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Villa Air-Bel: World War II, Escape, and a House in Marseille

Villa Air-Bel: World War II, Escape, and a House in Marseille

by Rosemary Sullivan

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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


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.

Editorial Reviews

New York Magazine: Ask a Shop Clerk: Holiday Edition
“It’s history, it’s intrigue. It’s nonfiction. It’s a real page-turner.”
Ask a Shop Clerk: Holiday Edition - New York Magazine
"It’s history, it’s intrigue. It’s nonfiction. It’s a real page-turner."
Publishers Weekly
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. (Oct. 3) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
As World War II looms, darkens and erupts, a group of artists, writers and other exiles gather in Marseilles, where their escapes are plotted and executed by a doughty group led by American Varian Fry. If Sullivan's writing seems at times a bit too perky and aimed at readers who know little about the Second World War, her subject matter is of surpassing importance-and her efforts are ultimately effective. An astonishing array of talent fled to Marseilles in the early 1940s, fleeing the Nazi advance, names recognizable as among the most significant in the 20th-century worlds of art and literature: Max Ernst, Peggy Guggenheim, Andr‚ Breton, Victor Serge. Sullivan (Labyrinth of Desire, 2002) artfully interweaves their journeys and backstories. The escape narratives of Serge and Breton (told near the end) are as harrowing as any emerging from the War. Sullivan's great contribution here, though, is to bring to life those committed Americans and Europeans who risked all to help others. Fry, who headed the Marseilles activities of the Emergency Rescue Committee (headquartered in New York City), stands out. Although his own government often impeded his work (erecting, rather than removing, barriers), and although the ERC eventually fired him (they found him abrasive), he saved the lives of many hundreds. He found for them difficult trails over the Pyrenees, fetid ships and slow trains-but in doing so, found them freedom. Sullivan also relates the stories of husband and wife Danny and Theo B‚n‚dite, French nationals who worked tirelessly, even after multiple arrests. Others include Hans and Lisa Fittko (Germans), who guided refugees over the mountains, and American heiress Mary Jayne Gold, whosemoney kept the operation going in the early days. A number of the principals survived to publish their memoirs. The Marseilles villa, the structure where the fearful waited for visas and rescue, was razed in 1970. A complex tale showing how hope and courage flourish, even in the toxic soil of totalitarianism.
New York Magazine: Ask a Shop Clerk: Holiday Edition
“It’s history, it’s intrigue. It’s nonfiction. It’s a real page-turner.”
Philadelphia Inquirer
“She’s got style.”
The Advocate
“[In Villa Air-Bel] stories are told with passion.”
“This is a magnificent, complex narrative of courage, folly, and complacency...a beautifully narrated book.”
Sunday Times (London)
“Sullivan brilliantly interweaves personal histories with terrifying tales”
Boston Globe
“A moving and richly detailed account”
“With tremendous suspense and emotional pull, Sullivan recounts the little-known story of Varian Fry”
Quill & Quire
“Sullivan has written a book of great detail and complexity, though one that is full of darkness.”
Financial Times
“Her scene-by-scene evocation of life at the house reads like an updated Chekhov comedy laced with horror.”
The Forward
“Deft handling of a twisted plot with a large number of characters.”
Irish Times
“the style is beautifully clear and concise….Sullivan’s book should be mandatory reading.”
National Post (Toronto)
“Villa Air-Bel is a remarkable achievement”
Vancouver Sun
“[Sullivan] manages to combine solid scholarship with a snappy writing style...a history book that is completely riveting”

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
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5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 1.11(d)

Read an Excerpt

Villa Air-Bel

World War II, Escape, and a House in Marseille

By Rosemary Sullivan

HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2006

Rosemary Sullivan

All right reserved.

ISBN: 0060732504

Chapter One

The Road Out

It was slightly after 4 A.M. on the morning of September 25, 1940, when Lisa Fittko opened the door of the inn in the seaport town of Banyuls-sur-Mer and looked apprehensively up avenue Puig del Mas. After seven years on the run, she had grown adept at controlling her panic. She looked across at the harbor and listened for the sound of the waves beating on the shore. She tried to match her breathing to that calming rhythm. She glanced at the mayor's office on the central square. The gendarmes would not be arriving for hours yet. Up the avenue to the right, she noted that the vineyard workers had already begun to come out of their houses. It was time to leave.

