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The Coldest Winter: A Stringer in Liberated Europe by Paula Fox. Henry Holt and Company, 2005; 144 pages; $18.


In 1946, Paula Fox walked up the gangplank of a partly reconverted Liberty with the classic American hope of finding experience -- or perhaps salvation -- in Europe. She was 22 years old and would spend the next year moving among the ruins of London, Warsaw, Paris, Prague, Madrid, and other cities as a stringer for a small British news service. In this lucid, affecting memoir, Fox describes her movements across Europe's scrambled borders: unplanned trips to empty castles and ruined cathedrals, a stint in bombed-out Warsaw in the midst of the Communist election takeovers, and nights spent in apartments here and there with distant relatives, friends of friends, and in shabby pensions with little heat, each place echoing with the horrors of the war. A young woman alone, with neither a plan nor a reliable paycheck, Fox made her way with the rest of Europe as the continent rebuilt and rediscovered itself among the ruins.

Long revered as a novelist, Fox won over a new generation of readers with her previous memoir, Borrowed Finery. Now, with The Coldest Winter, she recounts another chapter of a life seemingly filled with stories -- a rare, unsentimental glimpse of the world as seen by a writer at the beginning of an illustrious career.


From Booklist: In her acclaimed memoir, Borrowed Finery (2001), Fox wrote with quiet power about her traumatic childhood. Now she writes about huge political upheaval, and once again she brings it close with small, intimate details. She remembers herself in 1946 as a journalist stringer in post-World War II Europe. She meets the famous, including Paul Robeson and Jean-Paul Sartre.... In an unforgettable scene in a freezing, bombed-out opera house in Yugoslavia, the orchestra plays the Brahms violin concerto, and the audience listens so intently "it was as though we had never heard music nor would again." You read the simple words slowly, and they haunt you.

From Publishers Weekly: In sparse, careful prose, Fox relates her experiences in London, Paris, Prague, Warsaw, and Spain in 1946. Her writing style is detached, often sparing details (e.g., "We fell in love," she states simply of her brief relationship with a Frenchman).... The picture Fox paints of postwar Europe is both profoundly beautiful and sad, and her memoir is affecting, leaving one wishing she had stayed there longer.


Paula Fox, born in New York City in the 1920s to a bibulous screenwriter father and a termagant of a mother, is the author of one previous memoir, Borrowed Finery, and six novels, including Desperate Characters (made into a movie starring Shirley MacLaine), The Widow's Children, and Poor George. She is also a Newbery Award-winning children's book author. Grandmother to five grandchildren, including rock star Courtney Love ("You can see where Love got her legs," an observer noted. "Fox modeled in England after World War II."), Ms. Fox lives with her husband in a brownstone in Brooklyn, New York.


Ms. Fox was in her Brooklyn home and I in California when we talked. She speaks in elegantly modulated tones, in the rises and falls and stops and starts that one rarely any longer hears.The photograph on the dust jacket is of Ms. Fox in her early 20s. I asked about the photo.

"It was taken by my oldest friend, who lives in Santa Barbara. I've known her for 65 years now. She took it in the Prado, I think. Although I'm not absolutely sure. But the building looks like the Prado. There's another picture of me inside when I was 23, sitting in a group of journalists, next to Bierut, who had been elected president of Poland."

"You were so young."

"I know. I was 22 when I first went there. And so foolish and unknowing."

Complimented on her memory of that winter of 60 years ago, Ms. Fox had told a Publishers Weekly interviewer, "I don't remember anything that happened last week and I forget people's names all the time. But ...I can remember the suit wrinkles of my father's suit as he bent his elbow to draw in cigarette smoke and that was 70 years ago, when I was 12. I can see it."

Asked about her memory's tenacity, she said, "I quoted in The Coldest Winter something Cesare Pavese wrote in his diary, The Burning Brand: 'Real amazement comes from memory.' My past is absolutely engraved, stamped on my brain."

I had suggested that Ms. Fox had "drifted" across Europe. She brushed aside my choice of words. "I didn't really drift. I know exactly what you meant, that I went from one thing to the other the way you cross the stream, you know, on stepping stones. A little brook with a waterfall here and there. No, I made my way across by a clear path of stones. Slippery at times. But still, I got to the other side. And that's how I made my way through Europe."

"When some great post- World War II event is mentioned, your imagination must find itself filled with that moment."

"Yes, it does. It's particularly happened because of the terrible hurricane. I lived in New Orleans for a few months many years ago, when I was much younger than when I went to Europe. I was 17 or 18. I had a job out at Lake Pontchartrain and I lived in the French Quarter. Everything about it has a resonance to me that I don't think it would have, although pity moves most of us, at all times; but the combination of the personal memory along with empathy and feeling and imagination is very strong.

"I think St. Anne's Street is where I lived in the French Quarter. I lived with a married couple who were very good to me and who are now dead. I think of their house and the modesty of it and how it must have been affected by this storm. So in that sense, if something happened in places where I was and I can visualize it clearly, then indeed it has another dimension to it for me."

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