The Flight Portfolio
by Julie Orringer


West Maui Book Club Discussion Questions

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Any page numbers refer to iPad edition.


Characters: Arthur Varian Fry, Eileen Fry, Elliott Schiffman Grant (Skiff Grant), Lena (secretary), Leon Ball (took refugees over the border), Tobias Katznelson (science whiz), Gregor Katznelson (Grant’s lover, Toby’s father), Mary Jayne Gold (Chicago socialite), “Killer ”, Lev Zilberman (artist), Chagall (artist) Mariam Davenport (Marseille staff), Danny (staff), Jay Allen (Fry’s replacement)

1) The deepest moral issue in Flight Portfolio was in determining who should be saved. (Another was in the relationship “lie” and which person to trust.) Once the Emergency Rescue Committee’s method came to light, how did you reflect on this, especially after knowing it came down to one main example: Katznelson instead of Zilberman? Please consider all relationships, responsibilities, circumstances, and intermittent opportunities.

2) The Marseille working staff committed themselves to an altered version of the US Emergency Rescue Committee’s mission. Discuss the Marseille side, taking into account viewpoints, locations, and effects of the war.

3) The quadrangular relationship of Fry, Eileen, Grant, and Grant’s lover upended everything Fry believed in about Grant and their relationship. How blind was love in this case? And what about family loyalty vs partnership love. “What a father would do for his son…lie deeply, lie elegantly, to save his son.” (pg 532)

4) How had the war made people hungrier for food and water, touch and sex, love, forgiveness, and absolution? Is it true one is never more alive than just before death? Or, as Anne Frank wrote, “I don’t think of all the misery but of the beauty that still remains.”

5) Early in the novel (pg. 8) Fry receives an encrypted message: La Dorade 19:00. Vincit labor ignorantiam, meaning: “Work conquers ignorance,” a refrain from the Hound and Horn, his literary quarterly at Harvard. He believes it’s from Kristin, but it turns out to be the fateful re-entry of Grant into his life. Discuss and answer Orringer’s next passage: If we could pin down the moments when our lives bifurcate into before and after—if we could pause the progression of milliseconds, catch ourselves at the point before we slip over the precipice—if we could choose to remain suspended in time-amber, our lives intact, our hearts unbroken, our foreheads, unlined, our nights full of undisturbed sleep-would we slip, or would we choose the amber?

6) Miriam Davenport is the first to challenge Fry about who gets saved because she’s hoping to find passage for Hannah Arendt, philosopher married to poet Heinrich Blucher. How many other instances had this decision been faced and how did you feel about the results?

7) (Orringer) When shelves in France--excluding wine shelves--were barren, how did they throw such big parties, especially for Mariam? And what of the decorations: praying mantis, frogs, etc. as centerpieces?

8) "The Flight Portfolio" contained 52-pieces of original art and was considered in the novel as “the work of the greatest artists alive in Europe.” It included a set of drawings, lithographs, etc. that “could travel where a single person could not.” It was absconded by the police. Fry’s Flight Portfolio, on the other hand, was stated best by Danny. “You saved more than a thousand lives,” Danny said. “There’s your Flight Portfolio. It’s already doing its work in the world. The rest is gone. Leave it.” Discuss both portfolios. Also discuss other portfolios of artists who took art and careers with them.

9) How does this story relate to today’s US immigrant and refugee environment? What about past eras, going back as far or farther to the slave era and them escaping via Florida into the Caribbean? What have we learned or not learned as a society?

10) Did you know Paramount released a film in 2001 titled, “Varian’s War,” starring William Hurt and Julia Ormond?

Knopf Double Day by the Reading Group Center (RGC)

Learning from Our Past: A Q&A with Julie Orringer

Julie Orringer’s The Flight Portfolio is a stirring historical novel based on real events. It follows Varian Fry, an unlikely hero, as he works tirelessly to save some of Europe’s greatest minds from the Nazis. Set against the backdrop of World War II France, The Flight Portfolio vividly evokes a sense of time and place, and it’s a perfect choice for reading groups.

Julie was kind enough to answer a few of our questions about this deeply researched and engrossing tale. Read on to learn more!

