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Villa Air-Bel
by Rosemary Sullivan

(HarperCollins, October 2006)

Excerpts from reviews and articles
̶ with some comments

book review by Bernhardt Blumenthal
The Philadelphia Inquirer, Dec. 17, 2006

An epic song of lament....It details the lives and the works of an unlikely group of heroes: Varian Fry, a Harvard-educated high school Latin teacher; Danny Bénédite, a renegade bureaucrat of the Paris Police Department; Mary Jane [sic] Gold, a young American heiress; and several others who did not flinch in the face of extreme danger and operated an Emergency Rescue Committee for refugees in Marseille that was able to spirit thousands of endangered people out of Vichy France. Their list of clients reads like an intellectual Who's Who of the Europe of the time: Hannah Arendt, Walter Benjamin, André Breton, Marc Chagall, Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, Lion Feuchtwanger, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Alma Mahler-Werfel, Heinrich and Golo Mann, and Franz Werfel, among many others....The great virtue of Sullivan's account of these dark times is the meticulous research that informs it, the uncovering of memoirs, photos, and other documents in numerous Canadian and American libraries as well as archives in France and private collections.....Sullivan's Villa Air-Bel sings of the good deeds of those heroes of so long ago. It memorializes the lives of the great men and women of the rescue team who were bastions of humanity in a time of man's most shameful display of sadistic cruelty. Villa Air-Bel is a most welcome book, a triumph of the human spirit.

Comment.  Varian Fry was not a Latin teacher at the time.  Claude Lévi-Strauss was not a client of the Emergency Rescue Committee.  With regard to Sullivan's "meticulous research," please see here.

book review by Jackie Wullschlager

Financial Times, London, U.K., Dec. 16, 2006

(...) Varian Fry...arrived in Marseille carrying Dollars 3,000 taped to his leg, a clutch of American visas and a list of 200 artists, writers and musicians to be smuggled out of Vichy territory....Fry moved into the Villa Air-Bel, an 18-room chateau whose rent was paid by a flighty American heiress, Mary Jayne Gold. All the other tenants, and the many desperate visitors, were Jews or artistic or political refugees. They included the artists Andre Breton, Max Ernst and Marc Chagall, the revolutionary Victor Serge, and the novelist Franz Werfel with his wife Alma Mahler, whose trunk contained the scores of her second husband's symphonies. Between 1940 and September 1941, when he was deported back to the US, Fry saved all their lives. But he was haunted until his death by the many he could not rescue....A marvellous addition to the surging literature on occupied France. Sullivan writes not as a historian - she has little new material - but as a dramatist.


Comment.  Varian Fry did not arrive in Marseille bringing visas.  Mary Jayne Gold was not "flighty."  Franz Werfel and Alma Mahler Werfel never stayed at Villa Air-Bel.  Fry was not "haunted until his death" by the memory of those he could not rescue; he felt he did what he could.  Yes, indeed, there is precious little new material, as is suggested here.

book review by James MacGowan
The Ottawa Citizen, Dec. 10, 2006

A page-turning thriller.

The following rave review of Villa Air-Bel posted on Amazon.com comes from Canada, where the book's author lives; this is the first review posted by Mendelsohn on Amazon.com.
A Major Achievement, December 5, 2006

Reviewer: Mendelsohn (Canada) - See all my reviews

'Villa Air Bel' is a stunning story of endangered artists and intellectuals in pre-WW2 France. Rosemary Sullivan has masterfully juxtaposed personal histories and historical events to create an urgent and tense book. It is a riveting account of the ordeal suffered by individuals who were being hunted down by the Nazis and of the heroism of young rerscuers willing to endanger their own lives in an effort to help them escape. This book is a compelling page-turner. I couldn't put it down.

book review
Before D-Day, operation arts rescue
by Floyd Skloot
San Francisco Chronicle, Dec. 3, 2006

It took Germany only six weeks to defeat France in the spring of 1940. As victorious troops and Gestapo personnel descended from the north, nearly 8 million French people fled south toward Marseille and the Mediterranean ports, seeking escape. Soon, France was divided into two zones: one under direct Nazi supervision, another -- equally Fascist -- administered by a collaborative French government in Vichy....According to Rosemary Sullivan in her gripping new book, "Villa Air-Bel," France had become "a country trapped in the totalitarian vise of irrational hatred," with its own government as terrifying as the Nazis.

