Mrs. Roosevelt's Confidante
“I’m back!” announced Maggie Hope.
Her cheeks were pink and eyes bright as the Prime Minister’s jump flight from Boston approached the airport in Virginia. Her heart filled with joy as she saw Washington, D.C., glowing below through the fog. All those in the plane were transfixed with delight to look and see the amazing spectacle of a city lit up. For all of them who had endured over two years of blackouts, the sight of lights at night was precious, symbolizing freedom, strength, and hope.
“So, how does it feel?” asked David.
As the wheels of the plane touched down on the tarmac she cried, “Tops!” over the noise, her heart racing. And it was great—fantastic even—to be back. And not just in the United States after three years away, but her old self again—or at least a new version of herself.
“Back to being our plucky ingenue, I see,” David said, reading her mind.
Maggie glared. “Pluck you.”
He laughed. “Jumping Jupiter, it’s good to have you with us again, Mags. Don’t you agree, John? The three musketeers from the summer of ’forty reunited! We few, we happy few . . .”
John, slim with broad shoulders, impeccable in his blue RAF uniform, glanced up from his side of the aisle. “We band of blasted . . .”
“John—” Maggie warned.
He had been busily sketching in a leather-bound notebook on his lap. As the plane taxied down the runway, he looked out the window.
“No, no Shakespeare tonight—I must have American poetry!” David cried, ignoring their dour companion. “We’re in America now! And the good old U.S. of A. has finally deigned to join us in our fight against the Nazi war machine.” He smirked as he straightened his tie. “You Yanks—always late to a good war . . .”
Maggie put a gloved finger to her lips. “Not exactly the most politic way to begin our stay, now, is it?”
David sighed. “All right then, back to poetry—Emily Dickinson! Ralph Waldo Emerson! Walt Whitman! ‘I sing the body electric . . . I celebrate the me yet to come . . .’ ”
Maggie beamed, for she, too, felt joy. Even though war continued to rage, there was reason to hope. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, just over two weeks ago, the United States had finally joined in the fight alongside the British. And as for her own personal battle, against the Black Dog of depression, as Winston Churchill called it, she had won, if only for the moment. And living in the moment was what counted now.
She slipped a silver powder compact from her purse and peered into its mirror, applying red lipstick. It was the lipstick that contained a hidden cyanide pill in the base, which she’d carried on her mission to Berlin as an SOE agent the previous winter. But even those memories were easier to deal with now. From habit, her hand went to her side, where the bullet used to be. But the bullet was gone, surgically removed by a vet in Scotland. You’ve come far, Hope, she thought.
Maggie Hope was assigned to Winston Churchill’s trip to visit the United States and meet with President Roosevelt as, ostensibly, the P.M.’s typist. It was a job she’d once held, during the Battle of Britain, in the summer of 1940. But the reality was that she was now a Special Operations Executive, responsible for spying and sabotage behind enemy lines. At twenty-six, she was one of the most senior agents.
She, with the Prime Minister, his private secretaries David Greene and John Sterling; Lord Beaverbrook; his personal detective, Walter H. Thompson; and his beleaguered valet, Inces, had all left from Scotland on December 8. As part of Mr. Churchill’s entourage, she’d boarded a blacked-out train in London and traveled to Scotland, then crossed the Atlantic Ocean on the HMS Duke of York, dodging Nazi ships and submarines, and finally arriving in Boston.
It was just past sundown, and the lights were obscured by fleecy fog. Overhead, clouds wrapped the moon in gauze. As they all looked out the small windows, she could see the P.M. approach President Roosevelt on the tarmac.
“The President is in a wheelchair!” she whispered to David and John, shocked. “President Roosevelt is in a wheelchair!”
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was indeed in a wheelchair. An aide in naval uniform stood behind him. The President wore a dark coat over a gray double-breasted business suit, the cuffed legs of which exposed iron leg braces. The snap-brim of his fedora was turned up at a jaunty angle, matching that of his jaw and the cigarette holder clenched between his teeth.
She watched as the Prime Minister bent to shake the President’s hand. The P.M., his face flushed with excitement and cold, had arrived in a navy-blue pea jacket from the Trinity House Lighthouse Service and a yachting cap, variations of which he’d worn on the ship during the journey over. He carried a cane equipped with a flashlight for blackouts.
“Oh, that’s right—you didn’t come to the Atlantic Conference with us. Polio,” John said bluntly, as he put a few finishing touches on what he was drawing.
