Ida and Louise
Money has overtaken and refurbished Morella Road, Wandsworth, just as it has overtaken many other ordinary streets in London. There is nothing exceptional about the architecture. The houses of Morella Road are bay-windowed Victorian terraces, fundamentally plain but with plasterwork and little spires added to give a French Gothic touch. London has a thousand brick-built streets like this and for most of the twentieth century they symbolized respectable middle-class living. Now such a house might cost close to £2 million—’now’ being early 2007, when London house prices were rising on average at £7,000 to £11,000 a month. Audis, Mercedes and BMWs are parked in the street and the front doors are painted in the kinds of shades that suggest the householder has made a prolonged study of the colour charts. Among this evidence of wealth and fashion, it isn’t easy to imagine how things once were: how the woodwork would have been sober dark green or black, how brokers’ clerks and civil servants in bowler hats would have walked down the path each morning towards the railway station or the tram stop and come home again to plates of boiled root vegetables and cheap cuts of meat. An era of monochrome virtues: plain food, careful accounting, social deference, suppressed emotions, good manners—when nobody wanted to excite the interest of their neighbours, when it was best not to be extraordinary.
The sisters Ida and Louise Cook lived at number 24 Morella Road for more than sixty years of the twentieth century, from shortly after the First World War ended until the very last years of the Cold War. In many ways—though not all—they defy the generalizations of social history: they were extraordinary. One morning in March this year I took a train to Wandsworth, walked to where they had lived and looked up at the window of the highest room—the second floor, under the eaves—which had for several decades been Ida’s study. So much romancing and typing had happened in this small workshop of make-believe. It was here that Ida had sat in front of her manual typewriter and clattered out her letters to opera singers, her magazine pieces, her romantic novels, and her and her sister’s autobiography. But what I thought of when I looked up at the window was something else that had been composed there: an unpublished manuscript by Ida called ‘Some Psychic Experiences’, written in the 1960s, when Ida and Louise had fallen under the influence of a spiritualist, Leslie Flint. Flint, a former cemetery gardener and occasional gravedigger, had become a celebrity medium by specializing in a method known as ‘direct voice’. Through seances held in Flint’s large and gloomy drawing room in Paddington, many voices had come to the sisters, mostly those of the old opera stars who were their lifetime obsession; but only one had ever made them cry. When the sisters came back from that particular seance, Ida climbed up the stairs to her study and wrote up her account:
I suppose the most moving—and the most utterly unexpected—of all was one day when several people had already spoken and suddenly, out of the air, very clearly and distinctly though with a marked German accent, a woman’s voice said, ‘You may think it very strange that I should come and speak to you because you do not know me. But there are many people here you do not know who love you very much.’
Surprised and touched, we thanked her, and she went on, ‘My name is Anna. I was—killed—in Dachau.’
‘Were you, dear?’ we whispered.
Then she hurried on, ‘But I have long ago put behind me all that terrible time.’ She went on to say that she had heard how we had tried to help some of her people, and now she wanted to thank us—which she did, in the simplest and most moving terms. At the end she evidently found it a little difficult to hold the line, because she finished, ‘Well—I don’t know—I meant to say so many important things but—I love you. Auf wiedersehn.’
Understandably, Louise and I—and Leslie too—were reduced to tears.
A voice from the Holocaust (though the sisters never knew those events by that term), relayed to two elderly English spinsters by the suspicious means of a gravedigger turned communicator-with-the-World-Beyond in a London room with the curtains drawn. To disbelieve it gets us nowhere. The point is that the Cook sisters did believe it. They were moved. In lives which swung dizzyingly between the purest fantasy and the utterly real they had every reason to be.
My interest in the Cook sisters began after a friend gave me a copy of Ida’s long out of print memoir, We Followed Our Stars, published in 1950, which among other things tells the story of how she and Louise, plain and anonymous in their tatty cardigans and Woolworth glass beads, became among the most effective British transporters of Jews out of Germany between 1937 and the outbreak of war. During those years the sisters made numerous quick trips to Nazi Germany, avoiding the suspicion of German border officials by taking flights from Croydon and returning via Holland and ship to Harwich. It isn’t clear how many Jews they saved—the record speaks of ‘twenty-nine cases’, but many cases were families rather than individuals so the number may have been closer to fifty, sixty, or more.
This considerable humane achievement takes up just over a quarter of a book that is mainly devoted to chronicling their love of opera, or to be more exact their star-struck worship of its singing stars. They had such small interest in what might be called the ‘real’, these two women best characterized by their sisterly devotion, their belief in the spirit world, and their long escape into the confectionery of the operatic stage and the romantic ‘woman’s’ novel. Why and how did they become involved in the dangerous and expensive business of rescuing several dozen of Hitler’s potential victims? This was the question the sisters had managed to avoid answering with any degree of satisfying honesty or self-knowledge throughout their lives. ‘I don’t care for all this modern emphasis on hidden motives,’ Ida Cook told a reporter for the American magazine McCall’s in 1966. ‘There’s altogether too much of this psychoanalysis. After all, what you are is what you do, isn’t it?’
Louise Cook, christened Mary Louise after her mother, was born on June 19, 1901, in the coal mining and shipbuilding town of Sunderland. Three years later, on August 24, 1904, Ida arrived. According to their mother’s later account, when Ida appeared her father had cried, ‘Good Lord, isn’t she ugly!’, proving that powers of observation are not always blunted by paternal devotion. But the three-year-old Louise thought the infant heaven itself. She clung to her as if she were her own, and when their nurse insisted on taking the child out for some air, Louise threw herself at the foot of the stairs in hysterics, fearing her sister lost forever. Their mother was a practical woman full of common sense. She soon began to instil these values in her four children—the sisters had two younger brothers, Jim and Bill. Kisses and cuddles were rare, but so were floods of tears and sulks. The one fanciful aspect to Mrs Cook’s character was her belief in ghosts and spirits, a preoccupation which, as we have seen, she would pass on to her daughters. Their father, James Cook, was a hard-working officer for Customs and Excise. When he married Mary Brown, he and she found in each other all they needed and aspired to no more.
When Ida was two and Louise was five, the family moved to the London suburb of Barnes, near Wandsworth, and then in 1912 back north to Alnwick in Northumberland, where the girls were enrolled in The Duchess School, founded by the Duchess of Northumberland a hundred years before and housed in Alnwick Castle’s old dower house. It was an enchanting place for girls like Ida and Louise, whose gazes were then directed firmly at all that had gone before rather than all that was to come. The dynamic of Ida and Louise’s relationship was formed during these years. Ida was the more gregarious child, Louise the more reflective and discerning, the less emotional, the natural intellectual. Louise, the family joked, liked nothing more than settling into an armchair with Dante’s Inferno or her Latin grammar, while Ida was inclined to entertain the room with her chatter. Train a telescope on them and the temptation is to think of Ida as the leader of the two, but the truth of their relationship is that neither could act without recourse to the other. By the time they became young women, they were essentially two halves of a whole. Looking only to each other and the goodness of their parents—at teatime Mr Cook liked to give his children lectures on morality—they continued to exist in the kind of domestic emotional security that infants feel, or are ideally supposed to feel, in the presence of their mother. As a result, they provided each other with a confidence that ruled out self-doubt. ‘Two girls can often do what one on her own cannot,’ was how Ida put it in We Followed Our Stars.