There are many heroes in "Villa Air-Bel." The leading figure is a young New York writer and editor, Varian Fry....His group included a 31-year-old heiress from Chicago, Mary Jane [sic] Gold; a wandering, romantic 25-year-old student from New York named Miriam Davenport; a daring "militant Socialist of the extreme Left" named Danny Bénédite, who had been working for the Paris Préfecture de Police when the war started; Danny's British wife, Theo; and a resourceful German Jewish refugee, Albert O. Hirschman, who possessed impeccable false French papers, spoke several languages and was a master of survival.

Comment.  Rosemary Sullivan misleadingly characterizes the Vichy regime, and the result for this reviewer is the absurd notion that France was "equally Fascist," with a government "as terrifying as the Nazis."  This is nonsense, unfortunately derived from Villa Air-Bel.

book review
by Michael Kenney
Boston Globe, Nov. 28, 2006

Sullivan, a poet and professor of English at the University of Toronto, centers her moving and richly detailed account of that time of anxiety at the villa, which was, she writes, like "a stone interrupting the stream," a fixed point in a dangerous world....Among the refugees were the surrealist writer Andre Breton and the Soviet exile Victor Serge, and among their risk-taking rescuers, the Harvard graduate Varian Fry and the Chicago heiress Mary Jayne Gold.

from Amazon.com
Long book, lazily written, , November 25, 2006
Reviewer: milkweed beetle (United States) - See all my reviews

This book centers on Varian Fry's year in Marseille and is the third such biography to come out in the last decade or so. This author is a Canadian and previous Fry biographies were penned by a Brit (Andy Marino) and an American (Sheila Isenberg). Sullivan's work offers little new information on Varian Fry or on most of his colleagues. If you look at her bibliography you might get the impression that she has done a great amount of research. However, anyone familiar with the story, will find echoes of previous works, and much that borrows from Marino's book, which is superior.

The core of her book is transforming four memoirs written by rescuers - Varian Fry, Lisa Fittko, Mary Jayne Gold, and Danny Benedite - from the first person to the third person voice. Her approach for doing this has two misleading results. First, she does not give enough credit to the memoirs of the humanitarians who wrote them (just footnotes at the back). Second, observations presented by the memoirists related to passing events and impressions, she introduces as facts, denying the reader the original context for the various events. Instead of organizing her material skillfully, she presents scores of chapters, making for a choppy narrative. Hopefully, this type of appropriation will not become the standard for "creative non-fiction."

book review

House party refuge from horrors of Hitler's hell;
Critic's choice
by Frances Spalding

Daily Mail, London, U.K., Nov. 24, 2006

There are many heart-stopping moments in Rosemary Sullivan's account of a rescue operation in France.

book review

Joie de Vivre: Take a trip to France without ever leaving your chaise with these memorable reads (excerpt)

by Megan O'Grady
Vogue, Nov. 2006

With tremendous suspense and emotional pull, Sullivan recounts the little-known story of Varian Fry, the intrepid young American who sheltered them-helping them and hundreds more escape from Vichy France.

book review
by Sarah Curtis

Sunday Times, London, U.K., Nov. 19, 2006

Sullivan brilliantly interweaves personal histories with terrifying tales about flight over mountains to Spain or Switzerland and by sea to Casablanca or Martinique, and with stories of forging papers, bribery, love and betrayal. At the centre is Varian Fry, the quiet American, now forgotten, who managed the dangerous operation.

book review

Beyond the front lines: Three new books veer from the battlefields to coping on the civilian front
by James MacGowan, The Ottawa Citizen, Ottawa, Canada, Nov. 12, 2006

