The Coldest Winter
A Stringer in
Liberated Europe

Paula Fox
Back when I was a kid in New Jersey, one of my father's business partners introduced me to Gene Tunney. In those days, Tunney was quite famous, rich, and, it was said, a gentleman. I remember him as being large, and kindly-looking. My tiny hand disappeared in those enormous paws.

I wasted no time telling my friends. "Guess who I met?" "Who?" "Gene Tunney." "Who?" "You know, the boxer. He shook my hand. He was ... well, huge." My mother happened to hear this dialogue and took me aside and told me that respectable people didn't go around bragging about famous people they knew, much less just met.

Too bad Mum is not around to scold Ms. Fox, author of The Coldest Winter. She could certainly use a bit of a talking-to about this name-drop business. Paul Robeson. Lawrence Olivier. Miles Davis. Winston Churchill. And would you believe Jean-Paul Sartre? She gave him, she would have us believe, a lecture. On California.

And while she was about it, maybe Mum could give Ms. Fox a few pointers on writing. My mother was a high-school English teacher, notoriously tough on people who broke the rules of good grammar, who ignored Strunk and White's rule of short and to-the-point sentences.

Oh if she were just here to read some of Fox's whoppers, and, maybe, read her the riot act:

  • My ravenous interest in those days was aroused by anything.[!]
  • He had a vehemently Polish face.[!!]
  • He opened his door with his usual disbelieving smile.[!!!]
  • Even as I heard it, I was haunted --- and I am still --- by the piercing thorn of Peter Pear's voice and the severe and unfamiliar fourteenth-century English words.

§     §     §

Paula Fox went off to England in 1946 and with some family connections, landed a job as news correspondent for a peer, here identified as "Sir Andrew." He said he wanted to build a news service to compete with Reuters. She spent some time in England, writing and gathering names to drop later in life. Then she went off to Paris, spent some time in Poland during its first post-WWII election, and ended up in Spain.

The Coldest Winter smells like something brewed up to capitalize on an earlier hit, Borrowed Finery, which got raves in all the right places ... (O, NYTBR, Washington Post). However, to judge by this one, the author must have twisted a few famous arms here or there to reap so many complimentary reviews.

Everyone who appears in this book is dirty, or cold, or raggedy, or evil, or insensitive. The bulk of it takes place during the coldest winter of the last century --- 1946 - 1947. The focus of the section is a Mrs. Grassner, a depressed and depressing fellow-journalist who wore "an inappropriate lady's hat." Outside of Grassner's hat, Fox's most profound memory of her visit to Poland is Swidnica, a model Jewish community. She was astonished by the crap. No shit: "The only color on the ground was the snow-dusted piles of frozen horse manure."

--- Michelle Saunders
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