Sisters in Resistance

How a German Spy, a Banker's Wife, and Mussolini's Daughter Outwitted the Nazis


By Tilar J. Mazzeo

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In a tale as twisted as any spy thriller, discover how three women delivered critical evidence of Axis war crimes to Allied forces during World War II: “A tantalizingly novelistic history lesson" (Kirkus).
In 1944, news of secret diaries kept by Italy's Foreign Minister, Galeazzo Ciano, had permeated public consciousness. What wasn't reported, however, was how three women—a Fascist's daughter, a German spy, and an American banker’s wife—risked their lives to ensure the diaries would reach the Allies, who would later use them as evidence against the Nazis at Nuremberg.

In 1944, Benito Mussolini's daughter, Edda, gave Hitler and her father an ultimatum: release her husband, Galeazzo Ciano, from prison, or risk her leaking her husband's journals to the press. To avoid the peril of exposing Nazi lies, Hitler and Mussolini hunted for the diaries for months, determined to destroy them.

Hilde Beetz, a German spy, was deployed to seduce Ciano to learn the diaries' location and take them from Edda. As the seducer became the seduced, Hilde converted as a double agent, joining forces with Edda to save Ciano from execution. When this failed, Edda fled to Switzerland with Hilde’s daring assistance to keep Ciano's final wish: to see the diaries published for use by the Allies. When American spymaster Allen Dulles learned of Edda's escape, he sent in Frances De Chollet, an “accidental” spy, telling her to find Edda, gain her trust, and, crucially, hand the diaries over to the Americans. Together, they succeeded in preserving one of the most important documents of WWII.
Drawing from in‑depth research and first-person interviews with people who witnessed these events, Mazzeo gives readers a riveting look into this little‑known moment in history and shows how, without Edda, Hilde, and Frances's involvement, certain convictions at Nuremberg would never have been possible.

​Includes a Reading Group Guide.


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Cast of Characters

The Ciano-Mussolini Family

Edda Mussolini Ciano—Favorite child of Italy’s blustering dictator, Benito Mussolini, she was forced into a desperate attempt to blackmail her father and Hitler to try to save the life of her husband, Galeazzo Ciano. While on the run from the Gestapo, she used the pseudonym Emilia Santos. She was mother to three young children during the war: Fabrizio, Raimonda, and Marzio. Her wartime lover was Emilio Pucci.

Galeazzo Ciano—Mussolini’s foreign minister and son-in-law, he was repulsed by the state secrets of Nazi Germany and fascist Italy and tried to organize a coup to remove Mussolini from power and to broker a separate peace with the Allies. His devout mother, Carolina Pini Ciano, disapproved of his wife. His brother-in-law Massimo Magistrati held a diplomatic post in Switzerland.

Benito Mussolini—Italy’s fascist dictator, he inspired the young Hitler but found by the middle of the Second World War that now the Führer gave the orders. Confronted with the choice between pardoning his son-in-law and pleasing Hitler, Mussolini wavered. His wife was Rachele Mussolini. His mistress was Clara Petacci. He sent his son Vittorio Mussolini to hunt down and return Edda, by whatever means necessary.

The Other Italians

Emilio Pucci—An expert skier and a wealthy aristocrat, he flew in the Italian air force and attended Reed College in Oregon. One of Edda Mussolini Ciano’s athletic younger lovers, he reconnected with her during the Second World War and, when circumstances required, gallantly risked his life to protect Edda and the diaries of Galeazzo Ciano. After the war, he became famous as a fashion designer.

Victor Emmanuel III—King of Italy, he was sidelined during the dictatorship of Benito Mussolini but, when given the opportunity to choose, selected ardent fascist Pietro Badoglio as his second wartime prime minister, precipitating the Ciano family’s flight from Rome.

Zenone Benini—A school friend of Galeazzo Ciano from their youth and a beneficiary of Ciano’s rise to power, he witnessed firsthand Galeazzo’s incarceration in Verona and his deepening love affair there with German spy Hilde Beetz. Zenone assisted American intelligence in contacting Edda Mussolini Ciano.

Susanna Agnelli—Heiress, socialite, and staunch friend to Galeazzo Ciano and Edda Mussolini Ciano, she was engaged to marry Prince Raimondo Lanza but dreamed of becoming a physician. With her half-American mother, Virginia Agnelli, she and her sisters Maria Sole and Clara played a pivotal role in Switzerland in the race to aid Edda Mussolini Ciano and save the diaries.

