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interviewed by Pierre Sauvage
Prior to its publication, I was provided the advance uncorrected proofs of the first biography of Varian Fry, A Quiet American: The Secret War of Varian Fry by Andrew Marino (St. Martin’s Press, November 1999). I was delighted that some of my subsequent corrections and suggestions were deemed useful.
Although I will one day have further comments (and some criticisms) on the published edition--I particularly regret the condescending and inaccurate treatment of Fry's associate Mary Jayne Gold--I found A Quiet American, despite the silly title, to be continually fascinating, psychologically astute, often moving, sometimes eloquent.
I am happy to share the interview that I conducted with Andy on March 19, 1999, during the opening of Marseille’s excellent Varian Fry exhibit (co-sponsored by the Chambon Foundation), which we both attended.
Andrew Marino is one of over one hundred people who have been interviewed for my upcoming feature documentary, And Crown Thy Good: Varian Fry in Marseille. (It should be noted that at the time of the interview, I had not read Andy’s book.)
Another biography of Varian Fry, A Hero of Our Own by Sheila Isenberg, was published in November 2002 by Random House .
Marseille, the cold winter of 1940-41
What interested you about Varian Fry in the first place?
I suppose because it was the story of an outsider who briefly became an insider. And was then an outsider again. It’s the story of many people who were very talented, but on the fringes, and don’t quite fit in. And whose talents are never really employed by society. It takes the breakdown of society for them to show how ingenious and resourceful they really are.
Do you think he was an outsider from the start?
In his early youth he was an outsider. He was quite a mommy’s boy. He didn’t fit in at school. He wasn’t athletic. He was sensitive, poetic. So until about the age of thirteen or fourteen, he was very much an outsider, and made his own world. He had a rich, imaginative life, and was quite unhappy in the company of his peers. So, he was not exactly in the American mold. But obviously high intelligence—all his teachers recognized this.
Once he found a very good prep school, he suddenly changed, and became quite outrageous and provocative. You know, the advantage of being solitary is that you read a lot. You become sophisticated and in advance of your peers. So, by the time he got to Harvard, he was very much a kind of theatrical and quite flamboyant person. Which was maybe because he felt insecure or unfinished underneath.
But he made a very good show of being the person to follow. He would hold court and he would judge things. And he would deliver aperçus. And he would intimidate people. He was sort of on the edge—and enough on the edge that it actually got him sent out from Harvard. You know, part of it was deviance. And when he planted the “For Sale” sign on the Dean of Harvard’s lawn, he got punished.
And that was his shock. And that sort of made him aware of politics, you know, because he an aristocrat dilettante. He didn’t take anything seriously. But then six months after he was sent down, he was leaving an unemployment march down Broadway on behalf of the Harvard contingent. So that was really his first awakening.
And after that, in conjunction with meeting who was to become his first wife [Eileen Hughes], he became socially conscious, politically aware. And all those energies that went into his self-presentation suddenly converted into doing things for others. And that went from 1930, I suppose, until the outbreak of the war when he went to France.
What do you think attracted him to the mission to France?
Well, he just wanted to help. He was a joiner. He knew Karl Frank—Paul Hagen aka Karl Frank—and Frank told him that he knew lots of people in Europe who had been on the run from the Nazis since 1933 and had gone to Czechoslovakia or Holland or France or Denmark. And as the Germans advanced, they got funneled into France and Paris, and then, after the German invasion, down to the south of France. It was Karl Frank who alerted Fry to the plight of these people. And Fry and his friends decided that they’ve got to do something about it. And it just, in the way that it does, came together well. And they raised enough money.
But Karl Frank did not want Fry to go to France. He thought it was a joke. Fry was a classical scholar. He was a political activist in a nice kind of belles lettres fashion, but he wasn’t an activist. He never got his hands dirty. Frank said, “Send him to France, and he’s dead.”
But on the other hand, Karl Frank couldn’t go either because if Karl Frank went to France, he was dead. Because he was known; he was on the run from the Gestapo. So, Fry offered his name, and Frank said, “Yeah, thanks but no thanks.” But when nobody else came up, three weeks later, Frank called him back and said, “You still fancy going?” Fry was really the last choice.
