“The Flight Portfolio,” by Julie Orringer
“The Flight Portfolio” is a novel based on the story of a real person, Varian Fry, and his efforts to save creators of art and literature before the Holocaust and World War II overtook Europe.
As the novel begins in 1940, Fry has traveled to Marseille with a small amount of money and a list of targeted intellectuals whom he hopes to help escape to ports where they can leave for safe destinations. Names on his list include Marc Chagall, Marcel Duchamp, and Hannah Arendt. Writers, artists, and scientists were seen as a threat to the government, and while Jews were the main focus of their evil intent, many others were also on the list of “undesirables.”
Leading up to this time, there had been a lot of wishful thinking that nothing much would come of the Nazi regime and everyone would be fine in a year or two, and then suddenly it became apparent that the threat was very real and immediate.
Fry was an American journalist with a Harvard education, and he hoped that it would take only a fairly brief trip to France to arrange for targeted individuals to leave. But difficulties came up immediately, and Fry’s determination and knowledge motivated him to stay for over a year, not only providing money, but also coming up with false documents to help people escape. Fry left his wife Eileen back in New York, and he wrote home saying that he had a few projects that he couldn’t abandon, requiring him to extend his stay in France.
Shortly after arriving, Fry runs into an old Harvard buddy, Elliott Grant, on sabbatical in Europe, and while they work together to help people escape the Nazis, they revisit a romantic attraction to each other that they know is forbidden. Grant convinces Fry to take on extra risk in trying to find and rescue the son of Grant’s current lover, a young man who is being sought by the Nazis because of his reputation as a brilliant scientist.
The search for this one person who chose to travel at the wrong time is symbolic of the work of Fry and all the others who worked to save refugees. While it was not possible to save even a fraction of those in need, the idea of helping as many individuals as they could kept them going in the face of constant danger.
In order to raise money and make connections so that he could request documents, Fry began working with an existing relief organization, the Emergency Rescue Committee, which received some support from Eleanor Roosevelt. Their work eventually set up something similar to the underground railroad of the slavery years in the United States. A travel passage was created that led over the Pyranees mountains and ended in Lisbon where it was possible to leave the occupied territories.
Fry moved to different locations to avoid being noticed, and risked his life many times by bribing officials and passing false documents to help refugees. It is estimated that Fry helped at least 2,000 people escape the Holocaust before he was expelled from France in 1941.
The Vichy government and Consul General Hugh Fullerton are the evil ones in the plot, rounding up Jews and others and opposing rescue efforts. Set up in the south of France as an unofficial government, they were taking their orders from the Germans even though France had not been occupied by the Nazis. U.S. immigration policies added to Fry’s difficulties, and he had to find other safe havens for some of his clients when he found that the United States was not welcoming everyone who needed a place to go.
While there were rumors that Fry might be bisexual, all of the details of the gay affair, as well as the character of Grant, were created by the author, and this “poetic license” has been criticized by some reviewers. In a detailed author’s note, Orringer provides some background information about why she thinks Fry probably was bisexual, but would have been unable to admit it at that time. An intriguing bit of information is that Fry provided confidential information to Alfred Kinsey for his studies about sexuality. For those who are interested in a factual telling of Fry’s life, several biographies have been published.
Fry’s friendships with various Surrealist artists are based more on facts, with various colorful individuals hanging around his office and hosting dinner parties even when there wasn’t much food to put on the table. The title of the book refers to a portfolio of works he collected from various artists in an attempt to demonstrate their value as émigrés to the United States. The author plays a bit with the different concepts of “passing” – Fry and Grant passing for heterosexuals, Fry passing along works of art to raise money, and the refugees passing through secret locations to safety in Lisbon. Trust and loyalty are also examined, as well as weighing risks in light of the possible benefits or disasters that may result.
Coming in at 562 pages, this historical novel owes something to the style of epic novels of previous eras, with great attention to detail, and foreign words that would benefit from a glossary or footnotes. If you enjoy a grand and sweeping tale of World War II, based on true events, you will enjoy “The Flight Portfolio.”