Many people have asked me about the process of conceiving and writing Villa Air-Bel. In response I offer the following:

On Writing Villa Air-Bel

Many people have asked me about the process of conceiving and writing Villa Air-Bel. In response I offer the following:

To find the book you are destined to write is a slow process. A book moves in on you and occupies you. After having written eleven books, I can almost say a book finds you.

The seeds for Villa Air-Bel: World War II, Escape and a House in Marseille were planted in Mexico City in 1995 when I visited the remarkable painter and writer, Leonora Carrington. Carrington is not as well known in North America as she is in Mexico, where she is considered Mexico’s premier Surrealist.

Before visiting Carrington, I read her moving novella Down Below. It recounts her extraordinary escape from France in June 1940 as the German army advanced on Paris. In those days, Leonora was the young lover of the German painter Max Ernst.

In September 1939, as soon as Britain and France declared war on Germany, the French government rounded up all German nationals as enemy aliens. Max Ernst had been living in Paris since 1922, but he still held a German passport. Along with thousands of others, he was interned in the hastily improvised prison camp called Le Camps des Milles outside Aix-en-Provence. He was freed after three excruciating months. Once the German invasion of Belgium and Holland began in May 1940, he was arrested again and returned to Les Milles.

By June, friends convinced Leonora that she must leave. They fled by car over the Pyrenees, joining the flood of between six and eight million people attempting to escape France. The numbers are staggering. The journey, as Leonora describes it in Down Below, was terrifying. She had no idea where Max was or what had happened to him. She felt she was abandoning him to the Nazis. Her anguish led to a nervous breakdown in Spain.

As we sat drinking tea in her small kitchen, I was able to ask Leonora the question I had always wanted to ask. “Why didn’t you leave France in 1939?” She replied: “We should have left France after Max was arrested the first time. But we couldn’t imagine a world other than Paris. You must remember what Paris was in those days, before the war. Paris was wonderful. Paris was freedom.”

Her answer sat in my mind and I asked myself: As war approaches, how do you know when you must leave? When do you reach the point where you are ready to abandon everything—home, work, lovers, family—and turn yourself into a refugee?

Leonora introduced me to the work of her friend, the Catalan/Mexican painter Remedios Varo. I read Janet Kaplan’s biography Unexpected Journeys: The Art and Life of Remedios Varo. Varo too had escaped from France, but it took her and her lover Benjamin Péret an anguished year of waiting before they could leave. By the autumn of 1940, the new French government at Vichy had sealed the borders of France and anyone who wished to leave the country was required to apply for an exit permit, as well as numerous other documents. A man named Varian Fry, who had been sent to Marseille by a New York group calling itself the Emergency Rescue Committee, helped Varo and Péret escape to Mexico in the autumn of 1941. Until I read Varo’s story, it had not occurred to me that life and death could become a matter of waiting desperately for bureaucratic papers.

Finally I read The Quiet American (1999), Andy Marino’s excellent biography of Varian Fry. A photograph reprinted in it immediately caught my attention. In the photograph a man and a woman perch precariously in the branches of a plane tree. The caption reads: Varian Fry and Consuelo de Saint-Exupéry at Villa Air-Bel, 1940 or 1941. Consuelo was the wife of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the dashing pilot and author of The Little Prince. She and Fry were hanging paintings in the branches of the tree. What intrigued me was the frivolity of this activity in the midst of such danger. Outside the photo’s frame, the Vichy police and even the German Kundt Commission were arresting people.

Suddenly it occurred to me that the Villa Air-Bel was the symbolic core of my story. The villa was in the suburbs of Marseille and served as a refuge for artists waiting for exit visas out of France and for emergency rescue visas to any country willing to accept them. The villa was also the residence of Fry and a number of young people from the Emergency Rescue Committee who were working to save the artists.

The questions accumulated. Who were the artists at the Villa Air-Bel and how did they get caught in the deadly web of war? How did they not see the war coming and escape in time? Did they refuse to believe war could happen, or did they believe that, if it did come, it could only touch others? Nameless, abstract others.