Their looks may have reinforced their mutual protectiveness. By 1919, when the family moved back to London and the house in Morella Road, it was clear that neither would be a beauty. Each had a high forehead and a large nose and lips. Ida had one or two teeth protruding at odd angles, heavy eyebrows and hair frizzed about her ears. Louise was always the prettier of the two, although false teeth eventually brought Ida some improvement. In London, they needed to work. Louise went into the Civil Service as a clerical assistant in the Board of Education, earning £2 6s a week (top marks in Latin in the entrance exams) and Ida followed her a year or two later as a copy typist. They were now independent young metropolitan women in an age which was breaking free from an older morality, and yet they craved none of its excitements. Young men were of course in short supply, thanks to the slaughter of the First World War, but the sisters didn’t even make an effort in that direction. They didn’t dance the charleston, they didn’t drink or smoke. Instead they came home every night to their twin-bedded room in Morella Road, perfectly content in their own company.
Other than the routine sounds of conversation and household chores—the filling of baths, the crackling of bacon—the house existed in perfect unmusical silence. There was no radio, no gramophone, no piano. Ida and Louise had had no musical education and harboured no musical ambition: they neither sang nor played. So when, one day in 1923, the melody of ‘Un bel di vedremo’ from Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, sung by the coloratura soprano Amelita Galli-Curci, flooded their bedroom it was an entirely new and profound sensory experience. This was Louise’s doing. One afternoon at the Board of Education she had wandered into a music lecture given by the Welsh composer and organist Sir Walford Davies and came home that night ‘slightly dazed’. Enlisting Ida to her enthusiasm, she spent a recent bonus by putting down a deposit on a £23 hand-cranked gramophone and the ten classical records that went with it: music by Bach and Gluck as well as the voice of Galli-Curci.
Soon after, while Ida was away as a bridesmaid at a northern wedding, Louise went into the gallery at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, to hear Madame Butterfly. She went back with Ida to hear for the first time Tosca, La Traviata and Rigoletto, always from the gallery’s cheapest seats. They began to see prima donnas as heroines—people to love and live for—and marked their places in the Covent Garden queue by hiring collapsible stools from people then called ‘the stool men’, which were placed outside the theatre during the day while they typed away steadily in Whitehall.
They stood patiently outside stage doors, hoping for a glimpse, an autograph or (they had a small camera by then) a picture.
One episode that reveals a spirit that was to serve them well in the future was the extent to which they took their devotion to the voice of Galli-Curci. Having heard her perform a platform concert in the Albert Hall—her first British appearance—and learning the crushing news that she sang in opera only in New York, Ida became determined that within the next five years they should travel there to hear her. Would Louise come? ‘Rather!’ she cried. They wrote to Galli-Curci outlining their plans and she replied by return of post: ‘If you ever succeed in coming to America you shall have tickets for everything I sing.’ Calculating that they needed £100 for the entire trip, they then spent two years of penury during which they ate only brown rolls, bought no new clothes or sweets, and never once took a bus if they could walk. If ever they were overwhelmed by hunger, they would study a Rand McNally guide to New York to remind them of their goal: ‘We knew what we wanted and we held on to our purpose,’ Ida wrote in a magazine produced by and for civil servants called Red Tape. ‘Fortunately, we have always realized the futility of grumbling enviously about someone else’s salary—it only makes you overlook what can be done with your own.’
In December 1926, they sailed third class on the Berengaria and rented a room in a hotel in Washington Square West, where, on arrival, they unpacked their trunks and laid out their opera outfits: scarlet for Louise, pink and silver for Ida, opera cloaks for both, all of which Ida had run up from patterns published in Mab’s Fashions, a magazine read mostly by typists and edited by Miss Florence Taft. They then put on their smart little moleskin hats and went to the offices of Galli-Curci’s agent to pick up their free tickets. The next night, they went to the Met for the first time to hear Galli-Curci sing La Traviata. ‘We were two of the best-dressed people in the Opera House!!!’ Ida writes in a letter home. ‘People quite goggled at our cloaks… other people had diamonds and bare backs and all that sort of thing, but, with all due modesty, our get-ups looked so pretty and young and colourful—besides, they had the Mab’s touch!!!’
During the encore, Galli-Curci picked them out in the audience and waved, a gesture they interpreted as ‘truly romantic’. An invitation to her Fifth Avenue apartment followed, with a Cadillac to pick them up. Their letters home to their parents (‘Mop’ and ‘Pop’) are filled with a childish euphoria: ‘Oh Rapture! Rapture! Rapture! [Galli-Curci] is more than we expected.’ ‘Isn’t she a little duck?’ they asked Mop in a later letter, by which time they had become the Italian soprano’s new best friends. In her Fifth Avenue apartment, they curled up on her library sofa for chats about ‘anything from Mozart’s chamber music to reincarnation’.
For Ida and Louise, this first trip to New York revealed many things: that there was life beyond Morella Road and the Civil Service; that their profound faith in their own will was justified; that sublime music could belong to them just as much as it did to the ladies they had seen at the Met, bare-backed and adorned in diamonds; and that through their devotion to this high art, they could pursue and befriend their ‘stars’. In 1929, they fell heavily for the American soprano Rosa Ponselle on her debut at Covent Garden singing Norma. Ponselle had started her career as a vaudeville act with her sister, singing between films in cinemas, until at Caruso’s suggestion the Met hired her for the role of Leonora in Verdi’s La Forza del Destino. The beauty of her voice became a talisman for them, the embodiment of all that was good about life. ‘It’s Ponselle weather today,’ they’d say when it was sunny; in bleaker times they would comfort each other with the thought that there was ‘always Rosa’.
The third serious contender for their affections was the Austrian conductor Clemens Krauss, director of the Vienna Staatsoper until he moved to the Berlin Staatsoper in 1935—a move which led to his appearance before a de-Nazification committee after the war. They saw him first in 1934, when he conducted his wife, the Romanian soprano Viorica Ursuleac, in Richard Strauss’s new opera Arabella at Covent Garden. Then that summer they followed him to Salzburg. Dollfuss, the Austrian Chancellor, had just been murdered and Jews were leaving Germany in increasing numbers, but Ida and Louise had no intention of missing the festival. A letter home from Ida:
I rather gather that the English newspapers are still being very alarming, but it’s all my eye really… Occasionally about twenty-five soldiers stroll along in the sun grinning a bit sheepishly and not keeping very good time, but that is the sum total of the military manoeuvres here!
Krauss was much more interesting. ‘He’s the most perfect poseur I’ve ever seen and gets away with it so marvellously that you can only gasp with amused admiration,’ Ida wrote home in August 1934.
Before he does do any slipping away, he strikes a match and leans forward to light a cigar with every bit of his disgustingly good looks marvellously illuminated. The match is permitted to burn itself out—and then (and only then) off he goes in the car amidst the gasps of gallery rapture. It’s quite perfect.
Letters, some of them twelve pages long, are given over to Krauss and Ursuleac’s relationship, and are signed off ‘Yours in a state of fizzle’. They sent red roses to Ursuleac’s dressing room and one afternoon they followed the couple ‘with a skill…of which Sherlock himself might have approved’ back to their hotel on the outskirts of town. Later that year they stalked him in Amsterdam, where the beginnings of an unlikely friendship with his wife were forged after they were invited to her dressing room. ‘I think she doesn’t quite know what to make of us,’ Ida wrote home. ‘She thinks we’re darlings evidently (“intelligent women!”) but beyond that she’s a bit at sea!’
