“Just stand there and look stupid.”

It’s what they told her to do, so she did. It made her world famous.

You may not have heard of Hedwieg Kiesler today, but in 1938, the film mogul Louis B. Mayer called her ‘the most beautiful woman in the world’.

But fame and looks are fleeting, and eventually she faded into obscurity.

Or did she?

If you own a mobile phone or use a Facebook or Instagram account – you owe it to her.


Hedwig Kiesler was the only child of a prominent Jewish banker from Vienna. At school, she excelled at mathematics.

It wasn’t her intelligence but her looks that caught the eye of the third richest man in Austria, an arms dealer called Friedrich Mandl. He soon became her first husband.

Then Mandl discovered his trophy wife had appeared in a low-budget Czechoslovakian film that showed her swimming in a lake, naked. There was also a sex scene which, although tame by today’s standards, shocked audiences in the 1930’s.

The film – ‘Ecstasy’ – was banned everywhere, of course, which made copies of it extremely valuable. Even the Italian dictator, Mussolini, used all his clout to get a copy.

Mandl was less enthusiastic about his new wife’s unmathematical past and tried to buy up as many copies of the film as he could.

It took time out of a packed schedule that Mandl could ill afford. At the time he was busy developing a new technology for radio-controlled torpedoes for the Nazis.

Meanwhile, his wife was supposed to be mere decoration at his dinner parties when he entertained leading Nazis, including Hitler himself, and explained his new invention.

But Hedwig was Jewish. She hated the Nazis. 

In 1937, she sold her jewelry, drugged her maid, disguised herself in a servant’s uniform and escaped from Austria.

It was a smart decision.

The following year, the Nazis seized Mandl’s factory. Mandl, who was himself half-Jewish, was forced to flee to Brazil.

Hedwig resettled in Paris. It was there that she met Mayer, the Steven Spielberg of the age. Mayer was struck by her beauty and promised to make her a star.

He was as good as his word. She signed a long-term contract and, as the glamorous Hedy Lamarr, appeared in more than 20 films with stars like Clark Gable, James Stewart, Judy Garland, and Bob Hope.

But Hedy had another talent that most people did not see: her brilliant mathematical mind.

In 1942, at the height of her fame, she decided to use her smarts to help the war effort.

At the time both the Nazis and the Allies were using single-frequency radio-controlled technology to help torpedoes find their targets. But the enemy could easily find this frequency and “jam” the signal.

Hedy, remembering all the things she had heard at Mandl’s dinner parties, collaborated with her Hollywood neighbor, musician George Anthiel, on a system to solve this problem. Anthiel had just found a way to synchronize melodies across twelve player pianos, producing stereophonic sounds no one had ever heard before.

No, I don’t understand what that means either. But I’m not Hedy Lamarr.

Applying this same technology, she was able to encode a radio message across a broad area of the wireless spectrum. If one part of the spectrum was jammed, the message would still get through on one of the other frequencies – in effect making it unjammable.

On August 11, 1942, U.S. Patent No. 2,292,387 was granted to Antheil and “Hedy Kiesler Markey”, her married name at the time.

But the U.S. Navy were not interested. In fact, this new technology was not adopted until 1962, after the patent had expired, when it was finally used by U.S. military ships during the blockade of Cuba.

Yet it was to become one of the most important patents ever issued by the US Patents Office.

Why? Because it became the foundation of ‘spread spectrum technology’. You use this every day when you log on to wi-fi or make calls with your Bluetooth-enabled phone.

Without the woman who was once told to just stand there and looked stupid, you couldn’t take selfies in Time Square, send text messages or post Facebook pictures of your cat.

More than just a pretty face, then. At last, in 2014, Hedy was finally inducted into the National Inventor’s Hall of Fame.

Over to you, Kim Kardashian. Get thinking.

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if you like stories about famous women of the twentieth century …

“If you’ve ever wanted to walk the streets of early twentieth century Shanghai, Berlin, London, or New York, then you will love the wide landscape of this novel. All the big cities come to life with all the political and economic intricacies of that time. From the grittiest of inhabitants, to the most decadent and smug, Falconer gives you a view into the turmoil of the Great War”. *****

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He was the greatest tourist in history.

In an age when hardship means not getting a wifi signal at Macchu Piccu, we can scarcely imagine what it was like to travel for four years through black hurricanes, scorching deserts and bandits to get where you’re going.

But that’s what he did.

He gave the world its first great travel book, a bestseller from the moment it was written, in an age when there wasn’t even a printing press.

The journey he undertook is almost unthinkable today. In scale of achievement and adventure he ranks alongside Neil Armstrong and the Apollo astronauts who went to the moon.

His name was Marco Polo. He was just seventeen years old when he set off on a gap year that lasted half a lifetime. He was forty one when he finally came home again.  

The world he explored was so different to ours, that a wheelbarrow was literally something to write home about.

The first thing he had to contend with?

Man-eating ants …


He left Venice with his father and uncle, who were both merchants, in 1271. Their intended destination: China, and the Emperor Khublai Khan’s fabulous palace in Shang-tu – a place known to the west as Xanadu.

It was a place of legend, even then. The handful of Christian missionaries who had returned from there told horrific stories:

“Some say that in the land of Cathay there are creatures with heads like dogs who bark and speak at the same time. Others say there are ants as big as cattle. They burrow in the earth for gold and tear anyone who comes across them to pieces with their pincers.’

Undaunted, the Polos traveled the length of the Silk Road to reach their Xanadu, a journey that took three and a half years, somehow evading the man-eating ants and talking dogs.

What they found astonished them just as much. There were so many books. A book was a rare and precious objects in the Christian world, but in Khublai Khan’s China the local ‘barbarians’ owned at least one almanac and perhaps also an edition of the Tao.

These books were not copied by hand, as they were in Christendom, but manufactured in large numbers using wood-cut plates which reproduced their calligraphy on paper. This was two hundred years before the Guttenberg printing press.

The Chinese had also discovered how to make gunpowder – an invention they stumbled on, ironically, while searching for an elixir for eternal life.

They even had compasses. The Chinese versions were made of lodestone and pointed the opposite way to the later, western, version. Ancient Chinese soothsayers were the first to use them.

Which is perhaps why they all pointed sooth.

And marvel of marvels: a wheelbarrow! A general named Jugo Liang, who lived during the Han Dynasty, had pioneered them in the second century for use barricades as well as transportation.

Until the arrival of Marco and his fellow westerners they were a closely guarded military secret.

And if you think it was Bill Gates and Google that brought the world together, think again. It wasn’t the internet, it was…silk. Demand for the fabric was so voracious it gave rise to the fabled Silk Road that eventually stretched from China to the Mediterranean, Africa, the Middle East and Europe.

But the door to this mysterious world was soon to close; the establishment of the Ming dynasty in 1368 marked the end of European trade and Catholic missionaries until the Portuguese arrived almost two hundred years later.

Marco himself left Cathay in 1292. His journey home took two and a half years. This time he went by sea, the voyage taking him through modern-day Singapore, Jaffna and the Arabian Sea. Of the six hundred who set out with him, only eighteen survived.

When he got back, Venice was at war with Genoa. Marco, a man who clearly got bored very easily, joined the Venetian navy straight away. He was imprisoned after a skirmish at sea in 1296 and spent the next three years in prison. He used this opportunity to dictate the story of his Oriental adventures to his cellmate, a romance writer called Rustichello da Pisa.

Rustichello certainly glamorised Polo’s accounts, and added a few fantastic and romantic embellishments of his own. They helped make Book of the Marvels of the World  – The Travels of Marco Polo, an instant bestseller.