Along with plenty of intrigue, Sullivan's book -- which reads like a novel, and a page-turner at that -- houses some terrific characters: there is the rich hedonist Mary Jayne Gold, who props up Fry's efforts with money, when he runs short.

book review
The chequebook saviour and his château
Jane Stevenson is captivated by the story of a Harvard classical scholar who rescued Europe's intellectuals from the Nazis
by Jane Stevenson
The Daily Telegraph, London, U.K., Nov. 11, 2006

This is a magnificent, complex narrative of courage, folly and complacency. These were not always readily distinguishable: Mary Jayne Gold, a ditzy American heiress straight out of F. Scott Fitzgerald, threw in her lot with the escape committee and spent thousands and thousands of dollars of her own money on its behalf, yet endangered the entire enterprise by her relationship with a professional criminal.

Comment.  Mary Jayne Gold was not ditzy!

A refuge from the Reich
by Carlo Gébler
The Irish Times, Nov. 11, 2006

Sullivan has had to be selective, and her choices are uniformly judicious. Her principal characters are Fry, of course; Fry's English-speaking French assistant, Danny Bénédite; Bénédite's British wife Theo; Mary Jayne Gold, the American heiress who partly bankrolled the CAS; and the most famous of the artists saved by the CAS: Max Ernst, the painter; André Breton, the writer; and, my favourite, Victor Serge, the great anti-communist, anti-Stalinist and anti-fascist author of the penal classic Men in Prison....As a piece of narrative Villa Air-Bel is considerable. It tells a number of individual stories - about 40 - brilliantly and it places them in context....[S]urely, there must be an argument that Sullivan's book should be mandatory reading for contemporary politicians - and I mean all of them, not just the despots. It would certainly do them no harm.

book review
American idealist aided artists, intellectuals in Vichy France
by Sheldon Kirshner
Canadian Jewish News, Oct. 19, 2006

Rosemary Sullivan, a professor of English at the University of Toronto and an award-winning biographer, has written a vivid account of this episode....[A] strong narrative work that burnishes her reputation as a meticulous researcher and a fluid writer.

Comment.  With regard to the book burnishing Sullivan's "reputation as a meticulous researcher," please see here.

book review
Remembering the prince of Air-Bel
by Candace Fertile
Edmonton Journal, Alberta, Canada, Oct. 15, 2006

Rosemary Sullivan, a University of Toronto English professor, has several non-fiction books to her credit, and Villa Air-Bel is a wonderful addition. She manages to combine solid scholarship with a snappy writing style, and this makes for a history book that is completely riveting.

The key figures in this history are wildly varied. Mary Jayne Gold was a fabulously wealthy American who loved France and used her money to assist many people. The CAS was run by Varian Fry, a Harvard-educated American who had witnessed violence against Jews in Berlin in 1935. Fry was aided by Danny Benedite, a Frenchman, and his wife, Theo, who was British. A young American named Miriam Davenport, who had been studying art history at the University of Paris, was quickly taken on by Fry....Villa Air-Bel is history at its best.


Comment.  With regard to the book's "solid scholarship" and constituting "history at its best," please see here.

book review
WWII hero liberated 2,000 refugees
by David Laskin
The Seattle Times, Oct. 8, 2006

(...) Fry's astonishing success in helping high-profile refugees notably the surrealists Breton, Ernst and their circle escape to Mexico, the U.S. and Switzerland is the subject of "Villa Air-Bel," Canadian writer Rosemary Sullivan's fascinating, occasionally maddening book. (...)

As Europe fell to the Nazi nightmare, the villa's residents Breton, Serge, a plucky American heiress named Mary Jayne Gold and others shared meager meals and gossip, played surrealist parlor games, wrote, painted, hid stolen documents and waited frantically for the money and papers that would allow them to get out. Sullivan's chapters set at the villa read like a cross between "Casablanca" and Sherill Tippins' "February House," about the Brooklyn brownstone that W.H. Auden, Carson McCullers, Gypsy Rose Lee and other assorted Bohemians shared around the same time.

