The Gatsby Girl and the Franco Rescue

By Anne Sebba, The Jewish Chronicle, July 4th 2014

The Gatsby Girl and the Franco Rescue

Barbara Solomon, 86 and still writing, remembers clearly how as a teenager she drove across France to Spain in a daring bid to rescue two young students held prisoner in one of Franco’s most brutal hard labour camps.

She and her friend, Barbara Mailer, sister of not yet more famous Norman, had agreed to try and free the two boys, “which sounds absurd now as you are writing it down,” Solomon told me when I met her recently in her Upper Eastside apartment. “But I had an adventurous temperament, they didn’t know anybody and when Norman told us he had a car and a plan but it needed Barbara and me to participate, we agreed. He thought two young girls would have a better chance of crossing the border through the mountains because we looked too young, too American to be suspicious. We were just American kids trying to see the world.”

Solomon recalls many details of the rescue. Also in the car was a young Spanish student activist, Paco Benet, whose father had been killed, who knew the country well and spoke French as well as Spanish. His brother was Juan Benet, who became one of Spain’s best known novelists.

“We had pre-arranged a meeting place. Nicolas (son of the historian Claudio Sanchez-Albornoz, President of the Spanish Republic in Exile) and fellow prisoner, Manuel Lamana, had been somehow sent a message telling them to be last in line at the end of the day and that a car would be waiting for them. It helped that they were in regular clothes because Franco was too poor to put his prisoners in a uniform,” she recalls. But when I ask her how they actually picked them up and how she, not yet twenty, kept her cool while she was waiting and then drove them away at speed, she admits: “That’s the moment Barbara and I have both permanently blanked out, the moment Paco walked around the corner before the three of them jumped into the car and I drove off south.

“I remember how desperately hungry the boys were. The moment we passed a restaurant we had to stop for a gigantic meal. We were lucky that the police didn’t think we’d be going south and wasted time tracking them down in the immediate area…so we got away.”

By the time the group reached Barcelona, Paco and Barbara had fallen in love, and the pair separated from the others. What’s clear from photographs of the time is that Barbara was beautiful as well as clever and well read. She describes Paco as tall with very blond hair, intense dark eyes and very brainy. “Clearly we were too young for all of this,” Barbara says wistfully, “as we wanted to go on the roller coaster in Barcelona and kept saying to each other ‘one day we’ll come back when the fighting is over.’” Instead they returned to Paris where Barbara enrolled at the Sorbonne and started living with Benet.

Her life in Paris in 1948 for the next four years revolved around a group of dissident Spanish students in exile, trying to ensure that the world heard the story she had learned first-hand. Nicolas and Manuel had been forced to work as slave labourers in Franco’s prison at the Valle de los Caidos (Valley of the Fallen) constructing the vast monument that was to be Franco’s tomb. Escapes were extremely rare and there were still executions by firing squad long after the war was over.

“Nobody wanted to know about the struggle to end Franco’s dictatorship after World War Two had ended. It seemed as if everyone had had enough of torture and concentration camps. The Spanish drama was a non story.” But she badgered various editors into taking her stories and soon found she had become a journalist. “Because they kept saying oh it’s that girl again.”

In 2008 Solomon became the first American and the second woman to be awarded Spain’s top journalism award, the Francisco Cerecedo Prize. She is currently working on a volume of memoirs.

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Barbara Probst Solomon grew up in a privileged, Jewish but cosmopolitan family in a magnificent house in Westport, Connecticut. They were neighbours of ‘Gatsby’ or at least the man she believes was F. Scott Fitzgerald’s model for Gatsby. The author spent a critical 6 months in the area in 1920 and scholars are now agreed that the mansion and grounds, which are now the Inn at Longshore and the Longshore Golf Course, near the Solomon home, were the model for the Gatsby mansion.

Both parents were highly cultured intellectuals whose lives had been damaged by World War One. Solomon’s father, Anthony Probst, a lawyer, had started his career as Woodrow Wilson’s campaign manager but had then served as a private in the US army and had been so badly gassed in the trenches near Amiens that he spent three years recovering in an American army hospital in France. Barbara was drawn to France from childhood on initially in an attempt to understand more of what her father had suffered.

“I used to love going to look at and smell his khaki uniform.”

In addition she recalls how her father, whose family was Austrian – the novelist Joseph Roth was a cousin – was tormented by the notion that he might have killed people who were relatives.

Her mother, Frances Kurke Probst, was an artist who often travelled to England studying and meeting fellow artists. Barbara and her older brother, Mark, were brought up by a German nanny, Hebe, an unusual woman who was daughter of a Marxist and often spoke to her young charges about Hitler’s rise to power and the dangers of the nascent Nazi party.