Released from prison in 1299, Marco went on to become a wealthy merchant. He  married, had three children and lived happily ever after. Well not ever after, no one does that. He died at home in his bed in 1324. He is remembered by having a sheep and an airport named after him.

Oh, and a frequent flyer club.

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“A rich tale covering an iconic route within a tumultuous historical period, told in a lively and engaging voice. Thoroughly recommended.” – Bookbag

“… an epic and eventful journey that spans a huge swathe of the middle and far east, and it is one that provides action, romance, and beautifully descriptive writing by the cartload. The level of research that has been undertaken is clearly evident, but without ever becoming intrusive on the story … I enjoyed it from cover to cover. Highly recommended for historical fiction fans.” – Des Greene, Novel Suggestions




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It is one of the most mysterious open files in criminal history.

It has everything; a murder, a romance, a secret code and a mysterious link to the Cold War world of espionage.

What it doesn’t have is a final chapter.

Just before seven o’clock on 1st December, 1948, an early morning swimmer found a body on Somerton Park beach, just south of Adelaide in South Australia.

When police arrived, they found the dead man propped against the sea wall with a half-smoked cigarette in his mouth. There was nothing to identify him; police concluded it was a suicide.

The dead man was about 50, and in top physical condition. The pathologist at the post-mortem noted that he had pronounced calf muscles, and his big and little toes met in a wedge shape, like those of a ballet dancer.

The man had been wearing heavy and expensive American-style clothes. A bus ticket showed he had taken a tram to the beach the morning he had died. What had he been doing all afternoon dressed for winter on a hot summer’s day?

And why had every identifying label been removed?

He had died from ingesting poison, but tests failed to reveal any foreign substance in the body.

So, was it a suicide – or was it murder?

There was one other clue from the autopsy that intrigued the police. Folded into his watch pocket was the last page of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. It bore the words “Tamam Shud”, which means in Persian: “It is finished”.

Two weeks later staff at the Adelaide Railway station discovered a brown suitcase which had been checked into the cloakroom the night before the man died. Police believed it belonged to the dead man.

Inside was some bright coloured pyjamas and red felt slippers, outrageous nightwear for the period. There was also some equipment that identified the man as a cargo master on a freighter. A ballet dancer working on a freighter wearing expensive tailored clothes?

Who was he?

Police looked in public libraries hoping to find the actual book from which the page stub. “Tamam Shud”, had been torn. Astonishingly, eight months later, a certain “Mr Ronald Francis”, took the very book to the police, saying he had discovered it lying in the back of his unlocked car at Glenelg beach the night before the body was found.

“Ronald Francis”, of course, wasn’t his real name. Police never revealed his true identity.

The torn-out page was matched to the book. It was an 1859 first edition. Even more curiously, the book contained a code, five lines of text, in capital letters. The second line has been struck out, perhaps an error in encryption.

The code seemed to follow the quatrain format of the Rubaiyat, which cryptographers believed was a one-time pad encryption algorithm.

Here it is:

The book also contained a telephone number, written in pencil. It led police to 28-year-old Jessica Thomson, who lived just four hundred yards from where the body was discovered. But when interviewed, she said she had no idea who the dead man was or why he would have her phone number.

Yet when they showed her a plaster cast of the Somerton Man’s body the accompanying detective thought she was going to faint.

All she admitted was that she had once owned a copy of the Rubaiyat while working at the Royal North Shore Hospital in Sydney four years before. She had given it to a man called Alfred Boxall.

Ah, at last. So, the dead man was Alf Boxall.

No, it wasn’t. It transpired that Alf was alive and well, still living in Sydney. (Interestingly, he had worked in an intelligence unit during the war.) Alf produced the copy of The Rubaiyat that Jessica had given to him, a 1924 Sydney edition.

Police had reached a dead end.

In the intervening years there has been persistent speculation that the dead man was a spy. Adelaide is a remote city – it is sometimes said its nearest neighbour is the 19th century.

But not far away are the Radium Hill uranium mine and the Woomera Test Range, an Anglo-Australian military research facility. During the Cold War both these sites would have interested the Soviets.

We have learned little else. In 1994, John Harber Phillips, Chairman of the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine, reviewed the case and concluded that there was little doubt that the poison used was digitalis.

The numerous attempts to crack the code, including efforts by military and naval intelligence, have been fruitless.

But there’s this: in 1945, a 34-year-old Singaporean named George Marshall was found dead in Mosman, Sydney, with an open copy of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam on his chest. His death was believed to be a suicide by poisoning. One of the witnesses who testified at his inquest was found dead 13 days later face down, naked, in a bath with her wrists slit.


Jessica Thompson never spoke about the incident again in her lifetime and took her secret to the grave.

But just last year Kate Thomson, her daughter, gave an interview to the Australian 60 Minutes program. She said her mother had told her that she did know the dead man and that his identity was also “known to a level higher than the police force”.

She also said that her mother could speak fluent Russian although she would not tell her where she had learned it, or why.

It seemed that Thompson left Sydney North Shore Hospital in 1947 because she pregnant. Photographs of her son Robin show that he had hypodontia – he lacked both lateral incisors.

So did the man on the beach. The chance of this being a co-incidence is 20 million to one.

When he was a boy Jessica took young Robin to dance classes. He eventually became … a professional ballet dancer.

Another co-incidence?

Imagine this: a man dies alone, on a beach, just a short walk from his infant son and the mother of his child, miles from home. Was he a spy? Or did he kill himself because of a broken heart?

Unless you or someone else can break the code, we may never know.

Whatever happened – it is finished now. Tamam Shud.

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Love spy stories?

When war comes to England in 1939, Nick Davis is far away in the Balkans, posted to the British Embassy. But Nick Davis is not a diplomat; he is a spy. Far away from the bombs, he is soon at the very heart of the battle for Europe.

Turkey stays out of the war and Istanbul becomes a deadly city of spies.

When he recruits the mistress of a German Abwehr colonel, he doesn’t foresee falling in love with her.

But who is Daniela Simonici? And who is she really spying for?

But it is only when Germany is in full retreat that the real game gets underway – and the stakes for Europe, for the world, could not be higher.

‘My Beautiful Spy’ is a searing story of byzantine intrigue, where two lovers play out the final moves in a deadly game, masterminded in Berlin, Moscow and London.

“This book held my interest from page one until the end. I love the way Colin Falconer can bring the 40s to life. You forget that the people you are so worried about are characters in a book. They become real, and you care what happens to them. This is the magic of Colin Falconer. Don’t miss out on any of his books.” *****


Colin Falconer

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The life and times of the world’s most famous female spy

Just before dawn on October 15, 1917, footsteps echoed along the grimy walls of the Saint-Lazare prison, just outside Paris. An armed guard, escorted by a pale and trembling lawyer and a nun in a white wimple entered one of the cells. After a short prayer, a woman was escorted out and driven to the Vincennes Barracks.

It was to be the end of the line for possibly one of the most famous female spies in history.

She was led into a walled courtyard where a ridiculously young squad of the Fourth Regiment of Zouaves waited for her, dressed in khaki uniforms with red fezzes.

She was offered a blindfold but refused it. She gave her lawyer a little wave and blew a kiss to one of the young men as he aimed his rifle.

A moment later she was dead.

The woman remains the great femme fatale of the twentieth century. Her life has inspired films, musicals, books, even a ballet.

Who was she?

She was born Gertrud Margarete Zelle in 1879. In a society best known for blonde, blue-eyed children, little M’greet stood apart with her thick black hair, black eyes, and dark, exotic looks.

Her father was a successful businessman and M’Greet was heartily spoiled, groomed for the high life. But when she was thirteen, her father went bankrupt and her parents divorced. When her mother died soon afterwards, her family was torn apart. Her father remarried and her three brothers were sent to live in Switzerland.

