SHE’S JUST A GIRL

I always thought girls were smarter and braver than I am, I still do.

The Actress

Imagine an office building in old New York City. Outside a grand office with beautifully carved doors, two well dressed young executives in tweedy suits of the type worn by young up and comers are schmoozing about nothing in particular when one says, “Say, I hear the big boss is talking to that girl in his office about the merger.”

His sidekick is quick to answer, “Oh, don’t worry about that, she is just a             girl, she doesn’t know anything.” 

The girl in question comes out of the inner office and approaches the two young men, saying, “What are you two carrying on about?”

The taller of the two sleeks back his pomaded hair, touches his bowtie briefly, and says with a wink to his partner, “Honey, don’t you worry your little head about it, it’s man talk, you couldn’t possibly understand.”

They both laugh. She gives them a look, turns and stalks off with a slight huff. They laugh again.

It’s a movie scene. The early 1930’s. The two actors, long forgotten are completely gone from living memory. The girl? A 25 year old, who when she arrived in Hollywood to screen test at Universal, stepped down from the Super Chief and was surprised to find that no one from the studio was there to meet her. In fact there was someone there. When that man returned to the Universal offices without her, he told Carl Laemmle, the studio head, “I didn’t see anyone who looks remotely like a movie star.” As well he might, she was an unremarkable 5” 2”, 120 lb. blonde with too large blue eyes, she was no ones idea of a star. Six terrible films later, Universal let her go. She was lucky and  signed with Warner brothers. After more than 20 forgettable films, the role of the vBicious and slatternly Mildred Rogers in the RKO Radio production of Human Bondage, (1934), a film adaptation Somerset Maugham’s novel, earned her first major critical acclaim. Many actresses feared playing unsympathetic characters, and several had refused the role, but she viewed it as an opportunity to show the range of her acting skills. Her co-star, Leslie Howard was initially dismissive of her, but as filming progressed, his attitude changed, and he subsequently spoke highly of her abilities. The director saw something special in her. John Cromwell allowed her relative freedom: “I let her have her head. I trusted her instincts.” She insisted that she be portrayed realistically in her death scene, and said: “The last stages of consumption, poverty, and neglect are not pretty, and I intended to be convincing-looking.”

She spent the rest of her career playing unsympathetic sardonic and mostly unlikable roles and is still considered the finest actress of her generation. She was nominated ten times for an Academy Award and won two for Dangerous in 1935 and Jezebel in 1938.

Her name was Ruth Elizabeth Davis, you know her as Bette.

Ruth Elizabeth Davis 1908-1989

The Aviatrix

 Clad in her trademark plum colored flying suit which she had designed herself, she was the darling of the flying world. Growing up in Arroyo Grande California  with her parents, William and Ursula ,who owned a small farm that was a constant financial drain. When opportunity presented itself, William moved the family to Oakland, California. Her parents, William and Ursula owned a small farm that was a constant financial drain and when the first opportunity presented itself, William moved the family to Oakland, California. Living in Oakland she  successfully gave the impression she was from a wealthy family and was private school educated in the United States and France. Beautiful and poised, she easily carried out the charade. Encouraged by her mother to believe that she could succeed in any endeavor, she relied on her talents and wit to accomplish what few women of her time even dared to dream about. She was an anomaly for her time, and she willingly disregarded societal convention. She vowed never to marry and concentrated instead on pursuing a successful career.

 Harriet started work in California as an actress, but soon abandoned the stage for journalism. That life began in 1902, when she began writing for the San Francisco Dramatic Review and then contributing to the Sunday editions of the San Francisco Chronicle and San Francisco Call newspapers. Pursuing a career in a field where there were few women, she stood out for a variety of reasons. While working in California, she was one of the first journalists anywhere to use a typewriter. She could often be seen driving her bright yellow automobile around town, a unique sight since automobiles were still a rarity at the turn of the century. In 1903, she moved to New York where she joined the staff of Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly as a drama critic and editor of the women’s page. Not content with these tasks, she soon began writing feature articles for the magazine. She joined women writers who had published their stories in the weekly including Louisa May Alcott.

