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Q& A with author James MacManus

What drew you to writing a book about Harry Hopkins, one of America’s forgotten heroes?

It was my History tutor at St. Andrews University in Scotland who first drew my attention to Harry Hopkins. He was a cigar smoking Texan whose name I have sadly forgotten. We were studying  the FDR presidency and it became clear that in the unlikely figure of Hopkins FDR had found a trusted counselor, a confidante  and a friend who actually moved into the White House and took  up residence in Abe Lincoln’s old study on the second floor.

I say unlikely because Hopkins was a real Washington outsider, politically very much a man of the left from the mid-west, who had been appointed to spearhead some of the more radical programs of the New Deal. Republicans hated him for his political views and Democrats distrusted someone who had never been elected to office yet occupied a key role in FDR’s inner circle.

This was the man who the President decided to send to London at the height of the Blitz in Jan 1941 to find out whether Britain could survive. The American Ambassador, Jo Kennedy, had been withdrawn a few months earlier after suggesting that Britain would never win the war and should negotiate peace terms with Hitler. FDR did not trust Kennedy and sent Hopkins to find the truth.

On the face of it this was an extraordinary choice. Hopkins, as noted, was possessed of radical views and was openly hostile to the idea of the British Empire, as indeed was his boss in the White House. He had never been to London and what he knew of Winston Churchill he naturally disliked.

The relationship that developed between these two very different men fascinated me then and now – hence the book.

After Hopkins’ incredible contribution to American and British history, why do you think most people don’t even know who he is?

Historians have understandably concentrated on the two great figures that dominated the wartime transatlantic relationship, FDR and Churchill. Both men were geniuses of giant character who laid big shadows over the events of the time. Inevitably this meant that the vital work of the men and women who served them tended to be overlooked by journalists at the time and historians subsequently. 

Added to that, as I have said, Hopkins was never popular in Washington and never wrote a book or left a memoir to tell his story. Thus for a long time his role did not receive the attention it deserved.  The fact that FDR used Hopkins on two wartime missions to see Stalin in Moscow and that President Truman sent him back to Russia in 1945 has even led to suggestions that Hopkins was a Soviet agent. 

Distinguished academics have dismissed the accusation but it is an index of the ill feeling toward the man in certain political circles that such an accusation was made in the first place. As far as the UK is concerned  Hopkins is, and always has been, a little known figure whose appearance at Churchill’s side in 1941 has to some extent been eclipsed by the tumultuous events that followed and American figures such as Eisenhower who drove the war to its conclusion. Also bear in mind that FDR died before he could write his memoirs and thus never was able to pay tribute to his faithful friend and counsellor.

Where did you do your research for the book?

The source material for Churchill’s leadership of Britain in 1941-41 is voluminous in published works, in libraries and online. The best account of Hopkins’ relationship with Churchill and FDR at that time is Robert E Sherwood’s two volume history The White House Papers of Harry Hopkins to which I pay warm tribute in the acknowledgements. I worked largely at home in London with these sources.

How did you choose the title for your new book, SLEEP IN PEACE TONIGHT?

This is the first line of a little poem I wrote for the main female character, Leonora Finch. She sent it anonymously to Hopkins after he had ended his first visit to London and gone back to Washington. By then he and Leonora were lovers – in my book that is.  Leonora wanted to remind Hopkins not to  forget London, the blitz and indeed her.

While you were researching the book, did you uncover some interesting facts about the main characters – Harry Hopkins, President Roosevelt and Winston Churchill – that you opted not to include in the book?

No. I put all the anecdote and stories I found about the three main characters into the book –FDR’s passion for stamp collecting, Churchill’s wonderful knock-a-bout relationship with his valet Sawyers and Hopkins’ appalled reaction to the lack of heating in grand English country houses.

Why do you suppose President Roosevelt had such faith and trust in Hopkins?

They were politically attuned of course and Hopkins fought with success for FDR’s  the radical New Deal programs.  More importantly Hopkins filled a void in Roosevelt’s life. It is not often realized how lonely FDR was in the White House. Eleanor was his wife in name only, his children had grown up and his close political associates from the old days were gone. Hopkins was almost a surrogate son to FDR  and a  window into a world  the wheelchair bound President could not enter – the glamourous world of theatre, nightclubs and beautiful women. FDR loved talking policy with Hopkins  but equally he loved all the gossip. He wanted him around all the time which is why he invited him to live in the White House.

Some well-known figures make special appearances in your novel including CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow and Hollywood actor Jimmy Stewart. Did they have any influence on Hopkins? 