Looking for a man to rescue her from this chaos, M’Greet unfortunately settled on a Dutch colonial official, twice her age, who went by the very un-Dutch name of Rudolph John MacLeod.

He was soon posted to Java and there she bore him two children, Jeanne and Norman-John. But Rudolf turned out to be an inveterate womanizer. Their son died of syphilis when he was two, a disease he almost certainly contracted from his father. When M’Greet and Rudolph divorced in 1902, he turned her out and secured custody of their surviving daughter.

For a while M’Greet sought refuge with various relatives and became a sad charity case. She had no marketable skills, no husband, no job, and no income.

But she was a woman of some resource. She salvaged her situation by re-inventing herself as Mata Hari, (it’s Malay for Eye of the Dawn), a Javanese princess, who performed sacred temple dances from the Indies. Her act was an Oriental pastiche, basically a striptease performed in front of a spoof Javanese idol.  She created an overnight sensation. Think Marilyn Monroe meets Lady Gaga.

Naturally, M’greet soon attracted a string of wealthy and powerful men, among them high-ranking military officers, diplomats, financiers and aristocrats who kept her in furs and jewels for over a decade. Her liaisons took her to all the major European capitals.

For ten years, she dazzled. When World War 1 broke out, her high-level contacts in Germany and France made her even more alluring – this time to the espionage community.

Some accounts say she was a double agent. She probably was, just not a very good one. What seems most likely is she took money from both sides and did very little for it. But it was a dangerous game. Finally, they all turned on her.

Her nemesis was Major Arnold Kalle, a German military attaché, who was one of her many lovers. He had paid her handsomely to provide him with sensitive information and he had nothing to show for it. He didn’t like being made a fool of, so here was the payback. Using a code that he knew the French had already cracked, he transmitted a message identifying her as a spy.

The French government took the bait. The war was going badly for them and they were in need of a scapegoat. It suited them to cast Mata Hari, the immoral foreigner, as a wicked master-spy. The public ate it up. Besides, why should she live the high life while French soldiers were dying in the mud of the Somme?

There were darker moods at play. This was a hundred years before #metoo. Back then, women were lauded as grieving mothers or self-sacrificing nurses, but here was a woman who had achieved fame and fortune on her own terms, and who felt she no longer owed any loyalty to anyone. She was anathema.

 On February 12, 1917, a warrant was issued for her arrest. When a French judge and a dozen police officers barged into Suite 113 in the Hotel Elysée Palace, M’Greet offered them all chocolates, wearing a captured German helmet and little else.

This time her charms didn’t work.

Pierre Bouchardon, the investigative magistrate, was disapproving of such “immoral” women. He placed her in isolation in the most horrific prison in Paris, the Saint-Lazare.

Her trial took place behind closed doors five months later. Though the prosecution blamed her for the deaths of 50,000 French soldiers, they supplied no evidence that she had provided militarily useful information to anyone. What she was undoubtedly guilty of was having a coterie of lovers and spending a lot of their money on jewelry and clothes. 

That was reason enough for them.

After her death, rumours circulated that the firing squad had fired blanks, enabling her to escape. The truth was less romantic: her remaining fortune was seized by the government, leaving nothing at all for her daughter. Her mummified head was then donated to the Museum of Anatomy in Paris. Even that has mysteriously disappeared from the vaults. 

But the legend lives on. Since her death, the idea of an exotic dancer using her powers of seduction to extract military secrets from her rich and powerful lovers has fired the popular imagination. 

Ironically, the woman whose name has become synonymous with espionage, was really no spy at all.

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Love great spy stories?

When war comes to England in 1939, Nick Davis is far away in the Balkans, posted to the British Embassy. But Nick Davis is not a diplomat; he is a spy. Far away from the bombs, he is soon at the very heart of the battle for Europe.

Turkey stays out of the war and Istanbul becomes a deadly city of spies.

When he recruits the mistress of a German Abwehr colonel, he doesn’t foresee falling in love with her.

But who is Daniela Simonici? And who is she really spying for?

But it is only when Germany is in full retreat that the real game gets underway – and the stakes for Europe, for the world, could not be higher.

‘My Beautiful Spy’ is a searing story of byzantine intrigue, where two lovers play out the final moves in a deadly game, masterminded in Berlin, Moscow and London.

“This book held my interest from page one until the end. I love the way Colin Falconer can bring the 40s to life. You forget that the people you are so worried about are characters in a book. They become real, and you care what happens to them. This is the magic of Colin Falconer. Don’t miss out on any of his books.” *****


Colin Falconer

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In the early part of the twentieth century, America invited – no, implored – people from all over the world to populate the fledgling nation. Between 1892 and 1954 over 14 million people came to America through the immigration station at Ellis Island in New York.

The first thing those immigrants saw, as they entered the harbor at New York, was the Statue of Liberty.

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

The new arrivals came from all over Europe, escaping oppression, persecution, destitution, and violence. It wasn’t easy passage.

Often there were no baths on the ship, barely enough drinking water. Most were crowded below decks, in steerage, with hundreds of other refugees, surviving on one meal a day.

By the time the ships docked, the stench was sometimes so bad, that millionaires living in the Lower West Side complained to the shipping companies.

Yet arguably, it was how successfully the fledgling nation integrated those ‘huddled masses’ that made American great. Almost half of the United States population would not exist today were it not for the immigrants who once passed through this tiny island.

Many of America’s most famous and celebrated figures owe their success to ragtag ancestors who arrived with a cardboard suitcase and little else.

One of the first was a man called Levi Strauss, who came to America in 1847 and greatly enriched the country’s jean pool. His ‘heavy duty work pants’ changed the course of fashion. 

Irving Berlin, who wrote “White Christmas” and “God Bless America” was a Russian Jewish Immigrant who passed through Ellis Island as a child on September 14, 1893, under the name Israel Beilin. He went on to compose 1,500 songs, nineteen Broadway Shows and eighteen Hollywood movies.

Then there was an accidental tourist called Albert Einstein. He was a professor at the Berlin Academy of Sciences and happened to be visiting the US when Hitler took power in Germany. He wisely decided not to go back and applied for US citizenship.

A man called Sergey Brin More is a more recent Jewish refugee. If you don’t know who he is, Google him. Let me give you a clue; if it wasn’t for Sergey, there wouldn’t be a Google to Google him on.

Other refugees didn’t achieve fame themselves, but their offspring did. Bruce Springsteen may have been Born in the USA, but his grandparents were Born to Run. His grandfather, Anthony Zerilli, came though Ellis Island at the turn of the 20th century unable to read or write, let alone play guitar.

Jerry Seinfeld, created the quintessential New York comedy series in the late nineties. His paternal grandfather was a 15-year-old tailor who arrived alone and penniless in 1903 from Stanislau, and his maternal grandfather, Selim Hosni, came from Syria in 1909.

That’s gold, Jerry.

And then there’s the President himself, whose great grandfather Freidrich came to the US from Germany in 1885.

My own Sura Levine arrived from Tallin in 1913. Her story of struggle and heartache and success in Loving Liberty Levine is typical of the immigrant story in the United States. Her journey from being a refugee to being an American was repeated fourteen million times in the last century – hers just one part of the story of how a nation was built.

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Read an extract from ‘LOVING LIBERTY LEVINE’ here

“This is a riveting book and the history of New York City is so real that you can smell it and hear it. I’ve read other books by Colin Falconer and they are all excellent. He is an exceptional writer of historical fiction and crime drama. Enjoy!” *****

“This is one of the best books of historical fiction I have read in a long time. From Russia to New York, from WWI to WWII, I was captivated throughout. So excited to have discovered this author!” *****

“Reading this is a true escapist experience. I was transported back in time and was thoroughly swept away by the stellar prose and engaging characters. The twists keep you guessing, and the emotional impact is haunting. *****

Colin Falconer

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On 30th April, 1943 a waterlogged corpse washed ashore on a beach in Spain.