Tonino Pessina—Along with his wife, Nora Pessina, and their friend Gerardo Gerardi, Tonino tried to help old friends Edda and Galeazzo at great personal cost.

Delia di Bagno—Loyal friend of Edda Mussolini Ciano; Edda and Delia were reputed to share their husbands with each other. Delia and her mother, the Countess of Laurenzana, bravely offered to help Edda and Galeazzo. Some sources suggested that they drew the celebrated Polish-British spy Christine Granville (Krystyna Skarbek) into their circle of confidence.

Dr. Elvezio Melocchi—Along with his brother Dr. Walter Melocchi, he ran the rest clinic at Ramiola where Edda Mussolini Ciano and Emilio Pucci resided. Active in the Italian resistance as partisans, the two doctors agreed to deliver Galeazzo’s papers only to someone who knew the secret code word.

Father Guido Pancino—A Catholic priest and the Mussolini family confessor, Father Pancino was also working as a spy for the Germans, in the same division as Hilde Beetz. The priest was sent to Switzerland to try to trick Edda Mussolini Ciano. There he discovered that Hilde Beetz was acting as a double agent.

Mario Pellegrinotti—A sympathetic jailer in the Scalzi Prison at Verona, he witnessed firsthand the deepening love affair of Galeazzo Ciano and Hilde Beetz.

The Germans

Hildegard Burkhardt Beetz—Also known simply as Hilde Beetz or by her code name, Felicitas, she was a brilliant, beautiful, and ambitious young Nazi spy, assigned as her first mission to seduce Mussolini’s son-in-law Galeazzo Ciano.

Joachim von Ribbentrop—Hitler’s foreign minister and Galeazzo Ciano’s German counterpart, he was the man that even the other Nazis hated and was a notorious war criminal. Vain, cruel, pompous, he hated Galeazzo Ciano and was determined to destroy him. Inside the Nazi machinery, there were other senior German officials looking for the opportunity to destroy him, among them Heinrich Himmler and Ernst Kaltenbrünner.

Ernst Kaltenbrünner—Head of Nazi Germany’s main security office (the RSHA) and among the architects of the Holocaust, he was a senior member of Hitler’s inner circle, despised Joachim von Ribbentrop, and was Hilde Beetz’s “big boss” in intelligence operations.

Wilhelm Harster—A Nazi general, war criminal, and director of German intelligence operations (the SD) in Hilde Beetz’s sector during the trial of Galeazzo Ciano and following, General Harster was Hilde’s immediate supervisor in Verona. His trusted liaison officer was Walter Segna.

Eugen Dollmann—An SS man loyal to Heinrich Himmler, he drove a flashy Mercedes, had a vicious attack dog named Kuno, and was a favorite of aristocratic Italian socialites, who didn’t hesitate to ask him for special favors. Among his lady friends were Virginia Agnelli and Edda Mussolini Ciano, both of whom turned to him for help when they found their lives and the lives of their families in danger. His superior in Rome, Herbert Kappler, helped to arrange the Ciano family’s flight to Germany.

Wilhelm HöttlHerbert Kappler’s counterpart in Munich, he worked with German foreign intelligence and helped to arrange the German side of the Ciano family’s flight and their surprise house arrest in Bavaria, where he dispatched a young secretary and translator named Hilde Beetz on her first spy mission, charged with gaining the confidence of Galeazzo Ciano. Höttl would not be the first or the last of Hilde’s supervisors to become infatuated with the beautiful young agent.

The Americans and Others

Frances de Chollet—A middle-aged American socialite and mother, married to banker and aristocrat Louis de Chollet, living in Switzerland, she was the hostess of the “house of spies,” where Allied intelligence and military command mixed with well-placed refugees and foreign contacts under the guise of raucous house parties. Frances was soon drawn into the world of spycraft as an amateur agent by fellow American Allen Dulles, charged with helping to persuade Edda Mussolini Ciano to give her husband’s incendiary diaries to the Allies.

