Thursday, September 24, 2009

The only woman in the French Foreign Legion

A bit "soppy" in the telling but still inspiring, when one reads between the lines.

A British tennis-playing socialite became the only woman in the French Foreign Legion, leading a daring, wartime, desert escape. She would have been 100 this week and her story remains inspirational, writes biographer and friend Wendy Holden.

When I first met Susan Travers in a Paris nursing home in 1999, she was a papery-skinned 90-year-old who spoke with a cut-glass English accent. Unable to walk, she insisted that before we began I wheel her to a local restaurant for lunch.

Susan Travers
Travers began her career as a nurse

There can have been few in the suburban restaurant who gave this frail old lady a second glance as she ate her omelette and drank a glass of champagne. Unless, that is, they noticed the small coloured ribbons pinned to the lapel of her tweed suit.

One defined her as a recipient of the Legion d'Honneur, a French military honour established by Napoleon, others were for the Medaille Militaire and the Croix de Guerre. But the last red and blue ribbon was unique - it identified Travers as the only woman in the French Foreign Legion.

Born in southern England as the daughter of a Royal Navy admiral, but raised as a young tennis-playing socialite in the south of France, Travers was among thousands of women who joined the French Red Cross at the outbreak of the Second World War.

Trained as a nurse, she spurned that as being "far too messy" for the more exciting role of ambulance driver, joining the French expeditionary force to Finland to help in the Winter War against the Russians.

Love affair

When France fell to the Nazis she made her way to London and signed up with General De Gaulle's Free French and was attached to the 13th Demi-Brigade of the Legion Etrangere, which sailed for Africa. Volunteering as a driver to the brigade's senior officers, she exhibited such nerves of steel in negotiating minefields and enemy attacks that she earned the affectionate nickname "La Miss" from her thousand male comrades.

Susan Travers and Wendy Holden
Travers and Holden remained friends

After an affair with a White Russian prince who was later killed, she was assigned as the driver to Colonel Marie-Pierre Koenig, and the greatest love affair of her life began.

Attached to the 8th Army and despatched to hold the desolate desert fort of Bir Hakeim in Libya in 1942, Koenig's forces were almost pounded to dust by Rommel's Afrika Korps in what became one of the greatest sieges in the history of the Western Desert campaign.

With Stuka planes, Panzer tanks and heavy artillery at their disposal, the Germans expected to take the fort in 15 minutes. In what became a symbol of resistance across the world, the Free French held it for 15 days.

Refusing to leave her lover's side when all female personnel were ordered to escape, Susan stayed on in Bir Hakeim, the only woman among more than 3,500 men. Her fellow soldiers dug her into a coffin-sized hole in the desert floor, where she lay in temperatures of 51C for more than 15 days, listening to the cries of the dying and wounded.

When all water, food and ammunition had run out, Koenig decided to lead a breakout through the minefields and three concentric rings of German tanks.

It is a delightful feeling, going as fast as you can in the dark
Susan Travers

As his driver, Travers was ordered to take the wheel of his Ford and lead the midnight flight across the desert. The convoy of vehicles and men was only discovered when a mine exploded beneath one of their trucks. Under heavy fire, she was told by Koenig: "If we go, the rest will follow." She floored the accelerator and bumped her vehicle across the barren landscape.

"It is a delightful feeling, going as fast as you can in the dark," she said later. "My main concern was that the engine would stall."

Under heavy machine gun fire, she finally burst through enemy lines, creating a path for the rest to follow. Only stopping when she reached Allied lines several hours later, she noted 11 bullet holes and severe shrapnel damage to the vehicle.

Almost 2,500 troops had escaped with her. Koenig was promoted to the rank of general by de Gaulle. Hardly even saying goodbye, he left Travers to return to his wife and a life of high office.

Travers stayed on with the Legion seeing action in Italy, Germany and France driving a self-propelled anti-tank gun. She was wounded after driving over a mine.

Proudest moment

After the war, she wanted no other life and applied formally to the Legion to become an official member, omitting her gender on the application form.

The man who rubber-stamped her admission had known her in Bir Hakeim. After creating her own uniform, Travers became the first and only woman ever to serve with the Legion, and was posted to Vietnam during the First Indo-China War.

It was there that she met and married a fellow legionnaire, Nicholas Schlegelmilch, who had also been at Bir Hakeim. They had two sons and lived a quiet life on the outskirts of Paris until their deaths.

