The Adventures of Miriam Davenport, 1940-1946, Part I

Today’s post is by Dr. Greg Bradsher, Senior Archivist at the National Archives at College Park, MD.

In October 1945, Miriam Davenport reported to work at Tier 18 W in the National Archives Building at 7th and Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington D.C. She was not, however, an employee of the National Archives. She was employed by the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) and was responsible for overseeing its newly created Photo Archive Project. Most of the staff at the National Archives probably did not know about her and her new job. It is possible, however, that during the summer a staff member or two might have read Varian Fry’s Surrender on Demand that appeared shortly before V-E Day, which discussed her role in Marseilles in 1940 helping refugees to escape from the clutches of the French Police and the Gestapo. Now, five years later she was undertaking a new challenge; not as dramatic as that in France, but nonetheless, one that would have a lasting importance.

Born in Boston, Massachusetts, June 6, 1915, Miriam Bernice Davenport attended Smith College, where she studied art and architecture history. Shortly before she graduated from Smith College in 1937, her father, then her mother, had died quite suddenly. She and her ten-year-old brother were left with a small mountain of debts and al­most no money. She later recalled that “A Smith College B.A., however magno cum honore in art history, was little more than a one-way ticket to indigence.” She decided she needed a professional degree. “I gambled that, somehow or other, I could manage this before running out of money. There was some reason to believe that, armed with an M.A., I might get a decent job or a good graduate fellowship and make a suitable home for my brother.” In 1937 she was granted a full tuition scholarship at New York University’s Graduate Institute of Fine Arts and in 1938 she received a Carnegie Summer Art Scholarship for study at the University of Paris’ Institut d’art et d’archéologie. Her brother went to stay for three months on an uncle’s farm in North Carolina so that she could accept the grant. [1]

While at the University of Paris, Davenport took painting classes with cubist Andre Lhote, and to earn extra money, she gave English conversation lessons. She decided to stay on in France and her uncle agreed to keep her brother on the farm until her return.By the time war broke out in 1939, she had already completed half of a licence libre and her doctoral thesis topic had been accepted. “The war seemed,” she later recalled, “a poor excuse to drop everything; European students were still studying.”But she would drop everything for her new love.

In 1939 she fell in love with a Yugoslavian graduate art student, Rudolf Emil Treo (born in Ljubljana (Slovenia) on March 23, 1914), and she decided to suspend her studies and go to Yugoslavia with him. There she supported herself by teaching English. About two weeks after the Germans had begun their invasion of the Low Countries [May 10, 1940], she boarded a train in Ljubljana, Yugoslavia, bound for Paris via Italy. She intended to sit for examinations at the University of Paris. Her fiancé was to follow later to continue his studies towards a doctorate. As it turned out, her train arrived at Paris before the German pincers had closed around the city. 

Even by the end of May 1940, like many others who had been brought up on ”the miracle of the Marne,” Davenport refused to believe that the French might capitulate to the Nazis. All was far from well, however. During that last week of May, things went from bad to worse. The police were swarming all over Paris making mass round-ups and interning any and all whose papers were not in impeccable order. Unfortunately, her American passport and French identity card had just expired. Notwithstanding this, she was still hoping against hope to finish her Master’s degree in June. The University cancelled its June examinations but there were still enough professors present to grant her permission to sit for the equivalent at the University of Toulouse. Her problem was staying out of jail long enough to get there. “A less than helpful American Embassy declared my plans frivolous and refused to renew my passport for other than immediate repatriation via Bordeaux.” At the Prefecture of Police, the renewal of her identity card was rejected out-of-hand. With some help of a French friend she was able to get into a high functionary’s office. There, with elaborate courtesy, her identity card was renewed for the purpose of transferring to the University of Toulouse. However, running the bureaucratic maze had cost some five precious days.

On June 2, she signed out at the local police station, crammed all of her belongings into four suitcases, and found a seat on the night train to Toulouse. This was the last train on that line to run on time; the tracks were bombed the next day. At Toulouse, she quickly found out, the city was swamped by the Exodus. It was the designated center for Belgian refugees and for the Polish Army in France. The population had jumped from a quarter of a million to more than a million in a fortnight and while thousands of refugees were already on their way home, Toulouse then harbored a small but more or less permanent population of foreigners who did want to return to areas occupied by the Germans.     

