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Interview with Caroline Moorehead, OBE, FRSL

Caroline Moorehead: “I am fascinated by the accommodations people make with life in order to get through stuff and in order to live.”
Interview with Caroline Moorehead, OBE, FRSL
by Delia von Neuschatz


On a recent trip to London, I had the pleasure of spending a morning with journalist, author, and human rights activist Caroline Moorehead. I am a devoted fan of her acclaimed books and feel privileged to consider her a friend, not least of all because of her warmth, generosity, and lively company. Caroline is one of those rare people who actually listens when you speak. On an uncharacteristically balmy spring day, it was her turn to talk. As we sat in her light-filled, book-lined Primrose Hill home, she elaborated on the inspirations for her books, her indefatigable work on behalf of refugees, and the influence of her father, the famous war correspondent and writer, Alan Moorehead.

You’ve written many important biographies including ones about a quartet of formidable women – Martha Gellhorn, Lucie de la Tour du Pin, Iris Origo and Freya Stark. What made you want to write about them?

I didn’t set out to write about women in particular. What I wanted simply to do was to find a subject which enabled me to write history through a person, because what I think is interesting in a biography is not only the person, but the person in their setting. 

I wanted to write about Mme de la Tour du Pin for instance, because I wanted to write about the French Revolution, and she was a particularly good example of somebody who you could trace from before the Revolution right up until the middle of the 19th century. So, it enabled me to write about somebody who was part of a world which is unimaginably far away from us. But by the time she died in 1853, it is a recognizable part of our history. And I was extremely lucky with her because her life was so rich and extraordinary and she did such amazing things ... and she was such a wonderful woman. And, there were such good records too.
Henriette-Lucy, Marquise de La Tour du Pin-Gouvernet (1770 – 1853), aka Lucie, was a French aristocrat whose famous memoirs provide a first-hand account of life in the Ancien Régime, the French Revolution, the fledgling United States, and Napoleon’s regime.
Dame Freya Madeline Stark (1893 – 1993) was a British explorer and prolific travel writer.  Her mastery of numerous languages, including Arabic and Turkish, which were self-taught, served her well throughout her adventurous life. She was the first Westerner to trek through many regions of the Middle East.
Inset: Iris Origo with her son Gianni in the 1920s. Iris Margaret Origo, Marchesa of Val d'Orcia, (1902 — 1988) was an Anglo-American heiress and writer.  She married an Italian and devoted much of her life to the improvement of the magnificent Tuscan estate at La Foce near Montepulciano, which she had purchased with her husband in the 1920s.

Above: La Foce in Val D’Orcia, Tuscany. The art historian Bernard Berenson lived in the villa next door. During World War II, the Origos remained on the estate, somehow keeping the farms going while providing shelter for refugee children and escaped Allied POWs. War in Val D’Orcia, Origo’s account of those years was a popular and critical success.
Would you say that one thing these women have in common is that they are all remarkably strong and resourceful? 

Yes, I would. But, again that’s not really coincidental because people who succeed and do extraordinary things are people who are strong and resourceful. I suspect that for many women, you had to be in those times, more unusually strong and resourceful in order to emerge. So the fact that they are known and remembered is a measure of how resilient they were. In the case of Mme de la Tour du Pin, for example, I don’t think that a frail and fragile woman would have made it through the French Revolution, started a life in America and gone on to survive Napoleon’s regime. You’d have to be pretty extraordinary to do that.
Martha Gellhorn (1908 – 1988) in Paris in the 1930s. Having reported from the front lines of almost every significant international conflict for 60 years, this fiercely independent, long-legged, blonde, blue-eyed American journalist was described by the London Daily Telegraph as one of the greatest war correspondents of the 20th century.

She was also a novelist and travel writer. But despite her many achievements and exciting, globe-trotting life, what she is often remembered for is her tempestuous marriage to Ernest Hemingway
Martha Gellhorn in the 1940s. She was front and center on D-Day having snuck aboard a hospital ship that was part of the Allied invasion.

She had talked her way on board and then locked herself in a bathroom until she heard the ship move.  When the ship anchored at Omaha Beach, Martha went ashore with the ambulance team and helped with the casualties.

Ernest Hemingway, in the meantime, witnessed the invasion from the relative safety of a landing craft, never making it ashore himself.
You were hired as a consultant by HBO on the recently filmed biopic starring Nicole Kidman and Clive Owen about Martha Gellhorn and her one-time husband, Ernest Hemingway. You knew her personally. What was she like?

