I was attending a small liberal arts college just outside of Mexico City on the Taluca Road overlooking Popocatépetl volcano under which Malcolm Lowry’s hero drinks himself to death. I was nineteen. I’d missed my bus back to the city after class that day so I stuck out my thumb to hitchhike and was picked up by two good looking young men in a dark blue Porsche. Long story short, I was to marry the curly-haired man behind the wheel of that car whose last name was Gold. My Russian grandfather was still alive at the time and assumed Mr. Gold was Jewish.** He wasn’t. My then husband came from a long line of WASPs, he explained, correcting the misconception but not to my grandfather as I asked him not to. Except for one aunt, my husband didn’t see much of his Michigan-based family. That aunt was named Mary Jayne Gold, had never married, had no children. She lived half the year in the south of France and half the year in a penthouse on east 68th Street in New York. My husband and I drove that car to my home town, New York, after our wedding. Once there, he took me to visit Aunt Mary Jayne. She was in her fifties and shared her penthouse with several (I think they were black) poodles. She was in the midst of redecorating in a style that (to unworldly me) looked like something out of the world of Louis XIV and had massive, ornate paintings in gilt frames on her walls. She was tall with thick gray hair, hard of hearing, was friendly but not what one might think of as overly warm. What impressed me most, at the time, was that the wrap-around terraces overlooking the entire city, were mostly used by the dogs.
Long story short, again, before very much time had passed, I had a beautiful son, was divorced, and had begun mindless traveling. My son’s and my wanderings rounded many curves, crossed several oceans. I lost track of my ex, his aunt, and anyone connected to an episode I preferred to obliterate. About fifteen years later, Aunt Mary Jayne found us, or rather, my son, with whom she wished to maintain contact. He was a lovable boy and the sole carrier of the family name. She and he were close until the end of her life. Out of the realm of my imagining, through these years, was the possibility that fate had ever wrested carefree Aunt Mary Jayne from a life of frivolity to a life of altruism and risk. When she published a memoir titled Crossroads Marseille, 1940, I was stunned to learn that she had – for one year of her life — done exactly that. And, done so with history-altering effect.
In a nutshell: After finishing school near Verona, Italy, Mary Jayne stayed on in Europe, became a bon vivant. She flew her own airplane, was a devoted skier, a party girl, lived in glamorous luxury. When Hitler attacked France she had been living in Paris, was 32 years old. Rather than scurrying back to America as she might have, she instead drove south, stopping in Marseille now under the control of collaborationist Vichy. Here she rented a white limestone villa named Villa Air Belle, and, for the next year, until forced to flee France at the rick of her life, joined and worked with a small group called the Emergency Rescue Committee* devoted to aiding and rescuing those who Hitler had in his cross-hairs. She freely used her fortune for this purpose as well.
Among the many (over 2000) anti-Nazi and Jewish artists and intellectuals she helped to save: Marc Chagall, Andre Breton, Marcel Duchamp, Hannah Arendt, André Breton, Heinrich Mann, Franz Werfel, Jacques Lipchitz, Lotte Leonard, Max Ernst, who Peggy Guggenheim eventually married. In her memoir, Out of this Century, Guggenheim wrote of Mary Jayne Gold whom she first met on her first visit to Villa Air Belle where people were sheltered and committee meetings were held: “With them was a handsome American girl, Mary Jayne Gold, who gave them vast sums of money for their noble work in which she also took a hand.” A few years before Mary Jayne’s death in 1997 at age 88 in the South of France, near St. Moritz, after fate had chosen to prize me too from a vacuous lifestyle into a more useful life as a writer specializing in World War II and Holocaust matters and became able to appreciate what she has contributed with awe, she said to me: “I never again did anything useful.” Whether or not this was true, I never knew, but it seemed to me that there was no need to do more. She’d done plenty.
(*Here is an early case of non-Jewish Jewishness, at least in name only, that enabled my grandfather Sam to believe I’d married into our faith, re: Not Not a Jew, soon to be released by TMI Press.)
(**Also to be remembered as part of this rescue effort: Harry Bingham, Vice-consul of the U.S. in Marseille, Varian Fry, Miriam Davenport, among others.)