The Lipstick Bureau: A Novel Inspired by a Real-Life Female Spy by Michelle Gable
ABOUT THE BOOK
Inspired by one of the OSS’s few female operatives, Barbara Lauwers, a WWII novel set at OSS’s Morale Office in Rome, which was responsible for creating black propaganda and distributing it behind enemy lines. From the New York Times bestselling author of The Bookseller’s Secret.
Inspired by a real-life female spy, a WWII-set novel about a woman challenging convention and boundaries to help win a war, no matter the cost.
“A gripping, fascinating read.” —Kelly Rimmer, New York Times bestselling author of The Warsaw Orphan
1944, Rome. Newlywed Niki Novotná is recruited by a new American spy agency to establish a secret branch in Italy’s capital. One of the OSS’s few female operatives abroad and multilingual, she’s tasked with crafting fake stories and distributing propaganda to lower the morale of enemy soldiers.
Despite limited resources, Niki and a scrappy team of artists, forgers and others—now nicknamed The Lipstick Bureau—find success, forming a bond amid the cobblestoned streets and storied villas of the newly liberated city. But her work is also a way to escape devastating truths about the family she left behind in Czechoslovakia and a future with her controlling American husband.
As the war drags on and the pressure intensifies, Niki begins to question the rules she’s been instructed to follow, and a colleague unexpectedly captures her heart. But one step out of line, one mistake, could mean life or death…
Niki’s stomach flip-flops, and there’s a wild fluttering in her chest. You’re fine, she tells herself. In this buzzing, glittering room of some three hundred, she’s unlikely to encounter anyone she knows. Not that she’d recognize them if she did. It’s been almost forty-five years.
“Jeez, what a turnout,” her daughter, Andrea, says as Niki takes several short inhales, trying to wrangle her breath. “Did you know this many people would show up?”
“I had no idea what to expect,” Niki answers, and this much is true. When the invitation arrived three months ago, she’d almost pitched it straight into the trash.
You are invited
to a Black-Tie Dinner
The Ladies of the O.S.S.
The ladies of the OSS. A deceptively quaint title, like a neighborhood bridge club, or a collection of wives whose given names are not important.
“You should go,” Niki’s husband had said when she showed him the thick, ecru cardstock with its ornate engraving. “Relive your war days.”
“Manfred,” Niki had replied sternly. “Nobody wants to relive those.”
Though he’d convinced Niki to accept the invitation, it hadn’t been the hardest sell. Manfred was ill—dying, in fact, of latestage lung cancer—and Niki figured the tick mark beside “yes” was merely a way to delay a no.
The week before the event, Manfred was weaker than ever, and Niki saw her chance to back out. “I’ll just skip it,” she’d said. “This is for the best. You’d be bored out of your skull, and no one I worked with will even be there!”
“Zuska,” Manfred said, using her old pet name. As always, he’d known what his wife was up to. “I want you to go. Take Andrea. She could use a night out. It’d be like a holiday for her.”
“I don’t know…” Niki demurred. Their daughter did hate to cook, and no doubt longed for a break from her two extremely pert teenagers.
“You can’t refuse,” Manfred said. “What if this ends up qualifying as my dying wish?” It was a joke, but what could Niki possibly say to that?
Now she regrets having shown Manfred the invitation and is discomfited by the scene. Niki feels naked, exposed, as though she’s wearing a transparent blouse instead of a black sparkly top with double shoulder pads.
“Do you think you’ll spot anyone you know?” Andrea asks as they wend their way through the tables, scanning for number eighteen. Every Czech native considers eighteen an auspicious number, so maybe this is a positive sign.
“It’s unlikely,” Niki says. “The dinner is honoring women, and I mostly worked with men.” Most of whom are now dead, she does not add.
Soon enough, mother and daughter find their table, and exchange greetings with the two women already seated. Niki squints at their badges and notes they worked in different theaters of operation. Onstage is a podium, behind it a screen emblazoned with O.S.S. Beneath the letters is a gold spade encircled in black.
“What a beautiful outfit!” says one of their tablemates in a tight Texas twang.
“Thank you.” Niki blushes lightly, smoothing her billowy, bright green chiffon skirt.
“You’re the prettiest one in the place,” Andrea whispers as they sit.
“What a load of shit,” Niki spits back. In this room, it’s sequins and diamonds and fur for miles. She pats Andrea’s hand. “But thank you for the compliment.” And thank God for Manfred, who’d raised their girl to treat her mother so well.
Manfred. Niki feels a quake somewhere deep. She is losing him. She’s been losing him for a long time, and maybe this is the reason she came tonight. Those three letters on-screen call up—rather, exhume—a swarm of emotions, not all of them good. But they also offer a strange kind of hope, a reminder that Niki’s survived loss before, and this old body of hers has lived more than one life.
Excerpted from The Lipstick Bureau by Michelle Gable Bilski. Copyright © 2022 by Michelle Gable Bilski. Published by Graydon House Books.
