The author of the Maggie Hope Mystery series
writes about KBO, cocktails, code-breaking, and red lipstick.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction

In 2006, it was discovered that Nazi agents in England had, in fact, embedded Morse code in drawings of models wearing the latest fashions, in an attempt to outwit Allied censors.

According to the released British security service files, Nazi agents relayed sensitive military information using the dots and dashes of Morse code incorporated in the drawings. They posted the letters to their handlers, hoping that counterespionage experts would be fooled by the seemingly innocent pictures.

British secret service officials became aware of the ruse and issued censors with a code-breaking guide to intercept them. “Heavy reinforcements for the enemy expected hourly,” is the message disguised as a decorative pattern in the stitching of gowns, hats and blouses in the line drawing above.

This discovery of hidden code, and the fact that it was concealed in an ad for women's clothes of all places, was the catalyst for my heroine Maggie Hope's foray into the world of espionage.

Thank you Evay, for sending that clipping my way!

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Patron Broads of Endangered Cocktails

Recently I came across a fabulous-sounding group, called "Ladies for the Preservation of Endangered Cocktails."

(Just to bring this post back to Winston Churchill — I bought my bottle of yellow Chartreuse, used in a few of his cocktails, from Astor Wines & Spirits.)

Today, Astor sent me an email about a class they're doing with the Ladies for the Preservation of Endangered Cocktails (LUPEC), called: "Cocktail Tweetup with Chartreuse and LUPEC NYC."

From Astor's web site:

Location: The Lounge
Price: $35.00
Date: Mon, Nov 2nd, 6:00 PM - 9:00

This fly-by-night bar is a triple threat: a tasting of Chartreuse and Chartreuse-inspired cocktails, a fundraiser for LUPEC, and an opportunity to meet some of the fixtures of the NYC cocktail twitteratti.

First, the broads: Chartreuse-inflected cocktails will be shaken and slung by Lynette Marerra and friends, working as members of Ladies United for the Preservation of Endangered Cocktails (LUPEC). $5 of each ticket goes to help this new chapter get established. Their mission? * To create a secular "coven-like" atmosphere in which Classy Broads of today can invoke and honor the spirits of their Forebroads

* To continue the 150 year American tradition of dangerous women calling themselves Ladies and getting together in groups, clubs, and societies to work undercover while they chipped away at the patriarchy.

* To protect the collective Joie de Vivre of LUPEC members by assuring them at least one good party a month

* To encourage the accumulation and use of vintage serving and barware.

* And most importantly, to let LUPEC ladies use our skills to support women-based charitable organizations.

My feeling is that any group of women who call themselves "broads" and refer to "forebroads," who want to create a "coven-like atmosphere," "chip away at the Patriarchy," and shake vintage cocktails has got to be pretty cool.

Plus, they support women-centered charities. All this greatness, plus booze!

Maybe I'll see you there?

Monday, October 26, 2009

Mr. Churchill's Father

Winston Churchill had a complicated relationship with his father, Lord Randolph Churchill, the Duke of Marlborough.

Sir Winston wrote in Life of Marlborough, that "famous men are usually the product of an unhappy childhood. The stern compression of circumstances, the twinges of adversity, the spur of slights and taunts in early years, are needed to evoke that ruthless fixity of purpose and tenacious mother-wit without which great actions are seldom accomplished."

Perhaps thinking of this, in 1898 he wrote of Mohammed: "Solitary trees, if they grow at all, grow strong; and a boy deprived of a father's care often develops, if he escapes the perils of youth, an independence and vigour of thought which may restore in after life the heavy loss of early days."

Well, after all that, I know I could certainly use a cocktail. And, as fate would have it, there's one called The Duke of Marlborough. Named for Churchill's father? Perhaps. It's a fortified-wine-based cocktail, which would right for Lord Randolph's era.

Let's pretend that if the Duke had been alive to witness all his son's accomplishments, he would have raised a glass to him.