And who were the young rescuers at the villa? What convinces young people to risk their lives saving others? Is it a matter of temperament or does this transformation happen gradually, by a series of spontaneous decisions, until there is no other choice, until the risk has already been taken?

Wars build slowly, cumulatively, often years before the history books date their beginnings. In Europe, long before the bombs fell and soldiers and civilians died, long before extermination camps did their work of horror, there was the war of nerves, the propaganda war being fought for people’s minds. Despite the stories that are told in retrospect where everything is clear and predictable, it is never easy to decipher where the real enemy is or who will be the victim. In France, the illusion of normalcy was sustained for years. And then, in a moment, the world collapsed like a burnt husk. Millions of people were blind-sided. Despite the ominous signs, they could not believe a world war could happen. Not a second time.

In France in 1940 people soon learned how quickly everything could change. Suddenly destinies ceased to be a matter of personal control. The life and death of any individual became merely something to be haggled over in bureaucratic ministries: who was an alien, who should be imprisoned as an enemy alien, who should be deported to certain death? Not chance, not contingency, but someone else, a stranger, arbitrarily decided who lived and who died.

I wanted to ask what it feels like to move from freedom to occupation: to feel threatened, administered, restrained? Suddenly bits of bureaucratic paper control one’s life and death. The words forbidden, investigated, imprisoned enter one’s vocabulary and everything is uncertain—life, home, children, lovers. All can be taken away or left behind.

The story of World War II has been told thousands of times. It is one of our core stories. How could I make my version of the story new and immediate? I decided to begin the book with a dinner party. In the fall of 1940 twelve people sit around the dinner table at Villa Air-Bel—the artists and the young rescuers who are attempting to save them. These people would provide the thread of my narrative.

But I needed to start the story much further back in order to examine how wars happen. I began the narrative in 1932, when one of the young Americans who eventually worked with Fry arrived in France. Then I followed two stories, the web of connections that brought these people together at the dinner party and the story of how war creeps up slowly, inexorably. Even if you see it coming, you are paralyzed. You cannot imagine what can be done to stop it. Even as you sense the danger, war remains a phantom threat. Until it happens.

As with all historical narratives, Villa Air-Bel is also an allegory that I hope sheds some light on the present. The two epigrams that open the book make this clear:

They cannot imagine that the things they lived for could disappear. They cannot believe . . . that something essential could disappear, that a whole spiritual realm is threatened. They do not believe in major historical upheavals that obliterate all traces of previous generations and entirely transform continents. They do not believe that what seems to them unjust is possible.
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

There is no escape from yesterday because yesterday has deformed us, or been deformed by us.
Samuel Beckett

As I wrote Villa Air-Bel I discovered how much of my own experience informed its subtext. When I was young, I taught at the universities of Dijon and Bordeaux. I was fascinated by the legacy of World War II and, in particular, by the French Resistance. I have always been interested in totalitarian systems. Wanting to understand first-hand how a totalitarian regime functions, in 1979 I visited the Soviet Union. Through the connections of a friend, the novelist Josef Skvorecky, I also traveled to Czechoslovakia to speak with political dissidents. When I returned to Canada I organized an international congress called The Writer and Human Rights (in aid of Amnesty International). When the congress was finally launched in 1981, seventy authors from thirty countries attended. The congress gave me insight into just how many writers and artists around the world are censored, exiled, imprisoned, tortured, or killed.

But there was another experience informing my thinking.

As I was completing my book and still struggling with the preface, my husband, thinking to help me, asked me where the idea for my book had begun. I spontaneously said: “In Chile in 1985.” I was surprised myself, but indeed that is what immediately came to my mind.

My husband worked as a theatre director in Chile in the mid-seventies. Under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, he was arrested for putting on a play that was condemned as subversive—it defamed the military. He was jailed for three months. After his release, he fled from the country illegally. Eventually he made his way to Canada.

When we returned to Chile in 1985, I encountered the fear that military dictatorships create in order to control people. 1985 was still a few years before the end of the dictatorship. My husband and I were in the town of Talca where he was born, a very conservative town—in the first days of the coup d’état so many people were arrested that the only place large enough to confine the prisoners was the empty municipal swimming pool.