Like Galli-Curci, Ursuleac became smitten with the two sisters, impressed by their scholarly knowledge of her art and touched by their adoration. Throughout the remainder of the week, Ida and Louise began attending her dress rehearsals, where they noticed for the first time that they had a female rival, a distinguished-looking old lady whom they had seen once or twice with the couple in Salzburg. As their Dutch trip neared its end, the old lady was introduced to them backstage as Frau Mitia Mayer-Lismann, the official lecturer of the Salzburg Festival against whom, they remembered, they had been initially prejudiced on account of her double-barrelled name. That night, having obtained permission to see Ursuleac on to her train, Ida and Louise found Frau Mayer-Lismann on the platform. Ursuleac took them by the arm. Would they please, please look after Frau Mayer-Lismann when she came on a short trip to London? They promised they would. ‘Now you will be all right,’ the soprano assured Frau Mayer-Lismann.
‘We remembered that scene again and again in the years that followed,’ Ida recalled in We Followed Our Stars, ‘for, though we did not know it then, our first refugee had been commanded to our care.’
Back in London, Ida and Louise took the Mayer-Lismanns sightseeing. In Westminster Abbey, Frau Mayer-Lismann asked the sisters if it were a Protestant or Catholic church. The same question arose in St Paul’s. ‘Are you a Protestant?’ Ida asked her. ‘I? I am Jewish,’ the old lady told them. ‘Didn’t you know?’ They did not, nor, until then, what it had come to mean. Gradually, over the week, the Mayer-Lismanns explained the consequences of Hitler’s rule. Ida writes of their growing awareness in We Followed Our Stars:
We began to see things more clearly and to see them, to our lasting benefit, through the eyes of an ordinary devoted family like ourselves. This was one of the most heaven-sent things that ever happened to us. By the time the full horror of what was happening in Germany, and later in Austria, reached the newspapers, the whole thing had become almost too fantastic for the ordinary mind to take in. It took a war to make people understand what was happening in peace time, and to tell the truth, very many never understood it. But our understanding of the problem grew quite naturally… To us, the case of the Mayer-Lismanns was curious and shocking, but not incredible. We were shocked, but we did what I suppose most people would have done. We asked, ‘Where did they hope to go? What had they to offer in the work markets of the world? and, finally, what could we do to help?’ It was all what I can only describe as un-urgent to us in those days.
By the sisters’ own admission, once the Mayer-Lismanns had returned to Germany, concern over their ‘affairs’ was eclipsed by the opera season.
By now, Ida was no longer a civil servant. Ever since the 1926 trip to see Galli-Curci, she had kept in touch with Miss Taft at Mab’s Fashions, supplying the occasional article on such subjects as country life in Northumberland and ‘at home’ with Galli-Curci in the Catskills. Ida did not take herself seriously as a writer: writing was a way to help to fund the sisters’ operatic trips in Europe. Then, in 1932, Miss Taft offered Ida a job as a sub-editor. Ida refused (‘I’m in the Civil Service,’ she protested, ‘and so are my father and my sister. There’s the pension…’) but Miss Taft persisted and eventually Ida made the short journey from the law courts, where she had been working as a typist, to the office of Mab’s Fashions in Fleet Street. There she began to write short stories as well as edit. In 1935 the sisters were flat broke—’our appetite for foreign travel was beginning to grow alarmingly’—so when Miss Taft suggested that Ida attempt a serial for Mab’s, Ida agreed, her mind running only on the high fees commanded by the most successful writers.
Miss Taft requested ‘something strong’. Ida wrote three chapters. Miss Taft read them and changed her mind. She wanted ‘sweet’ instead. Ida fought her ground and won. The completed serial, Wife to Christopher, had a violent marital rape and was anything but sweet. Christopher, the hero, is tricked into marrying Vicki by her beauty. The rape is presented as the ‘collection’ of her debt to him: ‘I’m going to collect what you sold, Vicki,’ he tells her. ‘And I’m not at all sure that it won’t be rather sweet doing it.’
Christopher showers kisses on Vicki’s angry, bruised mouth as the whiteness of her skin shows through the lace of her nightdress; he swings her off her feet, knocking the lamp over so that there is darkness; and then…she wakes up in ‘sweet ecstasy’, with the realization that ‘if he came with something of the terror of an avenger, he came with the glory of a lover, too’.
‘The terror of an avenger’? ‘The glory of a lover’? Where was Ida getting this stuff? From the opera, perhaps? From her own sublimated desires? But Miss Taft knew exactly where to place such a book. She got in touch with Mr Charles Boon, the joint partner of the publishing house Mills & Boon. The imprint, then as now, was a byword for romantic fiction, so much so that the words ‘Mills & Boon’ came to recommend books to readers rather than the names of their individual authors. Less well known is their indirect role in financing the small operation that saved a few dozen people from death in the camps of Germany and Poland.
Boon, ‘the original wideboy’ according to one of his descendants, founded the company in 1908 with Gerald Mills, the son of prosperous Midlands glass-factory owners. Early authors visiting its gentlemanly offices near Fitzroy Square included P. G. Wodehouse, E. F. Benson, Jack London and Hugh Walpole. Its original success was built largely on Jack London’s backlist and a series of textbooks penned by retired schoolmasters. In the Twenties, it was almost bankrupt before Boon took firm control and concentrated the list on what became known through their distinctive branding as ‘the books in brown’. These hardback romances were a particular favourite of commercial lending libraries and corner shops. In Boon’s view, their success depended on each novelist following a ‘format’ while at the same time writing with absolute sincerity. The heroes needed to be at least 5 feet 9 inches tall, physically strong and moody. Heroines should never have sex outside or before marriage, or, if they did, required to be punished in some way. Strong, even violent bedroom scenes were permitted to enhance a book’s ‘passion’, but only if those involved were married.
Boon read Ida’s manuscript, found it a perfect fit for his formula and bought it immediately. Ida got £40 for Wife of Christopher with royalties running at ten per cent thereafter. The book was a success and a few months later, in November 1936, Boon asked her to provide three longer novels of around 70,000 words each, with advances rising from £50 to £100. The following February, she signed a third contract, this time for four novels. Ida, writing under the name Mary Burchell, was about to become among the most lucrative and prolific of the Mills & Boon stable of novelists (another nineteen of them, all young women, published their first Mills & Boon novels that same year). Including her first, Ida wrote 129 novels over the next fifty years, many of them in her study at Morella Road, above the bedroom where she and Louise slept chastely each night. ‘I am I think by nature a tale-spinner, and passionately interested in people,’ she said later by way of explaining her success. ‘The thing that I found I was capable of doing was romancing—rather strongly for my period.’
The money was good. By the late 1930s Ida was earning close to £1,000 a year from her books, about four or five times a typist’s salary in the Civil Service, and she gave up her job at Mab’s. But her unexpected good fortune did nothing to change the dynamic between her and Louise. Ida had been clear from the start that her money was their money and so they would regularly stroll around London ‘discussing the extraordinary phenomenon’ as if it were a heaven-sent miracle rather than the product of days and nights at the typewriter. They spent thousands in their imagination: cars; fur coats; trips to Europe; trips to America; Louise’s possible retirement from the Civil Service. Then, at the moment of temptation, they found themselves thrown on a different course. ‘Fortunately (oh how fortunately!),’ Ida wrote in We Followed Our Stars, ‘before I had any chance to alter my way of living…the full horror of what was happening in Europe finally, and for all time, came home to us.’
The sisters had kept in touch with Frau Mayer-Lismann, who was planning to leave Frankfurt for good. Only now did they start to understand the implications of the Nuremberg Laws as well as the practical difficulties and official obstinacy that German Jews faced when they sought refuge abroad. Britain saw itself mainly as a country of transit for Jewish refugees, and as a result most entrants needed to have prospects of re-emigration. (The United States, by contrast, admitted perhaps three times as many. By 1945, only 60,000 Jewish immigrants from the pre-war years remained in Britain.) Admission to Britain became tighter still when Austria was annexed in March 1938 and a complicated visa procedure clogged up government systems and led to dangerous delays.
