by Germaine Shames
Behind every great love song is an unforgettable woman
In the final weeks of 1938, in the shadow of Kristallnacht and imminent war, a heartsick Italian maestro wrote a love song called “Tu Solamente Tu.”
Its lyrics lamented his forced separation from his wife, the Hungarian ballerina Margit Wolf, in the wake of Mussolini’s edict banishing foreign Jews from Italy. The song, first recorded by Vittorio de Sica in 1939, catapulted to the top of the Hit Parade and earned the composer the moniker the “Italian Cole Porter.” The German version, “Du Immer Wieder Du,” would be performed by Zarah Leander, the foremost film star of the German Reich, and its English counterpart, “You, Fascinating You,” by the Glenn Miller Army Air Force Band.
Twenty-two years would pass before the maestro and his ballerina again met face-to-face.
You, Fascinating You begins as a backstage romance and ends as an epic triumph of the human spirit.
“A love story reminiscent of that of my grandparents. I could not put it down.”
Kinga Nijinsky Gaspers
“Germaine Shames’ beautiful depiction of the life of Margit Wolf and Pasquale Frustaci is told with such vivid and haunting detail, it’s as if the reader is propelled back in time to witness a devastating journey of shattered dreams, juxtaposed with the strength and courage of the human heart. A tragic story, beautifully written.”
“America’s quintessential ballerina”
“Germaine paints a vivid and accurate portrait of the world of ballet in pre and post-war Europe. The epic drama expected on the ballet stage is dwarfed by the tragic real life events of her ballerina heroine, Margit Wolf. Penetrating descriptions of political brutality and the prepossession of romantic love, an ever present theme in classical ballet, make for a page-turning, impelling read.”
Janet Panetta, Ballet Master Pina Bausch
“Shames captures the essence of a ballerina with such expertise in her riveting story. Dancers succeed by creating beauty from effort; this book, too, shows that exquisite art can be made from history’s hardships.”
Elana Altman, soloist dancer, San Francisco Ballet
“An epic story and a true story. Margit Wolf’s life is the kind of character journey that makes for great movies.”
Howard Allen, “the Script Doctor”
“Shames’ faithful, carefully researched portrayal of (ballerina Margit) Wolf’s blindness and history’s cruelty makes this a compelling read.”
Elizabeth Evans, author of The Blue Hour
“Compelling, heart-wrenching, and heroic.”
Jim Bencivenga, Christian Science Monitor
“They say love is blind, and so is a ballerina’s resolve — in You, Fascinating You Shames captures both.”
Georgia Reed, actress and dancer
“A gripping story and beautifully constructed. The book is a novel but based on true events and characters, and Shames’ assiduous research over five years is evident on every page. This is a story of great loss and a life lived without choices or freedom but with tremendous heart. The story will make a spellbinding film.”
“Faultless and understated. For anyone unfamiliar with the aftermath of World War II in Europe or simply in search of a human story well told, this is most highly recommended.”
Historical Novel Society
“A graceful, haunting book that brings its small part of history to life vividly. Perfectly realized on the page.”
A. F. Stewart
An Interview with Author Germaine Shames
What inspired you to write You, Fascinating You?
The short answer is Margit Wolf. As the book’s tagline says, “Behind every great love song is an unforgettable woman.”
I met Wolf’s son, Cesare Frustaci, at the home of mutual friends, Hungarian émigrés, in the winter of 1990. As we got to know each other, details of his childhood began to emerge—the malnutrition he suffered during World War II, the “shoes” he fashioned for himself from horses’ feedbags, the corpses alongside which he would awaken each morning… He seemed to be describing the perils of an orphaned waif abandoned to his fate, yet he was the son of Pasquale Frustaci (aka the “Italian Cole Porter”), a composer and conductor whose star, while the war cast Europe into darkness, had never shone brighter. How then, from the age of seven, did Cesi end up alone on the streets of Budapest and the battlefront of provincial Hungary in the middle of the worst carnage the world has known?
The answer arrived in my mailbox a dozen years later: a videotaped oral history Cesi contributed to Yale University. It told the story of a Jewish Hungarian ballerina who marries an Italian maestro in fascist Italy and bears him a son—a ballerina who inspires an international anthem to longing only to fade from history without a trace. I sat riveted, as if hearing the libretto of a ballet or an opera, but this was memory—the memory of a hungry boy searching for his mother.
Determined to give this forgotten ballerina her moment in the spotlight, I joined Cesi in his search.
You refer to You, Fascinating You as a cross between The Red Shoes and Europa, Europa. How so?
Like the former it centers on an impossible love between a ballerina and a composer, and like the latter its consequences leave a seven-year old boy alone on the streets of Europe during the most desperate months of the Second World War.
Have you a background in ballet?
As a child I dreamed of becoming a ballerina. Like Margit Wolf, I began ballet training at the age of four—and there any comparison ends. I was hopeless! My love of classical dance, however, has endured.
Is You, Fascinating You another Holocaust book?
YFY tells the hidden story behind a timeless love song. Ironically, while the eponymous song enjoyed peak popularity throughout Europe, the woman who inspired it fought for her life in a series of concentration camps. The book, however, spans several decades and does not deal directly with the horrors of surviving Auschwitz or Ravensbruck (which, I believe, are best described in works written by survivors themselves).
Is You, Fascinating You a love story?
YFY begins as a backstage romance between a Jewish ballerina and an Italian composer during Mussolini’s fascist regime and ends as an epic triumph of the human spirit for a mother and her son. Margit’s actions demonstrate the lengths to which a woman will go to protect and honor those she loves. As she says, “People who love do the impossible all the time.”
But I’ve never heard of Margit Wolf. Why does her story matter?
There have been innumerable artists—dancers, actors, authors, musicians, and playwrights—whose careers were blighted by persecution and oeuvres cut short by war. Imagine for a moment all the songs that will never be composed, ballets never performed, books never written… History has yet to reckon the loss of these great talents. I dedicate You, Fascinating You to their memory.
Wolf’s story unfolds amid a complex welter of world events little known to contemporary audiences. How did you research You, Fascinating You?
By the time I took on this project, Cesare had already spent years assembling his mother’s papers and filling in the blanks with research of his own. I invested an additional five years poring through archives, corresponding with scholars, visiting the story’s many settings, and interviewing people who had known Margit and Pasquale.
Your last published novel, Between Two Deserts, written when you were a correspondent in the Middle East, explored the lives of ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances. Is You, Fascinating You an expansion of this theme or a departure?
Both. Extraordinary events engender extraordinary drama and will always play a part in my fiction. In recent years, however, two developments have had a major impact on my work. First, I returned to college to study film and have completed three feature screenplays. It is no coincidence that editors and critics have called You, Fascinating You “cinematic.” Second, in recent years I have surrendered to my passion for the arts. Nearly all of my protagonists are now artists of one sort or another—in my next novel visual artists, and next screenplay composers.
Who are you hoping to reach with You, Fascinating You?
For the past several years Cesare has been sharing Margit’s story at schools, community centers, churches and synagogues—and receiving the same enthusiastic response from all these diverse groups. I would like to think I have written a book that reaches across barriers of religion, generation and politics to touch the hearts of readers everywhere.
Tu Solamente Tu
The original hit single, recorded by Vittorio De Sica in 1939
Du Immer Wieder Du
One of several Big Band recordings popular in Germany from 1941 through the end of the war
You, Fascinating You
Popular during the last years of the war in England, where it was discovered by the Glenn Miller Army-Airforce band and added to the repertoire
Check out our Reading Group Guide for You, Fascinating You.