It’s safe to say, I think, that these days “hero” is one of the most overused and dubiously used of words, but this time of year my mind often turns to a man for whom in some ways the word seems not quite adequate.
This coming February 3 will mark the twelfth anniversary of the passing of a man I was privileged to know and call a friend. And of all those famous and infamous with whom I’ve crossed paths over the years, he remains the most fascinating man I’ve ever known.
Jazz trumpeter, world traveler, amateur wrestler, aspiring artist, member of the French resistance, smuggler of Jews out of Vichy France, Royal Air Force airman, member of the Free French forces, actor, director, CIA operative and center of a web of shadowy connections across the world − he was at times all these things. But a simple list by itself hardly tells the tale.
Charles Fernley Fawcett, “Charlie” to his friends, died in London on February 3, 2008, ninety-two years and two months after he was born on December 2, 1915, in the tiny hamlet of Waleska, Georgia, in the Cherokee County hills north of Atlanta. A long life, certainly, but a vessel barely big enough to contain the fullness of his life, one of heroism and high adventure ending with a peaceful death. London papers gave him a grand send off, while his death mainly escaped the American media entirely. Charlie, for his part, wouldn’t have cared either way. His exploits won him many medals and accolades, but for him that was never what it was all about. It was all for the adventure and for what he believed to be right.
He and his two sisters were orphaned when he was six, so he spent his later formative years in Greenville, South Carolina, in the care of an aunt. He was a star football player and wrestler in high school, but undecided about what he wanted to do in life. Fate, and maybe comeuppance, decided for him in 1937, when at age 21 he decided he had best leave Greenville. By his own later account, at the age of 15 he had started an affair with his best friend’s mother, and it had turned sour. He later expressed no real regrets over it all, however.
“If that’s child molestation,” he would say in his gleeful retelling, “I would wish this curse on every young boy.”
He washed up in New York City, where by chance he met musician Louis Armstrong. It was a fateful meeting, because the great jazz trumpeter taught him to play his instrument, for which Charlie, it seems, had a natural talent, taking to it and mastering it. In later years Charlie delighted in relaying the simple instructions Armstrong gave him: “Just put your lips thusly, and blow, blow, blow.” Charlie was then off again, this time to Europe.
Events extraordinary in hindsight just seemed to have a way of happening to Charlie, such as the chance meeting with Armstrong. That turned out to be a theme of his life. “Everything that’s ever happened to me has happened accidentally,” Charlie told a London journalist not long before his death. Those who knew Charlie might disagree. He had a magnetism that seemed to draw other people to him and him to situations where his qualities shined.
The outbreak of World War II caught him in Paris, where he was supporting himself by trumpet playing, being an artists’ model, and by wrestling in backstreet clubs while, among other things, he made some headway toward becoming a sculptor. When the French army rejected his enlistment, he joined the ambulance corps, the Volontaire des Américains.
After the fall of France, he for a while shared an apartment with a fellow American who happened to be the nephew of General Otto von Stülpnagel, the German general designated commander-in-chief of occupied France. Through his roommate he met many of the top ranking Nazis, both military and civilian. As he moved in their circles he kept his eyes and ears open − and found a way to pass the tidbits of intelligence gleaned to the French Resistance.
Roughly during this time, he pulled off one of the schemes he often recounted with the greatest humor. In the early hours of one morning, he and a friend impersonated a German ambulance crew to rescue British prisoners of war from a French hospital.
“Gentlemen,” he told them as he drove the ambulance away, “consider yourselves liberated.”
“You’re a Yank,” one of the Brits said, surprised.
“Never,” said Charlie, in his best Southern drawl, “confuse a Southerner with a Yankee.”
When occupied France became too hot for him — following the first of two escapes from the Gestapo — he started out for North Africa to join the Free French. On reaching Marseilles, however, he fell in with the American journalist Varian Fry, who was setting up a smuggling operation to get refugees out of France. Despite his long list of exploits to come, it would be for this work that Charlie would become best known and most honored. Fry, for his part, would in 1996 become the first American to be honored as a Righteous Among the Nations by Israel’s Yad Vashem, the Jerusalem memorial to the Holocaust, joining the much better known Oskar Schindler. Charlie’s role, as he later recounted it, was more or less playing the heavy, the muscle and guts, of the Fry network.
“The American consulate in Marseille didn’t like us very much,” Charlie recalled. “This horrible doorman was given instructions not to let refugees in — and he really meant it. A friend and I took him around the corner one day and worked him over. I had a wrestling hold on him, and when we got around the corner, three or four of the refugees had followed us and were watching. From then on, he was much nicer.”
