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History 20th Century

Villa Air-Bel

World War II, Escape, and a House in Marseille

by (author) Rosemary Sullivan

HarperCollins Publishers Ltd
Initial publish date
Jul 2012
20th Century, Jewish, Holocaust
  • eBook

    Publish Date
    Jul 2012
    List Price
  • Hardback

    Publish Date
    Oct 2006
    List Price
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Oct 2007
    List Price

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“Rosemary Sullivan goes beyond the confines of Air-Bel to tell a fuller story of France during the tense years from 1933 to 1941. . . . A moving tale of great sacrifice in tumultuous times.” — Publishers Weekly

Paris 1940. Andre Breton, Max Ernst, Marc Chagall, Consuelo de Saint-Exupery, and scores of other cultural elite denounced as enemies of the conquering Third Reich, live in daily fear of arrest, deportation, and death. Their only salvation is the Villa Air-Bel, a chateau outside Marseille where a group of young people, financed by a private American relief organization, will go to extraordinary lengths to keep them alive. In Villa Air-Bel, Rosemary Sullivan sheds light on this suspenseful, dramatic, and intriguing story, introducing the brave men and women who use every means possible to stave off the Nazis and the Vichy officials, and goes inside the chateau’s walls to uncover the private worlds and the web of relationships its remarkable inhabitants developed.

About the author

ROSEMARY SULLIVAN is an acclaimed biographer, poet and editor. She is the author of nine books of non-fiction, including Villa Air-Bel, which was awarded a Canadian Jewish Book Award; Labyrinth Of Desire: Women, Passion and Romantic Obsession; By Heart: Elizabeth Smart—A Life and the #1 bestseller The Red Shoes: Margaret Atwood, Starting Out. Her biography of Gwendolyn MacEwen, Shadow Maker, won the Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-fiction, the Canadian Authors Association Literary Award, the Toronto Book Award and the University of British Columbia Medal for Canadian Biography. Sullivan’s journalistic pieces have won her a National Magazine Awards silver medal and a Western Journalism first prize for travelogue; her academic honours include Killam, Trudeau and Guggenheim fellowships. She lives in Toronto, where she is a professor of English at the University of Toronto.

Rosemary Sullivan's profile page

Editorial Reviews

“[In Villa Air-Bel] stories are told with passion.”

<strong><em>The Advocate</em></strong>

“This is a magnificent, complex narrative of courage, folly, and complacency...a beautifully narrated book.”


“[Villa Air-Bel] bring[s] to life those committed Americans and Europeans who risked all to help others...A complex tale showing how hope and courage flourish, even in the toxic soil of totalitarianism.”

<strong><em>Kirkus Reviews</em></strong>

“[Sullivan] manages to combine solid scholarship with a snappy writing style, and this makes for a history book that is completely riveting….Villa Air-Bel is a valiant effort to explore and emphasize…the lessons of history.”

<strong><em>Vancouver Sun</em></strong>

“It’s history, it’s intrigue. It’s nonfiction. It’s a real page-turner.”

<strong><em>New York Magazine</em>: Ask a Shop Clerk: Holiday Edition, Carol Wald</strong>

“The great virtue of Sullivan’s account of these dark times is the meticulous research that informs it, the uncovering of memoirs, photos, and other documents in numerous Canadian and American libraries as well as archives in France and private collections….Sullivan’s Villa Air-Bel sings of the good deeds of those heroes of so long ago. It memorializes the great men and women of the rescue team who were bastions of humanity in a time of man’s most shameful display of sadistic cruelty. Villa Air-Bel is a most welcome book, a triumph of the human spirit.”

<strong><em>Philadelphia Inquirer</em></strong>

“There was an atmosphere of jittery uncertainty and apprehension that Canadian writer Rosemary Sullivan captures to chilling effect in ’Villa Air-Bel.’ … Sullivan, a poet and professor of English at the University of Toronto, centers her moving and richly detailed account of that time of anxiety at the villa, which was, she writes, like ‘a stone interrupting the stream,’ a fixed point in a dangerous world.”

<strong><em>Boston Globe</em></strong>

“Gripping...Sullivan captures the tense atmosphere of France as the Germans invaded and the fear and anxiety of the intellectuals, some held in detention camps and some who ignored the danger until it was nearly too late.”


“Her scene-by-scene evocation of life at the house reads like an updated Chekhov comedy laced with horror.”

<strong><em>Financial Times</em></strong>

“[Sullivan] crafts that intense bond between the reader and her subject.”

<strong><em>The Globe and Mail</em></strong>

“[Rosemary Sullivan] goes beyond the confines of Air-Bel to tell a fuller story of France during the tense years from 1933 to 1941. She intelligently spreads the fractured narrative, with its huge cast of players constantly coming and going, over 60 brief chapters. What’s palpable is the welter of shock, fear, world-weariness, cynicism and misplaced idealism evinced by the villa’s transient residents as they apprehensively awaited their fate…a moving tale of great sacrifice in tumultuous times.”

<strong><em>Publishers Weekly</em></strong>

“Beautifully written in a style that is novelistic, Villa Air-Bel brings to life the story of this rescue through experiences of a community of artists who spent time in the Villa Air-Bel chateau…The book is interesting and evocative and provides nuances and texture to one of the untold stories of rescue during the Holocaust.”

<strong><em>Jewish Book World</em></strong>

“As a piece of narrative Villa Air-Bel is considerable. It tells a number of individual stories-about 40-brilliantly and it places them in context. Furthermore, as one would expect, the style is beautifully clear and concise. It also illuminates a little known but important aspect of the history of the second World War….Sullivan’s book should be mandatory reading.”

<strong><em>Irish Times</em></strong>

“A moving and richly detailed account.”

<strong><em>Boston Globe</em></strong>

“Villa Air-Bel is a most welcome book, a triumph of the human spirit.”

<strong><em>Philadelphia Inquirer</em></strong>

“With tremendous suspense and emotional pull, Sullivan recounts the little-known story of Varian Fry, the intrepid young American who sheltered [dozens of artists and intellectuals] helping them and hundreds more escape from Vichy France.”


“Rosemary Sullivan’s Villa Air-Bel is a marvellous addition to the surging literature on occupied France. Sullivan writes not as a historian-she has little new material-but as a dramatist.Her scene-by-scene evocation of life at the house reads like an updated Chekhov comedy laced with horror.”

<strong><em>Financial Times</em></strong>

“Sullivan brilliantly interweaves personal histories with terrifying tales about flight over mountains to Spain or Switzerland and by sea to Casablanca or Martinique….At the centre is Varian Fry, the quiet American.”

<strong><em>Sunday Times (London)</em></strong>

According to Rosemary Sullivan’s gripping new book, ‘Villa Air-Bel,’ France had become ‘a country trapped in the totalitarian vise of irrational hatred’ with its own government as terrifying as the Nazis….Another hero is the Villa Air-Bel itself, a run-down 18-room mansion in the suburbs of Marseille…Her description of the resident’s attempts at establishing a normal life there—the meals, the improvised games, the passionate discussions—are the heart of this book.

<strong><em>San Francisco Chronicle</em></strong>

“Sullivan has written a book of great detail and complexity, though one that is full of darkness.”

<strong><em>Quill & Quire</em></strong>

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