- Historic Sites
Escape From Vichy
One of the most ingenious and least known rescue missions of World War II was engineered by a young American dandy, Varian Fry, who shepherded to safety hundreds of European intellectuals wanted by the Nazis
June/july 1983 | Volume 34, Issue 4
ALL WARS , great and small, can be counted on to produce four things: misery, death, destruction, and refugees. As far as the first three are concerned, the Second World War differed from its predecessors only in scale. In the matter of refugees, however, the conflict produced a wholly new phenomenon: the mass transplanting of the intelligentsia of one continent to another continent. To quote Laura Fermi, herself a distinguished refugee and the wife of the great physicist Enrico Fermi, what took place in 1940 and 1941 constituted “a unique phenomenon in the history of immigration.”
Indeed, historians have argued that in the eighteen months between the German conquest of France and the American entry into the war, the United States enjoyed a cultural and intellectual windfall of unprecedented proportions. It was without parallel both in its scope and in its consequences. But it wasn’t a windfall.
There was someone up there shaking the tree. His name was Varian Fry. It is not a name you are likely to have come across, for it turns up principally in footnotes to scholarly works and brief paragraphs of tribute in memoirs. Thus has one of the most remarkable rescue missions ever undertaken remained shrouded in obscurity for more than forty years.
Varian Fry hardly seemed handpicked by destiny to deliver Europe’s artists and intellectuals from the Gestapo. The son of a stockbroker, he was born in New York City on October 15,1907, and grew up in suburban Ridgewood, New Jersey. As a child he was moody, introverted, and an accomplished hypochondriac.
In an effort to awaken his interest in his schoolwork and schoolmates, Fry’s parents sent him away at the age of fourteen to Hotchkiss, the distinguished private school in Lakeville, Connecticut. There he found himself challenged for the first time both intellectually and socially. And his response to these challenges, typically, was to find new ways of isolating himself. He displayed an extraordinary gift for languages, particularly Latin, and an equally extraordinary intolerance for those not similarly gifted. Socially he went to even greater lengths to put distance between himself and his peers. He became an exceedingly fastidious dresser, and he cultivated an interest in good food and wine, though his budget (and his age) seldom permitted him to test his newfound expertise—and his fragile stomach punished him whenever he did. He developed a protocol of eating to which he would adhere however inappropriate the circumstances; he would, for example, insist on a knife and fork when served a sandwich in a snack bar. And he took up smoking. That is, he took up cigarettes, which he thought looked good in his hands; he never inhaled.
Of course, this erudite and precociously jaded sophisticate attracted few friends and much ridicule, so much in fact that one day in the middle of his third year at Hotchkiss he showed up at his father’s office in Manhattan and announced that he had “resigned” from school. A few weeks later he was enrolled in another Connecticut prep school, Taft, which he found more to his liking.
In the fall of 1926 Fry entered Harvard. Suddenly exposed to the seductive freedom of being able to choose where and how he wanted to live and what courses he wanted to take, his do-it-yourself sophistication let him down.
His academic performance became erratic as his intellectual arrogance became more abrasive; his behavior became more eccentric, his sartorial idiosyncracies more pronounced. His only triumph came in September 1927, at the start of his sophomore year, when he founded, with his friend Lincoln Kirstein, The Hound & Horn , a literary magazine of enough merit to have its appearance hailed in The New York Times . But Kirstein soon wearied of Fry’s pedantic tantrums, and Fry became irritated with Kirstein’s lack of “moral passion” on issues involving the correct use of English. They quarreled, and Fry left the magazine.
Fry arrived in Marseilles on August 15, 1940. He had with him two suitcases of clothes, a list of two hundred names, and three thousand dollars in cash taped to his leg.
During his senior year he fell in love with Eileen Hughes, an editor at The Atlantic Monthly . A maternal woman seven years his senior, she was as gentle, patient, and tolerant as he was not. They were married in June 1931.
After Fry’s graduation the couple moved to New York City. While Eileen taught English at Brearley, a private girls’ school in Manhattan, Fry worked as an assistant editor at Scholastic magazine, for which he also wrote articles and book reviews. Then, in 1935, he was offered the chance to succeed Quincy Howe as editor of The Living Age , a prestigious review of international affairs. The only condition that Howe attached to the appointment was that Fry should first go to Germany and inform himself about what was happening under the Third Reich.