She spent many days getting herself properly registered at the University and with the police; in the general confusion one had to endure much misdirection and endless, often fruitless, waiting-in-line. What she did remember with “painful clarity” was that, by the time her papers were in order, her examinations were scheduled to begin the next day, a good two weeks earlier than those cancelled in Paris. “I sat for them dutifully and failed them brilliantly.”

Not long afterwards she ran into Charles Wolff who she had briefly met in Paris. Wolff, she learned, was a well-known musicologist, journalist, militant Socialist, and impassioned anti-Communist who had fought in the Spanish Civil War. He had regularly sheltered Spanish Republican refugees in the basement of his little house in the rue Boulard, and had often intervened with the police on behalf of German intellectual and political refugees. In Toulouse, Wolff and his friends were running a kind of informal club in a small café on the Place du Capitole. Davenport spent a good part of her days and most of her evenings in the café, with Wolff and his friends reading newspapers, discussing global politics, and listening to the loudspeakers that had been installed on the square and which, from time to time, gave the latest news. It was unrelentingly bad. On June 10, Italy declared war on France. This was scarcely a military threat but it eliminated any chance of her applying for an Italian transit visa in France. Davenport was effectively cut off from her fiancé in Yugoslavia. At this point she had intended to go there, marry him, and then, as his wife, she could bring him to the United States.On June 14 Paris fell and three days later Marshal Pétain sought an armistice with Germany. It was at about this time that Davenport got her last postcard from Yugoslavia telling her that her fiancé had fallen gravely ill. 

The Armistice was signed on June 22. On that day Pétain agreed to surrender on demand the thousands of anti-Nazis who had found political asylum in France. The only good news was that Davenport and her refugee friends were in the unoccupied zone.

In Toulouse there were political people, intellectuals, and, artists of all kinds, who were staying one step ahead of the authorities. “Miriam,” according to her friend Mary Jayne Gold, “had several of them under her wing and wondering desperately how to help them.” Soon she met Konrad Heiden, Hitler’s unflattering biographer and Walter Mehring, one of Germany’s most famous young poets who had written popular anti-Nazi songs, and was very high on the Nazi’s list of wanted men.  Like the rest, Mehring felt he would be picked up sooner or later unless he could obtain a good false passport and visas.

In Toulouse, Davenport also met Gold, who would later write that Miriam was “a small, slender, wispy sort of girl, given to giggles and whoops. She wore her pale blond hair parted in the middle of her forehead right over the top down to the nape of her neck. These two sections she braided and somehow tied on the top of her head. It gave her a prim look.” Gold would write that Davenport “was interested in almost everything.”According to Davenport they “became friends at first sight; our friendship has lasted a lifetime.” Davenport wrote “she told me that she was a rich woman and that, should I run short of cash, she would love to help out. She was planning to go fetch her little dog from where she had left him on the flight south, then go on to Marseilles where she would cable home for money and return to the States.” Gold would later write that Davenport told her that she planned to go to Marseilles, have her passport renewed, and see about returning to Yugoslavia to rescue her fiancé “somehow or other.” Davenport told her that a “year earlier he had seen me through a long and dangerous illness and I owed him much. It was already clear to me that, sooner or later, Yugoslavia would fall to the Nazis.”

Before she left for Marseilles, Wolff, Heiden, and Katia Landau (had been affiliated with the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification in Spain) impressed upon her the urgency of finding some way to “‘wrap anti‑Nazis in the American flag, their only possible salvation.’” All agreed that Marseilles was the only place to search for help.

Marseilles was the biggest city and the only functioning port in the unoccupied zone. The city was a gateway out of France to Algiers, to London, and to America. It attracted tens of thousands of refugees, who began coming there in May. These included French from the occupied zone and Alsace-Lorraine, British soldiers, Belgians, Czechs, Poles, anti-fascists, communist and anarchist Spaniards, anti-Nazi Germans, including intellectuals and artists, and many Jews. Many of the German and Jewish refugees were in hiding because of their fear that the Petain Government would turn them over to the Germans. There were however many thousands of the less prominent Jewish and German refugees who were living openly in Marseilles and in the South of France. [2]

