Susan Winkler photo cropped 275x333Susan Winkler was born in Portland, Oregon and educated at Bennington College and Stanford University, L’Académie in Paris and the University of Geneva. She was trained as a journalist at Fairchild Publications in New York and has authored the four editions of The Paris Shopping Companion. Susan currently lives in Portland, Oregon and where she pursues a lifelong interest in art.

1940, France: The eccentric Rosenswig-Assouline family is immersed in a belle-époque lifestyle filled with art and antiques in their splendid chateau, Le Paradis. The Matisse portrait of Lili’s mother hangs in their Paris salon. The day before ardent young lovers Lili and Paul plan to marry, the Nazis invade Paris, and the family is irrevocably thrust into the pressure cooker of war. The family flees toward Lisbon, but at the border Paul is detained and compelled to join the French army, while Lili is forced ahead to America. As their fortunes fall, Lili and Paul and the others scramble to do what they must to survive while trying to adapt to the emotional devastation. When the beloved Matisse portrait is looted by Nazi leader Hermann Göring, their fate is ultimately interwoven with that of their portrait. This is their search for lost love and lost art, set to romance and mystery, inspired by history.

portrait_of_a_woman_cover_final-3Portrait of a Woman in White by Susan Winkler is an engaging search for lost family, lost love and lost art that was inspired by the author’s family history. And while the Rosenswig family is fictitious, other key players and events include the historic, from Matisse and Göring to French museum spy Rose Valland. To purchase Portrait of a Woman in White (2014, She Writes Press), visit: Portrait of a Woman in White.

“Fiction depicting one family…serves deep truths about individuals and societies. We are invited to consider how art is valued or debased, and what is transitory in our lives, what permanent. A compelling journey.” —Dr. David Altshuler, Founding Director, Museum of Jewish Heritage

“I’ve read Portrait with great enjoyment. What a beautiful story.” —Douglas Preston, New York Times bestselling author of White Fire.

Excerpt from Portrait of a Woman in White: A Novel by Susan Winkler. Copyright © 2014 by Susan Winkler. Used with permission of She Writes Press. All rights reserved.

INTERVIEW: Portrait of a Woman in White

Portrait of a Woman in White is the story of an imaginary piece of art, and what could have happened to it in the context of historic characters and events. The Rosenswig and Assouline families are fictitious, but stories like theirs are true.

From 1940 to 1944, the Jeu de Paume museum [in Paris] was a so-called “concentration camp” for an estimated twenty-two thousand pieces of art that the Nazis looted in France from more than two hundred Jewish-owned collections. Hermann Göring, it was recorded, made twenty-one visits to the Jeu de Paume seeking works for his personal collection. Many of those were sent to his favorite residence, Carinhall.

The secret record keeping of Rose Valland led to the restitution of more than forty-five thousand pieces of art stolen during World War II. After war’s end, she was awarded the Medal of the French Resistance. After the war, she continued her work to recover plundered art. She died in Paris in 1980. A plaque in her honor hangs today near the entrance of the Jeu de Paume.

After departing Carinhall, Göring was accused by Hitler of treason, stripped of power, and placed under state arrest. Two weeks later, he was captured by the Allies and jailed for a year while waiting to sit trial in Nuremberg for war crimes and crimes against humanity. He was convicted and sentenced to death by hanging. Shortly before execution time, he was found lying dead on the floor of his cell, one eye open and the other shut. A tiny vial on the floor held traces of cyanide.

What I dream of is an art of equilibrium, purity, and tranquility, devoid of upsetting or troubling subject matter. —Henri Matisse, French Artist (1869-1954)

AWP: You are the author of Portrait of a Woman in White. What inspired you to write this book?

