It was a seemingly mundane snapshot: two middle-aged women in Burberry trench coats and colorful scarves carrying out routine shopping. A closer inspection, however, would reveal their odd, repetitious tasks — one of the women affixing small pieces of paper onto the windshields of nearby cars as her associate glanced furtively around to ensure no one would notice.

It was July 1944. The pair were Lucy Schwob and Suzanne Malherbe, wealthy, avant-garde artists from France and romantically betrothed since their teenage years. Now residents of Jersey, the largest of the inhabited Channel Islands in the English Channel, they had, in 1940, watched helplessly as the Nazis invaded their adopted home, a British Crown dependency near the coast of Normandy, France.

The notes Schwob and Malherbe were disseminating — on windshields, in mailboxes, in the pews of churches and even, most daringly, in people’s pockets — were painstakingly composed on slips of cigarette rolling papers because real writing paper was rationed during the war. They were meant for the eyes of their German occupiers. Written from the perspective of a fictional conscientious objector, one, for example, proclaimed: “Hitler leads us . . . Goebbels speaks for us . . . Göring gorges himself for us . . . Ley drinks for us . . . Himmler? Himmler murders for us . . . But nobody dies for us!” The missives, which Schwob and Malherbe called “butterflies,” were part of their larger, years-long anti-Nazi campaign. They were meant to prick, humiliate and demoralize the soldiers so they would defect from the war.

“Could an artist really make a difference and change people’s minds? Could ‘butterflies’ make a difference?” So asks author Jeffrey H. Jackson in his new biography of Schwob and Malherbe, “Paper Bullets: Two Artists Who Risked Their Lives to Defy the Nazis.” Jackson, a professor of history at Rhodes College in Memphis, says Schwob, a writer, and Malherbe, an illustrator and photographer, first came to grapple with that existential query as young women in the salons they held in their flat back in Paris. The book, at once tense and tender, is a scrupulously researched account of their lives. It is the first biography to comprehensively weave together their lifelong romance, radical art and fearless political resistance during World War II.

Jackson sets the stage for their bohemian outlook by documenting how the couple held court in Paris with the likes of British writer Aldous Huxley and artist Salvador Dalí, until the tumult of right-wing extremism and anti-Semitism that began roiling the French capital in the 1930s forced them to escape to Jersey in 1937. Schwob and Malherbe did not know that trouble would follow them to their erstwhile refuge — a massive farmhouse with an overgrown garden facing St. Brelade’s Bay.

Before delving into the couple’s efforts to combat their island’s occupiers, Jackson ensures that readers understand what intimately moved them to risk capture and the possibility of imprisonment or even death. He points out that long before the war, their love for each other had inherently pushed them out of the mainstream of society. “Lucy and Suzanne began to see themselves as outsiders, bound to each other and fighting the world around them. Unknowingly, they were cultivating a set of behaviors and attitudes that would help them confront the Nazi occupation.”

The couple went back and forth between their birth names and the gender-fluid artistic identities they established for their creative work — a mix of photographs, essays and drawings that deconstructed and reimagined notions of gender, sexuality and the very meanings of “feminine” and “masculine.” Malherbe chose “Marcel Moore” as her print name; Schwob chose “Claude Cahun.” While Mahlerbe was not Jewish, Schwob was of Jewish origin on her father’s side. Her name choice allowed her to explore a new gender identity and to embrace her Jewishness, since Cahun is the French version of “kohen,” the Hebrew word for “priest.” As Jackson relays, their conservative Jersey neighbors saw Malherbe and Schwob as slightly eccentric women who sunbathed in their yard, or even on the beach, wearing little to nothing. “When they sported men’s clothing and took their cat for walks on a leash, skeptical islanders surely looked askance.”

The pair toiled away in their farmhouse for four years, surreptitiously creating thousands of butterflies, leaflets and even a fake magazine, on a typewriter they were forbidden by the Nazis to possess. Schwob and Malherbe had no way of knowing that their work was having the much-desired effect of fostering tremendous anxiety and paranoia among the highest ranks of the German secret police on the island. Those authorities ultimately used an informant to weed out their resistance efforts. One night during a quiet dinner, a fist pounded on their door. Malherbe and Schwob were captured and imprisoned. From there, Jackson winds readers through their often devastating journey to make it out alive at the end of the war.

In the epilogue of “Paper Bullets,” Jackson theorizes that the valiant efforts of Malherbe and Schwob have probably been largely overlooked because they were not in France and were therefore not linked to the well-known accounts of the French Resistance. Their story, however, is no less significant, in part because it vividly portrays what Jackson calls “the complexities of ground-level responses to conquest” — the day-to-day, gut-wrenching decisions made by civilians under occupation. The couple’s experience also amplifies the importance of telling the stories of lesbians, women, artists and intellectuals in the historical context of World War II.

Yet, even with its piercing wartime depictions of rationing and hunger, intimidation and depravity, and nail-biting acts of resistance, “Paper Bullets” is at its core a story of devotion. As Jackson sums up at its close: “Lucy and Suzanne remind us that a private life lived in struggle can prepare us for the larger battles to come. And they show us that love can carry us through just about anything.”

Paper Bullets

Two Artists Who Risked Their Lives to Defy the Nazis

By Jeffrey H. Jackson

Algonquin.
236 pp. $27.95