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Villa Air-Bel

the new book
by Rosemary Sullivan

(HarperCollins, October 2006)


Crossroads Marseilles 1940
by Mary Jayne Gold

(Doubleday, 1980)
© Mary Jayne Gold, 1980, © Pierre Sauvage, 1998

Villa Air-Bel, chapter The Villa Bel-Air,
and corresponding excerpts from Crossroads Marseilles 1940
and Miriam Davenport Ebel's An Unsentimental Education

Elisions in the relevant excerpts from Mary Jayne Gold’s book—which are sometimes substantial—are indicated.  In order to allow a line-by-line comparison, paragraph breaks are disregarded in Villa Air-Bel.

There are seven footnotes for the material below, despite the extent of the quotations and paraphrasing; one of them refers to Crossroads Marseilles 1940.  The three others refer to another bookalthough the material cited, as it happens, is also in Crossroads Marseille 1940.


& Miriam Davenport Ebel,
An Unsentimental Education, where noted


Chapter “The Villa Air-Bel,” pp. 243-250 (verbatim excerpts)

[p. 238] [W]e passed under the arch to find ourselves in front of two imposing red brick pillars, topped by white stone capitals. 

[Excerpt from prior chapter “The Dinner Party”, p. 15] To reach the Villa Air-Bel, (…) one (…) passed through an entranceway framed by imposing red brick pillars topped with white stone capitals. (…)

[p. 237] (…) The Bénédites had moved into town and were living in a pension, having left Peterkin with Eva in Juan-les-Pins near Cannes until they could find permanent quarters where he could join them. (…)

[Source is also Daniel Bénédite, La Filière marseillaise.]

[p. 243] Until they arrived in Marseille, Danny and Theo could not have imagined how glutted with refugees the city was. The first week they moved from hotel to hotel, never managing more than two days in the same one before they were told other clients had previously reserved the room.  Expecting to continue moving through pensions like musical chairs, they took Peterkin to stay with Danny’s mother, Eva, in nearby Juan-les-Pins.

[p.237] After talking it over with Theo and Danny Bénédite we decided to look for a house within commuting distance, away from the [p. 238] stresses and strains of the Committee, where Peterkin could join us.

One Sunday at the end of October, Mary Jayne and Theo decided to go house hunting in the suburbs east of Marseille. They were looking for a small house with a garden for Peterkin. 

[p. 238] Miriam, too, would be glad to leave her uncomfortable and distant quarters (…).  One morning Miriam and I, along with Jean Gemähling, started off on our search.

Wanting to escape the city, Miriam Davenport and Jean Gemähling tagged along.

[p. 238] Our best bet seemed to be something on the Marseille-Aubagne trolley route, one of the principal lines whose cars left at frequent intervals from the Gare de Noailles, right near the Canebière (…).

The four took the tram at the gare de Noailles on the Canebière.

[p. 238] As we left the suburbs behind, I noticed a sign, La Pomme, hanging on the wooden pavilion as we approached a station. (…) We () had been on the train for about forty-five minutes.  Jean spotted a café down the road to which we would have to backtrack and make inquiries regarding houses for rent.

About a half-hour into the countryside, as the tram passed the district of La Pomme, they noticed a small café where inquiries about rentals might be made.

[p. 238] Parallel to the tramline, on a high embankment, ran the Toulon-Marseille railroad.  (…)
Ebel, An Unsentimental Education: The road that we walked bordered the main Marseilles-Toulon rail line.

They jumped off the tram and began to walk along a road bordered by a high embankment and the main Marseille-Toulon train line.

[p. 239] At our feet the owner had planted a neat sign reading: Propriété Privée, Défense d'Entrer.  (…) Miriam, for once, was silent, staring at those red pillars.  "Look," she said at last, pointing upward with her finger. There in the white limestone were carved the letters V-i-l-l-a A-i-r B-e-l. "That's my Hôtel Bel Air backwards—let's go."
Ebel, An Unsentimental Education: Very shortly, on our right, we saw an underpass and, flanking it we could see two tall, stone gate posts. These were carved with the name "Air Bel.” That struck me as an omen, a sign. "I'll be damned!" I blurted, ''Look at that! That is the name of my flea-bag hotel, the
Paradis-des-punaises Bel Air, in reverse. It must be good! Let's go look!"