Unfortunately, before she gets to Marseille, Sullivan gives us 100 odd pages of historical background, from the rise of fascism to the Spanish Civil War to the folly and blindness that led to the fall of France, all of it filtered through the eyes of the key characters. Her intent is to make us smell the smoke and feel the fear, but too often it leads to awkward, forced passages. (...)

Comment.  The wonderful February House is highly recommended!

book review
The Yank Who Saved the Elite
by Jessica Warner
The Toronto Star, Canada, Oct. 1, 2006

(...) Some 4,000 Europeans, most of them artists or writers who had run afoul of the Nazis, owed their lives to this remarkable man. He is the subject of Villa Air-Bel by Toronto's Rosemary Sullivan. The title, which takes its name from the villa Fry used to shelter his more famous refugees, is perhaps misleading, for this is really a collection of biographies - of Fry, the people who helped him, and the people he helped.

What is clear is that Sullivan has unearthed the perfect story....Villa Air-Bel starts as a morally unambiguous tale. On one side there are the Nazis; on the other, the artists and writers they persecuted. It ends with shades of grey. Fry was a hero to the people he saved, but a scoundrel to his wife, divorcing her shortly after returning to the States. For the 4,000 people he helped, there were the 16,000 or more he did not. The famous were deemed worth saving, but why not the obscure?

Comment.  Yes, Fry's focus was the elite, but they were in particular danger, and he was a lover of the arts.  As Fry colleague Karel Sternberg put it, you measure the success of a rescue mission by what is done, not by what can't be done.  Fry's estimate of the number of people rescued was 2,000.  Fry was not at all a scoundrel to his wife.  Though they divorced upon his return, he cared for her when she died from cancer not long thereafter.

book review
Firm resolve, in desperate times: Rosemary Sullivan tells the story of Varian Fry
by Elaine Kalman Naves
The Gazette, Montreal, Canada, Sept. 30, 2006
Elaine Kalman Naves is a Montreal writer.

"Imagine the situation: the borders closed; you're caught in a trap, might be arrested at any moment; life is as good as over - and suddenly a young American in shirt sleeves is stuffing your pocket full of money, putting his arm around your shoulders and whispering in a poor imitation of a conspirator's manner: 'Oh, there are ways to get you out of here,' while damn it, the tears were streaming down my face, actual tears ... and that pleasant fellow ... takes a silk handkerchief from his jacket and says: 'Here, have this. Sorry it isn't cleaner.' "

German-Jewish critic and translator Hans Sahl...encapsulates the maelstrom in which thousands of persecuted European refugees found themselves in France during the Second World War.

The man with the money and the handkerchief...was Varian Fry, a young American classicist, journalist and editor. Fry's story lies at the heart of Rosemary Sullivan's complex and magisterial historical study Villa Air-Bel: World War II, Escape and a House in Marseille. In non-fiction format, Villa Air-Bel neatly complements Irene Nemirovsky's recently discovered exquisite novel, Suite Française.

"How is it," Sullivan asks, "that a peaceful country, committed to principles of freedom and democracy, suddenly finds itself not simply invaded by a foreign army, but ruled by an authoritarian regime with its own Fascist ideology?"....Among the 1,500 whom Fry and his brave staff at the Centre Americain de Secours - an officially authorized relief organization - would help escape by legal and illegal means (forged documents, secret smugglers' routes over the Pyrenees, black-market funding) were artists Marc Chagall, Max Ernst, Jacques Lipchitz and Wilfredo Lam, and authors Victor Serge, Andre Breton, Walter Mehring and Hannah Arendt....[Fry] arrived in Marseille Aug. 14, 1940, with a list of 200 names of notables to save, $3,000 strapped to his leg and a firm resolve.

Sullivan has brought to this book her experience as the award-winning biographer of Elizabeth Smart, Gwendolyn MacEwan and Margaret Atwood, and a flair for vivid language honed by crafting three poetry collections. If at times her exhaustive research threatens to engulf her tale, she makes amends with a cast of intensely interesting characters caught in the snare of desperate times.

