Friday, September 24, 2010

80: The Self-Empowered Woman: Eileen Nearne

Dear Followers,

Not all remarkable women receive the standing ovations that they deserve. Today's blog is about a remarkable Self-Empowered Woman who embodied honor, bravery and fortitude, but died penniless and alone.

Eileen Nearne was 89 years old when she died in the English seaside village of Torquay. Because she had lived alone for many years, and had few friends, and there was no one to pay for funeral expenses after her body was found. Council officials, while in the process of looking through her things in an effort to find a relative, discovered that she wasn't just another little old lady who had lived--and died--alone.

The book and movie "Charlotte Gray" (the film starred Cate Blanchett) was rumored to be based on Nearne's life, and the London Times posthumously referred to her as a real-life Eleanor Rigby, the spinster who died alone in the Beatles' song.

In fact, when she was 24 years old Eileen Nearne had had a remarkable career as a young spy during World War II. She was dropped behind enemy lines near Chateauroux in occupied France, and was assigned to transmit wireless radio messages to London from Paris in order to help the Allies keep track of Nazi activities. During her five months in Paris she sent 105 messages--including one that told the British that the Germans had hidden 2,000 rockets in a stone quarry located north of Paris.

Three times during her career as a young spy, Nearne was captured by the Gestapo. Her two other female British contacts were executed, and the Nazis used that era's form of waterboarding--holding Nearne underwater in a bathtub full of near-freezing water--but she never admitted her involvement with the British. She was sent to Ravensbruck and Markleberg prison camps after being arrested by the SS (the Schutzstaffel), but eventually convinced the Nazis that "Mademoiselle du Tort" was simply a shop girl who knew nothing about military matters.

The woman whom the British War Office referred to as "Agent Rose" walked to Leipzig, where a local priest let her hide in the belfry of his church. When she saw white flags being flown on April 15, 1945 she went to greet the liberating Americans.

Nearne returned to the UK, where her mental state remained (understandably) precarious; her older sister took care of her until Jacqueline accepted a job offer at the United Nations. From that time on, Nearne was essentially a woman who retreated into herself.

When the War was over she admitted that what kept her going was "The will to live. Will power. That's the most important. You should not let yourself go. It seemed that the end would never come, but I have always believed in destiny and I had a hope."

In the picture at the top of the page, she is attending a memorial service at Ravensbruck where she had once been a prisoner. The medal on the left is the Croix de Guerre (from the French government) and the one on the right is the MBE (from the British government.

She received a pension from the British government until she travelled to Paris to stay with friends, at which time her stipend was terminated. The British population was justifiably irate that a true war hero had been forced to live in poverty. She was buried three weeks after her body was found, and her funeral expenses were ultimately paid by the Royal British Legion, whose motto is "Lest We Forget."

Looking forward to your comments...

Sunday, September 12, 2010

79: The Self-Empowered Woman: Ruth Gruber

Dear Followers,

Today I would like to introduce you to a truly remarkable Self-Empowered Woman named Ruth Gruber who was born in 1911, and still lives in New York City. She grew up in a Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn, and devoted her life to working on behalf of the underdog (7: Magnificent Obsession). Her parents were Russian-Jewish immigrants (3: Belief in the Unbelievable), and they encouraged her to get as much education as possible.

Gruber entered New York University when she was only 15 years old, and three years later she won a post-graduate fellowship at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (13:More Than Meets the Eye). Gruber had been so inspired by her German professor that she learned the language and studied the culture thoroughly enough to win another fellowship from the Institute of International Education to study at the University of Cologne.

While in Cologne, she became - at 20 years old - the youngest person in the world to receive a doctorate. Her Ph.D. (believe it or not) was in German Philosophy, Modern English Literature, and Art History. During this time, she became close friends with Virginia Woolf.

While in Germany, Gruber witnessed Nazi rallies, and when she returned to the U.S. she worked to make Americans aware of the dangers of Nazism. Her writing career began in 1932, and in 1935 she wrote a series about women living under Communism and Fascism for the New York Herald Tribune. And while working for that newspaper she became the first foreign correspondent to fly through Siberia into the Soviet Arctic (11: Risk Addiction).

Gruber was appointed Special Assistant to the Secretary of the Interior (Harold L. Ickes) during World War II, and was asked to conduct a study that would permit G.I.s to homestead in Alaska after the war. In 1944, she undertook a secret mission to bring 1,000 Jewish refugees and wounded American soldiers from Italy to America. Ickes made her "a simulated general" so that if her plane were shot down the Nazis (under the Geneva Convention) would keep her alive. Her book Haven describes this harrowing journey, and a 2001 film of the same name was based on the book: Natasha Richardson portrayed Ruth Gruber. Sadly, it took two years for the government to allow the quarantined refugees to apply for American residency.

Gruber returned to journalism and continued to work to help displaced Jewish refugees, particularly those who wanted to move to Palestine. She met and photographed many of those who were on the 1947 ship Exodus as well as the prison ship Runnymede.

When she was 40 years old, Gruber married, then had two children, but continued her career as a journalist. Her column for the Hadassah Magazine, "Diary of an American Housewife," was a particularly popular feature.

In 1979, when she was 68 years old, she won the "National Jewish Book Award" for Raquela: A Woman of Israel, which was about an Israeli nurse; Gruber had spent an entire year in Israel researching Raquela Prywes' life.

