Miriam Davenport

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Miriam Davenport Ebel
Miriam Davenport and Varian Fry
Miriam Davenport

(1915-06-06)June 6, 1915
DiedSeptember 13, 1999(1999-09-13) (aged 84)
Resting placeIowa
Alma materSmith College, New York University, Sorbonne
Known forPainter and sculptor
  • Rudolph Treo (c. 1940 – by 1946)
  • William L.M. Burke (1946–1961)
  • Charles Ebel

Miriam Davenport or Miriam Davenport Ebel (June 6, 1915 – September 13, 1999) was an American painter and sculptor who played an important role helping European Jews and intellectuals escape the Holocaust during World War II.[1]

Personal life and education[edit]

Miriam Davenport was born on June 6, 1915 in Boston, Massachusetts.[2][3] Her parents were steam boat captain Howard Ernest Davenport and Florence L. Sparrow Davenport. In 1920 they lived in Delaware City, Delaware.[4][5][6] They also had a son, Howard, who was born about 1926. In 1930, the family of four lived in New Rochelle, New York.[7] Her father died on April 30, 1936.[6]

Both of her parents had died with significant debts when Davenport was at Smith College, where she studied architecture and art history. She graduated in 1937 and studied at New York University's Graduate Institute of Fine Arts for one year. Davenport attended the Institut d'Art et d'Archéologie at the Sorbonne in Paris on a Carnegie summer art scholarship.[2][3] She fell in love with fellow artist, Rudolph Treo, an exile from Yugoslavia.[8][9]

World War II[edit]

A strong odor of xenophobia and antisemitism permeated the premises. I was learning fast. The business of my government was business; American interests overseas were economic interests. Americans with jobs or investments overseas had no passport problems; those with moral obligations or family ties were a nuisance, their pleas worthless irrelevancies.

Miriam Davenport[10]

With the June 1940 German occupation of France,[8] Davenport fled Paris with Treo and on the journey their paths split and Davenport went first to the city of Toulouse[9] where she met the poet Walter Mehring and others who were looking to escape to the United States. The port city of Marseille, which although under control of the Vichy Regime, was not yet occupied by the Nazis. Davenport sought ways to coordinate the safe exit from France and met journalist Varian Fry, who invited her to join his staff at the Centre Américain de Secours, or American Relief Center on August 27, 1940. She persuaded him to bring on others, including a new friend and fellow American, Mary Jayne Gold, a wealthy Chicago socialite.[2][3][11] Davenport sought out artists and other refugees, interviewed them, and determined who was most in need of help.[11][12]

Davenport rented the Villa Air-Bel in Marseille with Gold and Theodora Bénédite. She invited her clients Victor Serge and André Breton and their families to move into the immense house that also became a "famous last gathering place" of the Surrealists.[2]

Refugee rescue mission
The entire drama was to involve a large number of ethically principled Americans in and around the Emergency Rescue Committee in New York, a number of other organizations, and some individuals working on their own account. Their frontman in Marseilles was the extraordinary Harvard preppie, Varian Fry, who was eventually to help some two thousand people to escape... canny and strategic Americans helping out under the very noses of the Nazis included Miriam Davenport.

Clive Bush[13]

The Gestapo had identified noted people that they wanted to capture.[8] At enormous risk to themselves, Davenport and the others ran a covert operation helping writers, artists, scientists, and academics Jews escape from France. They arranged for some of these refugees to escape over the mountains to the safety of Portugal and Spain while others they smuggled aboard freighters sailing to either North Africa or ports in North or South America.[14][15]

Davenport worked on the effort until October 1940.[8] In the less than two years that the American Relief Center were able to operate in Marseille, they were responsible for the evacuation of more than 2,000 refugees who came from all over Europe including such notable personalities as the artist Marc Chagall, Hitler biographer Konrad Heiden, artist Max Ernst, Nobel Prize winner Otto Meyerhof, and writer Franz Werfel.[14][16] The consulate address was named "Place Varian Fry" in recognition of the lives he saved.[16]

While she was in France, her fiancé, Rudolph Treo, a fellow art student, was in Ljubljana, Yugoslavia and was seriously ill. Davenport went to Ljubljana in October 1940 to get him and bring him back to Marseille, but her visa was not granted and she was unable to return to France. They lived with his parents in Ljubljana until it was annexed to Italy in April 1941.[2][17] Davenport and Treo were married that month[8] and they traveled to Switzerland along an Italian controlled road to obtain a passport for Treo.[2][17] In December 12, 1941, just after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Davenport and her husband, Professor Rudolph Treo sailed for the United States from Lisbon, Portugal on the SS Excambion.[8][18]

On her return to the United States, Miriam Davenport became involved with the American Council of Learned Societies' Committee for the Protection of Cultural Treasures in War Areas for whom she helped prepare maps and documentation for use by the Allied Forces to help avoid bombing culturally important sites as well as to enable military units on the ground to secure these sites to prevent pillaging. Over the decade from 1941 to 1951, she was also involved in a number of humanitarian efforts including the International Rescue Committee, the Progressive Schools Committee for Refugee Children, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.[2][8]

Post-war life[edit]

