Syracuse University Magazine

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Martha Hall Kelly ’79

Piecing Together a Heroine’s Tale

Nearly 17 years have passed since the gray Mother’s Day when Martha Hall Kelly toured the Bellamy-Ferriday House and Garden in Bethlehem, Connecticut. There, she came across the story that inspired her first novel, Lilac Girls (Random House, 2016), an instant New York Times bestseller. The house was once the summer home of New York socialite and philanthropist Caroline Ferriday. Kelly had carried a magazine clipping about the estate’s beautiful lilac gardens for months before finally visiting there in May 2000. “My mother had just passed away and I was very sad,” says Kelly, a Newhouse School alumna who had put her advertising career on hold to raise her three children. “And my husband said, ‘You should go do something fun. Why don’t you go see that house, and I’ll take care of the kids.’” 

The only person on the tour that day, Kelly found herself captivated as she walked around the home and learned about the remarkable woman who had lived there. At tour’s end, she was drawn to a photo on Ferriday’s desk of 50 or so middle-aged women, lined up in rows, smiling. The docent explained they were a group of Polish women who survived experimental leg surgeries performed on them during their imprisonment at a Nazi concentration camp. The women were called “the Rabbits” because they had been treated as laboratory animals and for the way they hopped about following the operations due to their leg injuries. “When Caroline Ferriday learned about the Rabbits [in the late 1950s], she started a campaign to bring them to America for medical care,” Kelly says. “Here was this woman who was so wealthy she could do whatever she wanted, but she dedicated her life to these people. And I thought, ‘She’s amazing. It’s too bad this story got lost.’”

Kelly began returning to the house whenever she could, getting to know the site administrators and situating herself in the root cellar of one of the barns, poring over Ferriday’s archives. “I tried to keep it a secret that I was going up there. I thought people would think it was weird. Which it was,” says Kelly, who also holds a master’s degree from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern. “I was just really interested in Caroline’s life as well as in the Rabbits. And any little piece of the puzzle I could put together was so much fun to find out.”

It was the first phase of what became a decade-long research process that also took her to France, Germany, and Poland. When she and her family moved to Atlanta five years ago, she began writing the book, a fictionalized account of an unsung heroine. “After all of that time studying Caroline and absorbing her, it just came out. And it felt really good,” Kelly says. “I think maybe because I didn’t know anyone in Atlanta, I created this fictional world. I loved my characters, and I loved spending time with them.”

The book’s success has propelled Kelly into another kind of new world as a novelist, one rich with opportunities to engage with appreciative readers, which she loves. She’s also begun work on two prequels to Lilac Girls about earlier generations of women in Caroline Ferriday’s family who played courageous roles in American history. “This has been a surreal, wonderful thing that has taken over my life,” she says. “I kind of stumbled on this story and followed my instincts. And thank God I did.” Amy Speach