David Leavitt stopped by So Much So Many So Few to discuss his new novel, “The Two Hotel Francforts.”
This novel is so vividly about a specific time and place. In the movie “Casablanca,” there’s a scene early on where the refugees are gazing skyward and one says “The night plane to Lisbon.” But I don’t think there’s been a dramatic depiction, before this, of what went on once they got to Lisbon. Can you tell us a little about how you came to it?
You’re right: as a location, Lisbon during the War hasn’t been exploited nearly as much as, say, Paris or London. There was one movie set there—Lisbon Story—but it’s an obscurity. I still haven’t been able to track down a copy.
Before I started working on the novel, I’d never been to Portugal. I knew virtually nothing about Lisbon. I came to the city through an historical back door. In 2008 I was doing some research on the modernist French interior decorator and furniture designer Jean-Michel Frank, whose work I have always loved. Like many other Jews, Frank fled Paris in the spring of 1940. He arrived in Portugal in June, only to be shipped off (along with Elsa Schiaparelli) into residence forcée in the university city of Coimbra. Subsequently he appealed to Nelson Rockefeller, whose New York apartment he had decorated in 1939, for assistance in obtaining an American visa, but Rockefeller either could not or would not help him. Finally Frank got a visa for Argentina, at which point he was allowed into Lisbon, where he stayed for a few weeks in July. He spent three months in Buenos Aires (designing a lot of furniture for the Argentine company Comté) before he was finally granted the US visa that he had been denied in Portugal, at which point he sailed in New York. There he committed suicide in March 1941.
In its original incarnation, the novel was to be about Frank and his American lover, Thad Lovett, a fascinatingly weird character in his own right and, like me, a native of Palo Alto, California. Unfortunately I couldn’t make that novel work. Part of the problem was the unavoidable downward trajectory of Frank’s life from bad to worse to still worse to suicide. More significantly, as I tried to write that novel, I kept getting “stuck” in Lisbon. That is to say, Frank’s life both before and after Lisbon refused to take shape in my imagination. Lisbon itself wouldn’t give up the spotlight.
“Seeing” is a major theme in this novel — what the characters choose to see and what they choose to look away from. It begins quite literally, when one character steps on another’s glasses. Can you take us through the evolution of this blindness?
That’s a very interesting question. I think it all started with the pigeons. The first time I went to Lisbon, the aggressiveness of the pigeons on the Rossio astonished me. The idea of a pigeon attack as a sort of echo of an air raid stuck in my mind, eventually combining, somehow, with a pair of glasses being broken. Probably in the back of my mind was the famous scene from Strangers on a Train in which the strangling is filmed through the distorting lenses of the victim’s glasses….I suspect that what I’m exploring here is the impulse or desire to see the world through someone else’s eyes, and in particular to see the world through the eyes of a lover.
The other significance of the glasses: when Pete isn’t wearing them, the sharp lines that define his perspective (and his identity) blur. This allows him to behave in ways that he never would when he’s wearing them. Edward picks up on this, which is why the stealing or removal of Pete’s glasses becomes such a crucial move in the erotic games they play. But as the novel goes on, Pete realizes that he can’t afford (emotionally?) to compromise his own vision. The world in which he lives is too difficult and threatening. Hence his decision to end the affair with Edward is part of his realization that he can no longer sit back and observe the war passively. He has to take a more active role. He has to drive—and he can’t drive without his glasses.
Speaking of Pete and his driving, I wanted to ask about Pete’s resolute American-ness. He’s not just an American, he’s a Midwesterner. He’s not just a Midwesterner, he’s a salesman. And he sells no frou-frou, he sells cars. Until Dr. Gray appears, he’s really the only one with a real job, and with practical skills and knowledge (which he uses to get the dog safely onboard) but he’s so marginalized by the other characters. He’s like a car himself to them — a means to get somewhere or, more accurately, to get elsewhere.
That’s a good point. As the novel took shape, Pete’s job became more and more central to my conception of him. I had at first gotten the idea of making him a car salesman because so many emigres/refugees drove to Lisbon and so many of them drove American cars—mostly Buicks and Packards—which aroused my curiosity and led me to investigate the history of these brands. Gradually it started making more and more sense to me that Pete should be a salesman. I also liked the idea of selling a car as a kind of seduction—hence the scene in which Edward asks Pete to make his pitch to him.
