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November 25, 2001
For the American Schindler, Writers and Artists First
By BARRY GEWEN
arian Fry was the American Schindler. He even had a list. He arrived in Vichy-controlled Marseille on Aug. 15, 1940, with $3,000 taped to his leg and a charge from the organization he worked for, the Emergency Rescue Committee, to help save some 200 endangered refugees, mainly artists, writers and intellectuals, from the Nazis. He expected to stay a month, but quickly realized that the job was much larger and more complicated than he or his sponsors had imagined. Those fleeing the Third Reich numbered in the thousands, and the French authorities were cooperating with the Germans by refusing to issue exit visas. Getting anyone out would require subterfuge and deceit, a willingness to take risks and break laws. Fry was up to the job. He stayed for 13 months, until he was thrown out of the country, and assisted approximately 2,000 people, among them an all-star lineup that included Hannah Arendt, Marc Chagall, Max Ernst, Andre Breton, Arthur Koestler, Alma Mahler Werfel and Max Ophuls. Along with a television film broadcast earlier this year, Sheila Isenberg's book ''A Hero of Our Own'' helps rescue Fry from obscurity. And with its stories of desperate exiles, menacing Nazis, forged documents and midnight escapes through the mountains, it reads at times like the script for some old Hollywood movie. Think Warner Brothers in the 1940's. Think ''Casablanca'' (even down to the transit visas for Portugal). All that's missing is Peter Lorre.
Fry was something of a dilettante until he went to France. The son of a liberal Protestant Wall Street stockbroker, he was constantly in trouble at boarding school and at Harvard, where he founded the literary magazine Hound & Horn with Lincoln Kirstein to champion modernist authors like Joyce and Eliot, but also managed to get himself expelled for several months before graduating in 1931. A trip to Germany in 1935 turned him into an ardent anti-Nazi. In Berlin, he went to see Ernst Hanfstaengl, a German-American Harvard graduate, now an official in the upper echelons of the Propaganda Ministry. Hanfstaengl told him that the more radical Nazi leaders, Hitler and Goebbels among them, were determined to exterminate the Jews. The interview merely reinforced what Fry had witnessed in the city's streets, and in 1940, when the opportunity presented itself to do something concrete in the struggle against Hitler, Fry later wrote, ''I volunteered myself.'' He explained: ''I remembered what I had seen in Germany. I knew what would happen to the refugees if the Gestapo got hold of them. . . . It was my duty to help them.'' At the age of 32 he had found his vocation.
Fry underwent a transformation, discovering reserves of courage and energy in himself that he never knew existed. The devotion with which he went about his unending work, his labors to the point of total exhaustion, suggested something spiritual, even religious: one colleague called his efforts ''a miracle''; Isenberg speaks of ''divine inspiration.'' Yet there was nothing saintly about him, at least not as we normally understand the term. For one thing, Fry was very matter-of-fact, addressing problems in a rational, pragmatic way, not a moralistic one; he turned good will into professionalism. For another, he enjoyed himself too much. He liked to conduct meetings in his underwear, drank whenever he got the chance, cracked jokes while life-and-death decisions were being made. When a group of Surrealists descended on his villa like a bunch of frolicsome kindergartners, he joined them in their singing, dancing and game playing, even as the Gestapo was nipping at their heels. ''It sometimes seemed as if Fry was hosting a giant party,'' Isenberg writes. Fry himself said: ''There's a hell of a lot of fun -- though that's not quite the word -- in rescue work. . . . It's stimulating to be outside the law. . . . And as for depression, anxiety -- all that pattern simply vanishes.''
Throughout his months in France, no issue haunted Fry more than the question of selection. Human needs seemed limitless; resources were not. He could not help everyone. Word quickly spread through the refugee community that an American had arrived who could offer hope, and within weeks Fry was receiving 25 letters a day, a dozen telephone calls an hour. He and his staff conducted between 100 and 120 interviews each day. Altogether, around 15,000 refugees, about half the total number residing in Vichy France, got in touch with Fry -- and, in effect, it was up to him to determine who among them would live and who would die. But how does a good man play God?
True to his rational nature, Fry did not run his operation on a first-come-first-served basis, through a lottery or in some other arbitrary or haphazard fashion. He did not evade the responsibility of choice. Perhaps in a bow to popular prejudices, Isenberg writes that ''Fry saved not only well-known intellectuals and artists but also ordinary men, women and children.'' But that statement, though true, is misleading. Fry had never been an egalitarian, at least not since his days at Harvard, when he tried to bring modernism to the attention of his ignorant classmates. He always felt that some individuals were more equal than others -- the really valuable people,'' in his words, were ''the novelists, poets, painters, historians, philosophers, scientists, doctors'' -- and in Marseille he established priorities, trying to distinguish ''an intellectual of genuine value from a faker.'' Sensibly, his greatest efforts went toward those who had been singled out by the Nazis and were in the most danger. He also favored refugees who already possessed some of the necessary documents and who were healthy enough to make the journey across the Pyrenees. Fry came to depend on personal networks: if someone was not known to his compatriots, he was not helped. And Communists were automatically turned away (though this did not prevent at least one of his associates at the rescue committee and, of course, the F.B.I. from suggesting that he harbored Communist sympathies).
Impossible choices, spies and counterspies, the ominous knock on the door -- it was all heady stuff, and after Fry was forced to return to the United States in late 1941 he, like so many who peak early, went into decline. Nothing could ever match his glory days in France. ''The experiences of 10, 15 and even 20 years have been pressed into one,'' he wrote. ''Sometimes I feel as if I had lived my whole life.'' Fry drifted from job to job, from journalism to magazine editing to film production to corporate writing to high school and college teaching. He developed an ulcer and went into psychoanalysis. In the book's final pages one reads that he ''had no income,'' that he ''felt unappreciated,'' that ''as time went on, he grew more and more troubled.'' On Sept. 13, 1967, the Connecticut State Police found Fry in bed, dead from a cerebral hemorrhage. Some years later Israel made him an honorary citizen.
Isenberg, who teaches English at Marist College, deserves considerable credit for putting this biography together. In Marseille, Fry destroyed most of his papers each night, and the rest disappeared after the French police seized his offices. Yet in the end it is Fry who carries this book; Isenberg is not up to her subject. Too often, her prose rumbles through a landscape of banality and repetition. And her judgments, particularly toward the end, go badly astray. Incomprehensibly, she declares that ''after the war, two schools of liberals emerged, one antifascist and the other anti-Soviet'' -- as if one precluded the other. She assumes that because Fry was a cold warrior, he was also a conservative. Gyrating wildly, she announces first that he was ''squarely on the side of fanatic Communist haters such as the House Committee on Un-American Activities and Senator Joseph McCarthy,'' and then in the next sentence tells us that he ''never supported, or even tolerated, these extremists and was furious at the McCarthy hearings.'' Apparently, she has difficulty understanding that someone could be a fervent anti-Communist and furiously anti-McCarthy. But if she cannot understand that, can one really believe that she has understood a liberal elitist like Varian Fry?
Barry Gewen is an editor at the Book Review.
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Revised: June 25, 2006