Maggie blinked, then nodded. She’d known FDR had contracted polio but had no idea the extent of his paralysis. She rose and craned her neck past David to see what John was drawing, but he closed his notebook with a snap. “What are you working on? Why won’t you let us see?” she asked.
“I’ll let you see it when it’s ready to be seen.” John slipped the book into his attaché case.
“Cryptic as ever,” Maggie said, but smiled. As they stood and moved into the aisle, she stopped and reached up to fix his tie, brushing some imaginary lint off his lapels. They’d almost been engaged to be married when John’s plane was shot down over Germany in the autumn of 1940 and the RAF had pronounced him “missing, presumed dead.” Miraculously, he’d made it back to England alive. But due to his extensive injuries, he wasn’t allowed to fly again and had resumed his former job as one of Churchill’s private secretaries.
David was already halfway down the aisle. “Come on, you two!” he called. He was bundled into his tweed coat, a striped Magdalen scarf wrapped tightly around his throat. Where John was tall and dark and somewhat dour when he wasn’t smiling, David was shorter and fair-haired, with respectable round silver spectacles not quite hiding his often outrageous facial expressions.
Maggie adored David and was honored when he let her know his secret—that he was “like that.” He lived with his lover, Freddie, in London, while the two men posed for the world as roommates, driven together by London’s wartime housing shortage. “It’s your homeland after all, Mags. Aren’t you going to drop to your knees and kiss the hallowed Yankee ground?”
Maggie stuck another pearl-tipped pin in her hat to affix it to her thick red hair. “I think it’s a wee bit cold for any ground kissing, thank you. And we’re in the Commonwealth of Virginia, by the way—the land of Dixie, not Yankee territory.”
“But it’s all the good ol’ U.S. of A., yes?”
If only it were that simple. . . . Even though she was giddy to be back, the homecoming was difficult for Maggie. The United States had been attacked. And now she was back home, but certainly not the same person who’d left. Or was London home? Where did she belong?
Aunt Edith was the only real parent she had. She didn’t really know her father, Edmund, much less her Nazi mother, Clara. And her sister—half sister, Elise—was convinced she was a monster. Were John and David and her best friend, Sarah, her family now?
As Maggie picked her way down the steep steps from the plane to the tarmac, a cold, wet wind blew, and she clapped a hand to her hat to keep it in place. She shivered in her blue wool coat. Surreptitiously, she glanced in all directions, checking the perimeter for any threats. All clear.
“Ah, so this is our largest colony,” John deadpanned, glancing around. He looked over to Maggie, his face lighting up—and she felt as though her heart skipped a few beats.
In the cold haze, the Prime Minister continued to speak with the President and Lord Beaverbrook, eager and happy as a child. Then President Roosevelt was lifted like a child by his aide and placed into a large black limousine. The other men got in, and it pulled away. A second sedan waited for them in the misty air, engine running.
“Miss Hope?” John said, gesturing for her to get into their car first. He and Maggie exchanged a secret look.
“Why, thank you, Mr. Sterling.”
But David pushed ahead. “I want the window seat!”
Maggie and John climbed in beside him, Maggie in the middle. The driver closed the door with a resounding bang. Inside, it was almost too hot, but as they headed to Washington through the hazy darkness, the three weary travelers luxuriated in the warmth. The radio blared the Andrews Sisters’ “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” and David poked at Maggie. “So, is there ‘no place like home’?”
“If only I could have clicked my heels three times to bring us here. Would have saved endless bouts of seasickness.” She peered out the window. There were a few lights from houses, even Christmas tree lights. Not to mention the traffic signals, their garish glow piercing the velvety fog. The United States was also at war, but it looked nothing like London’s complete blackout.
“We’re so close to the shore—aren’t they worried about sneak attacks by German submarines?” Maggie said. She gave a low laugh. “The ARP wardens in London would have heart attacks if they saw all this light! Goodness, I’d forgotten what headlights look like lit up, without those slotted covers.”
“Are they daft?” John asked. “Aren’t they worried about bombs?”
“There’s not really anywhere close enough to launch an airstrike here on the East Coast,” David mused.
“Yes, well, no one thought the Japanese could launch an airstrike on U.S. territory, either, and now look at Pearl Harbor,” Maggie countered.
“True, true,” David admitted.
“And all the light—not to mention the radio signal—is making it awfully easy for Nazi U-boats to find things in the dark. And don’t tell me they’re not out there, lurking.” Maggie shivered into her coat, staring out at the veils of fog.
