Drue Leyton, American Actress and Member of the French Resistance
America’s appetite for novels about World War II has always been robust. Particularly popular in the decades following the war were books with visceral combat scenes. Today, many World War II narratives are about people far from the front lines fighting a different battle, one of survival and resistance. We see it frequently in women’s fiction, where we read about those left to protect and raise children alone at home or to defend their community with little to no resources. Other women who take on more unconventional roles like flying planes or working as spies and code breakers are equally prevalent in today's market. Women served in myriad roles during World War II, many of them ground-breaking. Since then, they've not been content to be side-lined in anything.
Emblematic of just how varied women’s roles were during World War II is the story of Drue Leyton, an American actress who joined the French Resistance. Drue comes to life for modern readers in Good Night From Paris, historical fiction inspired by her true story. Readers are in good hands with author Jane Healey, who has written two prior World War II novels.
The novel opens in October 1939. Drue is living in Paris. Dubbed the next Greta Garbo, her star is on the rise. Impending war in Europe, however, threatens everything.
With the Nazis at the Maginot Line surely intending to invade France, the entire country is on tenterhooks. Healey writes:
"…just beneath the gorgeous façade lurked the palpable tension of a city whose citizens were on edge, clutching their gas masks everywhere they went. You could see it in the expressions of many of the patrons sitting at the cafés—the worry in their eyes, the serious conversations about a brother or a son who had gone to war or about the recent air raids and blackouts… the topic that was on every Parisian’s mind—whether to leave the city for the coast or someplace of relative safety or stay in the capital."
Drue chooses to stay in Paris even though by this time, most Americans have returned to the States or drifted to safer shores to wait out the conflict. France is her home now. She is married to Jacques Tartière, a French-American film star. She's alone, however. Eager to defend his country, Jacques has signed up to work as a French liaison for British troops in Brittany, leaving Drue to manage on her own. Hollywood offers her a role in a Charlie Chan film in America. Drue is tempted. Leaving would be the prudent thing to do. But just as the film offer arrives, the French Ministry of Information proposes a different role for Drue as broadcaster for a radio show being transmitted to America.
At the time, still reeling from the effects of World War I, Americans were ambivalent about the war unfolding across Europe. Isolationism and anti-Semitism were also growing in the States. The U.S. government’s official position of neutrality didn’t help matters. President Roosevelt was reluctant to take Americans into war. France and Great Britain, on the other hand, were desperate to engage America as an ally. Without the U.S. it was hard for even the most optimistic among them to envision victory.
Drue doesn’t need much time to think about the Ministry’s offer. She quickly sees how she can use her celebrity status for good by telling America what is happening in France and accepts. Overnight, she becomes America’s eyewitness to war, her voice traveling the trans-Atlantic air waves five days a week from midnight to six a.m. French time. With each successive broadcast, Drue’s words are increasingly influential. They begin to resonate with listeners, so much that Hitler issues a death threat. If the Nazis find her, Drue is to be executed.
You’ll have to read Good Night From Paris to find out what happens next. What I can tell you is this: Drue Leyton is a little-known hero of World War II. And although a work of fiction, the novel does a fabulous job telling her story. The book is well-researched and highly engaging.
So Who Was the Real Drue Leyton?
Drue Leyton was born Dorothy Blackman in Somers, Wisconsin on June 12, 1903. Her father was a mining engineer, moving his family occasionally for his work, including Mexico for a period during Drue’s growing-up years. After graduating from high school, Drue attended post-secondary in Switzerland. Her first love, however, was acting, and she returned to the States to fulfill her dream of becoming an actress.
Drue Leyton - Photo credit: https://www.listal.com/viewimage/21155255
Drue married young and divorced almost right away. She went on to star in several films with Charlie Chan and in at least one Broadway production, Green Grow the Lilacs. In 1938, she married the French actor Jacques Tartière (stage name Jacques Terrane), twelve years her junior. The couple moved to Paris, then later to Barbizon near Fontainebleau Forest, approximately forty miles southeast of Paris.
When war came to France, Jacques Tartière really did join the French Resistance, first by working for the British, then later by signing up for the French Foreign Legion, where he was promoted to sergeant major.
While her husband was away, Drue really did become a broadcaster for the French Ministry of Information. Sadly, Jacques Tartière died on June 20, 1941, in Damas in the Syrian Arab Republic, but not before distinguishing himself in service to the Resistance.
