The Backstory to the Slight of Jo Davidson at Louis I. Kahn’s FDR Four Freedoms Park: Varian Fry and Daniel Bénédite
Jo Davidson sculpted the bronze head of Franklin Delano Roosevelt that is the centerpiece of the FDR Four Freedoms Park designed by Louis I. Kahn. Jo Davidson, Forgotten in Full View describes how the park was denuded of any engraved tribute to Davidson.
The Four Freedoms Park Conservancy is remiss in not grasping the irony that while Davidson’s talent extolls freedoms, those very freedoms were assaulted, even denied, when it came to Jo and his family.
The narrative resumes with the saga of the Davidson family, and the exploits of Varian Fry and Daniel Bénédite. It was a time in America, as Philip Roth wrote, when betrayal was “the accessible transgression, the permissible transgression that any American could commit.”
Jo Davidson: Un homme engagé
An artist who was not indifferent to the larger world of historical and political forces, Jo Davidson adhered to the tradition of un homme engagé. Despite the sacrifices and the risks to his own freedom, Jo Davidson possessed the courage to act.
A fervent support of FDR in the 1944 campaign, he worked to obtain signatories from distinguished artists and scientists to form the “Independent Voters’ Committee of the Arts and Sciences for Roosevelt.” Jo Davidson served as the chairman of the Committee.
During the 1940’s, Jo Davidson was the vice-chairman of the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe (known as the Bergson Group). In 1946, the Independent Voters’ Committee merged with the National Citizens Political Action Committee (NCPAC) to become the Progressive Citizens of America (PCA) with Jo Davidson as co-chairman.
McCarthyism: Stripping Men of Their Significance
“Before the election I went with a group of our members to call on President Roosevelt. He laughingly said to me, “Jo, have they called you a Communist yet?” They had not at the time but I did not have long to wait.”
Jo Davidson, Between Sittings
During the post-war years, an artist engaged in left-wing causes with Russian Jewish roots was labeled with default setting: a Communist. Jo Davidson was never a Communist, nor had he ever belonged to any political party.
Before the war broke out in Europe, there were disagreements that prefigured the persecutory times to come. In 1939, Charles Lindbergh sat for Jo, and he recorded in his journal that Jo was “more broad-minded than most artists.” Lindbergh understood their disagreement over the Munich Agreement: Jo “being Jewish.”
On June 9, 1949, the New York Times published a front page story titled “Film Communists Listed in FBI File in Copland Spy Case.” On the inside fold, a “confidential informant” referenced a circular handed out at a 1945 meeting in Madison Square Garden to protest the Atom Bomb, naming Jo Davidson among those involved, a glaring innuendo that he was a Communist. The inclusion of a meeting four years earlier comes across as a gratuitous smear.
In the 1948 Presidential Election, the Progressive Citizens of America (PCA), of which Jo Davidson was co-chairman, supported Henry A. Wallace for president. A group of conservatives, including Henry Luce, Clare Booth Luce, and Lawrence Spivak, sent a cable to the British foreign secretary, labeling the PCA as “a small minority of Communists…” Winston Churchill chimed in, calling Wallace and his supporters “crypto-Communists.”
The political philosopher Sidney Hook called out Jo Davidson as “a member of the Communist Party.” Never was.
Down through the years, the FBI compiled a massive file on Jo and his activities – the innuendos, the insinuations, and alleged associations with supposed Communists.
Jacques and Jean Davidson, Jo’s two sons, were more vulnerable targets for the government’s harassment and persecution than their illustrious father.
As the curtain rises, a new cast of players takes the stage.
Varian Fry: Saved Thousands from the Holocaust
Varian Fry was an American journalist who, during an intense 13 months in France, organized the rescue of more than 2,000 people, including distinguished artists and intellectuals, to escape from France to freedom. Among those rescued: Marc Chagall, Max Ernst, Jacques Lipchitz, Otto Meyerhoff, Andre Breton, Marcel Duchamp, and Lion Feuchtwanger.
Fry arrived in Marseille in August, 1940, sent by the newly-formed Emergency Rescue Committee, a private American relief organization based in New York.
In Marseille, Fry established a staff, and a network of accomplices to aid in producing forged documents and escorting antifascist refugees on escape routes. He set up The American Relief Center, a French organization, as a cover for clandestine activities.
Constantly detained and under surveillance, Fry was expelled from France in September, 1941, having angered officials of both the US State Department and Vichy France. Several books have been published on Fry’s legendary humanitarian accomplishments.
Back in New York and unheralded, Fry had separated from his first wife. He hosted cocktail parties at his midtown apartment on Friday afternoons for romantic pairing offs.
