Bring me another Einstein

Matthew Reisz

  • American Pimpernel: The Man who Saved the Artists on Hitler’s Death List by Andy Marino
    Hutchinson, 416 pp, £16.99, November 1999, ISBN 0 09 180053 6

The terms of the Armistice of 1940 required the French to ‘surrender on demand’ anyone the Germans wanted to get hold of. Gestapo hit-lists were drawn up, but the chaos of defeat offered temporary protection for the thousands of refugees concentrated in Vichy France. Social democrats, communists, Surrealists and anarchists waited to be rescued, but it looked as if only a miracle, or a great power, could help them. In New York, the day after the Armistice, the Emergency Rescue Committee was formed by a group of European refugees and American academics and journalists, with the ambitious aim of saving ‘cultural Europe’.

Lion Feuchtwanger was on the list of refugees in danger drawn up by the Committee. The popular historical novelist had written anti-American cabaret songs and visited the USSR in 1937, writing a rhapsodic account of life there. (When Feuchtwanger asked Stalin to put out his pipe, he had done so.) His career was unlikely to endear him to the Nazis and he had fled to France, where he was imprisoned as an enemy alien of military age, in a camp near Aix-en-Provence.

Feuchtwanger was also an unlikely candidate for American sympathy. Yet Eleanor Roosevelt took up his cause despite his promotion of Stalinism. She had befriended him in 1932, during his triumphant lecture tour of America, and was deeply shocked to be shown a photograph of him behind barbed wire. But it might also say something about the prewar prestige of European culture, or American feelings of inferiority, that such efforts were made for people who were so ‘unrespectable’ by conventional standards, and so anti-American. When two members of the Committee visited Eleanor Roosevelt to ask for help, she phoned her husband and ended her request with a threat:

If Washington refuses to authorise these visas immediately, German and American émigré leaders with the help of their American friends will rent a ship, and in this ship will bring as many of the endangered refugees as possible across the Atlantic. If necessary the ship will cruise up and down the East Coast until the American people, out of shame and anger, force the President and the Congress to permit these victims of political persecution to land.

A number of ‘emergency visas’ were soon made available and the Emergency Rescue Committee began its work. Fund-raising and drawing up lists of those in greatest danger, with all the inevitable compromises and trade-offs, was not enough, however; the Committee needed a fixer in Marseille to provide short-term relief, negotiate with the French authorities, arrange visas and establish secure routes out of France. The ideal candidate, Andy Marino writes, would have been ‘tough and nerveless’, capable of thinking clearly under pressure, ‘adaptable to illegality and those who commonly practised it’. Varian Fry, ‘a neurasthenic intellectual and expert on the ancient Greeks’, hardly fitted the bill. But the Committee couldn’t find anyone else. He set off for France in August 1940 with a list of 200 names and engineered the escape of about 4000 people.

His original fantasy was of a brief, enjoyable trip, ‘one sunny month bicycling round Provence ... and meeting up with the writers and artists’ to whom he felt he owed ‘a heavy debt of gratitude for the pleasure they had given me’. He soon found himself caught up in the world of Marseille mafiosi and mythomanes: he hid messages in toothpaste tubes and burnt incriminating passports in train toilets, lying on the floor to avoid inhaling the acrid smoke. The only way to escape the official exchange rates and restrictions on currency movements was to deal with a crook called Kourillo, ‘a Peter Lorre character’ who was ‘barely five feet tall’ and had a handshake ‘like an empty glove’. (When Kourillo later betrayed him, Fry took out a murder contract and forced him out of Marseille.)

A strange and colourful group assembled in Marseille: Charlie Fawcett, a professional wrestler from an upper-class Virginian family; Mary Jayne Gold, a young heiress with a thuggish lover nicknamed ‘Killer’; Marcel Chaminade, an oleaginous Catholic monarchist who acted as the ‘unofficial ambassador to Vichy’; Otto Albert Hirschmann, known as ‘Beamish’ for his sunny smile, a francophile German Jew who claimed to be American, despite his atrocious English accent; Jean Gremahling, a young man who was so enthusiastic about his ‘promotion’ to illegal work that he looked at Fry as if he were a ‘combination of General de Gaulle and his best girlfriend’. There were several other Jews; Fry thought they were ‘the only people who can stand the strain’.