In 1985, Talca was under curfew. It was December, high summer. One night we went to a café. When the café closed at 1:00 AM and the doors were locked, a young guitarist came on stage to sing the illegal songs of Victor Jara. Twelve years earlier, Jara had been murdered in the national stadium in Santiago. There was a legend that the guards had cut off his hands to prevent him from playing his music to the other prisoners.

A group of young people at the café invited us home. They would have been as young as twelve when the coup happened. I remember slinking through the dark streets, watching soldiers shoving people caught out after curfew into the backs of paddy wagons. At the house we drank cheap wine, and as the atmosphere warmed, one young man suddenly left the room. He returned carrying some objects carefully bound in cloth. When he unwrapped them, I saw they were books. One was by Oriana Fallaci. I don’t remember the title. Another was Eduardo Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America. These were banned books. To be caught with them would mean immediate imprisonment. Then the young man turned to my husband: “We were kids at the time of the coup. We live in a dictatorship, but we don’t know how it all happened. You are the first person we have met who has come back. What can you tell us?”

There was silence. All my husband said was: “Who do you think I am?”

I remember how, at that moment, the air froze as solid as ice. Cold, cold fear. Terror. Suddenly the young people realized they had revealed themselves, given away their secrets, and they had no idea to whom they were talking.

My husband immediately put them at ease, but he had delivered his lesson in the most dramatic way possible. He was saying that his generation had been too trusting, too innocent. In 1973, the government of Salvador Allende was a democratically elected government. The students were demanding reform, not revolution. After the coup they discovered that the watchman at the university was an informant for the secret police, as was the woman in the cafeteria, and the student who sat beside them.

For me, that moment, when the world turned from amicable comfort to terror, grafted itself onto my mind, permanently. That was the feeling I wanted to reproduce in my book.

For those who have never undertaken a work of non-fiction, the joys of the process are not immediately obvious. All those years of archival work. But without original research, you can get no real sense of the past. And it is real people’s lives you enter in archives: the collections that include the letters, journals, and manuscripts of voices that have long since ceased to speak. Only after reading the enormous correspondence and official documents in the Varian Fry collection at Columbia University did I have a sense of the extraordinary stamina and stubbornness of this man. I read his letters home to his wife and parents; his indignant correspondence with officials; his letters back to France after the Vichy government expelled him. I saw how he continued to work tirelessly for certain refugees, even after all hope was lost. The man emerged as a real person to me, someone I seemed to know.

I remember my excitement when I received copies of correspondence by André Breton, Benjamin Péret, Max Ernst, Peggy Guggenheim and others. Manila envelopes would arrive from the SUNY Albany library, the Houghton Library, the Yale Music library, or the Getty Research Institute, each containing voices out of the past. But the most extraordinary experience was receiving the correspondence of Victor Serge whose papers are housed at the Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library.

Serge was one of the people who sat at the dinner table at Villa Air-Bel. His efforts to escape France were the most desperate. I had read his Memoirs of a Revolutionary and knew his story. He was born in Belgium and traveled to Russia as a young man to fight in the Russian Revolution. But it did not take him long to see that, under Stalin, Russia had turned into “the most terrifying State machine conceivable” (Memoirs of a Revolutionary, p. 380). Serge was probably the first to call the Soviet Union a totalitarian state. For his dedication to truth, he spent years in exile in Siberia before he was finally released and fled to France. Trapped in Marseille in 1940, he waited for Fry to secure Emergency Rescue Visas for him and his family. But he never received the visas. This fiercest of anti-Communists was never allowed into the United States on the grounds that he had once been a Communist.

I had written to Yale requesting copies of all of the correspondence between Serge and his American supporters Nancy and Dwight Macdonald between 1938 and 1942. One day two huge padded envelopes arrived in the mail. They contained about eight hundred pages of correspondence, so many letters that I had to seek the help of a friend in translating Serge’s side of the correspondence. I read avidly. Through these letters I felt more deeply than from any other source the desperation, fear, and hunger that was the life of a refugee in Marseille—not second hand through books but from Serge’s own candid words to his friends.