Reading Group Center: The Flight Portfolio is a work of fiction, but it features many real-life historical figures. How did you first learn about Varian Fry and his rescue network? Why did you decide to write a book with him at its center?
Julie Orringer: I learned about Varian Fry while researching my last novel, The Invisible Bridge. As I studied the terms of France’s 1940 armistice with Germany, I read about the Surrender on Demand Clause, which stipulated that the Nazis could deport any current or former German citizen in France for trial in Germany. I Googled the phrase surrender on demand and up came a memoir by that title written by Fry. When I read the memoir, I couldn’t believe I’d never heard about this heroic American who’d gone to France in 1940 to find and save writers and artists blacklisted by the Nazis. He had no lifesaving experience and few resources, but he managed to save more than two thousand of Europe’s most renowned artists. I thought his story begged to be told. And not just the story of his heroism, but also the one that hadn’t been recorded in the history books: the inner story of what motivated him to step beyond the confines of his New York life and perform world-changing acts.

RGC: How much research did you undertake before writing The Flight Portfolio? What did it involve?
JO: I researched Varian Fry’s life and work for about three years before I started writing the novel. First I read Fry’s memoir and whatever I could find online. Then I moved to New York for a fellowship at the New York Public Library’s Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers; the fellowship gave me a year to learn more about Fry’s clients—artists like Marc Chagall, Hannah Arendt, Max Ernst, and André Breton—and to read biographies and histories that illuminated Fry’s life. Next, I went to Harvard for a year, to the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, where Varian Fry’s student records had just been unsealed. I learned a great deal there about who Varian had been before he undertook his lifesaving work. And finally, back in New York, where I still live, I spent many hours at Columbia University’s Varian Fry Collection, held in the Manuscripts and Archives division of Butler Library. The archive contains Varian’s letters from his time in France, along with hundreds of photos he took, correspondence with the artists he saved, and records of what his colleagues observed in the concentration camps of France, among other things. I also went to Marseille to conduct research on the ground—I walked around the neighborhoods where Varian lived and worked, took the train out to the suburb where he and his Surrealist clients lived in a country villa, and explored the surrounding towns where he went on the weekends to explore and relax.

RGC: There is a devastating and provocative moral question at the heart of the story: who deserves to be saved? How did you grapple with that question during the writing process? What did you hope readers would take away from the final result?
JO: Yes, this is the novel’s unanswerable question, one that Varian himself struggled with until the end of his life. His organization, the Emergency Rescue Committee, had limited resources; how to allocate them? He knew that he’d eventually be kicked out of France for breaking its laws on behalf of his clients; how to decide which cases were most important, knowing he wouldn’t have time to address them all? At first Varian was under a mandate by his organization to save only the most prominent, but when he realized how bad things were on the ground—both in cities like Marseille and in the concentration camps—he realized that he had to expand his rescue operation to include as many refugees as possible, even if it meant angering those who ran the Committee’s offices in New York. In writing the novel, I explored Fry’s moral conundrum both in the public sphere—how to address the difference between what he knew was right and what his parent organization demanded?—and in the private sphere. I knew Fry’s choices must have been influenced by powerful personal factors, some of which history might not have recorded. Along these lines I introduced a few plausible complications—notably the arrival of a former lover who recruits Varian’s help in trying to save a friend’s son. I suppose I wanted readers to feel Varian’s humanity, to understand that love, frustration, and anger might have influenced him as much as intellect and moral reason.

RGC: What relevance do you think the story has for readers today? How does it fit into our current political and cultural moment?
JO: When Varian Fry found the political conditions of his time to be intolerable, he took a clear position. He refused to sit by and let the Nazis destroy men and women who had created works of art that changed the way we saw the world. And he refused to be daunted by the United States’ reluctance to accept Jewish immigrants. Instead, he used every resource and contact he had to save his clients’ lives. The novel also addresses racial injustice: Nazi Germany’s persecution of the Jews, and the United States’ deeply entrenched history of racism. And finally, it tells the story of what it feels like to suppress one’s own sexual identity, to be forced to live a straight life in order to conform to social conventions.
We now face a number of crossroads in our country. Will we keep our borders impermeable, or will we let in the refugees who have a desperate need for our country’s freedoms? Will we let racial injustice persist within our borders, or will we change the underlying structures that perpetuate it? And will we support people of every sexual orientation and gender variation, or will we let antiquated prejudices stand? Varian’s work proves to us that a single human being’s intelligence and persistence can make a difference for thousands of others. How can any of us be complacent in the face of that story?