The restrictions, as Ida and Louise learned them, were these. A refugee child could be brought over provided a British citizen would adopt her until the age of eighteen. A woman could enter on a domestic permit provided there was enough evidence that she had a job and that job had been advertised. Men between eighteen and sixty were accepted only if they had documentary proof that they were going on to another destination. In most cases, this meant proof of a quota number in the queue waiting to go to America, with the wait stretching from six months to two years. Such cases were accepted into Britain only if a British citizen would assume financial responsibility for them, from the moment they landed in Britain until they reached the final country of adoption. A searching guarantee was required and for men over sixty it had to be for life. The Refugee Committee dealt only in cases where the paperwork was complete.
By now, Ida’s income from her romances was showing a steady rise. She became ‘intoxicated’ by the sight of her money and ‘the terrible, moving and overwhelming thought—I could save life with it.’
Would Ida and Louise have begun their refugee work had they not loved opera and its performers? I doubt it. Opera mattered to them above everything, and in the beginning they were responding directly to requests for help from people they so dearly admired, in particular Krauss, Ursuleac and Mitia Mayer-Lismann. Ida’s income meant they could provide financial guarantees. Their willingness to help bound them closely to the Krausses and their world in a way that was more profound and rewarding—and equal—than as fans hobnobbing with them backstage. To say that a closer relationship with Krauss and Ursuleac may even have been an important incentive to their work doesn’t diminish their achievement. As Ida wrote, Krauss and Ursuleac ‘sugared that ghastly pill—with both their matchless performances and their dear friendship’.
And so it was, in the beginning, that the Mayer-Lismanns and Krauss and Ursuleac supplied them with the names of Jewish friends, mostly musical and intellectual, who wanted to leave Germany. A routine emerged. Because Louise still worked at the Civil Service, travel was largely confined to weekends. Every two or three months, she would cover her typewriter on a Friday evening and hurry from Whitehall to Croydon airport, where Ida would be waiting. They would be in Cologne by 9.30 p.m. and then catch the Munich train, alighting at Frankfurt. On Saturday they would meet their contacts and make arrangements. On Sunday they would take the train to the Hook of Holland and catch the overnight ferry to Harwich—a different route home to avoid the frontier police becoming too familiar with them. On Monday both would be back typing at their respective desks.
Their first case for which they had obtained the necessary financial guarantee and relevant paperwork was Mitia’s daughter, Else, a seventeen-year-old music student. She later recalled (to the Recorded Vocal Arts Society in 1987) the moment she saw Ida and Louise get off the train:
It was very exciting to meet them at the Bahnhoff in Frankfurt… my dollish hat was nothing in comparison with the hats of the Cook girls… the entrance of the Cook girls into our lives was revolutionary, because we never ever, ever realized or knew that anybody like Ida and Louise existed. They were so unique…they were never depressed…[their] attitude to life has been something which is an enrichment…it was an extraordinary experience.
Else Mayer-Lismann was the first refugee to make use of a flat in Dolphin Square, on the Embankment, which Ida had recently taken on to serve as ‘a clearing house’ for those they brought over to Britain. It was relatively modest, only big enough for one family at a time, but the windows were of a good proportion and it was filled with light. And with Ida and Louise still continuing to live at Morella Road with their parents, it provided an excellent headquarters and temporary accommodation (Ida and Louise would keep it until Ida’s death).
Word began to spread in Jewish communities of the sisters’ willingness to help, and their circle of contacts widened to include people in Berlin and Munich as well as Frankfurt. Hundreds of letters from strangers begging for help began arriving at the British Refugee Headquarters addressed simply to ‘Ida and Louise’. The sisters felt an increasing sense of urgency to do their duty, and subterfuge and cunning now began to play a part in their trips. They learned, for example, that in order to persuade others—friends and family, and towards the end, strangers—to provide a financial guarantee they had to convince them that they wouldn’t necessarily end up spending the money. Refugees couldn’t leave Germany with their money or possessions. On the other hand, they could convert some of their cash into exportable goods, which the sisters could then carry across the border without alerting too much suspicion. Jewellery, especially diamonds and pearls, was one obvious export—tiny things which in Britain could be easily converted back to cash. Faced with Ida and Louise’s resolute ordinariness, which customs official would imagine that the pearls and diamond brooches fastened to their chain-store, glass-buttoned jumpers were anything other than paste? (The only jewels they could not accept were diamond earrings; neither sister had pierced ears.) They left their own wristwatches behind and returned with the best Swiss models on their wrists. A cleverer dodge came with the fur trade. In the winter months they would travel out with labels from fashionable London stores, tucked safely in the bottom of their handbags, and relabel and then wear the German furs that their contacts had given them for export.
As for their cover, Ida and Louise had from the beginning decided that they would pose—though posing required no effort—as two eccentric opera lovers who were prepared to travel all over Germany for their art. Still, the frequency of their trips began to attract attention at the immigration post at Cologne aerodrome. At first they had been waved through, but now they met unfriendly questioning. A better cover was needed and here their hero, Clemens Krauss, stepped into the breach.
The sisters’ relationship with Krauss during this time is an interesting one to contemplate. What did they make of him? In Blythe House, the archive of the V&A, which encompasses the Theatre Museum, there exist nineteen boxes of material spanning the course of the sisters’ lives. Most of it comprises opera and theatre programmes, photographs of stars and letters, but it also includes cuttings they kept from newspapers published in March 1935, just before Krauss transferred from the Vienna Staatsoper to succeed Furtwängler in Berlin. They suggest that Ida and Louise should certainly have understood that Krauss’s move laid him open to the charge of Nazi sympathies. One report clipped and kept by the sisters, headlined fight in vienna opera house, writes of ‘the scene of unusual demonstration’ during a performance of Verdi’s Falstaff. As Krauss approached the conductor’s rostrum he was met with loud cries of ‘Shame!’ and hisses from Austrian government supporters, while other sections of the opera house—the Nazis—cheered him on. By the interval, police with truncheons were breaking up a fight. In another story, published the following day, it was reported that Krauss had pulled out of the performance that evening, as had his friend, the leading tenor, Herr Franz Volker, and that a Tchaikovsky opera had to be hastily substituted for the ‘Egyptian Heles’. Three days later, he was installed in the Berlin Opera House.
It was two years before he could prove conclusively to the sisters that he was not a Nazi. In 1937, hearing of Ida and Louise’s worry about the border guards, and by now having got himself out of Berlin and transferred to Munich, he offered to use his position and influence at the Munich State Opera to ease their reception at the border. Whenever they needed a trip ‘covered’, he told them, he would supply them with details of all opera performances and their casts lists so that they might improve their credentials at immigration control. Whenever possible, he added, Ida and Louise could also choose the programme. That way, in fulfilling their mission, they could be rewarded with one of their favourite operas. ‘Sometimes we thought we could not bear to go back yet again into that hateful, diseased German atmosphere,’ Ida wrote in We Followed Our Stars. ‘And for that extra bit of courage and determination which took us back time after time, Clemens Krauss and…Ursuleac must take full credit.’ Following Krauss’s death in 1954, Ida wrote:
[The decision to transfer from Vienna to Berlin] was wrong, of course—tactically, and perhaps humanly too. But, although his enemies would have us forget the fact, Berlin at the time was still an open capital city, like any other European city, for the purposes of political, social or artistic matters. I think I can say now after twenty years of close friendship with him…that Krauss bitterly regretted that decision very soon after it was taken. But to retrace the step was impossible and, in making what he could of a situation which revolted him, he threw himself, with single-mindedness characteristic of him, into serving the art he loved, even in the midst of horror… it was only with his active and unfailing help that we managed to bring twenty-nine people out of Hitler’s Germany.