What do you think were the qualities that suited Varian, ultimately, to the task, despite what everybody might have expected?
My opinion is that Fry did very well because a part of his character was schooled in deviance already. He found his métier in France. Outwitting the Gestapo, outwitting bureaucrats, outwitting the plodding, unthinking, bigoted people whom he’d railed against throughout his life up to that point. He was suddenly in his element. He was being the deviant, and he had a natural gift for it, which he perfected during his teenage years and early twenties, when he was quite outrageous by the standards of the time, and which he sort of buried when he married and settled down and became moral and earnestly political.
And I think it was just a lucky conjunction of those things. So he was the perfect person to send, though you could never have predicted that. Because nobody except him knew that about himself. And it’s not clear he did himself.
What do you make of his relationship with the Emergency Rescue Committee when he was in France? All the tensions, all the difficulties with New York...
The people in New York were committed liberals. But they had their own social lives. The work at the Chanin Building was obviously a great piece of noblesse oblige. You don’t want to demean them, but the fact was that they were in America. They had other lives. Their lives did not depend on it.
Fry was in a situation where the people he was dealing with—their lives depended on it. In the end, his life also depended on getting it right. And he could not stand—because he was an impatient, and arrogant, and difficult man—these people in New York not living it 150% as he was. And he got very, very, very angry, angry to the extent perhaps that it was counter-productive.
When Hans Sahl got to New York, he said, “Look, Varian, all these files we sent over—they’re just dead. Nobody’s been working on them.” And Fry said, “Yeah, you’re not kidding.” So, when he got back to New York in November 1940, he went up to the offices on 42nd Street and started ordering people around. [Emergency Rescue Committee Chairman] Frank Kingdon got very annoyed and sacked him. But then, he wasn’t a hero at the time. He’d been someone who had done a job in France. He’d done the job too well, and created a lot more work and problems for people in New York, so nobody had anything to thank him for, particularly.
They couldn’t see it from our perspective. They just saw it as, “We’ve got enough to do. What’s he on? We didn’t want him to get that involved. And he’s swearing and shouting at us and insulting us. And he comes back here and he acts like he owns the place. We appointed him, for God’s sakes. And, most of all, we depend upon the cooperation of the State Department, and the State Department has just declared Varian Fry Public Enemy #1.” So he’s a loose cannon, and he must be silenced and muzzled. And that’s what happened.
What allowed him to be so sensitive to the State Department’s obstructions, to the narrow-mindedness of the diplomats in Marseille? Most Americans then would have probably accepted this as the norm.
I think most Americans never come into contact with the policy of the State Department. Sixteen percent of Americans have passports, even today—it was less then. So no Americans went abroad. Most Americans have no conception of what Europe is. They certainly had no conception of the abuse of human rights and the violence that was being undertaken at that time. So, the State Department for most Americans was a part of the government they had nothing to do with.
When he met diplomats from the State Department before he went, people like [William C.] Bullitt—who was a drunk, and a nut, and who was one of the better guys—he thought they were great. Once he got out there, saw the caliber and the youthfulness and the prejudices of the staff on the ground, he just blew his top. And when he got back to America, he didn’t stop. And that was a delicate time for America. Roosevelt’s opinion was, “I help how I can, but I’m trying to set up intelligence liaison with the British, you know, to stop Hitler invading America.” He had more important things to think about than refugees.
People tend to romanticize the refugees.
Oh, the refugees were hell; it was like herding cats. I mean, they were awful, lots of them—some of them were okay. But these were arrogant Germans who were used to having servants and ordering people around. And they’d suddenly been thrust into a position where it was the opposite, and they were the supplicants, and they were the people who depended on others for their lives, not just employment and food. And they couldn’t handle it.
You know, Fry sent them over the Pyrenees, they got to Lisbon, they started sending postcards back to Marseilles saying, “This is how we got over the Pyrenees. It was ludicrous. They were unworldly Viennese bourgeois or whatever, and it was infuriating—and very dangerous.
Some of the more sophisticated refugees found Varian a little naïve—one of the “innocents abroad.”
