Four years ago, when Sheila Isenberg was scouting a subject for her fourth book, her daughter, a writer herself, mentioned seeing a reference to Varian Fry, a young American who helped refugees escape occupied France during World War II. Isenberg did some research and was riveted: Fry, with little help from the group he represented and antagonism from his own isolationist government, schemed to spirit more than a thousand people to America, among them artists and intellectuals like Marc Chagall, Marcel Duchamp and Hannah Arendt. "I was shocked that no one had written a book about him," Isenberg recounts by phone from her home in Woodstock, N.Y.
Fry had written his own memoir, Surrender on Demand, but his postwar career was checkered, and he died in obscurity in 1967, after troubled final years. Then again, Fry had more recently risen in post-Holocaust consciousness. In 1993, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum paid tribute to him in an exhibit and in 1996, Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust memorial, named Fry the only American among the 18,000 "righteous gentiles" who helped rescue Jews.
After selling A Hero of Our Own: The Story of Varian Fry (Forecasts, July 16) to Random House, Isenberg confronted her challenge. Fry had donated his papers to Columbia University, but most were in French and German, requiring the author to hire translators. While a fellowship from the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation helped defray expenses, "let's just say it was a labor of love," Isenberg reflects in her earthy New York accent.
No network of rescued refugees existed, but thanks to a query in the New York Times Book Review, Isenberg found several of those Fry helped. Isenberg also gained the cooperation of Fry's widow Annette, who had not been consulted by the producers of a docudrama, Varian's War (aired earlier this year on Showtime) and, says Isenberg, "was eager to have his story told correctly."
Fry was a congenital outsider, rebellious and creative, but with a firm sense of responsibility. At Harvard, he worked as an editor of a magazine focusing on foreign news, Fry visited Germany in 1935, a few months before passage of the anti-Jewish Nuremberg laws. He witnessed a pogrom and sent an urgent eyewitness account to the New York Times.
Isenberg writes that Fry "tried desperately but unsuccessfully" to draw attention to the impending horror. In 1940, he helped found the Emergency Rescue Committee (ERC) to aid refugees who had fled Hitler only to be trapped in France by the Vichy government. Then, at age 32, Fry volunteered to go to Marseilles on behalf of the committee. There, he found himself leading loyal likeminded expats, along with refugees themselves, in evading local authorities. They arranged papers, often forged, to get refugees out of France and through neighboring countries, and charted mountain escape routes. After more than a year "fighting my own little war," he was expelled.
Isenberg, punctuating the tale of bravery and derring-do, ends each chapter with a sketch of a refugee's escape, "because I felt I needed to bring the reader's attention back to individual human beings." She praises editor Robert Loomis at Random House for knowing how to get the best out of a writer," helping her clear extraneous material from the manuscript.
Isenberg's path to biography has been circuitous; she "backed into a career." After graduating from Brooklyn College with an English degree, she took a low-level job at the Scott Meredith literary agency, then earned an education degree and struggled as a high school English teacher.
Two years after moving to Woodstock, her current home, Isenberg "started working for the local newspaper by accident," taking an assignment as a favor. That blossomed into a new career: "I found out that the combination of wanting to know things, wanting to be a fly on the wall, and being very nosy all made me a good reporter."
After a decade of reporting, including work on some major investigations, Isenberg spent four years as media coordinator for a New York state assemblywoman. Seeking more of a challenge, she resolved to write a book. A newspaper article about a man charged with killing his wife piqued her interest; he was accompanied to court by a woman described as his fiancée.
Isenberg was surprised to find no studies about Women Who Love Men Who Kill (as she titled her 1991 book for S&S). She ultimately contacted many such women, who, she says, didn't welcome her conclusion that they sought relationships with men safer than previous abusers.
She then sought to write a biography of the activist attorney William Kunstler, whom she knew slightly. Birch Lane Press wanted Kunstler to be billed as co-author of My Life as a Radical Lawyer (1994), but Isenberg did the work, which she particularly enjoyed, thanks to Kunstler's verve and generosity. After that, her new agent, Elizabeth Kaplan, connected her with Tracey L. Brown, daughter of the late Commerce Secretary Ron Brown, and Isenberg became the unbilled collaborator on The Life and Times of Ron Brown (William Morrow, 1998). "I'm a journalist at heart. I can get into whatever I'm doing," observes Isenberg, who also teaches journalism. "But I prefer to do my own thing."
That led to Fry and, given the new gravity of public discourse, it may be a propitious time for the book. Isenberg finds an analogy between the isolationist spirit during Fry's days "and the insular period we went through" before September 11. Beyond that, Fry's heroism has its own power. Some call him the "American Schindler" and, indeed, Isenberg finds an explanation proffered for Oskar Schindler's surprising heroism applicable to Fry: only "divine inspiration" could explain how such a man could draw so deeply on his principles, creativity, courage and tenacity to stem the tide of history.