Transatlantic’s Varian Fry

The Netflix limited series Transatlantic tells the story behind a rescue operation to help artists, intellectuals, writers and other blacklisted individuals escape from Nazi-occupied Europe. This fictionalized account, inspired by the historical novel The Flight Portfolio by Julie Orringer, focuses on the work by the real Emergency Rescue Committee and its agent in Marseilles (also real) journalist and activist Varian Fry. In the series, Varian Fry is portrayed by Cory Michael Smith, who in preparing for the role, as he told the New York Times, came to the RBML to see the Varian Fry papers.

Max Ernst, Jacqueline Breton, Andre Masson, Andre Breton, Varian Fry. Varian Fry papers, RBML.

In June 1940, after the Nazi invasion of France, the Emergency Rescue Committee (ERC) was formed, with the support of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, to help those persecuted by the Nazis, including artists, philosophers, and writers to escape persecution. Armed with a list of over 200 names of individuals blacklisted by the Gestapo and the Vichy police, Varian Fry came to Marseilles in August 1940 as an ERC agent to process exit visas. What was supposed to be a three-week visit became an over-a-year-long stay. Fry and a group of volunteers hid refugees in the Villa Air-Bel as they waited for visas and transport options. Fry and his associates are believed to have helped over 2,000 individuals, including Max Ernst, Hannah Arendt and Marc Chagall. Fry’s wartime contributions were only recognized many years after he died in 1967. In 1994, he was named “Righteous Among the Nations” by Yad Vashem, which honors non-Jews who took great risks to save Jews during the Holocaust, and in 1997, the French Government awarded him the Légion d’Honneur.

Group outdoors around long table Villa Air-Bel outside Marseille copy. Varian Fry papers, RBML.

Varian Fry was a graduate student at Columbia in the 1930s and again in the 1960s. He received an MA in History in December 1965. Because of this connection, his wife Annette Riley Fry offered the Varian Fry papers to the RBML in 1969. The Varian Fry papers include the original manuscript of Surrender on Demand, Fry’s account of his wartime experiences. A version of this memoir was originally published by Random House in 1945 and a 1966 version was Fry’s Master’s essay. The papers also include correspondence with some of the other “characters” on Transatlantic, including Albert Hirschman, Mary Jayne Gold, Andre Breton, Peggy Guggenheim, Max Ernst, Marc Chagall, and Walter Mehring. There are also many photographs of their time in Marseilles and life at the Villa Bel-Air. 

And the final Columbia connection: Albert Otto Hirschman (played by Lucas Englander) came to the US in 1941 and became a leading expert on the economic development of Latin America. He was professor of international economics at Columbia from 1958 to 1964. He also delivered a lecture as part of the Lionel Trilling Seminar in February 1990.

Varian Fry at his desk copy. Varian Fry papers, RBML.