Allen Dulles—A pioneer of American spycraft, he was posted to Bern to lead the Swiss branch of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Career spies Cordelia Dodson and Tracy Barnes were operatives affiliated with his office and assigned to the Edda Mussolini Ciano mission. Short of professional agents during the Second World War, he also turned to private American citizens in Switzerland, asking men and women such as Frances de Chollet to serve their country and the anti-fascist cause with sometimes extraordinary missions.

Werner Balsiger—A senior official with the Swiss police, he was not entirely neutral. Frequently a guest at the house of spies, he assisted the Allies with sensitive matters, and Frances de Chollet considered him and his wife trusted friends.

Paul Ghali—A correspondent for the Chicago Daily News, he was among those who worked informally with Allen Dulles as part of the Allied intelligence circuit in Switzerland. Pulled into the hunt for the Ciano Diaries in order to assure Edda that there was a willing publisher and financial opportunity, he worked directly with Frances de Chollet.


The Inferno

In the middle of the road of our life

I found myself in a dark wood,

Where the straight path forward had been lost.

It is hard to talk of what it was like.

The forest was so wild and harsh and thick

That even the thought of it now frightens me!

It is so bitter, too, that a little more would be the bitterness of death;

But to be faithful to the good that I found there,

I will speak of those things too.

—Dante, The Inferno, I

This is a book about the moral thicket, about a group of people—and a group of nations—lost in darkness.

I have spent a career now writing the stories of women and resistance and war, and sometimes I have written books about inspirational people, people like the Polish heroine Irena Sendler or the French-American wartime partisan Blanche Rubenstein Auzello, who both saw the path of righteousness with a blinding clarity and simply acted. This is not that story, and, apart from the notable exception of a banker’s wife—a socialite living in a failing marriage who found at midlife something so important that nothing that came after mattered—these are not those people.

But this is a story of courage. It is the story of how people who, finding themselves on the wrong path in the middle of their life’s journey, discover the courage to change and to wrestle with the darkness and with the reckoning that follows. A Nazi spy. Mussolini’s daughter. A fascist diplomat. At the story’s heart is Mussolini’s son-in-law, a flawed man, a playboy and Italy’s foreign minister, who found the strength to repudiate fascism and stare down his executioners. It is also the story about his candid wartime diaries and the men and, especially, the women who risked their lives and their families to preserve the truth about the crimes recorded in those papers.

His diaries—known to history as the Ciano Diaries—were written during his time as Benito Mussolini’s second-in-command and part of Adolf Hitler’s inner circle. As “the most important single political document concerning recent Italian foreign affairs in existence,” they record a journey so wild and tangled that even he became horrified with it. Galeazzo Ciano, for all his sins, acted, however belatedly, on that self-knowledge when it came to him mid-war. So did the women who saved some part of his papers from Nazi destruction. The manuscripts they preserved served after the Second World War as crucial evidence at Nuremberg and remain among the most significant historical records of the Third Reich and the intentions of its leaders.

These were men and women who, for the most part, defy neat, polarizing categories. There is a great temptation when writing of the period from 1939 to 1945 to speak of good versus evil, of categories of white and black, clarity and moral darkness. The trouble is that most history, including the history of the human heart, takes place in the shades of gray and among the shadows. You must tread carefully here. How do you tell the story of the courage of a Nazi spy or a dictator’s daughter without making her a heroine, without dishonoring either the six million whom fascism targeted or the forty million civilians who perished? What does it mean, in writing of fascism and Nazism, to be, as Dante imagined of his descent into hell, faithful to the good things, as well as to the horrors? To the moments when those guilty of crimes and grave sins choose a different path forward?

This is not a book that asks for forgiveness for them. Forgiveness belongs only to their victims. But this book does ask us to consider the honest and essential human drama of how people—and, Galeazzo Ciano argued, nations—can recognize and repudiate their errors and attempt some reparation. The race to save the Ciano Diaries is, by any measure, the story of an astonishing rescue mission, worthy of any spy thriller, but it is also the story of how these men and women, in trying to save a set of papers documenting crimes that called out for justice, rescued themselves first and foremost.


The German Spy and
Mussolini’s Daughter

August 31, 1939–February 5, 1943

Where is Ciano? Dinner had been cleared away. Galeazzo Ciano had been expected. The houseguests nursed after-dinner drinks. On this last night of August 1939, the air was hot and still even this late in the evening. Just like always in Rome in the late summer.

