Have you ever heard of Bill Donovan? How about Mildred Gillars? Robert Jackson? Jimmy Byrnes? Each is a real person who influenced affairs and who also influenced my books—yet is little remembered today.
Bill Donovan, also known as “Wild Bill,” was a football star at Columbia University just after the turn of the 20th Century. He earned a law degree and became a crime-busting US Attorney in Buffalo, NY. He also was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his heroic leadership in the 69th Infantry Regiment of the New York National Guard during World War I. As the clouds of war gathered in 1940, President Roosevelt tapped Donovan to assemble an intelligence organization which became the Office of Strategic Services or OSS. Donovan appears in my first two books, The War Widow and Berlin Calling, in a small but important role.
Robert Jackson also makes an appearance in The War Widow. Jackson was an associate justice of the Supreme Court who took leave to serve as the chief American prosecutor at the Nuremberg war crimes trials. The eloquence and imagery of his opening and closing statements are still impressive seventy years after the fact.
Mildred Gillars doesn’t appear in my books, but she inspired one of them. Mildred was an American woman broadcasting propaganda for the Nazi regime. Germany’s Propaganda Ministry, under the direction of the wickedly brilliant Joseph Goebbels, made effective use of radio, the most powerful mass media of the day. I came across Mildred’s story one day and couldn’t understand what would motivate someone to work against her own country, particularly in service to a regime as heinous and corrupt as Hitler’s. The answer surprised me. Mildred was motivated by love! She was in love with a German man who refused to marry her unless she remained in Germany. After the war, Mildred was returned to the United States were she was convicted of treason. As noted above, Mildred isn’t in my books, but she inspired Maggie O’Dea, the protagonist of Berlin Calling. Maggie, like Mildred, finds herself working for the Nazis, but her story follows a winding path from believer to promoter to doubter to victim.
Jimmy Byrnes is one of my home state’s most prominent sons. He went to work at an early age to help support his widowed mother, “read” the law and became an attorney. He ran for office and was elected first to the US House of Representatives and later to the US Senate. As a senator, he was one of Franklin Roosevelt’s staunch allies on Capitol Hill and it’s at this point that Byrnes first appears in my book Wade’s War. After successfully guiding the critical Lend-Lease legislation through the Senate in March 1941, FDR rewarded Byrnes with a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court. Such were the differences between then and now, that the Senate dispensed with hearings on Byrnes’ nomination and approved it by acclamation. But that’s not the end of the story. After war broke out, the President soon realized he needed someone to mobilize the civilian economy to provide the massive quantities of food, material, supplies and munitions for our armed forces. He turned to Byrnes who gave up the security of his Court appointment and became director of the Office of War Mobilization, working right down the hall from the Oval Office. So powerful was Byrnes that the press dubbed him “the assistant president.” Byrnes believed that Roosevelt had offered him the vice presidency in 1944 and had even arranged for an erstwhile Senate colleague to place his name in nomination. The colleague, from Missouri, was named Harry Truman. Of course, when the call came, it went to Truman, forever souring Byrnes’ relations with Roosevelt. Following FDR’s death, Truman would appoint Byrnes Secretary of State. After leaving federal service, Byrnes returned to South Carolina and was elected governor. Late in his life, Byrnes played a key role in leading the conservative South over to the Republican Party, publicly endorsing Richard Nixon in 1968.
So here’s another reason why I write: Byrnes, Gillars, Jackson and Donovan were all influential in their own ways, are little remembered today and yet are all worth knowing about.