Mr. Churchill's Secretary was inspired by a visit to the Cabinet War Rooms in London and its meticulously researched and wonderfully presented exhibits. One of the audio accompaniments was an actress reading the recollections of one of Churchill’s young secretaries, taken from the memoirs of Elizabeth Layton Nel. As I listened to her words describing working underground during the Blitz and walked the concrete corridors of those same War Rooms, I felt a shiver go up my spine — and knew I’d found an extraordinary setting for a novel.
Mrs. Elizabeth Layton Nel was kind enough to reply to my letter from her home in South Africa in 2004. I told her (in my own, probably dorky, way) how much I admired the work she had done, and also how much I enjoyed her memoir. She was gracious in her replies and generous enough to give her blessing to my using her “mistakes” (“right” for “ripe,” et al.). But she did caution me that in reality the secretaries never would have had any time for my protagonist's intrigues or romance. (!)
We’d planned to meet in London at the Cabinet War Rooms for the opening of The Churchill Museum in February of 2005 (I wanted to take her to tea). But, alas, a difficult pregnancy prevented my traveling to from New York to London. (The indefatigable Mrs. Nel not only made the journey, but was honored at the Museum’s opening, along with Queen Elizabeth.)
A widow since 2000, Mrs. Nel passed in October of 2007 and is survived by a son and two daughters.
Her inspiring and important memoir, Mr. Churchill’s Secretary, was first published in 1958 and, after many years, went out of print. A new edition of her book, Winston Churchill By His Personal Secretary Elizabeth Nel, was completed shortly before her death in 2007. And so her story, I’m delighted to report, is readily available to all once again.