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Q&A With Michelle Gable
Q: How did you learn about Barbara Lauwers? How did you come to discover this piece of history?
I don’t remember when or how I first heard about Barbara, she was just in my file of “interesting people to eventually write about” when it came time for book #6. Most likely, she was in a listicle along the lines of “fascinating women from history you don’t know about.” Whatever the case, she made my file because of her intriguing role in the OSS (precursor to the CIA) and the misinformation campaigns she participated in. The website https://www.psywarrior.com/ has photographs of many of their campaigns, and that sucked me right in.
Q: Why do you believe there continues to be a fascination for writers exploring and writing WWII novels for readers? Why are readers so interested?
I think people are drawn to WWII stories because there are so many different countries and continents involved, and therefore thousands of angles. For Americans in particular, though we were involved in the war, it was not fought on our shores, so I think there’s a yearning to know what it was like to live with war on a more day-to-day basis. 100 million were deployed and there are millions of stories of ordinary people showing heroism when facing the worst.
Q: Many women were part of the OSS. Did they experience sexism?
The sexism was outrageous! Many of the quotes I included in the book were actually said. Like Niki (the Barbara character) being told to sew her travel documents into her girdle, and the trainers telling the women not to mess this up.
When I started out in corporate America in the late 90s, sexism was rampant enough that we more or less accepted it as part of our jobs. I can only imagine (and tried to do this in the book!) how much worse it was in the 40s, amidst the stress of war, when men were away from their families.
Q: Did many women join these groups to escape difficult marriages?
It’s possible! Many husbands were sent to fight, so I think a lot of women wanted to contribute. Stateside, women were being asked to chip in and many unmarried women viewed it as a more interesting way to help versus working in a missile factory or something along those lines.
Q: What specifically stood out in the time and place of Rome during WWII?
Rome is my favorite city so I was excited to set another book there! I also found it a fascinating time…after the city was liberated from the Nazis, and before the war was over. Also the fact Italy changed alliances partway through the war, and half the country was still under Axis control, heightened the tensions in the city, and people were extremely suspicious, all around.
Q: What challenged you about writing THE LIPSTICK BUREAU?
I try very hard to keep as close to real facts as possible, building fiction around the truth. This can be very limiting, and so it’s always a challenge for me to remember I’m telling a story, not writing a biography. It’s a big reason I changed Barbara’s name–so I could go a little more “rogue.”
A smaller challenge was finding out what was happening in Niki’s hometown in Czechoslovakia during the war. As in the novel, no news was getting out. Also, I use a lot of first-hand accounts and government records in my research, and many of these were destroyed in the war. Not that I can read Czech, but I’ve definitely had records translated in the past.
Q: Which character do you most relate to and why?
There was no character I related to outright, but I appreciated Niki’s gumption and how she wanted to prove herself on her own terms.
Q: What are you hoping readers will come away with after they’ve read THE LIPSTICK BUREAU?
As always, I want people to get swept up in the story but also learn something new along the way.
Q: What research did you do to bring the history to life in this fiction?
Anything I could get my hands on. Several OSS women wrote memoirs, and I read these, along with interviews, biographies of the major OSS players, and thousands of internal memos and documents (some of which are included in the novel), including all of Allen Dulles’s wartime intelligence reports (this was pretty boring!) I read the Stars & Stripes newspapers published during this time (fun fact: my dad wrote for Stars & Stripes in Vietnam), among other things. My favorite was a biography of Saul Steinberg (the inspiration for Ezra) by Deirdre Bair.
Q: How do you think this conversation into the use of misinformation plays in today’s politics?
In real life as in the novel, the OSS used Hitler’s own rules for propaganda/misinformation when creating theirs. There were three key strategies: 1) the disinformation must be easy to comprehend (not too highbrow), 2) it must be addressed to the masses (NOT the intellectuals), and 3) it should hit on emotions, not logic or fact. These are very effective strategies, as we’ve seen, and it’s been reported that Trump has also specifically followed Hitler’s rulebook for spreading disinformation. The OSS folks were the “good guys” and would say they were doing this for a greater purpose (e.g. ending the war), and the ends justify the means. And maybe it does, but perhaps Trump believes the same thing?
Q: What are you working on next?
A book set in the 1960s Jet Set, about a failed San Francisco debutante who becomes assistant to beloved society photographer Slim Aarons as a way to social climb her way to a rich husband, but is instead drawn into the complicated inner circle of young Palm Beach socialites, and to the star at its center, heiress and rising fashion designer Lilly Pulitzer.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
MICHELLE GABLE is the New York Times bestselling author of A Paris Apartment, I’ll See You in Paris, The Book of Summer, and The Summer I Met Jack. She attended the College of William & Mary and spent twenty years working in finance before becoming a full-time writer. She grew up in San Diego and lives in Cardiff-by-the-Sea, California. Find her on Instagram, Twitter, or Pinterest, @mgablewriter.
Author website: https://michellegable.com/