The Paris Orphan


By Natasha Lester

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A “rich and riveting” New York Times bestseller based on the true story of a female journalist who defied all the rules while covering World War II (Publishers Weekly, starred review).

New York City/Paris, 1942: When American model Jessica May arrives in Europe to cover the war as a photojournalist for Vogue, most of the soldiers are determined to make her life as difficult as possible. But three friendships change that. Journalist Martha Gellhorn encourages Jess to bend the rules. Captain Dan Hallworth keeps her safe in dangerous places so she can capture the stories that truly matter. And most important of all, the love of a little orphan named Victorine gives Jess strength to do the impossible. But her success will come at a price…

France, 2005: Decades after World War II, D’Arcy Hallworth arrives at a beautiful chateau to curate a collection of famous wartime photos by a reclusive artist. It’s the opportunity of a lifetime, but D’Arcy has no idea that this job will uncover decades of secrets that, once revealed, will change everything she thought she knew about her mother, Victorine, and alter D’Arcy’s life forever.

Includes a reading group guide!

“An emotional and sweeping tale set against the backdrop of World War II…Rich detail, compelling characters, and an interwoven dual timeline make this an engrossing read for historical fiction fans.” –Chanel Cleeton, USA Today bestselling author of Next Year in Havana

“[A] splendid, breathtaking novel, full of mystery and passion…a must read!” –Jeanne Mackin, author of The Last Collection


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It is almost impossible today, almost fifty years later, to conceive how difficult it was for a woman correspondent to get beyond a rear-echelon military position, in other words to the front, where the action was.

—David E. Scherman,
Life magazine correspondent


Jessica May turned on her famous smile and raised her arm aloft, her movements as repetitive as those of the riveters and welders and all the other jobs women were doing these days. Except that she wasn't in a factory and she wasn't wearing overalls.

Instead, she stood on a white platform, backdropped by a brilliant autumnal sky, wearing a white silk dress, bridal in length. It was designed to cling to the front of her body—helped along by the fans blowing over her—and then billow behind her in the artificial breeze, goddess-like. A white cape tied at her neck rippled too, adding to the celestial effect. Two large American flags fluttered proudly beside her, and her outstretched arm made it appear as if she might declaim something important at any moment. But that was also part of the make-believe; since when did a model have anything momentous to say about patriotism and war?

Once upon a time she'd marched passionately in the streets of Paris protesting against fascism, first as its vile ideology swept through Spain, then as it turned Italy and Germany into grotesqueries. Now Jessica May was simply the figurehead of a ship. Or Toni Frissell, the photographer, would make her into one after the photograph had been cropped and manipulated in just the right way for the cover of Vogue, a cover that would be as galvanizing as everyone needed it to be in late 1942. Nobody would ever know that there was no ship, no water, no sea breeze, no goddess; just a few props in a field in upstate New York, beside a herd of cows with quizzical eyes chewing over the interruption to their ordinarily pastoral outlook.

Toni asked her to rearrange her face. To look solemn. To respect the flag and the men and her country and the fighting. Jess did as she was asked.

"Perfect," Toni said soon after. "I don't need any more."

So Jess stepped off the platform, batting away the wardrobe assistant who wanted to help her down. She unhooked the cape and moved behind a screen where the assistant helped her change into the next outfit, a Claire McCardell bathing suit made of black wool jersey with a very low-cut v-neckline and a row of brass hook-and-eye closures down the front.

This time, when Jess climbed onto the platform, she sat between the flags, pretending to dip her toes into the imaginary water that readers of Vogue would think lay just out of shot. She smiled and tipped her face up to the sun, leaning back on her elbows. A cow bellowed its approval and she laughed. Toni caught the shot at just the right moment.

Then a car drew up in a hurry on the dirt road alongside the field. Belinda Bower, Vogue editor and Jess's friend, stepped out and picked her way across the field in a pencil skirt and heels, wobbling, but clearly determined not to appear as out of place as a tuxedo at the seaside. Toni lowered the camera and Jess straightened. Bel never interfered with photo shoots. Something was up.