Fawcett first appears in American Pimpernel disguised as a German officer, while engaged in a bold scheme to release British prisoners-of-war held in a Paris hospital. He married six different women who were being held in camps in order to furnish them with visas to the US and put pornographic drawings in his suitcases to distract the police from the more dangerous illicit documents they contained. He walked free from the Gestapo headquarters in Biarritz by following a high-ranking officer straight out of the building. Arriving in Lisbon, he was intrigued to see a poster advertising a concert by Lillian Fawcett. The glamorous Hungarian singer was one of his wives, although unrecognisable as the woman who had made herself unattractive to avoid the attentions of camp guards. They consummated their ‘marriage’ on the overnight train to Oporto. Charlie Fawcett made it to England, joined the RAF and later starred in two films opposite Sophia Loren.

Mary Jayne Gold agreed to ‘lay down her body for the democratic principle’ and offered to sleep with the French camp commandant at Vernet in return for the release of four political prisoners. He failed to turn up at the restaurant as they had arranged, according to her later account, because some Gestapo officers had insisted he come out drinking with them. The next day, deeply apologetic for standing her up and determined to prove that the Germans could not push him around, he let the four men go. Fry found that the best time to approach a Vichy official was shortly after a highhanded visit from a German ‘colleague’ – his pride would be dented and helping Fry would be an opportunity to assert an illusory independence.

In the end Fry stayed a year in Marseille, living for part of it in a large property called the Villa Air-Bel (sometimes known as the Château Espère-Visa) where he spent a good deal of time with Victor Serge, Breton, Ernst and Masson. He learned to play ‘Exquisite Corpses’ and enjoyed the political arguments. ‘Killer’ created something of a stir when he claimed to have buried a body in the gardens.

It was all very well deciding to save the artistic élite of Occupied Europe but it was hard to determine who should be included. (Hannah Arendt was pointed out by Otto Hirschmann as ‘a woman who will someday be famous’.) Chagall would only consider leaving Europe once Fry had assured him that there really were cows in America. He was arrested in Marseille, where he was waiting for a ship, but Fry complained to the French authorities that he was one of the world’s most celebrated artists, and rapidly secured his release. The jubilation soon turned sour: ‘We should be able to save them all. Why just the world’s greatest painter?’ ‘Ordinary’ refugees would turn up at the office with portfolios or manuscripts claiming to be intellectuals or artists. An Emergency Rescue Committee member of staff trained in art history would send them down to the harbour to make a sketch and then decide whether they ‘deserved’ to be rescued. Lives could depend on these drawings, or on getting any kind of passport stamp from a foreign consul. Even the Chinese consul would do: how was a Western customs officer to guess that the ideogram meant ‘Under no circumstances is this person to be allowed entrance to China’?

When Hitler declared war on the United States in late 1941, the American public had more to worry about than the fate of the refugees. But the very success of Fry’s operation had already made it unfashionable. ‘If Albert Einstein could be brought to America today,’ the chief fund-raiser in New York told him,

we could raise one million within a short time by exhibiting him throughout the country. [Pablo] Casals is probably worth 100,000. Picasso 50,000. Your trio [Feuchtwanger, Heinrich Mann and Franz Werfel] brought in 35,000. Since their arrival we have had nothing good to offer the public and they are pretty shopworn by this time. See if you can dig up something big.

Marino gives most space to the Manns and the Werfels. For the crossing into Spain, Heinrich Mann had travelled under the name of Heinrich Ludwig but forgot to remove the ‘H.M.’ stitched into his hatband. Alma Werfel’s idea of ‘essential belongings’ consisted of what ‘looked like the necessary equipment for a hundred-strong Sherpa expedition’, complete with the manuscript score of Bruckner’s Third Symphony. Her white dress billowed conspicuously as they stumbled over the Pyrenees. A Spanish customs officer stared at Golo Mann’s affidavit, which stated that he was on his way to Princeton to meet up with his father Thomas, and said he was ‘honoured to make the acquaintance of the son of so great a man’.