Under the Freedom of Information Act, I had earlier applied to the FBI for the file on Victor Serge that I knew must exist. I had to wait a year, but again a large manila envelope arrived at my door. The 331 pages of material it contained were shocking. There were copies of some of the private letters between Serge and the Macdonald that I had just read. There were also surveillance reports by agents and copies of interviews they had done with Serge. The man had been hounded by the FBI from the moment he was brought to their attention by his first letters to the Macdonalds until the day he died in Mexico in 1947. I felt a terrible sadness for the sufferings of this extraordinary man.

I sought out Serge’s son Vlady who had been twenty when he resided with his father at the Villa Air-Bel. He was now one of Mexico’s most colorful artists. Apart from André Breton’s daughter Aube, who was a young child at the time, Vlady was the last witness of daily life at the villa. We corresponded and had several amusing phone conversations in Spanish and French. I made arrangements to visit. The very evening I arrived in Cuernavaca and phoned Vlady’s residence, I was informed that he had just suffered a stroke and had been rushed to hospital in Mexico City. I left Mexico shortly thereafter. I did not want to disturb the family’s grief. Vlady died within weeks.

I now look back with nostalgia at the several trips I made to France and the three months I spent in Cassis. I walked Marseille in the company of shadows. I sought out the office Fry had set up in the run-down Rue Grignan, now lined with fashionable shops. I sat in sidewalk cafes in the Vieux-Port, though the old ones where Fry and his group had met had changed their names or disappeared. I walked through the squares where the rafles and arrests took place. I sat in the Bouches-du-Rhône Archives reading police reports. I visited many places: the tiny museum at Le Camps des Milles where Max Ernst was interned; the house in Saint-Martin d’Ardèche that Leonora Carrington and Max Ernst had decorated with exotic sculptures; Oppède-le-Vieux where Consuelo de Saint-Exupéry had hidden out after she left Air-Bel. I followed the secret escape route set up by Hans and Lisa Fittko from Banyules-sur-Mer across the Pyrenees to Portbou in Spain. Fry had sent many desperate refugees to the Fittkos to guide by foot over this precipitous mountain pass. I even stayed at the run-down Hôtel de la Loge in Perpignan, where Fry had spent five days while he awaited his deportation from France in early September, 1941. On this pilgrimage, it always struck me how thinly the skin of the present lay over the frightening past.

When a writer sends his or her published book out into the silence, it is impossible to predict the impact it will have. You wait for the reviews, of course, but, more meaningful, are the personal letters that come like missives out of the darkness, making the years of work worthwhile. I would like to share two letters I received.

In the early 1940s, the Mexican government had been generous in accepting refugees. In the course of my research I visited Mexico several times. This was how I met Walter Gruen. Gruen had been the husband of Remedios Varo before she died in 1962.

On one of my visits, Walter and his wife Alexandra invited me to dinner at an Argentinean restaurant in downtown Mexico City. As we emerged from the restaurant, we encountered a man with his dog. The dog was a Rotweiler, black, broad-shouldered, with brutal teeth. The dog was straining fiercely at its leash, as if about to pounce. Alexandra and Walter froze and Walter said: “Alexandra doesn’t like those dogs. They used them in the camps.” The simplicity of his remark moved me deeply. The Pianist was playing in the local cinema. I asked him: “Can you see films like this?” With a catch in his breath, he said: “No.”

Later I learned Walter Gruen’s story. As a stateless refugee, he had been imprisoned in an internment camp but was released in 1939, one year after the Anschluss. The Swiss Red Cross visited the camp and was authorized to release some prisoners. “I never knew why they let me out,” he said. He remembered two brothers in the camp. “One brother was released, one brother saved,” he said. “I mean that exactly. When I left the camp only one brother was freed. My God, that was a parting.”

Walter made his way to Switzerland and then worked as a gardener in a vineyard in the south of France. Eventually he obtained an Emergency Rescue Visa for America. The day he went to the consulate in Marseille to collect his visa was the very day the Americans bombed Pearl Harbor. The consulate was closed. He went into hiding.