Zabeth Bénédite was among the young women who popped into Varian Fry’s apartment for cocktails. She had emigrated to New York in November, 1935, with her husband William J. Strauss.
They had met in Paris. Strauss had left Germany in 1933 when he turned 21 years old at the time when the third Reich began constricting the free movement of Jews.
Zabeth and William settled in Armenia, New York, where they bought a dairy farm. During the war, William became a part of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), and went off on special missions in Northern Africa, and other fronts.
Zabeth was out of her marriage. Her relation to Varian Fry was more than just social. Danny Bénédite, her brother, was a friend and a colleague of Varian at the Emergency Rescue Committee in Marseille.
Daniel Bénédite: A Militant in the Resistance
From a family of industrialists in Strasbourg, Danny Bénédite had served as a liaison to British troops in France in 1939 and 1940, and, after surviving Dunkerque, he headed south.
Mary Jayne Gold, an American heiress who had donated a significant amount in support of Fry’s mission, and was on his staff, introduced Danny Bénédite to Varian Fry. Mary knew the Bénédite family.
At the end of October, 1940, Varian hired Danny, as well as his wife Theo. Danny became Fry’s second-in-command. The two men were close friends.
In September 1941, the Vichy French government expelled Varian Fry, labeling him an undesirable alien for protecting Jews and anti-Nazis.
Danny Bénédite assumed leadership of the Center, and during the months after Fry’s departure, he helped from 200 to 300 refugees flee to freedom.
On June 2, 1942, the Center was raided and closed permanently. Danny was arrested, and later released. Danny continued to handle cases for the next four month, after which he joined the maquis – the French resistance.
Danny was arrested again by the Gestapo in June, 1944. Then came a miraculous escape. As he was being led to the firing squad at a prison in Marseille, French forces arrived at that very hour to liberate the prisoners. Danny and Theo would resume their resistance activities while working at a charcoal burning facility in Southern France.
Jacques Davidson: New York
Jacques Davidson was invited by a friend to come along to Varian Fry’s cocktail party on a Friday evening in New York. The year: 1947. There he met Zabeth with whom Jacques shared an affinity for the world of art and a fluency of the French language.
Zabeth had a noble pedigree in French art. Her grandfather was Leonce Bénédite, the curator of Rodin, and the director of the Luxembourg Museum, which was at the turn of the 20th century was one of Paris leading museums.
Leonce Bénédite was centerstage of a major scandal in the French art world: a collection of 67 paintings of masters that Gustave Caillebotte bequeathed to the Luxembourg Museum with a “must-hand” codicil.
With inadequate space to hang all of the art works in the Museum, the dispute was resolved by Bénédite choosing 38 of the 67 works for the Museum, with the remaining 29 going to Martial Caillebotte, the artist’s brother. Leonce Bénédite was castigated for the loss of treasured works.
It was not until 1987 that Bénédite was vindicated by Kirk Varnedoe, the curator of modern painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Varnedoe published his research on the controversy in a catalogue for an exhibition of Caillebotte. Except for one painting – Cezanne’s Baigneurs – Bénédite’s selection was impeccable, Varnedoe concluded.
In 2001, I informed Kirk Varnedoe of the appreciation of the Bénédites for his research. He responded with humility and graciousness.
In 1948, Zabeth and Jacques married in New York City.
Jacques: Wartime Service
Like his brother Jean, Jacques Davidson had lived between two continents until Europe mobilized for war in 1938. Jacques took a job in 1941 with the Bureau of Yards and Docks at the Department of Navy.
In 1941, when President Roosevelt established the U.S. Foreign Information Service (FIS), Jacques was among the multi-lingual journalists hired to write and broadcast news to Europe.
The FIS, based in New York City, took the moniker the Voice of America (VOA) from the opening phrase of its first broadcast, “Here speaks the Voice of America.” With his perfect French, Jacques Davidson was the voice of freedom for countless thousands of freedom-loving French men and women.
In 1942, the VOA was transferred to the Office of War Information (OWI), and, in 1945, to the State Department. With the war winding down, Jacques found himself at CBS radio that had assumed some of the production for the VOA.
Jean Davidson was a journalist, poet, and collector of fast cars. In Washington, D.C., during and after the war, he worked at Agence France Presse (AFP).
Although Jean’s job status was protected because he was employed by a foreign organization, his tenure was not without incident.
There came a time after the war when a representative of the U.S. government, who Jean assumed was an FBI agent, met with a military attaché of the French government. The representative make a request that Jean Davidson be removed from his position because of his alleged affiliation to the Communist Party.