He was naive when he went there, but he sharpened up very quickly thanks to Beamish [Dr. Albert O. Hirschman] and thanks to various other people and thanks to just hanging out in Marseille. He got it. He was a quick study and a fast learner. So he wasn’t naive after about a couple of months.
There are certain times in people’s lives when you completely change and you learn more than you’d ever done in your life up to that point. And he underwent that in a couple of months. And it killed his marriage. And it killed his whole life, because how was he going to match that? He didn’t know it at the time, but it’s a very difficult benchmark in your personal development to reach again, let alone to keep up, especially if it’s not appreciated afterwards by other people.
The first couple of weeks, he was terrified. After that, things started to shape up, and he got a handle on it. Things fell into place. He met the right people. He had a couple of lucky breaks—a couple of bad breaks but more lucky ones. And he was off. It was grace under pressure. He could have gone badly wrong. But luckily, all the elements of his temperament that would lead him to conflict, he managed to put into avoiding conflict for a greater purpose, which of course reverted back to type when he got back to America.
There was no good arguing with the Gestapo, because they beat you. So you didn’t argue. He subverted and got what he wanted by subterfuge and forgery and bribery and conniving. So it was a great time. He was hitting all the marks and not missing a bit. He was exhilarated, and that kept him going. Because he didn’t have enough to eat, he didn’t sleep enough, there was too much work.
It was very dangerous, and he literally didn’t have time to get scared. Although everybody was scared. Charlie [Fawcett] saw him in a cafe and said, “You know, Varian, I can’t go on. I’m scared to death.” And Fry said, “Yeah, I am too.” But never showed it—which is not bad for a Harvard classics guy who’s never punched anybody in his life.
I think he understood early on that part of his job was to be reassuring.
Well, that’s what Hans Sahl said. He always promised people, and then made himself live up to the promise.
You mentioned his marriage. Do you think that marriage was dead before he went to Marseille, or do you think Marseille killed it?
No, it wasn’t dead, but it was the kind of marriage that worked because they worked together. That was the basis of the marriage. I don’t think it was ever one of infatuation. I think it was companionship.
She was older than him. She’d schooled him in politics. He’d become the upper hand in the relationship as far as politics went, but she still treated him like a naughty schoolboy. And he kind of needed that a bit, because of certain elements of his personality that were immature, or naughty. And when he got to France, he outgrew that. So what could she give him when he went back?
Also, he was romantically unsophisticated. He looked at the marriage as if it was a deal. All right, they needed each other, and they were affectionate. But I always got the impression that he never said the right thing to her as a woman. And she was benevolent and understanding and indulgent and held her own way.
He said at one point, “It was never very good—we were always arguing and then making up.” But when he got back it was much worse. I don’t think he needed her as a woman. He needed her as a listener, as a support. And he missed her terribly. And when she grew ill, it certainly rescued his own sort of “lostness” in America. It gave him a purpose again: to look after her until she died. And possibly they were closer than ever then.
So it was a marriage. And it was a good marriage—as marriages go, it worked very well. It wasn’t the Hollywood idea of what marriage is, but it was good.
Do you address his sexual conflicts or torments—if that’s what they were?
Sure. He wasn’t tormented. He was one of the most open guys. He was astonishingly ahead of his time, I think. You know, he was absolutely not bothered at all. He knew what he was from a very early age—which is a guy who got married twice and had children. That’s what he was. And ninety percent of the time he was completely happy with that.
So I don’t think there’s any big problem there, really. But he was a complicated man in all respects, so I’d be astonished if something like that wasn’t complicated, you know. Hardly anybody’s not complicated, and those who are, probably couldn’t do the kind of thing that Fry did. They’re just silent men who never think about anything but work on Monday—“Dear, what’s for dinner?”
He wasn’t like that. The only bearing it had on the issue was that he was very good at being deviant, and that helped him in France. That’s all I’ve really got to say about it.
What do you make of his postwar years? How unsuccessful were they?
He was perfectly successful by any measure of standard American prosperity in the 1950s. He kept up with everybody else. My only slight query with the pattern of his employment would be why did he think that it was more American to be a businessman than, say, an academic, which he was perfectly well qualified for.