Which Belinda confirmed moments later when she reached Jess and showed her a full-page Kotex advertisement in McCall's. The words, It has women's enthusiastic approval! were emblazoned across the top of the page. Underneath, Jessica May posed idly in an evening gown as if she hadn't a care in the world, and especially not about the taboo subject of menstruation.

"Goddammit!" Jess said.

"Goddammit," Bel agreed. "Shoot's off," she called to the makeup artists, the hairstylists, Toni's assistant, and Toni.

Toni packed her camera away without asking any questions. But the eyes of everyone else remained fixed on Jess and Bel. There was no good reason to call off a shoot that everyone could see had been going exceptionally well. Unless Jessica May was in some kind of trouble. And that was both likely and a toothsome piece of gossip nobody wanted to miss.

"It had to be Emile," Jess muttered as they walked across to the privacy of the cows. "He took that picture of me last year. He must have sold it to Kotex."

"I thought so," Bel replied. "I tried to get Condé to change his mind; hell, he wanted me to change his mind—you know he adores you—but we also know the advertisers would abandon us quicker than Joan Blondell can remove her clothes."

Despite everything, Jess grinned at the quip. Then she sighed. Bel was right. None of Vogue's advertisers would want their products appearing in the magazine that had the Kotex girl on the cover. Because the Kotex girl was what she'd be known as from now on. Even living with Emile out of wedlock wasn't as great a sin as menstruation. "How long will I be on the blacklist?" she asked.

"I don't know," Belinda said honestly. "It depends how long Kotex run the ad for. Condé hopes we can have you back modeling for us next year, but…"

"Until then, I should murder Emile and find some other way to pay the rent," Jess finished.

"Condé still wants you at his party tonight. He won't drop you for everything."

Just my livelihood, Jess thought grimly. At the age of twenty-two and after almost three years, hundreds of outfits, countless lipstick re-applications, innumerable images of Jessica May in the pages of Vogue and Harper's Bazaar and Glamour and much fussing over her blonde hair, it was over. She would no longer perpetuate a fantasy that, despite the war, a world still existed in which a woman might buy a low-cut bathing suit and, on a trip to the seaside, meet a prince and fall in love.

"Besides," Bel continued, pushing the nose of a cow away from her Mainbocher jacket with the same force she used when disposing of hapless interns, "now you'll have time to take more pictures for me. And to write for me."

"Will Condé agree to that?"

Bel eyed Jess, who was still wearing the bathing suit in which her cleavage was displayed so winningly. "Your by-line won't be anywhere near as intimidating to advertisers as a full-page of Jessica May in the flesh and not much else."

A peal of laughter rang from Jess's mouth, so loudly that the team from the shoot all turned to look their way.

"Think about it," Bel urged. "You know how much I loved the few pieces you've done for me."

"I will," Jess said. "But right now I need to change, go back to the city, and deal with Emile."

"What will you say to him?" Bel asked as they walked over to the makeshift dressing room.

Jess unhooked the bathing suit, unconcerned that Belinda was with her, so used to undressing in front of people that it now seemed strange when she was alone in the apartment taking her clothes off without an audience. "Something I would have said to him six months ago had he not returned from the training camp missing two fingers," she said bleakly.

*  *  *

Hours later, Jess swept through the Stork Club, past the ostentatiously large flower displays and voluptuous velvet drapes, her eye fixed on a booth she regularly occupied. She was brought up short by two men who wouldn't move aside to let her through and she dealt with them the same way she always dealt with men who thought the face and body of Jessica-May-the-model was theirs for the groping. "You've left them there," she said, indicating a spot on the floor.

As both men looked down, she shouldered her way past and called back to them, "Your eyeballs, I mean."

Emile smiled at her when she reached the booth, a smile she'd once thought suave and sensual. As usual, he wore his hair slicked back, his suit just the right side of louche to allow him entry into the Stork Club. He pushed a Manhattan across to her as she slid into the seat opposite. She took the drink and, in return, pushed Bel's copy of McCall's over to him.