To some degree, in creating Pete and Julia, I was drawing on certain couples I’ve met over the years in which one partner is the flightily mercurial artist and the other the breadwinner. The breadwinner provides the mercurial artist with financial and practical grounding. The artist brings color to his life. He (for the breadwinner is usually male) gains variety and richness of experience through the agency of the artist (usually female) so in a sense this kind of a relationship is a trade-off: each provides for the other. Though Julia is not an artist per se, I see her as having an artistic sensibility
Dr. Gray is magnificent as a character! And I love that she, the one who makes him see, is called “gray”, but enough of gray, current popular tastes in fiction being what they are. When she strides into the action, it’s so cinematic, it’s as though everything suddenly blooms into color a la The Wizard of Oz. .
I like Dr. Gray a lot. She is based in part on an English doctor I met in the nineties in Rome, Dr. Alberta Jeans. At the time Dr. Jeans was already in her eighties, which means that she must have gotten her medical degree at a time when few women did. Possibly she came to Rome during the war. I never had the chance to ask her before she died. In some ways Dr. Gray is a tribute to her memory.
As I entered into what I will call, for lack of a better term, the last “movement” of the novel, I realized that I really needed to introduce a new character—a very down-to-earth character who could take Pete out of the claustrophobic realm that Lisbon has become for him and provide him with what we might now call a “reality check.” For reasons I can no longer remember, I decided to make this character a woman doctor on her way into the war to provide first aid. Through subsequent research I discovered that the most likely route that such a doctor would take would be through the Quaker Relief movement. Hence Dr. Gray was born.
Usually when I write I know from the beginning where a story is going to end. I didn’t in this case until very late in the process. As I entered the last phase, I felt fairly certain that Edward and Pete would never be able to make a go of their relationship, not because they were both men, or because either was really “trapped” in his marriage, but because Edward’s passivity would prove an intolerable obstacle. Given that my novel takes place during the war, it seemed to me essential that one of the characters should break out of the Lisbon bubble and do something. Pete, I realized, was that character. He only needed someone (in this case Dr. Gray) to wake his conscience.
In June 1940, two couples meet in Lisbon, “waiting for the ship that was coming to rescue us and take us to New York. By us I mean, of course, us Americans, expatriates of long standing mostly for whom the prospect of returning home was a bitter one. Now it seems churlish to speak of our plight, which was as nothing compared with that of the real refugees – the Europeans, the Jews, the European Jews. Yet at the time we were too worried about what we were losing to care about those who were losing more.”
And so we are drawn into the world of “The Two Hotel Francforts,” David Leavitt’s spooky gem of a novel which recounts a week in the lives of two couples – Julia and Pete Winters, and Edward and Iris Freleng, staying in different hotels both named Francfort. They meet when Edward accidentally steps on Pete’s glasses. Pete, our narrator, in a nice bit of symbolism, remains shaky of vision as he relates the story of what happened that week, in that city, in a tragic unfolding which seems inevitable.
That story follows these four characters through various kinds of blindness: cultural, willful and oblivious, of lies, betrayal and sudden death, of lust, languor, and anxiety. With its faint echo of Ford Madox Ford’s “The Good Soldier,” it also brings to mind the self-involved expats of “Tender is the Night” and “The Sun Also Rises,” with a dose of the vague menace of Patricia Highsmith. “I often wonder why they don’t make glasses for people who see too well,” muses one character. “I mean, to see so clearly that it hurts – isn’t that a kind of impairment?”
Densely atmospheric with a pacing that increases in urgency and dread, “The Two Hotel Francforts” will stay with you long after you have put it down (which you will find it hard to do.)
The Two Hotel Francforts
Novel, Bloomsbury USA, 2013
In 1942, Robert Vincent was assigned to the Army’s Morale Branch, Radio Section. He was a friend of the son of Thomas Edison, would be known as a pioneer in sound recording, help to establish Armed Forces Radio and, later, serve as a sound engineer on the Nürnberg Trials. The Army had been sending entertainment to overseas personnel since the establishment of the Morale Branch in 1940, but in 1942, two major musicians unions, engaged in a strike against all four U.S. record companies, imposed a recording ban that was to last until 1944. In pretty short order, the supply of music available to send to the soldiers dried up and shipments slowed to a crawl.
