Thirty-Two Acres of Paradise
Once upon a time, there was a lovely old house in Southern France, just outside the busy port city Marseille.
Once, in fact, in 1940, this lovely old house that had been boarded up for years, opened its doors to a bizarre “tribe” of Parisians, led by an even weirder individual, an American called Varian Fry. Fry leased the Villa Air-Bel which became his headquarters during his daring rescue mission in the twilight months after the fall of France but before America’s entry into the War. Fry’s protégés included some of the greatest artists of the 20th century (Marc Chagall, Max Ernst, Wifredo Lam, André Breton) who were fleeing Paris and were temporarily stuck in Marseille.
Their crime? Producing “degenerate art.” Yes, back then you could be arrested for that crime.
Also for being Jewish. But if you were both…achtung! Read about their adventures and creations while they were at Air-Bel, their narrow escape from the Vichy police, their ultimate victory and, finally, Fry’s tragedy. You see, Fry although he returned to America, never escaped Air-Bel. Was the Villa a…haunted house? Who knows? One thing is certain. It was a haunting house. Wasn’t it Thomas Wolfe who wrote ‘You can never go home again?”
Chapter 1 – Chez Annette
In the Shadows … and Out
We get off the subway at Broadway and 96th Street using the 94th Street exit, my friend Alain and I. It’s December, 2008, between Thanksgiving and Christmas, a bleak stretch of time. Gray days usually, unless there’s snow on the ground and today is a gray day, plain, simple and nasty. We have a look around. Wreaths, candles, figurines, gaily adorned trees, red and gold trimmed ribbons in the stylish shops. Anything to brighten the mood, but the basic temper of the neighborhood comes through the hunkering gloom. Long ago, every day, in fact, as a high school student, I used to take the same train, but I exited at 96th Street and walked three blocks to 99th Street where I lived, and then on to West End Avenue, one block west. The famous Upper West Side of Manhattan. Annette Fry, second wife and widow of Varian, lives at 93rd and West End. We have a date with her—“Tea and History.”
I feel a wave of hesitation come over me; something is guiding my steps away from 93rd Street. The buildings on West End seem to cast Olympian shadows on the sidewalks. Light was never the point on this avenue, unlike Riverside Drive, rimmed by a park and a buzzing highway at 96th Street. The views and the sky can be breathtaking on Riverside, but West End has no such distractions.
Alain and I must come to a decision. A box of chocolate or flowers for Annette? It will be flowers. “Just a minute,” I say, as we leave the florist’s and veer north, past 94th Street and West End. Alain understands and follows. There is something in the avenue’s self-conscious dignity that retains my attention. A conversation in the air, a neighborly chat with a fellow spirit. Oh, let’s be simple, I am building parallel worlds, which is what the frustrated, the daft and the poets do when the mood is right.
“Oh, did you really go to school on 96th? Annette and I used to have a friend who… ”
“I wonder if you also shopped at Gristedes, sent your clothes to the cleaners with the Fresh as a Flower in Just an Hour sign in front, took in a French movie at the Paris… ”
“Pity I never heard of you back in 1966, when we were still on 99th Street. Must have crossed your path when taking the bus, waiting on line at the drugstore. But then again, I was a teenager back in ’66. A dumb teenager, no, make that a very dumb teenager, and you died in 67, days before your 60th birthday.
“I would have told you all about…”
“Luckily you didn’t, or rather, luckily we never officially met, ’cause I don’t know if I would have appreciated… ”
“Oh, come on now…”
“No, I assure you, there may really be a time and a place for everything.”
Cars drive by, dipping downward and then reappear, like schools of aquatic mammals following the movements of the waves. West End Avenue around 96th is steep and hilly, just as it was before. As before what? Well, as before, when I lived there, and sniffled my way back home to 99th and West End, from the 97th Street Paris Hotel swimming pool on cold days. The Paris has gone co-op, and there is a gym club, but I assume the pool remains. I feel that time is on my side, reorganizing, but, not changing details, and keeping the basics, which is what West End is really about, at least for me. And to be truthful, not all of my memories are as carefree, happy or inconsequential as a bad cold on a gloomy day, but all of them are mine. And that is also the point. I am about to walk with ghosts, and the scenery fits the occasion.