"I thought you'd be pleased." His smile widened, as if he thought one of his signature grins was all it took to have her thank him for ruining her career.

"You knew I wouldn't be. Otherwise you'd have told me."

His smile stayed on. "You're always saying I should start working again. I took your advice."

They both looked at his right hand; at the remaining two fingers and thumb. Once upon a time, the handsome Frenchman, Emile Robard, had been one of the darlings of fashion photography, peer to Man Ray and Cecil Beaton, first in France and then in New York City, where he'd decamped in 1939 when war was declared. To where he and Jess had both decamped, to be precise—Jess might have been an American but she'd lived more than half her life in France with her parents, which is where she'd met Emile.

After arriving in New York, it took only a year for Emile Robard and Jessica May to become the darlings of both the scandal sheets and the social pages, the royalty of Greenwich Village artistes. A sought-after model and a French photographer, both, according to the press, blessed with enough beauty to lift any gathering to greatness.

That she'd shockingly dared to live with Emile, to be his mistress, was both titillating and thrilling to most Manhattanites whose values were far more conservative than their cosmopolitan facades implied. What she hated most about it was the word—mistress—implying she lived off Emile's largesse. But her modeling career meant she had more than enough money of her own. In fact, over the last few months, he'd been the one burning through her money like packs of Lucky Strikes. He'd taught her photography, the press said—another lie, although he had bettered her skills. He'd ensured she was the face most loved by the fashion magazines—another untruth; she was perfectly capable of finding her own work and hadn't had to attend a go-see for two years.

And then earlier in the year, having witnessed the glory surrounding photographers like Robert Capa and Edward Steichen who were taking pictures of war, Emile had decided he wanted some of that luster for himself. He'd cast off models and magazines and got himself assigned to an army training camp in Texas. Jess had been glad to have some time apart from him; the six months prior had seen Emile throwing himself at parties with the same passion he used to save for photography, and consuming whiskey as if it were air. It wasn't a lifestyle that Jess desired, given that late nights were incompatible with a magazine-worthy face, and nor did she want to be the vapid party-girl whose only concern was locating a suitable sofa to pass out on at three in the morning. She'd hoped that Emile's sudden urge to shoot training maneuvers would result in him finding inspiration in something other than late nights and drunkenness, but he got into an argument with a private at the camp and ended up being shot himself, losing two fingers in the process.

When he returned with a bandaged hand, Emile told Jess he'd been defending her honor, that the private had made lewd comments about a photograph of her naked back in a magazine. It was her fault he'd lost his fingers and could no longer hold a camera properly. So she'd stayed with Emile even though she wasn't sure that she still loved him.

But now they were done. Jess could no longer go to work in the morning, leaving him in her apartment to drink whiskey all day, could no longer dance with him in the evenings with a model's empty smile pasted on her face, could no longer help him home and to bed because he was too drunk to walk. Could not ignore the fact that he'd lined his pockets with Kotex money at her expense.

Jess sent the martini glass the same way as the magazine. "I meant that you should go out and take photographs. Not sell old pictures of me to Kotex to use for an ad you know will make me persona non grata in the modeling world. The only reason you can't hold a camera steady is because you drink too much. Your hand would be fine with just a little practice."

Emile finished his drink, then picked up hers and took a long swallow. "I did nothing wrong."

Jess sighed. She had to say it. It's over. She had to forget looking up at a jazz club in Paris and seeing this man smile rakishly at her, had to forget dancing with him into the early hours of the morning, had to forget doing that most romantic of all things: walking hand in hand through the streets of Paris as the sun came up, stopping to buy espresso, stopping to kiss. Had to forget that what she'd had with him was a kind of love; hedonistic, exciting, suited to that time in her life when she'd thought she might go mad because both her parents had just died and she had nobody. Except Emile.

"The New Yorker telephoned for you this morning," Emile said.

Jess wished she could ask him at another time, when he was less drunk and more merciful, but she had to know. "What did they say?"

"They said your idea didn't interest them." Emile's eyes roamed the room, settling on Gene Tierney, which was lucky; he wouldn't see the sting of his words made manifest in the clench of her jaw.

