Just before the start of World War II, American press agency Associated Press expanded into Europe at around the same time as a Dutch nurse, Nel Slis, changed her career from nursing to journalism. She would go on to become AP’s first correspondent in The Hague, earning herself the nickname Hellcat of The Hague. Irish journalist Caroline Studdert wrote a book, using that nickname for the title, to tell the story of Slis’ colourful life.
First published in 2013, with a second edition in 2022, Hellcat of The Hague starts with Slis’ birth on the island of Goeree-Overflakkee, south of Rotterdam. Now easily connected to the city and surrounding islands via a series of bridges, when Slis was born in 1913, the area was much more isolated.
The book details her childhood, her work as a nurse in Finland before making the switch to journalism. Initially working for the BBC, she ultimately moved to AP where she covered major moments in history, including the creation of the European Union and the first cases heard at the International Court of Justice at the Peace Palace in The Hague.
As a woman breaking a lot of barriers in a predominately male environment, she faced her share of mistreatment but was known for pulling absolutely no punches. Journalists working today, whose time overlapped with Sils’ in The Hague, recall that even later in life she was a force to be reckoned with.
The author met Sils while working for Dow Jones in Amsterdam. Inspired by Sils’ legendary reputation, Studdert began working on the book a decade after Sils’ death in 2001.
Studdert uses her personal interviews and experience with Slis, as well as Slis’ personal papers, archival materials and her extended catalog of work with the AP. The author complains, sometimes overly so, that she wasn’t able to do more interviews with Slis, whose memory was unreliable at the end of her life as a result of dementia. The book does lack Slis’ perspective in some areas, leaving Studdert to speculate why she made certain choices.
Sils’ story is a fascinating one and required reading for anyone working in the media landscape in the Netherlands.
You can buy Hellcat of The Hague at the American Book Center.
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