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Two lives whose very different legacies live with us still

Great American Heroes

There have been episodes of heroism which, though apparently unnoticed and unpublicized, have had a potent impact. "A Quiet American — The Secret War of Varian Fry" by Andy Marino (St. Martin's Press, $26.95) details the special exploits of an unlikely man of courage. Varian Fry was a classical scholar and crusading journalist. If his childhood and early personal development were major indicators, there would be little to recommend him for any extraordinary feat requiring bravery. He was a manipulative and pampered only child who would pretend illness to avoid physical activity but who sought refuge in the world of imaginative literature. As he matured, Fry developed an outrage against any violation of human rights. This trait made him susceptible to the influence of Paul Hagan, an Austrian dissident, who championed the plight of refugees fleeing the Third Reich.

Beginning in 1939, Fry underwent a metamorphosis that would transform him from a rigid, condescending intellectual to a consummate risk-taker, who in Nazi-occupied France, orchestrated a series of covert operations under the auspices of a French agency called the American Relief Center. The overall purpose was to rescue the many artists, writers, scientists and other prominent figures considered racially impure and counterrevolutionary by the Nazis and targeted for extermination. Among the cultural icons Fry came into contact with were the writers Leon Feuchtwanger and Frans Werfel, the scientist Otto Meyerhoff, and artists Andre Breton and Marc Chagall. His assistants were a strange mixture of Army deserters, socialites, forgers and Resistance workers with an intense dislike for the Vichy French government. Fry's tactical strategies were brilliant, and Marseilles proved the principal pipeline which would guide the fleeing people on their grueling journey to safety.

Readers will not warm to Varian Fry's character immediately, for his aloofness and self-indulgence will not create a positive first impression. As Fry becomes more concerned for others and socially aware, readers will come to appreciate his logistical genius and his meticulous efforts to save the unfairly condemned. "A Quiet American" is full of drama and harrowing escapes, and it is a testament to a rare, uncompromising individual. This book deserves recognition for its painstaking research on a curious man whose idealism showed itself in self-sacrifice.

— Bruce Simon

Sometimes it seems that there are more books about Elvis than about Shakespeare. I'm exaggerating, of course, but the fascination with the King more than 20 years after his death continues. Maybe we're still interested because he was the King of rock 'n' roll, or still is, despite the many pretenders to the throne — including those four lads from Liverpool.

"Elvis Day by Day" by Peter Guralnick and Ernst Jorgensen (Ballantine, $49.95) is a record of the rise and fall of this legendary figure of the early days of what the more pious might still call the devil's music. As the author of a definitive two-volume biography, Guralnick is the right person to pen this fact-filled, if somewhat obsessive, chronicle of the daily life of the King from birth on Jan. 8, 1935, to his death on Aug. 16, 1977.

The book is not so much a biography as a kind of diary of every day the authors think was significant in Elvis' life. So we learn that on July 5, 1954, he made his first record at Sun Studios in Memphis, "That's All Right," an old blues tune that sold 6,300 copies.

His last single, "Way Down," was released on June 6, 1977, and originally sold 300,000 copies and eventually, after his death, 900,000. Other entries detail concert engagements, recording sessions, and even information on the multitude of cars he purchased.

The hundreds of photographs in the book are perhaps more illuminating than the text in tracing the career of this enigmatic, exciting performer. We see the Elvis of the formidable pompadour and trademark sneer, the sober Elvis in Army uniform during his "lost years," and the often bloated, bejeweled Las Vegas entertainer. It was a sad decline, but as books like "Elvis Day By Day" attest, his legendary status remains.

— Joseph Lewis

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