Being rejected at a go-see had never bothered her as much as a rejection by The New Yorker. She'd hoped her pitch might be a way to build on the handful of articles she'd written and photographed for Vogue, about the female artists from Parsons School of Design who were now painting camouflage on airplanes and designing propaganda posters instead of creating their own artworks. This time, Jess had wanted to write about what might happen to all those women when the war ended and the men returned and reclaimed their old jobs. What would the women do with all their new skills? Would there still be jobs for them?

Jess had wanted to stand up high on a ladder and take photographs in the factories, pictures that showed how many women there were; not just one or two but an entire generation. She knew nobody could dismiss a photograph the same way they might consider words to be exaggerated. And she'd wanted to feel as if she was doing something that mattered; instead of screaming her outrage about fascism into the wind at the Place de la Concorde as she'd done when she was younger, she could show that war reverberated in ways beyond bullets, that the ramifications could be found in the hands of a woman who'd once sculpted bronze and who now fashioned aircraft propellers.

"They liked my idea," Emile went on, leaning back and lighting a cigarette.

"Your idea?"

"I told them I'd write a piece about the jobs women aren't doing as well as the men who used to do them. I'd photograph the mistakes, expose the money it costs to make do with labor that isn't suited to the job. You Americans have been asked to believe a story about how well everyone is getting on with the new way of things but perhaps it's not true."

"You didn't really." She stared at him, expecting he would laugh and tell her she was mad; as if he'd write a story like that.

But he just stared back. "I did."

Her legs pushed her upright and the words came to her easily now that she no longer cared about kindness. "You know this is over. We're holding on to something that happened a long time ago when I was young and didn't know any better and when you were…" How to finish that sentence? "A better man than you are now. And I'm not referring to your fingers."

"Nobody ever refers to my fingers," he retorted. "But everyone thinks about them. About poor Emile who used to have the models falling at his feet."

"That's what you miss?" she asked sadly. "I'm sure if you're still able to stand by the end of the night, you'll be able to get someone to fall at your feet. I'll stay elsewhere for the next few days while you move your things out of the apartment."

"How will I find somewhere to live on such short notice?" His voice was petulant, like a child's.

"I'll get the bank to transfer you enough money to pay your rent for a month. After that, your articles," she couldn't quite keep the anger from her voice, "will surely support you." Then she left before either of them could say any more hurtful things.

*  *  *

The only thing to do after that was to go to a party. She arrived at midnight, which was late, but not impolitely so—the party never started at Condé Nast's Park Avenue apartment until ten at the earliest. Condé kissed Jess's cheeks and apologized for the stance he'd had to take with the Kotex ad.

He'd been the one to discover her, not long after she'd arrived back in New York City. She'd taken a different ship home than her parents because Emile hadn't been ready to leave on the SS Athenia—she couldn't even remember now why he'd prevaricated. Which was, everyone said, lucky for her because the Athenia had sunk and her parents had died. But how was that lucky?

A month after she'd arrived in Manhattan, when she'd at last made herself stop crying, she walked into Parsons School of Design to enroll in photography classes. Condé Nast had been at Parsons delivering a lecture to the fashion students and he'd seen her, as poignant as any Madonna, he would say later when he told the fantastical story, her brown eyes wet with tears from a month of weeping. The rest, as they say, was Jess's history.

Now, Condé released her from his embrace, told her that she was still his favorite model and commanded her to enjoy herself.

Which was not going to be difficult, she supposed, when the bar was fully stocked with impossible-to-get French champagne—a man like Condé probably had a cellar big enough to outlast the war—when everyone around them was attired in expensive gowns, when the air smelled heavy with French perfume. The orchestra played Cole Porter, George Gershwin sat at a table chatting to a group of admirers, overladen buffets were set up, as usual, on the terrace under the forgivingly warm fall sky, and the dancers took up most of the space in the room. Dancers, Jess noted, who included Emile, almost lip to lip with a girl she knew, another model, four years younger than Jess, barely eighteen. She waited for jealousy to swirl through her but she felt, if anything, relieved. She sat at a table, lit a cigarette and heard a woman say her name.