Lt. Vincent visited the Pentagon, asking approval for his plan to create records especially for military personnel, to be sent in monthly care packages. Permission granted, he was transferred to the Music Section — to offices on 42nd street in New York City — where he brokered a compromise amongst the two unions, the four record companies and the US government: Artists wouldn’t be compensated, the Army would pay for production and distribution, and the record companies would give up royalties and forgive copyright obligations. To keep the record companies on board, a key provision was that the records were to be treated as government issue, reserved for military purposes only. They were neither to be bought nor sold, nor ever made available, under any circumstances, inside the territories of the United States.
Pursuing agreement amongst the Pentagon, the unions and the record companies wasn’t difficult enough; the recently-promoted Captain’s road was not yet smooth. The next challenge needing to be met was getting the material with which to make the records. Shellac, which was required for the production of records, was strictly rationed. It came from Japan and Japanese-occupied French Indochina; there was none to be had during the war. An alternative, Union Carbide’s product Vinylite, was also difficult to lay hands on, being reserved first for life rafts and electrical insulation. Ultimately, a subsidiary of Monsanto provided a product called Formvar, and they were in business. Precious, fragile records were packed twenty or thirty to a container, in shock-proof boxes that were then dipped in wax. The records were shipped, many out of the Port of Brooklyn, to the headquarters of the theaters of war. By the time the program ended in 1949, eight million V-Discs had been distributed to soldiers scattered all over three continents. A wonderful story on the blog Keep(it)Swinging about finding V-Discs in a Christmas Island bunker, can be read here.
In an amusing example of art imitating life, a little movie called Duffy’s Tavern is one of a number of pictures produced especially for the military, and features a plot that hinges entirely on the rationing of shellac. Perhaps the team of writers had the ear of Private Frank Loesser, who was assigned to V-Disc HQ in New York, and was doubtless all too familiar with the problem. In the movie, Duffy’s tavern is the spot where the out of work veterans gather; they’d been employed at a phonograph factory, but shellac rationing shut its doors. Archie, at the tavern, has the idea to put on a show to save the factory. Cue production numbers. The show is bursting with stars: Bing Crosby, Paulette Goddard, Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake — and Hollywood’s top contract artist of the moment, Betty Hutton, who did her bit for the boys both in movies like this one, and on a number of V-discs.
The Victory Disc Program, meanwhile, which started as a hand-to-mouth, shoestring operation, quickly became selective. The best acts of the day were released by their management companies and unions and rushed to volunteer: Hoagy Carmichael, Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Frank Sinatra, Martha Tilton, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee, Jo Stafford, Billie Holiday, Dinah Shore — everybody who was anybody — gathered at V-Disc recording sessions held at the CBS Theater in NYC, where David Letterman plays today, and the NBC studio in LA; sessions were also held at New York’s Liederkrantz Hall, the CBS Playhouse (or Studio 54) and even on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera, while the Met was playing in Philadelphia.
With no contract restrictions, artists could choose anything in the repertoire and collaborate with artists ordinarily outside their professional circle. In what was described as a friendly and collegial atmosphere, they played and sang ad-hoc versions of all the great songs we still love – the standards – in performances that could never be re-created – these unique moments were broadcast over Battleship loudspeakers and in Quonset hut rec rooms, and were a rousing success overseas.
Taking advantage of recording technology developed by the Army, V-Discs were 12”-inch 78 rpm records, which could run as long as six and a half minutes, as opposed to the standard commercial record of the time, which only ran about three and a half minutes. This meant that the musicians could take much longer solos than had previously been available to them; it’s possible that the first extended solos on big band records, were recorded by the government.
And what do we suppose happened to these eight million records after the program ended? The parties honored the terms of the compromise: The military confiscated and destroyed the records; production plants destroyed the masters; the Provost Marshall stopped soldiers smuggling records home; the FBI got involved, when they prosecuted an employee of a record company for the illegal possession of 2,500 V-Discs. However, we’re all lucky, because our soldiers are sneaky, sneaky; our fighting men and women foiled the Military Police, the Provost Marshall and the FBI, and smuggled enough V-Discs home that, today, the Library of Congress has a complete set. Also, the National Archives managed to save a few of the stampers, and it’s no longer a crime to buy and sell these records.