The dead man wore a British naval uniform and a life jacket; he was apparently the casualty of an airplane accident at sea.

Among his belongings were a used twopenny bus ticket, a jeweler’s bill for an engagement ring, and an irate letter from a London bank manager demanding repayment of an overdraft of eighty pounds. There was also this love note:

‘That lovely, golden day we spent together, oh! I know it has been said before, but if only time could stand still for just a minute. But what are those horrible dark hints you’re throwing out about being sent off somewhere? Of course I won’t say a word to anyone, but it’s not abroad is it? Because I won’t have it, I won’t. Oh darling, why did we go and meet in the middle of a war?’

Someone, somewhere, had lost their sweetheart. But who was he?

The body was identified by the Spanish police as William Martin, a major in the British Royal Marines. The British Embassy immediately demanded the body’s return and a few days later Bill Martin’s body was handed back, along with a briefcase that had been attached to his arm, with the assurance from the Spanish government that “everything was there”.

Why were the British so interested in the body?

Because, apart from the love letters, Major Bill Martin was carrying documents outlining key details of “Operation Husky,” a secret Allied plan to invade Nazi Europe by way of Sardinia, Corsica, and Greece. It also described a plan to prepare a false attack on Sicily as a way of drawing Nazi forces away from the true invasion site.

A German spy, acting on a tip-off from the Fascist Franco government, had already photographed these documents and sent the images to Berlin.

Sounds like a scene from a James Bond story?

That’s because even though it all happened … it was the first fiction Ian Fleming ever wrote.

In the northern Spring of 1943, 160,000 allied troops were massed in North Africa preparing to invade Southern Europe. The problem was, as Churchill himself famously remarked, ‘Everyone but a bloody fool’ knew that their objective was to attack Sicily.

So, in a fetid airless room beneath the Admiralty building in Whitehall, London an MI-5 officer named Charles Cholmondeley, (pronounced Chumley) dreamed up an idea to put the Germans off the scent. He got the idea from a 1939 memo written by none other than Bond, James Bond.

Or rather his creator, Ian Fleming. Fleming himself – in due writerly fashion – had stolen stole the idea from a 1930’s detective novel by Basil Thompson.

At the time Fleming was the assistant to the head of British naval intelligence, a man called John Godfrey, who would eventually become the model for M in the James Bond stories.

Chulmondley and Lieutenant Commander Ewen Montagu put the idea to the 20 Committee, (twenty is XX in Roman numerals – or double cross) and was given the green light for Operation Mincemeat.

But first they needed a corpse.

That should have been difficult in the middle of a world war. But it couldn’t be just any body, as the song goes.

What they needed was a body that no one would claim – and that also looked as if it had drowned. Enter Bentley Purchase, a London coroner, who found the ideal candidate. A vagrant had been found in an abandoned warehouse near King’s Cross and taken to St Pancras Hospital, dying from the effects of swallowing rat poison. This had caused fluid to build up in his lungs – which was also symptomatic of death by drowning.

A new identity was created for the dead man. Major Bill Martin was born – after his body had died.

On 30 April, 1943 a Royal Navy submarine, Seraph, surfaced off the coast of Huelva in Spain – the site was chosen because the British knew that the local Abwehr man was cozy with Spanish officials there. The commander, Lieutenant Jewell, read the 39th psalm and the body was pushed into the sea, floating to shore with the incoming tide.

The briefcase that Major Martin carried with him soon found its way into the hands of the local Abwehr, who teased opened the letters and photographed the contents before resealing them. The images were rushed to Berlin.

Soon afterwards, German transmissions were intercepted and decrypted; the Nazis had diverted several Panzer divisions to Sardinia, Corsica, and Greece. A cable was sent to Winston Churchill to inform him of the success: “Mincemeat Swallowed Whole.”

Two months later Allied forces struck the southern tip of Sicily, meeting very little resistance. Allied losses were just one seventh of what was feared. For the following two weeks the Germans continued to prepare for landings in Sardinia and Greece that never came. By the time they realized that they had been duped, there was no chance to regroup.

So who was the dead man who perhaps saved Europe?

The photograph on Major Martin’s Identity Card was of a serving MI5 Officer, Ronnie Reed, who bore an astonishing resemblance to the dead man, whose real identity remained an official secret for over fifty years.

Finally, in 1998, it was revealed that he was a 34-year-old homeless man named Glyndwr Michael, from Aberbargoed in Wales. His father had committed suicide when he was 15, and his mother had died in 1940. Soon afterwards he fell into depression and drifted to London destitute and homeless.

And the rat poison? It may have been suicide; or perhaps, starving, he ate bread that had been set out as rat bait.

His was a tragic story, and yet his unwitting part in Operation Mincemeat saved thousands of lives and may have turned the course of the war.

Glyndwr Michael’s grave now lies in Huelva’s cemetery of Nuestra Senora and the headstone reads:

William Martin, born 29 March 1907, died 24 April 1943, beloved son of John Glyndwyr and the late Antonia Martin of Cardiff, Wales.

Dulce et Decorum est pro Patria Mori, RIP. ( “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.”)

And the love letters? They were written by Victoire Evelyn Patricia Bennett, later Lady Paddy Ridsdale. She later went on to achieve some fame of her own.

Fleming based a character in his books on her.

He called her Miss Moneypenny.

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love great spy stories?

When war comes to England in 1939, Nick Davis is far away in the Balkans, posted to the British Embassy. But Nick Davis is not a diplomat; he is a spy. Far away from the bombs, he is soon at the very heart of the battle for Europe.

Turkey stays out of the war and Istanbul becomes a deadly city of spies.

When he recruits the mistress of a German Abwehr colonel, he doesn’t foresee falling in love with her.

But who is Daniela Simonici? And who is she really spying for?

But it is only when Germany is in full retreat that the real game gets underway – and the stakes for Europe, for the world, could not be higher.

‘My Beautiful Spy’ is a searing story of byzantine intrigue, where two lovers play out the final moves in a deadly game, masterminded in Berlin, Moscow and London.

“This book held my interest from page one until the end. I love the way Colin Falconer can bring the 40s to life. You forget that the people you are so worried about are characters in a book. They become real, and you care what happens to them. This is the magic of Colin Falconer. Don’t miss out on any of his books.” *****


Colin Falconer

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titanic, jack and rose, renault, jack dawson,

And did they have gorgeous sweaty sex in the backseat of a 1912 Renault?

The answers to these questions are: yes, yes and probably not.

titanic, jack and rose, renault, jack dawson, James Cameron, the writer and director of ‘Titanic’ actually based Kate Winslet’s character, Rose du Witt Bukater, on American artist Beatrice Wood.

Like Rose, Beatrice was the daughter of wealthy socialites and defied her parents to pursue a career as an artist. She lived an extraordinary life, earning accolades as an actress as well as pioneering the Dada art movement (she was called the ‘Mama of Dada’).

She also gained a great reputation as a sculptor and potter and her private affairs – she was reputed to have had a love triangle with artist Henry Duchamp and his friend Henri-Pierre Roché – scandalised America.

Then, when she was 90, she took up writing. Her 1985 autobiography was called ‘I Shock Myself.’

She was 105 when she died – when asked the secret of her longevity she said:

‘I owe it all to chocolate and young men.’