She turned to the two people behind her and told them to put on the espadrilles they would need for the rough climb up the mountain. She gestured for them to follow her and reminded them again not to speak. Their German accents would betray them. The woman was a stranger to her, but Lisa believed she could be trusted not to lose her nerve. The boy, just sixteen, had been through enough to know the danger they were in. The two had understood immediately when she told them there was always someone watching and they must carry nothing but a small knapsack in order not to drawattention to themselves. Not that they had anything to carry. They had already lost everything.

The three walked slowly up the avenue, the women first, the boy trailing behind. In the waning moonlight, Lisa could make out the silhouette of the church tower. Only the previous week she had sat in its garden, contemplating the autumn butterflies gorging on the last sweet tastes of life. On that day, the Spanish simplicity of the church's façade with its three bells consoled her and the gothic mausoleums lined up like sentinels in the graveyard had made her think, then, of sanctuary. Now, though, the idea of the dead witnessing this flight through the blackness made her shudder.

She thought of her husband, Hans, who was still in Marseille. He'd sent her these strangers to guide over the mountains to freedom. For a moment she was almost angry with him. Why was it always they who had to risk their lives to save someone else? They'd been fighting Fascism since 1933 when Hitler first came to power and they'd fled, distributing anti-Fascist tracts as they ran across borders, first Czechoslovakia, then Switzerland, and now France. She knew that Hans was constitutionally incapable of abandoning his convictions. They were young, he said, and someone had to stay and fight.

She turned left at the railway bridge and her companions quietly followed. Now came the precipitous climb up stone steps into the vineyards. She could feel the cold wind, the tramontane, against her cheeks, bringing the exhilarating smell of the sea and lifting her courage. They mingled amid the vineyard workers who were moving casually through the darkness, their spades slung over their shoulders, their cabecs for carrying earth swinging with the motion of their footsteps. The workers were pointedly ignoring them. It was not the first time they had seen worried strangers slipping over the mountains. A year ago the refugees had been pouring into France because of the Spanish Civil War. Now the flight was reversed, back into Spain, away from the Gestapo and the French police, away from a country trapped in the totalitarian vise of irrational hatred. Lisa knew the vineyard workers, so accepting of life's patient seasonal pace, would not betray them.

She could smell the mature grapes hanging from the vines and felt their weight. The ritual of the harvest was about to begin. It shocked her to think about how life continued, oblivious to her fear. The light was lifting, and she glanced up at the hills to see if the border patrols, the gardes mobiles, were already on duty. If the three of them were spotted, she could offer no explanation for the presence of two women and a boy making their way through the alleys of vines up into the mountain. They would be arrested as apatrides, stateless people, without the papers that gave them the right to be walking on this ancient ground. It would mean immediate transportation to an internment camp.

They moved up, still unnoticed, into the foothills. Lisa looked at the crude chart on the paper she held in her hand. She noted they'd passed the empty stable marked on the map. They were obviously going in the right direction. Then they reached the huge landmark boulder.

Now she was looking for the old man. Yesterday she had wanted these people to see the climb they were in for and so she'd walked them up to the meadow. The daytime hikers were not suspicious and no one had stopped them. The old man had insisted on carrying his black leather briefcase. In frustration, she tried to dissuade him. She was sure the heavy briefcase would give them away, but he said it contained his new manuscript, which he valued more than his life. Then, to her shock, when they'd reached the meadow, he refused to return to the town. He was halfway, he said. He could not climb down and start again from the bottom. He was going to sleep on the mountain overnight. He would meet them in the morning.

In the distance she saw his body stretched out on the ground, there, where she had left him. She ran to him. Her first thought was that he had died in the night, probably from the cold. He had nothing to cover him. Wild bulls and other animals roamed the mountainous terrain. And smugglers. But he opened his eyes and smiled up amiably at her. Clearly in pain, he stood up slowly. It was then she noticed that his eyes were rimmed with dark red spots. Responding to her shock, he took off his glasses: "It's the dew," he reassured her. "See, the rims of the spectacle frames. The color rubs off when they get wet."1


Excerpted from Villa Air-Bel
by Rosemary Sullivan
Copyright © 2006 by Rosemary Sullivan.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Rosemary Sullivan has written poetry, short fiction, biography, literary criticism, reviews, and articles. Her recent books include the critically acclaimed Villa Air-Bel and Labyrinth of Desire. She is a professor emeritus at the University of Toronto and has been awarded Guggenheim, Camargo, and Trudeau Fellowships. She is a recipient of the Lorne Pierce Medal, awarded by the Royal Society of Canada for her contribution to literature and culture, and is an Officer of the Order of Canada.

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