Many are familiar with the heroic feats of Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who saved tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews from Nazi slaughter during World War II. Wallenberg, who disappeared behind Soviet lines in 1945 and whose remains have never been found, has been lauded internationally. Yad Vashem memorialized him in the Righteous Among the Nations in 1963.
Yet the first American to have been bestowed that same honor, Varian Fry, remains mostly a footnote in history. In 1940, Fry, a founding member of the Emergency Rescue Committee-established shortly after the fall of France to the Nazis-left for Marseille, where he ran a clandestine operation that rescued several thousand mostly Jewish artists, writers, musicians, and intellectuals, including Marc Chagall and Hannah Arendt.
In her latest novel, The Flight Portfolio, award-winning writer Julie Orringer has set about to ensure Fry is given his due. In a fictionalized retelling of his acts of courage, Orringer lays out the story of a complicated man, a Harvard-educated WASP and journalist by profession, whose earlier life was hardly predictive of his mission in war-torn Europe, which he had come to see as a moral imperative.
Fry, said Orringer, during a recent visit to suburban Chicago, where she gave a reading during a national book tour, was a "hellraiser kid" and "an iconoclast [who] dropped out of various boarding schools" during his youth. As an adult, Fry was also a closeted gay man who led a double life. He married twice and raised three children, all the while conducting affairs with men, including Lincoln Kirstein, a major New York cultural figure who co-founded the New York City Ballet.
By all accounts, Fry's life after the war was a letdown. He developed physical and mental health problems, and he died prematurely-in 1967, at age 59. As one of his children, son James D. Fry, acknowledged in a recent letter to the Sunday New York Times Book Review , Fry paid enormously for his secretive life. "My father exhibited well-documented signs of bipolar disorder," wrote the son. "[A]dd to that the psychological toll of being a closeted homosexual in mid-20th-century America and you have a recipe for his mental breakdown."
Orringer's book about Fry has received coruscating reviews. In his glowing critique of the book in Newsday , Charles Finch called Orringer a "blue-chip writer" who is also a "super researcher" and "natural storyteller."
The Flight Portfolio , which was about a decade in the making, is not Orringer's initial foray into Holocaust-related fiction. Her first novel, The Invisible Bridge , published almost 10 years ago, is a sweeping tale of a Hungarian Jewish family during World War II. The book homes in on one of three brothers, Andras Levi, a character based on the author's maternal grandfather, Andrew Tibor, who survived the Shoah (Holocaust) and immigrated to the United States with his family, including the author's mother, at the start of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956.
Orringer said she felt compelled to write about her grandfather after initiating conversations with him about his wartime experiences in 2000, six years before he died.
"Incredible circumstances allowed him to survive," Orringer said. Writing about him, she added, "seemed like an imperative."
The Invisible Bridge put Orringer on the literary map, though the author, a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, had already published a well-received collection of short stories, How to Breathe Underwater , in 2003, when she was barely 30. In its appraisal of The Invisible Bridge , Kirkus Review noted that it was "likely to be one of the big books of the season."
Orringer, who lives with her husband, fellow writer Ryan Harty, and their children in the author-populated Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, is now at work on a new novel about a family in New Orleans in the 1980s. It is not, she said, about her own, though she did live during that decade in the Crescent City, where her parents practiced medicine. (Orringer, born in Miami, subsequently moved with her family to Ann Arbor, where her parents had academic appointments at the University of Michigan Medical School.) The characters in this book, however, are also Jewish. How could they not be, Orringer suggested, when she filters everything in her life through a Jewish lens?
"A Hungarian journalist once asked me when I first knew I was Jewish," Orringer recounted. "I said that I learned I was Jewish when I was born. My earliest memories include the lighting of the Shabbos candles."
A member of a progressive Jewish congregation in Brooklyn, Orringer said that the work of Varian Fry, whom she described as a "gay hero of the Holocaust," has made her evermore thoughtful about the responses to some of the timeliest issues facing this country today, including immigration and the refugee crisis in Central America. "It forces us to examine our own lives," she said, "to fight against what is wrong."
Robert Nagler Miller is a journalist and editor who writes frequently about arts- and Jewish-related topics from his home in Chicago.