To show they had nothing to hide, they began to stay in the finest hotels precisely because they were packed with high-ranking Nazis. ‘We knew them all—Louise and I,’ Ida writes in We Followed Our Stars:
Goering, Goebbels, Himmler, Streicher, Ribbentrop (who once gave Louise ‘the glad eye’ across the breakfast room at the Vier Jahreszeiten in Munich). We even knew Hitler from the back… If you stood and gazed at them admiringly as they went through the lobby, no one thought you were anything but another couple of admiring fools.
The contrasts and adventure in their lives are almost too novelistic. They arrive, say, in Berlin after a shaky plane journey from Croydon. They reach a house and there, in front of an anxious Jewish family, pick up a couple of furs, rip out their labels and replace them with those brought from London. Later, befurred, they stride into the foyer of the Adlon, Goebbels and Himmler in the crowd. The next day they interview would-be Jewish refugees before heading off for a night at the opera—one which, if performed under Krauss, might have been scheduled entirely for their benefit. They return the next day by train and steamer. On Monday morning, Louise goes straight to her Civil Service desk. Ida makes her way to the bank vaults to deposit a diamond or two. Amazing; but it wasn’t Ida’s kind of novel. Hers would always favour love over unhappiness, often expressed in grand gestures or fluttering hands, and complicated by emotional indecision rather than any of the real inconveniences of life, but resolved—always—with a happy ending. (‘As Mary stepped out on to the terrace she saw that he was standing there in the moonlight, like a figure on a stage, and he held out his arms to her. Without even pausing to think what she was doing or what this might imply, she ran straight into his arms. And as he held her and kissed her she made only a fugitive clutch at her vanishing common sense’—Unbidden Melody, 1973.)
What happened to Ida and what she invented for money (which allowed things to happen to her and to others): those were separate compartments. In We Followed Our Stars, she writes:
I marvel now when I think of how we lived in a state of high drama part of the time, and continued our normal lives during the rest of the time. I wrote novels and Louise worked at the office. We had holidays. We had our recurring opera seasons. We had our family interests and our hobbies, particularly our gramophone records, which were a great consolation to us between opera seasons.
Louise learned German and in Frankfurt the sisters began to work with a German agent, Frau Jack, a Roman Catholic who had assumed responsibility for collating lists of potential families to be interviewed by them in a room in her house in Arndtstrasse. The sisters, the families saw, possessed the power and the funds, thanks to Ida’s income from Mills & Boon and contributions from friends and family, to offer them a way out. ‘We weren’t playing God,’ Ida told McCall’s in 1966:
It was more like gambling at Monte Carlo. I still shudder when I think about it. The Jew who had a practical skill—an electrician or an engineer—sometimes made it ahead of the intellectual. The one who had converted all his material assets into diamonds or what-have-you and was able to demonstrate to his English guarantor that he would not become a dependent on him had it over the man and his wife who were still clinging—as though furniture were a part of life itself—to their bedsteads and family portraits.
On November 10 and 11, 1938, Hitler gave the order that throughout Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia all Jewish males were to be rounded up and sent to concentration camps. Certain age groups were released but only on condition that they signed an undertaking to be out of the country within eight weeks, taking little money and only a tiny proportion of their goods. A month later Mitia Mayer-Lismann, now safe in Britain, handed Ida and Louise a list of names and addresses with the words ‘God bless you and help you’ scribbled in violet ink along the top. Among the names was that of Lisa Basch, an aspiring twenty-five-year-old photographer whose industrialist father had been taken to Dachau (he was later released on the condition that he left Germany immediately).
Louise couldn’t leave her job on this occasion, so Ida went alone to the Basch family home, a large Gothic mansion in Offenbach near Frankfurt. Its contents were in ruins: the SS had stormed through the house when they arrested Herr Basch, ripping paintings, breaking mirrors, shattering every piece of china, and tearing out the keys of the grand piano. The remnants of the Basch family remained; two sons were already in the United States and a daughter and son-in-law getting ready to follow. Basch and his wife were waiting to leave for France, where a business associate had provided a guarantee. That left Lisa as the only Basch with no exit, the only one without a guarantee. Ida interviewed her that day and later raised a guarantee. Lisa eventually left Germany in April 1939 for England via Paris.
That was not their last case, but by the spring of 1939 they were no longer so stolid in the face of fear and desperation. Days spent at Frau Jack’s were long and traumatic; the sisters hated the fact that they could not help all whom they saw. They would go back to their hotel room to hold each other and sob. Late on August 24, 1939, Ida’s thirty-fifth birthday, the telephone rang at Morella Road. It was Frau Jack: ‘Ida, there is one more. A young man and his wife. Is it possible? They have only one more week.’ It wasn’t possible. The war came ten days later.
Who remembers them? I found Jim Cook, Ida and Louise’s surviving brother, living alone in a small bungalow in a cul-de-sac in Epsom, Surrey. He was in his nineties, frail, and not long out of convalescence in a nursing home. He led me to the front bedroom facing on to the small patch of lawn. ‘Everything comes down to the last one,’ he said, and we looked around a room that smelled fusty from lack of use. It housed what he’d inherited of his sisters’ legacy, mostly records of their old operatic favourites such as Ponselle, the photographs and programmes having been boxed up and shipped to Blythe House years before. I asked him to describe his sisters’ characters and he replied, ‘My sisters did not have the normal likes and dislikes. They had very strong views about many things—they thought it was a great pity, for example, when women began wearing trousers, and they would often take against singers.’ He paused. ‘They wanted the world to be the way they wanted it to be, and if it wasn’t, they’d invent it.’
He pointed to an old suitcase, which he had somehow managed to lift on to one of the beds. It was now open and revealed two large piles of paperwork. ‘Things filter down,’ he said, before shuffling out and leaving me alone. I began to unpack it. It smelled peculiar, heavier than the room. I saw among the tenancy agreements and wills and the odd contract from Mills & Boon a few newspaper clippings: New York Times, Wednesday March 24, 1965: sisters hailed for rescuing jews—2 british spinsters thanked by israel for slipping 29 out of nazi germany. exploits out of james bond, read another headline, above the text: ‘They were just naïve, warm-hearted women and they got away with it. They just didn’t look the type.’
We had sandwiches for lunch, which we ate in the sitting room using trays on our knees. I asked Jim if he thought his sisters had ever understood the reality of what they were doing in Germany. My hunch was that they had known exactly. Ida and Louise might have looked like rather ineffectual spinsters, but as early as 1926, when they had got themselves to New York, they had understood entirely the power of their own will. ‘My sisters had no real desire to talk about what they had done, no desire at all,’ Jim said. ‘It’s often what the English don’t want to talk about…’ I thought he was going to say ‘that matters’ but he didn’t finish the sentence. Then he added, ‘My sisters were very Anglo-Saxon.’
I’d found Ida’s address book in the suitcase. It contained an intriguing collection of names, including many that I recognized from We Followed Our Stars as people they had rescued. Jim was sure they were all dead, but I thought it possible that some might be still alive. He let me borrow the address book and at home I began slowly working through it, phoning the British numbers first. None of them worked. When I came to Lisa Basch of 640 W153rd Street, New York, I dialled the number expecting the same disappointing tone of number unobtainable. But the number rang and somebody picked up. The voice was female, shaky and East Coast, but there was no mistaking the fact that it had come of age in Germany.