Davenport arrived in Marseilles early in August and found the city was jammed with refugees. After a frantic, day-long search, she found a modest hotel room that she could ill afford; she was down to her last $125. The next day she dutifully registered with the police, then went to the American Consulate where the receptionist, directed her to take a tram to the annex in a château well out of town. The Consulate’s workload was stretched to the limit shortly before the war as a result of the massive influx into Marseilles of refugees from all over Europe fleeing Nazi persecution. Perhaps tens of thousands of them came to the Consulate General seeking asylum in the United States; the consulate was forced to move its visa operations to larger facilities in a nearby suburb. At the annex, Davenport was informed that passports were being renewed only for repatriation, transport to be provided at the individual’s expense. Although she still carried a paid-in-full return passage on the French Line, repatriation was not for her. In fact, the French Line was no longer sailing to the States. Was anyone, she asked, doing anything for anti-Nazi refugees trapped in France? No was the answer she received. Her next question was whether there was any American organizations in Marseilles that was looking after their needs? No, none, was the response she received. On the way out she noticed a long queue of refugees waiting to be seen, most of them speaking German. Davenport later wrote: “I also observed the Consulate’s doorman being offensively rude to them. A strong odor of xenophobia and anti-Semitism permeated the premises.”

She returned to the main Consulate and asked, firmly, to see the Consul General. In due course she was shown into his office. She told him that she had a job teaching English in Yugoslavia (this was true), that she needed to get back to her work, and that her passport needed renewing. It seemed unwise to return to the States where she should be unemployed. He saw to it that her passport was renewed and advised her to write the Consul General in Geneva for advice on how to go about getting an Italian transit visa. After thanking him profusely, she left. It was obvious to her that getting to Yugoslavia was going to take months.

After getting settled in, and sending a letter to the Geneva Consulate, Davenport telephoned Mary Jayne Gold. They met and brought each other up to date on their wanderings. According to Gold it was Davenport who first told her about the plight of the political and intellectual refugees who were now subject to extradition to their countries of origin in Nazi-run Central Europe. Davenport mentioned particularly Konrad Heiden, who had written the first revealing biography of Hitler, and Walter Mehring, the well-known poet that from the beginning had assumed a militant anti-Nazi stand. Gold, according to Davenport, was horrified. Together they determined to find some way of helping them if possible.

During August, Gold and Davenport, close friends, saw each other every day. According to Gold, “we were more like high school kids on holiday, on holiday from war and disaster….”  early on after dinner we hung out at the cafes drinking beer. “Miriam used to tank up on a huge cone-shaped glass a foot high called a formidable.”They would end up at Gold’s place at the Continental Hotel to listen to the latest news over the BBC from London. Gold had a bottle of whiskey and some red wine for an occasional drink as the evening wore on as they waited for BBC to come on at 1am.

Davenport and Gold were at the Café Pelikan one afternoon when Mehring, very excited and furtive-looking, came to their table to speak to Davenport privately. She excused herself and followed him a few paces. He then told her that the man they had all been dreaming about was real and had arrived in Marseilles. This American savior was in the Hôtel Splendide, had money, access to visas, and a list of people he was supposed to rescue. His name was Varian Fry and Mehring had seen him that very day. However, on leaving Fry’s room he had been picked up by the police and held for three hours for questioning. He had only now been released. Tomorrow he was supposed to return for another appointment but he was afraid to go back. He asked Davenport if she would go to Fry that day and ask for a new appointment in some out-of-the-way café, telling Fry of his fear of a second arrest. “Of course,” Davenport would later write, “I was overjoyed to run that errand…” 

Fry, born on October 15, 1907, studied Classics at Harvard University. He then went to Columbia University to study international affairs and journalism. By 1935, he established himself as a writer, and became editor of The Living Age, a well-established monthly that reprinted articles and stories from the foreign press. He traveled to Germany in 1935, on behalf ofThe Living Age and there saw first-hand the brutal acts of Hitler’s anti-Jewish policies. He returned to the United States and wrote about what he had witnessed and became involved with the American Friends of German Freedom. In 1938 he was appointed editor of Headline Books, an educational series of the Foreign Policy Association and intensified his involvement with the American Friends of German Freedom. In June 1940 he was instrumental in organizing a luncheon held to raise funds to support the emigration of Social Democrats. At the luncheon, hosted by the American Friends of German Freedom, held at the Commodore Hotel in New York City on June 25, Erica Mann, daughter of Thomas Mann, argued to the academics and intellectuals in attendance, that writers, artists, and intellectuals who opposed Hitler through their works should be helped. At the luncheon, $3,000 was spontaneously donated to set-up the Emergency Rescue Committee (ERC) to prevent the persecution and almost certain death of writers, artists, scholars, and a few labor and political leaders considered identifiable enemies of the Nazi state.