Marie-Pierre Koenig
Her former lover Koenig gave her the Medaille Militaire

When I met her in the last years of her life, she was finally ready to tell her story only because "everyone was gone and I was left alone with my medals". What she wanted, she said, was for her grandchildren to know how "wicked" she had been.

The book was named Tomorrow to be Brave, after a line from a poem Koenig once read to her which went: "Distrust yourself, and sleep before you fight. 'Tis not too late tomorrow to be brave." She died three years later.

She had witnessed several more wars and watched women routinely join the armed forces and go off to the front lines, surprised that it still raised eyebrows in some quarters.

Her greatest regret, she said, was not to have been born a boy, although she admitted that as such she would never have done half the things she'd done or enjoyed the life she led subsequently.

Susan only ever showed emotion once, when she spoke of her proudest moment. It was in 1956, 11 years after the war. The Legion invited her to Paris to receive the Medaille Militaire for her role at Bir Hakeim.

Promise kept

On a bitterly cold day at Les Invalides, with her husband and two young sons watching, Susan took her place in the middle of the square along with dozens of other Legionnaires, as hundreds looked on.

Standing to attention, she felt her heart lurch as she saw a lone general in full military uniform walking towards her. It was Pierre Koenig, the lover she hadn't seen since the days immediately after Bir Hakeim.

Her hands clenched into fists, she watched as he pinned her medal to the lapel of her coat. Their eyes locked, each one struggling with their emotions, he told her: "I hope this will remind you of many things. Well done, La Miss."

Stepping back, he gave her a brisk salute before marching away. It was the last time she ever saw him. Koenig died in 1970 and Travers waited almost 30 years until her own husband died, to tell their story of love and heroism.

"Wherever you will go, I will go too," she had once told Koenig at Bir Hakeim. It was a promise she kept.

Wendy Holden co-wrote Tomorrow to Be Brave: A Memoir of The Only Woman Ever to Serve in the French Foreign Legion with Susan Travers.

Go to original BBC News Magazine article

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Karlie Kloss - American Vogue Couture Story

Karlie Kloss was photographed by Arthur Elgort for American Vogue's October issue on the streets of Paris alongside French tennis champion Gael Monfils, dressed in all couture by Grace Coddington.

Jessica Miller - Flair Cover

Jessica Miller on the cover of Flair, photographed in NYC by Magnus Unnar.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Real "Norma Rae" Dies of Cancer After Insurer Delayed Treatment

by: Sue Sturgis | Facing South

The North Carolina union organizer who was the inspiration for the movie "Norma Rae" died on Friday of brain cancer after a battle with her insurance company, which delayed her treatment. She was 68.

Crystal Lee Sutton, formerly Crystal Lee Jordan, was fired from her job folding towels at the J.P. Stevens textile plant in her hometown of Roanoke Rapids, N.C. for trying to organize a union in the early 1970s. Her last action at the plant -- writing the word "UNION" on a piece of cardboard and standing on her work table, leading her co-workers to turn off their machines in solidarity -- was memorialized in the 1979 film by actress Sally Field. The police physically removed Sutton from the plant for her action.

But her efforts ultimately succeeded, as the Amalgamated Clothing Workers won the right to represent the plant's employees on Aug. 28, 1974. Sutton later became a paid organizer for the union, which through a series of mergers became part of UNITE HERE before splitting off this year to form Workers United, which is affiliated with the Service Employees International Union.

Several years ago, Sutton was diagnosed with meningioma, a type of cancer of the nervous system. While such cancers are typically slow-growing, Sutton's was not -- and she went two months without potentially life-saving medication because her insurance wouldn't cover it initially. Sutton told the Burlington (N.C.) Times-News last year that the insurer's behavior was an example of abuse of the working poor:

"How in the world can it take so long to find out [whether they would cover the medicine or not] when it could be a matter of life or death," she said. "It is almost like, in a way, committing murder."

Though Sutton eventually received the medication, the cancer had already taken hold. She passed away on Friday, Sept. 11 in a Burlington, N.C. hospice.

"Crystal Lee Sutton was a remarkable woman whose brave struggles have left a lasting impact on this country and without doubt, on me personally," Field said in a statement released Friday. "Portraying Crystal Lee in 'Norma Rae,' however loosely based, not only elevated me as an actress, but as a human being."