SW: Years before writing Portrait, I read a groundbreaking exposé called The Lost Museum, by the journalist Hector Feliciano. It was about WWII art looting in France by the Nazis, who had “legalized” taking art from Jewish collectors, like the Rothschilds, and stockpiling it to fill Hitler’s grand museum when Germany had won the war. I wanted to illustrate that story as fiction: the story of a single made-up family and what could have happened to them. But I was busy writing my Paris guidebooks. One day I heard a moving radio memoir told by an old woman who had to leave her first young love in Europe when her family escaped to America during WWII. These threads of tales I’d found intriguing wove together to become my story, a tale of lost love that pivots on a Matisse portrait stolen by the Nazis in France.

AWP: Your research is exemplary. How did you accumulate and obtain this information? Was the information primarily in French? What were the challenges, and how did you uncover these stories behind your novel?

SW: I began by reading all I could find about the Nazi treasure hunt for art in France, in books and old news articles. I read about megalomaniac Nazis like Reichsmarschall Herman Göring and his team of art raiders, then about Rose Valland, the French museum curator who spied on them and later was recognized as a heroine of the Resistance, and about Henri Matisse and his gallery dealer Paul Rosenberg. I read in both English and French, but the French were not yet talking much about these taboo issues.

In the end, these historic characters all served their purpose by providing the buttress, the supporting roles for the novel’s “real” characters, who turned out to be my fictional French family of art collectors. They took hold of their own stories, surprising me by developing and reacting to each other entirely on their own. They showed me their mannerisms, their obsessions, their fears; how they interacted as a family, with their lovers, enemies and friends; and finally what they would do when they were pushed to their limits by the unforeseeable pressures of war, dislocation and loss. They simply took over, and I had to make room for them.

AWP: You are making some very interesting discoveries about WWII through research and archives. Are you finding an underlying message that is especially significant for us today?

SW: Perhaps that the emotional legacy of war and its scars can be passed down through the generations. Looted family art is a part of that broader picture.

AWP: How have you been able to tell this story so that what people feel isn’t hatred or despair, but the larger sense of the fragility of life?

SW: I did not want to dig into the darkest depths of the Holocaust. This is a story about loss and the ability to reinvent oneself, but told in a gentler, sometimes beautiful, landscape that doesn’t lose sight of its ideals. I believe the circular structure of the story provides a soft landing for the reader.

AWP: On any occasion were you warned that you should not attempt to tell this story? What was this warning and by whom?

SW: There has been a history of silence on the topic of the Nazi occupation of France generally, and especially about the treatment of Jews during that period. The plaque on the Jeu de Paume museum honoring Rose Valland’s contribution to WWII art restitution was not hung until 2005. When I discussed what I was writing about with friends, one art dealer with a family history of several generations in France and Europe told me it was “a can of worms”; but a French woman artist reacted with, “Someone has to do it.”

AWP: You have great insights into human nature and the sublime experience of social connectivity, a theme that runs throughout your book. What is the most surprising thing you learned about the Parisians? The Germans? The Americans?

SW: I am always surprised by the number of personal histories that come out when readers talk to me about the book. This novel is far more universal than I expected. Parisians, Germans, and Americans all want to talk about their families’ WWII experiences, though most of these readers were not yet born. While their family stories may have to do with art, all have to do with a closely felt sense of love or loss or reinvention, and in some cases guilt, that has been passed down to them.

AWP: At times you intimately describe the selling of dreams. How do you unfold this story of transformation from the beginning of the occupation to its end?

SW: I think you’re referring to the story of the Parisian art dealer (SPOILER ALERT) who had promised to watch over and protect a neighboring gallery whose Jewish owners had fled Paris during the Occupation. To require a character to maneuver around the ever-threatening Nazi presence while holding at bay the opportunity for great financial gain if he collaborates offers a canvas that any writer would welcome.

AWP: What did a “degenerate art” culture during World War II imply for writers, artists, philosophers and political activists living in France, or exiled from their native country?