In his memoir, Assignment: Rescue, Varian Fry recalled that Charlie’s time with his organization wasn’t always so grim. In fact, Charlie had the time to indulge his lifelong habit of bringing the full force of his Southern charm to bear on beautiful women. “Charlie was from Georgia,” Fry wrote, “and before the war he had been studying art in Paris. I often wondered how far Charlie would go in his chosen field, since his idea of art seemed to consist only of drawing pretty girls, preferably nude. … He had many girlfriends … In fact, he was the most popular member of our staff.” It’s worth noting that Charlie’s reputation as something of a bounder actually helped him on one endeavor. Apparently the Vichy French authorities did not think it at all odd that he took out papers to marry six women during his time there. His “wives” were all Jewish and the marriages enabled them to get official papers that made it easier for them to leave France.
Part of his work for Fry also involved the smuggling of messages, which he often did by hiding them in his sculptures — the more risqué the statue the better the chance any police or border guards would be distracted, he found—and in the third valve of his trumpet. His trumpet turned out to be a useful cover in espionage, he recalled, because “nobody ever took you seriously if you had a trumpet with you.”
To his compatriots, he might have appeared the picture of fearlessness, but in later years he confided his fears from those times to his wife, April Ducksbury Fawcett. “He said later he was scared all the time of being taken by the police,” she said. “But he never showed it.”
It all came to an end when the Gestapo and Vichy French officials got too close, and Charlie had to make his own escape, to England. He joined the Royal Air Force in 1942, training to fly Hurricanes, but was invalided out later that year with the first instance of the tuberculosis that would plague him for decades. That led to an extended recovery in, first, a Canadian sanitarium and then one in Arizona. By 1944, however, he was back in Italy as a volunteer with the ambulance corps. A short time later, he joined the Free French forces and fought with his regiment in the Vosges mountains of eastern France from the winter of 1944 until the end of the war in Europe. A recurrence of his tuberculosis, however, soon landed him in a French hospital and he was invalided out of his regiment.
After the war he drifted into acting, mainly in the French and Italian cinema. Obviously rugged, but also starkly handsome and with considerable charm, the young expatriate American took to it naturally. “For a short while you could be what you wanted to be,” Charlie later said of his discovery he loved acting. He would pursue it off and on, as an actor or filmmaker, for over 40 years, appearing in over 100 films, working often in B movies but sometimes in supporting roles to golden age actors such as Errol Flynn and Alan Ladd. Some, such as actor/director Orson Welles and William Holden, became lifelong friends. Never bashful with women, of course, for a time Charlie was also the lover of screen vamp Hedy Lamarr.
It would have been easy for Charlie to just latch onto his new career and lose himself in the glitter of the stars he moved among, but the war and his roles in it had cut too deep an impression, especially the Holocaust. “When you’d seen what they were doing to the Jews, you couldn’t help but be on their side.” He recounted years later. “We were taught at school, you know, the strong protect the weak. And this is the way it’s supposed to be — we are our brother’s keeper, let’s face it.” For the rest of Charlie Fawcett’s life, wherever people were fighting to throw off oppression of any kind, there he could be found.
In 1948, traveling with fake journalist credentials, he went to fight Communist insurgents in Greece. And when the Hungarians rose against Soviet control in 1956, Charlie was in Budapest, filming some of the struggle and helping to smuggle out refugees. He later spent three years of the early 1960s in the Belgian Congo — afterward Zaire and now the Republic of the Congo — flying out to other African countries the refugees from the mercenary wars that gripped Africa for a good part of that decade.
Charlie made his last film appearance in 1975, in a supporting role to Italian actor Marcello Mastroianni in Up the Antique Stairway. He was by then beginning to have recurrence of the tuberculosis that had plagued him since the war. Charlie had married in the years after the war, and, Charlie being Charlie, he had married a German countess. But the pairing did not last and eventually she and their daughter moved to Argentina where she had other family. It was one of the dark clouds over Charlie’s psyche in his later years that he felt he had failed as a father.
But even notorious rakes can find the love of their life, and once while in Rome, Charlie met his in April Ducksbury, a beautiful Yorkshire girl who worked at the British embassy. She would, however, have to endure a 30-year engagement, because from the late 1970s on, April had to take second seat to another war, what became the last of Charlie’s wars.
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 found Charlie in Houston, Texas, staying with an old friend, Joanne Herring, and trying to overcome a patch of financial drought. But in June 1979, he announced he was heading out to aid the Afghan resistance. Herring was a politically active socialite and was always on the lookout for her next big cause to promote and before long Charlie gave her one. He sent her a note out of Afghanistan, scribbled in crayon on the back of a child’s picture book: “Come immediately. Bring film equipment. The world doesn’t know what’s going on here.”
The film equipment, Charlie packed over the mountains of Pakistan and into Soviet-occupied Afghanistan. The result was a documentary “Courage Is Their Weapon,” which detailed and graphically recorded Soviet atrocities against the native tribesmen. The voice over narration was provided by his old friend Orson Welles.