But the city beyond the walls of the villa was already unrecognizable. Coffee had been rationed since spring. Workingmen paused now for a caffè corretto—a bitter chicory brew “corrected” with grappa. Irate housewives muttered words tantamount to insurrection as they waited in long lines outside shops, only to find there was no beef or butter. Private automobiles were forbidden, and a creaking bicycle passing through an empty street at night brought curious neighbors to peer out of darkened windows. Something anxious hung in the air. The businessmen in the salon that night knew that their office secretaries quietly kept gas masks tucked away in desk drawers, alongside their powder compacts and lipstick cases. People said to each other privately now that the real shortages were still coming.

Across Rome, all but the most fortunate felt the bite of austerity. In the grand homes of the wealthy and well positioned such as this one, with access to the halls of power, though, only the mood had changed substantially. The guests were gloomy and fretful, and they were focused on just one thing: Ciano.

Everyone in Italy knew Ciano.

Count Gian Galeazzo Ciano—his black hair slicked back and shining with pomade, his clothes elegant; foppish, vain, and ultimately foolish—was the second most powerful man in fascist Italy. He was the son-in-law of strongman Benito Mussolini, as well as Mussolini’s political heir apparent, and as the nation edged closer to the precipice of war that night, Galeazzo Ciano was also still the man in charge of the faltering international relations: Italy’s foreign minister.

A single question held Italy breathless: Would there be war in the morning? Ciano would tell them.

*  *  *

Only Benito Mussolini held more power, and war was not what Mussolini wanted, though he talked a good game. Mussolini had thrown his support behind Hitler’s Third Reich, and now, unless the Allies blinked, Italy risked being drawn into a German-led conflict that Mussolini knew Italians didn’t want and its military couldn’t manage. Still, Mussolini was optimistic. The Allies would bluster and moan. They would ultimately do nothing. They had done nothing when Hitler took control of Austria, then Czechoslovakia. They would not fight now for Poland.

*  *  *

Galeazzo Ciano was not so certain. In fact, Galeazzo had many doubts both about a war and about the Third Reich.

Since the beginning of the year, Galeazzo had been keeping a diary. The uncensored and indiscreet views he recorded in those pages did not paint flattering pictures of his father-in-law or the Germans. He despised in particular his German counterpart, Hitler’s foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, a thin, cruel man with unsettlingly pale eyes, whose lust for power and political bootlicking earned him the contempt of nearly all who met him. The American diplomat Sumner Welles rather undiplomatically remarked of Ribbentrop that “The pomposity and absurdity of his manner could not be exaggerated.” One German counterpart remarked that “One could not talk to Ribbentrop, he only listened to himself”; another described him as “a husk with no kernel.” Here was the kind of man who plotted revenge simply because another hapless lieutenant’s name was mentioned before his own in some bureaucratic document or another. Already many in Hitler’s inner circle were eager to see Ribbentrop stumble. His fall from power would be welcome. In the pages of his diary, Galeazzo summed Ribbentrop up in two simple words: “revolting scoundrel.”

Ribbentrop, in return, hated Galeazzo Ciano. He hated the count’s casual aristocratic manner and his unabashed love of the English. He hated that Galeazzo did not feign deference and how he impertinently questioned the wisdom of the Führer. When the time for vengeance came—and he did love vengeance—Joachim von Ribbentrop would take great pleasure in destroying the Italian foreign minister.

If Ribbentrop was, in the view of the Italian foreign minister, a fool and a sycophant, Galeazzo Ciano had no illusions left about Hitler by the summer of 1939 either. Only weeks earlier, he had met with the Führer and returned, he confided dangerously to his diary, “completely disgusted with the Germans, with their leader…they are dragging us into an adventure which we have not wanted…I don’t know whether to wish Italy a victory or Germany a defeat…I do not hesitate to arouse in [Mussolini] every possible anti-German reaction…they are traitors and we must not have any scruples in ditching them. But Mussolini still has many scruples.”