But Beatrice was never on the Titanic.

titanic, jack and rose, renault, jack dawson,
Beatrice Wood photo: Sheryl Reiter

There were two Roses who were and who survived the sinking: one was Rosa Abbott, a third class passenger, who jumped into the water with her two sons. She the only woman and the only passenger to be pulled from the water and survive – the rest were crew.

Sadly, her two sons died in the water.

The other Rose was Miss Rose Amélie Icard, who was a maid to Mrs George Nelson Stone. She and Mrs Stone were rescued by the Carpathia in lifeboat 6.

But what about Jack Dawson?

There was a J Dawson on the Titanic, but the ‘J’ stood for Joseph, not Jack and he was a member of the Titanic crew.

He had grown up in the notorious Monto tenements slums of Dublin and when he was twenty he escaped by joining the Royal Army Medical Corps. He was posted to Netley, one of the largest military hospitals in England – just three miles from Southampton.

It was there that he met a man called John Priest, a coal trimmer on the White Star liner, Majestic.

Through him he met Priest’s sister, Nellie, and the two fell in love.

titanic, jack and rose, renault, jack dawson, After leaving the Army, Dawson joined Priest in the boiler room of the Majestic, before they both signed on for the maiden voyage of the Titanic.

When they hit the iceberg, Dawson had the foresight to put his National Sailors and Firemen’s Union card – his card number was 35638  – into his dungarees before going topside. The card was found on his body the next day.

His friend John Priest survived; but tragically his sister Nellie lost her sweetheart.

Did her heart go on? We will never know.

Dawson was buried in Nova Scotia where he rested in relative obscurity before finding world fame 85 years later after the release of the film.

His grave is number 227 in Fairview Lawn Cemetery, Halifax, Nova Scotia and has since become a shrine to many of the movie’s fans, who leave photographs, cinema stubs and pictures of themselves on the grave.

Some even leave hotel keys – though I wonder what they’d do if they heard the key turning in the lock at night, as Jack has now been dead a hundred and four years?

Now the question you’ve all been dying to know

Would getting on the door have saved Jack?

the iceberg that sunk the Titanic - but its fame has since melted away
the iceberg that sunk the Titanic – but its fame has since melted away

On the night of the sinking, the sea temperature was around 28° F.

Our bodies lose heat about thirty times faster in water than in the air and when our core temperature falls under 89° F, we start to lose consciousness. Under 86° F and heart failure can occur, which is the most common cause of hypothermia-related deaths.

So Jack could have survived for up to an hour, as he was young and fit and not trying to swim – people who move around in the water lose heat much faster.

However several people died from cold that night even in the lifeboats, so even if Rose had helped him up onto the door – and I still think, after all he’d done for her, she could have had a better go – there were no guarantees.

Now, more importantly – could they have had sex in the back seat of Jackie’s car?

from Titanic (1997) - copyright 20th Century Fox/Paramount - claimed under fair use
from Titanic (1997) – copyright 20th Century Fox/Paramount – claimed under fair use

It is believed there were about thirty cars in the Titanic’s hold, all but five belonging to first class passengers returning from touring holidays in Europe – but only one is actually listed on the manifest.

It belonged to Titanic survivor William Earnest Carter, and it was a 1912 35 HP Renault Coupe de Ville.

Cameron looked for Carter’s original documents for the vehicle so that the car could be recreated almost exactly in the film. But what Cameron didn’t show us is that it was almost certainly packed in a wooden crate so unless Jack had a claw-hammer with him, the answer to the question above is – ‘probably not.’.

Besides, even if the car wasn’t in a box – I don’t believe our real Jack would ever have cheated on Nellie.

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Here’s the story of another young woman who survived the sinking of the Titanic …

kindle bestseller, amazon bestseller, top selling romanceKitty was awake and in her uniform by six o’clock, before the first of her bells had started ringing. Elise was right, Her Ladyship wanted breakfast in bed, out of spite if nothing else. And eggs soft boiled mind, if they didn’t have soft yolks she was sending them back, she made that clear enough.

Yes, Mrs Finnegan.

And so to another day of scrubbing and cleaning and bell-answering, fetching teas and making beds and polishing brass, eating hasty meals standing up in a steamy pantry with the deck around her littered with the droppings of the last meal. She cleaned cabins and bathrooms, swept and dusted; she arranged flowers, hung up clothes, fetched basins and cold cloths for the seasick. At night she turned down beds and cast a longing glance at the grand staircase, at the ladies on their way back from the dining room in their fine dresses with low necklines, their arms bare, diamonds glittering at their throats and on their fingers,

At least you’re not in the Liberties, she reminded herself.


Finally, a quiet moment. She looked around to see if anyone in the crew was watching her, made to go back to her own cabin, but instead she took a wrong corridor on purpose, went down the alley past the engineers’ quarters. The chief steward would raise the roof if he found out where she was, but he could never prove it was deliberate.

She would say she just lost her way on the new ship.

It was certainly the grandest liner she had been on since she started with White Star and the most stable; some of the crossings she’d made, the decks had been completely awash in bad weather, plates and bowls had to be put on special racks on the dining room tables or they would end up in madam’s lap. On the older ships it was like being in an earthquake for the entire crossing, the woodwork creaking and squealing, cabin doors slamming, crockery spilling from cupboards and smashing on the deck. She was seasick morning till night, all year round.

Third deck on the Titanic wasn’t like the other ships she had been on either, usually it was bleak, airless and overcrowded, and the noise from the boiler rooms was deafening. But thanks to Mister Andrews third class was almost sumptuous, glistening rows of white-painted cabins, there was even laughing and singing, not the refinement of first deck perhaps, but it would have been almost as good as first class on the other ships she had served on.

Kitty found her way to the men’s section, near the front of the boat, pretending she was on an errand, checking all the cabins as she went along. There were two double bunk beds in each of the cabins, most of the doors were still open with lights on, men in shirtsleeves sitting up talking, or reading.

Lincoln was plumped on his bunk in his braces and socks, a note pad on his lap. His spectacles were perched on the end of his nose. He peered over the top of them at her. ‘Well good evening!’ He stopped writing and laid the note pad aside.

‘Good evening, Mister Randolph.’

‘Call me Lincoln.’

‘What are you writing?’

‘An article about the suffragette movement in London. Do you know they’ve been smashing windows in Oxford Street? I’d say they mean business.’

‘An article? You mean like for a newspaper?’

‘Something like that.’

‘Have you ever had anything published?’

‘I write regularly for a newspaper called The Masses and I’ve had several pieces in Colliers and The Saturday Evening Post. Have you heard of those?’

She shook her head. ‘Like I said, I’ve never been one for reading.’

‘That’s a shame.’

‘So this article you’re writing, it’s for the Americans, is it? Do they care what happens in Oxford Street over there?’

‘They don’t care much for Oxford Street but they do care about votes for women. It’s a sore subject in certain circles.’

‘What circles?’

‘Most circles, but it’s mostly the men that are sore about the idea of it.’

‘So is that what you’ve been doing in England, Mister Randolph? Writing?’

‘Lincoln. And yes, I’ve been to London and to Paris as well, collecting material for articles.’

‘So what else do you do?’

‘Well, that’s about it.’

‘Nothing else?’

‘No, that’s how I earn my living.’

‘Why don’t you write your articles in New York, then?’

Well, I could but my professor at Harvard always told me that if you want to write about life you have to see life.’

‘You went to Harvard? Isn’t that one of them fancy universities?’

‘As fancy as it gets, I guess.’

‘So I ask myself, what’s a man who travels third deck doing at Harvard?’

‘And it would be a good question. The answer is, my parents sent me there, they thought it would do me good.’

‘He’s money, has he?’

‘He has a cigar factory. The joke in the family is that the family fortune went up in smoke.’

‘Your father owns a factory? So what in God’s name are you doing down here, then?’

