I recently completed reading Rosemary Sullivan’s “Villa Air-Bel: World War II, Escape And A House In Marseille”. Sullivan is an English instructor at the University Of Toronto.
“Villa Air-Bel” tells the story of a chateau in Vichy France that, from August 1940 until September 1941, was a haven for refugees fleeing Nazism. The chateau served as a veritable way-station in World War II’s “underground railroad”, a loose network of people and organizations involved in a concerted effort to smuggle artists, intellectuals and others out of German-occupied war zones into the relative safety of neutral countries.
A large 19th-Century manor house outside Marseille, Villa Air-Bel was unofficial French headquarters for the Emergency Rescue Committee, an American organization that helped two thousand refugees obtain, legally, exit visas from France. The Emergency Rescue Committee, however, had another, more clandestine, purpose: to smuggle out of Vichy France persons—writers, artists, Leftists—whose names appeared on the Gestapo blacklist, a list that virtually guaranteed their extinctions (Vichy France had agreed to honor all German requests for extradition). Using forged identity papers and currency obtained on the black market, the Emergency Rescue Committee shepherded over 200 persons on the Gestapo blacklist through the Pyrenees to the safety of Spain or secreted them aboard freighters bound for Africa and South America.
Shortly after France fell in June 1940, the world learned of the detention camps that had been established throughout France and Vichy France, and the tens of thousands of persons detained in such camps, most awaiting certain extraditions to Germany. The Emergency Rescue Committee compiled a list of several hundred notable persons it wished to have released, and it resolved to free as many of these notables as possible—and by any means necessary.
The Emergency Rescue Committee’s efforts in Europe were headed by Varian Fry, a Harvard-educated Classics scholar, editor and journalist (Fry was married to Lincoln Kirstein’s sister, Eileen). Fry had utterly no background suggesting he was a man suitable for such an endeavor, yet the Committee, for reasons still unclear, accepted Fry’s request to lead its European venture—there may have been no one else available and willing to accept the assignment—and sent Fry to Marseille in August 1940 to see what he could do.
Contrary to any reasonable expectations, Fry proved amazingly resourceful at his work. Intending to remain in Marseille only for a month, he ended up staying for thirteen months, only returning to the U.S. after Vichy France declared him an “undesirable alien” and expelled him from the country. During his time in Marseille, Fry was instrumental in securing safe passage out of France for a long list of European luminaries: Hannah Arendt, Andre Breton, Marc Chagall, Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, Lion Feuchtwanger, Siegfried Kracauer, Wanda Landowska, Heinrich Mann and Thomas Mann, Jr., Max Ophuls, and Franz Werfel and Alma Mahler Gropius Werfel.
Fry was assisted in his efforts by two young American women, both as unlikely candidates for such dangerous work as Fry himself: Mary Jayne Gold, an heiress from Chicago who had settled in Paris; and Miriam Davenport, an art student from Boston studying in Paris when the Nazis invaded France. (From 1951 until her death, Davenport lived in the Midwest—and my father, through a mutual friend, met Davenport several times in the 1970’s.)
In June 1940, Gold and Davenport, independently, had fled south when it became clear that Paris would fall. Both ended up in Marseille, where they met by chance while attempting to arrange passage out of France.
Waiting for their exit papers to be issued, Gold and Davenport made contact with Fry. From Fry they learned of the desperate situation of persons on the Gestapo blacklist, and both women decided to remain in France in order to assist Fry in his rescue efforts. Gold and Davenport proved to be remarkably dedicated, working tirelessly with French and American authorities—as well as with the Marseille crime syndicate—to get as many persons out of France as possible. Their work was substantially aided by Gold’s inheritance, which proved to be invaluable—her vast fortune was used to grease many a palm among French officials and the French underground.
Gold and Davenport worked from Villa Air-Bel, which Gold had rented as temporary quarters. Shortly after moving in, Gold and Davenport realized that the large but ramshackle villa might become an ideal hiding place for persons at risk of extradition to Germany. Villa Air-Bel, consequently, was to become temporary shelter not only for Gold and Davenport, but also for an extraordinary array of displaced persons awaiting a means to leave France.
In Sullivan’s book, it is Villa Air-Bel itself that is the main character. The house and its inhabitants—as well as its parties, dinners, art salons, political discussions, and the many surreptitious comings and goings—provide Sullivan with her subject matter.
The chief pleasure of the book is taking note of the enormous cast of celebrities that populates its 544 pages. The list of famous scientists, artists, musicians, authors, poets and philosophers is an exhausting one, a veritable Who’s Who of notable persons displaced by Nazi Germany.