The committee was particularly concerned about the status of refugees in Vichy France, who could be surrendered to Nazi authorities at any time. With the government refusing to open its borders to increasing numbers of immigrants, private organizations like the ERC took on the job of helping Jews and non-Jews gain safe passage to secure locations. From the outset, the ERC enjoyed strong support from influential members of New York’s literary community, including John Dos Passos, Upton Sinclair, and Dorothy Thompson. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt also actively provided support.

The committee solicited names of endangered intellectuals, labor leaders, and political refugees from the writers Thomas Mann and Jules Romains, director of the Museum of Modern Art, Alfred H. Barr Jr., Karl Frank of the German Socialist Party, and Frank Bohn of the American Federation of Labor. They ended making a list of 200 individuals who were to be helped in being liberated from harm. The Committee desired someone to go to France, find the people on the list, and provide financial and logistical aid to them to be able to leave France. When no one came forward to go to France to help these individuals, Fry volunteered. Davenport would later recall, “as it turned out, a better man could not have been chosen for the job. Committed, self-righteous, and publicly imperturbable…” He could manage quite well in French and German and he had been abroad in the past. He was exceptionally well-read and familiar with the works of the writers and artists on the list of those to be rescued. He expected to be able to give them money collected and assumed that it would be a routine matter to inquire about their individual visa cases at the American Consulate. Fry took a brief leave of absence from his post at the Foreign Policy Association. He believed that it would take just three weeks to contact the people on the committee’s list.He left New York on a Pan-American Clipper on August 4, 1940, ostensibly, as a representative of the World Committee of the YMCA and carried a letter to prove it. He also carried with him enough clothing for a summer vacation abroad and a list of two hundred people to be rescued if he could find them, the addresses of several individuals who might be helpful, three thousand dollars in cash taped to his leg, and a letter of recommendation signed by Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles.

Once Fry got settled in Marseilles, he assisted refugees on his list in acquiring visas and other documents necessary for a quick escape. Some of the initial people with whom he dealt had the appropriate documents, but were in want of money. Fry supplied them with the necessary monies to facilitate their travels. Within a day of his arrival, the word went out through the refugee population and spread all over France that an American had arrived with a pocket full of visas and dollars, and direct connection with the State Department enabling him to go get anybody any kind of visa desired at a moment’s notice. Soon people learned his name was Varian Fry and he was residing at Hôtel Splendide in Marseilles. People began flocking to see him to request his help.Very quickly, he was overwhelmed by the sheer volume of people who desired his assistance. 

Davenport went to the Hôtel Splendide, took the elevator to the fourth floor, and took her place at the end of a line of waiting refugees in the corridor outside of Fry’s door. When it was her turn to speak with Fry she explained Mehring’s arrest and fears. Fry immediately gave him a new appointment in a café for the next morning. She then asked if he were interested in learning the whereabouts of Konrad Heiden, Katia Landau, and others. He was indeed. She provided appropriate information about them and gave him Charles Wolff’s address in Toulouse. She also told Fry about her disillusioning experience at the U.S. consulate visa office.Fry, hearing her story and opinion expressed to her at the visa office, decided that she had the right politics.Fry then asked her what she was doing in Marseilles. Davenport told him that she was waiting for visas to return to Yugoslavia to help her fiancé.Fry’s first impression of her was that she was a bright young woman who talked a lot.He would describe her as “gregarious.” 

Fry would later write “Miriam was always either laughing or coughing…” Some years later a Fry biographer, Andy Marino, would write that “Miriam smoked almost nonstop, and had a hacking cough to prove it, but one that would blend seamlessly into ribald laughter at the bawdy language with which she embellished her many anecdotes.” 

Not long after their meeting, he sent her a note on August 27, “Do you do typewriting? If you can, will you stop up at my hotel tomorrow? I very badly need help”Thrilled to finally be of some use, and to have a job, since she was nearly destitute, she showed up promptly and Fry hired her as an interviewer in the office that he was hoping to open the next week at a salary of $27 a month. Fry seemed to think that very little; but “to me,” Davenport would later write, “it was riches.” 

By the end of August Fry had decided that he needed to stay in Marseilles, rather than return home as had originally envisioned, and expand his scope, not being limited to the names on his list. He decided to open an office where he could help refugees to the extent his funds and contacts he was making were possible. Fry’s plan was to establish a legal relief organization under the auspices of the French government, using it as a means to evacuate endangered refugees through illegal means if necessary. These means included falsified documents, black market transactions and clandestine escape routes. 