“Jumping Jupiter, it’s Paris on the Potomac!” David exclaimed as they entered the city of Washington, referring to the wide boulevards and neoclassical architecture of the capital along the river, magically lit by the hazy glow of streetlamps. “It’s just like the opening montage from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington!”
John nodded, dark eyes taking in everything. “Part French, part Federalist, part Daniel Boone.”
The radio station segued into Billie Holiday’s “God Bless the Child.” As they passed the darkened Capitol dome, they also saw posters pasted on walls: remember pearl harbor! enlist now! and buy war bonds!
Stopped at a traffic light, Maggie read a humble flyer affixed to a streetlamp: stop wendell cotton’s execution! it read. only 8 days left! prayer meeting with mother cotton and andrea martin! The flyer was illustrated with a photograph of a young colored man in a striped prison uniform.
On a bridge near the Lincoln Memorial, machine guns had been mounted, and soldiers patrolled. Outside the Jefferson Memorial, helmeted guards carried rifles with bayonets. Temporary wooden housing had sprung up on the Mall for the sudden influx of war workers.
In the city, flags flew everywhere, while brightly lit shop windows were juxtaposed against darkened government buildings. Billboards importuned: war workers need rooms, apartments, homes—register your vacancies now. The sidewalks seemed crowded with soldiers and sailors in uniform. Posters proclaimed, victory gardens will help us win, and the u.s.a. picks chevrolet. As their car passed a newsstand, the Washington Post’s headline screamed: hong kong doomed. Next door, letters on a marquee spelled out kathleen, starring shirley temple.
David whistled between his teeth, taking in a brilliantly illuminated department-store window. “Washington used to be a hardship post, you know,” he told them. “Terribly hot and humid in the summer. Now it’s like coming to Oz, isn’t it? You know, England is all black-and-white and now we’ve arrived in the land of Technicolor. Oh! And what do you most want to eat while we’re here?” he asked Maggie and John.
They’d all been living on rations for ages. “Hamburger, cooked medium-rare, extra-crispy French fries with lots of ketchup, and a Coca-Cola with ice—lots of ice—from a diner. And chocolate ice cream,” Maggie proclaimed.
“No New England clam chowder? Boston baked beans? Lobster roll?”
“We’re in Washington, not New England, silly. This is the border between the North and South. Think Maryland crab cakes, biscuits and gravy, and shrimp and grits.”
John raised an eyebrow. “What’s a grit?”
Maggie gave a sly look. “Ah, haute cuisine américaine.”
David wasn’t listening. “I want to try this ‘moonshine’ I’ve been hearing about. And peanut butter and jam on toast. And apple pie.” A panicked look crossed his face. “You don’t think they’re rationing at the White House yet, do you?”
“Apple pie.” Maggie sighed. “With cinnamon and nutmeg. And coffee with cream and sugar. And a steaming hot bath, more than five inches deep—bliss!”
“What do you want from Father Christmas—er, Santa Claus?” John asked as they passed yet another gaily decorated department store. “Fruitcake?”
Fruitcake, right, Maggie thought. Surely he’s joking—and thinking of something just a bit more romantic? “I’m picking up a new toothbrush while we’re here,” Maggie declared. “Mine’s completely worn down. And an enormous fresh cake of soap. Silk stockings—I hear they’re having a run on them now—no pun intended.”
“Ha! Well, it would be quite lovely of Santa to remember a nice Jewish boy, but I wouldn’t say no to a bottle of bourbon,” said David. “What about you?”
John considered. “Reams of paper.” The rationing of paper had been hard on him. “More pens and notebooks.”
Maggie didn’t know exactly what he was working on, but she’d glimpsed a number of sketches. “Our own Leonardo da Vinci. But I’m getting you books—by American authors. You’re both far too parochial in your reading choices.”
As they talked about Christmas, their car approached the White House through the murky darkness. Blackout curtains hung at each window. Sentry boxes were set up at driveway entrances and along the perimeter fences. Police patrolled where only weeks before onlookers had promenaded. The wrought-iron gates to the once-accessible White House were now closed and locked. These days, anyone who wanted admittance had to show a “pass with picture engraved on it.”
And then there were the soldiers—guards brandishing M1 rifles with bayonets affixed. All carried full field packs and wore steel helmets. Guard towers had been built, and one-inch steel cables ran every which way, controlling the flow of foot traffic. Fifteen days after Pearl Harbor, the White House was in full lockdown.