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Charles Fernley Fawcett
Charles Fernley Fawcett—rescuer, freedom fighter, actor, musician—died Sunday, Feb. 3 in London, at the age of 92.
Fawcett, an American expatriate and moral adventurer most of his life, became best known in recent years for his rescue work alongside Varian Fry in Marseille in 1940, after France fell to the Nazis.
|photographs: Varian Fry Institute (Fawcett collection)|
Fawcett did all sorts of odd jobs for Fry, starting out as the doorman receptionist at Fry's private American Relief Center. Decked out in his official-looking Ambulance Corps uniform, Fawcett kept order while steering the desperate refugees to interviewers. His gracious manner was appreciated even when his Southern drawl made his English hard to understand. Fawcett went on to deliver messages, find hiding places, make deals with Marseille gangsters, and help escort refugees to freedom.
On his own, Fawcett also engaged in a series of six bigamous and bogus marriages, in order to help women to get out of French internment camps and to allow all the “wives” to get out of Europe. At one point, two Mrs. Charles Fawcetts turned up at the same time in Lisbon...
“I guess we were from the Promised Land,” Fawcett recollected for the Varian Fry Institute’s upcoming documentary And Crown Thy Good: Varian Fry in Marseille. “When you'd seen what they were doing to the Jews, you couldn't help but be on their side. We were taught at school, you know, the strong protect the weak. And this is the way it’s supposed to be—we are our brother’s keeper, let’s face it. And America was the strong nation in those days.”
At various times throughout his life, Charles Fawcett—wrestler, wartime R.A.F. pilot and Foreign Legionnaire, recipient of the French Croix de Guerre and the American Eisenhower medal, movie star, socialite, trumpet player, songwriter, composer, Amazon explorer, horseman, stuntman, artist, ladies' man—traveled the globe to help resistance movements in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
Born in 1915 to an old Virginia family (Thomas Jefferson and James Madison are part of the family tree), Fawcett was raised by relatives in Greenville, South Carolina, when his parents died when he was a child. After high school, where he was a star athlete, he left Greenville and worked as a wrestler. He made his way to Paris in 1937, and was mostly an expatriate from then on. Fawcett studied art and worked as an artists' model, trying his hand at sculpture and continuing to wrestle.
At the outset of World War II, Fawcett joined a unit of American volunteers in the French Ambulance Corps. After the fall of France to the Nazis, he found himself in Marseille, where he met Varian Fry, a New York intellectual who had just arrived on a private mission to try to get prominent anti-Nazis and Jews out of France.
Fry and his staff—which also included fellow Americans Miriam Davenport, Mary Jayne Gold and Leon Ball—ultimately were involved in helping to rescue some 2,000 people, many of them among the luminaries of the time: Marc Chagall, Max Ernst, Jacques Lipchitz, Heinrich Mann, Franz Werfel, Alma Mahler Werfel, André Breton, Victor Serge, André Masson, Lion Feuchtwanger, Konrad Heiden, Hannah Arendt... The list—Fry’s list—goes on and on, Fry becoming in 1996 the first American singled out to be honored as a Righteous Among the Nations by Israel’s Yad Vashem, the Jerusalem memorial to the Holocaust.
“The American consulate in Marseille didn’t like us very much,” Fawcett recalled, understating the case. “This horrible doorman was given instructions not to let refugees in—and he really meant it. A friend and I took him around the corner one day and worked him over. I had a wrestling hold on him, and when we got around the corner, three or four of the refugees had followed us and were watching. From then on, he was much nicer.”
Warned that he was about to be arrested, Fawcett managed to leave France, carrying secret messages in one of his sculptures and in the third valve of his trumpet (“Nobody ever took you seriously if you had a trumpet with you”).
He joined the RAF in England as a flyer, then served in the French Foreign Legion. After the war, he drifted into acting, a profession he thoroughly enjoyed: “For a short while you could be what you wanted to be.” A handsome man with a booming voice, Fawcett performed in over one hundred films, sometimes as the villain, working with stars such as Errol Flynn, Alan Ladd, and Robert Taylor. Living in Rome in the 1950s, the man-about town developed a local reputation in the press as the "Mayor of Via Veneto," escorting such beautiful stars as girlfriend Hedy Lamarr.
Always vulnerable to a good cause and the battle for human rights, a swashbuckling figure off-screen as well as on, Fawcett helped Hungarians escape their country after the Soviet invasion in 1956. Especially close to his heart was the Afghan cause after the Soviet Union invaded the country in 1979.
In the recent motion picture Charlie Wilson's War, Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks) is invited by Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts) to a party to see a documentary about the Afghanistan resistance made by a friend of her's. The unnamed friend is Fawcett, and the documentary was Courage Is Their Weapon, narrated by his friend Orson Welles. Since Fawcett was known to old friends as Charlie, this was also Charlie Fawcett’s War.
Fawcett served repeatedly with the mujahideen in Afghanistan—there exists a photograph of him in full regalia—and lobbied Herring and Wilson to support the rebels. According to the book on which the movie is based, Wilson “was entranced by Fawcett, whom he considered a Renaissance romantic. ‘How could I say no to a guy like that?’”
After marrying British model agency executive April Ducksbury after a long relationship (a prior relationship had produced a daughter, Marina von Berg of Buenos Aires, Argentina), Fawcett settled with his wife in a house in the Chelsea area of London, regularly traveling to various capitals to visit his many friends, as well as writing his memoirs. Fawcett also nurtured a passion for songwriting, his wistful, melodic tunes harkening back to a bygone era.
In 2006 in Cardiff, Fawcett was honored at the annual British Holocaust commemoration in the presence of Prime Minister Tony Blair, who has expressed his condolences to Mrs. Fawcett, calling Fawcett "an extraordinary and brave man." "It was an honour to have met him at the Holocaust Memorial in Cardiff," Blair went on, "and I know he will be missed by his many friends and family." Fawcett has also been nominated alongside other Fry colleagues for recognition as Righteous Among the Nations.
During Fawcett's upcoming final screen appearance in And Crown Thy Good, Pierre Sauvage's feature documentary about the Varian Fry mission, Fawcett bristled at the notion that people then didn’t realize the plight the European Jews were in. “I think people knew more than they pretended. People close their eyes to what they don’t want to see.”
"Don't get old," Fawcett had whispered to Sauvage during a visit, as Fawcett found himself struggling with encroaching infirmities. Just before his death, he had been reading a book of poems, Healing Light, by friend Alexandra de Borchgrave. Circled intensely were a few words: "With a heart full of thanks that I've done my best."
At his memorial service on February 18 in London, friend and Varian Fry biographer Andy Marino eloquently stressed the fearlessness and modesty of the man. "Though he could blow a trumpet just fine," Marino said, "he never blew his own trumpet." Fawcett certainly would have taken it in stride that the American press, although alerted, has not to date acknowledged the passing of this remarkable and colorful American.
On February 20, on a lovely gray day, Charles Fernley Fawcett's ashes were scattered into the Seine.
Charlie by Andy Marino, memorial service, Feb. 18, 2008
Obituary in Daily Telegraph (UK), Feb. 9, 2008, Charles Fawcett
Obituary in Daily Mirror (UK), Feb. 23, 2008, No one could accuse Charles Fawcett of not living life to the full
Obituary in U. S. press:
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© Copyright 2008. Chambon Foundation. All rights reserved. Revised: February 23, 2008