The Duke of Marlborough

1 twist orange peel

Stir well over ice cubes in a mixing glass. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass, add a twist of orange peel, and serve.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Turnaround Is Fair Play

So, those of you playing at home may know that I'm also an editor. One of my clients is Josh Axelrad, whose memoir on card counting, Repeat Until Rich, will be published by Penguin in March 2010. His British publisher's calling it: "Fight Club meets Bringing Down the House."

Here's a description from

A deliciously wry, edge-of-the-seat memoir of making a fortune with card counters across a wide swath of blackjack in America.

At twenty-four, Josh Axelrad held down a respectable and ominously dull job on Wall Street. Adventure was a tuna fish sandwich instead of the usual turkey for lunch. Then one night, a stranger at a cocktail party persuaded him to leave the nine-to-five behind and pursue an unlikely dream: the jackpot. The stranger was a blackjack card counter, and he sold Axelrad on the vision of Vegas with all its intrigue, adventure- and cash.

Repeat Until Rich is Axelrad's taut, atmospheric, and darkly hilarious account of ditching the mundane and entering the alternative universe of professional blackjack. Axelrad has one thing in common with his team: Jon Roth, the leader and a former white-shoe attorney; Neal Matcha, also a recovering lawyer; Aldous Kaufman, a retired math Ph.D. candidate. They all thrived in the straight world, found success boring, and vowed to make life more exotic. Axelrad adopts Kaufman's philosophy-"repeat until rich"-and from his strategy and skill spring hasty retreats across casino floors, gun-toting henchmen, high-speed car chases, "wrongful" arrests, and six-figure paydays that make it all worthwhile.

Along the way, he unveils the tactics and debunks the myths of professional card counters. In team play, he's either the "big player," who bets the big money, or the "controller," who subtly coordinates the team's betting while wagering only the minimum himself. Counting is not illegal, and it's less intellectually daunting than its MIT-level mystique suggests. With clarity and wit, Repeat Until Rich proves the old gambler's maxim that "if you can tip a waiter, you can count cards." But it also proves how zealous, even forceful, casino bosses can be in "backing off" counters-seeing past their undercover methods and banning them from the tables. Josh soon grows to love all this trouble, which provides a rush he starts to need more than the money and yearns for when he's away from the tables.

Filled with actual bad guys, chase scenes, and high stakes, Repeat Until Rich offers an intoxicating, unprecedented view of the dangerous allure of living off the cards and one's wits.

About the Author

Josh Axelrad played blackjack professionally for five years and poker unprofessionally for one. A graduate of Columbia College, he languished briefly in investment banking before he turned to cards. His personal win as a card counter, at $700,000, has left him eighty-sixed from the finest casinos in Vegas and around the United States. His subsequent losses at poker (exceeding $50,000) have cost him credit privileges at the Internet's most reputable poker rooms. A commentator on the casino industry for National Public Radio'sMarketplace program, Axelrad also performs at Stories at the Moth in New York and has been featured on the award-winning Moth Podcast.

Now his manuscript is turned in and, for all intents and purposes, finished. Mine... not so much. I had a deadline last week, and my final, final deadline is December 15.

When I asked if he'd take a look at my manuscript, he seemed pleased. Maybe too pleased.


Monday, October 19, 2009

Winston Churchill and KBO

Despite the alcohol, despite the naps, despite the baths, Winston Churchill was a work horse.

All accounts have him rising at eight, reading newspapers and attending to paperwork all morning from bed, taking the first bath of the day, then meetings and dictation, then luncheon. After lunch, a nap, then writing, second bath, dinner, and work often long, long past midnight. It was in this way that he was able to "... press a day and a half's work into one," as he's quoted saying.

During the Second World War, his constant refrain to his female typists was KPO, or "Keep Plodding On." (His male associates often heard KBO or "Keep Buggering On.") Allegedly, he would start the day saying it and end telephone conversations with it.

That tenacious attitude is integral to anything important — winning a war, finishing a novel, raising a child, battling illness, making a living, running a marathon, learning the violin.