What followed was told in a book that became the 2007 movie of the same name “Charlie Wilson’s War.” It starred Tom Hanks as the n’er-do-well Texas congressman who cobbled together some private interests with some renegade CIA operatives to support the Afghan mujahadeen in their fight against the Soviets. Charlie Fawcett doesn’t appear as a character in the movie because he didn’t approve of how some of the characters were portrayed in the script. However, when Julia Roberts, as Joanne Herring, recruits Hanks’s Wilson to her cause by showing him a movie made “by a friend of mine,” it’s Charlie’s movie being shown. Before it was Charlie Wilson’s war, it was very much Charlie Fawcett’s.
Later, it emerged he had played a larger role than first acknowledged. Along with camera equipment, Charlie had occasionally packed Stinger ground-to-air missiles for the Afghans, courtesy of some of Wilson’s CIA recruits. One the photographs that later adorned Charlie’s study in his and April’s townhouse in London’s posh Chelsea section was one of him accepting thanks from Reagan Administration CIA director William Casey.
The Afghanistan outing proved a last hurrah. “After the Afghan war he felt his time was over,” April Fawcett said later. “He was 75, he couldn’t do anything else on the big cases. He felt the world was in a terrible mess. He didn’t know what else to do.”
One thing he could do was keep his promise to April. When his wars were over, they would get married. They were married March 30, 1991.
“We had an Afghan wedding at a house in Los Angeles and were married by a Muslim mullah,” she said. “It was the most appropriate thing we could do.”
April had spent the years of her and Charlie’s engagement building up her own modeling agency, and by the time she sold it in the mid-1990s for British pounds in the low eight figures, the Model One agency was one of the top of its kind in London.
It was nearly two years before their marriage that I met Charlie Fawcett. We were introduced by his cousin and my own longtime friend Dr. William Hunter of Clemson, South Carolina. We had much in common, and hit it off from the start. “Come to see me in London,” he said. We stayed in touch and fate eventually found me in London, where we reconnected.
Charlie’s health grew gradually worse as the years passed until he was also battling cancer. Along the way, however, he was awarded the Eisenhower Medal by the United States, the Croix de Guerre by a grateful France, medals by Pakistan and a special medal for service from the King Hassan of Morocco, who had became a friend.
His last recognition came in January 2006, when he attended the Holocaust Memorial Day in Cardiff, Wales, and was honored by then Prime Minister Tony Blair for his work with Varian Fry’s network. He was afterward also nominated for a place along with Fry among Israel’s Righteous Among the Nations.
Sitting on the stage in his wheelchair, Charlie answered the honor with one brief statement.
“I thought we could make a difference,” he said. “It’s a responsibility people have.”
Charlie Fawcett’s funeral was held in London on February 18, 2008, and two days later April Fawcett scattered his ashes over the Seine in Paris, a city he had loved since his first days there. Journalist Andy Marino, who had come to know Charlie while researching a book on Varian Fry, tried to sum him up in his eulogy:
“Two clues to Charlie lie in where he came from, and when he was born. I always thought of him as the last of the Southern gentlemen, with an antebellum graciousness and the natural charm and poise of one of nature’s aristocrats. When you think about it, he was one of the USA’s first really useful exports to the world: Charlie was the last of that first great migrant generation, headed up by Hemingway, that returned to Europe. And he was very much in the Ernest Hemingway mould, although I would much rather have a drink with Charlie.
“What did he bring with him when he arrived in the Old World? He had an openness, an unaffected wonder at life that was often noted in Americans of the time. In Charlie’s case it was matched by physical toughness and an instinctive courage we rightly call bravery. I have thought about it a lot, and my conclusion is that the big thing about Charlie was that he was not afraid of anybody.”
In a way, though, Charlie had left his own epitaph lying on the reading table of his study. Just days before his death, he had been reading a book of poems, “Healing Light,” by a friend of his, Alexandra de Borchgrave. In one poem, found intensely circled were these words: “With a heart full of thanks that I’ve done my best.”
Another overworked phrase these days is “I want to make a difference.” It’s imprecise, indefinite. After all, Adolph Hitler made a difference, but most people would just as soon he hadn’t − but the presumption is that the person means a difference for good. But because it’s imprecise and indefinite, as a mantra it’s meaningless and suitably shallow for a shallow age. The truth is that the people throughout time who have made the most difference for good didn’t set out on a grand crusade wearing their virtue as decoration but did good simply because of their natures and the way they lived their lives.
That sums of Charlie, the jazz trumpeter prodigy who otherwise never blew his own horn. Dead now himself twelve years, but his works are eternal. There aren’t many such men who are born to be heroes, but I was privileged to know one.