Martha Hall Kelly’s discovery of a story in Victoria, on Caroline Ferriday and her lilacs, inspired her to write her first novel—and it quickly rose to the top of the New York Times best seller list.
On an overcast Mother’s Day in May of 2000, Martha Hall Kelly, missing her mother, was feeling as blue as the day was gray. But a crinkled page, torn from a magazine and tucked into her wallet, held the answer. With a suggestion from her husband, Martha drove the two hours to reach the Bellamy-Ferriday House and Gardens in Bethlehem, Connecticut. It was, after all, the subject of the magazine article she had carried around with her since it was published in May 1999, intending to visit as soon as she had the chance.
The title of the article was “Caroline’s Incredible Lilacs,” from an issue of Victoria. It told the story of the lilac gardens belonging to Shakespearean actress and philanthropist Caroline Ferriday and how she, like her mother who had landscaped the property, was a dedicated gardener. Caroline’s fondness for the lilacs impassioned her to expand them in bountiful array, including French varieties in every color from blush to lavender.
When Martha arrived to meet the guide, she would be the sole recipient of his dispersal of historical wisdom. As the tour concluded at the landing outside Caroline’s bedroom, Martha noticed a photograph sitting atop the desk. It was, she says, “a small, black and white photo of middle-aged women lined up in three rows.” Those, the guide told her, were the Rabbits, so named for the limp in their gaits. Mostly Polish women, the injuries came from their time at Ravensbrück, the only all-female concentration camp of World War II.
Thanks to Caroline’s work with the Free France Movement and the connections she had made through her philanthropic efforts, she learned about the Rabbits. Her mission then became to champion the rights of these women, aiding them in receiving reparations and bringing them to the U.S. for medical treatment and rehabilitation.
All the way home, Martha says, “I couldn’t stop thinking about that story and how sad it was that it had become lost in time.” As she began researching Caroline’s life, she uncovered a person who was generous and principled, despite having been raised in an environment of extraordinary privilege. She was, Martha describes, “the last in a long line of tirelessly philanthropic Woolsey women; she never sat back and let a wrong go unchallenged.” The more Martha read about Caroline, the more inspiring she found her.
As she continued to explore the life of this plainclothes heroine, she began traveling to avail herself of Caroline’s three archives—first, to Bethlehem, Connecticut, then to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and finally, to Nanterre, France, where she sat with a translator to aid her in reading nearly one hundred letters belonging to Caroline. As Martha developed her novel, her exploration of the other characters’ lives took her to Poland and Germany as well, her high school age-son accompanying her as videographer.
As Martha researched, she was also learning how to write a novel. Her process, she explains, began “from the minute I woke to midnight when I went to bed, a pile of research books with me.”
Two more books are currently underway, both of them prequels to Lilac Girls—one set in World War I, and the other in the Civil War. Now living in Atlanta, Martha has access to a profound repository of information about the latter war, especially since, as she notes, a battle was fought in her neighborhood.
Text Cynthia Reeser Constantino
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