This post was adapted from a fuller post from the website of Kathryn Allyn, a jazz singer and musician. Kathryn will be performing a set of songs from World War II in her cabaret show “V is for Victory: Doing it for Defense,” which will play at Stage 72, 158 W. 72nd Street, on July 25 and on August 1. To buy tickets, click here. To review her set list, and read the piece in its entirety, click here
Lynne Olson, author of “Those Angry Days,” stopped by somuchsomanysofew to discuss her book and its exploration of the extreme polarization in the United States over the very idea of entering the war, an aspect forgotten by many people today.
Four of the books you’ve co-written or written focus on this specific period in World War II, when England was fighting alone. You’ve explored it from the point of view of the American journalists stationed in London, the Polish fighter pilots who joined the RAF, the men who brought Churchill to power, and with Those Angry Days you’ve come stateside to explain what was going on in the U.S. that was keeping us out of the fight. What is it about this particular aspect of the war that you find so compelling?I’ve been fascinated with both the place (Britain) and the period (the early days of World War II) ever since my husband, Stan Cloud, and I wrote our first book, The Murrow Boys, about Edward R. Murrow and the correspondents he hired to create CBS News before and during the war. Several scenes in the book take place in London during the Battle of Britain and the 1940-41 Blitz. In doing research for that book, I got caught up in the story of Britain’s struggle for survival in the early years of the war – and the extraordinary leadership of Winston Churchill and courage of ordinary Britons in waging that fight. I discovered that there were still a number of stories about the period that remained largely unknown and untold, so I decided to tell them myself.
Having focused so much on Britain in my previous books, I decided it was time, in my latest one, to take a look at the very bitter debate going on in the United States during 1939-1941 about what its role should be in World War II. It turned out to be an extraordinary story — one that I realized I didn’t know very much about and one that I don’t think most Americans do. That debate, as it turned out, was crucial in deciding the future of the United States, especially the role it would play in the world from then on.
As you’ve been touring with this book, have you faced a lot of surprise from readers? Specifically, that FDR was so reliant on polls, that Lindbergh held so many views which would make him wildly unpopular today?
I think what’s been most surprising to readers is the extreme polarization in this country over the very idea of entering the war. Today, we think of World War II as the “good war” — a necessary conflict to save Western civilization from the evil of Nazi Germany. And that’s all true. But in the years leading up to Pearl Harbor, the extent of that evil was not as obvious as it is now. The passions on both sides were really at a fever pitch.
As you indicate, there’s also considerable surprise about FDR’s caution and procrastination in taking bold, decisive steps that would move the country closer toward intervention. When most Americans think of FDR now, we think of his bold leadership, which he certainly did show in the first years of his presidency and then again after the United States got into the war. But during those critical years — 1939 to 1941 — while he was very forceful in his calls for action to help Britain and end German aggression, he sometimes dilly-dallied in making such action a reality. He tended to exaggerate the power of congressional isolationists and was quite reluctant to challenge them.
As for Charles Lindbergh, there’s no question that many of his views — on the role of Jews in our society, on race, on the importance of America remaining an isolationist country — would be anathema to a large proportion of Americans today. But what surprised me is how much those views reflected the mood of a significant segment of the population back then, a much greater percentage of the country than would be true now.
You see that scene in movies and tv shows of a sleepy America strolling home from church, or cheering at the Army-Navy game, suddenly stunned in to war. But in fact it had been a topic of ferocious debate for almost two years by then.
By December 1941, most Americans, I think, believed that the country was going to have to enter the war at some point. The big questions were: when and under what circumstances. I don’t think the majority of people in this country would have been surprised if our entry into the war had been triggered by a major incident involving Nazi Germany. After all, Hitler and the Nazis were regarded then as the biggest, most immediate threat to the United States and the world. Almost no one in the U.S. expected an attack on American soil by the Japanese. Getting into the war itself wasn’t unexpected; what shocked Americans were the stunning events that finally catapulted us into it.