Alas, none of these remarkable figures comes to life in Sullivan’s telling. The author provides brief biographies of dozens of persons who make fleeting appearances in her book, but the effect is more that of a concise biographical dictionary than a genuine set of distinct character sketches. In fact, such entries appear to be entirely canned, borrowed from other sources.
Even Fry, Gold and Davenport emerge as cardboard figures in Sullivan’s hands. At the end of Sullivan’s lengthy book, the reader has no clue what motivated these admirable individuals to put their lives at risk, no idea what were the sources of strength they were able to summon daily in a period and place characterized by incessant danger.
More critically, “Villa Air-Bel” is fashioned in a haphazard manner. The volume moves back and forth from subject to subject, person to person, place to place, in search of an effective organizing principal. Its sixty short chapters more resemble an anthology of random ancient magazine articles than a serious and scholarly study.
Charges of plagiarism have dogged “Villa Air-Bel” since its publication in 2006. Experts of the period have contended that Sullivan relied excessively upon Fry’s 1945 account of his work in Marseille, “Surrender On Demand”, as well as Gold’s 1980 memoir, “Crossroads Marseille 1940”, lifting entire portions of her text directly from those old volumes. (The self-effacing Davenport was never to publish a book about her involvement in the rescue effort). Further, Sullivan relies far too heavily upon already-published letters that have rehashed this same territory, endlessly, for decades.
Indeed, much of what Sullivan offers is of no worth whatsoever. For instance, the first hundred pages of “Villa Air-Bel” provide a history of France in the 1930’s, and Sullivan’s handling of that history is neither deft nor penetrating—nor even particularly accurate.
Perhaps more seriously, Sullivan fails to acknowledge the selfless work of so many others who were instrumental in refugee work in 1940-1941 Marseille.
Fry, Gold and Davenport were vastly assisted in their efforts by a sympathetic diplomat at Marseille’s American Consulate, Hiram Bingham IV, who personally issued hundreds of transit, exit, entry and visitor visas to European nationals, all in direct contravention of official American policy. Bingham’s efforts were to cost him his career with the U.S. State Department.
A Massachusetts-based Unitarian mission operating in Marseille in 1940 and 1941 was equally important—and equally successful—as Fry and the Emergency Rescue Committee in husbanding persons in danger out of France. In fact, the Unitarians, headed by Waitstill and Martha Sharp, little-known because they never engaged in self-promotion after returning to America, may have been responsible for directing an even larger number of endangered persons to safety than the Emergency Rescue Committee.
There was one very unpleasant and very unsettling aspect to the work of Fry and the Emergency Rescue Mission: the project was directed almost exclusively to the already-famous. Persons unknown in the United States who requested assistance were generally turned away. Fry justified such decisions on the grounds that financial backers in New York required a focus upon celebrities in order to maintain the necessary fund-raising back home.
Happily, Bingham at the American consulate and the workers of the Unitarian mission were not so sharply focused on helping the famous, and only the famous.
For Fry and Gold—and for Bingham, as well—their work in Marseille provided the central event of their lives.
By all accounts, Fry was an abject man when he returned to the United States in late 1941. In 1942, he wrote an article for The New Republic predicting the state-sponsored demise of European Jewry. It was the first such article to be published in the United States and was not well-received—no one in the West could yet grasp the concept of the monstrous death machine the Germans were about to put into place—and Fry, disappointed that no one in authority was prepared to heed his warnings, retired to private life. His 1945 “Surrender On Demand” attracted no interest whatsoever and quickly went out-of-print, not to be republished until after his death. Fry died in 1967. He was only 59 years old.
Gold was never to marry. She was to spend the rest of her life living off her considerable fortune, moving back and forth between luxury homes in New York and the South of France. She died of cancer in France in 1997, having reached the grand old age of 88.
Bingham retired from the diplomatic corps, a broken man, and lived in poverty at a farm in Connecticut for the rest of his life, enduring a succession of failed business ventures. He died in 1988 at age 85. His eleven children have been tireless in keeping his name alive.
Only Davenport was able to move on with her life after her work in Marseille. After the war, she enjoyed two long and happy marriages (her first husband died) and she experienced rewarding academic careers at universities in Iowa and Michigan. She was a much-respected and much-beloved woman by those who knew her.
Davenport was to outlive the entire cast of characters in “Villa Air-Bel”. Davenport, like her old friend Gold, was to die of cancer. Her death occurred in 1999, at age 84.
In 1997, two months before Gold’s death, Gold and Davenport were reunited for the first time in 56 years. Davenport, having learned of Gold’s mortal illness, had traveled to France in order to see the woman whose noble work she had shared more than half a century earlier.
The reunion, by all accounts, was a happy and touching one. It was amply documented by French journalists and filmmakers.
Of both women, who saved so many, it may be said: theirs were lives well-lived.