Friday, 5 March 2021


I wrote this review for the Financial Times in 1999, and it was published in January of 2000. It popped up, unbidden, in my computer as I was attempting to store material, and it seems as if I had at some point restored some elements which may have been edited from the original. But Fry's story has been retold since, and deserves to stay in the forefront of our attentions today as a warning about the way no good deeds go unpunished, especially as we see Breckinridge Long reflected in both the Trump and Johnson regimes, and also in the way so-called geniuses ignore those who sacrifice and risk to help them, indeed, save their lives.

In August 1940, Varian Fry, an unassuming American editor, arrived in Vichy France on a brief fact-finding mission, representing the Emergency Rescue Committee. He carried a list of 200 worthy artists, writers and intellectuals endangered by the Nazis, whom the ERC had been founded to aid. When he was finally expelled 13 months later, Fry had created an underground operation which saved thousands, not just the Max Ernsts and Marc Chagalls, but “ordinary” refugees, as well as hundreds of British servicemen. Yet Fry, a true heroic figure of the Second World War, died in obscurity, teaching high school in suburban Connecticut.
“Pimpernel” is a particularly apt title, because Fry seemed an unlikely candidate for such heroism. A pampered child who feigned illness to escape school bullying, he became a precocious aesthete at Harvard. His modest career on liberal magazines was transformed in Berlin when he witnessed Kristallnacht, and received a blunt assessment of the Nazis’ plans from their international spin-doctor, a fellow Harvard man. His Associated Press reports were the first to warn that Germany intended to “exterminate” the Jews.
Fry’s low tolerance for political in-fighting had seen him sacked from Spanish Civil War relief, and there was no hint of his practical abilities when he landed in France. Yet within weeks he created an organisation which hid refugees, forged papers, smuggled people into Spain, and kept one step ahead of the Vichy authorities. The players were worthy of a movie cast, and Andy Marino retells their stories with piquant details not included in Fry’s contemporary memoir SURRENDER ON DEMAND.
He can also be more honest than Fry about those he saved. Many showed little gratitude and worse, endangered those who saved them. Lion Feuchtwangler revealed his escape route to the New York press. Franz Werfel and Alma Mahler meant to sneak across the Spanish border with 17 pieces of luggage, supposedly filled with her first husband’s manuscripts.
Marino deals best with Fry’s twin enemies: Vichy’s officials, keen to out-shine their German masters, and the US State Department, to whom Fry was persona non grata. The consular section headed by Breckinridge Long was overtly anti-Semetic, with no desire to fill unused immigrant quotas with Jews, reds, and other undesirables. The US also wished to maintain Vichy’s paper neutrality, keeping its fleet out of Nazi hands. Fry’s conflicts with the government (who denied him the Swiss visa offered all Americans for safety in case of a German invasion) soon had his own committee trying to force his replacement. When he returned to America they fired him. 
Returning to journalism, he detailed, in 1942, the extermination of some 2 million Jews in Nazi death camps, facts which the Allies finally acknowledged officially only the following year. By now Fry’s marriage had also collapsed, and it's not until this point Marino begins to examine the book’s most intriguing question: what made Varian Fry such a successful secret agent? It’s understandable when Fry’s personality fades into the shadows of wartime derring-do and a gallery of memorable characters. But Marino also glosses over Fry’s early years. His subtle hints about sexual orientation underlie an equally subtle theme which Marino himself only faces in his conclusion. By then, with Fry’s second marriage and attempts to play corporate family man broken up, it is too late to hear suggestions of his inner torment; his participation in the Kinsey report, and some of the demons which drove this man. It’s as if he’s inherited Fry’s own reserve. Marino concludes, perceptively, that the pretending and repressing which tormented Fry also prepared him for his clandestine life as spy. But with better writing and organisation, we should have apprehended this crucial fact from Fry himself. 
Through the efforts of Andre Malraux, France finally granted Fry the Legion d’Honneur in 1967, though for services to the Resistance, not for saving refugees from Vichy. Five months later Fry died, alone. In 1996, Israel named him “Righteous Among the Nations”, the only American so honoured. The US government continues to ignore his accomplishments. 
by Andy Marino
Hutchinson, 1999, £16.99, 403pp

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