On This Day in 1943: Artist Jean Helion Escapes Into Thin Air

Feeling as miserable as I do right now (the aforementioned cold), I was tempted to abandon the “On This Day” feature and escape the self-imposed strictures of such a format. Then I came across a recording of Words at War that made me decide not to disenthrall myself just yet. I might not have gotten to know Jean Helion, had it not been for the frustrating and inept adaptation of his wartime memoir They Shall Not Have Me, first broadcast on 23 September 1943.

An ambitious literary anthology, Words At War (1943-45) was a class act in American radio propaganda. Produced by the National Broadcasting Company in cooperation with the Council on Books in Wartime, Words at War attempted to dramatize “important war books,” ranging from a clipped version of the home front melodrama Since You Went Away to a dystopian fantasy based on Louis Nizer’s fiercely anti-Teutonic “bible for peace” What to Do With Germany. The series was better suited than situation comedies, variety shows, and horror programs to provide a “living record” of the war and the “things” for which US citizens were called upon to fight. The program promised to be such a “living record,” but individual broadcasts were at times less than viable shorthand memos to the bewildered American public.

In the roughly twenty-five minutes allotted to the dramatization, “They Shall Not Have Me” attempts to recount the story of a French soldier, his imprisonment by the Nazis, and his escape. Neither its melodramatic potential nor its cultural significance was realized by the NBC staff writer at work on Jean Helion’s book. Having faced degradation by the Nazis, Helion now suffered a treatment akin to defacement. Sure, his name was mentioned often enough: “Yes, that is I, Jean Helion, weeping and unashamed like a baby,” the hero addressed the listener at the close of the play. Yet who was this man? Who was Jean Helion? The audience was left in the dark.

Radio actor Les Damon’s impression of the Frenchman, while commendable for its restraint, as it does not attempt to imitate a Gaul accent, already stripped the storyteller of his identity, an identity that motivated Helion to return to his native land to join the fight against German occupation. The script did worse. Emphasizing the supposedly uplifting event of an Allied soldier’s peril and perseverance, it omitted much that makes this individual account of bravery so remarkable and compelling.

Born in 1904, Helion was a French artist who enjoyed transatlantic success as a nonfigurative painter. In 1936, he moved to New York City, where his works had already been shown in a 1933 solo exhibition; among his acquaintances and friends numbered quintessential modernists like Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, Piet Mondrian, Joan Miró, and Yves Tanguy. Putting his career on halt in 1940, Helion joined the French army, but soon became a prisoner of war in Nazi Germany. He managed to escape in 1942 and made it back to the United States.

Apparently profoundly influenced by his wartime experiences, he not only wrote an account of it (published in 1943) but abandoned abstract for figurative art (such as the untitled 1943 painting shown above), thereby rupturing his integrity and risking his reputation. None of this is being captured by Kenneth White’s radio rendering of Helion’s story, which was essentially reduced to an undistinguished yarn of capture and getaway—a single man going free while thousands remained under Nazi occupation, a man who felt disenchanted and betrayed by the country he sought to serve. The situation in France left unimproved after his courageous effort to liberate what he believed to have been his home, is the story of escape artist Helion one of failure or triumph? Unfortunately, the adaptation lacks the intelligence to make use of such ambiguities.

I am grateful to old-time radio for the many literary and artistic encounters it has made possible by all these impossible foreshortenings. Such broadcasts instruct in their very failure to inform; that is, as long as the frustrated listener remains willing to supplement what was being tossed piecemeal across the airwaves. As it turns out, Helion’s paintings are now being exhibited (until 9 October 2005) at the National Academy in Manhattan, just around the corner from my former abode. Even when dwelling in the remotest corners of “unpopular culture,” there is always a personal connection waiting to be established.

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