*  *  *

Mussolini equivocated. One moment, he was full of talk of war and honor and determined to prove to Hitler that he was as eager for imperial expansion as the Germans. The Italians were the heirs to the Roman Empire. He dreamed of a return to sweeping greatness. The next moment, however, reality pressed on Mussolini. Italy was not prepared for this kind of war, and he railed against the pressure the Nazis were placing on him. All that day, Galeazzo had been working feverishly behind the scenes to avert disaster and to prevent the conflict in Europe from exploding. A last-minute British agreement to a peace conference with the Germans took all evening to hammer out. It would solve nothing, but it would buy them some room to navigate. By the time Mussolini had been brought on board, Galeazzo was hours late for his dinner engagement.

When he strode at last through the doors of the salon, eager faces turned toward him, and Galeazzo Ciano smiled brightly. He was a showman. This was his stage. They could sleep well, he assured the guests laughing, confident: “set your minds at rest…France and England have accepted the Duce’s proposals.” The British had blinked after all. Of course. Appeasement was once again the word of the hour. There would be no war tonight. The guests chuckled and refilled their glasses before slowly wandering off to their bedrooms.

For a brief moment that night, Galeazzo was as relieved as anyone. It didn’t last. By midnight, the peace was unraveling again. Galeazzo was back in a ministry car, the smartly uniformed driver swerving through Rome’s narrow streets toward an office overlooking the storied Piazza Colonna. Someone passed Galeazzo a sheet of paper. There were quick steps in the corridor. Word was filtering in now over the diplomatic wires. Hitler was having none of a peace conference. The headlines for the morning papers in Berlin were already at the presses, announcing the German invasion of Poland. By dawn came word that Poland was falling. Galeazzo knew what it meant. Mussolini would not join the Allies. His friendship with Hitler would prevent Italy from taking up arms against Germany. But perhaps Mussolini could be persuaded to remain on the sidelines. In the tragedy that was coming, the only hope was somehow to keep Italy neutral.

*  *  *

For nearly a year longer—until June 1940—Galeazzo Ciano and his allies in Rome would manage that feat. Hitler knew perfectly well who he blamed for this stalling in Rome. He would later say of Galeazzo Ciano, “I don’t understand how Mussolini can make war with a Foreign Minister who doesn’t want it and who keeps diaries in which he says nasty and vituperative things about Nazism and its leaders.” Already those diaries were seriously aggravating Hitler.

In the end, Mussolini could not be tempered. He was at once too weak and too proud. Belligerence was too deeply ingrained in his character. At ten, Benito Mussolini had been expelled from school for thuggishly stabbing a classmate. By twenty, he had stabbed a girlfriend. By thirty, he was the founder of the Italian Fascist party, which rose to power by the simple stratagem of systematically murdering thousands of political opponents so there was no one left to oppose him. By forty, Benito Mussolini had wrested power from the king of Italy through the force of a cult of personality, an act that inspired a younger and admiring Adolf Hitler to attempt a similar Beer Hall Putsch in Germany. Within a year or two, by 1925, he cast aside any pretense and ruled as a fascist dictator, riding a wave of populist support, buoyed by invective and a swaggering, cocksure rhetoric of nationalism and nostalgia that exhilarated his followers and terrified his critics.

Machismo was at the heart of Mussolini’s claim to power. In the world that Mussolini had created, “real men” did not back down from a fight and “real Italians,” men who were heirs to the Roman empire that had conquered the world, conceded to no one. This created a political dilemma that was clear to him: “The Italians having heard my warlike propaganda for eighteen years…cannot understand how I can become a herald of peace, now that Europe is in flames.…except the military unpreparedness of the country [for which] I am made responsible.” Mussolini did not want war. But he would not lose face either.

*  *  *

Galeazzo Ciano fought in every way he knew to keep Italy from entering World War II on the side of the Germans. From the rearview mirror of the twenty-first century, that much is maybe even valiant. For all that, though, it would be a stretch too far to claim Galeazzo Ciano as any kind of hero. He prosecuted other wars, against those far less equipped than France or Britain, with few scruples himself; he was widely and probably accurately considered, like his father-in-law, to have played a role in the extrajudicial execution of political opponents; he enriched himself in office, while much of Italy went hungry; his politics, even when anti-German or anti-Nazi, were not yet anti-fascist. He was, by most contemporary accounts, frivolous, indiscreet in his gossiping, and an incorrigible womanizer. Joseph Kennedy, then the US ambassador in Rome, observed of him in 1938, “I have never met such a pompous and vain imbecile. He spent most of his time talking about women and spoke seriously to no one, for fear of losing sight of the two or three girls he was running after. I left him with the conviction that we would have obtained more from him by sending him a dozen pretty girls rather than a group of diplomats.” The Americans were not the only ones to draw this conclusion. Galeazzo Ciano’s weakness for attractive women had also caught the attention of the Germans.