.  The quotation from Hans Sahl was first used in Mary Jayne Gold's memoir.  No major historians--certainly not Michael R. Marrus and Robert O. Paxton, authors of the fundamental Vichy France and the Jews, omitted from Sullivan's bibliography--consider that the Vichy regime can be usefully summarized as "Fascist."  Fry's estimate was that his operation helped 2,000 people escape.  Wifredo Lam's name is mispelled throughout Villa Air-Bel.  With regard to Sullivan's "exhaustive research," please see here.

The lessons of history:  Evil is part of human nature, not a national trait.
Combating it in Vichy France were several brave people determined to rescue intellectuals from the Nazis
by Candace Fertile
The Vancouver Sun, British Columbia, Canada, Sept 30, 2006

Rosemary Sullivan, a University of Toronto English professor, has several non-fiction books to her credit, and Villa Air-Bel is a wonderful addition. She manages to combine solid scholarship with a snappy writing style, and this makes for a history book that is completely riveting.

....The key figures in this history are wildly varied. Mary Jayne Gold was a fabulously wealthy American who loved France and used her money to assist many people. The CAS was run by Varian Fry, a Harvard-educated American who had witnessed violence against Jews in Berlin in 1935. Fry was aided by Danny Benedite, a Frenchman, and his wife, Theo, who was British. A young American named Miriam Davenport, who had been studying art history at the University of Paris, was quickly taken on by Fry....A fascinating side story is Mary Jayne Gold's predilection for danger, especially dangerous men. She falls in love with Raymond (Killer) Courand, a gangster, and her naivete about him crosses the border into total stupidity, jeopardizing the CAS....Villa Air-Bel is history at its best.

Comment.  Mary Jayne Gold's affair with gangster Raymond ("Killer") Couraud did not jeopardize Varian Fry's operation, and Mary Jayne remained close friends with Fry till his death.  "Total stupidity" hardly characterizes Mary Jayne Gold's approach to Killer; she recognized the war hero he was to become.  With regard to Sullivan's "solid scholarship," please see here.

book review
History the house salvation built fall books
by Michael Greenstein
National Post, Canada, Sept. 23, 2006

Rosemary Sullivan's latest book covers a little-known chapter in the history of the Second World War: the story of Villa Air-Bel, a dilapidated chateau on the outskirts of Marseilles that housed refugee artists awaiting visas to escape from Vichy France -- vicious Vichy, where the Petain government often outdid the Nazis in their zealous anti-Semitic policies.

....The central character in this story is Varian Fry, a young American who comes to France in 1940 as the representative of the American Emergency Rescue Committee. He is helped by some fellow Americans, including heiress Mary Jayne Gold and Miriam Davenport....Initially Fry and Gold appear as innocent Americans out of a Henry James novel or bon vivant characters from the pages of F. Scott Fitzgerald, but soon they are devoting themselves to the highest moral causes: Gold giving generously from her inheritance, and Fry spending countless hours obtaining documents for those hunted by the Gestapo. In Paris, Gold befriends Danny Benedite, whose experience with the police department proves invaluable to Fry in making black-market contacts and procuring documents. Frequently they get involved with gangsters who as often as not cheat them.

....Ultimately, though, Fry's efforts were highly successful. Using Lisa and Hans Fittko as guides, he and his cohorts were able to find safe passage over the Pyrenees for the likes of Claude Levi-Strauss, Marc Chagall, Jacques Lipchitz, Peggy Guggenheim and numerous others. In her Afterword, Sullivan offers snapshots of the fate of her many "characters" after the war.

Villa Air-Bel is a remarkable achievement. Sullivan has a strong reading voice: husky, crisp and self-assured; her writing is equally powerful.