You know, with his experience and his publications, he could have walked into a job lecturing in either classics or literature. He could have gone to a literature department, a classics department, a political department, without problem. And not just in some cow college, but something quite good. But he wanted to mix it in New York to prove that he could be a businessman in the hard commercial world.
Everybody says, “Oh, he failed. He didn’t do this. He didn’t do that.” But he was perfectly successful. And when he could be bothered, he earned fine money. And he liked teaching. And he ended up teaching at a high school whereas if he had made a decision to become an academic earlier, he could have made it as a professor at a good university.
He was a sophisticated, varied man who did not want to settle. You’ve got to understand that. Anybody who writes for a living knows that it’s very difficult to say, “I will do that,” because then you feel limited. You feel you’re missing out on something else. If you can be an accountant and say, “I’m an accountant, and this is what I’ll do until the day I retire,” you’re lucky. Someone like Fry, like most writers or creative people, can’t do that. He wasn’t a creative artist, like the people he helped. He didn’t feel unfulfilled if he wasn’t sculpting or if he wasn’t writing a novel. He didn’t write novels. He was just someone who’d read a lot, who was very intelligent, and who was happiest doodling in his office.
And if you’re happiest doing that, get an academic job, because that’s the last occupation of the gentleman dilettante and the eccentric amateur who can write. And that would have given him a living. He decided not to do that and wanted to go and mix it with the big boys in downtown New York.
You’re putting your finger on probably the most puzzling aspect of that part of his life, the fact that for some reason he was determined to make it in business.
It’s partly the politics of the century, partly it’s unique to America. But if you’re a liberal, and you’re an academic, you’re somehow un-American. And Fry railed against that. He was always being accused of being a Communist, of course, when actually he was a red-baiter. He hated Communism. And for the right reasons, not the wrong ones.
But unless he was absolutely the all-American boy, then somehow he felt as if he didn’t fit in. I don’t know. It was fifty years ago. It’s hard to look at it through that generation’s eyes. He obviously felt you should drive the Buick and have your office, and all that. And to be American—to be properly American—was to be confined within a certain range of things. And that to be an academic was somehow to be foreign or something else.
How do you think he felt about the lack of recognition?
I don’t think he felt a lack of recognition. He was quite pleased when he got his Légion d’Honneur. What he didn’t like was when he went to people he’d helped for the flight portfolio—the book of engravings he was trying to do for the International Rescue Committee in the ‘60s—and he didn’t get all the cooperation he expected. And then he had that fancied “heart attack” in Cannes, and then a minor nervous breakdown, which was probably the beginning of the brain hemorrhage that killed him. He was a perfectly happy middle-aged man with three kids. It wasn’t all smooth sailing, but it was not tragic.
What do you think the marriage to Annette and parenthood meant?
I think that ninety percent of the time, it was very good for him. The other ten percent of the time, he was freaking out. But then it’s like every other husband in the world.
How was he as a father?
I never met the man—how do I know? I made a point of not talking to the kids. That wasn’t the story. I was writing the story of Varian Fry, and Varian Fry was famous for what he did in France. To understand the man in France, you have to understand the life, but you don’t have to go to the family that much.
Getting back to his mission to France in 1940-41, is there a broader lesson here in terms of selecting people for such jobs?
Absolutely. We all run on statistics and pie charts and averages. And the only interesting person is the person who bucks the average. So we never choose them. And it’s as true today as it was 60 years ago. Fry was chosen by chance.
So luckily there wasn’t really much of an organization at the outset...
Had the organization been hardened and organized and longer-standing, someone like Fry would never have gotten through the net, and what Fry did would never have happened. That’s the way life goes. I think the significance of the story is that it was a lucky chance that it happened. There was nothing running on rails that meant that an American like Fry would go to France and help these people. It was a complete fluke.
Which is partly why it’s such a good story, because when flukes happen, other flukes happen, and then it becomes something special. Had it been handled by a more organized and established committee, there wouldn’t have been the slack in the rope to let Fry go there and do something like that. And it’s doubtful, extremely doubtful, that a quarter of the people would have gotten out.
And that’s the moral, as we live in an increasingly bureaucratized and organized age. We should actually look at what happens when things get a bit looser; you get more done.
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