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Memorial Service, London, Feb. 18, 2008
Charlie by Andy Marino
Everyone here today knows at least some of the many things that Charlie did during his long and remarkable life.
I feel certain that none of us knows everything. Charlie was so mercurial and adventurous that he probably forgot things that the rest of us would count as an heroic highlight in our own lives. It’s also true that he could keep a secret, and above all Charlie was modest.
He never bragged or preened about the good deeds he had done, and he never expected thanks or adulation. All he wanted was to see right prevail, whether it was helping Jews escape from concentration camps, Hungarians flee from Russian tanks, or Afghans to evict the Soviet invader from their country. On this last, we should remember that if Charlie isn’t currently getting the credit he deserves from Hollywood, it’s because by the time the medals were being handed around and people were patting themselves on the back, Charlie was already gone, as always, onto the next conflict, the next cause. Though he could blow a trumpet just fine, he never blew his own trumpet. As all truly great men do, he let that task fall to those who loved and admired him, never expecting anything and so receiving more than he expected. Charlie was always touched and grateful when he received the praise he so richly deserved.
Today I don’t need to talk about what Charlie did - we already know a lot about that. Instead, I want to talk about what Charlie was like, what sort of a man he was, and what enabled him to have such a wonderful, principled, frankly incredible career, and an inimitable life.
Two clues to Charlie lie in where he came from, and when he was born. I always thought of him as the last of the Southern gentlemen, with an antebellum graciousness and the natural charm and poise of one of nature’s aristocrats. When you think about it, he was one of the USA’s first really useful exports to the world: Charlie was the last of that first great migrant generation, headed up by Hemingway, that returned to Europe. And he was very much in the Ernest Hemingway mould, although I would much rather have a drink with Charlie.
What did he bring with him when he arrived in the Old World? He had an openness, an unaffected wonder at life that was often noted in Americans of the time. In Charlie’s case it was matched by physical toughness and an instinctive courage we rightly call bravery. I have thought about it a lot, and my conclusion is that the big thing about Charlie was that he was not afraid of anybody.
This innate lack of fear is another clue. It explains how he could support himself as a wrestler, how he could persuade Louis Armstrong to give him music lessons, how he could invite himself to lunch with Braque and Matisse, how he could disguise himself as a German officer, how he could escape from Gestapo headquarters, how he could forge a passport to fly an RAF fighter plane, gain the respect of his comrades in the Foreign Legion, beat the communists in Greece, become a movie star and a movie director, and win the affections of Hedy Lamarr and an army of beautiful women until at last he met his Waterloo and his happiness in young April Ducksbury.
Charlie’s bravery and his pleasure at what the world offered explains how he lived happily among the headhunters of the Amazon and the more deadly denizens of Marseilles, how he was crowned “The Mayor of the Via Veneto” in Rome in the 1950s, and how he became lifelong friends with King Hassan of Morocco, among many other exalted and extraordinary people.
Charlie said to me that “Everything that’s ever happened to me has happened accidentally.” I think I can reply that that is partly true, but that character is also destiny. Charlie’s destiny was to be more alive than other people, to accomplish more daring feats and good deeds than the most fervent fantasist would dare imagine. His destiny was to do a disproportionate amount of good in the world. He was no angel, though – I wouldn’t have liked to be a German fighting hand-to-hand with him in the Vosges mountains in the winter of ’44, or a Soviet soldier in the Afghan mountains in the summer of ’84. But Charlie always did what he knew was right, in the large things and the small.
Charlie was a gypsy and a swashbuckler, and earned what he was born with: charisma.
Even in his final years he was as he had always been: kind, courteous, good-natured, very slow to anger, considerate and thoughtful of others, never complaining. He had no self-pity. Wherever he went, people looked up to him and loved him, for they recognised that he was larger than life, and that in his presence their own lives were touched by the numinous influence of a great spirit.
There was a joke the Italians used to tell about Charlie, back in the ’50s: A tourist is looking up at the Pope on the balcony of the basilica. “Who’s that?” he asks a local. “I don’t know, but the guy standing next to him is Charlie Fawcett.”
If I ever get to heaven I know I’ll be that tourist. Looking toward the heavenly throne, I’ll say, in my ignorance of the ineffable divinity of that shining light, “Who is that?” – and I’m sure an angel at my shoulder will reply, “Nobody really knows, but that’s Charlie Fawcett standing next to him!”
Charlie, we all salute you and bless you, and now that you’re gone, we miss you and the light that has gone out of the world.
Andy Marino about Varian Fry
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© Copyright 2008. Chambon Foundation. All rights reserved. Revised: February 19, 2008