On the other side of the railway underpass, at 63 avenue Jean Lombard, they came upon two large gateposts carved with the name [p. 244] Air-Bel. Miriam shouted happily that this was the name of her fleabag hotel spelled backwards, clearly an omen. She insisted they inquire despite the sign saying: “Propriété Privée/ Défense d’entrer.”  

Ebel, An Unsentimental Education: (…) Air Bel, an unoccupied (…) huge old house three stories tall.

As they walked up the drive, they saw an immense three-story nineteenth-century manse. 


It was somewhat battered but still elegant, and it immediately conjured up the haute [sic] bourgeois worlds of Balzac and Flaubert. 

[p. 240] (…) [W]e could see a graveled terrace planted with three large and shady plane trees.

Around part of the house ran a stone terrace on which grew three ancient plane trees. 


There was even a greenhouse to one side.

Ebel, An Unsentimental Education: [Air-Bel] was set on a broad, high terrace shaded by ancient plane trees and overlooking a pool with fountain, an overgrown formal garden, an immense park and, beyond, a view past mountains to the sea.
Crossroads Marseilles 1940
[p. 240] In front of us, rippling before our eyes, unrolled a classical landscape of multiple planes (…) down to a tiny dazzle of the sea in the far distance.

The terrace overlooked a formal garden, with a fountain and pool as centerpiece, leading to an immense park with a dazzling view of the distant mountains. 

[p. 240] At our feet (…) [was] what had once been a formal garden (…), the flower beds overgrown with weeds, the boxwood wearing a disheveled look as if it had not felt the sharp snip of the shears for decades.

The house had clearly stood vacant for a number of years, for the gardens were overrun and the hedges untrimmed.

Ebel, An Unsentimental Education: The ever-practical Mary Jayne sounded bored, "Oh, no. That can't be anything. Much too big." (…)“Too big,'' said Mary Jayne. "Yes, much too big," said Theo (…).

“It’s way too big for our purposes,” Mary Jayne said definitively.  “Much too big,” added Theo. 

Ebel, An Unsentimental Education: But I remembered Tenney House, the cooperative house where I had lived at Smith College. (…) “Look,'' I ventured, “What if we all shared the costs of rent, food, a cook, and a maid, and if we invited my clients (…)? (…) We could live like kings, have excellent company (…).

But as a poor student at Smith College, Miriam had lived in cooperative housing and she wasn’t ready to dismiss the idea so easily.  “Look,” she said, “It would be cheap. We could share the rent and the food.  We could even afford to hire a cook.  It’s so large we could invite other members of the committee who could pay, and maybe even some of our clients could join us.  Think of the company.”[1]

[p. 239] We stepped through the gateway and looked cautiously around. Something had moved on the left, something beyond the line of trees. On the brown earth crouched a little brown figure, now frozen and quite motionless.

On the other side of the gateway, they spotted a small man on his knees digging in the earth.

[p. 239] “I beg your pardon, monsieur,” called out Jean, stepping forward, “but we were looking for something for rent.” (…)  "This is private property. Didn't you see the sign?" came a hostile voice.(…) Nothing to rent around here,” he squeaked back in an old man's tremolo. (…)

Jean approached to say that they were looking for a house to rent.

“Nothing to rent around here,” the old man replied abruptly. “This is private property.”

[p. 239] "We're Americans," piped up Miriam (…).

“We’re Americans,” Miriam piped in.[2]

[p. 239] (…) "Americans, eh?...Wait a minute, s'il vous plaît," he said as he hobbled along.  (…)

When the old man heard, he was suddenly interested.

Americans had money.

[p. 240] (…) "I am le Docteur Thumin."  (…) He agreed that the house might be for rent (…). Then, having reconfirmed that we were indeed Americans, he added craftily that it would be very expensive and went off to get the keys (…).

He introduced himself as Dr. Thumin and, warning that the house would be expensive, he offered to show it to them anyway. He advised them to wait while he collected the keys.

