Mary Burchell was one of Mills & Boon’s famous early writers. Her first novel for M&B was published in 1936, and she went on to write over 125 novels, most of them romances, (but also a few Westerns under a different pseudonym.) The last was published in 1985, a year before her death at age 82.
I used to comb yard sales and used bookstores for her out of print books on behalf of my mother, who loved the older HMB writers. And she loved Mary Burchell most of all because many of the stories involved music.
The name Mary Burchell was actually a pseudonym for Ida Cook—an everyday name for a woman who was both a successful writer and a true heroine. Born in far Northern England (Sunderland), Ida Cook came from a modest, civil service oriented family—her father worked for the Customs and Excise service.
Ida and her older sister, Louise, came of age during WWI, when an entire generation of young men was devastated on the killing fields of France and Belgium. That was probably why the sisters never married. They lived together their whole lives and were best friends as well as sisters.
Did either of them ever fall in love? Ida wrote love stories, after all! If she was disappointed in love, it didn’t show up in her memoir, Safe Passage. Originally titled We Followed Our Stars and published in 1950, the book tells how Ida and Louise grew up, worked, fell in love with opera—and risked their lives to help Jews escape from Nazi Germany.
Their love of opera was actually the direct path to their rescue work. Both Ida and Louise had modest civil service jobs, but the world changed one day in 1923 when Louise heard a lecture on music at work. Ravished by the music that was played, she saved the enormous sum of 23 pounds (two or three months’ salary) to buy a gramophone and ten recordings. In no time at all, Louise and Ida were intoxicated lovers of vocal music.
Remember the scene in Pretty Woman when Richard Gere told Julia Roberts that a true, deep connection with opera was something you were either born with or not? The next scene showed Julia weeping at the performance. I wasn’t born with that connection—but Ida and Louis were.
The sisters skipped lunches in order to buy tickets to hear a London concert by Amelita Galli-Curci, one of the great stars of the day. Soon the voice lovers became opera lovers, and since Galli-Curci sang opera only in New York, Ida and Louise decided to sail to New York.
It took two years for them to save the money, and the hundred pounds needed was close to half of Ida’s salary for those two years. The gracious Amelita Galli-Curci said that if they made it to New York, she’d see that they got tickets to all of her performances.
When they arrived in New York, newspaper articles were written about them. Not only were they minor celebrities, but they wore their homemade evening gowns, heard magnificent music, and were personal guests of Galli-Curci and her husband. (Galli-Curci on the right. Ida is the seated sister above.)
That was the beginning of happy years when they listened to as much opera as they could find and made friends of opera stars who appreciated their intelligence and passion for the music. They also made friends with other opera lovers who, like them, could only afford cheap gallery seats, but who had passion and a deep knowledge of the music.
Among the opera stars Ida and Louise befriended were conductor Clemens Krauss and his Romanian wife, soprano Viorica Ursuleac. The musicians asked the Cook sisters to “look after” a Jewish friend who wanted to leave Austria for England. It was the beginning of Ida and Louise’s quiet crusade to help Jews escape.
In the 1930s, European Jews had great difficult moving to England. They had to prove they had the money to support themselves, yet currency restrictions prevented them from moving their money out of Germany and Austria.
This is where Ida and Louise came in. Encouraged by Krauss and his wife, they took on the roles of obsessed opera lovers (which they were) who made trip after trip to the Continent to see special productions. Sometimes Krauss deliberately staged an opera in a city they needed to visit.
And when they came home, they smuggled valuables back to England so the Jewish owners could later follow. Often they flew to Cologne on a Friday evening, got on the night train to Munich, attended an opera Saturday night, and stayed in the fancy hotels used by high Nazi officials to prove how innocent they were.
On Sunday they would return home by train and boat through Holland so they wouldn’t meet the same customs officials. It was a punishing schedule, especially for Louise, who still worked in her office job.
They carried over labels from English furriers, stitched them into luxurious German furs, and wore the coats back to England as if they were the real owners. They also brought back jewels. Once Ida wore a big splashy jeweled brooch that represented someone’s entire wealth, and she surrounded it with tacky Woolworth beads.
Ida also found English people who would guarantee a certain amount of money in support of a particular refugees. Some of these sponsors had little themselves, but they were willing to share what they had to save lives. Some of them even offered places in their own homes. (Ida was very shy, but when she stood up to talk about refugess, she was persuasive!)
Ida personally guaranteed over half her income to support refugees. Though her writing earned her a good living, she stretched her funds to the limit and went into debt. She’d bought a small flat in London that she used to house refugees in need.
When Ida and Louise finally persuaded her parents to evacuate to friends in the north, the elder Cooks left London at 10:00 am, and three hours later the Cook family home was blown up. But the family cat, Prince Igor, survived, so all was well.
During the Blitz, Ida volunteered as a night watcher in a bomb shelter in Bermondsey. From her, I learned that musicians and other entertainers performed in the London underground shelters. Some had given up safe, lucrative work in America to come home to England to share their talents and help maintain morale. “London can take it” indeed!
Safe Passage is full of such wonderful stories, but rather than repeat them all, I suggest you read the book if it's the kind of tale you fancy.
In 1965, Israel named Ida and Louise Cook as Righteous Gentiles for their rescue work, and in 2010, the British government posthumously named them British Heroes of the Holocaust. Mary Burchell gave pleasure to millions of readers over many, many years, and her books are still read. But even she couldn’t hold a candle to the real Ida and Louise.
What 'everyday heroes and heroines' do you know and admire? Do you think you could have this kind of courage? I have my doubts about myself, but I know that some of you could do better!
Mary Jo. who likes the above picture of the sisters from the British edition of Safe Passage