The Flight Portfolio

Orringer, Julie

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction
Secondary Category: Literature /

Genre: Novel

Annotated by:
Trachtman, Howard
  • Date of entry: May-21-2020


Historical fiction, the artistic space that exists between actual persons and events and a writer’s imaginative ability to create a new story, is an established genre. The narrative usually is told by someone whose name does not appear in history books but who was a firsthand witness to events as they unfolded and the people who influenced their course. A variant are novels that are written from the perspective of someone who is in fact part of the historical record but is either unappreciated or overlooked. The extraordinary success of Hilary Mantel’s trilogy of Elizabethan novels written in the voice of Thomas Cromwell, a chief minister to King Henry VIII, attests to the appeal of this format. Julie Orringer’s wonderful book “The Flight Portrait,” falls nicely into this category.

The novel is written through the eyes of Varian Fry. His name is not well known today. But he was a well-regarded journalist who wrote from Berlin in The Living Age and the New York Times about Hitler’s savage treatment of the Jews in Germany in the mid-1930s, well before most of the world came to realize the existential threat posed by the Nazi regime. After a brief period in the United States, he returned to Europe in 1940 and formed the Emergency Rescue Committee (ERC). Over the next year, with money that he helped raise, Fry was able to help over 2,000 embattled artists, scientists, philosophers, and writers to escape Europe and find safe haven in the US. Among those Fry saved were Andre Breton, Marc Chagall, Jacques Lipchitz, Hannah Arendt, Max Ophuls, Arthur Koester and Claude Levi-Strauss. It is hard to imagine the counterfactual, a world deprived of the contribution of these people because they perished in Europe. The novel details the complications, emotional and physical, that Fry, a non-Jew from a wealthy family, endured as he arranged for safe passage across the Pyrenees or by boat out of Marseilles for his anxious petitioners. The fraught negotiations with Vichy officials and the against the grain support he received from some heroic individuals in the US consulate, specifically Hiram Bingham IV, are played across the taut chapters. The title refers to a collection of unique artworks that the artists created to call attention to their plight and help raise funds for the ERC. The tension is palpable, the threat is real, and outcome uncertain until the end. It is an intelligent and engrossing read.


What makes the Orringer’s work noteworthy is the complex human character that she creates out of the historical record of Fry. Based on existing correspondence that suggests that Fry was gay, Orringer intertwines two narratives – Fry’s extraordinary efforts on behalf of the people who came to him for help and his struggle to define his sexual identity. Orringer creates a fictional friend from college, Elliott Grant, with whom Fry had had a sexual relationship while they were students at Harvard. After a 12-year separation, Grant resurfaces in Marseilles and offers to help with the ERC activities. Grant’s motives are unclear but he quickly makes himself an indispensable member of the team, and Fry and Grant renew their close relationship. Fry has a loving wife at home who is anxiously awaiting his return from France. Fry is guilt-stricken that he has not been honest with her about his sexual orientation and that their relationship is a sham.  As events unfold in the novel, he is able to come to a meaningful resolution of his dilemmas.

There are many identities that cause anguish and pain in the novel. Grant’s father was a talented black musician who married a Jewish woman from Philadelphia and then abandons his family. His son hides his black identity in order to gain entry to Harvard and secure a faculty position at Columbia. The Jewish intellectuals only come to Fry for his help as a last resort because Hitler and the Third Reich have made their religious identity a crime against the state. Finally, the basic human identity of the famous intellectuals that Fry saves is called into question. What about them makes them more worthy of his selfless efforts than any other Polish or German or Austrian or Hungarian Jewish father or mother? Is artistic accomplishment such an important feature of what we are as people that it should be the decisive criterion that determines whether we are saved from impending disaster?

Orringer offers no easy answers to these challenging questions. But the book she has written conveys a man in full. Fry’s legacy was cemented when Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, bestowed on him the title of “Righteous among the Nation.” He was the first of five Americans to be given this honor. Righteousness may be the ultimate human identity.


Alfred Knopf

Place Published

New York



Page Count


Secondary Source