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Villa Air-Bel

by Rosemary Sullivan

(HarperCollins, October 2006)


An Unsentimental Education
Miriam Davenport Ebel

© 1999, Miriam Davenport Ebel.
Posted at www.varianfry.org with the permission of Dr. Charles Ebel

Villa Air-Bel
, Chapter Marseille II: August 1940, verbatim below
and excerpts from An Unsentimental Education from which the chapter is derived
(possible references to Crossroads
Marseilles 1940 are also included)

Elisions in the relevant excerpts from Miriam Davenport Ebel’s memoir—which are sometimes substantial—are indicated.  In order to allow a line-by-line comparison, paragraph breaks are disregarded in Villa Air-Bel.

In her Acknowledgments, Rosemary Sullivan thanks copyright owner Charles Ebel: “Charles Ebel readily afforded me the right to quote from the memoir of Miriam Davenport Ebel, as well as the right to reproduce photographs.”

It is with Dr. Ebel’s earlier permission that the late Miriam Davenport Ebel’s memoir had been posted on the Varian Fry Institute website at www.varianfry.org/ebel_memoir_en.htm.  Because this text is thus easily available, any interested reader is invited compare Ebel’s memoir with Rosemary Sullivan’s use of it.

It might be noted that there are six footnotes in all for this chapter; they are all indicated below.  Five of these footnotes refer to dialogue cited; such footnotes are the most common in Villa Air-Bel.  One footnote is for the source of a fact; there are very rare in Villa Air-Bel.  There are no footnotes otherwise acknowledging Miriam Davenport Ebel’s own text.

Because An Unsentimental Education is cited from the text on the Internet, no page numbers are indicated.


Miriam Davenport Ebel,
An Unsentimental Education

Rosemary Sullivan, Villa Air-Bel
full text of chapter 56, Marseille II: August 1940, pp. 177-180


[p.177.]  If ever a friend was needed in a crisis, there was no one better than Miriam Davenport. She was a twenty-five-year-old romantic pragmatist, following her heart across Europe in wartime, but ready to help anyone she met en route.

About two weeks after the Germans had begun their invasion of the Low Countries [in 1940], I boarded a train in Ljubljana, Yugoslavia, bound for Paris via Italy.  (…)  The Armistice was signed on June 22.  (…) My own plan was to go to Marseilles, have my passport renewed, and see about returning to Yugoslavia to rescue my fiancé [Rudolph].

She had been in Ljubljana visiting her fiancé, Rudolph, when the news broke that the Germans had invaded Holland. She hurried back to Paris, certain that France would soon declare war. Now that France had surrendered and the armistice had been signed, she was determined to get back to Yugoslavia to save Rudolph.

It was already clear to me that, sooner or later, Yugoslavia would fall to the Nazis.

It would be only a matter of time before Yugoslavia fell to the Nazis.

On June 10, Italy declared war on France. This (…) eliminated any chance of my applying for an Italian transit visa in France.

Crossroads Marseilles 1940, p. 76
She [Miriam] was planning to go to Yugoslavia, (…), and with the money both she and Rudolph could hop a freighter and get to the United States.

There was the huge problem of getting a permit to cross Fascist Italy, and then of finding a freighter to take the two of them to the United States, but she was not to be deterred.

A year earlier he had seen me through a long and dangerous illness and I owed him much.

Her fiancé had nursed her through a serious illness the previous year and she was not about to abandon him.

My own plan was to go to Marseilles, have my passport renewed (…). The next day I (…) went to the American Consulate where the receptionist (…) directed me to take a tram to the annex.

On her arrival in Marseille, Miriam's first move was to visit the annex of the American consulate to renew her passport.

On the way out I noticed a long queue of refugees waiting to be seen, most of them speaking German. She found herself deeply affected by the long queues of refugees, by their faces that revealed every nuance of mute panic, despair, polite fury, outraged [p. 178] pride.
I also observed the Consulate's doorman being offensively rude to them.. She watched the rude treatment they endured at the hands of the consulate's doorman.
Was anyone, I asked, doing anything for anti Nazi refugees trapped in France? No. Were there any American organizations in Marseilles looking after their needs? No, none. To her question of whether there were any American organizations in Marseille looking after the needs of these refugees, the reply was "No, none."[1]
Comment.  In the first, earlier footnote in Villa Air-Bel referring to Miriam Davenport Ebel’s memoir, the source is indicated as follows: Miriam Davenport [Ebel], An Unsentimental Education: A Memoir by Miriam Davenport Ebel (1915-1999), p. 63.  Web Page: www.varianfry.org/ebel_memoir_en.htm.  It is not clear how the page number references were determined.  (Sullivan otherwise omits any reference to the existence of the Varian Fry Institute, whose web site she obviously found useful.)
I was learning fast. (…) Americans with jobs (…) overseas had no passport problems.