*  *  *

Still more would it strain credulity to claim Galeazzo Ciano’s wife, Edda, as a heroine in this story, although this is certainly a book about her and about the astonishing courage, intelligence, and resolve she demonstrated in what was to come.

Edda was also someone known in 1939 to every Italian. She had been known to every Italian for at least those eighteen years of Mussolini’s reign, first as the favorite eldest child of Italy’s autocratic ruler and a young hellion, and then, after the celebrity Ciano marriage in 1930, as the glamorous and flamboyant Countess Ciano. Twenty-eight on the eve of war—September 1, 1939, would be, as chance had it, her twenty-ninth birthday—Edda’s reputation was not a sterling one, and diplomats around the world were very much keeping an eye on her as well.


  • "Compelling . . . a tangled web of deceit, corruption, betrayal, courage, and family intrigue. It reads like a spy thriller, moving at a fast pace, and even though the reader knows the successful outcome, the suspense never lets up."—Wall Street Journal
  • "Intelligent and compelling, Mazzeo’s probing book delves intriguingly into the 'moral thicket' into which a group of strangers found themselves plunged during the long, dark days of World War II. A tantalizingly novelistic history lesson."—Kirkus
  • "Mazzeo efficiently relates these complex events and renders empathetic portraits of the story’s main players. WWII buffs will be enthralled."—Publishers Weekly
  • "Reads like a John le Carré novel, too incredible to be true—and yet it is . . . This little-known but very important WWII story has the pacing of a thriller novel with the research acumen expected from this excellent writer."—Booklist
  • "A nail-biting account of state crimes and secrets, real world action pitting spy versus spy and diplomat versus diplomat."—Library Journal
  • "A little-known history finally comes to light in Sisters in Resistance."—Town and Country
  • "Mazzeo’s latest deep dive into fascinating, complicated women . . . A gripping novelistic history lesson that reads like a plot plucked from a Ken Follett or Alan Furst spy novel–except it all happened."—Zoomer
  • “An important, often harrowing, and until now little-known story of the Holocaust: how thousands of children were rescued from the Warsaw ghetto by a Polish woman of extraordinary daring and moral courage.”—Joseph Kanon, Author of Leaving Berlin, Praise for Irena’s Children
  • “Mazzeo chronicles a ray of hope in desperate times in this compelling biography of a brave woman who refused to give up.”—Kirkus Reviews, Praise for Irena's Children
  • “Mazzeo reveals a hotbed of illicit affairs and deadly intrigue, as well as stunning acts of defiance and treachery.”—Brad Thor, The Today Show Summer Reads, Praise for The Hotel on Place Vendome
  • "Tilar J. Mazzeo lifts the veil to reveal a lesser-known narrative of scandal and subterfuge . . . A work of history that reads as enticingly as a novel."—Harper's Bazaar, Praise for Hotel on Place Vendome
  • “An enticing stew of biography and history.”—USA Today, Praise for The Widow Clicquot
  • “The story of a woman who was a smashing success long before anyone conceptualized the glass ceiling.”—New York Times Book Review, Praise for The Widow Clicquot
  • “A magnificent window through which to understand [Coco Chanel] and her milieu . . . Impeccable research and crafting make a seemingly narrow topic feel infinitely important.”—Kirkus Reviews, Praise for The Secret of Chanel No. 5
  • “Vivid, compelling, and unputdownable . . . Eliza Hamilton finally takes her place in the pantheon of remarkable American women who, no less than the men they loved, built this nation.”—Christopher Andersen, #1 New York Times bestselling author, Praise for Eliza Hamilton

On Sale
Apr 18, 2023
Page Count
352 pages

Tilar J. Mazzeo

About the Author

Tilar J. Mazzeo is Professeure Associée at University of Montreal, the former Clara C. Piper Associate Professor of English at Colby College, and the author of numerous works of narrative nonfiction. Her books have been New York TimesSan Francisco Chronicle, and Los Angeles Times bestsellers.

Learn more about this author