He sat forward and dropped his voice in a mock whisper. ‘Because I don’t think they would like my views on the upper decks.’

‘What are your views, Mister Randolph?’

‘Lincoln. Well to answer your question, Kitty … it is Kitty, isn’t it? To answer your question, I’m not what you might call a great advocate of capitalism, even though I’m a product of it. Do you know what capitalism is?’

‘Sure and I don’t.’

‘It’s the economic system we live and work in. Capitalism means paying your workers almost nothing for working intolerably long hours, and getting your customers to try and make up the shortfall in tips. That’s it in a nutshell, I think. How much does JP Morgan pay you, Kitty?’

‘I don’t know this JP Morgan you keep talking about..’

‘You don’t know him but like I told you last night it’s him that owns this shipping line and he’s the one who tells them how much to pay you and all your fellow slaves on the Titanic. Come on, how much?’

‘Two pounds, ten shillings a month.’

‘So you really couldn’t survive without the tips, could you? It’s starvation wages Kitty, plus you have to buy your own uniform, don’t you, and have it laundered?’

‘I get an extra ten shillings a month for upkeep.’

‘Sure you do, if you have anything left over after you’ve paid for breakages. They charge you for breakages too, don’t they Kitty? And do you know how much Mr JP Morgan is worth?’

She shook her head.

‘Somewhere between fifty and a hundred million dollars. Does that seem like an awful lot to you? Now how do you think he came to be worth so much money, Kitty?’

‘I don’t know but I’m sure you’re going to tell me.’

‘He makes that so much because he pays you so little. You and tens of thousands of others who work for him. That’s how he does it.’

‘Are you a socialist, Mr Randolph?’

‘Lincoln. Yes, I am Kitty. Heard of socialism have you?’

‘They say you people want to bring down the government.’

‘No Kitty, we just want to change the system and replace it with something better. Do you know what a union is?’

‘Of course I do.’

‘Well imagine a world where all the workers were in a union, it wasn’t just you going cap in hand to your employer asking what wages he was prepared to pay you, instead you had every worker in the world standing behind you when you did it. That’s what a union is. What I dream of is a world where all the workers are organised into one big union, so they can tell the JP Morgans of this world that if they want labour then they’ll have to give their workers a share of the profits. Imagine that! What if you weren’t a slave any more, what if you had power. What if a union made your work valuable?’

‘You think that will ever happen?’

‘It’s the twentieth century, Kitty, it’s the new dawn, a whole brave new world! That, Kitty O’Kane, is what I write about.’

‘How do you know my name?’


‘I never told you my name was O’Kane.’

‘Well, I’ve been asking about you.’

‘Now why would you do that?’

‘Why do you think I would that?’

‘I’m sure I don’t know.’

‘Well, I’ll leave it you to figure it out.’ Kitty turned to go. ‘What is it you want Kitty? You want to spend your whole life making up beds and cleaning up messes?’

‘Of course I don’t.’

‘No, I didn’t think so. Something tells me you want to leave a mark on the world, don’t you?’

‘I’m just a woman with no education, Mister Randolph, not like you.’

‘Lincoln. And I don’t think it matters one good goddamn about education, all that matters is the look in your eye and the fire in your belly.’

Kitty studied him. He gave her a boyish grin, knew he had her. ‘I don’t know about all this blather about capitalism, but a woman having a vote same as a man, now that would be a good start, if you want my opinion.’

‘Well, I do want it, or I wouldn’t be telling you. And that’s another thing that’s going to happen, Kitty. And you can be a part of it or you can just stand and watch while you fetch and carry for people who don’t give a damn about you.’

He started writing in his notebook. Kitty hovered for a moment. ‘I’d better be getting back.’

‘Nice talking to you, Kitty O’Kane.’

‘You too … Lincoln.’

She made her way back up the gangway, her foot ached, her back ached, but a part of her was excited. Did men really think like that in Harvard? Did any man think like that anywhere?

Did he really think she could change the world?

Well never mind that now, all she wanted to do was put her head down and get some sleep. She had perhaps just enough left in her to fetch a bottle of iced water from the pantry before she collapsed on her bunk.

‘Ah, Kitty!’

She looked up. Her Highness sailed towards her, she had her little dog with her, holding it in her arms, did the damned thing never walk anywhere, God gave it legs, didn’t it?

‘My dear, you do look so very tired, are you going off-duty now?’

‘I hope so, ma’am.’

‘Before you go, could you do just one more little thing? It’s so lovely outside and Jack and I are having just the best time looking at the stars, so would you mind giving Suzie her lamb cutlet and peas?’ She dropped the dog into her arms. ‘Fresh peas, mind, and mash them for her, will you? You’re such a dear. I knew you wouldn’t mind.’

She turned and flounced away, leaving behind a fog of French perfume and condescension. The dog yelped and writhed in her arms. Kitty stared after Jack Finnegan’s fecking mistress and would have poked out her tongue at her back but then she saw the chief steward watching her and so she forced a smile and headed off to the pantry, as if it really was no bother at all.


kindle bestseller, amazon bestseller, top selling romance

Colin Falconer

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Cynthia Parker, Wild West, Comanche

She was christened Cynthia Ann Parker, but she would have told you her name was Naduah “Keeps Warm With Us”.

Cynthia Parker, Wild West, ComancheHers is one of the great love stories of the Wild West – and ultimately the saddest.

She was born in 1824, to Silas and Lucy Parker in Illinois. When she was 9 years old the family moved to north west Texas to follow the American Dream – land and a better life. They went to Fort Parker, established by Cynthia’s grandfather, in what is now Limestone County.

But on May 9, 1836, around a hundred Comanche and Kiowa warriors attacked the fort, killing many of the men, including her grandfather. Cynthia and five other captives were led away. One teenage girl escaped; four others, including her brother John, were later released for ransom.

Cynthia was beaten and treated as a slave at first, but her life improved when she was adopted by a Comanche couple, who raised her like their own.

While still barely a teenager she married Peta Nakone, (Camps Alone), a chieftain.

It turned out to be an extraordinary love match. Read More …


On September 13, 1848, a young railway foreman named Phineas Gage was supervising the blasting of a cutting to clear the way for the new Rutland and Burlington Railroad near Cavendish, Vermont.

He was about to become the most famous man in the history of neuroscience – for all the wrong reasons.

Gage was using a tamping rod to pack explosive powder into a hole. The iron bar he was using was a metre long and weighed six kilograms.

He was momentarily distracted by workers behind him dumping a load of rock into a cart. As he looked over his right shoulder, Gage thrust the bar downwards. It struck rock, and a spark detonated the dynamite.

The explosion drove the tamping iron out of the hole and straight through Gage’s head. It blew out of the top of his skull and landed eighty feet away.

As the smoke cleared, there was an eerie silence.

Gage’s legs kicked, convulsively. And then, to the utter astonishment of his crew, he sat up. Though blinded in his left eye, he hadn’t even lost consciousness.

He was helped to his feet and walked to a nearby oxcart. He sat upright for the ride to his lodgings in town. A doctor, Edward Williams, was called. He found Gage sitting in a chair outside the hotel.

Gage’s first words were one of the great understatements in medical history.

“Well doctor,” Gage said, “here is business enough for you.”

Gage was dripping with blood but merely complained of feeling a little unwell. When the doctor examined the wound, he could see Gage’s brain pulsating. Gage started to explain to bystanders what had happened, then doubled over and retched. The effort squeezed another piece of his brain out of the wound and onto the ground.