Fry opened his office as planned. It was one flight up in an old building in the rue Grignan, a side street near the Old Port. Ostensibly the office had the overt purpose of distributing money to indigent refugees while assisting them with their visa negotiations; with the sign at the door saying no more than Centre Américain de Secours, a bland American relief center. When asked what Fry and his assistants were doing, the reply was that they were advising people on how to get to America and giving financial assistance where needed—all perfectly legal. The name that Fry and staff used to identify themselves (clandestinely) was “Emerescue”—the name of their New York cable address.

Each morning Fry was at the office by eight. When they opened for business a long, snaking queue of desperate people was already jamming the two corridors and the flight of stairs leading to their office.From eight until noon they interviewed as many as they could. Davenport recalled that Fry with his staff and with their clients was warm, sensitive, witty, and relaxed.Fry received at least 25 letters during the day, and every hour he took nearly a dozen phone calls. 

The main activity was the interviews of those seeking help. Davenport spoke to some forty people every day and Fry and the others, including two of the committee’s clients, the writers Walter Mehring and Hans Sahl, saw as many. Fry recalled that Davenport spoke French and German “as few Americans do, and her knowledge of art and artists made her very useful when we had to distinguish between the many refugees who claimed to be artists worthy of our help.”

He noted that when she had never heard of them, and they had no specimens of their work to show, she would tell them to go down to the Vieux-Port and make a sketch. When they brought the sketch back she would look at it and decide right away whether they were any good or not.If she believed they had talent they were placed on the list of Fry’s clientele; if not, she expressed her regrets. Those who arrived claiming to be poets were dealt with in much the same manner, except the rejection process was usually quicker.

Fry wrote that “She also handled university professors with tact and skill, and sometimes with considerable ribaldry. I remember once overhearing a conversation between Miriam and the daughter of a professor of urology. The daughter had brought in an enormous dossier of letters from urological societies to prove that her father was an intellectual of sufficient eminence to deserve our special attention.”Miriam asked her who her father was. She responded he was a professor of urology. Miriam asked “But what is urology?’ The daughter explained. Miriam shrieked. ‘Why didn’t you tell me right away your father was a professor of pipi?’ she said.”

After a two-hour lunch, they began their conferences in the office, stopped at seven for dinner, ate between seven and nine, and then went to Varian’s room to continue conferring. Before the next day they had to decide who could be helped and who not. At their conferences in Fry’s room, they were acutely aware of the gravity of their deliberations and the inevitably tragic consequences of their decisions for many of the supplicants, “the atmosphere was far from conspiratorial or dreary” Davenport wrote. “Occasionally the occupants of neighboring rooms would complain about our loud ‘parties.’” But the main business was deciding who to help. Each night, Fry agonized what he knew were the life-and-death decisions he had to make. Their day usually ended between midnight and one a.m. This went on seven days a week. The only leisure time was mealtime and, at times, that was business, too.

Making decisions on who to help was a heartbreaking situation to Fry and his staff. Fry’s first priority was people on the ERC list or would be added to the initial list, and there were other people that it seemed appropriate to help based on their intellectual abilities. Ordinary refugees, many of them Jews, were turned away without any direct assistance from the ERC. All Fry could do for them was to refer them to the American Friends Service Committee and to HICEM [Hebrew Relief Agency].

Fry and his staff spent much time obtaining proper travel documentation to get people out of France into Portugal and Spain, and in many cases, on to the United States. This meant working with various consulates, including the American Consulate, to obtain visas. They were able to obtain Czech, Lithuanian and Polish passports, as well as Siamese, Chinese, or Belgian Congo overseas visas. In some instances efforts were made to get people out of France to North Africa or the Middle East. Fry and his staff also helped secure false French demobilization papers, false French identity cards, as well as other documentation. They also provided monetary support for food and accommodations and/or travel funds, to people they were helping get out of France and people they hoped eventually they would be able to help.

As the days wore on, Davenport became more and more depressed by the number of endangered people who deserved help but were unknown to, as she described it, “the old-boy network; recommendations made in New York fixed our conditions for giving assistance. We had our ‘first list’ of some two hundred names which was augmented from time to time by others approved in New York.”