Ida and Louise felt something similar just after the war when they ‘found’ Rosa Ponselle. The Second World War had the opposite effect on the sisters to that of its impact in most of the population of Europe. Tension and excitement were drained from their lives. ‘The horizons had shrunk to the limits of ordinary life,’ Ida wrote. The war robbed them of six years’ worth of adventure and opera and created in Ida a temporary creative block, untimely given that the conflict had created a stronger demand for romance than ever before. Worse, they were separated for the first time, considered by both to be a harsher fate than bombing. Louise moved with her office to Wales for two unbearable years, while Ida remained in London, working as a full-time warden in a Bermondsey air-raid shelter. During the rare weekends they spent together, they would repeat as a mantra, ‘There’s always Rosa,’ and, after the war, they found there was.
Their post-war quest to find Rosa Ponselle was their attempt to capture the romance of the past. Although they had never managed to befriend her, she had become a kind of challenging symbol—like an unattained peak—by which they lived. Then Ida wrote a letter addressed simply to ‘Rosa Ponselle, Baltimore, USA’. It found its destination and by January 4, 1947, twenty years to the day since they had first walked along Fifth Avenue on their way to hear Galli-Curci, they returned to America, this time to visit their heroine Ponselle, who had retired from the Met’s stage in 1937 after singing there for nearly twenty years, a career that established her among the century’s greatest singers. They themselves began to be moderately well known. They joined the Adoption Committee for Aid to Displaced Persons (later renamed Lifeline), with a special interest in non-German refugees in Germany, who numbered many Poles brought there for slave labour. They raised funds for daily supplies of fresh milk to children under six and for the treatment of tuberculosis sufferers, travelling backwards and forwards to a camp in Bavaria, getting to know their ‘cases’ just as they had done until September 1939.
Spiritually, at least, they ensured that their life continued to be about change, never acceptance. ‘There is never a complete answer to anything that stems from man’s inhumanity to man,’ Ida wrote in We Followed Our Stars, ‘so one always goes on to another facet, though of course as one gets older, it has to be a slightly less active part that one plays.’
With this new connection to human suffering—something Ida had identified, perversely, as lacking for her during the war—her romantic fiction became prolific once more. By 1949, she had published forty-one novels and was featuring strongly in Mills & Boon advertising campaigns: ‘406,473 copies of Mary Burchell’s books have been sold… on average each book is lent 100 times at 3d a time.’
That same year she also found the time to write We Followed Our Stars, which was published by Hamish Hamilton in 1950. Set against the backdrop of Ida’s increasing fame as Mary Burchell, the book attracted press and broadcast interest. The sisters told their story on a BBC radio show (A Tale of Two Sisters) and then in 1956 Ida, ‘known to millions as Mary Burchell’, was lured into a television studio and made the subject of an early edition of This is Your Life. Among the guests waiting to come on stage and shake Ida’s hand were Miss Taft, Viorica Ursuleac, Frau Jack and a few refugees the producers had managed to track down who were still living in Britain, among them Walter Stiefel, the last of their refugees to be got out of Berlin. ‘My mother and my father and I myself owe our lives to you…’ came Stiefel’s voice as he waited, invisible to the audience, behind a screen. ‘It is impossible for any of us to express adequately our gratitude.’
The ultimate honour came in 1965, when the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Authority in Jerusalem bestowed on them the honour of ‘Righteous Among the Nations’, an accolade which at the time made them two of only four Britons to be listed alongside Oscar Schindler and others who had saved or sheltered Jews in the face of Nazi persecution. On March 23, they collected their certificate from the Israeli ambassador in London and the following day their photograph appeared in the New York Times—a picture of two women who, with their wash-and-set hair and school-mistressy skirt-suits (never trousers), were beginning to betray their roots in a different age; both regretted, for instance, the demise of the hat. Tastes in romantic fiction changed but ‘Mary Burchell’ spurned demands for more sex and still wanted her ‘girls’ to check their hats in the mirror as they left home in the morning. Mills & Boon, aware of her dying readership, now sought to cast her in the role of a figurehead, a grande dame of romantic fiction who could inspire a younger generation (a role helped by her position as President of the Romantic Novelists’ Association). As for Louise, she carried on her humble work for the Civil Service and in her spare time sometimes translated libretti for the operas of Richard Strauss.
But opera was not what it was. In 1948 Galli-Curci, who had stopped performing in 1930, told Time magazine, ‘Music is an art. It’s not a yelling business, or a ballyhoo business. It was an art the way we used to do it. Today I’m afraid it’s different… The times are hysterical and yell-y.’ It was an attitude the sisters shared. Occasionally, theatrical divas such as Maria Callas would emerge to remind Ida and Louise of their earlier adulation of Galli-Curci and Ponselle, but from the 1960s onwards the quality of emerging operatic talent largely disappointed them. Still, their ‘gramophone parties’, which had begun in the Thirties, continued in the flat at Dolphin Square and attracted an eccentric mixture of guests. Callas might be there: according to Ida, ‘a star if ever there was one…the top of the voice was thrilling, the rest not completely in focus’. Or Tito Gobbi: Ida ghosted his autobiography. Or Ponselle, who would participate by a prearranged telephone call, or the English soprano Eva Turner. But among them might be a couple of spinster friends from Essex, Ida’s editor at Mills & Boon, her publisher Alan Boon (son of Charles), some office colleagues of Louise. Ida played the leading hostess at these evenings—Louise preferred to sit in a chair rather than circulate—and by then her reputation had established her as a figure of respect and, to some extent, awe: think of Margaret Dumont with the Marx Brothers. The sisters were now regular visitors to New York. After the Yad Vashem award they became minor celebrities on the Upper East Side, where lunches and teas were held in their honour and to raise money for the State of Israel Bonds. And it was around this time that Ida—always mindful of the need to keep the money rolling in—signed up with The Maurice Frost Lecture Agency. Her calling card read ‘Ida Cook: Writer; Lecturer; Traveller’. She offered a ‘menu’ of talks: ‘How I Became a Writer’; ‘Round the World in a Month’; ‘This is Your Life’; ‘Two Against Hitler’; ‘People I Have Met’; ‘So You Want to be a Writer’; ‘Opera and Opera Stars (which can be illustrated with gramophone records for Music Clubs, if the time available is at least one and a half hours)’.
These talks could be seen as Ida’s way of reliving her past, but only that past that was inside her as her memory and imagination. Might the past not also have a present? Might it not somehow go on existing externally—somewhere? If so, could it be contacted? Ida and Louise began their first serious experiments with spiritualism by enlisting a well-known clairvoyant, Estelle Roberts, and her spirit guide, Red Cloud, and paying them to come to Morella Road to run a weekly ‘Home Circle’ comprising the sisters and four of their friends. During these meetings, they would sit in a circle in the dark and pray for protection, guidance and instruction on how to be of service to their fellow men and women. After that came the singing of hymns or, if they were trying for physical phenomena, the playing of tape-recorded music—they found strong musical vibrations helped. A tin megaphone on a wooden box was placed in the centre of their circle, which they reported would often move in time to the music. They would regularly hear a tapping sound on the wooden box, as if a conductor—Krauss perhaps, who died in 1954—were rat-tatting his baton. Often, gramophone records would fly out of glass-fronted cabinets on to the floor, particularly a recording of the aria in Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice in which Amor tells Orpheus that he can bring his wife back from the Underworld.