Looking at Churchill's schedule, you can see an interesting balance — long hours of work, true, but balanced by rest and meals. (And having a staff certainly must have helped!) So, KBO, but take care of yourself as well. Then, back at it. Every single day.

KBO, everyone.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Mr. Churchill's Wit

Winston Churchill was, and still is, known for his sense of humor and witty turns of phrase. Here are a few favorite Churchillian quotes from James C. Humes's charming book, The Wit and Wisdom of Winston Churchill.

On animals: "Dogs look up to you. Cats look down on you. Give me a pig. He just looks you in the eye and treats you as an equal."

On illness: "It is a nuizenza to have the fluenza." (from a letter to President Roosevelt)

On free speech: " Some people's ideas of free speech is that they are free to say what they like but if anyone says anything back, that is an outrage."

On opponents: "I like a man who grins when he fights."

On punctuality: "I am a sporting man. I always like to give trains and airplanes a fair chance of getting away."

On stupidity: "Unwisdom prevailed."

The Pegu Club Cocktail

Robare came by for dinner the other night and I made Pegu Club Cocktails to celebrate his finishing the draft of his latest children's book.

As far as I know, the Pegu Club Cocktail has no relation to Winston Churchill, but as it was popular during the 1920s and 1930s, it's not improbable that he sampled a few.

The Pegu Club Cocktail was first mentioned in the 1930 Savoy Cocktail Book. Harry Craddock credits the drink to the Pegu Club, a British officers establishment, in Burma. The drink traveled throughout the world and was a hit until World War II. As always, Esquire has the most amusing take on the drink's history.

There are variations on the recipe. I've tinkered with a few, and this is the one that I like best:

The Pegu Club Cocktail

Shake well with cracked ice, then strain into a chilled cocktail glass.

2 oz London dry gin (I personally like Plymouth or Hendrick's)
3/4 ounce orange curacao (or Cointreau, Gran Marnier or even Rhum Clement Creole Shrubb)
3/4 ounce lime juice
1 dash Angostura bitters
1 dash orange bitters (Optional. If you read any cocktail blogs, you'll see this ingredient's inclusion in the drink is fiercely debated. No, I'm not kidding. Cocktail aficionados are deadly serious about their tipple.)

Monday, October 12, 2009

Mr. Churchill's Baths

Winston Churchill not only napped daily, but took very long, very hot baths.

They were drawn by his butler, Mr. Inces, and had to be kept at a particular temperature, measured by a thermometer.

Not only were the baths important to Churchill's well-being, but he often dictated from the bathtub (his secretary would sit just outside the bathroom, portable typewriter on her lap) and took meetings from there, as well.

There are terrific scenes in the HBO film, The Gathering Storm, and also HBO's Into The Storm with Churchill in the bathtub.

In The Gathering Storm, there's a scene with a pre-war Churchill dictating from the tub at Chartwell, while his typist is just outside. At one point he becomes irritated and throws his bar of soap out the bathroom door. Her facial expressions as she throws it back, never looking at Churchill of course, are marvelous.

In Into the Storm, Churchill is talking to President Roosevelt about the situation in the Pacific from a bathtub in the White House. (Roosevelt is sitting just outside.) When the Prime Minister is done, he rises from the tub, wraps a towel around his waist, and walks into the bedroom to address the President directly. At one point, the towel drops, leaving the Prime Minister naked.

"As you can see, Mr. President, I have nothing to conceal from you," Churchill deadpans.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Early Forties Makeup

Want to recreate this gorgeous vintage look? Check out's breakdown on Diane Kruger's makeup in Quentin Tarantino's film, Inglourious Basterds [sic].

She's rockin' MAC's Russian Red, bien sur.

(photo: Francois Duhamel/ The Weinstein Company)

Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Blenheim Cocktail

Last night we had some friends over. In honor of Sir Winston, I decided to make Bleinheim Cocktails, created by Joe Gilmore of the American Bar at the Savoy Hotel in London, in honor of Sir Winston's 90th birthday.