When Davenport told Gold about this problem and the financial problems of the Emergency Rescue Committee, Gold immediately wanted to help. She had already decided to postpone going home but she was, herself, running out of funds. Most of her money was blocked in the States. More could be had only by dealing in a black market where she had no connections. She offered to give the Committee $3,000 to help those not recommended by New York provided they could also help her to get sufficient money for her personal needs. Fry refused outright to have anything to do with this proposal when Davenport put it to him. “I know nothing about that woman! How do I know she’s trustworthy? She’s just another rich playgirl, probably one with a passion for dukes and duchesses and whose friends are ultra-reactionary.”Davenport kept pushing Fry unsuccessfully to meet her and take the money. When they met she tried to offer money, but Fry was still hesitant.But Davenport did persuade Fry to add Gold to his staff, where she worked doing initial interviews. Eventually Davenport was able to get Fry to accept Gold’s money and one of Fry’s staff assistants helped Gold solve her financial situation and for the Centre Américain de Secours to be some 330,000 francs richer. The money was specifically earmarked for those not on the New York lists. Davenport called the new arrangement the “Gold List” and she supervised its disbursements until she left Marseilles.  

From the end of August to the first of October, Fry, Davenport, and their colleagues were relatively successful in obtaining all the necessary visas and assisting people to get out of France. They were continually under pressure to expedite and expand the scope of their work. In early September, Davenport received a letter from Heiden, saying that if help did not come soon they would all be herded into the French concentration camps and shipped off to Germany.

Fry was helped immensely by Hiram Bingham IV, the American vice consul in charge of visas. They did encounter difficulties, however, with the consul general, Hugh S. Fullerton. He distrusted Fry, perhaps because he appeared sympathetic to leftists at a time when fear of Communist infiltration to the United States resigned supreme. This bias existed despite the ERC’s policy of refusing to aid Communists.

Until October, for the most part, French officials basically ignored the activities of Fry and his staff.  They knew they were helping people the Gestapo would like to catch, but did not take action unless forced to. Nevertheless their presence, as well as that of uniformed members of the German and Italian Armistice Commissions, caused considerable nervousness for Fry and the people he was trying to help.

The situation in early October worsened for Fry and his colleagues. They found it was beginning to get harder to get people out of France. That month they learned that Berlin was putting more pressure on Vichy to clamp down on foreigners, Jews, and Gaullists. French statutes came down hard on both French Jews and foreign citizens of Jewish heritage. It provided that the prefects were empowered to intern such [foreign] Jews in “special concentration camps.”[3] It was at this time also that the American consulate began putting pressure on Fry about his activities. The American consul told him that the French would evict him if he did not stop certain activities. Fry decided to stay until he was officially kicked out, hoping more monies would arrive from America.

During late October while Fry was dealing with the French authorities and the American consulate, Davenport was attempting to obtain French visas that would allow her to travel to Yugoslavia and return to France with her desperately ill fiancé. Being unsuccessful obtaining the visas, she decided she would go to Yugoslavia without them. The American Consulate at Geneva had finally succeeded in securing her an Italian transit visa, which meant she could travel to Ljubljana. She told Gold that she planned to go to Yugoslavia to marry and rescue her fiancé, Rudolph. Gold later observed that “I thought her very brave to cross a hostile Italy and an endangered Yugoslavia to face her fiancé’s unfriendly family.” They did not, according to Gold, relish the idea of their brilliant son marrying a penniless American. 

Davenport told Fry of her plans of leaving the first week of November to be with her Yugoslavian fiancé. Fry, who had long relied on her intelligence and skill, knew that had always been her intention, and he expected her to go to sooner or later and he was prepared for her eventually resigning. On November 4, she said her goodbyes and, “unable to choke back my tears, set out for Switzerland, Italy, and Yugoslavia.”

On the day Davenport left, Fry sent a message to New York:

“You must replace me before I leave. Nine employees do not suffice to handle the work which the situation demands. We have sixty applicants per day and only question forty of them. Many cases require hours and days for investigation. In spite of the number of employees, the salary budget is very small. If there is not enough money, it must be solicited. The condition of certain refugees here is terrible. Hundreds of intellectuals are without their funds and lack means of earning their living. They are in a very destitute condition and among them there are eminent people. The life of those who are in camps cannot be described. Several, still free, will be put back, if we withdraw our help. Really make a vigorous effort to collect large sums immediately…..The minimum budget is estimated at five thousand francs per month. Requirements increase daily and private funds are giving out. Remember that we do not assist everybody, only real intellectuals….When will new visa authorizations arrive? Nervousness of clients increases constantly while waiting here week after week.” [4]