SW: Degenerate art was all art deemed un-German by the Nazis. Generally, this included all modern art, Jewish art or art by Jewish artists. Those who created such art or had such ideas were banned from expressing themselves. At first, many such artists, writers and philosophers fled to Paris, a haven for creativity. But when the Nazis entered Paris, that life was over. Some made it to America, others hid out in rural France, and others, out of self-interest, worked with the Nazi regime.

AWP: How is the story of an estimated twenty-two thousand pieces of art that the Nazis looted in France from more than two hundred Jewish-owned collections itself remembered and retold in French culture? What do they hide and what do they preserve?

SW: There is a recent push from the international community to restitute looted art to the generation who remembers it hanging on their walls, but few of that generation are left. So it falls to subsequent generations who may or may not be aware of their family treasures. In France, as elsewhere in Europe, it is a sticky issue. With recent publicity surrounding looted art, some found on museum walls, France has been embarrassed into becoming more pro-active in matching art with original owners. French minister Corinne Bouchoux has been encouraging France to “make a bit more effort,” which it is now doing.

AWP: What was the most surprising thing you learned about the war from a distance of 74 years at its start?

SW: That art is a first casualty of war, whether it be in France or in Iraq; that the primary role of a museum and its curators is to protect the art at all costs. There is a scene in Portrait of a Woman in White depicting the clandestine evacuation of the Louvre, a momentous task, and a part of the story that had to be told.

AWP: How did your interest in World War II unfold?

SW: This book sprang more from my interest in France and in art. I had fallen in love with France when I saw the movie Gigi as a young girl, in my hometown of Portland, Oregon. Portland, with our 3 black and white TV channels, was all I knew, so Paris offered another window onto life that I was determined to explore one day. So of course I later lived in France and studied literature and art. My interest in WWII really started when I began to research this book.

AWP: Is there one statement that channels everything you have uncovered about World War II?

SW: The history of a war, any war, is not just a documentable chessboard of power plays. It comes down to the human stories, and each one is personal and deeply felt.


AWP: When you started writing Portrait of a Woman in White, did you have a sense of what you wanted to do differently from other novels and memoirs about World War II that you had seen?

SW: Yes. I knew I wanted to explore those human realities, the human ability to reinvent oneself or not, and the value and meaning a collector might find in his art.

AWP: Why did you feel that now, in particular, would be the right time to publish your book, Portrait of a Woman in White?

SW: It was a happy coincidence. I had finished writing my book, and worried when the first few publishers told me that “the time of the WWII novel is over.” They were wrong. Current events have made it more timely than ever, as this past year has been filled with news about Nazi stolen art: the unfolding saga of the reclusive Cornelius Gurlitt’s hidden art trove discovered in Munich, which you may have read about; the publicity surrounding George Clooney’s film The Monuments Men; and many current cases claiming restitution of Nazi looted art.

AWP: What do you think it is about Portrait of a Woman in White that makes readers connect in such a powerful way?

SW: What I hope is that my story and my characters bring to life the overlooked pages of that bit of history, which are not mentioned in the news reports or the Clooney film. Those are the passions that animate my characters. Readers tell me that they fell in love with the characters, as I did.

AWP: What inspired you toward a life and career so dependent on words and the ability to communicate?

SW: It has always been satisfying and fun for me to work with words. But words are merely the tools used in writing. Equally important is structure. You are trying to solve a huge puzzle, to create an entire intricate world that will work in the end, like the mechanism of an old clock. And that is fascinating.

AWP: Could you talk about your process as a writer?

SW: Every writer has to discover a process that works for her. For this book I knew the beginning and the end (though not the final nuances). The history of Nazi art theft provided a structure that I could hang the fictional story upon. I believe that much of the story and detail developed in my subconscious. Characters grew and pushed scenes to develop, and the narrative in between opened up slowly like a fan as I wrote.

AWP: What do you think today’s novel writers bring to the travelers’ experience?

