Natasha Lester’s The Paris Orphan follows model-turned-journalist Jessica May as she struggles with 1940s sexism while covering World War II and raising a young orphan named Victorine. To create her latest historical heroine, Lester drew on the real lives of trailblazers Lee Miller and Martha Gelhorn.
I first came across Lee Miller when I was researching my previous book, The Paris Seamstress. I was immediately fascinated by her story and wanted to channel that fascination into a book. The Paris Orphan was initially inspired by Lee Miler, but the more I researched, the more I discovered other female war correspondents whose stories needed to be told.
Lee Miller was a famous model throughout the 1920s. Her face graced the covers of magazines like Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. Then her image was used without her knowledge in an advertisement for Kotex sanitary products, and her modeling career came to an abrupt halt. Lee then went to Paris, met photographer Man Ray and learned the artistry of being behind the camera. With the advent of WWII, she became accredited as Vogue’s photojournalist, reporting from Europe.
Lee’s life was equal parts inspiring and heartbreaking. She was an artist and a documenter of the horrors of war, a beautiful woman with the strength to do a difficult job and most certainly a woman who never deserved to be forgotten.
The Hotel Scribe in Paris, which served as the U.S. Army’s press headquarters in WWII.
That’s why, in The Paris Orphan, she became the inspiration for the character of Jessica May. Like Lee, Jess is a photojournalist for Vogue during WWII, and her closest friend is another inspiring woman from the real world, Martha Gellhorn.
Gellhorn fought hard against the many ridiculous rules that were in place to “protect” female war correspondents, rules that actually stopped them from doing their job. For example, the female correspondents were not allowed to go across the English Channel to mainland Europe to report on D-Day and the invasion. When Collier’s, the news magazine Gellhorn worked for, heard about this, they decided to get someone else to do her job. They chose Ernest Hemingway—Gellhorn’s husband. And they didn’t even have the guts to tell her; they asked Hemingway to break the news to Gellhorn instead.
That betrayal may have felled a lesser woman. But Gellhorn wasn’t a lesser woman. She stowed away in the bathroom of a hospital ship going to Normandy and became the first woman correspondent to land on French soil post-invasion. She got her story. Hemingway didn’t. He was stuck in a boat out on the water.
But when Gellhorn returned to London, she was locked up in a nurses’ training camp. Her passport and accreditation papers were taken from her because she’d broken the terms of her accreditation. None of the male reporters were locked up for doing exactly the same thing.
Gellhorn was amazingly resilient. She escaped from the training camp and, without a passport or papers, hitched a ride on a ship going to Italy. There she spent a few months reporting from the Italian front until she was finally allowed back into the main theater of war.
This is just one example of the discrimination female correspondents faced in Europe during WWII. The Paris Orphan weaves the shocking story of this sexism into its pages, as well as the story of how incredible these women were, how hard they fought and why they were also heroes.
Author photo by Stef King Photography.