On December 2, Fry, Gold, and several others connected with his local organization at a house occupied by Fry in the outskirts of the city, were arrested and held incommunicado on a boat for days during Marshal Petain’s visit to Marseilles on December 3 and 4. Fry and Gold were released from prison on December 5.[5]On December 6, The Prefecture at Marseilles implied to Consul General Fullerton that an order of expulsion might be issued against Fry. Under these circumstances, the Chargé in France, H. Freeman Matthews at Vichy, wrote the State Department that the committee sponsoring Fry might wish again to request his return.[6] 

Learning from Fry’s wife about the arrest, Eleanor Roosevelt wrote Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles, “There must be something we can do about an American citizen, and I am sure that though he was helping refugees, he did nothing actually reprehensible.” Welles quickly responded, explaining what he knew and what action he took. “The fact is that Mr. Fry had been directed by his principals in this country to leave France. This order was sent to him some weeks ago but he continued in his activities there. His activities brought him into contact with various persons whom the French police had on the suspect list and he was in company with some of those persons when arrested.” [7]  

Meanwhile, once in Yugoslavia, Davenport stayed with Rudolph’s parents in Ljubljana. His family was still reluctant to have their handsome and promising son marry a penniless American.Besides having to deal with Rudolph’s family, she struggled with the usual problems of immigration red tape compounded by wartime conditions.

In France, Fry was having his own problems. Shortly after his arrival in January 1941, as ambassador to Vichy, Admiral William Leahy refused to renew Fry’ six-month passport and wrote the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that the State Department did not approve Fry’s activities and would not oppose any measure that the French Government might choose to take against him. Fry would learn of this, but he decided to stay on.In February, Fry was handed his passport valid for return to the United States and provided with Portuguese and Spanish transit visas and the French exit visa only upon the clear understanding and with Fry’s definite assurance that he would leave France without delay. But Fry broke his word about leaving. He went into hiding elsewhere in France and eventually returned to Marseilles to continue his rescue work.

Early in June 1941, the police authorities in Marseilles warned the American diplomats that steps would eventually and possibly soon be taken against Fry, and stated that the only reason for his immunity from expulsion or arrest had been the reluctance of the French government to take any measures against an American citizen which might arouse further criticism of France in the American press.[8]

At the beginning of September, Leahy informed the State Department that he had been informed by the regional Intendant of Police at Marseilles that Fry, following his arrest three days ago, “will be kindly but firmly put across the Franco-Spanish frontier today and will then presumably proceed to Lisbon.” Leahy reported that “The Intendant expressed regret that the French authorities had no other alternative in view of evidence in their possession of Fry’s illegal activities conducted over a long period of time under the cloak of his relief organization than to imprison or oblige him to leave the country.” Leahy noted that the Consulate and Embassy were aware that Fry had been given repeated warnings to depart but had disregarded them. [9] The same day Leahy informed the State Department that “The Department may wish to convey the foregoing to the Emergency Rescue Committee, which will probably experience relief that Fry has finally left France since it has intermittently for months either ordered him to return to the United States or intimated through messages sent through the Department to the Embassy or Consulate at Marseilles that he should do so.” [10]

Fry was back to New York City in late October. He went straight to work with the Emergency Rescue Committee.

As for Miriam Davenport, when the Germans and Italians invaded Yugoslavia in early April 1941, she and Rudolph married, and then that summer they traveled along the one road out of Yugoslavia controlled by the Italians rather than the Germans, and managed to find their way to Switzerland to obtain a visa for Rudolph.They spent several months in Zurich trying to get a visa for Rudolph and other transit documentation to enable them to travel to Lisbon and then on to the United States. Finally, by the end of October, with the necessary documentation in their possession, they set out for Lisbon. Despite some difficulties they reached Portugal, and on December 12, 1941, sailed for the United States from Lisbon on the SS Excambion.

Back in the United States, Miriam soon joined Fry, working with him at the Emergency Rescue Committee (ERC). In 1942, the ERC and the International Relief Association joined forces under the name International Relief and Rescue Committee, later shortened to the International Rescue Committee. During its short existence it is estimated that the ERC handled some 2,000 cases, representing in all over four thousand people. Of these, between 1200 and 1800 persons found their way to safety, clandestinely or legally, as a result of Fry’s direct efforts. For the others, the Committee intervened directly in getting them liberated from jail or concentration camps, found places of hiding or false identities, or simply paid them a weekly allowance for as long as possible. These included the artists Marc Chagall, Max Ernst, Andre Masson, Marcel Duchamp,  Wilfredo Lam, and Jacques Lipchitz; writers such as Konrad Heiden, Franz Werfel, Lion Feuchtwanger, Arthur Koestler, Anna Seghers, Andre Breton; scientists Otto Meyerhof and Jacques Hadamard; musicians Pablo Casals, Alma Mahler (wife of poet Franz Werfel), Heinz Jolles, and Wanda Landowska; and, political theorist Hannah Arendt. One person who would not survive was Charles Wolff, who had joined Fry’s office after Davenport left France and later joined the French resistance. He would be tortured to death by the French Militia, the Milice française, a paramilitary force created on January 30, 1943 by the Vichy regime to help the Germans fight the French Resistance.