Luckily for Gage, a physician called John Harlow was in town and came to lend assistance. Harlow was a graduate of the Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia and had considerable experience in treating cerebral abscesses. Few doctors at the time had such experience – without Harlow, Gage would certainly have died.

the Cavendish cutting photo: Daniel G. Axtell

That evening Gage fell into a coma. For two weeks he fought for his life; the outlook appeared so grim that his family even ordered a coffin. But thanks to Harlow, he survived, and despite losing an eye, in January of 1849 he was well enough to go home to his parents’ home in New Hampshire to recuperate.

His physical health returned surprisingly quickly. Yet all was not well with Gage.

Before the accident, Gage was hardworking, efficient and easy-going. After the accident he was a different man. According to Harlow: “A child in his intellectual capacity and manifestations, he has the animal passions of a strong man…. his mind was radically changed, so decidedly that his friends and acquaintances said he was ‘no longer Gage.’ “

He became capricious, reckless and prone to shouting profanities that shocked and alienated those around him. The railroad company that had previously employed him, and which had previously thought him a model foreman, refused to take him back. Falling back on his farm skills he found work looking after stables near his home in New Hampshire.

He didn’t know it, but he was about to become a landmark in medical science. Before Gage, the brain’s inner workings were largely a mystery. Phrenologists thought someone’s personality could be measured by the bumps on their skull.

But Gage’s extraordinary story demonstrated that the functioning of the brain was compartmentalized. As neurologists now know, a person’s decision-making and social skills are largely dependent upon the frontal lobes, the same part of Gage’s brain that had been destroyed by the iron rod.

But there was another, even more astonishing, lesson to be learned. Because what is sometimes overlooked in the telling of Gage’s story is that his personality change was not permanent.

In 1852, Gage found employment as a long-distance stagecoach driver in Chile. A day’s work meant a 13-hour journey over 100 miles of poor roads, often in times of political instability and in a land whose language and customs Gage was a stranger to.

The job required that drivers “be reliable, resourceful, and possess great endurance. But above all, they had to have the kind of personality that enabled them to get on well with their passengers.”

In other words, Gage must have reverted to the kind of man he was before the accident. His brain had repaired itself. Today that phenomenon has a name; it is called neuroplasticity.

But what does Gage’s story mean? The segmentation of the brain was a revolutionary discovery back then. Is it relevant to readers and writers like us?

In fact, it is. We have since learned that in the cerebral cortex there is something called the right supramarginal gyrus. It controls empathy. Neuroscientists can even put electrodes on our heads and see it light up when stimulated with certain images (a child crying, for example.)

In psychopaths, it doesn’t light up at all.

How do you train this part of your brain to function better?

The best way – read stories. Fiction offers something unavailable to most of us – the opportunity to see and feel life through someone else’s eyes.

Raymond Mar, a psychologist at York University in Canada, recently published two studies that showed that fiction readers easily outperformed non-readers and nonfiction readers on tests of empathy.

But back to Gage. What happened to him? Unfortunately there are limits to how well the brain can repair itself.

He lived for a dozen years after his accident but then his health began to deteriorate. He moved back to San Francisco where his mother nursed him for his final few months. After suffering a series of epileptic seizures, Gage died on May 20, 1860, almost 13 years after his accident.

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Colin Falconer

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Isabella, braveheart, historical romance, adventure, historical fiction, romance

Gorgeous. Defiant. Looks great in a skirt. 

But enough about Mel Gibson – let’s talk about Sophie’s Marceau’s character in Braveheart, the beautiful French princess who is also Edward Longshank’s daughter-in-law. In the film she has an affair with Mel and then gets pregnant to him, breaking the royal English line.

Sophie Marceau in Braveheart (20th Century Fox)

It is a tale of adventure, romance and terrible butchery – with English and Scottish history being mutilated beyond recognition.

But who was the REAL Isabella of France?

She was born in 1295, so she was ten years old and still living in France when Mel Gibson – William Wallace – was executed, so she certainly never met him, or have an adulterous affair with him.

The facts of her life are far more spectacular.

Isabella in fact succeeded where Wallace didn’t; she raised an army, invaded England and deposed Longshank’s son, Edward II, and ruled as regent for four years.

So why doesn’t history remember her as Braveheart? 

Isabella’s father was Philip IV of France – Phillip the Fair.

Yes, she was beautiful, but she was royal, and raised to be more than Mel Gibson’s love interest.

She was highly intelligent and had great diplomatic skill.

At 12 she was married to Longshank’s son, Edward II, as part of a political alliance.

But Edward soon became notable for his lack of aptitude for kingship – as well as his lack of interest in women.

That doesn’t make him the bad guy in the story either – but for a bright and politically astute woman, it was a terrible match.

Roll the clock forward fifteen years …

Isabella is starved of affection and has been sidelined in the political arena by her husband’s “favourites”. Were men like Piers Gaveston and Hugh Despenser the Younger just his advisers – or were they more than that?

Isabella condemning the producers of Braveheart to a grisly death

Whatever the truth, by the time she was thirty, she faced a stark choice; retire to the country and spend the rest of her life with her needlework – or rebel.

She chose: Freedom!

When I went to school in England, I was told the last person to invade England was William the Conqueror in 1066. This was actually not true.

In 1326 Isabella and her lover, Roger Mortimer, raised a mercenary army in the Low Countries – by marrying her oldest son off to a the daughter of the Count of Hainaut.

As invasions go, it wasn’t quite D-Day.

The fleet got lost and landed miles from where she and Mortimer had planned.

Not that it mattered; by then, her husband Edward was so deeply unpopular that the barons of England welcomed her and Mortimer with open arms and the invasion became more of a bloodless coup.

She named herself Queen Regent and she and Mortimer assumed the rule of England – and not once did she have to wear a kilt and paint herself blue.

But it didn’t last.

Four years later Mortimer was himself deposed by Isabella’s own son and she was retired to Castle Rising in Norfolk and lived on for many years in considerable style, until her death in 1358.

Poor Sophie Marceau. History has repeatedly painted her as a beautiful ‘femme fatale’  – cruel and manipulative, and calling her The She-Wolf of France.

The movie, “Braveheart”, was really the final insult.

And Edward II? Although he was an accomplished warrior – if not a very able tactician – he has similarly been portrayed as weak and effeminate.

Was that really how it was?

“He is watching some of his lads break in a horse.

Isabella, braveheart, historical romance, adventure, historical fiction, romance
“I give this novel five out of five stars!”
– Historical Fiction Obsession

She picks him out because he is taller than the others by half a head, otherwise no one might have known him for a king. The way he is dressed, he might have been a smithy or a carpenter.

One of the boys stands on the saddle and pulls a fool’s face. He falls off and makes them all laugh. Edward sends one of his lackeys to give him a sovereign.

They cheer and huddle around. Look how they love him. He has an easy charm with stable boys at least. He glances in her direction and she sees him sigh.

He turns and lopes towards her through the mud. “Your grace. A fine morning. Chill, but blue skies always lift the spirits.”

“I did not expect to find you here.”

“You think I should be at court worrying over Lancaster and Warwick? They are wearisome men, are they not?”

“What are you doing here, Edward? You are facing revolt. You know what they say about you? You are accused of keeping evil counsel …”

“ – They cannot be talking about Perro!”

“ – that you have lost Scotland and that the country’s chief enemy lurks in your chamber. Their words.”

“If they want war with me, they shall have it.”

Her horse snickers and tosses its head. She brings him under control with a sharp tug of the reins and a dig of her heels. She wishes sometimes that Edward was a horse.

“Isn’t this what you want? If they have their way you won’t have to worry about Gaveston anymore.”

“I do not want to see them take your power. You are the king above all else.”

“There is nothing to be done. I know what they want and they shall not have it.”

“You will not forestall them by laughing with stable boys.”

“What else would you have me do? I have asked your father for his support and he sends me letters full of puffery and little else. Perhaps you might shift him.”