We had over, among others, our bad-ass card-counting memoir-writing friend (Josh Axelrad, Repeat Until Rich, Penguin, 2010), who watched me carefully measure ingredients into the shaker for round two. (Just to review, we're talking brandy, yellow Chartreuse, Lillet Blanc, orange juice and Dubonnet; the recipe is elsewhere on the blog.)

"Wow," he said. "We're really talking a lot of alcohol, aren't we?" he said.

It's true. And it doesn't taste as alcoholic as it sounds — I'd characterize it as a wonderfully aromatic after-dinner cocktail, sweet but still sophisticated, with a lot of herbal overtones. All in all, it's pretty deadly.

The perfect potable for the great man's ninetieth. Cheers!

(The photograph above is of Blenheim Palace, the birthplace of Winston Churchill and his father's, Lord Randolph's, family home.)

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Sadler's Wells Ballet

One of the characters in Mr. Churchill's Secretary, Sarah Sanderson, is a corps dancer with the Sadler's Wells Ballet, the forerunner to the Royal Ballet.

Even after being an editor at Dance Magazine, I knew very little about the Sadler's Wells. Thank goodness for the Jerome Robbins Dance Collection at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, particularly for issues of Dance Observer from the thirties and forties.

So, what did I learn? Well, the original company, the Vic-Wells Ballet, was established by Madame Ninette de Valoise in London in 1931. Frederick Ashton was named the company’s choreographer in 1935, and a young Margot Fonteyn (really Peggy Hookham!) was the company's fast-rising prima ballerina. The company was renamed the Sadler’s Wells Ballet in 1940, and in 1956 became the Royal Ballet.

Frederick Ashton and his Ballets by David Vaughn was a terrific resource for information on the Vic-Wells Ballet.

One of the most amazing stories about the Vic-Wells/Sadler's Wells Ballet is that they were stranded in Holland when war broke out, and barely escaped. They left behind the sets, costumes and notes for the Frederick Ashton/ Constance Lambert ballet, Horoscope, which starred Margot Fonteyn and Michael Soams, now forever lost.

However, I'm delighted to say that Ashton's 1939 production of Sleeping Beauty starring Margot Fonteyn not only survived, but will be be performed by the Royal Ballet in the spring of 2010.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Mr. Churchill's Naps

You must sleep sometime between lunch and dinner, and no halfway measures. Take off your clothes and get into bed. That's what I always do. Don't think you will be doing less work because you sleep during the day. That's a foolish notion held by people who have no imaginations. You will be able to accomplish more. You get two days in one -- well, at least one and a half.

— Winston Churchill

Winston Churchill, even during the worst of the Blitz, took a daily nap. Now sleep researchers are verifying naps are a healthy way to add some extra rest to our sleep-deprived lifestyles.

I never used to nap, even when our son was born. All those people who said, "Sleep when the baby sleeps"? Yeah, I'd smile and nod, but really, I thought were crazy. Didn't they know how much I had to do?

Somewhere around my son's first birthday, though, I gave in and embraced the nap. Wow, what a difference it made!

My son's four and a half now, and while he'll nap at home, he's given it up at pre-school. I realize that the days of his napping are numbered.

However, I hope that, somehow, I'll be able to keep up with mine.

As a parent, I can attest that it's far easier to "Never, never, never give in" when you've had a nap. Winston Churchill was onto something.

(The photo above is Winston Churchill's bedroom, in the Cabinet War Rooms.)

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Victory Gardens

UK Citizens were urged to plant their own Victory Gardens (or War Gardens) to add fruit and vegetables to their diet. Victory Gardens also saved on shipping costs and fuel.

After the U.S. joined the war in 1941, Victory Gardens became common in the States as well.

This past summer, in the shadow of the so-called Great Recession, First Lady Michelle Obama planted a "Victory Garden" on the South Lawn of the White House. It's the first vegetable garden on the White House grounds since Eleanor Roosevelt's during the World War II years

My family also planted a few things this summer. All right, in window boxes, but still. It wasn't inspired by the First Lady though, but by our young son, who wanted to grow pumpkins.