I sent him a copy of Villa Air-Bel and here is a part of his reply.

“Dear Rosemary. Your book left us trembling thinking about the outcome of this terrific war. The work of Varian Fry and his collaborators was really extraordinary . . . . Reading this book, the nerves of the reader arrive to a breaking point . . . . It is more than admirable your collection and information after more than 60 years, your excellent book keeps us astonished what people were able to endure.”

I received another letter that touched me. It was from Madeleine Masson, a friend of Mary Jayne Gold. Gold’s was one of the numerous stories I recounted in Villa Air-Bel.

Mary Jayne had lived at the Villa Air-Bel from 1940 to 1941. A young American heiress, she had given a great deal of money to help support Fry’s rescue mission. After the war, she bought a villa in the south of France and, out of respect and nostalgia, named it Air-bel (sic).

Masson and Gold did not meet until they were middle-aged. Masson had read Mary Jayne’s memoir Crossroads Marseilles. They shared the same story. She too had spent her youth in Paris and, in June 1940, had joined the terrifying flight from the city, an experience she writes about in her own compelling memoir, I Never Kissed Paris Goodbye. The two women had much in common: they were both writers and loved reading, adventure, poodles, and people. Masson often visited Air-bel. Her fondest memory was of Mary Jayne swimming. Because she was allergic to the sun, Mary Jayne always swam fully clothed. She would plunge into the sea wearing a wide brimmed hat, parasol, shoes and stockings. When Mary Jayne was dying of cancer, she sent for Masson and they spent a precious last weekend together. Mary Jayne was still rollickingly funny. She died three days after Masson’s visit. Reading Masson’s letter, the Mary Jayne Gold I had written about became immediately present, beyond the pages of the books in which I had first encountered her.

Mary Jayne Gold once commented that she wrote in order not to disappear. Even if Air-bel, the house that was the symbol of her past, was destroyed shortly after her death, she survives in the pages of her own memoir, and in the pages of other books that recount her life. Madeleine Masson has invited me to visit her in England so that, together, over a glass of good French wine, we can toast the memory of Mary Jayne Gold.

When you are writing about the recent past, you always have in the back of your mind what biographers call “the survivors,” the family and friends of the people you are writing about. Will you have stepped, however inadvertently, into private spaces that still bring them pain? Varian Fry is a central figure in my book. It was he, after all, who organized the rescue mission for the refugees and gathered together the young people who saved them. Fry was a man of enormous courage and complexity who worked in appalling conditions, under pressures both from the refugees and from the police who hunted them. Did I bring him into focus in a compellingly human and accurate way? With trepidation I sent my finished book to Fry’s widow, Annette Riley Fry. She wrote back that the book is “the most complete and most readable account I have ever read about that amazing group of people who were welcomed at the Villa Air Bel.”

Writing Villa Air-Bel, I lived in the past for years. But it did not feel like the past. It felt as real as anything gets. Now that my book is published I feel those postpartum blues writers talk about. In my mind all these people became living people, and now I have lost them. They have stepped back into the pages of books, but I learned from them. I hope I will never be tested in the way they were tested, but if I ever am, I hope I will be able to emulate their courage.

Relevant texts by Sullivan:

  • “Moscow in March,” The Montreal Review, Vol. 1, No. 2, Fall, 1979, pp. 34–37.
  • “Prague 1979,” Memory-Making: Selected Essays, Black Moss Press, 2001, pp. 101–108.
  • The Writer and Human Rights, eds. Rosemary Sullivan et al. Anchor Press, Doubleday 1983.
  • “Confessions of an Anthologist,” This Magazine, Vol. 21, No 5, 1987, pp. 21–24.
  • “Three Women in Mexico,” Regeneration, ed. Di Brandt & Barbara Godard, Black Moss Press, 2005, pp. 50–60. Reprint.
  • “Fighting Words: Rosemary Sullivan interviews an opposition press editor in Chile, This Magazine, Vol. 20, No. 1, 1986.
  • “Life Sentence A Chilean Sequence,” The Bone Ladder: New and Selected Poems, Black Moss Press, 2000.