She was fearless and accepted any challenge if it made a good story. She took laps in a Vanderbilt Cup race car and hit the amazing speed of 70 MPH, sliding on two wheels and losing her hat. The driver even let her shift the gears.

In 1910, an International Aviation Tournament organized at Belmont Park found her in attendance. It was there that she met Matilde Moisant. Matilde’s brother Albert then owned and operated one of only two aviator’s schools in the US. She and Matilde decided right there that they would learn to fly. The other aviation schoo , the one operated by the Wright Brothers, refused to accept either woman as students, Stating that no woman had the stamina or intelligence to operate an airplane.” On August 1, 1911, she passed the her tests, earning the Federation Aeronautique Internationale’s License #37, and thus became the first American woman and only the second in the world to earn an Aviator’s License. Knowing the power of performance, she created a look for herself which became her trademark – a purple satin flying suit with a hood. With her slim, elegant looks, she instantly caught the public’s attention. She even chronicled her aviation adventures in Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly.

As a person always looking for new challenges, she was the first woman to fly the English Channel. In March 1912, she sailed for England to meet Louis Bleriot, a the time the most famous French flyer. She managed to convince Bleriot to lend her a 50-horsepower monoplane for her attempt to fly the channel. While Bleriot agreed to the arrangement, most everyone around her was convinced she would fail. Bleriot believed in her, having been the first to fly the channel himself and certainly knew the risks she was taking.

On April 16 she departed England for France in a plane she had never flown before, with a compass she had just learned to use. Despite poor visibility and fog, she landed 59 minutes later near Hardelot, France. She  was greeted with cheers by the huge crowd and was hoisted on the shoulders of residents. Sadly she would not receive the worldwide acclaim the flight deserved because it was so overshadowed by the sinking of the Titanic just four days earlier.

Returning to America she flew in the annual Boston Aviation Meet near Quincy, Massachusetts. She was paid the hefty sum of $100,000. She was a worldwide celebrity now and the most famous woman pilot. She flew her gleaming new Bleriot Monoplane out over Dorchester Bay with the event’s organizer, William Willard in the backseat. As they were circling back over the bay, the plane suddenly pitched violently forward and down and Willard were thrown out of the plane, it then rolled on its back and, in front of tens of thousands horrified spectators, she plummeted to her death in the shallow waters of Boston harbor. Amazingly, the little Bleriot righted itself and landed safely in a nearby field.

Harriet Quimby, who had written about safety precautions important in flying, was not wearing her safety belt. The “Dresden China Aviatrix” or “China Doll,” as the press dubbed her because of her petite stature and fair skin was 37 just years old.

Harriet Quimby 1875- 1912

The Ugly Duckling

Anna wore frumpy clothes. Her teeth badly needed straightening. People would continue to attack her looks and she was very insecure, she believed what everyone said about her, admitting in letters to her mother that she was an “ugly duckling.” 

When she first met her cousin Franklin, she could not believe that a man was interested in her. Because he was Harvard educated and extremely intelligent, she wanted him to see her world, so instead of going to a fancy social event, she instead took him to the slums of the New York’s Lower East Side, where she did volunteer work, helping young immigrant women.

The young man, who had led a rich, sheltered life, saw things he would never forget — sweat shops where women labored long hours for low wages and squalid tenements where children worked for hours until they dropped with exhaustion. Multiple families lived in one cramped room with no plumbing. Most of the immigrants themselves were beyond help. little or no education, unable to speak the language, doomed to work themselves to death at an early age. It was the children that broke his heart for they both saw that they were the future of the country.

This walking tour profoundly changed the young man, moving him to say, that he “could not believe human beings lived that way.” It was a lesson he never forgot.

The young man’s name was Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the young woman, who changed his life forever, who would change the world forever, her name was Anna Eleanor Roosevelt.