Back in 1923, the sisters had boasted that following their musical awakening they had managed to ‘convert’ three or four of the typists in their office. And so it was now, with their new obsession with spiritualism. They enlisted Tito Gobbi to their seances and Krauss’s widow, Ursuleac, and even Alan Boon. Who were they searching for? Krauss would be the biggest catch. (A week after he died, Louise reported sighting him in their dining room and the following Sunday, during a recital at the Albert Hall, Ida said she spied him sitting on the platform, one ankle crossed over the other knee, which made Louise cry.) But there was also their youngest brother, Bill, who died in a motorway crash in 1967, and their father and mother, who died in 1959 and 1961 (twenty years after their death, Morella Road was still crowded with their possessions).
In 1969, they switched from Estelle Roberts to Leslie Flint after seeing an advertisement in Physic News. His methods were more extreme, his results more startling. He specialized in ‘trance mediumship’ and ‘direct voice’, a process during which spirits either speak through the voice box of the medium or give out some form of ‘ectoplasm’ which enables a voice box to be built in the air. Flint had made a business of his skill. There was his autobiography, Voices in the Dark, his international lectures and his celebrity following (after his death in 1994, an educational trust was established). ‘I think I can safely say I am the most tested medium this country has ever produced,’ he once said. ‘I have been boxed up, tied up, sealed up, gagged, bound and held, and still the voices have come to speak their eternal message.’ Tapes of them cost £4.99 each: Charlotte Brontë reflecting on the influence of creative people ‘on earth’; Maurice Chevalier on his confusion and frustration at passing on; Winston Churchill on science and space travel; Mahatma Gandhi on truth and religion, and Oscar Wilde, who began by saying ‘my name caused me a lot of trouble’.
The sisters’ first two sessions with Flint drew a blank. At the third, their brother Bill came to them, whispering ‘Obah, Obah’, his childhood nickname for Louise. Many opera stars followed. Ida and Louise went on visiting Leslie Flint for almost twenty years at some considerable cost. There are, after all, legions of the dead.
Who remembers them? In September, 2006, I flew to New York to meet the voice I’d heard on the telephone: Miss Lisa Basch, now aged ninety-four, found by Ida at Offenbach near Frankfurt and rescued by the sisters in April 1939. I wonder now if I should have gone, if I should have spared the distress that remembering caused her. But on the phone she seemed happy enough, if a little surprised that I’d found her. We spoke many times before our meeting, mostly when a new thought or idea occurred to Miss Basch and she picked up the telephone to tell me about it. I didn’t mind. Sometimes she would throw in an intriguing titbit, such as ‘Ida was not all she seemed!’ or ‘There was a dark side which not many people knew about’ or ‘Ida had a love affair with [the bass] Ezio Pinza.’ She warned me that she might be dead by the time I arrived.
Miss Basch said we couldn’t meet at her apartment—it was too small, nobody went there—so instead we arranged to meet around the corner from Columbia University in the apartment of my friend, who is a professor of English there. This delighted Miss Basch since she’d worked herself in the university library from 1942 to 1964 and still lived just a few blocks away in Harlem, in a flat that Ida had found for her more than fifty years before, and where she had lived happily alone with just the New York Times—’my best boyfriend’—for company.
I wanted to send a cab for her, but she had insisted on the subway. I opened the door to find a tiny, birdlike woman dressed entirely in shades of purple and lilac. She wore an old-fashioned hat, which she was quick to tell me covered up the horrid wig underneath. She was almost blind through macular degeneration and as a result had thick, haphazardly applied make-up. She grabbed my arm and peered up at my face. ‘So young! So young!’ she cried. ‘Look at you. I want to cry!’
We sat down opposite one another and I noticed her purple trousers had two glass butterflies fluttering over a thigh and a shin. She had fallen, she explained. One butterfly covered the hole, the other an ink spot. ‘I am very thrifty,’ she said. ‘My pants cost me a dollar.’ And then immediately she told me of her pre-war sexual crush on Clemens Krauss. It was as if Ida and Louise were speaking from the grave. ‘I followed his first wife as a young woman. I wanted a little bit of him,’ she said. ‘Such beautiful lips. When Ida found this out during my interview with her in Frankfurt, she said to me, “You are my girl!” She knew she would help me then.’
This was Miss Basch’s story. She was born in 1912 to a family of Viennese intellectuals who had settled in Germany. Her father, the industrialist, was handsome and successful, adored by women, including his daughter, for whom he remained the most important person in her life. He had taken the governess as his mistress, but Frau Basch turned a blind eye. She complained only about the fact that she looked like a charwoman in photographs and that the veins snaking through her hands made jewellery look unsightly. In the years leading up to the war, Mitia Mayer-Lismann had come regularly to Sunday tea or musical soirées in the Baschs’ large, oak-panelled library, which their servants would fill with chairs and refreshments while Lisa and her sister would stick pillows up their blouses—’Mitia had a lot of bosom’—and imitate her high voice.
‘I hear you have this wonderful English lady visit you and she is helping Jewish people get out of Germany and I am all alone now,’ Miss Basch told her in 1938, which was when Mitia scribbled down her name in violet ink. Photographs from that time show Miss Basch as a tall, handsome young woman with an athletic, almost boyish build. ‘My bedroom was okay and my mother’s bedroom was okay, but there was no china to drink from,’ she said of the scene Ida found when she arrived. ‘I remember asking a neighbour across the street to bring me at least two cups that we could drink coffee from. But then the gas was taken away because one Jewish family had committed suicide in the gas range… we had to buy little bricks of coal.’
When her memory failed, which it sometimes did, Miss Basch would rummage through the shopping bag she’d brought with her, which was never far from her feet. She produced letters and pictures of herself, her parents and her old house. A lot of the time, my questions seemed to go unheard. Miss Basch had very little to say about Louise, and as for Ida, she seemed caught between deep admiration and a mild form of liberal superiority. ‘Ida was racist, you know,’ she said. ‘She didn’t like sitting next to negroes on buses.’ (In fact, in Ida and Louise’s letters home from New York in 1927, I saw that they spoke of the negro bellboys at the hotel with a tone of fascination. It was not racism exactly, but nor was it Miss Basch’s educated liberalism.) On the other hand, Ida had been like a mother to her. ‘She saved me from the gas chamber,’ she said. ‘Through her saving me I was never exposed to that later time when those people who couldn’t get out became victims… I don’t know how we thanked them really. Not sufficiently. Ida once said to me, “You don’t owe us anything”… I remember I bought her a pretty bag for the greatness of it all. We didn’t have much money afterwards, and that little bit was for daily living. And we had no jewellery. There was only one ring or two and one golden wristwatch that had to be turned in to the Nazis. My mother never wanted jewellery. I have blue veins just like her.’
She stretched out her hands and I bent forward to be nearer to her. ‘Don’t look at my fingernails,’ she cried. ‘I can no longer see them. I have to get a pedicure and a manicure! But look, read this letter! Read it.’
It was dated March 26, 1965, nearly thirty years after they first met (they kept in touch until Ida’s death), and recounted an extraordinary meal the sisters had enjoyed with Marlene Dietrich, whom they had met through Jinette Spenier, the directrice of the fashion house Balmain: ‘Darling Basch family,’ I read to her, recognizing Ida’s hand:
how sweet of you all to write… we…had the amusing experiencing of meeting Marlene Dietrich… At first one thought ‘Oh, she is rather faded by now. Poor Pet.’ But as she ate an enormous meal, looking thin as a sprat, meanwhile, lucky thing, and talked and talked, it was as though a light slowly came up inside her and suddenly you thought ‘Why, it is the fabulous Dietrich,’ and I see why. She is a terrific one for holding the floor and although I don’t expect you to believe me, even I couldn’t get a word in edgeways.
