Unsung heroes – real and imaginary: America at the brink of WWII (Great Britain, Washington, DC, Moscow, mostly 1941/ends 1946): When does historical fiction attain historical value? Who was Harry Hopkins, FDR’s eyes and ears, sent to war-torn London at the dawn of 1941 to be his go-between Churchill? Would an unknowing, fiercely isolationist American public (80% against entering the war) been swayed to enter WWII earlier, as Churchill’s “rich timbre” voice boomed nearly a year before we did on that infamous day, December 7, 1941? What if Hollywood had made a major motion picture based on James MacManus’ eye-opening Sleep in Peace Tonight, and released it around the time the novel opens? These are questions I asked my non-historian self after finishing MacManus’ provocative novel, steeped in historical details and atmosphere, like watching a riveting black-and-white film. The movie could have been billed as the “story of a people who would not be broken.”
Hollywood, to my Googling surprise, did not produce one film prior to Pearl Harbor that championed America’s entry into war, despite Churchill’s chilling oratory that “western civilization would be decided on the grey seas of the Atlantic” and his conviction that Britain could not win without America’s naval power. (By now, Germany had advanced into France, the Low Countries, Poland, and the Balkans.) Hollywood, it seems, reflected the powerful isolationist mood of the country, led by pro-Nazis Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh. Even then, the three-term President who consoled us that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” is portrayed as afraid of impeachment because the isolationist movement was so strong. The only other novel that scared me as much politically was Philip Roth’s, The Plot Against America, in which Lindbergh is fictionalized as President of the United States. Yet most of this novel is based on historical facts, with the exception of a love affair inspired by the brave women of Britain’s Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAFF), who’d do anything to sabotage the enemy.
While the novel is certainly a remarkable depiction of “two very different, very difficult, very determined men” – FDR and Churchill – its focus is to shine a light on a remarkable, unknown household name in American WWII history: Harry Hopkins. Remarkable too that this one man – sickly and underweight (he’d had stomach cancer); politically unpopular because FDR’s most trusted advisor was unelected; so coveted by the White House that he lived in the Lincoln bedroom under Eleanor Roosevelt’s motherly (and matchmaking) activist eyes, for he pressed for New Deal and social reform issues – was America’s crucial link to Churchill, assessing the Prime Minister, the morale of his people, our entry into a world war. It was Hopkins who forged the pivotal relationship between these two great leaders when they met in August 1941 off the coast off Newfoundland (The Atlantic Conference). Prior to that, FDR apparently “detested” Churchill when he first met him as naval secretary during the First World War.
We’re introduced to a ghastly, sleep-deprived Hopkins when he lands in London in January 1941 after four grueling days of flying to remain undetected, as London was besieged by “incendiaries” dropping like “candles in the air.” Met by a personal driver, Leonora Finch, whose mission was to open Harry’s mind and heart to the sights and sounds of a London that no one back home seemed to realize or care was “another planet.” The character and evolving romance between Leonora, in her twenties, and Harry, in his fifties, is the part of the novel that is good, thoughtful fiction.
Leonora’s sympathies for the war effort stem from the death of her father on the battlefields of Somme. From a quintessentially British town outside of London, Leamington Spa, she studied at the Sorbonne; her fluency in French is an asset to British intelligence. A mysterious Richard Stobart, a ‘60s cloak-and-dagger type, appears periodically, dropping hints about the jade-eyed beauty’s secretive role beyond Harry’s driver. Harry, twice married and now engaged to a fashion designer/turned nurse who Eleanor Roosevelt deems is the solution to Harry’s fragile physical self, grows accustomed to Leonora, who tends to his every need, including his dependence on alcohol and cigarettes. She drives and accompanies Harry everywhere, to pubs, savaged cities, on the train, so he can see and report back to FDR how ordinary British souls are coping during wartime.
There’s a coolness and smoothness to the British author’s/The Times Literary Supplement director’s prose that resonates with the fog of war, offset by the warmth of Harry and Leonora’s liaison. It fills the pages with a rhythm that flows with the boozy, jazzy music heard in the pubs (“Like all pubs … having a good war”). This may be an historical period when “lust and love got confused,” but by the time the novel closes (and sooner) the reader knows which of these emotions rings true for both of them.
Leonora’s first stop is to drop Harry off at Claridge’s Hotel, which he discovers is overrun by our press corps. It “crossed the threshold of the world at war into the comfort and luxury of what looked like an English country house.” Despite Harry’s wanting anonymity and quiet, he immediately meets CBS broadcaster, Ed Murrow, who airs “This … is London.” Despite his poor Midwestern roots (like Hopkins’), the handsome Murrow finds himself at ease with the upper echelons of British class society that America shuns. Murrow becomes as beloved and famous in England as in America – as he should be for the “lone voice” the journalist played. He believed FDR was weak, and agreed with Churchill that America needed to engage in the war.
More of MacManus’ fascinating characterizing of major historical figures peopling Sleep in Peace Tonight:
FDR: A mixture of “serpentine ambiguity” and “folksy charm,” he was “guided by what he could not do as a politician than more than what he might achieve as a statesman.” In the midst of war crises, he managed to spend an hour or more working on his obsession, stamp collecting.
Churchill, the “ringmaster:” A “cigar-smoking, brandy-swilling bulldog in a bowler hat,” whose “ego was considerably greater than his talent, a man who seemed to believe that a nation of 40 million people could rule 400 million people around the world, a man determined to drag America into a war.”
Eleanor Roosevelt: whose “austere” style was the extreme opposite of Churchill’s exuberance for fine foods and drinks. She “valued principles over politics,” truly caring about the rights of the people. At this point in FDR’s presidency, theirs is a political marriage as she knows about his infidelity.
Brendan Bracken: Churchill’s personal assistant who was not afraid to tell the Prime Minister the truth.
Frank Sawyers: Churchill’s “factotum.” More than his butler and valet, he knew precisely what Churchill needed during his darkest, moodiest hours.
James Stewart: the famous actor becomes even more loveable. He really did join the military against the wishes of Louis B. Mayer, head of MGM, and flew dangerous missions for the British Royal Air Force.
Cabinet secretaries: Cordell Hull (State), Henry Simpson (War), Henry Morgenthau (Treasury), George C. Marshall (Military Advisor).
Stalin: His “hands are huge and as hard as his mind.”
Hopkins was overwhelmed by all that he saw and heard. He couldn’t believe the “UK and British Empire had been run from this small three-story house in a London side street for two hundred years.” Churchill, larger than life, would summon him for diplomatic talks from a steamy bathtub over champagne. Meals were “theatrical occasions.” Churchill had an incredible energy level, needing little sleep which Harry craved. He could pore over details on military ops, U-boats, cargoes, convoys, briefings, sinkings, casualties, Lend-Lease, Hurricanes and Spitfires vs. Luftwaffe’s Messerschmitt and Focke-Wulf. Indeed, this may be the most readable, detailed historical fiction you’ve come across.
The depictions of FDR as a “master of ambiguity” who refused to be rushed into critical decision-making reminded me of the criticisms of President Obama. And Leonora’s bravery brought to mind the terrific British TV series: Wish Me Luck. Here is where fiction and fact mightily converge, as Hopkins enlists Averil Harriman (who oversaw aid to Britain) to snuff out Leonora’s whereabouts. Sleep in Peace Tonight ends with the answer. An ending that is the stuff of Hollywood movie-making.