Mona Parsons' father Norval owned and ran the Parsons and Elliott Home Furnishing business, on Wolfville's Commercial Street. He had been tolerant if condescending about the acting: perhaps it was something a young woman could do until she married. But Mona was convinced she had a professional calling. Norval was skeptical until Mona began to appear on the stage in Wolfville, and finally he agreed that she should follow her dream, which meant New York, and, she hoped, Broadway.
Well, she never quite made it to stardom. She danced briefly as a chorus girl in the Ziegfield Follies, but audition after audition never got her The Great Role; that was still to come. And when it did it was a matter of life and death.
Mona took nursing training, and went to work in a doctor's office on Park Avenue. One day her brother Ross called, from Nova Scotia: he had met a visiting Dutch businessman whom he liked very well, one Willem Leonhardt. Leonhardt was on his way to New York: would Mona show him around?
Willem Leonhardt and Mona Parsons hit it off. In late 1937 they married, took a six-month motoring honeymoon all across Europe, returned to Amsterdam, bought land, built a dream home – Ingleside, which is still there – and moved in. There was no need to skimp on anything, and for nearly two years, even after the outbreak of World War II, Mona Parsons Leonhardt was the reigning princess of the social scene. Willem commuted to work in Amsterdam, in a series of expensive cars.
And then the war broke out. Mona, Willem, and a small group of trusted friends formed a resistance group, intending to rescue and hide Allied airman – mostly British at this stage – who had survived being shot down over Holland (there is a brilliant 1943 film about this – One of Our Aircraft is Missing – Peter Ustinov's first film role). Willem and Mona decided to build a secret apartment in the attic at Ingleside, where the fliers could hide out until arrangements were made to get them secretly to sea and a midnight rendezvous with a British submarine.
But it did not last. The resistance cell had been infiltrated by a Nazi mole. A trap was set at Leiden, a mid-point for the British airmen on their way to the coast. A fellow resistance worker, Bernard Besselink, was found with two Brits en route to Leiden. Besselink was executed.
Willem decided to go underground. They just assumed that Mona would be protected by her gender, and with Willem away on an "extended fishing trip" the Nazis would leave her alone. So she prepared for a visit, which came within days, offered the investigators brandy and cigars, told them the fiction about Willem's fishing trip…and ended up in jail.
Here is where the acting became a matter of life and death. What motivated her is not clear; perhaps it was simple Nova Scotian pride and dignity. But she decided never to let them see her fear, to maintain her poise, her dignity. She would be…above it all.
Once they had found Willem – it took three months – the Nazis no longer needed Mona, and she came to trial. And when the moment came before that Nazi court, Mona Parson's skills as an actress were put to the test. Within minutes she was sentenced to death by firing squad.
She would break down and weep and plead, of course: that's what condemned women did. They all knew that. But they did not know Mona Parsons. She stood erect. A young soldier came to take her by the arm and escort her to the prison van. She shook off his hand. She looked coolly at the presiding judge, and said imperatively, "Meine Herren!" ("Gentlemen!")
They all looked up, amazed, at this calm, dignified figure. "Meine Herren… Guten Morgen." And left the court, head high. The judge came up to her on the way out. "Dear Lady," he said. "You have great courage. Enter an appeal. I will recommend it." Mona did so, and her sentence was commuted to life in prison.
For a while she was in the Venershen prison in Amsterdam, then in a number of different prisons and camps in Germany, ending up at Vechta, east of the Dutch border, between Oldenburg and Osnabruck. There is a casino in Amsterdam where the Venershen prison used to be, and Vechta, still a prison, specializes in addicts and is famous among penologists for a pioneer needle exchange program. When Mona Parsons was there it had its own airstrip, and comprised two separate buildings, one for male and one for female prisoners of war. Mona got to know a fellow Dutch citizen, the 22-year-old Baroness Wendelien van Boetzelaer, who was in solitary for always trying to escape. The young woman was always ravenous. Mona gave her part of her own potato ration. The friendship became very solid very quickly. When Wendelien was released from solitary, they became cellmates.
And now the next piece of theatrics began. Together they planned an escape and wrote the parts they would play. The Baroness spoke impeccable German; Mona did not. She would feign mental limitations and a speech impediment, and Wendelien would do the talking. They managed to scrounge extra clothing, and hide it away, so that they could disguise themselves as German farm women and walk across Germany to the Dutch border.
And that is exactly what they did. The break came on March 24, 1945, when the prison was bombed, and in the confusion they were able to shed their prison garb, put on their woollens and walk away.
Their assumed characters got them shelter with some farmers as they walked westward. Near the border they were separated, and Mona crossed alone. To her relief and astonishment that part of Holland was now under the control of the North Nova Scotia Highlanders, and, recovering in hospital, Mona received a visit one day from an old Wolfville friend, Major General Harry Foster of the North Novies.
And when, a few years later, her husband Willem died from the injuries and illnesses of his prison years, she went back to Wolfville, and ran into Harry Foster again. When you visit the Willowbank Cemetery there, just off the Ridge Road, you will find her tombstone.
Curiously, what you will not find on that stone is the slightest reference to her extraordinary courage, her daring escapades, her citations from Britain's Air Chief Marshall Tedder or U.S. President Eisenhower. All you will see on that stone, is Mona Parsons, Wife of Major General Harry Foster.
Perhaps there are reasons for the silence. But in the year 2000 that silence was finally broken by historian Andria Hill, in her warm and gripping biography of this extraordinary woman. Mona Parsons, of Wolfville, Nova Scotia.
Patrick Watson's latest book is Wittgenstein and the Goshawk.