Murrow certainly did because he was a great newsman and a charming personality who made an impact on all who met him. But don’t forget this book is not history but a novel and while I have made much of the relationship between the two men in London actually they Hopkins and Murrow met more often back in Washington after Pearl Harbor. Jimmy Stewart did indeed travel to Britain to fly bombers against Germany and a remarkable wartime career ensued. I do not know if he and Hopkins actually met in  real life  but London was a small much bombed city then and I would have thought it likely.

One thing you don’t shy away from in the book is Winston Churchill’s heavy drinking. How much do you suppose the Prime Minster drank in a day and did his drinking ever interfere with running the country?

The secret to Churchill’s drinking was that he always had a glass, at least half full of whatever he was drinking at the time, close at hand. It was a great comfort to him. But he did not just drink one glass after another. He drank lightly but steadily from lunchtime to late at night but he did so in a disciplined way. That said he drank far more that we imagine possible today but he had the constitution for it. And of course he matched his appetite for alcohol with his delight in fine food. That probably helped absorb the alcohol. Don’t forget that everyone in wartime London smoked and drank to excess. It was that kind of time. No, it did not seem to affect Churchill’s wartime leadership. The hard drinking rich food loving Churchill beat the vegetarian teetotal Hitler. There must be a lesson for us all in there somewhere.

Leonora Finch. What was the importance of creating a fictional character in your novel?

The truth is that Churchill desperately wanted to know what Hopkins was telling the President about his London visit. Leonora and her romantic relationship  with Hopkins was a device to convey this to the reader and also to show a warmer more passionate side to a man under huge pressure.

Was there a real Leonora Finch in Hopkins’ life? Did he have a fling or flings in London even though he was engaged to Louise Macy?

Not that I know of but it would not surprise me if Hopkins cast rather more than an eye over the ladies in London. Eisenhower certainly did when he arrived a couple of years later. It is also true that the Blitz broke down social barriers in London and there was something of a sexual revolution in the city- and elsewhere, as the bombs fell.

What surprised you most about Harry Hopkins? And what do you think might have happened if the United States didn’t join forces with Great Britain?

I think the speed with which Hopkins grasped the dire plight of the UK when he arrived was surprising for someone who had never been to Britain and disliked what he knew of Churchill. As for the US intervention, if that had not happened we on these islands would be speaking German now. That is why we owe Hopkins so much, he was instrumental in moving the President to see the dangers Britain faced from Hitler and his Nazi regime.

How long did it take you to write SLEEP IN PEACE TONIGHT?

One year from start to finish including research.

Do you have any special rituals or habits when preparing to write?

I time myself with an hour glass and make sure I do three hours every morning. In the afternoon and evening I correct that work – using the same timer. I can only do five hours combined – after that a bottle of wine gets opened.

Of all the literary genres, you’re drawn to historic figures. What is it that you find so fascinating about these people?

Every answer to the problems we face today can be found in the successes and failures of great men and women in the past. But too often we don’t look back and learn. Too many people seem to think Henry Ford was right when he said “History is bunk.” Too few agree with William Faulkner who said in Requiem for a Nun :”The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

What is one thing you hope readers will take away after reading your book?

We were lucky at a time when Hitler was bidding to conquer the western world that we had leaders such as Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. And both those great men were lucky to have the services of Harry Hopkins.

About the Book

It’s January 1941, and the Blitz is devastating England. Food supplies are low, Tube stations in London have become bomb shelters, and U-boats have hampered any hope of easy victory. Though the United States maintains its isolationist position, Churchill knows that England is finished without the aid of its powerful ally.

Harry Hopkins, President Roosevelt’s most trusted adviser, is sent to London as his emissary, and there he falls under the spell of Churchill’s commanding rhetoric—-and legendary drinking habits. As he experiences life in a country under attack, Hopkins questions the United States’ silence in the war. But back home FDR is paranoid about the isolationist lobby, and even Hopkins is having trouble convincing him to support the war.

As Hopkins grapples with his mission and personal loyalties, he also revels in secret clubs with newsman Edward R. Murrow and has an affair with his younger driver. Except Hopkins doesn’t know that his driver is a British intelligence agent. She craves wartime action and will go to any lengths to prove she should be on the front line. This is London under fire, and it’s only when the night descends and the bombs fall that people’s inner darkness comes to light.

In Sleep in Peace Tonight, a tale of courage, loyalty, and love, and the sacrifices one will make in the name of each, James MacManus brings to life not only Blitz-era London and the tortuous politics of the White House but also the poignant characters and personalities that shaped the course of world history.

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