(Note: don't try growing pumpkins in window boxes. We did fine with pumpkin sprouts and even orange pumpkin flowers, but as the plants grew, they needed more and more water. And the soil of the window box, even with twice daily waterings, simply couldn't support them. Plus, the flowers need to be pollinated by bees; I'm not sure if bees can fly as high as our window boxes.)

RIP pumpkins.

We also planted fennel, again, because my son somehow got it into his head to plant fennel. I had no idea he even knew what fennel was, but I think he liked the picture on the seed packet. So far, so good, but I rather doubt that the kid who won't even eat corn or red peppers or carrots (foods other parents tell me their kids love) is going to eat fennel. But who knows? At least The Husband and I are looking forward to fennel.

We also tried to grow herbs. The chives did all right, but the cilantro took over everything else. The poor basil and oregano didn't have a chance.

Still, as I started to make a shopping list today for Spicy Sweet Potato Soup (which uses fresh cilantro), I had a moment of, "Hey, take that Union Markup (Union Market) and Whole Paycheck (Whole Foods). Screw you and your over-priced fresh herbs!"

I believe War-era Britons would be proud.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Vintage Perfume

When writing Mr. Churchill's Secretary, it helped to think of what kind of perfume each female character would have chosen to wear (and cologne for some of the male characters, too). Whether or not the perfume's name made it into the text, it was a helpful exercise. (And also fun.)

Since the book is set in England during the summer of 1940, I deliberately didn't consider any perfumes released that specific year. My characters would have had bottles on their bureaus from past years.

If you're interested in vintage perfumes from the twenties and thirties, decants (testers) are a great way to try them. I've tried sampler packs of vintage scents from the Perfumed Court (I'm in no way associated with them or their site) and had a great time — Nuit de Noel was a favorite.

Despite the Great Depression (or maybe because of it?) many magnificent perfumes debuted during the Thirties. Many of these outstanding scents are classics and still available today:

Patou's Joy (1930)
Acqua di Parma's Profumo (1930)
Dana's Tabu (1931)
Worth's Je Reviens (1932)
Guerlain's Vol de Nuit Parfum (1933)

Of course, gorgeous classic perfumes from earlier decades were also available, such as:

Guerlain's Jicky (1889)
Coty's l'Origan (1905)
Guerlain's L'Heure Bleue (1912)
Caron's Violette Precieuse (1913)
Guerlain's Mitsouko (1919)
Chanel's No. 5 (19121)
Caron's Nuit de Noel (1922)
Guerlain's Shalimar (1925)
Lanvin's Arpege (1927)
Bourjois Soir de Paris (1928)

Winston Churchill's favorite scent is reputed to have been Penhaligon's Blenheim Bouquet, created in 1902 and named after the family home of Churchill's father, the Duke of Marlboro.

The Cabinet War Rooms

The Cabinet War Rooms in London were created in 1938 from a storage basement not far from No. 10 Downing Street, as a safe place to wage what's now known as World War II. Ironically, they were built just after Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain delivered his now infamous "Peace in our time" speech.

The underground Cabinet War Rooms were the scene of hundreds of history-changing meetings of Winston Churchill's War Cabinet and Defense Committee. Churchill also had a radio room, from which he delivered several of his famous speeches. He also had a scrambled telephone room, which he used to make calls to world leaders, including President Roosevelt. While the Prime Minister had a small bedroom there for safety reasons, he preferred to work and sleep above ground at No 10 or his own Annexe, much to the consternation of his advisors and of his wife, Clementine Churchill.

The Rooms closed on August 16, 1945 and have been kept to this day as they looked in 1940, with the War Cabinet Room, the Map Room and Winston Churchill's Room still containing all their wartime contents. In 2005, the Churchill Museum opened in an adjoining space.

I first visited the Cabinet War Rooms in 2000 — and was immediately taken by the place with its history and atmosphere. Walking the subterranean corridors, seeing everything left just as it had been, it was easy to imagine life as it must have been during the War. Looking at the small typists' room and listening to a recording of the words of Churchill's secretary Elizabeth Nel, the idea of a novel set in the war rooms was inevitable.