Varian Fry was a stiff, rather priggish man, a spoilt only child who manipulated his parents with fake illnesses, was bullied at school and became known as a prankster and poseur at university. (He is not easy to warm to. When he first went to bed with his future wife, he gave her a lecture on Rodin, telling her that his sculptures were ‘sentimental and unworthy of attention’). Marino suggests that Fry’s visit to Berlin in 1935 was a turning-point: working as a journalist he witnessed an anti-Jewish riot which struck him as the ‘beginning of a religious crusade against the Nazi devil of “Jew-Bolshevism” ’. He interviewed ‘Putzi’ Hanfstaengel, a fellow Harvard graduate now working in the Foreign Press Division at the Ministry of Propaganda, and asked him about the ‘radical’ plans for the Jews: ‘they want to exterminate them, replied Hanfstaengel simply, offhandedly and off guard.’ Fry returned to New York and began to support a number of good causes. His early involvement with the North American Committee to Aid Spanish Democracy foundered on his intransigent anti-Communism, but the Marseille assignment gave him the chance to redeem himself.

There is now a substantial, if rather soft-centred, literature on the people who took extraordinary risks to aid or hide Jews in Occupied Europe. Much is hagiography, but we know enough about Varian Fry – like Raoul Wallenberg and Oskar Schindler – to go beyond hero-worship. There is only one moment in Marino’s lively account which strikes an odd note. Fry tried to get Henry Moore to produce a picture for an album commemorating the escapes from France, and he told the young artist he sent to meet Moore: ‘He’s an old dear and, if he doesn’t give you tea, will at least show you his Courbet (itself worth the trip). His garden is dotted (dotted? punctured! stabbed! raped! fucked in the arse!) with his own sculptures.’

Marino merely comments that Fry was ‘less than enthusiastic’ about Moore’s work, but the extraordinary sexual violence of this joke suggests something of what was going on beneath the surface of Fry’s severe persona. He seems to have had a strong homoerotic streak, although Marino deals with this rather more coyly than Fry’s wife did in her letters. She admits to Fry that she is ‘appalled’ by reading Death in Venice, and that it has set her to thinking about ‘this particular tendency’ in her husband – ‘under the rather peculiar circumstances in which you find yourself. I have looked hopefully for some signs that you had a nice kind girl to look after you.’

In November 1940, she writes to him from New York:

I have no hope that anything interests you now except your own activities and surroundnings. Of COURSE I KNOW they are from any ULTIMATE point of view more significant than what goes on here in your friends’ personal lives; but is the ULTIMATE point of view the only one between husband and wife?

The following February she closes a letter with ‘Much love, if you’re interested – Eileen’.

By the time America entered the war and Fry was forced to return home, he was changed for ever, weighed down, in Marino’s words, by the ‘awkward burden’ of heroism. He was an outspoken critic of the State Department, in particular its dilatoriness in issuing visas, and soon alienated the New York staff of the Emergency Rescue Committee. He found it difficult to settle, contrived to sabotage a number of promising postings, and eventually became alienated even from French friends who had lived through the Occupation. Although he later received the Légion d’Honneur and found contentment in a second marriage, there is a real sense of anticlimax. ‘Everybody,’ Fry wrote shortly after getting back to America, ‘finds it extremely difficult to understand how I can have been so popular in Marseille as here I am my usual stiff and self-conscious self. I have tried to explain that circumstances had a great deal to do with it.’

Marino argues that the work of the Emergency Rescue Committee permanently altered the cultural balance between Europe and America. American artists, once overawed by the sophisticated cosmopolitanism of Europe, got a chance to meet their heroes, observe their failings, learn from them and then forge ahead on their own. By the end of the war, Abstract Expressionism was an emerging movement and New York was set to become the centre of the art world. Marino doesn’t say much about what happened once the artists got to the US, although many of them were blithely ungrateful, reckless or indiscreet about the secret escape routes which were still in operation. Under the entry in the index for ‘refugees (from the Third Reich)’, there is a lengthy sub-entry headed ‘arrogance, self-centredness and mindlessness of’. It was never easy to secure the full complement of exit visas, transit visas, ‘affidavits in lieu of passport’ and berths on Atlantic crossings, but several of the refugees managed to slip over the Pyrenees and secure a Spanish entrada stamp at the frontier, only to be arrested because they could not resist spending a week in the Prado or noisily accosting women. The more patrician refugees would swan around Marseille, refusing to take even the most basic precautions. And the cabaret-poet Walter ‘Baby’ Mehring secured a well-paid job in Hollywood but never got round to repaying the money he owed Fry’s American Relief Centre – it was far more fun to tool down Sunset Boulevard in a brand new Packard.