Anyone who finds today’s political climate too divisive and longs for the civility of earlier times would be well-served by full immersion in historian Lynne Olson’s most recent venture, Those Angry Days, which chronicles in lively, absorbing detail the climate in the United States in the two years before it entered the war. As in her earlier, excellent Citizens of London: The Americans Who Stood With Britain in its Darkest, Finest Hour, Olson presents a vast, compelling cast of characters full of passionate conviction. Front and center are the men of the title: Franklin Roosevelt who, though derided by his enemies as a “dictator,” was often worryingly reliant on public opinion as parsed for him by the pollsters, and Charles Lindbergh, a proud, private man who could not keep himself out of the limelight except when he was 10,000 feet above it.
As countries swiftly fell to Hitler, leaving only England as the last hope of freedom in Europe, Americans faced the critical question of what the role of the nation was to be in this turbulent world. The isolationists argued that Britain and France (who had dragged us into World War I, which was supposed to have made the world safe for democracy and had instead cost 50,000 American lives) had “repeatedly demonstrated an inability to settle their own disputes . . . we must be ready to fight for the defense of our own nation, but for nothing and no one else.” The interventionists held that too much was at stake for America to evade its international responsibility: Hitler was intent on world domination and we would face him eventually, and how could we stand by as Nazi Germany “threatened to wipe out Western civilization as we know it?”
“As momentous as it was, the passionate prewar battle over America’s destiny has largely disappeared from the national memory,” Olson writes, and goes on to quote General George Marshall: “People have forgotten the great hostility of that time.”
How hostile was it? A debate over conscription came to blows on the floor of the House of Representatives. During the presidential campaign of 1940, Republican candidate Wendell Willkie was “pelted with everything from rotten eggs, fruits, vegetables, rocks and lightbulbs to an office chair and wastebasket . . . The New York Times ran a daily box score of the number of items thrown and those that found their target.”
As aid to Britain was eked out both by private committees and cautious, narrow legislation (the Destroyers for Bases act, the Lend-Lease act), coalitions opposing Roosevelt’s foreign policy sprang up across the country. The most prominent one was founded at Yale, where students including Mayflower descendent Kingman Brewster (future U.S. ambassador to Britain), Sargent Shriver (future head of the Peace Corps), McGeorge Bundy (future National Security Advisor), and Potter Stewart (future Supreme Court justice) founded America First to provide a “rallying point for resistance” against “being stampeded into war by the Roosevelt administration.” America First’s somewhat elitist origins were given huge financial support by the captains of industry who made their fortunes providing for middle America – men like Sterling Morton (of the salt), Jay Hormel (of the meat), Henry Ford, and the founder of Quaker Oats. The darling and spokesman of America First was Charles Lindbergh, whose speeches at their rallies attracted thousands of supporters and protesters.
When war finally was declared, Lindbergh’s offer of services was initially shunned by both the military and private industry, who were afraid of being associated with him. Henry Ford took him on as a technical consultant; Lindbergh advised on the B-52 and the P-47 fighters. Eventually, he served as a civilian consultant in the Pacific without the knowledge of the White House. As a civilian combatant, he flew fifty combat missions while “squadron leaders . . . looked the other way.”
Lindbergh is merely the most prominent “character” in this history which includes deft, thorough portrayals of Wendell Willkie, the British ambassador Lord Lothian, Robert McCormick, the Anglophobic publisher of the Chicago Tribune, J. Edgar Hoover who, at Roosevelt’s orders, launched his phone-tapping career by targeting isolationists, and the sophisticated yet naïve, suffering yet oblivious Anne Morrow Lindbergh. Olson’s prodigious research is matched only by her intellectual curiosity. This is a hefty tome but well worth the read; you couldn’t possibly be in better hands.
Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and America’s Fight Over World War II
History, Random House, 2013
The work of British playwright Terence Rattigan has been receiving a tremendous amount of renewed interest prompted by the celebration of his centennial.
Griffin Theatre’s production of Terence Rattigan’s play Flare Path will be the first U.S. production of the play since its Broadway debut in 1943.
Flare Path is set in 1940 in a country hotel near a RAF airfield in Lincolnshire, UK. As the Messerschmitts circle above, actress Patricia Graham is forced to chose between two men: her old flame, the handsome movie star Peter Kyle; or her Flight Lieutenant husband, Teddy Graham, whom she married after a “whirlwind war romance.” Will she chose love or duty?
