Thursday, July 19, 2012

Francine Mathews at the Poisoned Pen Conference

Left to right - Francine Mathews, Me, Dana Stabenow

I loved Francine Mathews' latest book, Jack 1939, so it was a pleasure to hear her talk about it at the Poisoned Pen Conference. That book is written under Mathews, but she also writes the Jane Austen mysteries under her maiden name, Stephanie Barron (Francine Stephanie Barron Mathews). She said she changed publishers, going from William Morrow (Avon) to Bantam (Random House). Now, she's at Riverhead. When she moved, they wanted a different name. She writes in two genres, and under both names. As Barron, she writes literary women's mysteries. As Mathews, she writes grittier espionage novels.

Barbara Peters, owner of the Poisoned Pen, reminded us that Mathews actually was a CIA spy. She had a recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle called "Bond Girl". She didn't have them vet the article. "Bond Girl" is about her training with the agency. Mathews worked as an analyst, with a specialty in Eastern Europe. After the Wall fell, she did personality profiles of East European leaders because they were brand new to the West. She also worked in counter-terrorism. She worked on the investigation of Pan Am 103 that was downed over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988. There were three agency people on the plane, as well as the son of the head of Operations. There were three people from the Beirut station on it. At first, they believed it was a targeted hit, and the investigation was misdirected as they searched for the Hezbollah hit. Instead, it was a Libyan program.

Mathews said the CIA was a career-driven program. She had paramilitary training. She learned to do dead drops, surveillance, disguises, all the spy training. That's fabulous background if you want to leave the agency and write. But, you have to submit books that deal with the CIA. She submitted her books The Cut Out and Blown. She was asked to change one word in The Cut Out.

Jack 1939 is historical espionage. The CIA didn't exist then, so she didn't have to submit it. In 1941, Roosevelt tapped Wild Bill Donovan to head the OSS, the Office of Strategic Services, to be a liaison with British secret intelligence. We had no intelligence whatsoever. There was Naval Intelligence, and J. Edgar Hoover desperately wanted to expand the FBI's job into surveillance. Roosevelt wanted it to remain separate. The OSS involved into the CIA.

Mathews said most of us see Jack Kennedy as frozen in time. But, she found a photo of him in 1937. His clothes are a mess; mismatched. His hair is tousled.  He was twenty years old. He was juggling oranges in Nuremberg. Kennedy was bumming his way through Europe.That picture is a moment captured in time, a picture of raw joyous youth. But, he was in Nazi Germany in 1937. Jack was just a kid.

In 1939, Jack Kennedy traveled alone, all over Europe from London to Moscow through Sept. 1939 when Hitler took Poland. He was researching his senior thesis. He arrived in Prague in late 1939, and couldn't get into Czechoslovakia. The Germans had closed the border. Kennedy showed up at the border, and demanded that George Kennan come and get him. Kennan was posted as a diplomat in Prague at the time. He sent a telegram complaining he had to babysit Joe's Kennedy's ignoramus college kid. Joe Kennedy was Ambassador to Great Britain at the time, and FDR didn't like him.

FDR had a remarkable network of people tapped to report to him. They were often friends of friends. There would be one person in the embassies who reported directly to FDR. Mathews' premise in Jack 1939 is that he adopted Jack as one of those people to use him deliberately against his father. The book is also about FDR and J. Edgar Hoover. Mathews found it hard to get into the mindset of Roosevelt. FDR recognized what was coming. So, the book shows what Mathews saw in him. She had not understood how precariously in power he was in the '30s. In the mid-thirties, business titans,  including the head of General Motors. banded together with the American Legion to fund what they hoped would be a military putsch against Roosevelt. A general reported it to Hoover. Hoover was given power to investigate sedition. At that time, it was extreme right-wing sedition. By the 1950s, Hoover used that power against people suspected of Communism.

In the 1930s, there was a fear of a Fascist movement in the U.S. There was a movement in Britain. Joe Kennedy wasn't a fascist. He was a pragmatic businessman. He abhorred war. He was terrified of losing his sons. He worked with Chamberlain to broker an agreement with Germany. People thought they could avoid war. Mathews has Jack talking to Roosevelt about it. Joe was a businessman. Jack was a politician. Joe said war was bad for business. Jack was torn between supporting his father and recognizing what was going on.

