"The Lipstick Bureau: A Novel" | Reviewed by Pat Sainz
“The Lipstick Bureau,” by Michelle Gable, is based on the story of a truth-to-life woman born in Czechoslovakia who acquired American citizenship when she married an American officer during World War II. She joined the United States Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and went to work for the Morale Operations in Rome.
As I read this novel, I was reminded of the power of literature to teach because I had certainly never heard of a branch of government called Morale Operations (MO). The purpose of the MO was to produce propaganda designed to weaken the spirits of the enemy. Great creativity was needed to get the false information across enemy lines.
The author has based the story on Barbara Lauwers. The book’s fictional character, Niki Novotna, loosely resembles Lauwers. Just like the real-life Lauwers, Niki receives the Bronze Star for her work at the end of WWII.
Niki marries an officer to escape the decimation of her town by the Nazis. She is recruited by the army for covert operations when her husband’s superiors learn of her ability to speak seven languages. Her husband is not pleased.
Niki ends up in war-torn Rome, recently liberated by the United States Army. Her small group includes a cartoonist, a printer, a researcher and a writer. She translates the propaganda pieces into German, meticulous work since any slip-up of wording, or references, could undermine the entire operation.
Spreading disinformation to the German troops included the dissemination of false leaflets, pamphlets and graphics with the purpose of lowering enemy morale. Bribery, blackmail, and forgery were often required. The information was usually dropped by planes into enemy territory, or distributed along train routes through various cities. Much of the propaganda involved spreading rumors that Hitler was giving up or that he and his lieutenants were living the high life while soldiers in the field were starving, cold, and dying.
Disillusioned German POWS join active German troops to distribute MO paperwork at great risk to Nikki's unit and the entire project everywhere. In the end, her efforts led to 1,000 German soldiers surrendering to American forces.
Ezra is the artist who works with Niki in MO operations. His experiences are based on the famous “New Yorker” cartoonist Saul Steinberg. Several other characters are based on real people including William Joseph Donovan, founder of the MO.
Readers interested in World War II, stories or those drawn to stories of brave women, will relish “The Lipstick Bureau.”
Michelle Gable is the author of six novels including “The Bookseller’s Secret.”