[p. 240] A grating sound caused us to turn around. Dr. Thumin had opened one of the three sturdy double-paneled shutters on the façade [p. 241] of the house. When he had fastened all three pairs back on their latches he threw open the door and exclaimed dramatically, "Voilà! Entrez."

When he returned, Dr. Thumin rushed inside to open the iron shutters that covered the large windows on the ground floor and invited them in.

[p. 242] (…) There were eighteen rooms all told.
Ebel, An Unsentimental Education: (…) Air Bel [was] completely furnished (…).

The villa had eighteen rooms, and it was fully furnished.


[p. 245] On the main floor were three reception rooms and a dining room as well as a kitchen, breakfast room, pantry, wood storage room, and a bathroom.

[p. 241] We entered a large rectangular living room, paved in checker-board black and white tiles.

A spacious entrance hall tiled in black and white marble led to the parlor at the center of which was a large stone fireplace ornamented with brass fittings.

[p. 241] Over the mantel hung a tall gilt mirror whose glass had darkened with the passing of the century. Surmounting its murky reflections and in bright contrast was the round brass splash of a clock, its hands pointing permanently to a quarter to twelve.

Above the marble mantel was a huge gilt mirror spotted from age; the hands of the gilt clock that sat on the mantel had stopped permanently at a quarter to twelve.


The chairs and tables were mostly Louis Quinze and there was also an upright piano with elaborate brass candlesticks.

[p. 241] The room was furnished with a dark carved sideboard, table, and chairs in Spanish seventeenth-century style. Embossed cardboard, simulating Cordova leather, covered the walls.

In the dining room the walls were covered with a heavy wallpaper embossed to simulate Cordova Leather, and the chairs and dining table had a pseudo-Spanish bulk and severity.


Beyond was a breakfast [p. 246] room containing a charming marble hand-washing fountain.

[p. 241] The huge old-fashioned kitchen contained a twenty-foot wood burning stove and a long soapstone sink.

In the kitchen there was a twenty-foot-long wood burning stove and a large soapstone sink.

[p. 241] (…) [A] door from this room opened into the only bathroom of the house, or rather the only room containing a tub. We all admired the lovely swan's-neck faucets (…).

Beyond this room was the only bathroom containing a tub. It was zinc, with ornamental swan’s-neck faucets.

p. 241
There were more bedrooms down a short hall. All of them were equipped with an old-fashioned double bed, usually mahogany, a large armoire, a chest, and in the corner behind a screen a [p. 242] marble-topped washstand, complete with white crockery basin and water jug. Most of the bedchambers on the second floor had wood-burning fireplaces.

The story above contained three large bedrooms, each with a white marble fireplace, double bed, large armoire and washstand with a crockery jug and chamber pot discreetly hidden behind a door.

[p. 241] (…) [O]n the second floor several bedrooms opened onto a large central area, which in this case served as a library.

All these rooms opened onto a large central library.


The walls were covered with black and white wallpaper depicting classical scenes; in particular the flight of Aeneas, the first refugee, escaping the sacking of Troy carrying his aged father on his back.


Shelves were lined with many original editions, including leather-bound sets of Lamartine, Musset, and Victor Hugo. On the top story there were six more bedrooms.[3]

[p. 243] But everybody else was delighted with our Second Empire home (…).

It was the furnishings, mostly Second Empire, which gave the house the feel of a stage set: its collection of lacquered paintings, somber tapestries, leather-bound books, and cushions. All were in remarkably good condition for a house that had not been occupied for quite some time.

[p. 243] (…) whose only concession to modern times was an electric light system, wires of which were visible creeping along the baseboards and doorframes (…).

The electricity functioned—clearly a later renovation since electric wires snaked across the surfaces of all the walls.


Although there was no gas or telephone or central heating, there were stoves and chimneys sufficient for the temperate Midi.

Ebel, An Unsentimental Education: Dr. Thumin's "very expensive" rent was 1,300 francs a month—about thirteen dollars.