Davenport married William L. M. ("Bill") Burke, a professor of ancient and medieval history in 1946. Burke was the Director of the Index of Christian Art at Princeton University from 1942 to 1951. He had worked with the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) during the war.[2][19] Davenport worked at Princeton University where she oversaw the office of the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists for Albert Einstein. She and her husband moved to Iowa in 1951 where he had been offered a professorship at the University of Iowa.[2]

Having settled in Iowa, Davenport began studying and making art again. While working on her graduate degree she made sculptures and paintings, which she began exhibiting and winning prizes by 1953. Her husband died very suddenly in 1961 when he reached down to pet his cat. To support herself, Davenport taught French and art to children in Riverside, Iowa.[2][19]

She met archaeologist Charles Ebel who was an ancient history scholar. They were married and Davenport pursued further post-graduate studies, earning her Ph.D. in French literature from the University of Iowa in 1973.[2][8] She also worked as an art instructor and taught French language courses at the university.[citation needed]

Dr. Ebel was hired by Central Michigan University to teach history. Davenport did a thesis on Claude Prosper Jolyot de Crébillon, an 18th-century writer.[2]

Crossroads Marseilles, 1940[edit]

Davenport's friend Mary Jayne Gold published a book titled Crossroads Marseilles, 1940 that recounted their efforts during World War II. Although Varian Fry had died in 1967, Davenport was able to visit Marseille and to be reunited with Gold who had lived permanently on the French Riviera after the war.[citation needed]


On September 13, 1999 Davenport died in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan of cancer. Her body was returned to Iowa for burial.[2]


  1. ^ Peggy Guggenheim, Out of This Century, Confessions of an Art Addict, (Foreword by Gore Vidal, Introduction by Alfred H. Barr Jr.), p. 192 ANCHOR BOOKS, Doubleday & Company, Inc. Universe Books 1979, ISBN 0-385-17109-9
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Miriam Davenport Ebel. Varian Fry Institute. Retrieved January 7, 2014.
  3. ^ a b c Peter Isaac Rose. The Dispossessed: An Anatomy of Exile. Univ of Massachusetts Press; 2005. ISBN 1-55849-466-9. p. 126.
  4. ^ Massachusetts Vital Records, 1911–1915. New England Historic Genealogical Society, Boston, Massachusetts.
  5. ^ 1920; Census Place: Delaware City, New Castle, Delaware; Roll: T625_204; Page: 10B; Enumeration District: 165; Image: 346. Fourteenth Census of the United States, 1920. (NARA microfilm publication T625, 2076 rolls). Records of the Bureau of the Census, Record Group 29. National Archives, Washington, D.C.
  6. ^ a b Massachusetts Grand Lodge of Masons Membership Cards 1733–1990. New England Historic Genealogical Society, Boston, Massachusetts
  7. ^ 1930 Census, New Rochelle, Westchester, New York; Roll: 1663; Page: 7A; Enumeration District: 0255; Image: 427.0; FHL microfilm: 2341397. United States of America, Bureau of the Census. Fifteenth Census of the United States, 1930. Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1930. T626, 2,667 rolls.
  8. ^ a b c d e f g h Carl J. Schneider; Dorothy Schneider. World War II. Infobase Publishing; 1 January 2009. ISBN 978-1-4381-0890-2. p. 358.
  9. ^ a b Sheila Isenberg. A Hero of Our Own: The Story of Varian Fry. iUniverse; 2005. ISBN 978-0-595-34882-4. p. 34.
  10. ^ Clive Bush. The Century's Midnight: Dissenting European and American Writers in the Era of the Second World War. Peter Lang; 2010. ISBN 978-1-906165-25-3. p. 29.
  11. ^ a b Susan Elisabeth Subak. Rescue and Flight: American Relief Workers Who Defied the Nazis. U of Nebraska Press; 1 May 2010. ISBN 0-8032-3017-6. p. 69.
  12. ^ Sean Price. Varian Fry: A Hero of the Holocaust. Raintree; 1 July 2007. ISBN 978-1-4109-2696-8. p. 15.
  13. ^ Clive Bush. The Century's Midnight: Dissenting European and American Writers in the Era of the Second World War. Peter Lang; 2010. ISBN 978-1-906165-25-3. p. 26.
  14. ^ a b Peter Watson. The German Genius: Europe's Third Renaissance, the Second Scientific Revolution and the Twentieth Century. Simon and Schuster; 16 September 2010. ISBN 978-0-85720-324-3. p. PT556.
  15. ^ Susan Elisabeth Subak. Rescue and Flight: American Relief Workers Who Defied the Nazis. U of Nebraska Press; 1 May 2010. ISBN 0-8032-3017-6. pp. 62, 130, 166.
  16. ^ a b History. Archived 2014-02-22 at the Wayback Machine Consulate General of the United States, Marseille, France. Retrieved February 8, 2014.
  17. ^ a b Andy Marino. A Quiet American: The Secret War of Varian Fry. St. Martin's Press; 29 October 1999. ISBN 978-0-312-20356-6. p. 299.
  18. ^ SS Excambion passenger list. Passenger and Crew Lists of Vessels Arriving at New York, New York, 1897-1957. Microfilm Publication T715, 8892 rolls. Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service; National Archives at Washington, D.C.
  19. ^ a b Princeton Alumni Weekly. princeton alumni weekly; 1960. PRNC:32101081976894. p. 22.