In the fifties and sixties, the Upper West Side welcomed the foreign born Jewish intellectuals and refugees among the homegrown academics, connected with elite institutions like the Bronx High School of Science, Stuyvesant High, Columbia University, City University, Lincoln Center, and its various music and dance offshoots. The neighborhood created a world unto itself which, I imagined, would have suited Fry. I was mistaken. I had forgotten what I had read years before, in Sheila Isenberg’s informative biography of Fry, A Hero of Our Own[i]. Regrettably, I am getting ahead of myself and owe the reader an explanation.
I met Sheila in Marseille, in 1999, when she came to promote her forthcoming book. Sheila knew Annette Fry and the apartment on West End at 93rd Street. Varian had never liked the City or the apartment.
“In January 1965, she (Annette) found an apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and arranged for the move. Fry returned to Europe. Then, as if he had only just realized what had happened, he sent “hysterical letters”—Annette had tricked him (into living in Manhattan) he wrote.[ii]
However, I could never resist indulging a flight of fantasy, and the corny walk down memory lane anchored Fry within the array of illusions with which we live each passing day. I was to learn shortly that only Air-Bel had any meaning to him as a place of residence, as much meaning, in fact, as the streets around 96th have for me.
Fast-forward to 2008 and to more recent memories.
This was not my first meeting with Annette Fry. We were introduced in May 2007 at the tribute to Fry organized by Professeur Jean Michel Guiraud and his Varian Fry-France Association in Marseille. That year, 2007, would have marked Fry’s 100th birthday. Over time, I had become more involved with the VFF, progressing from cheerleader to the cheerleader who was sometimes allowed to kick the ball. Fry’s 100th birthday offered an occasion to enter the fray as a full-fledged player. The venue for the celebration was the Regional Center for Pedagogy and Documentation, (CRDP in French), formerly the Hotel Splendide, where Fry rented a room when he first entered Marseille in August 1940. A grand old hotel of la Belle Époque, leading to the rococo nineteenth century staircase of the Gare Saint Charles, the Splendide/CRDP had kept its auditorium and bar as a reminder of a glorious era when young swells met their sweethearts beneath the tall mirrors and the fluted columns of its salon de thé. A scholastic bookstore now fronts the building in place of the grand entrance, but behind that, the bar and the old ballroom are still in place and share space with a modern exhibition area sporting a parquet floor. Ornate neo-classical decors, unfortunately in very poor condition, coexist with the clean contemporary gallery area. Monsieur Guiraud’s event occupied the entire auditorium, the exhibition gallery, and the refreshment areas. The Association scheduled films, organized conferences and debates with researchers, historians, teachers, and the few people still alive who had actually known Fry. The audience included the intellectual community of the city, students, and even lycée pupils. I was assigned to meet Stephane Hessel and his wife at the Gare Saint Charles, and to make sure that a taxi was on hand for the octogenarian former Resistance fighter and friend of Fry. On an unusually cold and rainy morning, at the head of the train tracks, I bravely waved a sign marked Monsieur Hessel et Madame, but my work also involved translation and interpretation for other people. Annette Fry, age 84 at the time, had agreed to make the journey from New York. Varian Fry-France asked me to accompany her and translate.
It was not without a tinge of apprehension that I viewed translating and interpreting for the widow of a war hero. Would she be a hawk-eyed, beak-nosed valkyrie, maliciously disdainful, patronizing, and critical? Or, the inexhaustible Madonna dolorosa, bubbling with unfavorable comparisons of the present with the past? I was totally unprepared for the slender girlish figure, standing straight as an arrow, and displaying a smooth and smiling face illuminated by periwinkle blue eyes. Annette appeared slight, sharp as a bracing puff of wind, and to the point. The rectitude of good old Protestant virtue with a weakness for laughs. Juvenile (I judged on the spot), but in the best sense of the word. An eternal student of life, a woman of insatiable curiosity and kindness. That was all Annette Fry in a bundle! I could not believe her age. I felt at ease with her immediately, and, as the day progressed, I confess that we both behaved like two kids at a picture show as we passed notes (not always flattering) and remarks (not always reverential) about speakers and their speeches. There was only one salient fly in the ointment—frequent slips of memory, of which Annette was aware and made light of.
