Uit: The Two Hotel Francforts
“We met the Frelengs in Lisbon, at the Café Suiça. This was in June 1940, when we were all in Lisbon waiting for the ship that was coming to rescue us and take us to New York. By us I mean, of course, us Americans, expatriates of long standing mostly, for whom the prospect of returning home was a bitter one. Now it seems churlish to speak of our plight, which was as nothing compared with that of the real refugees – the Europeans, the Jews, the European Jews. Yet at the time we were too worried about what we were losing to care about those who were losing more.
Julia and I had been in Lisbon almost a week. I am from Indianapolis; she grew up on Central Park West but had dreamed, all through her youth, of a flat in Paris. Well, I made that dream come true for her — to a degree. That is to say, we had the flat. We had the furniture. Yet she was never satisfied, my Julia. I always supposed I was the piece that didn’t fit.
In any case, that summer, Hitler’s invasion of France had compelled us to abandon our Paris establishment and fly headlong to Lisbon, there to await the SS Manhattan, which the State Department had commandeered and dispatched to retrieve stranded Americans. At the time, only four steamships—the Excalibur, the Excambion, the Exeter, and the Exochorda—were making the regular crossing to New York. They were so named, it was joked, because they carried ex-Europeans into exile. Each had a capacity of something like 125 passengers, as opposed to the Manhattan’s 1, 20 0, and, like the Clipper flights that took offeach week from the Tag us, you couldn’t get a booking on one for love or money unless you were a diplomat or a VIP.
And so we had about a week to kill in Lisbon until the Manhattan arrived, which was fine by me, since we had had quite a time of it up until then, dodging shellfire and mortar fire all the way across France, then running the gantlet of the Spanish border crossing and contending with the Spanish customs agents, who in their interrogation tactics were determined to prove themselves more Nazi than the Nazis. And Lisbon was a city at peace, which meant that everything that was scarce in France and Spain was plentiful there: meat, cigarettes, gin. The only trouble was overcrowding.”
David Leavitt (Pittsburgh, 23 juni 1961)