Miss Basch chuckled as I read this bit and it dawned on me that she was entirely unsentimental about the oddity of Ida and Louise’s lives. ‘But these spirits who spoke to them!’ she said at one point. ‘It worries me that anybody can be so odd and strange… I kept my mouth shut. I had no words. I thought it ridiculous, absolutely ridiculous. Only a psychiatrist could perhaps understand it.’
‘I was always driving them anywhere they wanted,’ she told me of her friendship with them when they visited New York. ‘I was like a chauffeur. I was completely at their service. Wherever they had to go, whomever they wanted to visit, I drove them there. Ida always said to me, “You don’t have to repay anything,” but I wanted to. I was so grateful. I loved her really, and if it hadn’t been for her…’ She paused. ‘The Jewish business occupied Ida very much and she loved to have me round as a representative of what she had done. I guess people got sick and tired of seeing me… and I always presented her with the best chocolate candy, truffles with chocolate cream inside…’
I tried to picture clever Miss Basch strolling about the Upper East Side with Ida and Louise after the war, biting her tongue as they went on about the spirits they’d recently raised. Or piling them into the back of her Chevy for the long drive to Maryland to see Rosa Ponselle. It seemed the unlikeliest friendship. Ida and Louise were staunch and illiberal conservatives—Ida once said of pre-marital sex, ‘what you mean is fornication. If you don’t know the word, look it up in the Bible—and the penalties’—while Miss Basch had spent her adult life under the intellectual sway of leftist academics. She had also fallen in love. ‘I wasn’t a lesbian, nothing of that kind of thing,’ she said, perhaps sensing that I had wondered. ‘I had lots of boyfriends, gee whiz…’ Men had been real for Miss Basch and they had not been the dark heroes Ida had conjured. As she told me about them all—the music critic in Prague; the married man in Capri; the ski instructor with whom her mother had warned she’d have nothing to talk about when the snow melted; the car mechanic who looked like Robert Redford but who turned out to be gay—the gulf between her and the sisters seemed wider than the Atlantic.
Also she had been for eight years an alcoholic. She knocked back bottles of sherry, port and wine, making herself sick, forgetting where she had parked the Chevy. Once she missed a date with the sisters, who were visiting New York on an opera trip, because she was at home vomiting. She told them the truth. They had been rather disgusted at the loss of control, and had not wanted to discuss it further—frightened, perhaps, by the unhappiness and confusion it hinted at. ‘I think I made a mess of my life,’ she said suddenly. ‘I consider myself a Greek tragedy. I didn’t live the life I should have done. I didn’t travel, see more of the world. All I can do is regret. I look at travelogues, I go to travel offices and look at the countries on paper, only I know photographically some of these travelogues and illustrations are wrong because the sky isn’t as blue and the lake isn’t as blue and the Danube isn’t as blue.’
We can book a trip for you tomorrow, I told her. She shook her head. ‘I don’t know where I would even want to go,’ she said. She repeated the sentence three times. After she left, I was hit by the overwhelmingly sad but obvious thought that Ida and Louise’s act of salvation in 1939 had not guaranteed happiness thereafter. Life had happened instead, in Miss Basch’s case a complicated tangle of love affairs, alcohol and regrets.
We met again the next day. I had a question that went back to something Jim Cook had told me. Did she think Ida and Louise avoided confronting aspects of life that didn’t fit with their own vision of how it should be? The question gave her an opening to tell me what had been on her mind all night. She had been up since 7.45 a.m. trying to make sense of it, she said, trying to remember the sequence of events properly. ‘What happened to me when I left Germany,’ she said, ‘I don’t know if I could have ever told Ida that. They asked me questions in Cologne and then they examined me vaginally. The German frontier people, they said they were looking for diamonds and pearls in my vagina, and whether I was exporting them. I kept thinking to myself after they led me into a little room and were examining me, “Had I said I was visiting Ida? Had she said she was coming to see me at any point? Had she had to give my name to them?” In hindsight, I suppose they just kept tracks. I can’t prove anything but I’d never heard of another woman being examined like that.’
Had she told the sisters this? Miss Basch began to cry. ‘I never cry, I never cry,’ she said. ‘I don’t think I could have told anybody… Did I wear already pants or just a skirt? What can a woman put in her vagina? People who have had children have wider vaginas but I was a single woman.’
As I tried to understand what she was saying, she said, ‘You are making my brain very painful to think about these things, like fingers intertwined. I am embarrassed I am not a better help to you. Why am I so confused and upset?’
We decided we should go for a walk and for some lunch and she quickly perked up again. She was back on fighting form in the diner. She insisted on washing her cutlery in clean water brought to the table. ‘I know what they do back in those kitchens,’ she said. She ate well, which pleased me. Afterwards, we strolled around the block and she pointed to a building. ‘I bumped straight into Eisenhower there,’ she said. ‘His face was pink just like a salmon!’
Three days before Christmas 1986, Ida died of cancer in Parkside Hospital, Wimbledon, and was later cremated at Putney Vale. Only a year before she had negotiated a generous arrangement with her publisher, Alan Boon, which helped secure Louise’s old age. But would Louise cope without Ida? She decided to sell Morella Road and move into another flat in Dolphin Square—not the one which Ida had used for their parties and latterly as a place to write. She missed her sister very much and felt her presence in the early hours of each morning. In May 1987, she sought the obvious solution and went to see Leslie Flint. A tape recording still exists of that seance.
Ida: ‘I love you, I’m very close, I shall never be far…’ [there is some crackling and whispering] ‘I am just waiting for the time eventually when you join us but you have got a little longer to go yet, I’m afraid…’
Louise: ‘O darling! O darling, is that you? O darling…’
Ida: ‘I love you. I want you to be happy. I want you to be patient with yourself. You have to take things as they come. I’ll come again! I’ll come again.’
Louise: ‘Oh, it’s wonderful! It’s wonderful!’
Ida then came to her with a question about the sale of Morella Road: ‘What about the attic?…You haven’t got everything out.’
Louise, falteringly: ‘Most things are out… I thought it had been cleared. Perhaps not quite.’
Ida: ‘No, not quite everything… Have you made up your mind what you are going to do or perhaps it is too early?’
Louise: ‘Oh yes, it is difficult to look through them. I don’t often go to the house, you see.’
As well as Ida’s fiction, the second-floor attic rooms of Morella Road had stored a box of correspondence from before the war. The letters, sometimes with photographs, were from the many families who asked for their help. They were not neatly filed and had not been looked at since 1939; some of them were reminders of all those families the sisters had not been able to save. ‘They are packed away,’ Ida explained in We Followed Our Stars, ‘because, tragic though they are, I cannot bring myself to destroy those pages out of history.’
Louise threw the contents of the box on to a fire soon after. Every best-selling book that Ida ever wrote also disappeared, either given away to charity or burned, so that by the time their brother Jim handed over the keys to the new owners there seemed to be very little left to tell their story. Nobody can be sure of the reasons why. A long life of private jealousy? The torment of grief? More likely that the death of one sister amounted in the survivor’s mind to the death of two.
Louise finally died on March 27, 1991, in Westminster Hospital, from septicaemia. They were in one sense or other together again. In 1966 Ida had told McCall’s magazine: ‘Many women of our generation made the choice of dignified spinsterhood rather than marry someone uncongenial. Perhaps Louise and I felt a bit regretful, but I don’t remember that we suffered.’
They had lived for art.