When the Daughters of the American Revolution boycotted the 1936 concert of African-American singer Marian Anderson, she would resign her membership and helped organize a new concert in front of the Lincoln Memorial that made history.She flew with black (male) pilots and helped the Tuskegee Airmen in their successful effort to become the first black combat piloShe would be nominated three times, during her lifetime, for a Nobel Peace Prize. She became a renowned social and political activist, journalist, educator, and diplomat. Throughout her time as First Lady, and for the remainder of her life, she was a high profile supporter of the Civil Rights Movement, of equal rights for women, and of social reforms to uplift the poor

After her husband’s passing, she remained active in politics. For the rest of her life she advised presidents and statesmen. President Truman would appoint her as a U.S. Delegate to the United Nations, where she would receive a standing ovation when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted on December 10, 1948.

She would chair President Kennedy’s ground-breaking committee which helped start second-wave feminism, the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women. And, she continued supporting women, even personally assisting in the careers of many women, providing them with guidance, giving them hope.

She would still remember when they called her an ugly duckling when she was growing up, but to the world, she was and continues to be a beautiful swan whose beauty inside helped her speak the truth, making the world a little better for all.

Anna Eleanor Roosevelt 1884-1962

Bebes Terribles

The Resistance movement in France that began in 1940 and was made up of active resisters in the four years before D-Day constituted not a small minority of the French population but a tiny one—perhaps as low as two percent of the population were actively engaged in publishing underground newspapers, sabotage operations, intelligence gathering, recruiting, or participating in one of the networks designed to rescue Allied fliers. About one in ten were women.

Simone Segouin 1925-present

Of a morning in France early in 1944, German soldiers emerged from a barracks to find all the tires of their bicycles and motorbikes slashed. One bicycle was missing – stolen. It wasn’t known exactly who the thief was, but it was a young French woman, Simone Segouin. She hid the bike and later repainted it to use as a messenger between Resistance factions.

Simone Segouin, just 18 years old, had met Resistance commander Roland Boursier in the countryside outside her village of Thivars near Chartres. They’d fallen in love, and it was Boursier who asked her to become a messenger for his unit. Eventually, he asked Segouin to join up. Motivated by the example of her farmer father, a medal-winning French soldier in World War I and her French Nationalist beliefs, Segouin adopted the nom de guerre Nicole Minet, received fraudulent identity papers, and joined the FTP, the Francs-Tireurs et Partisans, the Free-Shooters and Partisans.

Partisans trained her to use captured weapons. She carried a Schmeisser MP-40 sub-machine gun, taken from a dead German soldier. Along with her messenger duties, Segouin started scouting out potential sabotage targets for the FPT. She began going on missions blowing up bridges, attacking German convoys and trains, and even attacking detachments of German soldiers.

Asked once if she’d ever killed Germans, Segouin told of a July 14, 1944 ambush she and two comrades set for two German bike messengers. As the soldiers rode by, all three Partisans opened fire, killing them instantly. Segouin said she couldn’t say whose bullets killed the Germans; but expressed some regret, saying that it was a terrible way for them to die. “They were no older than I,” she said.

American Army correspondents first noticed her “eating a baguette with jam, as much on her cheeks as on the bread. With her machine gun slung over her shoulder,” wearing shorts, a jaunty military hat, and an FPT armband she still looked the part of a young girl, but still a dangerous one.  In the thick of the fighting for Paris, a photographer took a photo of Segouin dressed in her signature attire between two comrades taking cover along the side of a building. The photo of Segouin became famous as a symbol of women in the Resistance.

After the war Segouin was promoted to Lieutenant and honored by being awarded the French Croix de Guerre. She became a pediatric nurse. Her romance with Roland Boursier was long lasting too. While they never married, they had six children, all of whom were given Segouin’s maiden name.

Genevieve DeGaulle 1920-2002

The nineteen year old never saw herself as a gun-toting warrior. But when Marshall Petain, France’s revered WWI general ordered Frenchmen to lay down their arms on June 17, 1940 and to accept defeat , the willowy young history student resolved to free her beloved country from the Nazis.

Geneviève, her relatives, and countless others had walked 40 miles south from Paris to escape incoming German troops when a priest approached their caravan to tell them not to give up hope. He had heard a young French general speak on BBC radio encouraging the French people to never accept defeat and to fight on by any means they could find. “He said we may have lost a battle,” the priest cried, “but not the war. The General’s name was also De Gaulle.”