They asked Dr. Thumin how much the rent would be.  He gave them a crafty look: “I cannot ask you less than 1,300 francs a month.”  This was about thirteen dollars.

Ebel, An Unsentimental Education: Some quick figuring proved that such luxury could be an undreamed-of bargain. It was decided that Danny and Theo would sign the lease (…). 

The group was shocked. The smallest hotel room in Marseille cost fifteen francs a night.  Clearly Dr. Thumin was living in another age.  Readily agreeing to his terms, they made arrangements to return with Danny to sign the lease.

[Source is Daniel Bénédite, La Filière marseillaise.]

When Danny was introduced, the old man got right down to business. “You want to rent my house,” he said. “I’ve never rented this house before. If I rent it, the people must be decent and proper, not vandals.”

“Yes, Doctor,” Danny replied.  “My friends who will share the house are respectable. Writers from Paris, and Americans.”[4]  Danny played the part of the gullible Parisian well. 

[p. 247] Feeling somewhat guilty at his shrewd swindle, the doctor offered to include the brushwood behind the house for burning in the fireplaces and free run of the villa’s grounds. Danny asked that this be written into the contract. He signed a six-month renewable lease and deposited the first month’s rent.

Danny returned to Marseille and immediately went to see Victor Serge to tell him that he and his family could quit their musty hotel and join them at the Villa the next day.  Serge accepted the invitation with relief.  When Danny told him how large the villa was, Serge suggested that André Breton and his family were also precariously housed. “He’s thought to be a difficult man,” Serge said, “but I can guarantee that he is charming and enriching company.”[5]  Danny replied that he had no objection but must consult the others. Breton was accepted unanimously.

Ebel, An Unsentimental Education: Mary Jayne would advance the money, and we would reimburse her later.
Crossroads Marseilles 1940: Miriam told me that Varian was under a terrible strain and that it would be very good for him to get beyond the reach of the frantic refugees  (…) I was rather reluctant at first, as I didn't know him that well, but agreed to take him out a few days later.
He was in one of his antic moods, rushing into each room to get the view from all angles, opening each little bedside cabinet to peek at the functional chamber pot inside. (…) Here he was like a schoolboy on vacation, a vacation he very much needed. Of course he would be welcome at Villa Air-Bel.

Initially Mary Jayne, who was actually advancing the rent for the group, did not want Fry as a permanent member of the household.  She felt that, at least towards her, he remained diffident and unforthcoming. But Fry was invited to visit the first Sunday, and once Mary Jayne saw him running around from room to room, opening closets and drawers like a delighted child, and realized that the villa would provided a needed escape for him, she softened.[6]

Additional excerpt from Crossroads Marseilles 1940 [p. 244] In written accounts of surrealism, the Villa Air-Bel is referred to as a home for artists and intellectuals set up by the Secours Américain. The above is, however, the true story of how the Villa Air-Bel came into our lives, first as a house out of town for the Bénédites and myself. The staff, Breton, and Serge were afterthoughts.
[p. 244]
The surrealists who found themselves in the region soon flocked around Breton for afternoons and evenings of talk and games, in which we were all invited to join. No other surrealist ever actually stayed at the villa, except Benjamin Péret and Max Ernst, and those only for a short period some time later.
And strangely enough, we rarely referred to it as Air-Bel, or the villa, but called it the château, which was a gross exaggeration and had no business on the lips of such a democratic left-wing bunch, anyway.


[p. 247] (…) The early months spent at the château were among the most significant of my adult life, although it is difficult to record them in an orderly or even chronological manner. Over the years a series of vignettes of this period, selected out of memory because of some innate picturesque quality or because they touched something latent in me, have kept rolling back like old movies on late-night television.


Example chapter Up in the Clouds—1935
Back to Villa Air-Bel by Rosemary Sullivan

[1] Davenport, Unsentimental Education, p. 61.
[2] Ibid., p. 60
[3] Varian Fry letter to father, Arthur Fry. May 15, 1941. Box 3, Fry Papers.
[4] Bénédite, Filière Marseillaise, p. 56.
[5] Ibid., p. 58.
[6] Gold, Crossroads Marseilles, 1940, p. 243.

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