France, 1940. The once glittering boulevards of Paris teem with spies, collaborators, and the Gestapo now that France has fallen to Hitler's Wermacht. For André Breton, Max Ernst, Victor Serge, Marc Chagall, Consuelo de Saint-Exupéry, Remedios Varo, Benjamin Péret, and scores of other cultural elite denounced as enemies of the Third Reich, fear and uncertainty define daily life. One wrong glance, one misplaced confidence, could mean arrest, deportation, and death. Their only salvation is the Villa Air-Bel, a château outside Marseille where a group of young people will go to extraordinary lengths to keep them alive.
Financed by the Emergency Rescue Committee, a private American relief organization, unlikely heroes—feisty graduate student Miriam Davenport, Harvard-educated classical scholar Varian Fry, beautiful and compelling heiress Mary Jayne Gold, and brilliant young Socialist and survivor of the Battle of Dunkerque Danny Bénédite and his British wife, Theo—cajole, outwit, and use every means possible to stave off the Nazis and newly installed Vichy government officials circling closer with each passing day. The château was a vibrant artistic salon, home to lively debates and clandestine affairs, to Sunday art auctions and subversive surrealist games. Relationships within the house were tense and arguments were common, but the will to survive kept the covert operation under wraps. Beyond the château's luscious façade war raged, yet hope reverberated within its halls. With the aid of their young rescuers, this diverse intelligentsia—intense, brilliant, and utterly terrified—was able to survive one of the darkest chapters of the twentieth century.
Villa Air-Bel is a powerfully told, meticulously researched true story. Rosemary Sullivan explores the diaries, memoirs, and letters of the individuals involved while uncovering their private worlds and the web of relationships they developed. Filled with suspense, drama, and intrigue, Villa Air-Bel is an excellent work of narrative nonfiction that delves into a fascinating albeit hidden saga in our recent history.
The outbreak of WWII took many Europeans by surprise. In France, by the time the fighting began, the papers people needed to get out of the country were difficult to come by. It was on this circumstance that three enterprising Americans concentrated their efforts in the first two years of the war. Ivy League scholar Varian Fry, sent by the American Emergency Rescue Committee, heiress Mary Jayne Gold and graduate student Miriam Davenport turned a Marseille ch teau into a safe haven for dozens of prominent artists and intellectuals waiting for a chance to emigrate in secrecy, including Hannah Arendt, Marcel Duchamp, Marc Chagall, Andr Breton, Franz Werfel and perennial exile Victor Serge. Canadian writer Sullivan (her Shadow Maker: The Life of Gwendolyn MacEwen won a Governor General's Award) goes beyond the confines of Air-Bel to tell a fuller story of France during the tense years from 1933 to 1941. She intelligently spreads the fractured narrative, with its huge cast of players constantly coming and going, over 60 brief chapters. What's palpable is the welter of shock, fear, world-weariness, cynicism and misplaced idealism evinced by the villa's transient residents as they apprehensively awaited their fate. The author never gets quite close enough to her subjects, but this is a moving tale of great sacrifice in tumultuous times. B&w photos.