Mathews deals with Jack Kennedy's illnesses in the book as well. He was constantly ill. He was misdiagnosed with leukemia at seventeen. He had persistent blood disorders. He couldn't keep weight on, and was always underweight. He would sign himself into the Mayo Clinic regularly. Kennedy used to say he wouldn't live to see his 30s. He spent a great deal of time in hospital beds. He wrote letters and read voraciously. He wasn't a great student. His brother, Joe, was a model student. Jack was more of a rebel. But his teachers thought Jack was the better thinker, a complex thinker. Bruce Hopper, one of his advisors, is in the book. There are lists of what Jack was reading.

Jack Kennedy was obsessed with Poland in 1939. Danzig was the German name for Gdansk, a free city. Kennedy knew the Germans wanted Poland. Danzig was a free international city, an economic powerhouse. It was the only access the Polish navy had to the sea. It was between Germany and Russia.

Jack Kennedy had a young raw energy. He was sharply aware of his own mortality. He had to quit the London School of Economics because of illness. He was diagnosed with Addison's disease in 1945. That's a failure of the adrenal system. It regulates sodium in the body. He would cut a slit  in his calf and put a pellet of a steroid into the muscle of his calf or thigh. That had the long-term effect of deteriorating his spine. Kennedy had spinal surgery in the 1950s, which is supposed to be fatal to someone taking the steroid he did.

What was most poignant to Mathews is the image of Sept. 3, 1939. It's a shot of Joe, Jr., Kick and Jack. Jack is twenty-two; Joe is twenty-four, and Kick is twenty. They're walking into Parliament. By the end of the 40s, Jack was the only one left of the four oldest. Joe and Kick were dead. Rosemary had been lobotomized in 1941. The only ones left were Jack's much younger siblings who he didn't really know well. Ten years after that picture, all but Jack were gone.

Jack Kennedy was a serial womanizer. He was in love with Frances Ann Cannon, the heiress to the Cannon towel fortune. He proposed to her, but she refused because he was Irish, Catholic, and Joe Kennedy's son. She sent him a telegram when he left for Europe saying, "Stay away from the hay, darling. (Jack would describe himself as having hay fever when he wasn't well.)  Love you, darling. Frances Ann." That telegram is in the Kennedy Library. That meant Kennedy kept that telegram for his whole life. Frances Ann went on to marry John Hersey, the author of Hiroshima and A Bell for Adano. John Hersey wrote the first account of PT109.

Barbara Peters mentioned Francine Mathews' early mystery series featuring Merry Folger. Those books are set on Nantucket. She's written eleven Jane Austen mysteries. Then, she has two standalones, one about Queen Victoria, and one about Virginia Woolf.

Mathews told the audience she writes to find things out that she doesn't know. She loves to write. She said two thirds of her books feature people who lived. She fills in the gaps of their lives with fiction. She's fascinated by gaps in the record. What she writes could be called alternative history. It's a mosaic of fact and fiction.

Jack Kennedy did go to the places she has him go in the book. She follows his chronology. And, he meets many real people in the course of the book. She did create fictional characters. The most important is a female British agent. And, she eliminated a trip he took to Palestine. It didn't fit into her story. At one point, he traveled with Byron White, who went on to become a Supreme Court justice. At the time, he was a football player and Rhodes Scholar. One draft of the book had him in it. He was just one character too many so Mathews took him out. She's creating fiction, not writing a biography.

When someone mentioned Pamela Harriman, Mathews said she's in her next book. Pamela Digby Churchill Hayward Harriman was married to Randolph Churchiill. They met when she was nineteen. Randolph always proposed to women he wanted to sleep with. Pamela accepted. She produced an heir, and then went her own way.

Francine Mathews ended by recommending a book, Citizens of London: The Americans Who Stood with Britain in its Darkest, Finest Hour by Lynne Olson. It's about Edward R. Murrow, Averall Harriman and John Gilbert Winant, the Ambassador to Britain.

Francine Mathews' website is

Jack 1939 by Francine Mathews. Riverhead Books. 2012. ISBN 9781594487194 (hardcover), 368p.


Jane R said...

I just saw a mention of this book a couple of days ago. But, after your review I'm definitely going to grab a copy. After recently visiting Germany, this seems like a great book to investigate. Thanks for the review and the insight.

Lesa said...


I loved this book. It's one of my favorites for the year so far. Hope you enjoy it!