“You know, I’m coming back in September,” she said squeezing my arm just before the tribute to her husband disbanded. “There’s something going on about Varian and the Surrealists in Montmartre at the Halle Saint Pierre. It would be great if you could make it up to Paris and attend.” On the spur of the moment, I agreed. An intuition seized me. Whatever was happening there in that drafty dingy hall of the reconverted hotel was going somewhere, was going to produce something, and I felt that this interest in Fry would develop into something deeper than just a pastime to help out a group of pleasant and erudite people. I made the trip to Paris a few months later.
The Halle Saint Pierre in Montmartre could have stepped out of the Gene Kelly version of Paris and, that year, 2007, September delaying its rains, brought out the best of le quartier. [iii] The tourists and the lovers, the late afternoon sky darkening into night, the steep and winding narrow streets, the street lamps looking like inventions Monsieur Gustave Eiffel had just installed, the grocery stores (some with signs of vins fins) with the stalls of fruits and vegetables laid out in front, the careless haphazard charm of Bohemia…A finer invitation to wandering I never knew. My feet effortlessly carried me up and about the loops of small streets and illuminated alleys, and I even caught sight of a painter or two packing up and calling it a day.
After the era of building les halles (marketplaces) in the mid-nineteenth century had passed, the municipal authorities discovered that reconverting those rotting structures into cultural venues might be a tourist-attracting alternative to tearing them down. The Halle Saint Pierre, serving the picturesque Montmartre district, seemed a natural fit for a contemporary art gallery, proving that some buildings, like many humans, can and do have double lives. Thus did a marketplace divest itself of its butcher-fishmonger-grocer’s crudeness for the rarified atmosphere of a high-end venue devoted to contemporary art. The Halle that night was swarming with journalists, French aficionados of Surrealist painters, members of the American community, students of all nationalities, gallery owners, artist, sculptors, curious passers-by and all those who could not find a better way to spend a balmy September evening.
Perhaps this time the Halle Saint Pierre stepped a little out of its
avant garde role to show the works of the major artists of the past who owed their lives to Fry—Ernst, Lam, Arp, André Breton, Brauner, Chagall, Delanglade, Dominguez, Hérold, Lipchitz, Masson, Springer, Wols, among many others.
The show, however, was as much about the past as about art, and my mind at some point flashed back to a photo I had seen of the cream of Parisian intelligentsia standing beneath a work by Arno Breker, Hitler’s favorite sculptor. I remembered the image of a crumpled looking people looking away from Breker’s monumental statue which managed to be as sinister as it was absurd. The dead alongside of the lifeless. Interchangeable and tragic. The vivacity and genius of the cursed “degenerate art” stood in complete opposition to Fascist tastes. History fortunately had the last word. How wonderfully some catch phrases can evolve to mean their opposites-“degenerate art,” “appeasement,” “peace in our time,” for example. I managed to find Annette between a Chagall and a Lam. She was getting the rock star treatment, but had a few minutes for me. Of course she remembered me from May in Marseille. She was not used to all this crushing attention and the language barrier was just one more tedious nuisance. Also, she frankly would have preferred a little less lionizing—too much, too late was the sentiment hanging over us. What would Varian have thought?
Nevertheless, before she was whisked away by some party or other, she mentioned two subjects she had brought up for discussion during the celebration in Marseille, five months before. Would I be interested in translating Varian’s short book, “War in China?” Would I also become involved in bringing the lithographs of the Flight Portfolio to Marseille? Until that day in May, I had heard of neither one nor the other.