.  It is excessive, to say the least, to indicate that the Vichy government "often outdid the Nazis in their zealous anti-Semitic policies."  Claude Lévi-Strauss and Peggy Guggenheim did not leave France with the help of Fry's committee, not did they leave over the Pyrenees or benefit from the Fittkos' help.  Villa Air-Bel''s Afterword summarizes the post-war lives of key figures as had Mary Jayne Gold's earlier Crossroads Marseilles 1940.

book review
Publishers Weekly, August 21, 2006

The outbreak of WWII took many Europeans by surprise. In France, by the time the fighting began, the papers people needed to get out of the country were difficult to come by. It was on this circumstance that three enterprising Americans concentrated their efforts in the first two years of the war. Ivy League scholar Varian Fry, sent by the American Emergency Rescue Committee, heiress Mary Jayne Gold and graduate student Miriam Davenport turned a Marseille château into a safe haven for dozens of prominent artists and intellectuals....The author never gets quite close enough to her subjects, but this is a moving tale of great sacrifice in tumultuous times.

book review
irkus Reviews, Aug, 2006

(...) If Sullivan's writing seems at times a bit too perky and aimed at readers who know little about the Second World War, her subject matter is of surpassing importance -- and her efforts are ultimately effective. An astonishing array of talent fled to Marseilles in the early 1940s....Sullivan...artfully interweaves their journeys and backstories....[Among the stories related are those of] American heiress Mary Jayne Gold, whose money kept the operation going in the early days. A number of the principals survived to publish their memoirs....A complex tale showing how hope and courage flourish, even in the toxic soil of totalitarianism.

Comment.  Though harsh judgments can and should be made of the Vichy regime, historians do not consider that it can be usefully summarized as totalitarian.  With regard to how Sullivan "artfully interweaves...backstories" and draws on memoirs published by some of the participants in the rescue mission, please see here.

book review
by Vanessa Bush
Booklist Magazine, American Library Association

(...) Drawing on diaries, memoirs, and letters, Sullivan offers a gripping look at the desperate and joyous days--with artists hanging paintings from trees--as musicians, scientists, and intellectuals waited for the visas that would give them safe passage out of Vichy France. Harvard-educated scholar Varian Fry led the effort, eventually saving 2,000 artists and intellectuals. An American heiress and a graduate student were part of Fry's team, coping with the petty and enlightened arguments of their diverse and brilliant charges....

Comment.  With regard to Sullivan's use of diaries, memoirs, and letters, please see here.

book review
Taking flight from Vichy France
by Anne Bartlett
Bamm.com's BookPage Review:

(...) Villa Air-Bel, a true tale full of intrigue, danger, crazed love, death and survival. Her main characters, American do-gooders and European artists, washed up for a time in the villa, a dilapidated suburban mansion that provided cheap shared accommodations. (...) The debt of modern culture to the motley crowd at the Villa Air-Bel is truly incalculable.

book review
Paris Through Expatriate Eyes

(...) At a time when official America turned a blind eye to the plight of Europe’s mostly Jewish intellectuals, meticulously detailed in Arthur Morse’s WHILE SIX MILLION DIED, a private American relief organization, the Emergency Rescue Committee made up of these unlikely heroes—feisty graduate student Miriam Davenport, Harvard educated classical scholar Varian Fry, beautiful and compelling heiress Mary Jayne Gold, and brilliant young Socialist and survivor of the Battle of Dunkerque Danny Bénédite and his British wife, Theo fought the good and noble fight....Rosemary Sullivan explores the diaries, memoirs, and letters of the individuals involved while uncovering their private worlds and the web of relationships they developed.


Comment.  The key scholarly work on the American response to the Holocaust is David S. Wyman's The Abandonment of the Jews.  With regard to how Sullivan "explores the diaries, memoirs, and letters of the individuals involved," please see here.

book review

by Andrew Kett
Quill & Quire Omni, November 2006


(...) The book’s short chapters alternate between the path of fascism through France and stories of men and women making their way through the devastation....Sullivan has written a book of great detail and complexity, though one that is full of darkness.

book review

by Sue Tomchin

Jewish Women International Jewish Woman


In Villa Air Bel: World War II, Escape and a House in Marseille (HarperCollins), author and University of Toronto professor Rosemary Sullivan recounts a story that is as compelling as a John le Carré spy yarn, yet grounded in fastidious historical research....

Comment.  With regard to Sullivan's "fastidious historical research," please see here.

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