Dunkirk. Winston Churchill immortalized it, but had his doubts.
Underlining the heroism of the British population, which crossed the channel in the “little ships of Dunkirk”—a flotilla of hundreds of merchant marine boats, fishing boats, pleasure craft, yachts and lifeboats—to ferry 338,000 marooned British and French soldiers from France’s beaches to British warships.
"We shall defend our island whatever the cost may be,” Churchill intoned in one of his most memorable wartime speeches, delivered on the day the last soldiers reached Britain. “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender."
But privately he mused, "Wars are not won by evacuations."
The events were stirring for the beleaguered British public, however. “Winston Churchill was magnificent at putting Dunkirk into words,” said Michael Korda, editor-in-chief emeritus for Simon & Schuster and author of Alone, Britain, Churchill and Dunkirk: Defeat into Victory. “One reason we remember Dunkirk as a heroic event is because that is how Churchill presented it.”
Korda, a child of 6 or 7 years at the time the war began, brings a personal touch to his story with his own family’s flight from Europe a step or two ahead of the advancing Nazis. “The book tells the events that inexorably led to Dunkirk,” he said. “It takes a different approach than most books on the subject because it explains it in the right chronological order.”
Korda had an unusual vantage point for so young a boy. Born in London, he was the son of an English actress, Gertrude Musgrove, and the Hungarian Jewish artist and film production designer, Vincent Korda. His extended entertainment world family included his uncles, film directors Sir Alexander Korda and Zoltan Korda, and Alexander’s wife, Merle Oberon.
“My father was a very determined newspaper reader and we also knew a lot of people closely connected to Churchill and other people,” Korda said of his early awareness of the rescue at Dunkirk. “I heard a lot of things. Obviously, there are limitations to what you remember from the age of 6 or 7 and I had to be careful to not invent or shade my memories, or create foreknowledge, but I didn’t find that so difficult to do.”
Indeed, he believes most British children now of a certain age would remember Dunkirk, which he describes as a “concentrated event.”
“It was not like the Battle of Britain, which went on so long,” he said. “Dunkirk was a concentrated period of time, even for a child. People were talking about it. And the troops were coming home.”
His editor suggested that he include his own memories, but Korda said he was at first reluctant to include his own experiences in the book. “I didn’t want to give the impression that mine was a story of suffering in the whole long story of suffering,” he said. “I got shifted here and there and occasionally bombed in London—but so did everyone else. My story is there only because it knits everything together.”
Now, he says, he can’t imagine another way of telling the story. “I wanted to start with the outbreak of war.” He does so by cleverly weaving family history into the story of the growing European crisis, eventually describing his family’s departure from Cannes in first-class accommodations aboard a train de luxe to go back to England.
“Our lives carry events along as they would in a novel,” he said, although he stresses that the hardships he encountered “were relatively minor compared to Belgium and eastern France and nothing compared to Poland.”
He said that his own mining of the Dunkirk story at the same time that Christopher Nolan’s movie about the evacuation came out was coincidental. “I had no idea he was making a movie, or he that I was writing a book,” he said.
“My wife, Margaret, said after the Lee biography (In Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee) that she hoped I wouldn’t write another biography because they take so much time. She thought it might be fun to do something shorter, something I already knew about, like Dunkirk. I thought about it for all of five minutes. I have no idea why Dunkirk is suddenly a popular subject. I suppose, in part, because it’s a good story, a relatively simple and untarnished story. I think people respond to that.”
Korda is no stranger to the publishing world. After graduation from Oxford in 1956, he served in the Royal Air Force doing intelligence work in Germany during the Hungarian War. He briefly skirted around the family’s entertainment world legacy when he came to New York to work on a CBS film about the Hungarian Revolution. But his heart was not in it.
“It was not a permanent job,” he said, “and I had no overriding desire to be in the movie industry. Somewhere along the way, a friend of my father suggested someone was looking for an assistant at Simon & Schuster. I thought I would get a check every week and get to read books—which isn’t a bad job. I remained at Simon & Schuster for 48 years. It was very fortuitous—when I started it wasn’t even very clear to me what book publishers did.”
In the beginning, he was too busy to put pen to paper for himself, but the mid-1960s he was writing counter-culture pieces for Glamour magazine. In 1973, an article idea for New York magazine was expanded into his first book, Male Chauvinism and How it Works at Home and in the Office.
Since then he has written four biographies—about Ulysses S. Grant, Dwight Eisenhower, T.E. Lawrence and Robert E. Lee—two histories about Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain, a handful of novels and two memoirs.
“I don’t like getting into a rut,” he said. “Every now and then, I have to switch course and do something new and different.”
He is already preparing for the release of yet another book, a complete departure this time and one that grew out of the death of his wife. “Margaret was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor,” he explained. “After riding, I used to sit in the tack room and draw little cat cartoons. I would take a picture of them with my phone to send them to her to lighten her day. By accident one day, I sent one to my editor, who liked it and sent it to another editor. They eventually took 150 of them and they will be published Valentine’s Day as Catnip: A Love Story, a book about Margaret’s love for her cats, and theirs for her. It is both sad and funny.”
Now, he is exploring another book about the last year of his wife’s life. “There is a whole generation of Baby Boomers who are coming to grips with their own mortality,” he said. “I want to do a book about what that experience is like. Again, I hope it is not a heavy book, but an objective and personal account of what the experience is like.”
Korda will discuss and sign his book Alone November 25th at 1:30PM at Merritt Bookstore in Millbrook NY.