World War II was the deadliest conflict in the history of the world. The number of casualties—sixty to eighty million killed—the enormity of the devastation, the sheer cost in human suffering, adds up to a tragedy so staggering that it’s almost impossible to fully comprehend. Measured against such a vast canvas, individual stories can seem small and unimportant. But it was one of those individual stories that inspired me to write
The Black Swan of Paris.
My father-in-law, Clinton Robards, died when my husband was very young, long before I ever got to meet him. But the tales he told of World War II—of joining the army as a teen in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, of crouching in muddy trenches while eating cold, canned lima beans (which he hated) as bombs exploded overhead, of arriving in Paris shortly after its liberation to witness the fierce jubilation of its half-starved citizens—were the stuff of legend, repeated at family gatherings until they were as much a part of any celebration as my mother-in-law’s famous custard pie. Wounded in the war, he never quite recovered his health, although he lived another twenty years. Toward the end of her own life, my mother-in-law, Frances, went to France to retrace his steps. My husband and I went with her. As we walked the Normandy beaches and looked across the stormy water toward England, I found myself wondering what those last terrible days of the war must have been like.
Then the eternal writer’s question “What if...?” began to whisper in my ear. Clinton, a musician, had left behind his record collection, in which the songs of Édith Piaf figured prominently. I had an instant vision of a young soldier rattling in an open Jeep through the war-torn French countryside, with Édith Piaf’s voice warbling over the radio as a soundtrack.
What would have happened, I asked myself if that young soldier had met Édith Piaf, or a singer like her? What if she had helped him? What if she was part of the Resistance? Which, in fact, as it turned out, Édith Piaf was.
Over many years, and many subsequent visits to France, these thought fragments kept swirling through my head. I rode the train from Cherbourg to Paris, stayed in the Ritz Paris, visited the Casino de Paris—all feature prominently in the book—and gradually Genevieve Dumont, my heroine, a Frenchwoman, a beautiful young singer reluctantly caught up in the war, was born. Meticulously researched, her story was born in truth, but as I wrote it, it became her own, and one I had to tell.
At some point, Frances slipped one of her few precious photos of my father-in-law in his uniform into my son’s baby book so that the grandson Clinton never had a chance to meet might remember him. When I found it, not long after she died, it made me cry.I’m sending a copy of that old, grainy photo along so that you can see it for yourself. Thank you for helping me share the story it inspired—Genevieve’s story—
The Black Swan of Paris.