Bozeman author Mark Sullivan had reached the lowest point in his life the night he first heard the story of a 17-year-old Italian boy in World War II, who risked his life to save Jews by leading them over the Alps and then spied on the Nazis as a powerful German general’s driver.

It was an amazing, heroic story, but Sullivan was skeptical. Why hadn’t anyone heard of this guy before?

That was the start of a decade-long journey that led Sullivan to meet Pino Lella, to uncover the often forgotten story of World War II in Italy, and to write a novel based on Lella’s life.

“Beneath a Scarlet Sky,” released as a Kindle First book by Amazon’s publishing arm, Lake Union, has been downloaded by a quarter-million readers, who have described it as thrilling and given it a five-star rating. It comes out in paperback May 1.

“I think people long for something genuine and inspirational,” Sullivan said. “This story is both.”

This, his 18th book, has been his “passion project,” he said, sipping espresso at Wild Joe’s Coffee Spot. To have it published after 10 years of effort feels like a blessing and relief.

Sullivan, 58, has lived in Bozeman 18 years. He’d had roller-coaster success as a writer when he hit bottom in 2006. His younger brother and best friend drank himself to death. A book he’d worked hard on hadn’t done well. Near bankruptcy, he thought he’d be worth more dead than alive.

Driving to Costco on a snowy February day, he considered driving into the 19th Avenue freeway abutment, until he flashed on his wife and sons. In the parking lot, he put his head on the steering wheel and sent a desperate prayer for help out to the universe.

That night at a dinner party, he heard the first snippets about Pino Lella. Sullivan told his wife it was the best story he’d ever heard. Through Montana friends, he found Lella, and phoned him in Italy.

“I understand you’re an unsung hero,” Sullivan said.

“’I’m no hero. I’m more of a coward,’” Lella told him.

Sullivan used the last of his money to fly to Milan. He spent several weeks getting Lella to talk about events he hadn’t spoken of for 60 years, and visiting places where the 17-year-old had rescued Jews, smuggled a radio, fallen in love and witnessed atrocities.

Then 79, Lella was robust, a gregarious, boisterous Italian and an insane driver.

He downplayed his heroic feats of leading 30 to 35 groups of Jews and Allied soldiers over the Alps to safety in Switzerland, saying any mountaineer could do it. Sullivan said he was dumbfounded when he saw for himself the steep cliffs that Lella had led people across in winter.

The two men visited the Milan plaza where Lella’s boyhood friend was one of 15 partisans gunned down by Italian Fascists under German orders. Lella put his fingers on the monument bearing his friend’s name, stumbled and collapsed sobbing in Sullivan’s arms.

“I’ve never had anything like that happen in all my years as a reporter,” Sullivan said.

He first tried to write the book as non-fiction, but hit major roadblocks. Too many witnesses had died, too many records had been burned. Publishers were gun-shy after scandals over “true” books that turned out to be inventions. Still, he felt it was a story that had to be told and decided to write it as a novel.

As a journalist or historian, “my allegiance is to the facts,” Sullivan said. “Once I’m a novelist, my allegiance is to the emotional arch of the story.” He said he may not have the exact details of Father Re’s life, for example, but he feels he has captured his spirit.

Sullivan estimates 90 percent of the story is real. The avalanche is real, witnessing Mussolini’s death is real, the lovely Anna is real. The Machiavellian German Gen. Hans Leyers — who oversaw a million slaves being worked to death on military fortifications, yet who helped save Italy from Hitler’s scorched-earth plans — is real. The most painful, emotional scenes in the book are partly what Lella reported as fact, and partly what haunted his nightmares.

“Which is real? You tell me,” Sullivan said. “These are events he had buried as deep as he could.”

After the war, Lella hid what he’d done, deeply ashamed of having worn a German uniform and swastika, despite the risks he took as a spy. He, like the rest of Italy, wanted to forget the horrors of war and move on.

Lella went on to lead a remarkable life, selling Italian cars in Beverly Hills, marrying an heiress, becoming a ski instructor to the stars, meeting James Dean, Gary Cooper and Ernest Hemingway. Even his wives never knew the full story of what he did in the war.

“At a deep level, this is a story of altruism, selflessness and faith,” Sullivan said. “He had a moral compass, he was idealistic in a way someone only 17 or 18 can be. ‘Of course I’m going to help people escape.’”

One reason the book resonates with readers is that they ask themselves what they would have done. Be silent? Speak up? Risk their lives for strangers?

Sullivan said he’s determined to see Lella’s story told in a movie and is in talks with people in the film industry.

Next month, Lella turns 91. He has good days and bad days. Sullivan plans to visit Lella in June and bring him the book. Lella’s son, Michael, has started reading Amazon reviews to him.

“He’s a little embarrassed” to hear comments written by strangers, Sullivan said. “At the same time, he’d like to hug every single one.”

Sullivan will give a reading at 7 p.m. May 3 at the Country Bookshelf.

After meeting Lella, Sullivan said, he came home a fundamentally different person, keenly aware of how lucky he was.

“The thing he imparted to me,” he said, “is every frickin’ moment is a miracle.”

Gail Schontzler can be reached at 406-582-2633 or gails@dailychronicle.com.

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