“You are king here. Not my father.”

“Just so. Then you should go back to your dolls and leave such matters to men.”

“I am fifteen years old and you will stop treating me as a child.” She stares right into his eyes. “Besides, do I look to you like I have ever in my life played with a doll?”

He stares back. Then he throws back his head and laughs. “No, you do not, your grace.” He bows and she turns her horse’s head.

As she is about to ride away he calls her. He pulls himself up in the saddle and kisses her. “I love your temper,” he says and runs back to the horse yard. The boys cheer him. For all that he infuriates her, she loves him too.

* * * * *

But he loves no one as he loves Gaveston. He is even prepared to go to war for him. The more the barons defy him, the more he goads them by giving his Perro gifts of land and titles and jewels.

The barons make their move. She hears about it first from one of her ladies, old Hugh’s daughter in law, Eleanor. Her brother is the Earl of Gloucester and he has boasted to her about putting his name to a piece of paper he has called The Ordinances.

They wish to castrate their king, not with knives but with rules and restrictions. A select council of twenty one has been appointed to tell the king what he may or may not do. They say it is to uphold the Magna Carta, right the general wrongs of the realm and “reform abuses within the royal household.”

Isabella goes in search of Edward but instead she finds Gaveston, sitting alone in the Great Hall, warming his boots by the fire and drinking spiced mead. He looks splendid on such a grey day, in a tunic of blue velvet trimmed with silk thread and pearls, one of his men rubbing his feet.

“Your grace,” he murmurs and jumps to his feet.

“Where is Edward?”

“He is hunting. There is a great stag in the forest and one of his sheriffs saw it near the lake this morning.” He sips his wine. “I see from your face that you have heard about the new ordinances.”

“How dare they?”

“They are concerned for the welfare of England. So they say.”

“Is my uncle a party to this?”

“All of them, even Richmond, and he would love Edward even if he was Beelzebub. They say they cannot keep faith with a king who does not keep faith with them.”

“You have brought him to this!”

“How so?”

“He does all this for you. Why don’t you leave him be?”

“I could as soon leave him as he could leave me.”

“But if it were not for you, they would not challenge him.”

“You really think things would be different if there was no Piers Gaveston?” He replaces his velvet slippers and sends his man off with a coin for his troubles. After he has gone, he says: “Do you hate me also, Isabella?”

“I do not understand why he would risk everything for you.”

“If he did as much for you, his queen, would you not think him the bravest king in the world? Would the whole world not applaud him for it? But he does it for me, and they call him weak and a fool.”

“Because you are not his queen.”

“I am his best friend.”

“So you say.”

“I am the only one who understands him. Do you know that?”

The words haunt her for months. Edward and Gaveston ignore the council and instead take their army into Scotland to bring the Bruce to heel and the barons back to their side. Such army as it was, for only Gloucester, Richmond and Surrey show up while the rest stay home. Bruce chooses not to fight, and retires into the highlands, destroying crops and taking his livestock with him. Edward’s army starves and has to retreat.

Isabella is summoned to Berwick to spend the long winter with her king and the only man who understands him.”


Colin Falconer

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She was a singular splash of colour in a film shot entirely in sombre black and white.

She is glimpsed but briefly during the horrific scenes depicting Nazi atrocities in the Kraków ghetto in March, 1943.

There she runs, alone, past the SS soldiers as they murder indiscriminately, seemingly untouched.

Finally, she runs into an apartment block and hides under a bed.

The last we see of her, her body lies lifeless on a cart, about to be dumped on a corpse fire.

In the film she was played by actress Oliwia Dabrowska, who was just three years old at the time. Spielberg made her promise not to watch the film until she was eighteen and old enough to understand it.

But she broke her promise when she was eleven. She now says that watching the movie at such a young age traumatized her; she vowed then that she’d never watch it again and was angry at her parents for allowing her to play the role.

It was only when she grew up that she realized Spielberg was right; she had been part of something she could be truly proud. The girl in red had a pivotal role in perhaps the greatest Holocaust movie in history.

But who was the girl in red? Was she a real person?

The Australian author Thomas Kenneally, when writing the book on which the movie is based, mentions her but briefly in his descriptions of the Dresner family, with whom she lived for a short time. Although her appearance in the book was fleeting, Spielberg’s genius made her role profound.

Many people believe her real name was Roma Liebling and that she was born in the Krakov ghetto on 13 November, 1938. Other Jews who lived there during the war say they remember her and her signature red coat.

photo: Mgieuka

Unlike the girl in Spielberg’s film, Roma survived the war. She even later returned to Krakow to study painting and scenic design in the Academy of Fine Arts and worked with considerable success in theatre, film, and television as a set designer.

In 1965, she and her husband, Jan Biczycki, left Communist Poland and moved to Munich, where she continued to work in set design.

As Roman Ligocka, she wrote a book about surviving the Holocaust called “The Girl in the Red Coat”. Ironically, she is also director Roman Polanski’s cousin. Polanski went on to make another great holocaust movie – “The Pianist”.

But not everyone agrees that Ligocka was the inspiration behind the girl in red. A family in Herzliya in Israel claim that she was one of their relatives, Genia-Gittel Chill.

They say that when her parents escaped Krakov she was left behind with her uncle, Idek Schindel, a doctor in the ghetto hospital.

Sadly, like the girl in the movie, she died in the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto in March 1943, when she was only four years old.

Whatever her real name, Spielberg has said the role of ‘the girl in red’ in the film was to symbolize how the West knew what was happening in Europe, yet failed to act. Like the only splash of colour in a black and white film, the Holocaust was impossible to ignore – yet the Americans and British did nothing to help European Jewry until it was too late.

Other critics note that her appearance is the point at which Schindler actually sees the truth for the first time. At a primal level she is the red riding hood of fairy tales, symbolizing innocence, pursued by the darkest predator of them all – other human beings.

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THERE WAS A REVOLVER in the middle of the table.

Marie did not know the other girl. She had blonde hair and china blue eyes and she would have been beautiful if not for the greyish stains under her eyes. She stared at Marie with the air of a beaten dog.

Rolf lit a cigarette and leaned against the windowsill. “She is a Jewess,” he said to Marie. “Can you believe it? They brought her here from the Poznan ghetto. A Jewess! Blonde hair and blue eyes and a Jew! I wonder what Julius Streicher would say?”

Marie looked at the girl, then at the gun.

“Her name is Rebecca,” Rolf said. “She is seventeen years old. She is my other housemaid. I hope you’re not jealous.”

“Why have you brought me here?”

The rumbling of distant artillery rattled the window- pane. “Can you hear that, Marie?”

“The Russians.”

“Yes, the Russians.” He looked out of the window. “They will be here any day. The army has lost its balls, they don’t want to fight any more. We should never have invaded Russia, it was der Führer’s one mistake. There’s just too many of the bastards.”

Marie could not take her eyes from the revolver.

“In an hour, I and a few brother officers shall be leaving here. Unfortunately, there is room for only one more passenger, and I am having much difficulty deciding who I shall take with me.” Well, that was not completely true. If they were going to rush ahead of the rest of the troops, they would require an “important prisoner” to escort “urgently” to Berlin. Two prisoners would be an unnecessary indulgence, when so many of his brother officers were so eager to leave. He returned his attention to the two girls. “Which one of you shall I take?”

“Why don’t you choose?” Marie said. “I am sure either of us will be prepared to make the sacrifice and stay behind.”

“I don’t think so. I care for you both too much to leave you to the mercy of the Russians. Who knows what they will do to you?”

His fingers drummed on the windowsill.

“So this is my idea,” he said.

Both girls looked at the revolver.


Colin Falconer

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