"Martha Gellhorn," Jess replied with a grin.

"I see my fame goes before me," Martha said with a wry smile, sitting beside Jess and lighting a cigarette too. "Which you must also be used to."

"Perhaps not as much as Ernest Hemingway's wife," Jess said. "Does it make your blood boil every time they call you that?"

Martha laughed. "I've considered wearing a label that lists my other achievements but few seem interested."

Jess shook her head; she knew that although Martha was one of the few women—perhaps the only woman—reporting on the war from Europe, her single biggest claim to fame in most people's eyes was as Ernest Hemingway's other half.

"I've read all of your pieces," Jess said. "I can't say that I enjoyed them because nobody could enjoy stories of war and death, but I appreciated them."

"I've read yours too." Martha eyed Jess appraisingly. "And seen your photographs. The one you took of the artist's canvas sitting beside the propaganda posters she now paints was better than any newspaper report. I like the way you blurred one image into the other—"

"Solarization," Jess explained. "I wanted to make it look like one painting was literally bleeding into the other."

Martha nodded. "I thought that might have been it. It was the subtlest commentary; you didn't need words to explain the conundrum: the wish to appear selfless and donate one's talents to one's country at the same time as mourning the loss of true art."

"Thank you." Jess felt herself blush, which was something she hadn't done in a very long time.

"What are you working on now?" Martha asked, sipping whiskey rather than champagne.

"That's a very good question. Besides asking my paramour to move out," Jess nodded at Emile, "not much."

"I heard about his hand," Martha said without sympathy. "I also heard that if it hadn't been for his hand—"

"I'd probably have asked him to move out a long time ago." Jess finished the sentence for her.

"So why don't you look happier? I believe you used to be quite something of a couple—like Hem and I—but wasn't that a while ago?"

"Jessica May and Emile Robard. Model and photographer. Bohemian artistes," Jess mused.

"You're selling yourself a little short by calling yourself a model. From what I've seen, you're as good a photographer as he is. You've had work published."

"It's what everyone thinks. See." Jess reached out and opened the newspaper on the sideboard to the social pages, pointing to a picture from a party two nights ago. Celebrated photographer Emile Robard with Jessica May, model. "Apparently I'm not even celebrated," she said with a sardonic smile. "The thing is, only this morning I was thinking that I didn't know how much longer I could parade around in dresses and smile at cameras. You're doing something useful," she said to Martha. "What am I doing?"

"Keeping up morale?" Martha said teasingly. "I bet there's a soldier or two who has a picture of you posted above his bed in his training camp."

Jess rolled her eyes. "Just what I want to be remembered for."

"There you are." Bel joined them, kissing both Jess's and Martha's cheeks.

"You look as frowny as I feel," Jess noted as Belinda sat down.

"You never look frowny, Jessica May," Bel said. "You two look as if you're having the most interesting conversation at this party."

"Cheers to that," Martha said, raising her glass.

"Maybe we can wipe your frown away," Jess said to Bel. "A problem shared and all that."

Bel took a sip of champagne. "I spent the afternoon foxtrotting with the government. The price of paper has gone sky high since the war started, and they're talking about paper rationing. I need to stay on the good side of the politicians if I want to keep Vogue alive during the war. But during today's meeting, I was asked if I could do more to contribute to the war effort than it's felt we're currently doing."

"I take it by 'asked' you mean 'blackmailed'?" Jess said.

"Exactly. I told the government that women are a valuable part of the propaganda machine and that Vogue can and should help with that. The government wants women here to let their men go and fight, to shrug off rationing as their moral duty, to work in order to keep the economy going. And Vogue's market is the women the government wants on their side. But I need pictures, not just words; Vogue is visual. I don't suppose you'd quit Collier's and come work for me?" Bel said pleadingly to Martha.