Towards the end of her life, Martha had a coterie of young people who she saw a lot of and who she liked and admired. I was only on the edge of this group. The bits in me that she liked had everything to do with human rights. I wasn’t really one of the rather glamorous, young reporters that surrounded her. Those were the people she really loved. 

Martha and my mother were old friends. And, if anything, I hesitated to do a biography because of that. In fact, I was asked to write it by her estate after she died and I hummed and hawed and I said I didn’t know because I had sort of grown up with her in my life – a rather formidable, daunting person.
Nicole Kidman and Clive Owen in HBO’s Hemingway & Gellhorn.
Martha Gellhorn and Ernest Hemingway on their honeymoon in Honolulu 1940. They divorced in 1945. Their relationship and tandem coverage of the Spanish civil war inspired Hemingway’s novel For Whom the Bell Tolls. Martha Gellhorn and Ernest Hemingway in Sun Valley, Idaho in 1940, the year of their wedding. Gellhorn resented the fame she received for being Hemingway’s third wife, once saying that she had no intention of “being a footnote in someone else’s life.”
Martha was very strong. She was very impatient. She was very critical. She was also humorous and understanding. And she liked nothing better than a couple of hours of intimate talk about your life ... not so much about her life, but about yours. She hated talking about herself. She could be very, very daunting because she was very outspoken and I particularly remember one occasion when she was absolutely brutal to me about the way I was bringing up my children.

I was furious and very hurt and I was also curious because after all, she didn’t make such a brilliant job of bringing up her own son [Sandy, an orphaned Italian boy whom she adopted after World War II]. So, I felt that this criticism was just monstrous. But, she really gave you a piece of her mind. She told you what she thought.
Martha with her adopted son, Sandy, in Mexico, 1951.
Martha and Sandy in London in the early 1960s. Martha, who was always proud of her looks and vigilant about her weight, maintained at exactly 125 pounds, was deeply disappointed with Sandy for, among other reasons, being on the heavy side. She considered being overweight to be a moral failing and regarded keeping fit as a “public service.” Sandy Gellhorn (left) and his step-brother, Sandy Matthews, the son of Martha’s second husband, Tom Matthews, the former Managing Editor of Time magazine. Martha appointed Sandy Matthews the executor of her estate. At the age of 89, ill with cancer and with her sight severely impaired, Martha committed suicide.
Your most recent book, A Train in Winter, is about a convoy of 230 French women who were sent to Auschwitz by occupying German forces during WWII. They were sent there not because of religious reasons, but because they had been active in the Resistance. Of the 230, only 49 survived. 

Can you briefly describe the story?

There were many women who were active in the French Resistance. They were acting as couriers, transporting leaflets in prams, helping printers bring out anti-German leaflets and pasting them up on the walls. They were hiding other resisters. They were doing what they thought were not particularly punishable things. 

And then, the armed resistance got going so the Germans started shooting in reprisal. But they didn’t shoot the women at this stage. They just put them in prison. In January 1943, they decided to send a group of these prisoners to Auschwitz on the principle of Nacht und Nebel (Night and Fog) which meant that you disappeared people. You didn’t kill them, you made them disappear in the hopes that by doing so, you frightened everybody around them into toeing the line. But, it didn’t actually dampen the resistance at all. It went on unabated.
Women in the Auschwitz barracks upon Allied liberation.
These 230 women were, as it were, disappeared into Auschwitz. Now, they weren’t immediately gassed as the Jewish women were. But, many died very quickly anyway – died of illness, malnutrition, overwork, the sheer horror of it all. The youngest and the oldest all died at once. So, what you got left with was a group of women aged about 24 – 33. They were physically and psychologically the toughest, and they were the ones who survived.

And almost all of the 49 survivors had spent the last 6 months in Ravensbrück which, although it was not a death camp, they were exterminating people there nonetheless. But, by this time, the women were friends. They were a group of robust women who were determined to survive and they looked after each other. That’s really, what it was about.
Female prisoners at Ravensbrück.
Why do you think their story hasn’t really been better known until now with your book?