She soon learned that Americans with jobs in other countries had no passport problems at all.

I (…) asked, firmly, to see the Consul General. (…) I told him that I had a job teaching English in Yugoslavia (…). It seemed unwise to return to the States where I should be unemployed. He saw to it that my passport was renewed. She demanded to see the consul general and told him she had a job teaching in Yugoslavia. It would be pointless to go back to the United States where she would only join the ranks of the unemployed. Magically, she found her passport renewed.
The center of American and refugee social life in Marseilles was a café just outside of the American Consulate—the Pelikan. (…) I telephoned to Mary Jayne Gold. We met that day for lunch. Next she contacted Mary Jayne Gold who was back in Marseille. They met at the Pelikan, a café just across from the American consulate—a favourite spot of foreign refugees.

Comment.  Mary Jayne Gold was not “back in Marseille.”  She had come to Marseille on what she thought was her way home.

[We] brought each other up to date on our wanderings, and I filled her in on the plight of Konrad Heiden, Katia [Landau], and the others.
Crossroads Marseilles 1940, p. 90
It was she [Miriam] who first told me about the plight of the political and intellectual refugees.  (…), [S]he had met some in Toulouse and was worrying about how they would get out of the country.
The two got around to talking about the plight of anti-Fascist intellectuals like Konrad Heiden and Katia Landau whom Miriam had met in Toulouse and now considered her friends.
Mary Jayne was (…) passionately anti Nazi. Even her poodle, Dagobert, would bark furiously whenever one muttered "Hitler! Hitler!" Mary Jayne was a committed anti-Fascist. She had even taught Dagobert to bark fiercely whenever he heard Heil Hitler![2]
Together we determined to find some way of helping them if possible. Together they determined to do what they could to help.
We had already tried the American Red Cross; they were helping only the French with free milk to be distributed through French gas companies. They contacted the American Red Cross, only to be told their help wasn't needed. The organization was confining its assistance to helping the French deliver free milk through the French gas companies.
Later, when we saw a short notice in the paper that a certain "Valerian Fry" had arrived from the States with a boatload of canned milk, we dismissed the news with "Another milkman!'' They did spot a short notice in the newspaper announcing that a certain "Valerian [sic] Fry" had arrived from the States with a boatload of canned milk." They dismissed him: "Another milkman."[3]
Shortly, I found a new room in a squalid barrack named Hôtel Paradis Bel Air in the rue de Madagascar. (…) The room was in the attic (…). Such comfort cost about fifty cents a month. It was now the third week of August. Miriam walked the distance from the rue Madagascar, where she lived at the Hôtel Paradis Bel-Air (her "squalid barrack" as she called it). Her attic room cost fifty cents a month.
Crossroads Marseilles 1940, p. 110
During these few days Miriam and I got the habit of meeting at the Pelikan Bar in the afternoon.
She was heading to the Café Pelikan.
We were again at the Café Pelikan one afternoon when Mehring, very excited and furtive looking, came to our table to speak to me privately. (…) Walter Mehring [looked] like a little tramp. (…)
Crossroads Marseilles 1940, p. 149
He was a tiny little man (…) shabbily dressed, [who] seemed never to brush his hair.  He walked (…) slouched over and shifting his head guiltily from side to side.  [He was urged] to appear less like a common vagrant,
As she sat down with Mary Jayne, she heard her named called softly. She looked up to see a diminutive figure skulking against the wall in a suit so disheveled and threadbare, he could easily have been mistaken for a pickpocket. Squinting into the shadows, she suddenly recognized the German poet Walter Mehring, whom she had recently met in Toulouse.

Furtively, Mehring asked to speak to her.