SW: A novel should bring the most intimate social experiences to a traveler, like a homestay experience, one that you would never see from the tour bus. In historic novels, the reader can time travel. When I travel, I see everything through the prism of what I have read and the art I have experienced beforehand.

AWP: What was the last book you read? Would you recommend it?

SW: I just finished The Children Act, by Ian McEwan. He is a master writer and storyteller, always exploring new territory. I recommend it highly.

AWP: Your life is extraordinary. What’s next?

SW: Hmmm…I’m thinking of time traveling to France in the 1960’s.


All The Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr

Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt

The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Anything by Erich Maria Remarque, the German WWI writer

Acknowledgements: Bailey Roberts, senior Linguistics major at Macalester College in St. Paul MN and Translation/Editing intern with A Woman’s Paris.

You may also enjoy A Woman’s Paris® post French Impressions: Ronald C. Rosbottom’s “When Paris Went Dark” – Marking the 70th anniversary of the Liberation of Paris. Marking the 70th anniversary of the Liberation of Paris, Rosbottom’s When Paris Went Dark weaves a rich tapestry of stories to rediscover from the pavement up the texture of daily life in a city that looked the same but had lost much of its panache. This expansive narrative will fascinate readers who are interested in the history and continuing legacy of World War II.

French Impressions: Tilar J. Mazzeo’s “The Hotel on Place Vendôme” – 1940s sex, parties and political intirgue at the Ritz in Paris. This riveting account uncovers the remarkable experiences of those who lived in the hotel during the German occupation of Paris, revealing how what happened in the Ritz’s corridors, palatial suites, and basement kitchens shaped the fate of those who met there by chance or assignation, the future of France, and the course of history. Tilar J. Mazzeo, is author of the New York Times bestseller The Widow Clicquot, and The Secret of Chanel No. 5.

French Impressions: Barbara Will on Gertrude Stein, Bernard Faÿ, and the intellectual life during wartime France. From 1941 to 1943, Jewish American writer and avant-garde icon Gertrude Stein translated for an American audience thirty-two speeches in which Marshal Philippe Pétain, head of state for the collaborationist Vichy government, outlined the Vichy policy barring Jews and other “foreign elements” from the public sphere while calling for France to reconcile with its Nazi occupiers. In her book, Unlikely Collaboration: Gertrude Stein, Bernard Faÿ, and the Vichy Dilemma, Barbara Will outlines the formative powers of this relationship, treating their interaction as a case study of intellectual life during wartime France. 

French Impressions: W. Scott Haine on the origins of Simone de Beauvoir’s café life and the entry of France into WWII. “Café archives” seldom exist in any archive or museum, and library subject catalogs skim the surface. Scott Haine, who is part of a generation that is the first to explore systematically the social life of cafés and drinking establishments, takes us from the study of 18th century Parisian working class taverns to modern day cafés. A rich field because the café has for so long been so integral to French life. 

French Impressions: Elaine Uzan Leary on the American Women Volunteers in Wartime France. Drawn to the story of Anne Morgan, daughter of the prominent financier J.Pierpont Morgan, and the 350 American Women—all volunteers—who left comfortable lives in the United States to devote themselves to humanitarian aid in France. Elaine Uzan Leary, Executive Director of the American Friends of Blérancourt (Château de Blérancourt in Picardy, France) shares this extraordinary story, which is based on the exhibit entitled “American Women Rebuilding France, 1917-1924” on tour in the United States 2014-2015.Belle Époque France 

A Woman’s Paris — Elegance, Culture and Joie de Vivre

We are captivated by women and men, like you, who use their discipline, wit and resourcefulness to make their own way and who excel at what the French call joie de vivre or “the art of living.” We stand in awe of what you fill into your lives. Free spirits who inspire both admiration and confidence.

Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only. Fashion is in the sky, in the street, fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening. — Coco Chanel (1883 – 1971)

Text copyright ©2014 Susan Winkler. All rights reserved.
Illustrations copyright ©Barbara Redmond. All rights reserved.