RGC: Are there any characters or aspects of the book that feel particularly personal to you?
JO: During the years I was writing this book, I gave birth to my two children and raised them from babyhood to elementary-school age. When I began writing, I had no idea that a father’s love for his son would determine the course of the novel; the story seemed to me to be all about the struggles of war and the pull of one man’s love for another. But as the novel progressed—and as I moved deeper into the complications of motherhood myself—I found myself thinking more deeply about how our loyalties as parents are, in a way, set forever, and how a parent’s love might present particular moral complication in times of war. Considering how much time I spend thinking about my own children’s needs, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that parenthood—its emotional claims, its irrationalities, its joys—became one of the most important elements of this book.

RGC: What is the best writing advice you’ve ever received? What about reading advice?
JO: The best writing advice I received was from Marilynne Robinson, at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, who told me when I was twenty-two to stop trying to write like others (in this particular case, she meant Western American white men) and to return to writing like myself. She gave me that piece of advice at a time when my own perspective, and my own identity, weren’t particularly well represented or appreciated in the writing world. But she helped me see that there was no other honest way forward, and I’ve always been grateful for that. As for reading advice, I have to cite my mother, who told me a hundred times to turn on the light or I’d ruin my eyes.

RGC: Imagine you’re part of a book club discussing The Flight Portfolio. What is a topic or question you would like to pose to the group?
JO: I’ll pose a question a writer friend asked me after she read a draft: how was it possible that Fry and his associates—most notably, the surrealist artists he lived with at the Villa Air Bel, outside Marseille—managed to throw such fabulous parties in the midst of a war? Not just managed practically speaking, when there was so little food and so little money, but also emotionally speaking, when the political circumstances were so dire? Maybe another way of asking this question is as follows: how did Fry and his clients muster the fortitude to go on living richly and defiantly in spite of everything?

Jewish Book Council: Na’amit Sturm Nagel

(excerpt) How do you keep the parts of your identity that you want to love, in a society so hate­ful? Orringer questions building identity in rela­tion to race and sexuality that, sadly, still feel relevant.

(excerpt) This book is not just about flee­ing from the Nazis, but also from your true self, and how peo­ple in any time in his­to­ry can run away from their iden­ti­ties in pur­suance of a per­son­hood that feels more in-line with the mainstream.

Poets & Writers: Ten Questions for Julie Orringer, by Staff
(1, 3-10 omitted because they didn’t relate to Flight Portfolio. For full interview, go to:

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?
Undoubtedly it was the research into Fry’s work in Marseille, a detailed record of which exists in biographies, interviews, letters, ephemera, and even still in living memory: Fry’s last surviving associate, Justus Rosenberg, is a professor emeritus of languages and literature at Bard College, and was kind enough to speak to me about his experiences. Twenty-seven boxes of Fry’s letters, papers, photographs, and other writings reside in the Rare Books and Manuscripts collection at Columbia’s Butler Library; I spent many hours immersed in those files, learning what I could about what kept Fry up at night, what obsessed him by day, what he struggled with, how he triumphed, and how he thought about his own work years later. I spent a year at the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard, where Fry studied as an undergraduate; there I had the chance to examine his recently unsealed student records, which include not only his grade transcripts and his application, but also letters from his father, his professors, the dean, and various close associates, many of them arguing either for or against Fry’s expulsion from Harvard for a variety of infractions that included spotty attendance, raucous partying, destruction of school property, reckless driving, and, ultimately, the placing of a For Sale sign on Dean Greenough’s lawn. Then there were the dozens—hundreds, ultimately thousands—of Fry’s clients, whose lives and work I felt I must know before I wrote the book. And of course I had to go to Marseille, where I visited the places Fry lived and worked, at least those that still exist (the marvelous Villa Air Bel, where he lived with a group of Surrealist writers and artists, was razed decades ago). The nearly impossible task was to clear space among all that was known for what could not be known—space where I could make a narrative that would honor Fry’s experience but would move beyond what could have been recorded at the time.