The Flight Portfolio regroups 11 lithographs and one serigraph produced by artists, some of whom figured among the group saved by Fry. Other painters, untouched by the war, contributed out of a sense of gratitude and justice. The theme was the flight of Aeneas from Troy, and the proceeds of the sale would benefit the International Rescue Committee (formerly the Emergency Rescue Committee). The portfolio was completed in 1970, three years after Fry’s death, and the Achim Moeller Fine Art Gallery of New York had been handling the sale. The contributing artists were Eugene Berman, Alexander Calder, Marc Chagall, Vieira da Silva, Adolph Gottlieb, Wifredo Lam, Jacques Lipchitz, André Masson, Joan Miro, Robert Motherwell, Edouard Pignon, and Fritz Wotruba[iv]. Some of the 300 sets had not found buyers, and Annette’s idea was to donate the remaining lithographs to Marseille, with a possible purchase by the Musée Cantini of Marseille, which had as part of its permanent collection, a considerable inventory of Surrealist works including the Surrealist tarot
My role would be to contact the Moeller Gallery where the lithographs were stored and mostly forgotten. I was flattered but a little frightened by her request, which luckily did not produce any results after I got the predictable run-around from the Moeller people. (Yes, I would have loved to have had contact with a high end art gallery; but, on the other hand, I am no business negotiator and probably would have mishandled the complexities of the sale). The other project, translating Fry’s War in China (published by Headline Books in 1938, which Annette sent me through the post in the course of 2008), immediately appeared to me as an early work and not at all related to Fry’s mission in Marseille. The very short War in China, actually a long political pamphlet, reports on the carving up of China by imperialist Japan three years prior to America’s entry into the war, in December 1941. Although Fry displays remarkable journalistic talent and produces a convincing analysis of the devouring of China by imperialist Japan, the subject is a footnote to contemporary History and biography. Thus, until December 2008, I was sad to admit that, unless lightning struck, my involvement with the memory of Varian Fry would have to remain that of cheering on the sidelines and offering interpreting and translating labor to Monsieur Guiraud’s Association. Translating for the heroic after collecting them at the train station, my lowly contribution!
Lightning struck. Perhaps it was a reaction to that sullen December day and the walk around the Upper West Side with its payload of memories, but something occurred to give that afternoon a bright and magical sheen. Something that would make me more of a player and less of an observer happened in Annette’s “drawing-room”, to use a term Fry used for the Villa Air-Bel. It was also the first time Annette would meet the man who shares my life, Alain Guyot, an architect, painter, photographer, and professor of architecture at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure d’Architecture of Marseille. Perhaps it was my delight at finding Annette’s apartment similar to the one I occupied with my parents and brother, but adorned with paintings, drawings and sketches enlivening the high walls and cutting through the frugal December light with their vivid colors and shapes. Perhaps it was Annette’s sweet willingness to show us her own very talented art work in portraiture (“I took courses at the Art Students’ League late in life”). Perhaps…perhaps… perhaps…Who knows?
Annette brought in the tea, refusing my offer to help with the cups and the saucers. I remember a beautiful but fastidious bone china service, looking like part of an inheritance or a wedding gift. The tea service seemed an oddity against the background of the fantastic Surrealist and Cubist art on the walls, but Fry, certainly, would have appreciated the quaint melange of cultures and eras. I know I did, as the arrangement of the cups and saucers, and the order of presentation of cakes and sugar cubes followed a set pattern, which must have roots, in my mind, in a very Victorian conception of how to receive guests: Silver prongs for the sugar, a pot for water, another one for milk, a small plate for pastries, a line of tiny spoons and a fan of decorated napkins. “Don’t be shy! Help yourselves!” Annette tapped my arm lightly as she went about pouring the tea, then a few words, a few memories, and the ghosts entered. Annette’s father first—Stockbridge Riley, the son of a Presbyterian minister who became a renowned professor of classical philosophy at Vassar. His death in 1933, when she was 10, caused the removal of the family to Philadelphia. Then Annette’s mother, Laura, a beauty and a hard-headed businesswoman. Amusingly, Laura was afraid that the name Riley would be mistaken for Irish… Catholic. There were four other siblings, Annette was the youngest. She pointed to a small photo of a curly-haired little girl standing in the midst of a clearing. (“I must have been 5 at the time.”) And, of course, there was Varian, who wanted to start a family after a childless marriage and divorce. Shortly after the end of the war, he met and wooed the 27 year old writer and fellow journalist. She was swept off her feet by Fry, 16 years her senior. They married in 1950,“But don’t think he was easy to live with,” plain-speaking Annette admonished, “life with Varian could be Hell! He went through terrible depressions. After the war, he found that his brave actions did not translate into the recognition he expected. However, when he was normal, he was utterly charming!” I asked if Fry ever spoke to his family about his experiences in Free Zone France and her answer was a resounding “Never.” The conversation settled on the ingratitude of the many refugees helped by Fry. Jean Arp, especially, who completely ignored him when Varian showed up at his atelier in Belgium after the war. The Chagalls, whom she detested, particularly Madame, who did not let Marc sign the lithograph of the Flight Portfolio because there was no payment involved. Ah! The Flight Portfolio! Would we care to see the few remaining lithographs still in her possession? Would we!