I think there are a number of reasons for that. One is that they were women and when they came back after the war, it was a year after France was liberated. France wasn’t really any longer in a mood to look backwards. By then, de Gaulle had said “We will punish collaborators and we will move forward.” So, when these women came back, frail, ill, wanting to see their families and be back at home, the mood for celebrating survivors had sort of passed for the moment and it only came back later, by which time, the women had moved on. It was very noticeable that of the 1,026 or so medals to the Resistance given by the French, only 10 went to women, the rest all went to men. So, they shrank into the background.

Charlotte Delbo.
Charlotte Delbo, who was one of the women on the train, wrote a book called Auschwitz and After. She wrote it in the summer of 1946 and published it some 25 years later in the early 1970s. She’s been sort of known, but otherwise, there must be many other stories which are unrecorded.

What I also found interesting about this story was the sheer brutality and tenacity of the French themselves in rounding up members of the Resistance and turning them in. In many cases, the collaborators were feared much more than the Gestapo.

Yes, that was so. But even 60 years after the war, there is still unfinished business in France. There is still a coming to terms with what the French did to the French. That hasn’t quite happened – not really properly – not in the way it’s happened in Germany. It’s no accident that the first proper information to be published in France about the Jews was written by an American – Robert Paxton’s book called Vichy France, which came out in the early 1970s. He had to publish it in America first. And also, I don’t think the French particularly like foreigners writing about them. 

I can’t get a French publisher to take A Train in Winter in France. I’ve sold it in Brazil, Spain, Holland and Canada, but I can’t get a French translator.
Charlotte Delbo at Auschwitz.
You’ve also written extensively about asylum seekers, produced films for the BBC about refugees and co-founded the Refugee Legal Aid Project (now called AMERA) in Egypt. Can you describe the nature of your human rights work today? 

I volunteer for the Helen Bamber Foundation where I help run an arts program for asylum seekers and refugees with a group of friends. We hold classes in music, painting, filmmaking, writing, photography and such. The best and most successful of our programs is the music program. We now have a musical group called Woven Gold and they do gigs all over the country. They are much in demand. They recorded an album and there’s even been a prize-winning cantata written for them. The music is terrific.
Michael Bloomberg, Helen Bamber, Emma Thompson, and NYU President John Sexton attend the "Journey" exhibition opening at Washington Square Park on November 10, 2009 in New York City. In Caroline’s words, “Helen Bamber is completely and totally wonderful. She is 86 and she works a16-hour day. She’s the most fabulous woman.”
Woven Gold performing on London’s Southbank.
Your father was the WW II correspondent Alan Moorehead, author of several books including Gallipoli, The White Nile, and The Blue Nile. Is writing in your blood? What made you want to become a writer?

In my family, it was absolutely fine if you wanted to be a nuclear physicist or a surgeon. It was fine. It just wasn’t, of course, as good as writing. My parents lived for writing. My mother, Lucy Milner, had been a journalist, my grandfather – my father’s father – had been a journalist and writer. We grew up to believe that the finest thing you could do in life was to write.
Lucy Milner, editor of the women’s pages in the Daily Express, in the late 1930s. Alan Moorehead at Melbourne University.
Now my father perhaps being in a way, of his age and generation, thought that my brothers should become writers and it didn’t really matter if I had a profession – because my two brothers were going to be these good writers – which of course, made me more determined than ever. So, when we all left university, we all became journalists.

But, it was somehow more important that I should stick with it. Less was expected of me so I had to write in a way. So, my older brother went on being a journalist a bit and then wrote some books; my younger brother became a journalist, but then gave up. I didn’t really have any choice and also, I always wanted to write.
Alan and Lucy Moorehead after their civil wedding ceremony in Rome, 1939.
In fact, when I was 9 or 10 at school, we all had to write a story and I wrote a story about getting onto a bus and it sounds ridiculous, but for some reason, I was invisible and somebody came and sat on me and when I read the story out in the class, everybody laughed – not against me, but with me. And I suddenly thought “This is so brilliant. You can make people laugh.” The point is that this is a contradiction in terms because I write gloomier and gloomier books in which nobody could laugh. But I remember thinking at that moment about the power of words to entertain people. I think that’s probably what did it.
“The prince of war correspondents,” Alan Moorehead, during a WWII campaign in northern Europe.
Did your father live to see your success?

I had my first book out [Fortune’s Hostages: A study of kidnapping in the world today] before he died and he certainly followed me writing in The Times. He died in 1983 and I joined The Times in 1979 and he certainly read my pieces in the Times.