Now a widow, in the novel, and in real life, Drue waged her own battle for the Resistance in France and was arrested and sent to Vittel Internment Camp in the Vosges Mountains of France, which housed British and American citizens. Intent on being released so she could go back to working for the Resistance, Drue feigned having cancer and convinced a camp physician to release her for medical reasons.
Immediately following her departure, Drue moved to Barbizon, where she became involved with an underground group whose mission was to aid downed airmen, help them get medical care, and arrange transport to get them back to safety. In her role, Drue fronted as a disabled farmer, a brilliant move, for the farm provided her and her fellow resisters and the men they harbored with food. Moreover, the farm’s somewhat private location provided them with shelter and access to escape routes. The work was dangerous. If caught, authorities would have arrested and possibly killed Drue.
Drue’s story is a fascinating one, made all the more so by the accounts of six of the airmen Drue assisted from the 419 Squadron of the Royal Canadian Air Force—the Moose Squadron Evaders (1941-1945). We must credit this squadron with telling Drue’s incredible story. Below is a photo of them from a website maintained by a descendant of the squadron.
On the website dedicated to the 419th, one can read very detailed information regarding how Drue helped airmen to safety in Barbizon. The site credits her and others with her assisting a total of at least 150 airmen and refers to Drue as an “accomplished woman”. Below is an excerpt about the experience of Lorne Frame, a member of the 419th:
"After jumping from a low height of 1,200 feet from KB718 and landing in a forested area, Frame found himself wandering in the thick forest. Even with the aide [sic] of the small compass and flashlight he carried, he had inadvertently arrived at what appeared to be the burning wreckage of an aircraft, possibly his. Unless he wanted to be noticed, he had to leave the area. Now he followed an easterly direction in the dark, stumbling over hidden obstacles until dawn, when he came to an abrupt halt: ahead, some men were working in a field. Ever cautious, he decided to observe them first from a tree rather than approach them. But tired men are careless men, and eventually the workers noticed him. Rather than run to authorities, they motioned him over with indications that they would help. Frame glanced around the field, worried that every stack of hay might be hiding a Nazi, but with the men’s continued urging, Frame bit back his apprehension, jumped down, and approached them. The workers chattered urgently in French, which Frame didn’t understand, so he pulled out his map and lifted his shoulders. A man who identified himself as Louis, pointed out their location, and also indicated that Frame should stay hidden up in the tree until he returned. Still gesturing, Louis trotted off. For Frame, wedged and vulnerable in his tree roost, every minute dragged on like an hour, every sensibility said, run, you’re being set up. But he had no idea where to run, so he stayed put. After what seemed an eternity, Louis came back, accompanied by a guide who safely brought him to Villa L’Ecureuil, home of Drue Tartiere."
I urge you to read the full write-up about Drue’s efforts here on the squadron’s website. What a treasure for fans of history. Sites like this are rich in historical detail and express the dedication of men and women in the armed services in a way like nothing else can. Although the men revered Drue and the other resisters who risked their lives to help them, the men’s accounts take the story far beyond Drue into their own experiences. The pictures and stories belong to them. The accounts keep their stories alive in the way they want them to be remembered.
Drue Leyton also wrote about her experience. In 1946 she penned The House Near Paris. Sadly, the book is no longer in print but can be found in some electronic archives. Drue lived another half a century until passing away on February 8 in 1997. By then she had returned to America and was living in California. Good Night From Paris does credit to Drue’s story, and I recommend it to anyone who likes fiction based on real people and actual events.
World War II really did produce the Greatest Generation. It’s why novels about the war and how so many lives were impacted will never go out of fashion. If you like books like this, Jane Healey hosts a Historical Happy Hour that is great fun to watch live or view at you leisure. Jane invites other historical fiction authors to discuss their books, providing listeners with an endless supply of titles to add to their TBR (To Be Read) list.
If you'd like to receive my next blog post about fascinating women in history and the fiction that tells their stories directly in your emailbox, be sure to sign up below. I'd love for us to stay connected.
Thanks for reading. I’m glad you’re here.
Nancy (N.J.) Mastro
 Jacques Terrane. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jacques_Terrane  United States Holocaust Museum. Retrieved from https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/vittel  http://www.419squadron.com/home.html