Louise and Ida Cook were two ordinary sisters who had no idea that they’d become extraordinary heroes. They are the compelling heart of Westhampton Beach author Isabel Vincent’s phenomenal new book, “Overture of Hope.” Set during the period leading up and leading into World War II, Vincent’s deep research and stunning ability to weave facts into compelling storytelling brings to life the Cook sisters, unassuming civil servants and devoted opera fans, whose passion for music lead them not only to the inner circle of the most famous singers of their time, but to a mission and a calling to save many from perishing in Nazi Germany.
If you’re looking for a last-minute Christmas or Hanukkah gift for your favorite reader, this must-read is the sleeper hit of the year, and is being sold exclusively at Red Jacket Books. We sat down with Vincent, who also recently gave a reading and talk at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center, to learn more about the story and her process.
Southforker: How did you first find out about the Cook sisters?
Isabel Vincent: I found out about the Cooks from a friend who had gone to yad vashem in Jerusalem and noticed their memorial. He had no idea who they were and when I heard about the story I was immediately captivated by these ordinary extraordinary sisters.
SF: There is so much incredible research and depth in this book. How difficult was it to track down all this information and where did it take you?
IV: Research was insane and took five years. [I] consulted archives in London, Vienna, Berlin, Munich, Rome, Frankfurt and Jerusalem. The greatest discovery was a trove of letters Ida Cook had written to her idol, Rosa Ponselle, housed in the New York Public Library at Lincoln Center.
SF: How long did it take you to write the book? When did it feel finished?
IV: It never feels finished! There are always more things to discover. The writing doesn’t take me long, it’s the research that was the biggest challenge!
SF: You did a lot of writing at the Westhampton Beach Library, and you’ve worked on other books of yours there before as well. What do you like about that branch?
IV: I love libraries! I do a lot of work at WHB library because it has really large seminar tables and it’s practically next door.
SF: In your book, you make the point that Oskar Schindler and Raoul Wellenberg get a lot of attention for their brave efforts in saving Jews in Europe during World War II and the Holocaust. Why do you think the Cook sisters and their incredible story didn’t get the same spotlight?
IV: Oskar Schindler and Raoul Wallenberg were made Righteous Among the Nations—declared heroes in Israel— around the same time that the same distinction was given to the Cooks. But Ida and Louise were rather modest and plain women that history forgot. I think it was largely because they were self-effacing and not glamorous that films and documentaries were not made about them. At one point Hollywood’s biggest producer wanted to do a film about their adventure but I think he felt there wasn’t enough glamor and romance to sustain a 1960s audience.
SF: What inspires you about Ida and Louise?
IV: Ida and Louise’s ordinary extraordinaryness inspires me— their very practical wisdom and courage. They just got to it and didn’t let anything stand in their way when people asked them for help.
SF: It’s hard not to read this and find parallels between current events and repeating the horrors of the past, What do you hope people walk away from this book knowing?
IV: Heroes are not these rarified beings and that it’s everyday acts of courage that can change people’s lives. I found the sisters to be complex characters and that’s another reason I was attracted to them. They lived these boring civil servant lives and lived for the fantasy of opera, their adventures rescuing people in the Third Reich and later through Ida’s romance writing, which they both worked on.
I was also intrigued by the complex heroism of Clemens Krauss, who was a tremendous opportunist and made his career under the Nazis but also worked to save Jews.