In 1985, Gruber travelled to Ethiopia, and later wrote a book about Ethiopian Jews called Rescue. Gruber has written over 18 books and received awards from the National Coalition Against Censorship and the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Museum of Tolerance.

This brave, talented woman is now the subject of a documentary film "Ahead of Time," which chronicles her amazing life. Gruber's story reminds us all that age is just a number, compassion can be more than a virtue, and hard work can be the most rewarding rejuvenation tonic ever.

Looking forward to your comments...

Thursday, September 9, 2010

78: The Self-Empowered Woman: Elizabeth Gilbert

Dear Followers,

Today's blog is slightly different in nature, however, it continues my perpetual theme of Philogyny (i.e., admiration for women).

As many of you know, Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert was made into a movie this summer that starred Julia Roberts. The film may not have been a huge success, but the book has been on the New York Times Best Seller list for close to 200 weeks! Gilbert is a mesmerizing writer who has won a variety of awards for her magazine articles, which is not all that surprising in light of the fact that she grew up on a rural Christmas tree farm in a home that had no record player or television. Reading and writing little books and plays was the primary source of entertainment for Gilbert and her older sister.

Because I loved the book, I could hardly wait to get my hands on Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage, her next book. I thought I'd be learning about her relationship with Felipe, which I did. But I didn't expect to be given (as a bonus) a history lesson as well as a mini-memoir.

Gilbert needed to get rid of her gun-shy feelings about marriage in order to build a new life with the man she loved, and her research (which is every bit as valuable and informative as Gail Collins') helped her do just that.

As with so many developments today, being a wife in the 21st Century is a piece of cake compared to what women experienced hundreds of years ago. Gilbert write about the European system of Coverture, which was the belief that a woman's individual civil existence is erased the moment she marries. Gilbert writes that "If there is one word, by the way, that triggers all the inherent terrors I have ever felt about the institution of marriage, it is coverture...It wasn't until the year 1975, for instance, that the married women of Connecticut - including my own mother - were legally allowed to take out loans or open checking accounts without the written permission of their husbands."

Gilbert also writes about the "Marital freedom movement," where people began to marry whom and how they chose, regardless of what society thought. She tells of Lillian Harman (a suffragette) and Edwin Walker (a journalist) who fell in love in Kansas in 1887. They created an "autonomistic marriage" with their own wedding vows, but without a judge or minister or license. As a consequence, they were arrested on their wedding night because "...what they wanted was the liberty to define their own relationship based on their personal interpretation of love."

Gilbert writes touchingly about her remarkably selfless grandmother and the other women in her family: "They cut up the finest and proudest parts of themselves and gave it all away. They repatterned what was theirs and shaped it for others. They went without. They were the last ones to eat at supper, and they were the first ones to get up every morning, warming the cold kitchen for another day spent caring for everyone else. This was the only thing they knew how to do. This was their guiding verb and their defining principle: they gave...And if I were to tell you that this...has not shaped forever my feelings about marriage, or that it has not forged within me a small, quiet sorrow about what the matrimonial institution can take away from good women, I would be lying to you."

Happily, Gilbert and Felipe survived all the "issues" addressed in Committed, and had a real, albeit casual, wedding (including a flower girl). I'm willing to bet that Hollywood won't be interested in turning this book into a movie, but Gilbert has given us a priceless, multilayered look into both the institution of marriage and the evolution of her own heart.

Looking forward to your comments...

Monday, September 6, 2010

77: The Self-Empowered Woman: Sarah Bernhardt

Dear Followers,

As you know, I enjoy sharing the stories of a wide variety of women. To me, the era, country of origin, type of talent, or passion are not what's important. What matters is the struggle to fulfill a dream or survive challenges, and there seem to be an unlimited number of women who capture my attention ( and, hopefully, yours as well).

Today's woman worth knowing is the legendary actress Sarah Bernhardt, who was born in 1844 in Paris, and died 1923. She has often been called "the most famous actress the world has ever known."

Her birthname was Sara-Marie-Henriette Rosine Bernard; she was born in Paris as the illegitimate daughter of a Dutch courtesan - she never knew who her father was (1: No Paternal Safety Net). Much of her early life was spent in a convent (3: Belief In The Unbelievable).

When she was thirteen years old she entered the Conservatoire, the government sponsered French school of acting (2: An Early Sense Of Direction). In 1862, she entered the Nationaal Theater Company, the Comedie - Francaise, but the next year her contract was cancelled because she slapped a fellow actress (5: Life Is Not A Popularity Contest).

She left Paris and moved to Belgium where she had an affair with Henri, Prince de Ligne and had his son, Maurice, in 1864. Because his family disapproved of their relationship they ended their love affair. In later years she married a Greek-born actor (Jacques Damala) who became addicted to morphine, and had affairs with a number of men including Victor Hugo and the Prince of Wales (15: Forget About Prince Charming).

By 1866 she was back in Paris, and was soon popular not only in Europe but in New York, as well. She was known as " the Divine Sarah". In 1905, she was performing in Rio de Janeiro when she injured her knee during a performance. It never healed properly, gangrene set in, and her right leg had to be amputated. In spite of her loss, she continued to act even though she couldn't really move around the stage (12: Hard Times).

If you would like to know more about the amazing woman who was known around the world long before jet travel and the internet were available, I recommened Sarah: The Life of Sarah Bernhardt by Robert Gottlieb (Yale, $25.00).

Looking forward to your comments...