Lambda by Brian Lin, Aug. 8, 2019

Note: This review includes a mild spoiler.

After twenty-one years in this country, I finally got the math right. I count as the 1.5 generation. Born and raised in Taiwan, I moved to the U.S. when I was seven. I’m among the East Asian immigrants who benefited from the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, which abolished the 1924 Asian Exclusion Act. More than “culture” and Tiger Moms, this law explains the relative privilege of East Asian Americans today. To the extent that East Asians came by choice, Southeast Asian refugees did not. Echoing Juan González’s harvest of empire thesis, they have built communities here because of American imperialism there.

This is Asian America, at least one telling of it. We range from pawns of the anti-affirmative action movement to organizers defending communities from deportation. Is The Flight Portfolio, a novel about protecting immigrants and refugees, also for us?

Based on real people, the novel spans a year in Vichy France near the start of World War II. Our protagonist is Varian Fry, a white American in Marseille on behalf of the Emergency Rescue Committee. His team’s mission is “to find and extract . . . endangered artists.”

The novel begins with Varian’s failure to convince the Chagalls to leave France. Just when he realizes that he is in over his head, a long-lost lover makes contact, Elliot Grant. Varian and Grant fell in love at Harvard. There Varian also met the woman he would eventually marry; Grant fled. He has resurfaced now to ask Varian for help. Can Varian get Grant’s lover out of France? Can he find the lover’s son before the Nazis?

These plot lines dramatize the novel’s central questions about the power to decide a life’s worth.

Even the people closest to Varian’s work challenge its very premise that the life of an established artist counts more than anyone else’s. The question of which life also appears as one of which lover: Eileen in the unbearable suburbs or Grant in the enlivening city? This, in turn, is the question of which self. Varian’s internal conflict is paralleled by Grant’s. Grant, white-passing, is the son of a black man; during Jim Crow, racial identification is another dangerous kind of outing. Finally, there’s the socio-political iteration of the question of worth, which is also the backdrop of the novel. The Nazi project, one of overt white supremacy, hinges on the power of deciding who deserves to live.

The parallels to our current moment are subtle yet impactful. The novel is punctuated with echoes and counterpoints to a dirge of American practices: ethno-racial and religious bans; surveillance, raids, and attacks on places of work, worship, and everywhere else; family separation, detention and deportation, and the criminalization of mobility and migration. Undergirding these acts is a rhetoric of law and order. This legal infrastructure for terrorizing people of color is nothing new. It constitutes the nation-state.

As powerful as it is to make historical parallels explicit, as when calling U.S. detention centers “concentration camps,” there is another kind of rhetoric in holding up a mirror. However, to the veracity of this reflection, can a text indict the very thing that it reveres? The conceit of saving “the intellectual treasure of Europe” makes this book a tribute to Western civilization. At the same time, the West also yielded and condoned Nazism, the very apparatus that threatened “civilization.”

Rather than reckon with white supremacy, the text opts for Western individualism and upholds Varian as a man of the people. A political enemy asks Varian why he, “a thinking man, a Christian man”—which is to say, a white man—is “imperiling yourself for the sake of that filth?” Varian answers, “Those people are my people . . . If I don’t help them, no one will.” The text wants us to believe in the sufficiency of individual good will. However, the plot values white art and white lives exclusively, even at the expense of the sole character of color.

Given the novel’s timeliness and its argument for solidarity, I worry that it might function as a plea to white readers: See, white people were refugees once too. If you care about these refugees, might those merit your compassion too? However, what’s needed is a challenge. In real life, some white gay men often insist on their sexuality as an equivalent oppression to racism and sexism. This claim is supposed to qualify them for benevolent leadership, but they end up reproducing racial and gender hierarchies at our expense. The Flight Portfolio certainly rises above the tokenization of gay love, but without examining whiteness, it veers toward homonationalism.

As much as I appreciate this novel—admire its intricate yet effortless plotting, treasure how it captures longing and intimacy—I wonder which among us it would save.

WMBC Questions compiled by: Elaine Gallant
West Maui Book Club
July, 2021