What’s almost as exciting as being on the New York Times Bestseller List and selling 1.5 million copies of your debut novel? How about being an answer on the long-running game show “Jeopardy!”? Author Martha Hall Kelly’s “Lilac Girls” has had that honor in the program’s Colorful Lit category.
“So many people called and emailed me about it,” says Kelly, 61, in a recent phone interview from her Litchfield home. “I’m only sorry my mother, who passed away and was a diehard ‘Jeopardy’ fan, didn’t see it.”
“Lilac Girls,” set during and after World War II, is Kelly’s compelling and moving work of historical fiction that follows the lives of three women — Caroline Ferriday, a New York City socialite, actress and philanthropist; Kasia Kuzmerick, a Polish teenager interned in Hitler’s notorious all-female German concentration camp Ravensbruck; and Herta Oberheuser, a German physician at Ravensbruck who performed horrific medical experiments on 72 of the camp’s Polish inmates. While Kasia is a composite character of the camp prisoners known as “The Rabbits,” the women who were left crippled and maimed by these operations, Oberheuser (1911-1978) and Ferriday (1902-1990) are real. The story behind the book began with Kelly’s admiration and fascination with Ferriday.
It started with the May 1999 issue of Victoria magazine where Kelly read an article about Ferriday’s country home and its lovely gardens designed by her and her mother, Eliza, in Bethlehem. She hoped to visit the Connecticut Landmarks site (known as the Bellamy-Ferriday House) one day. Ferriday’s parents had bought the summer home in 1912 when Caroline was 10 and called it “the Hay.”
“I have a crazy love of all things lilac and fell hard for the story of Caroline Ferriday and her garden,” Kelly writes on her website.
On Mother’s Day 2000, Kelly fulfilled her dream and drove to Bethlehem from her then-Connecticut home in Fairfield. That day she was the only one on the tour. She took home a cutting from one of the property’s lilac bushes as a memento, but it was a black-and-white photograph on Ferriday’s desk of the Rabbits that brought an even bigger meaning to the visit. Kelly learned from the tour guide how Ferriday had successfully campaigned to bring 35 of the 53 survivors to the United States for medical treatment in 1958 and how she rallied Americans to support and not forget them.
“When I found out about the Rabbits I thought, ‘How could that be lost?’ I thought (Ferriday) was such a hero … I wanted to know more about her. I started going to the house and studied her archives whenever I could,” says Kelly, the mother of three.
“History really repeats itself. People, especially women, have told me they didn’t know about World War II,” she says. “It’s terrifying how Holocaust deniers are on fire these days. You have that and (our history) fading as survivors leave us.”Read Full Article
Kelly’s 10 years of research on Ferriday included a trip to France, Poland and Germany and speaking with two of the five Rabbits she met during the filming of a documentary about the group. Kelly was struck by their warmth and friendliness and asked them how they could be so optimistic and cheerful after what they had been through. She says they told her, “We cannot keep hold of this hate.”
Kelly, who was raised in Hanson, Mass., moved from Connecticut to Atlanta in 2008 when her husband, Michael, took a job there. One evening she had dinner with former book editor Betty Sargent and mentioned to her the project she was researching. Sargent enthusiastically encouraged her and said, “All I need is one chapter.” Thanks to this meeting, and inadvertently drinking some caffeinated Starbucks coffee, Kelly produced one chapter.
“The barista made a mistake. I always order decaf,” explains Kelly, laughing, about her plunge into writing her first book. “I was an advertising copywriter, but never took a creative writing class. I knew I wanted to write three different characters and weave (their stories) together like a braid. I always loved reading historical fiction and I naturally wrote in (the genre). That’s what I set out to write — what I loved to read.”
“Lilac Girls” (Ballantine, 2016) has become especially popular with book clubs, Kelly says. There are many issues in it that lead to lively discussions, and their love for the book has brought book club members out by the busload to visit the Bellamy-Ferriday house, which now averages 80 visitors a day in season, May through October, Kelly says. People are always asking the guides about Kelly and since she moved to Litchfield from Atlanta in 2017, Kelly says she stops in as often as she can and enjoys talking to visitors. Recently, actor Elizabeth Moss has optioned “Lilac Girls” for a movie.
“It’s a real honor to be chosen by her,” Kelly says.
Why does Kelly think “Lilac Girls” has resounded with so many readers?
“I think a big part of it is Caroline. She’s so inspiring. She had it all and yet this is what she did — she did good things for people. Her major contribution wasn’t just money, but her empathy and kindness and that’s free,” Kelly says. “Caroline was such a hero — a quiet hero.”
On the heels of “Lilac Girls” is Kelly’s second book, “Lost Roses” (Ballantine, April 9), a prequel to “Lilac Girls” that focuses on Caroline’s mother, Eliza Mitchell Ferriday, and her work helping destitute White Russian families following the Russian Revolution in 1917. The story is set during World War I and is told by three female characters as well. (There also will be a flower in the title.) Kelly’s inspiration was an old newspaper clipping she found of Caroline in a Russian outfit. The article described how her mother had turned her New York apartment into a store to sell Russian-made items by former countesses and princesses who fled to the U.S., Kelly says.
She is working on another prequel following the lives of Caroline and Eliza’s ancestors, the Woolseys, a philanthropic, staunch abolitionist family whose strong women nursed wounded soldiers on the Gettysburg battlefield during the Civil War.
Martha Hall Kelly will give a talk and sign books at the Gunn Memorial Library, Washington, Conn., on May 9 and the Bellamy-Ferriday House and Gardens in Bethlehem on June 22.
Eileen Fischer is the former editor of Sunday Arts & Style.