. And of course my travels are informed by other research. 

For this novel, I did that first trip. I visited Paris, focused on art and on the physical places important to the story, like Avenue Foch, where Mary Jayne Gold lived. But I started in the south of France, visiting Camp des Milles — now preserved as a museum — as well as Marseille, the border between France and Spain, and the French coast. 

I didn’t yet know much about Mary Jane Gold, but serendipitously I ended up staying in the hotel she first stayed in in Marseille. Villa Air Bel was torn down decades ago, but the trolley still runs. The train station, the Panier where many refugees hid, the hotel where Fry began his rescue effort and the building they later moved into — all were still there.

YZM: Did your trip make it into the novel in other ways?

When I visited Château de Chenonceau for research, we stayed in nearby Amboise — which turns out to have a fascinating and relevant history I ended up working into the novel. I fell in love with Dinard on the Brittany coast, so I found room for a scene there too. 

Because of this pandemic, I wasn’t able to make the return trip. Since I didn’t know on that first trip that the town of Sanary-sur-Mer was home to so many German refugees that it was referred to jokingly as “the capital of German literature,” I didn’t ever get there. Those scenes are based on photographs, reading, and visits to nearby towns. 

I didn’t ever get someone to take me over Paris in a small plane. (Dang!) But I found a wonderfully generous pilot named Christopher Keck, who set up Nanée’s opening scene flight on a simulator so I could see what she would have seen and understand what she would have experienced — probably better than a real plane ride would have been, as he could simulate for me what a crash would have been like. Still, I would have loved the excuse to learn to fly myself! And of course the excuse to travel again in France.

YZM: Most people know about the concentration camps in Germany and Poland but fewer are aware of those in France, like Camps des Milles. Can you tell us more about it? 

MWC: Like Germany, France interned Jewish refugees even before the country fell to Hitler. They were considered enemy aliens, perhaps spies for Hitler — never mind that they were Jewish and had to flee their homes for safety in France.

The camp Edouard is interned in — Camp des Milles — was a real camp set up in an old brick factory. A lot of artists and intellectuals ended up there because of its location in Provence, where many of them had settled. The men interned there lived and ate and slept in this old factory that was still so thick with brick dust that they describe the way it made the floor uneven to walk on, and filled their lungs. 

In what is a true testament to the human spirit, they made the underground kilns into little studios to create art in. They even set up a nightclub of sorts in one of them. They created art wherever they could, including on the beams, the brick walls, and in the camp hall.

They wrote symphonies and plays they performed in a sort of makeshift theater in that camp hall. Not only the interned men but also the staff and the camp captain came to see them. These were amazingly talented, often famous, men, and these shows would have belonged in any of the world’s most famous venues. 

Camp des Milles was no cushy existence. Even under free France, the living conditions were bleak. Men were malnourished. Thousands of men shared a few filthy latrines. Dysentery was common. But after Hitler invaded, the plight of the people in these camps became more dire. Escape became more necessary—and extremely dangerous both for the prisoners and those like Fry and Gold and the others who worked with them to help refugees escape. So this story becomes a dangerous race against the clock to save lives.

YZM: What do you hope readers will take away from this novel?

MWC: You know, when I first proposed the idea for The Postmistress of Paris, my agent said that with a piano player we’d have a female-driven Casablanca. It turns out piano playing is involved, along with Nazis, cocktails, transit papers, and even lovers who first meet in Paris. But when she called me after I’d written the novel and she’d first read it, she didn’t mention Casablanca. She instead shared a deeply personal story I’d never heard in our two decades of friendship, about how her husband learned English in his home behind the iron curtain by memorizing Arthur Miller’s “The Incident at Vichy” from a cassette he had to keep secret so nobody would know he meant to escape — which he ultimately did. 

We so often judge refugees — what have they done to deserve to live here? — without considering the impossible decision to leave even the most dangerous of homes. I hope that in reading this novel about what it meant to stand atop a mountain in 1940 France and look back on the life you’ve lived, the people you’ve loved, the only place you’ve ever called home, readers will come to deeper compassion for what leaving even impossible lives behind has, and will always, mean.