Was he proud of them?

Yes. I think he was. But of course, I would have loved to have him around later to say “Look, I’ve got stuff published. It worked. I mean at least, it all came out.”

You say that you write gloomier and gloomier stories. Why do you do it?

Alan Moorehead in Queensland, Australia, 1952. In 1966, at the age of 56, Alan suffered from a stroke which ultimately left him unable to speak, read or write until the end of his life in 1983. His wife, Lucy, was tragically killed in an automobile accident in Italy in 1979 at the age of 71.
I think I’ve always been drawn to the dark side of life. While I value and rate humor above all things and while I hope to laugh and find things funny, I think that in the end, what I absolutely want to do is to find out how people survive … hence the stuff on refugees, hence Mme de la Tour du Pin in the French Revolution, hence all these women in Auschwitz. I am fascinated by the accommodations people make with life in order to get through stuff and in order to live. And also, you know, in the end, I think life is a tough and difficult place and people have a difficult time in general and I’m interested in that.

And this new book I’m doing [about a group of French villages that managed to shelter thousands of Jews during WWII] is a good story. It’s a story about people being saved. But the more research I do, the more I find wonderfully black and dark sides. It was extraordinary that there were no reprisals against the villagers, but it wasn’t all plain sailing. There were some casualties.

Your research has taken you to many different countries including France, Italy, Germany, and Poland. Are you fluent in those languages? How many do you speak?

No, I’m not. The language that I would most like to speak and that would have been most useful for me over the years is German. I have so little German as to be totally useless and no Polish of any kind. On the other hand, I grew up speaking French and Italian I did almost of my schooling in French at French lycées and at the Sorbonne. We lived in Italy when I was a small child and again from when I was 11. And we still have a house in Italy so, in a sense, I grew up working in those two languages.
Alan Moorehead with Caroline and her brother John in Italy in the 1950s.
Can you describe your childhood? Where were you born?

I was born in London, but we moved to Italy when I was 4. My father was Australian and when I went to Australia about 10 years ago, I understood for the first time why we wound up in Tuscany. It’s because the light there is a similar sort of golden light. I can’t explain it better than that. So, we lived in Florence when I was 4, 5, and 6. My father was trying to become a novelist and not succeeding. So, he then wrote a non-fiction book called The Villa Diana about the house we lived in and then he came back to London and took a job for a year working for the Ministry of Defense.

At the end of that year, they gave him the material to write a book about spies called The Traitors which did sufficiently well and then he wrote Gallipoli, which was a great success and with that money we then moved back to Italy.

We lived in Rome or just outside Rome when I was about 12 – 15 and then we moved to this house that he had built in Tuscany. Afterwards, I had a fairly miserable year at a boarding school in Switzerland and then went on to study for a year in Paris at the Sorbonne. I came back to London and went to London University saying to everybody the one thing I would never do is to live in Italy because I wanted to become English – proper English. And as fate would have it, the summer I left university – I was 21– I got married to somebody [an economist named Jeremy Swift] who was living in Italy so by the autumn of that year, I was back in Italy again. A few years later, we came back to London where I’ve pretty much been living ever since.
Winston Churchill presenting Alan Moorehead with the Duff Cooper Memorial Prize for Gallipoli, 1956.
Ernest Hemingway hosting Alan Moorehead for lunch in Cuba, 1956.
How long does it take you to research and write a book? 

It takes me 2 ½ years to do a book, give or take. I like to spend 18 months to 2 years doing research and then 9 months to a year writing. That’s doing it full time. 

What advice would you give to an aspiring writer today?

I would start by saying that it’s much, much harder now than it was when I got started. First, you have to have a good idea and you have to think of a way of doing it which is original.  When I started writing biographies, it was enough to say “I want to write a life of … Mary Queen of Scots” or whatever and put together a good synopsis. That’s not enough anymore. You have to have a different angle. It helps too if you can bring to the table something unique. For example, if you happen to know foreign languages, look for a foreign subject, if you happen to be good on medical matters, write something which has some medical connection.

I think you also have to be lucky and get a good agent. More than half the battle is getting a good agent. You just have to go for it.
Alan Moorehead with his wife, Lucy and son, John, after Caroline’s wedding to Jeremy Swift (standing at right) at Casa Moorehead in Porto Ercole, Italy, 1967.




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