her monthly allowance greatly reduced from $12 million to $8,000 -- 8/01/17
Today's selection -- from The Hotel on Place Vendôme by Tilar J. Mazzeo. In the fall of 1940, Laura Mae Corrigan, the wealthy widow of James Corrigan, a midwestern steel industrialist, found her monthly allowance greatly reduced from $12 million to $8,000 in today's dollars. In order to stay in Paris she needed to find a way to raise money:
"On September 1, 1940, Laura Mae Corrigan was in a particular sort of predicament. ... the United States government, afraid that her monthly millions -- whether through design or accident -- would fall into the hands of the Germans and aid the fascist war effort, had frozen her income and limited her to a budget of five hundred dollars a month for as long as she stayed in Europe.
Mrs. Laura Mae Corrigan
"Had it not been for this freezing of her assets, she would have preferred to stay on in the capital. She had made plans that depended on it. With a number of other high-society American women and the French Duke de Doudeauville, she had thrown herself into charitable relief work in Paris weeks earlier. Everyone expected a display of wartime concern and philanthropy. Their organization Bienvenue au Soldat -- 'Welcome, Soldier' -- sent care packages to the war wounded and supported hospitals.
"Laura Mae Corrigan found herself if not penniless, then certainly cramped significantly. With Hermann Göring firmly ensconced in her suites at the Ritz, she also found herself homeless.
"Harder yet, Laura Mae understood plainly and painfully that even European high society tolerated her only because of her fortune. Five hundred dollars a month was around eight thousand dollars a month in today's value, enough to keep her comfortably in France but not enough to hole up in the hotel's imperial suite for the duration -- even if those rooms hadn't just been claimed by the German general. It was certainly not enough to sustain her philanthropy in Paris's most posh circles. It all meant just one thing. Laura Mae could stay on comfortably enough -- if only she had the money. ...
"In those last days of summer, Corrigan considered whether she should take up the obvious solution to her financial problems. She could raise quite a lot of cash if she were to start selling her personal items to the Germans. In Paris, the Germans were buying up everything -- from bottles of Chanel No. 5 for sale across the street at rue Cambon to antiques, art, couture, and jewelry. ... And as much as Göring liked to luxuriate in furs and confiscate Old Masters, gems were his true obsession.
"Faced with the choice between returning to America and carrying on in France, Laura Mae made an agonizing decision. She offered her emerald ring to Göring. For it he gave her fifty thousand British pounds sterling -- nearly $2 million in today's figures. Through the Reichsmarschall, she sold a gold dressing case to Adolf Hitler. She liquidated her Renaissance tapestries and all her beautiful French antique furniture. She cashed out -- some said she sold out -- to the Nazis. And she was formulating a secret plan for what she was going to do with her riches.
"She was going to stay in France. She was going to keep on selling her treasures. But she wasn't going to do it in occupied Paris. Instead Corrigan headed for the neutral territory of Vichy, the famous spa town in central France that became the headquarters of the collaborationist French government during German occupation, taking her cash and remaining hoard of luxuries with her.
"At Vichy, she could have rented a lavish mansion or thrown wartime parties to curry favor with French and German officials. But she did something different and unexpected. She checked into a small and decidedly average hotel. Without fanfare or ceremony, Laura Mae Corrigan began funneling all her money -- an average of two thousand dollars a month -- into her charity for wounded French soldiers. She would earn among those veterans the title of the 'American Angel.'
"In time, the chief of the French state, the general Philippe Pétain, learned of it and was moved to award Laura Mae Corrigan with the Legion of Honor -- the nation's highest recognition of service to his country. Historians note that 'Mrs. Corrigan had the distinction of being the only American woman apart from [the African-American showgirl and spy] Josephine Baker to receive this most coveted of French honors.'
"For her efforts in France, Laura Mae would also spend time as a prisoner in the internment camp at Vittel, when the United States entered the war in December 1941 and all neutrality for Americans vanished. When she was released from the camp in 1942, she made her way to London. There she continued to dedicate her fortune to helping wounded soldiers. For that service, the British government awarded her the King's Medal in recognition.
"Elsa Maxwell had said of Corrigan that 'she was not beautiful, she was not educated or particularly clever.' But Elsa also went on to say that 'she was honest, she had vitality, and she had a heart as big as her bank.' "
Noor Inayat Khan
Laura Mae Corrigan wasn't the only female hero of WWII. Click below to read about Princess turned spy Noor Inayat Khan over at Curiosity.com.