- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 25, 2001

A HERO OF OUR OWN: THE STORY OF VARIAN FRY
By Sheila Isenberg
Random House, $26.95, 349 pages, illus.

It seems suitable in this new season of America at war to celebrate one more time Varian Fry Andy Marino's book, "A Quiet American," came out a scant couple of years ago the man who, working almost alone in Marseille in 1940-41 rescued between 1,000 and 2,000 European artists, writers and other intellectuals, most of them Jewish, from the clutches of Vichy France and the Nazis.
During World War II, New York City had a thriving, squabbling population of French intellectuals and many of them were there only because of Fry. Prominent in the company was Andre Breton, the Surrealist "pope," drinking great quantities of red wine and refusing to learn English. Among refugees from other countries there was the painter Marc Chagall, who for the longest time Fry couldn't persuade that he was in any danger on European soil.
American culture was enriched beyond calculation by the men and women whom Fry snatched from under the nose of the enemy: Heinrich Mann (brother to Thomas), Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp, Hannah Arendt, Andre Masson, Franz Werfels and his wife, the legendary Alma Mahler that was, Kurt and Helen Wolff, Lion Feuchtwanger, and Max Ophuls who would go on to make, after the war, "The Sorrow and the Pity," a defining film about France under the German occupation.
Was Fry's country our United States grateful for his valorous work in France under circumstances that were, to say the least of it, intimidating? No. The State Department was trying to maintain good relations with Vichy, and in the person of assistant secretary Breckinridge Long undermined Fry's efforts, refused to renew his passport except for returning home and ordered him back to the United States after he had been13 months "in country," as our warriors now like to say. Concluding his terminal interview with Fry in June of '41, U.S. Consul Hugh Fullerton asked, "Why do you have so many Jews on your staff?"
Nor was the American public very sympathetic to the plight of European Jews, the government for example having refused to accept 20,000 Jewish children from Germany. Fry should have known this, of course; his wife Eileen (seven years his senior) had tried to tell him before he left New York for Marseille in August '40. But he was pigheaded, and besides that the only volunteer for the job his employer, the Emergency Rescue Committee, had. Fry had not listened to his wife, and during his time in France the committee would become tired of him, both on account of his independent ways and pressure being brought to bear by the State Department.
Sheila Isenberg, an author and professor of English at Marist College, may have painted a slightly more detailed portrait of the quirky Fry in her "A Hero of Our Own" than did Mr. Marino (not that his was not a good book, it was). Fry was a singularly unlikely hero, a boy and young man who got into scrapes at school (Hotchkiss) and at Harvard. He was always getting suspended or expelled, and he accidentally killed a boy while driving a car. There were difficulties involving women.
Problematic but unquestionably bright, Fry founded the Hound and Horn with Lincoln Kerstein, then broke with Kerstein when the latter sought to broaden the review's scope with a football story. He became a respectable Greek and Latin scholar and a good pianist, but it was during his Harvard years that Fry "began to behave in a manner that would continue to the end of his life, acting as if he were smarter than everyone else, right when all others were wrong. His righteousness was difficult to take."
The tragedy of Varian Fry who really was a hero, anyway you cut it was that in a life of 60 years, he had one good one, the time he spent in Marseille sticking it to the Gestapo and Vichy.
Arriving in the port city via Lisbon and Barcelona after flying from New York, the young American installed himself at the Hotel Splendide, converting his bedroom to office space and starting to hire a small local staff. He needed people to find and serve as guides on routes over the Pyrenees to Spain (and on to Lisbon), and others to navigate the beaucratic channels of Vichy. He had brought money with him to grease wheels and provide financial support to refugees flooding into the city from the occupied part of France and elsewhere.
The U.S. consulate had some emergency visas, which Eleanor Roosevelt helped to make available, and Fry went to work. To Vichy, he was merely providing financial and other charitable services, but in fact he was resolved to spirit away as many people as he could manage, and in just three days bedraggled and desperate refugees were lining up outside his door at the Splendide. Fry had brought from New York a list of artists and others targeted for rescue by the ERC, but he quickly found himself with another population on his hands, socialists and other anti-fascists in flight from the Germans.
The efforts of Fry and his growing staff were made more fraught and arduous by on-and-off closings of the Spanish border (Walter Benjamin's suicide was a prominent accident related to that situation). Under Article 19 of the Franco-German Armistice, the French were required to "surrender on demand" all Germans seeking asylum. The French, moreover, had implemented their own regulations outdoing the Nazis at their own game. Marsielle became a holding pen for people destined for Hitler's concentration camps.
The many documents that had to be in order for refugees, individual or families (such as the Bretons: Andre, wife Jacqueline and daughter Aube) to leave made for further complications since visas and exit permits, when there were any to be had, were always expiring and it was almost impossible to have a full set of papers valid on a given day. For a time Fry had access through a friendly official to valid Czech passports. Later, he found his own forger and started making his own. He also worked profitably with the local Mafia.
The State Department's official gripe against Fry was that he was breaking the laws of another country. His employer, the committee back in New York, complained that he was using too much money for the flow of emigrations achieved. The committee recalled him, but he refused to leave until a successor was sent. When the successor arrived, Fry refused to subordinate himself to him, or to leave, and the man eventually gave up and went away.
For the winter of 1940-41 Fry found himself a villa outside Marseille called Air-Bel. There he created a retreat for himself, home for some of his staff and center for a revived Surrealist movement. It was, writes his latest biographer, the happiest time of his life and the months when he felt least subject to conventional constraints. Among the photographs in the book, there are snapshots of happy times at Air-Bel, even though the winter was severe and rations so low that the Fry extended family drank postum and ate goldfish from a neighboring pond.
Defiant to the last, when Fry was ordered home he took himself off on a lenghy sightseeing trip through the south of France. Returning to his Marseille office, he found two Vichy policemen waiting for him and soon was on his way back to the United States. In New York, to his disappointment, he was not received as a hero. The ERC did not want him back, and his marriage to Eileen was soon in tatters.
The remainder of the man's life was sad. Other war work he tried to do fizzled, aggravated by the State Department's refusal to issue him a regular passport. He wrote a memoir, "Surrender On Demand," which was favorably reviewed but did not sell well. A documentary film company he started up went bankrupt. He returned to France to obtain art work for a charitable book project from artists whose lives he had saved, but too many of them, including Breton, rebuffed him.
Fry wed a second time, to Annette Fry, and had three children, but that marriage too ended in divorce. He did some schoolteaching and, months before his death, was awarded the French Legion of Honor thanks to the efforts of Andre Malraux. His last day of work as a schoolteacher was, oddly enough, September 11, 1967; a day or two later, he died alone at home, of a cerebral hemorrhage. He was found in his bed, surrounded by mementos of his Marseille year. Fry, largely forgotten during his lifetime, is the one American remembered at Jerusalem's Vad Yashem memorial.


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