Nancy Wake

It is sometimes interesting how thoughts may progress. I was reading an article about Alexandra Champalimaud, the head of Champalimaud Design. The article explained how the Portuguese-born Champalimaud had taken a decrepit Connecticut summer camp and turned it into a (pretty funky) residence. As an aside, Ms. Champalimaud dons a wet suit each morning and swims across her lake. But more importantly for me, the article mentioned that Ms. Champalimaud had worked on designs for such high-end hotels as the Bel-Air in Los Angeles, the Chateau Frontenac in Quebec City, and the Stafford in London, England.

That is Ms. Champalimaud at her “camp” in the foregoing. Obviously a woman of some style. But it was the reference to the Stafford Hotel that kept me on a path. The Stafford is home to “The American Bar,” pictured here.

The American Bar was a haven for servicemen during the Second World War. It was also a haunt for Nancy Wake, both during the War and in her later years, when Nancy was a resident at the Stafford. Apparently Nancy would start early at the Bar, enjoying during the course of the day, a half dozen gins and tonic. OK if you pace yourself, although for me, I would simply pass on the tonic.

So here we are – Champalimaud to the Stafford, on to the American Bar, and then to Nancy Wake. Ms. Wake, as it turns out, was the most highly decorated servicewoman of the Second World War. She was awarded the George Medal (Britain’s second highest civilian honour; the Medal of Freedom from the United States; the French Legion d’Honneur and three Croix de Guerres.

Here is Ms. Wake enjoying a little refreshment. She lived at the Stafford from 2001 to 2003, before moving on to a retirement home, where she passed away in 2011 at the age of 98.

Ms. Wake was born in Wellington, New Zealand, and moved to Australia early on. Her father, whom she adored, “was very good-looking … but was a bastard.” He sold the family home, ditched the family, left them destitute, causing Nancy to run away at age of 16. She landed in London and moved on to continental Europe where she found work as a journalist. There she witnessed the rise of Nazism in the early 1930s. In 1939 Nancy married a wealthy French industrialist – barely 6 months before the Nazis invaded France.

Nancy was quick off the mark. She used her social status and wealth to ferry downed Royal Air Force pilots from France to Spain and on to Britain. That landed her on the Gestapo’s most wanted list where she was known as “The White Mouse.” She was captured, tortured but mistakenly released, and she made her way to London. Her husband was not as fortunate as he was captured and killed by the Nazis, but never gave up Nancy’s identity.

That’s Nancy above in a war-time photo.

She didn’t hesitate to return to France from London and became a resistance leader; blowing up Nazi supply depots, sabotaging factories and train tracks, and at one point killing a Nazi soldier with her bare hands. There is much more to her story and it is worth reading her autobiography, “The White Mouse.”