Curious that I only heard of her recently when ABC radio replayed a Margaret Throsby interview upon her death (at 98) in 2011. Then again, it’s been a long time since I thought I was really across all the significant figures in a range of disciplines: the more I study history, or literature, or music … or whatever …, the more I realise there will always be significant gaps in what I know.
She was a (justly) famous figure in post-war Australia, although it is pushing things a little to claim her as our own (something Australians are hardly shy of doing with celebrities with any Oz links). She was born in NZ, and pretty much got out of Australia as soon as she could. She moved here when she was two, left home at sixteen, got together some money and left for New York and then Europe. She never seemed to feel really at home here, and despite receiving France’s highest decoration (something rare enough for French nationals), she refused any decorations from Australia for most of her life, apparently saying the Australian Government could stick them “where the monkey puts its nuts”.
I’m going to break one of my own rules here for most of this review by sticking largely to plot (as far as you can say that an autobiography works to plot). One of my pet hates is reviews that are mere plot summaries: many books or films that have essentially the same plot (boy meets girl; cop catches crim) are wildly different in quality, and exploring those differences is generally what I’m more interested in. But autobiography can break this rule: Diaz’ The Conquest of New Spain is stylistically appalling, but the events are so gripping from an eye-witness that it’s absolutely worth reading purely for the events. Nancy is a better writer, but similarly the events of her life are so much more potent than her ability to describe it. There is also little attempt to be meticulous or comprehensive or entertaining – the book more reads as an older woman recounting bits and pieces of her life, skipping over big chunks that aren’t so interesting to her (but may be interesting to us, or give a better perspective). That being said, I have no desire to read Peter Fitzsimons’ Wake biography after reading the dog’s breakfast he made of Batavia: I was appalled in looking on amazon to find Wake’s own books out of print, with (history vulture or champion?) Fitzsimons’ cashing in effort as the main version. Let the woman speak for herself!
Having recently reread the old classic ‘Reach For the Sky’, both Bader and Wake shared traits which made them in some ways more functional in war than in peace, although far more Bader than Wake (Bader appeared to be genuinely disappointed that upon his liberation from a POW camp that the war would end before he had another chance to fight; Wake was euphoric on VE day, having longed for victory for years). Wake made two failed attempts to be elected to the Australian Parliament, and while she had some success, it may be that some of the very attributes that led to her success as a warrior – her ‘take it or leave it’, straight shooting, and indifference to middle class pretensions – were partly her undoing politically.
She definitely didn’t fit with mainstream Australia of her time. There’s no voyeuristic detail, but her lifestyle pre-marriage seems way more post-sixties in values than pre-forties. She really seemed to not give a damn about how others were going to feel about her, which might have made her tricky to live with, but was a powerful virtue in the context of war. She decided from her own experience of seeing Nazis’ cowardly and sickening attacks on defenceless Jews in pre-war Austria that the only good German was a dead one, and she stuck with this in the most dangerous circumstances. So many French understandably were neutralised in fear and indecision in the face of the German occupation, others collaborated, whereas Nancy (along with so many other French) didn’t hesitate for a moment, but constantly risked her own life in resistance work, even after seeing close friends taken off to Auschwitz. Even after escaping the country, barely surviving an utterly gruelling trek over the Pyrenees (which reduced some of the men to despair, while she drew on her amazing reserves of seemingly inexhaustible tenacity) – to parachute back in after being trained in espionage, including (usually Hollywood mythologised style) weapons and assassin techniques. Something of her superlative pluck (and the reason post-War France so loved her) can be seen in the contrast between Nancy constantly risking her life to liberate France, and her French father-in-law vituperatively blaming her for causing her husband’s death (he died under Nazi torture, loyal to Nancy to the last), wishing she, like him, had just cooperated to stay safe.
You can understand the temptation to put her life on screen (or do a biography, despite her already having done an autobiography). She was the real deal, surviving day to day in constant danger, overcoming staggering adversity with aplomb, as well as offering hilarious soundbites and anecdotes (my favourite being her response to hearing a snooty waiter who didn’t realise she spoke French fluently). Still, this would be so easy to get wrong: a good version would have to leave audiences admiring her, but not necessarily liking her, or being comfortable with all she did. She wasn’t afraid to offend – anything too stereotypically heroic just wouldn’t be Nancy. But make no mistake, she was a hero.