For Geneviève, the journey would test the limits of her endurance and her beliefs in humankind. Her defiance began with small acts such as tearing down swastikas and pro-Vichy posters. But it grew to include ferrying arms, ammunition, hiding allied flyers moving south towards Spain along the networks set up by resistance groups and creating false letters of transit to fellow resistants. She edited and distributed the nation’s largest clandestine newspaper, the Defense de la France. Moving from cellar to attic, constantly scrounging paper and ink, the paper publicized German atrocities in concentration camps, the roundups of jews, Hungarians, Romanians and other “undesirables,” by the Nazi’s. It posted the names of schoolteachers shot by French police for being too liberal and the movements and whereabouts of German troops.

Few Frenchmen knew who the General was until his niece popularized him in this influential journal. His growing legend made her a target of the Germans, and led to her arrest. She was betrayed by a Frenchman in the pay of the Gestapo in July of 1943.

She was jailed at Fresnes prison before being shipped north of Berlin to the Ravensbruck concentration camp for women. As a so-called political prisoner she witnessed and endured horrors that should have broken her spirit. Starvation, illness, beatings, shootings, overwork, cruel medical experiments and a simple lack of hope were all commonplace at this site known as “the women’s hell,” Inmates slept three to a bunk, fought for scraps of food and were mired in their own filth. She witnessed parades of prisoners being transferred to the death camps at Dachau and Auschwitz-Birkenau. She saw women forced to kneel in the dirt and then shot in the back of the neck. She witnessed rape. Yet some of the strongest friendships Geneviève would ever know emerged from this abyss and inspired her future activism.

De Gaulle survived her internment primarily because of her possible value as a hostage for her uncle. After her release in June 1945, she co-founded the Association of Deportees and Internees of the Resistance (ADIR), an organization that for 61 years provided female deportees and their families with free medical treatment, soup kitchens, short-term lodging, job training and other social services. Outside of its social work within France, the group waged two internationally renowned battles: one that forced the German government to pay restitution to a group of Polish women on which it had performed crippling experiments at Ravensbrück, and another that forced the French to acknowledge that the government had collaborated with the Nazis and turned a blind eye to the Holocaust. Her Uncle Charles loved her like a daughter, but he did not always embrace her public crusades. She would learn to press on without him, always striving to do what she felt was decent, appropriate and humane. She juggled this social work with her roles of wife and mother of four.

Ten years after her death in 2002, the president of France, Francois Hollande declared she would be interred in the Pantheon, the necropolis dedicated to honored French citizens. Her coffin was placed in the company of Marie Curie, Victor Hugo, Antoine de Saint-Expurey, Emile Zola, Louis Braille, Andre Malraux and Alexander Dumas. This is as it should be.

PS: Resistants

The stories of women who resisted the Nazi’s occupation of France, and Belgium during the occupation from 1940 to 1944 is a tale of courage under incredible odds and included British, Dutch, Belgian, Hungarian, Romanian, Italian, Spanish,Canadian and American women. Many were very young and many paid with their lives. If you’d like to read further, Ronald C. Rosbottom’s “Sudden Courage” details the stories of the very youngest in the resistance, all under 21 who in many cases sacrificed their lives to help free France. High School, Grade School and the Boy Scouts all worked against the occupation. They were imprisoned, shot and beheaded if caught. The stories detail incredible courage.

“The General’s Niece” by Paige Bowers is biography that chronicles the life of an that extraordinary woman Genevieve DeGaulle.

The resistance stories of Violette Szabo, Nancy Wake, Jeannie Rousseau and Noor Inayat Khan are all the subjects of biographies.

“Eleanor” by David Michaelis is one of the most recent biographies of Eleanor Roosevelt and is well worth the read. Doris Kearns Goodwin, one of America’s greatest biographers published “No Ordinary Time” about the Roosevelts during WWII and like all her work is beyond excellent.

Try one.

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