Field won an Oscar, a Golden Globe and the Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival for her portrayal of the character based on Sutton. The film in turn was based on the 1975 book "Crystal Lee: A Woman of Inheritance" by New York Times reporter Henry P. "Hank" Leiferman.

Sutton was only 17 when she began working at the J.P. Stevens plant in northeastern North Carolina, where conditions were poor and the pay was low. A Massachusetts-based company that for many years was listed on the Fortune 500, J.P. Stevens is now part of the WestPoint Home conglomerate.

In 1973, Sutton, by then a mother of three, was earning only $2.65 an hour. That same year, Eli Zivkovich, a former coal miner from West Virginia, came to Roanoke Rapids to organize the plant and began working with Sutton, who was fired after she copied a flyer posted by management warning that blacks would run the union. It was that incident which led Sutton to stand up with her "UNION" sign.

"It is not necessary I be remembered as anything, but I would like to be remembered as a woman who deeply cared for the working poor and the poor people of the U.S. and the world," she said in a newspaper interview last year. "That my family and children and children like mine will have a fair share and equality."

For more on Sutton's life and work, visit the website of the Alamance Community College's Crystal Sutton Collection.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Shu-Pei Qin - Chinese Elle Cover

Shu-Pei appears on the cover of Chinese Elle's September issue, on the bottom right...

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Vogue - Fashion's Night Out

Which Next girls can you spot in this 100-model extravaganza for Vogue's Fashion's Night Out??

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Anja Rubik - Time Style & Design Cover

Anja Rubik is on the cover of Time Magazine's 2009 Style & Design issue, photographed in Paris by Ben Hassett. Pick up a complimentary copy at the Bryant Park tents starting tomorrow!

Monday, September 7, 2009

Rosa Parks in Khartoum!

By Nicholas Kristof - New York Times columnist

Published: September 7, 2009
Lubna Hussein, the Sudanese woman charged with the crime of wearing trousers, was spared a lashing but given a fine. Now she is refusing to pay the fine....

When the Sudanese authorities picked up a dozen women in a cafe in July and charged them with breaking the law by wearing trousers, they didn’t realize what they started. Most of the women (some of them actually just girls) accepted what they saw as inevitable and received a flogging. The penalty is up to 40 lashes with a whip that can leave scars, and one teenage girl was so scared she wet her pants.

But one of those arrested that day was Lubna Hussein, a Sudanese journalist who has been fighting back. Lubna had been working for the United Nations but quit her post because she didn’t want to involve the UN or get any special immunity. She spread the word and invited friends to her trial. The judge, not knowing what to do, postponed the trial until today. Lubna helped focus global attention on Sudan’s flogging of women (I wrote about her previously here), and the judge clearly didn’t want further embarrassment. So the judge today tried to compromise by letting Lubna off with a fine of $300, but without a lashing, as my colleague Jeffrey Gettleman reports.

Not so fast! According to Bec Hamilton (who guest wrote the previous item about Lubna on my blog), Lubna says she will refuse to pay the fine. BBC reports from Khartoum that Lubna’s lawyers are trying to persuade her to pay, and that otherwise she will face a month in prison. Lubna’s concern all along has been less her own safety than the need to change the law for the sake of those who are less connected and less protected. She truly is the Rosa Parks of Khartoum — and I also feel enormous admiration for those Sudanese woman who took the risk of showing up at the courtroom today to support Lubna. Some wore pants, and a number were arrested and in at least one case beaten.

I hope Muslim leaders and journalists will speak out strongly for Lubna. Obviously, any initiative to flog women for wearing pants doesn’t reflect real Islam but a caricature. Indeed, that’s a blasphemy as great as any Danish cartoon, and it does more to harm the image of Islam around the world.

Those women like Lubna are truly holding up half the sky. The West can be most successful in bolstering human rights around the world if we aren’t out front lecturing other countries on what to do, but if we stoutly support those people like Lubna who are trying to bring about change from within. So, go Lubna! In Arabic, shidda haelik — be strong!

Go to original article

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Kendra Spears + Katie Fogarty - Numero Tokyo

Kendra and Katie are together again in the newest Numero Tokyo, photographed by Sebastian Kim in the Financial District.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Now Representing...

Meet the great Danes! Please welcome Malene, Pernille, and Charlotte to Next New York.

Malene Pernille


Next New York's Spring/Summer 2010 Show Package

Here it is, our Spring/Summer 2010 Show Package, featuring 28 incredible faces. Click on the first image to see each girls' portfolio.