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Originally published Friday, October 6, 2006 at 12:00 AM

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Book Review

"Villa Air-Bel": WWII hero liberated 2,000 refugees

When the German Army rolled into Paris without breaking a sweat in June 1940, some of Europe's leading artists, writers, philosophers...

Special to The Seattle Times

"Villa Air-Bel: World War II, Escape, and a House in Marseille"
by Rosemary Sullivan
HarperCollins, 476 pp., $26.95

When the German Army rolled into Paris without breaking a sweat in June 1940, some of Europe's leading artists, writers, philosophers and intellectuals were among the millions of refugees who fled south to the so-called Zone Libre.

With Paris now an outpost of Hitler's Reich, Marseille became the city of last resort for the likes of André Breton, Max Ernst, Simone Weil, Hannah Arendt and Walter Benjamin. "Here is a beggar's alley gathering the remnants of revolutions, democracies and crushed intellects," wrote the Russian refugee writer Victor Serge of wartime Marseille.

Though the U.S. government did next to nothing for these gifted "remnants," a group in New York hastily organized an Emergency Relief Committee to get as many of them as possible out of France before it was too late. The committee chose as its unlikely emissary a young, bespectacled, Harvard-educated classics scholar named Varian Fry. Fry's astonishing success in helping high-profile refugees — notably the surrealists Breton, Ernst and their circle — escape to Mexico, the U.S. and Switzerland is the subject of "Villa Air-Bel," Canadian writer Rosemary Sullivan's fascinating, occasionally maddening book.

Fry arrived in Marseille in August 1940, an innocent abroad with $3,000 in cash taped to his leg and with plans to remain four weeks. Over the next 13 months, in the service of his cause, he learned to bluster, lie, scheme, coerce, face down the increasingly vicious French authorities and work around the hostile U.S. consul. By the time French police deported Fry late in the summer of 1941, he and his colleagues had gotten some 2,000 people out of the "Fascist hell" of Vichy France.

Author appearance

Rosemary Sullivan discusses "Villa Air-Bel: World War II, Escape, and a House in Marseille," 7 p.m. Oct. 18, presented by University Book Store at Seattle Public Library, Ballard branch, Seattle; free (206-634-3400 or www.ubookstore.com; 206-684-4089 or www.spl.org).

Like Irène Némirovsky in the recently published novel "Suite Française," Sullivan tries to fashion a narrative about the fall of France by tracing multiple complexly intersecting story lines, though, of course, Sullivan's "stories" are true. Her protagonists are the individuals — some celebrated, many obscure — who holed up with Fry in a grand dilapidated mansion on the outskirts of Marseille called Villa Air-Bel.

As Europe fell to the Nazi nightmare, the villa's residents — Breton, Serge, a plucky American heiress named Mary Jayne Gold and others — shared meager meals and gossip, played surrealist parlor games, wrote, painted, hid stolen documents and waited frantically for the money and papers that would allow them to get out. Sullivan's chapters set at the villa read like a cross between "Casablanca" and Sherill Tippins' "February House," about the Brooklyn brownstone that W.H. Auden, Carson McCullers, Gypsy Rose Lee and other assorted Bohemians shared around the same time.

Unfortunately, before she gets to Marseille, Sullivan gives us 100 odd pages of historical background, from the rise of fascism to the Spanish Civil War to the folly and blindness that led to the fall of France, all of it filtered through the eyes of the key characters. Her intent is to make us smell the smoke and feel the fear, but too often it leads to awkward, forced passages.

Though the cream of Europe's midcentury intelligentsia crowds the pages of "Villa Air-Bel," the stubborn, moody, fiercely idealistic Fry is its most fascinating figure. "He was like a racehorse hitched to a wagon load of stones," artist Jacques Lipchitz said of Fry at his funeral in 1967.

A hero in France both to the artists he rescued and the loyal staff who helped him, Fry riled the ERC board for his blunt criticism of the U.S. State Department. He was fired soon after returning to New York in the fall of 1941 and spent the rest of the war — indeed the rest of his life — battling alienation and depression. Only in 1996 did the State Department officially recognize Fry's heroism and apologize that the U.S. government had never given him the support he deserved.

Sullivan would have had a better book had she pared away the padding and let Fry hold center stage throughout.

David Laskin is the author of "The Children's Blizzard" and "Partisans: Marriage, Politics and Betrayal Among the New York Intellectuals."

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