The only woman ever to have served in the French Foreign Legion.
I decide the first step in my search for Susan Travers, to find out if she was indeed still alive, was to write to the French Embassy in Washington DC. It was three months before I received a reply but it was great news. Susan was alive and living in a nursing home in Savigny sur Orge on the outskirts of Paris. I immediately wrote to her explaining I was a writer and that I wanted to know about her life. Three weeks later I received a hand written reply from her telling me she would be happy to talk to me.
My partner and I jumped on a plane. In order not to crowd Susan I made the first meeting on my own. My first impression was exactly as I had expected – a tough old English lady who had lived among the French for most of her life. Her refined English accent was classic 1930s well educated British. She lived in a single room apartment with a cat and she was politely welcoming. We chatted about life in the nursing home and her family. My partner joined us for lunch and the following day I began my interview alone with her in her apartment.
I was keen to hear about her war years and she began by telling me how she joined up. She was quite detailed, her memory impressive, but by the time we were deep into the war in Africa I felt there was something missing. She was telling me the same story she had told every other journalist who had interviewed her over the years – a detailed description of the French Foreign Legion’s journey from her point of view. When she described her relationship with General Pierre Koenig as his driver it was all very formal. I found it difficult to believe she had not had some kind of deeper relationship with him. When I questioned her on it she insisted it had been platonic and above board.
The following day we sat down to continue the interview but I couldn’t go on. I told her quite bluntly that, having been a soldier myself, I found it difficult to see how she didn’t have any personal relationships, either with Koenig or someone else. She explained she wasn’t prepared to talk about anything like that because she was married with children. I argued that her husband was dead and her two sons were all grown up. What difference would it make now? This went on for some time. I urged her that history was missing out if she didn’t tell the full story.
She eventually asked me what I intended to do with such a story, if there was one. I said I wanted to write a book about her life and also make an epic movie. She was intrigued and, after some thought, she sat down in front of me and decided to tell me everything. And I mean everything, beginning with her childhood and her days as a debutante, growing up in Cannes. She did indeed have a love affair with General Koenig. What unfolded was a touching, deeply emotional and, eventually, a very sad story. I was listening to one of the great love affairs of the second world war. I had a tear in my eye at the end. It was heart wrenching at times. And as for a movie, I realised I had an epic on my hands.