After her time with the ERC, Miriam Davenport worked for the next several years for various worthy causes: doing public relations and fund-raising for the International Rescue Committee, the Progressive Schools Committee for Refugee Children, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and for the H. L. Oram public relations firm. At some point during the war years Miriam and Rudolph divorced. According to Gold “The marriage was short-lived.”

In 1944, Davenport began a new career with the Committee of the American Council of Learned Societies for the Protection of Cultural Treasures in War Areas. This employment would lead to new adventures that will be discussed in Part II of this blog.


[1] Information about Miriam Davenport before 1941 comes from primarily from three sources: Mary Jayne Gold, Crossroads Marseilles 1940 (Garden City, New York: 1980), Varian Fry, Surrender on Demand (Boulder, Colorado: Johnson Books, published in conjunction with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 1997), and most importantly An Unsentimental Education: A Memoir by Miriam Davenport Ebel ( http://www.varianfry.org/ebel_memoir_en.htm). Also useful are Sheila Isenberg, A Hero of Our Own: The Story of Varian Fry (New York: Random House, 2001), Andy Marino, A Quiet American: The Secret War of Varian Fry (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1999), Donna F. Ryan, The Holocaust & The Jews of Marseille: The Enforcement of Anti-Semitic Policies in Vichy France (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1996). Footnotes will only be provided for records held by the National Archives and Records Administration.

[2] Memorandum by the Assistant Chief of the Division of European Affairs (Robert T. Pell) to the Under Secretary of State (Sumner Wells) July 29, 1940, 840.48 Refugees/2552, Decimal File 1940-1944, General Records of the Department of State, Record Group 59.

[3] The Chargé in France (H. Freeman Mathews) to the Secretary of State, Vichy, October 18, 1940, Telegram No. 773, 851.4016/11: Telegram; Decimal 840.1, General Records 1940-1942 (Entry 2489), Records of the U.S. Embassy, Vichy, France, Records of the Foreign Service Posts of the Department of State, Record Group 84; and Richard H. Weisberg, Vichy Law and the Holocaust in France (Washington Square, New York: New York University Press, 1996), pp. 37-58.

[4] The French intercepted this message and State Department acquired a copy in mid-January 1941. A Translated copy found in File: 351.1121 Fry, Varian, Decimal File 1940-1944, General Records of the Department of State, Record Group 59.

[5] Fullerton, Marseilles to Secretary of State, Telegram Received 881, Fourth. December 4, 1940, 351.1121 Fry, Varian, Decimal File 1940-1944, General Records of the Department of State, Record Group 59; Fullerton, Marseilles to Secretary of State, Telegram Received 884, Fifth, December 5, 1940, ibid.

[6] Matthews, Vichy to Secretary of State, Telegram Received 1095. December 6, 1940, 351.1121 Fry, Varian, Decimal File 1940-1944, General Records of the Department of State, Record Group 59.

[7] Eleanor Roosevelt, The White House, Washington to Dear Sumner, December 9, 1940, 351.1121 Fry, Varian, Decimal File 1940-1944, General Records of the Department of State, Record Group 59; Sumner Welles to My dear Eleanor, December 11, 1940, ibid.

[8] Cross-Reference File to Telegram from Marseille (Fullerton) Dated June 11, 1941, file No 811.111 Refugees/1527 in 351.1121 Fry, Varian, Decimal File 1940-1944, General Records of the Department of State, Record Group 59.

[9] Telegram Received No. 1116, Leahy, Vichy to Secretary of State, September 1, 1941 (Section One) based on From Fuller Telegram No. 1602 of August 5,  351.1121 Fry, Varian, Decimal File 1940-1944, General Records of the Department of State, Record Group 59.

[10] Telegram Received No. 1116, Leahy, Vichy to Secretary of State, September 1, 1941 (Section Three).  351.1121 Fry, Varian,  Decimal File 1940-1944, General Records of the Department of State, Record Group 59.

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