Mehring [was] very excited and furtive looking (…). He was distraught and yet excited.
He then told me that (…) [t]his American savior was in the Hôtel Splendide, had money, access to visas, and a list of people he was supposed to rescue. His name was Varian Fry and Mehring had seen him that very day.
Marseilles 1940, p. 151
Fry to Hertha Pauli: “How about Walter Mehring?  His name is on the list.  See?  Do you know where he is?”
He explained that he had just come from the police station. He'd gone to meet the American, Varian Fry, at the Hôtel Splendide, [p. 179] the one everyone was talking about—Fry had money and visas and a list of people he was going to save. He himself was on the list.
[O]n leaving Fry's room he had been picked up by the police and held for three hours for questioning. He had only now been released.  Tomorrow he was supposed to return for another appointment but he was afraid to go back. Mehring had secured an appointment to see Fry again the next day, but leaving the hotel he'd been picked up by the police and questioned for three hours. He dared not return to the Splendide.
Would I go, now, and ask for a new appointment in some out way café? I should explain his fear of a second arrest. Miriam was an American. She wasn't in danger. Would she visit Fry on his behalf and explain to him what had happened and ask for a rendezvous in a safer place?
Of course I was overjoyed to run that errand and asked him to wait for my return in the café. He looked terrified; that would be too dangerous. "All right,'' I replied, ''I'll ask the receptionist in the Consulate to let you wait for me in their waiting room while I run an errand for 'an ailing friend.'" This was satisfactory and that is what happened. In leaving, I remembered to advise him to help himself to the soap in the men's room. Even though Mary Jayne offered to keep him company, Mehring was too frightened to stay in the café, so Miriam took him to the waiting room of the American Consulate across the street. After advising him to help himself to the soap in the men's room, she set out on her errand.
At the Splendide I took the elevator to an upper floor. In the corridor outside of Fry's door, I took my place at the end of a line of waiting refugees (…). When my turn came (…), a young man with a quiet, gentle manner listened politely to my story. She entered the spacious lobby of the Splendide and took the elevator to the third floor, joining the queue of refugees that snaked down the corridor. When her turn came, a young man listened patiently to her story
At the far side of the room, working at a small table in his shirt‑sleeves, was a young man with (…)horn‑rimmed eyeglasses. and then took her over to another young man working at a table on the opposite side of the small room. He was in shirtsleeves and she noted the tortoiseshell glasses that framed his face.
I was taken over to him and introduced to Mr. Varian Fry. He rose to his feet with a questioning smile, shook hands, and offered me a chair. She was introduced and he rose and shook hands with an inquiring smile, gesturing for her to take a seat.
I explained about Mehring's arrest and fears. Fry immediately gave him a new appointment in a café for the next morning When she told Fry that Mehring was afraid to return to the hotel, he immediately arranged an appointment with the poet for the next morning in a quiet café.
I then asked if he were interested in learning the whereabouts of Konrad Heiden, Katia Landau, and others. He was indeed. I gave him Charles Wolff's address in Toulouse (…). Then she inquired whether he would like to contact Konrad Heiden, Katia Landau, and others and she gave him the address of Charles Wolff in Toulouse.
[H]e asked me what I was doing in Marseilles.

Fry asked why she herself was in Marseille.

I told him that I was waiting for visas to return to Yugoslavia, a slow and intricate process. She explained that she was waiting for visas to return to Yugoslavia, and he remarked: "That will be a slow process.
''Would you like a job?" Fry asked. (…)
"Oh, yes! You are doing exactly what I have been dreaming of doing for a long time now."

Would you like a job?"

Miriam replied: "Oh, yes. You're doing exactly what I've been dreaming of doing for a long time now."[4]

Would you be willing to be named Secretary General of a committee that we are planning to set up? We could use a good American name like Davenport."

Fry asked if she would be willing to be named "secretary general" of a committee he was setting up. "We could use a good American name like Davenport," he said.[5]

The title, he explained, would require no work other than signing the annual report, but he could use an interviewer in the office that he was hoping to open the next week "No work really. All you'd have to do is sign the annual report." He also needed an interviewer in the office he was hoping to open.
He could only pay me 3,000 francs a month, (…) about twenty seven dollars a month. (…) He seemed to think that very little; to me it was riches. He would pay her three thousand francs (twenty-seven dollars) a month. He apologized for the small amount, but to her this seemed a wonderful sum.
[He] was hoping to open [the office] the next week (i.e., ca. 27-28 August 1940).

Miriam joined Fry's staff on August 27, 1940.

I described Varian Fry [to Mary Jayne Gold] as attractive. (…) I had a weakness for scholars and saints. Unlike Hertha Pauli, she found Fry attractive—she would later say she had a "weakness for scholars and saints."[6]
With us and with our clients he was warm, sensitive, witty, and relaxed. In her view, Fry was always warm, sensitive, witty, and relaxed with their clients.
  The difference between the perceptions of the two women may have been cultural. Miriam recognized the style of a fellow American. Fry's seeming arrogance and abruptness were simply good old American efficiency. However, the stakes were never as high for Miriam. Looking at this stranger, Pauli had known, even more that he did, that he held her life in his hands.

Back to Villa Air-Bel by Rosemary Sullivan

[1] Davenport, Unsentimental Education, p. 19
[2] Ibid., p. 24
[3] Ibid., p. 25
[4] Ibid., p. 28
[5] Ibid., p. 28
[6] Ibid., p. 29

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