Badass Ladies of History: Mary Jayne Gold

Sometimes the people who are best able to help are there at the right place and at the right time. Such is the case of American heiress Mary Jayne Gold, a wealthy, WASP-y girl from the Chicago area who had fled to Marseilles with a friend’s child in tow.

A French edition of Mary Jayne’s memoir.

Desperate to get to the United States, she turned to the American Relief Center, headed by American journalist Varian Fry, only to be swept up in one of the most heroic efforts of Americans in war-torn Europe before the United States officially entered World War II in 1941.

Mary Jayne Gold was born in Evanston, Illinois, in 1909. She attended finishing school in Italy and lived abroad in Europe for ten years, flying her own plane from city to city to engage in pre-war café society. But when France surrendered to Germany in 1940, Mary Jayne’s glittering life came to a grinding halt. She tried to take the two-year-old son of Daniel and Theo Bénédite, Peterkin, with her to the United States, but since he had no papers, there was no way they could travel. After reuniting the child with his mother in Biarritz, Mary Jayne headed to Marseille, intent on returning home.

And then, as Gold wrote later:

Thanks to the efforts of my new friend Miriam Davenport, I next became a member of Varian Fry’s American Relief Center (the Marseille operation of New York’s Emergency Rescue Committee), which performed an amazing Scarlet Pimpernel operation after the fall of France. spiriting out of the country by legal or illegal means hundreds of anti-Nazi intellectual and political refugees. By a clause in the French Armistice they were now subject to extradition and death in Hitler’s Europe. The collaborationist Vichy government refused to grant them exit visas in order to keep them on the shelf waiting to be picked up by the Gestapo. Among our famous “clients” were André Breton, Marc Chagall, Lion Feutchwanger, Jacques Hadamard, Konrad Heiden, Otto Meyerhoff, Walter Mehring, Victor Serge, Franz Werfel. To the list of notabilities were added many rank and file militants who were in equal danger. All told about two thousand individuals were assisted in one way or another.

Miriam Davenport, Mary Jayne Gold, and Raymond Couraud, also known as killer in Mary Jayne’s memoir.

It was Mary Jayne’s money that helped obtain visas and passage out of France for the refugees and cover the administrative costs as the group operated from Air-Bel, a villa located outside of Marseilles. Mary Jayne hoped that her love affair with Raymond Courard, whom she named in her memoirs as Killer, a deserter from the French foreign legion who had by that time become involved in the Corsican mafia in Marseilles, would offer some connections to Fry, but it soon became apparent that Killer wanted nothing to do with the American Relief Center. Since her relationship with Killer proved to be dangerous, Mary Jayne stepped back from helping Fry, even though she still offered monetary support. Killer’s gangster life only put Mary Jayne in more and more danger, and as the police were closing in, Killer went off to fight in the British army and became a war hero. He later would always state that “those were his glorious years and [Mary Jayne] had given them to him.”

Mary Jayne worked with the committee for a few more months until she herself headed to Lisbon to return to the United States, She eventually wrote a memoir about her experiences with Varian Fry, called Crossroads Marseille 1940. She spent the rest of her life in New York, St. Tropez, and her villa in France, and she and Miriam Davenport remained good friends until her death in October 1997.

Varian Fry at work at the American Relief Center in Marseille.

Mary Jayne Gold could have fled back to the United States after France surrendered to Germany. Instead she remained and did what she could to assist some of Europe’s greatest intellectuals, artists, and writers in their flight from capture by the Gestapo. Time and time again, she risked her own life to do what she knew in her heart was right. It’s because of her conviction and efforts alongside Fry and Miriam Davenport that so many lives were saved.

“I was not there to witness the worst, only the beginning,” she wrote. “Even then, I was sometimes embarrassed into a sort of racialism – like being ashamed of belonging to the human race.” Yet as we’ve seen many times, witnessing human beings committing great evil inspires other human beings into doing what they can to keep it from happening to those who would be victimized. Mary Jayne Gold, along with Varian Fry, Paul Bénédite, Miriam Davenport, and others who worked for the American Relief Center in Marseilles at the time are to be hailed as heroes. Mary Jayne stood up to the tyranny of Nazi Germany and put her own freedom on the line to offer the refugees what she already had in the United States: the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, without the threat of the Gestapo hanging over their heads.

Miriam Davenport Edel and Mary Jayne Gold, 1997

Provided is a link to the Wikipedia article on Varian Fry, which offers a list of many of the people Mary Jayne helped to save.

For more information about Mary Jayne Gold, Varian Fry, and the Rescue Aid Society, read A Hero of Our Own: The Story of Varian Fry by Sheila Isenberg and Fry’s own memoir Surrender on Demand. Please also visit the homepage of the Varian Fry Society, www.varianfry.org. There is also a museum exhibit about Fry and his efforts that tours now and then. I saw it at Chicago’s Field Museum in June of 1998.

Source: “Mary Jayne Gold.”  <www.varianfry.org>

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