At the outbreak of World War Two, a US journalist named Varian Fry volunteered to travel to the French port city of Marseilles and help repatriate members of the continent’s cultural elite, many of whom were being hounded by the Nazis as anti-authoritarian dissidents, or because they were Jewish. Marseilles was the last free port in Europe and the final destination for refugees desperate to find a new place to live in freedom.
When he arrived in the city on 15 August, 1940, Fry had $3,000 in banknotes taped to his leg, and a list of 200 artists, writers, and intellectuals who were blacklisted by the Gestapo and the Vichy police. Just over a year later, when he was forced to leave the city, he had orchestrated a remarkable exodus which had saved approximately 2,000 individuals. This included some of Europe’s most influential artistic figures: Marc Chagall, Marcel Duchamp, Remedios Varo, Max Ernst, Hannah Arendt, Jacques Lipchitz, Wilfredo Lam and many more.
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New miniseries Transatlantic, released on Netflix on 7 April, offers a highly fictionalised version of Fry’s operation, based on the novel The Flight Portfolio by Julie Orringer. Fry is a shadowy presence in the series, with characters like Mary Jayne Gold – the wealthy heiress, adventurer, and socialite who aided Fry, played by Gillian Jacobs – taking a more central role in the narrative.
Although Fry, played by Cory Michael Smith, is shown as a bookish and unobtrusive scholar in the series, the real-life figure was a natural rebel. He was born in New York City in 1907 and raised in New Jersey by a Protestant family with liberal values. He was a constant irritation to his teachers at the several boarding schools he attended and was later briefly expelled from Harvard. Fry was a classicist, but he was also smitten by the intellectual sparkle and intricacy of modernist culture – James Joyce and TS Eliot were favourites. Then, a trip to Germany in 1935 transformed his understanding of politics and human character. He witnessed at first hand the appalling violence meted out by fascist thugs – street fights, intimidation, and on one occasion a storm trooper stabbing a man through his hand with a knife, impaling it on a café table. He heard rumours about the Nazis’ intentions to liquidate the state’s dissidents and brutalise its Jewish population. The experience flipped a switch for Fry, directing his innate rebelliousness towards virulent hatred for Nazism and all it stood for.
On 25 June, 1940, following the fall of France to the Nazis, Fry joined 200 museum curators, artists, journalists, and Jewish refugees at a meeting at the Hotel Commodore in New York City. That afternoon, the Emergency Rescue Committee was born. Its aim was to help anyone who was persecuted by the Nazis, including European artists, philosophers, or writers (both Jewish and non-Jewish). Fry volunteered to travel to Europe and become the ERC’s agent in Vichy France.