HANSON – There’s always another story inside the pages of those history books, often featuring people you never expected.
For Melrose author Jane Healey, there have been more than one untold story within the more well-known histories of World War II, fueling her storyteller’s muse for a third journey into the genre of historical fiction about that period with “Goodnight from Paris,” published on March 7.
Like her previous books, “Beantown Girls” and “The Secret Steelers” – both of which have been bestsellers and/or editors picks for historical fiction, her latest book offers a glimpse into the remarkable difference women made during the war years of 1939-45.
On Thursday, March 30, Healey discussed her latest book, the story behind it and her writing process at the Hanson Public Library. The talk will be broadcast on Whitman-Hanson Cable Access TV.
A free-lance writer for Boston Magazine and other publications after leaving a tech career, about 20 years ago, Healey had begun to scratch the fiction-writing itch she had long felt. That led to her first book, “The Saturday Evening Girls’ Club,” about a group of Jewish and Italian women in Boston’s North End. in 2017.
“I had always wanted to write a bigger story,” she said. “I had always wanted to write a WWII story, since my grandfather was in WWII.”
She researched and wrote about Red Cross “clubmobile” girls she had leaned about, which led to “Beantown Girls” being published in 2019.
“That was kind of my breakout book,” she said.
When her publisher was looking for something else for Healey to write during the COVID-19 pandemic, Healey thought of ideas she had filed away about women who worked for the CIA’s precursor, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS, whose ranks, incidentally included a secretary named Julia Child). That idea became “The Secret Stealers” in 2021.
When researching that book, Healey had come across stories about Drue Leyton- Tartiére from a couple of different sources.
“Goodnight from Paris” tells a familiar tale of the risks assumed by the resistance in France, as they helped downed allied fliers escape from behind German lines and back to England. Like famed American chanteuse Josphine Baker, who received the high honor of being inducted into the Panthéon – France’s mausoleum of heroes – after her death, Healey’s story revolves around real-life American actress Leyton-Tartiére.
The spark for the book came when Healey saw a story about Canadian pilot Lauren Frame, who had received the Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur [Legion of Honor] from France in 2020. Researching the story Healey came across the story of the woman living in the French village of Barbizon who sheltered and helped him and members of his bomber crew for seven weeks – Drue Leyton-Tartiére.
“To this day [when Frame was in his 90s], he praises the women and men of the French Underground, and in particular, Drue Leyton- Tartiére,” a speaker in the program about Frame said.
“What’s different about this [novel] is that it’s biographical fiction, inspired and based on a true story,” Healey said. “Tonight, I’m going to talk about who she was, how I learned about her and the history behind the novel – but I promise you, I’m not giving away any spoilers.”
Healey sketched a profile of a Hollywood actress, born Dorothy Elizabeth Blackman in June 1903 in Kenosha, Wisc., to well-off parents. After marrying young and having a son, she left her family and reinvented herself in the film industry – eventually following French actor Jacques Tartiére back to Paris before the war. Medically unqualified for the French army during the war, Tartiére joined British forces as a translator and was later killed during the war. Drue had refused the advice of friends and relatives to return to the U.S., staying in France for the duration.
“In the 1930s, she was a star on-the-rise in Hollywood,” Healey said, noting Drue was often described as “the next Greta Garbo.” After some rolls in “Charlie Chan” movies with Warner Oland and bit parts in other films,
One of Healey’s source materials was an out-of-print autobiography penned by Leyton-Tartiére in 1946, that she “bought for too many Euros” on eBay.
In 1942, Germans in occupied France began rounding up American expatriots following Pearl Harbor and the United States’ entry into the war. One of them was Drue, who had been broadcasting a radio show for France Mondiale run by the French Information Agency, back to the states up to that point, using the name in which she starred in movies – Drue Leyton. She had occasionally done broadcasts with legendary American journalist Dorothy Thompson, who was one of the first American broadcasters to be kicked out of Nazi Germany.
Leyton-Tartiére, along with several other American women in France, were first interned at the monkey house of a zoo on the outskirts of Paris using her married name Tartiére – the Germans had planned to execute Drue Leyton as soon as they occupied France – before being moved to a model concentration camp in the mountains of southern France, aimed at placating the international Red Cross inspectors. She faked an illness to receive a medical release and returned home to Barbizon, where she had farmed food for friends in Paris before her arrest, and was asked to rejoin the underground.
“It was so wild,” she said of the zoo story. “I couldn’t believe I hadn’t heard of this story.”
But she resisted writing “Goodnight from Paris” at first because WWII novels is a crowded genre and she wasn’t initially interested in doing another one. But Drue won her over.
Healey said she found it more difficult to write a novel based on a real person that it would have been if she invented someone out of whole cloth.
“Out of the four books, this was the hardest ones, by far, because it’s a real person,” she said. “I didn’t want to take too many liberties. I wanted to honor her story.”