It was not a typical New York upbringing.

“We were culturally Jewish but not religious and also we were …” here she breaks off as if preparing to tell me a secret… “I have never said this before, but we were extraordinarily rich. It wasn’t something one ever mentioned. It was not polite.”

I suspect this information is not so exclusive, more an indication that Solomon understands a journalistic need to send me away in possession of a scoop. It’s a fact I might have guessed from the elegant apartment which is her home. Although our interview takes place in the bedroom, which doubles as Solomon’s study these days, it was, she tells me, her parents’ apartment when they were in the city and the place where Solomon grew up.  Nowadays, she moves with difficulty so doesn’t get out much. Her two dogs are walked by a helper but the sit at her feet or on her bed throughout our interview.

“France was the place I always wanted to go. I spoke French and was obsessed by Paris.” She describes herself as a restless high school kid who initially hatched a plan to go abroad at 17, much to her parent’s initial horror. Like many frail children – Barbara suffered from asthma – she was an avid reader, graduating quickly from books about the fictional Madeleine in Paris to semi fictional Proust and living in her imagination. Her parents were relaxed about their daughter’s education (too lax, the school had complained) and eventually they agreed with her decision to move to Europe rather than going to college. But they persuaded her to wait a year or two and to travel abroad with her mother. On the ship going over Solomon’s mother started chatting to another mother and daughter duo, Mrs Mailer and Barbara. It was a year before publication of The Naked and the Dead, the controversial war novel which was to make her son’s name, but she carried a copy with her and gave it to Frances Probst to read during the voyage. When the liner docked at Cherbourg, Mrs Probst congratulated young Norman, waiting at the quayside to greet his mother, and then asked him to look after her daughter in Paris. “She was the only woman who ever entrusted her young daughter to my care,” Mailer quipped later.

Norman and his wife Bea had an apartment in Paris near the Luxembourg Gardens and it was there that Solomon was introduced to a stimulating mixture of artists and intellectuals. Most of the exiled Spanish dissidents were, according to Solomon, not communists but anarchists and socialists, totally at odds with the communists, and therefore exposed in France at the time which could not place them.

Living in Paris in 1948 was harsh for most of the population, with shortages of all basic foodstuffs such as milk, cheese and butter, and extremely cold. Solomon was cushioned because her parents, believing it was morally wrong for a foreigner to come in and deprive the native population who had suffered so much already, sent her food parcels. Her mother also came over occasionally to take Barbara on expensive clothes buying sprees. Paco’s mother did the same for him. “Paco and I were the best dressed students in town. In fact, his family was just like mine in so many ways,” said Solomon.

One of the motivating factors in undertaking the Spanish rescue had been an acute awareness once she arrived in Paris that no one had been there for the Jews in France. “My mother had several French relatives who had perished in Auschwitz. Only one, cousin Leah, had survived in hiding. I knew I did not want to look back and think no one had been there for these kids. That was very important for me. That’s why I couldn’t refuse.”

Benet, although not Jewish, felt similarly seeing Spain as an isolated country behind Franco’s iron curtain. He did not want his generation to go down in history as having done nothing. After the rescue Benet and Solomon started a small underground journal together. Called Peninsula it was smuggled out across the Pyrenees into Spain in an attempt to fight the pervasive Communist and Fascist propaganda. Its motto was “Neither Franco nor Stalin.” They commissioned Juan Benet, Paco’s brother who became one of Spain’s greatest writers, to contribute a short story to the magazine.

After five years together Barbara and Paco broke up. Paco became a distinguished anthropologist but was killed in 1966 while on an anthropological dig exploring Bedouin habits when his Jeep crashed in the desert. She studied at Columbia, married law professor Harold W Solomon, who died in 1967, and wrote a steady stream of novels, essays and memoirs. She is the mother of two daughters, Carla and Maria, and has a clutch of grandchildren one of whom was married on the west coast the day before our meeting. Increasing immobility made it impossible for Solomon to attend. She never shed her love of and concern for France and in 1987, while covering the trial of Klaus Barbie the butcher of Lyons, called one of her old friends from those days in Paris for some background. “And as he talked I sensed in his pauses his excitement as he evoked those times.”

It’s an excitement I am only too aware of throughout our meeting. This thoroughly American woman who has won many awards for her writing and her activism had a world view informed by the war a war in which 40 million people died. Paris was the place where she first learned to respond to that horror and do something about it. The rest of her working life has been framed by those experiences.