Paula Fox's The Coldest Winter: A Stringer in Liberated Europe can easily be read on its own, but it is a continuation of sorts of her memoir, Borrowed Finery. Borrowed Finery, which I loved, covers her early youth up until her very early 20s. In 1946 when Fox was twenty-three she spent a year in Europe where among other jobs she was employed by a British peer to work for his small wire service. She was sent to Paris and Warsaw to report on life after the war. She wrote mostly human interest stories rather than hard-core news, an acute observer of people and places and the smaller details of the world around her, she writes about the personal with great skill. It's the same sort of perceptive insight that made her earlier memoir so evocative.
Published in 2005, The Coldest Winter looks back at the year 1946 from the vantage point of age and experience. Fox notes, "I see the past differently as I grow older, so in a sense the past changes". The book is as much about post-War Europe as it is about Fox. The daughter of a Hollywood screenwriter and a Cuban mother, she moved in artistic circles. She writes about hearing Paul Robeson sing, going to clubs frequented by the likes of Billie Holiday and attending parties given by painter Wolf Kahn. "Memory often seems to begin in the middle of some story," she writes. But her stories, even related some fifty-odd years later feel as fresh as if she penned them the moment they happened.
This is a slim book, for a fast reader it could likely be read in a single sitting. She writes about living in New York, her job to earn money to travel to London and then her experiences working abroad and finally traveling in Spain ("As I boarded the train in Paris, I was too young and too dumb to worry about entering a Fascist country") where she had relatives living. Fox's writing particularly shines in her descriptions of the people she met and on occasion lived with and the circumstances in which they were living.
"A year and a half after the end of the war and the German occupation, Paris was muted and looked bruised and forlorn. Everywhere I went, I sensed the tracks of the wold that had tried to devour the city. But Paris proved inedible, as it had been ever since its tribal beginnings on an island in the Seine, the Ile de la Cité."
In 1946 a visit to the Louvre was not a crush of tourists as it is now. She was nearly alone in the museum save for a drunken custodian. Fox was to attend a peace conference in Paris, but it's life in Warsaw that she writes about so vividly and where the effects of the war were still felt quite literally through the cold and destruction, where "life is lived among the ruins".
"The cold was so intense that like many others I took to wearing sheets of newspaper under my coat. There was hardly any public transportation, a few streetcars to whose sides people clung like flies on a lump of sugar, two or three buses, a few tiny cars with no windshield wipers and perpetually fogged windows, and some motorbikes with wooden seats strapped on the front, from which after the shortest ride, one toppled like a stone."
As a young woman of twenty-three I don't think I could have done what Paula Fox managed to do in 1946. Travel to a war-torn Europe and move in the circles she did, get to know people who had just been devastated by war and write about their lives with clear-eyed cool observation but also compassion. In some ways there is a sense of naivety in some of her journeys yet perhaps due to her haphazard upbringing there is also a certain savvy in knowing people, too. When she returns home from her final weeks in Spain she is mistaken for a European and is asked whether she can speak English. Her bold reply (the first time in the US she had spoken so), "Indeed I do" must have come from her sense of accomplishment and experience--or as she writes seeing something beyond her own life and something other than herself.