Varian Fry was a young Harvard-educated journalist and editor who worked for the American Emergency Rescue Committee during World War II. His primary goal was to prevent notable artists, writers and political exiles, many of them Jewish, from being interned in concentration camps. Stationed in Marseilles in 1940, Fry procured visas, created false passports and sought out escape routes on both sea and land for almost 2,000 people, including Marc Chagall, André Breton and Max Ernst. His inherently dramatic tale is the basis for Julie Orringer’s thoughtful and absorbing new novel, The Flight Portfolio.
For just over a year, Fry and a core staff of Jewish and non-Jewish expats focused their efforts in the south of France, collaborating with an extensive network of forgers, blackmailers and petty thieves. Working out of a hotel room, Fry eventually rented a villa to provide a temporary home for refugees who needed a safe residence.
The Flight Portfolio opens after an unpersuasive visit to the Chagalls, who show no interest in leaving France. Fry is approached by Elliott Schiffman Grant, an old friend and lover from their student days at Harvard, where both men were part of Lincoln Kirstein’s inner circle. Now teaching at Columbia, Shiffman—or Skiff, as he is called—has followed his German-born Jewish lover, Gregor Katznelson, to Europe in hope of locating Katznelson’s son. Both father and son need to leave Europe, and swiftly. Although Fry and Skiff haven’t seen each other in over a decade, they become romantically involved as they work together to provide the Katznelsons with safe passage.
Like Orringer’s earlier novel, The Invisible Bridge, The Flight Portfolio mixes historical fact with imaginative fiction. Though Skiff is an invention, Fry’s bisexuality is well documented, and Orringer makes use of the relationship to explore Fry’s sense of growing empathy and to highlight the moral issues inherent in deciding who is and who is not worth saving. Orringer is a meticulous researcher, and the novel’s cloak-and-dagger thrills keep the pace lively in this lengthy but intriguing tale of resilience and resistance.