As Bel spoke, an idea at once so outrageous and so perfect began to form in Jess's mind. Four years ago in Paris, when she'd joined the anti-fascism demonstrations, she would never have imagined that, in the near future, while fascism claimed life after life and country after country, she would be sitting at a party in a Park Avenue penthouse drinking champagne. Back then she had marched and she had protested and, most of all, she had cared deeply about what was happening in the world. She still cared, but in a helpless and hopeless way. Writing and photographing those pieces for Bel had re-inflamed that care and given her a sense that she could do something more, like Martha did. Jess couldn't shoot or fly or fight but she could write and she could photograph.

Martha leaned back in her chair, pointed her cigarette in Jess's direction and said exactly what Jess was thinking. "You don't need me," Martha said. "You've got Jess."

"Yes. Send me," Jess said, turning to Bel as her restlessness fell away, replaced by an animation she hadn't felt for a long time.

Bel laughed. "I appreciate you trying to cheer me up but—"

"I'm serious." Jess put down her glass and eyeballed Bel. "I can be Vogue's correspondent."

"I'm not sending you into a war zone. It's ridiculous." Bel took a large sip of champagne, then said, "Brilliant, but ridiculous."

Jess felt the chink in Bel's Mainbocher armor. "It is brilliant. And I'm asking to go into a war zone; you're not sending me. There are other women over there."

Bel arched her eyebrows. "About two of them."

"So with me, there'll be three. Lucky number three."

"Actually, you're about right," Martha said. "Margaret Bourke-White's the only female photojournalist I know of in the Mediterranean. There are a couple of other correspondents like me. But that's all."

This time, Bel's eyebrows performed such a feat of acrobatics that Jess had to stifle a laugh. "I was joking when I said two!" Bel protested.

"I want to do this." Jess kept her voice level. "I need to do this. Please."


  • "An emotional and sweeping tale set against the backdrop of World War II, The Paris Orphan honors the courage and dedication of war correspondents through the lens of a captivating Vogue photojournalist. Rich detail, compelling characters, and an interwoven dual timeline make this an engrossing read for historical fiction fans."—Chanel Cleeton, USA Today bestselling author of Next Year in Havana
  • "Rich and riveting...Readers will become engrossed from the very first page as mystery and romance are expertly combined into one emotionally charged, unforgettable story."—Publishers Weekly, starred review
  • "The Paris Orphan is another must-read WWII drama and one of the best books we've read in 2019."—Books for Her
  • "This is a splendid, breathtaking novel, full of mystery and passion. I didn't want to put it down, and when it finished, I wanted to start reading all over again. Natasha Lester has woven together the lives of two intriguing women from different eras who find they have much more in common than their bravery and talent. Skillfully told, this passionate tale reveals the best and worst of men, and women, dealing with the brutality of war, and one of the darker secrets of World War II. A must read!"—Jeanne Mackin, author of The Last Collection
  • "An intriguing story inspired by real-life female photojournalists during WWII...Readers of historical fiction featuring courageous women will greatly enjoy...the story of heroism."—Booklist
  • "The Paris Orphan was a magnificent story that captivated me from start to finish!"—The Genre Minx
  • "Natasha Lester's latest historical novel is a drop-dead gorgeous winner!"—Literary Soiree
  • "The Paris Orphan is a compelling and poignant historical fiction... It took my breath away. It was well-written, detailed perfectly, and had fascinating character."—Living My Best Book Life
  • "Sweeping, heartbreaking, and incredibly moving, The Paris Orphan is an inspiring love story on multiple fronts."—The Rest is History
  • "A captivating, intense, intriguing, dramatic, emotional, and powerful novel."—Linda's Book Obsession
  • "Those who appreciate historical novels and female leads who break out of the traditional mold will find this tale worth their time."—Library Journal
  • "Powerfully written."—The Historical NovelSociety

On Sale
Sep 3, 2019
Page Count
480 pages

Natasha Lester

About the Author

Natasha Lester worked as a marketing executive for L’Oreal before penning the New York Times and internationally bestselling novel The Paris Orphan. She is also the author of the USA Today bestseller The Paris Seamstress. When she’s not writing, she loves collecting vintage fashion, traveling, reading, practicing yoga and playing with her three children. Natasha lives in Perth, Western Australia.

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