Orringer, Julie. “The Flight Portfolio: A Novel”, Knopf, 2019.
Meet Varian Fry
Julie Orringer’s near perfect novel (for me, at least), “The Flight Portfolio” is inspired by a World War II story that many of us are unaware of—the real-life quest of an unlikely hero to save the lives and work of Europe’s great minds from the impending Holocaust. I must admit that I had heard of Varian Fry and of all places, I heard of him when I lived in Arkansas. A friend made me a copy of the film “Varian’s War” and I was introduced to a character who was to influence my thought for some time to come (because of his relationship with one of my philosophical heroes, Hannah Arendt and that will be explained in this review).
In 1940, Varian Fry traveled to Marseille carrying three thousand dollars and a list of artists and writers he hoped to help escape within a few weeks. He ended up staying more than a year, working to procure false documents, find emergency funds, and arrange journeys across Spain and Portugal, where the refugees could leave for safer ports. Among his clients were Hannah Arendt, Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp, and Marc Chagall (and these are just my favorites). He was soon involved in a race against time to save them and this was a high-stakes adventure that demanded great courage. We also learn. That Fry was involved in a love affair that could have cost him everything that he worked so hard for.
This is a big book that I could not put down and I read all 562 pages in almost one setting. We see the power of art and love beautifully depicted here (even though one reviewer found the bisexual and gay love scenes to be distasteful. To her I say, “Wake up, we are in the twenty-first century where love is no longer expressed by gender.
“The Flight Portfolio”, is named after a collection of paintings, drawings, and other artistic endeavors put together by fleeing artists and authors in Marseilles, France in 1940. Marseilles was Vichy, France and the artists and intellectuals were trying to get to Portugal or North Africa. From there they would be able to make their way to freedom in the US, Cuba, Mexico, or, in some cases, Martinique. Most were short of money and hope. Many should have left Europe earlier and not as the German noose began to encompass France and they wanted to leave now. A group had been set up and staffed by mostly non-Jewish Americans who were busy “pulling strings, paying ransoms, bribing officials, and making up counterfeit documents.” This was the “Emergency Rescue Committee” and one of their most important jobs was deciding who was worthy of being sponsorsed and saved by the Committee.
The novel is actually two stories. The first is the story of the rescues of so many people and the way the ERC operated in and around Marseilles. Included in that story is how the Committee was able to smuggle people in and out of France to go to safer places from which to get a boat or a plane to the US. Author Orringer uses real people as both rescuers and the rescued. The other story is the love affair between the married Varian Fry, the man who was in charge of the ERC and his old college lover, Elliott Grant. While Grant is a fictional character, he is based on Fry’s real lover, Lincoln Kirstein. Obviously Fry was bisexual because he fathered two children with his second wife. Kirstein went on to found the New York City Ballet and was a noted cultural figure and philanthropist and in 1984 was awarded the Presidential Meadow of Freedom.
Julie Orringer’s writing is beautiful and she manages to juggle the comings-and-goings and the personal stories of the main characters. She evokes Vichy France and descriptions of the wartime France that are gorgeous to read and she shows the tension that Fry was under and the fragility of civilization itself and the heroic efforts necessary to preserve it, “all made personal in the work of artists and intellectuals that provide the artistic portrayals we need to see and the ideas we need to contemplate.” Varian Fry’s efforts are finally commended and beautifully so. The book is a fantastic story with heroic people who labored against all odds and every obstacle to preserve the good, true, and beautiful.