The military attache responded, “Jean Davidson, a Communist? No, he is a poet.” The military attaché was a friend of Jean Davidson, and they shared an admiration for the French poet Paul Jean Toulet.
Zabeth and Jacques: A Life Interrupted
Four months after their marriage, and with Zabeth pregnant, Jacques Davidson arrived at CBS for work to discover that he had been fired. No cause was given. In the climate of those times (1948), no explanation was expected. Jacques had been blacklisted.
Jacques took one of the few jobs for which he could be hired: selling life insurance for Mutual Life of New York.
FBI agents would appear for periodic interviews. When questioned about his father’s beliefs, an indignant Jacques replied, “My mother was a practicing Catholic, and my father was a practicing nothing.”
After their child was born in March, 1949, Jacques applied to have his passport renewed so that the family could visit his father and Zabeth’s mother in France. His application was denied without reason by the State Department.
It was only after the intervention of attorney Abe Fortas, a future Supreme Court Justice, that Jacques was granted a restricted passport limiting his stay to two months.
The strain of making a living in New York City and the psychological uneasiness of constant surveillance wore on the Davidsons. When the estate of Jo Davidson, who passed away in 1951, was resolved, Zabeth and Jacques, along with their infant son, left their apartment in Manhattan for a bucolic life in the village of Saché in the Loire Valley.
Jean Davidson: The Modernist
In the mid-1940’s, Jean Davidson ran across Alexander Calder, the prodigious sculpter who created an art form: mobiles. They linked up again in April of 1951 in Washington D.C. when Calder invited Jean to his home and studio in Roxbury, Connecticut.
The following year Calder presented his “Cirque Calder” in D.C. Jean Davidson had rounded up visitors to the exhibition that impressed Calder as “half the city” .
Jean had admired Calder’s work long before they first met. In 1935, he viewed some of Calder’s works at a private collector’s residence in Paris. Subsequently, Jean had a lively debate with his father over their artistic value, one which Jean touted.
In the summer of 1953, Jean resigned from AFP, moving to Saché where he purchased a mill house on the Indre River, a half-a-mile from the home of his brother and sister-in-law.
A New Life in France
In 1925, Jo Davidson purchased Becheron, a large manor house in Saché near Tours in the Loire Valley. In that era, Saché’s only cultural notoriety was as a refuge for Balzac to write unencumbered, eluding the harassment of French tax authorities.
Before leaving New York, Jacques had obtained permission from Mutual of New York to sell insurance at a U.S. military base in Chinon, a few miles from Sache. He presented his credentials to the base commander. He awaited word for that never came. The blacklist had stalked him all the way to France.
Zabeth and Jacques Davidson converted Becheron, which had ten rooms in a horseshoe shape, into a rooming house, a sort of intellectual salon for enlightened Americans from New York and Washington, D.C. This enterprise was the main source of their income in the 1950’s and the 1960’s.
Jean Davidson and Alexander Calder
Alexander Calder lived in Paris before the war. After the conflict that decimated France, he used Aix-en-Provence as a “point de chute” (landing point). In August, 1953, he visited the Davidsons in Saché.
When Calder returned to Saché in November of that year, he purchased from Jean a house – François Premier – directly across the road from Jean’s mill house. The price: three sculptures. Francois Premier was the first of several structures in Saché in which Calder’s creative genius flourished.
In 1955, Jean and Sandra Calder, Alexander’s oldest daughter, were married in Saché. Already indebted to Calder for his friendship, Jean’s relationship to the great artist took on another dimension: son-in-law.
A Confluence of Historical Circumstances
Varian Fry, the Bénédites, and the Davidson’s, two generations, form a constellation of incomparable destinies. A confluence of historical circumstances.
All suffered dislocations. All saw their freedoms threatened. Through it all, their beliefs remained undamaged.
Then comes calling the savage irony evoked by the narrative of Zabeth and Jacques Davidson:
An American who worked diligently to herald freedom’s cause among the oppressed people of France during the German occupation, and his wife whose brother risked his life to free thousands of Europe’s artists and intellectuals from Hitler’s grasp, found themselves seeking refuge from their own government’s persecution. Exiled they were, their lives broken.
When it comes to freedom, the Davidsons paid a staggering price. A price that renders the Conservancy’s decision to deny recognition to Jo Davidson – at a park dedicated to freedom – small-minded and fantastically indecent.
All the others who give the park glory – Louis I. Kahn, Ambassador William I. vanden Heuvel, the generous donors and benefactors – are honored with their names engraved at the park’s entrance.
A question asserts itself: when will Jo Davidson, a native son of the lower east side, receive the recognition at FDR Four Freedoms Park that his lifework merits.
Part III – Saché: The Davidsons and the Calders