Here's a short description of the War Rooms, taken from Mr. Churchill's Secretary (Bantam Dell/ Random House, 2010):

She looked up at the heavy black hands of the clock on the wall and sighed. There were no windows in the War Rooms, the warren of underground space used by the Prime Minister’s staff. The low ceiling was buttressed by the beams from one of Nelson’s ships of the line. Signs warned, Mind Your Head. The once magnolia-colored walls had faded to a dull yellow and the floors were covered in ugly brown linoleum. Overhead were braces of drainage pipes, where gurgles of sewage from the New Public Office could be heard. While the air was filtered by a special ventilation system, there were still lingering odors of unwashed bodies and too-often-worn clothes, chemical toilets and stale cigarette smoke.

The windowless typists’ office was lit by four green-glass pendant lamps and adorned with several gas masks, along with steel helmets and whistles for air raid drills. It was quiet in the small room, but outside, in the hall, the subterranean air was punctuated with the clatter of typewriters, conversations in low voices and the piercing ring of unanswered telephones.

The only evidence it was spring was the calendar on the wall. May 1940.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Winston Churchill and Pol Roger

So, after I received some good news yesterday, The Husband came home with a bottle of Pol Roger Champagne.

You see, it was Winston Churchill's favorite fizz. (And whatever else you may think of the man, he had absolutely impeccable taste.)

After Sir Winston's passing, Pol Roget even produced a Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill in his honor.

According to The Wine Doctor:

"Pol Roger was Churchill's tipple, and his relationship with the house was cemented when entranced by Odette Pol-Roger, Jacques' wife, when he met her at the British Embassy in November 1944. Churchill became Pol Roger's best, and certainly most influential, customer. He named a winning race horse after Odette, which I think is a compliment. After his death, Pol Roger placed a black border around the labels of Brut NV shipped to the UK. And, in 1984, they released a prestige cuvée named after the great man, starting with the 1975 vintage. The launch of the wine was a grand affair, attended by Lady Soames, Churchill's daughter, who commented of her father, "I saw him many times the better for it, but never the worse." The blend for this cuvée is a closely guarded secret, but it is likely to be a Pinot-dominated cuvée, reflecting the style of wine that Winston preferred."


Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Perfect Red Lipstick

"I live by a man's code, designed to fit a man's world, yet at the same time I never forget that a woman's first job is to choose the right shade of lipstick.
— Carole Lombard (photo by John Rawlings, 1939)

Red lipstick never goes out of style.

While British women during World War II had cosmetics rationed and often had to make do when items ran out (margarine wrappers for moisturizer, burned bobby pins for mascara, ink stamp pads for rouge), lipstick was kept in production because of it's supposed effect on morale. Despite the war (or because of it) sales soared.

While researching Mr. Churchill's Secretary, I definitely went through my own red lipstick phase. Favorites include MAC's Russian Red and Ruby Woo, Clinique's Retro Red, and Chanel's Red No. 5.

It's a bit much for the playground and preschool pickups, but I'll still put some on for Date Night with The Husband.

Alan Turing Honored

Alan Turingmathematician, computer scientist and cryptographer — is widely considered by many historians to be just as influential in winning World War II as Winston Churchill.

Turing's work was cracking German codes. More specifically, creating the "bombe" that translated the coded messages sent by Nazi Enigma machines, a forerunner to the modern computer.

Turing was homosexual — and convicted of "gross indecency" in 1952, after admitting to a relationship with a man.

He was chemically castrated as a "treatment," and his criminal record meant his security privileges were withdrawn and he could do no more work with the UK government.

Two years later he killed himself, at age 41.

There is, of course, no happy ending to Turing's story; but at least last month an apology was made.

UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown made a statement apologizing for Britain's treatment of Alan Turing, ending with, "So on behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan’s work, I am very proud to say: we’re sorry, you deserved so much better."