Alain’s camera came out as each lithograph, one more beautiful than the other, slipped forth from the carry case. As he was finding the best angles and trying to optimize the less than perfect lighting, I asked distractedly if anything was left of Air-Bel, and I expressed my regret at the old house being torn down to be replaced by the retirement home still standing. I intended this to be almost a parting remark. The hour was long past teatime, but we were so fascinated by the history of the Riley and Fry families, that we had not noticed how speedily a dim December day could slip into night. “Oh don’t go!” Annette perked up, “I don’t have much in the kitchen, but I think I can do a salad and there must be some ham and cheese in the fridge. And there is always a bottle of wine! ” Alain and I did not need much convincing.
And there it was, our miraculous feast in the same kitchen where Varian and Annette must have drunk coffee with Thomas, Sylvia, and James, their children. We stopped gazing at the past as if it were, like the tea service, an article to be taken out, admired, and then laid aside. We shared experiences, jokes, and opinions over a dinner on a table near a half-open window. “Have you seen the Fry collection at Columbia University Butler Library?” Annette asked, cutting a slice of Brie. No we hadn’t. I felt that Alain and I were somehow getting into a situation we could not really control, or in the more elegant French, “nous dépassait;” but, it was too late to turn back. “Well, I think you should. There are lots of interesting things there and I will be happy to give you clearance with the authorities.” Annette smiled with all the confidence of a person with a done deal in hand. Alain and I stole a glance. “Well, you might be interested in Air-Bel, for example.” wily Annette said as a passing remark, “Did you know that Dany Bénédite (Fry’s second in command during the Marseille period) drew a plan of the garden at Air-Bel?” Annette had taken in the fact that Alain was an architect and perhaps I could write a little, and maybe…
We took coffee in the kitchen, and as the hour was growing late, we bundled up and said our goodbyes. Annette had planted an idea in our brains. What form would it take? We did not know then, but it brought us both into the fray. We would no longer be on the sidelines, but into something very big, and whatever it was, we were in it together.
The following months were neither kind to Annette nor to me. We returned to New York for frequent visits, which were anything but pleasurable, as I was losing in rapid succession my very elderly father, and then my mother who lived in Westchester County. Nevertheless, we made frequent and regular trips to the City and always phoned Annette who insisted on inviting us for tea. We continued to enjoy her company and the ambiance she created, but her memory losses were becoming more frequent and more pronounced, and we realized that in the near term, she might not be living on West End Avenue alone or at all. Time was growing short, but before she had lost complete contact with reality, we announced during one of our teas in 2011, that the idea she had planted about a project themed around Air-Bel had emerged from its embryonic stage to become a central feature in our lives. This was three years after our impromptu meal beneath the half-open window on a chilly December night. “Yes,” I said, “Alain and I are going to rebuild the Villa Air-Bel, using digital imaging for the purpose of installing it on the Web for all students and researchers to see and admire. And also, we are going to record our experiences in a book, which will include my biography of Varian.” The Committee to hoist the city of Marseille up into the galaxy of European cities of culture (Comité Marseille Provence 2013) had just given our project proposal its approval and support. Annette nodded and, with a beaming smile, reiterated the information about Bénédite’s drawing being included in the Varian Fry papers deposited in the Rare Book and Manuscript Collection of Columbia and asked if I needed a letter of introduction to the “people there.” I assured her we didn’t, as contact with the Butler Library authorities had already been made. Then, Annette chuckled and said, “You know, I love what you are doing, even if five minutes from now, I won’t remember a word of it.” “It does not matter at all, Annette,” I wanted to respond, but didn’t, “When you walk with ghosts, time melts like a sugar cube in a cup of tea.”
[i] Sheila Isenberg, A Hero of Our Own, (Random House, NY, 2001).
[ii] Ibid., 260-261.
[iii] I am referring to the film An American in Paris (1951) with Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron.
[iv] “Flight Portfolio,” International Rescue Committee, http://www.rescue.org/flight-portfolio-sale-rescued-artists-works-supports-irc
Copyright © Diana Pollin