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Was Varian Fry Gay — and Should It Matter? Readers Respond

Category: Art & Culture,Books

To the Editor:

Cynthia Ozick, in her review of Julie Orringer’s novel “The Flight Portfolio” (May 5), ends with a warning: “Orringer’s Varian is movie-tone make-believe. Do not mistake him for Varian Fry.” The character she is referring to is the historical Varian Fry, on whose life in occupied France and rescue of nearly 2,000 people from the Nazis Orringer’s novel is based. Let us get more specific, because Ozick certainly does: She is concerned that the fictional Fry is presented as gay. Ozick claims “for the historical Fry, beyond hunches and hints, there is no evidence of homosexuality.” Ozick is a wise and wonderful writer. On this subject, however, she is wrong.

It is nearly impossible to document the personal histories of L.G.B.T. people because they were burned, repressed, unwritten, unthought or stabbed or poisoned out of existence. Queerness has been purposefully erased, and so, in most cases, it is truthful to say “we have no evidence.” Of course, even with Fry, where we do have evidence, imagining his thoughts is, as Ozick puts it, “a door with no key.” If only there were a medium in which we could use empathy to imagine the thoughts of others, whose history has been erased, while signaling to readers that what they are reading is well-reserched conjecture! What luck, we do: the novel.


The writer’s most recent novel, “Less,” won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

To the Editor:

In my years of interviewing Varian Fry’s warm and witty second wife, Annette Riley Fry, studying letters he exchanged with his first wife, Eileen Hughes, and interviews with those who worked with his Emergency Rescue Committee, I found “no evidence of homosexuality.” Nor did I find any such evidence in interviews with dozens of the people he saved, or in the hundreds of documents he kept for his archives. As a result, my biography of this complicated man focuses on his saving of lives and on the tormented psyche of his youth and later years. It was a short life — Fry died at 59 — with troubling emotions and experiences bracketing his glorious 13 months in Marseille. So, not Varian’s leg sliding “seductively” against his lover’s but rather many sets of legs — skinny, dirty, bruised and strained — climbing the foothills of the Pyrenees to escape the Nazis. My book about Varian Fry focuses on the courage of a humanist and, yes, an iconoclast, who managed to save many men, women and children from imprisonment and death.

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