Big Damn Heroes

bittypoppy.JPGFor all his various meanings, attributes and forms, the hero of a Romance novel is really just the male protagonist.  He can be heroic in nature, of course, and he often is, but it isn’t required. Sometimes the actual
heroism, should there be any, falls to the heroine. 

And sometimes it falls to the writer.

It’s quite a story…

Once upon a time, that time being the early 1900s, there was a girl named Ida Cook.  Born in 1904 in England’s north, in Sunderland, Ida emerged from adolescence into a world forever changed by World War I.   She and her older sister Louise grew up in a society with a dearth of young men.  Like many other women in their particular age cohort, they both worked for living, in civil service jobs that would have been inconceivable a generation earlier.

It wasn’t entirely a hardship:  Louise and Ida were best friends, and lived together their whole lives.  And though neither ever married, it didn’t mean their lives were without grand passion.  Their passion, however, was reserved for opera.

It started simply enough, as passions do.  While at work one day in 1923, Louise heard a lecture about music, and was utterly struck by the sample of vocal music.  It took the princely sum of twenty-three pounds (more than two months salary at the time), to buy a gramaphone and ten recordings, but the sisters, deeply and irrevocably in love, counted it cheap.

A concert given by Amelita Galli-Curci, one of the great opera stars of the day, converted them into lifelong opera lovers.  Since Galli-Curci only sang full operas in New York, the sisters decided to cross the ocean to hear her.  It took two years of constant saving and sacrifice for Ida and Louise to come up with the hundred pounds they needed for travel.  Luckily, they didn’t have
to worry about buying show tickets; Galli-Curci promised the sisters that if they made it to New York, she herself would see that they would receive tickets to all her performances.

In fact, the sisters were minor celebrities when they reached New York.  Sisters abroad for the love of music!  Homemade
evening gowns!  Personal guests of an internationally famous singer and her husband!  But as far as Ida and Louise were concerned, the best part of the trip was the chance to hear wonderful music in the company of others who were similarly devoted.  They made enduring friendships with musicians, singers, conductors, and fans.  One of those friendships, with conductor Clemens Krauss and his wife, the soprano Viorica Ursuleac, changed their course of their lives yet again.

safe passage 250jpg.jpgIn the early 1930s, many Jews, sensing a dangerous change in the wind, wanted to leave Europe for England.  But even at that point, there were problems.  They had to prove they had money enough to support themselves, but currency restrictions made it impossible to move their money out of Germany and Austria.  Krauss asked Ida and Louise to help.  And so they did, simply by being themselves: well-known and dedicated opera lovers.

For the next several years, Ida and Louise made constant trips to Europe, to watch operas and hear concerts.  But the real point of each journey was the return, during which the sisters smuggled in valuables for Jews wishing to emigrate.

They stitched English labels into European furs.  They surrounded real jewels with drugstore fakes and wore them openly.  They stayed in luxurious hotels occupied by Nazi officials to throw off suspicion.  And while they continued to work at their office jobs, running smuggling operations on weekends, the sisters paid for these weekend trips with the money Ida made writing romances for Mills and Boon, under the name Mary Burchell.

World War II stopped the Cook sisters from traveling, but it didn’t stop their drive.  They also rounded up English sponsors, who pledged to support individual refugees, whether with money or lodging.  Ida even bought a London flat with her writing income, which she used to house

Ida’s first book as Mary Burchell was published in 1936.  She wrote more than 125 novels for Mills and Boon, most of them Romances, but also several Westerns (which she published under different male pseudonyms).  Many of her titles were full of music, opera and the theatre, and several featured recent European refugees.

Mary Burchell may have paid for it, but it was Louise and Ida Cook who helped 29 Jews escape Germany and Austria.  Ida detailed their life and adventures in her 1950 autobiography We Followed Our Stars (recently reprinted as Safe Passage), which is highly recommend reading.

Ida was 82 when she died in 1985.  Louise lived until 1991.  In 1965, the Yad Vashem Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance
Authority of Israel recognized them as Righteous Gentiles.  Earlier this year, the British government  post-humously named
both sisters British Heroes of the Holocaust.

Hard work, and daring rescues, all coloured with the dazzle and glitter of international opera.  It’s a wonderful story, and even better because it’s true.


Chris Szego says you don’t always have to fight to be a hero.  Sometimes you just need to write.

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