Director Robin Witt was kind enough to share her production notes with somuchsomanysofew:
“Terence Rattigan knew he wanted to be a playwright from a young age. When he was a boy, an aunt—a former Gaiety Girl—introduced him to the joys of theatre. When Rattigan attended what we Americans would consider middle school, he read every play in his school’s well-stocked library. While at Oxford in the early 1930s, he wrote for university and fringe theatre. Impatient for his writing career to begin in earnest, he made a deal with his diplomat, non-theatre-going father: Terence could quit Oxford, and his father would support him for two years; if Terence couldn’t succeed as a playwright in those two years, he would give up on a career in theatre and procure a “proper job.”
Rattigan had to wait longer than two years for his first real success as a playwright. After failing to set the theatrical world on fire, Rattigan was working a desk job at Warner Bros. UK, when impresario Bronson Albery decided to produce Rattigan’s French Without Tears at the Criterion in London’s West End. It was 1936, and the light comedy set in a French ski resort was an enormous financial hit for the 25-year-old playwright. Rattigan immediately quit his day job, moved into fancy digs in Mayfair, and lived the kind of artsy lifestyle he had always longed for. Later in life, Rattigan stated that he blew all his royalties from French Without Tears at gambling tables in France.
Although the fluffy French Without Tears was a commercial success, Rattigan was desperate to be considered a serious playwright. For the next two years, however, he suffered from a terrible bout of writer’s block. Hoping to find a cure, in 1938 he began to be treated by an Austrian psychiatrist, Dr. Keith Newman. Newman proved to be a Svengali-like character who suggested, that to cure his writer’s block, Rattigan should join the Royal Air Force at once. Why Rattigan, who was a pacifist, a homosexual, and technologically inept, would agree to join the über-masculine RAF with its technologically challenging recruit training system, was perplexing to all of his friends.
But Newman’s advice would prove astute. Not only did Rattigan finish seventh out of forty-four in his RAF training class, his writer’s block disappeared as well. During the Battle of Britain, on a layover at a UK airfield, Air Gunner Rattigan began the first draft of Next of Kin, whichwould later become Flare Path. Over the North Sea, Rattigan’s aircraft was shot by a German fighter plane. With the loss of one of its engines, it became imperative that the five-man crew lighten its load to conserve fuel. Each member of the crew was asked to throw all non-essential items into the sea. Rattigan ripped the pages of Flare Path out of his notebook, stuffed them in his jacket, and threw the notebook overboard. The aircraft landed safely with only two minutes of fuel left.
Flare Path opened in London on August 13, 1942, during the blitz. A recorded announcement preceded each performance that informed the audience where the nearest bomb shelter was located. Rattigan reminisced later, that although bombs fell quite near the theatre, that the audience was stalwart:
Never once, incidentally, did I see a single member of the audience leave to take shelter. And the actors—like all actors, bless their hearts—would have continued to act until literally blown into Shaftesbury Avenue.
When Prime Minister Winston Churchill saw Flare Path in 1943, he stated that he was “very much moved by this play. It is a masterpiece of understatement…but we are rather good at that, aren’t we.” Flare Path ran for almost 700 performances.
Rattigan’s psychiatrist, Dr. Newman, attended 250 consecutive performances of Flare Path and documented his experience in a book called 250 Times I Saw a Play, or Authors, Actors, and Audience. Newman was committed to an insane asylum in 1947, where he later died. Air Gunner Rattigan was promoted to Flight Lieutenant, and after the war, he went on to write many other plays. Terence Rattigan was knighted by the Queen in 1971 for services to the theatre.”
Griffin Theatre’s production of Terence Rattigan’s Flare Path runs at Theatre Wit in Chicago from January 5 through February 24, 1013.
Robin Witt is a theatre director and an artistic associate at both Griffin and Steep Theaters in Chicago. She holds an MFA from Northwestern University, and a BFA New York University, Tisch School of the Arts. Robin is an Assistant Professor of Directing at UNC Charlotte and she calls both Charlotte and Chicago “home.”
For a more extensive tour of Terence Rattigan, his work, life and influence, follow this journey with the always-wonderful Benedict Cumberbatch: