Band of Others: The Lies In Diana Nyad’s “My Mother’s Journey to Freedom”

A summary of the lies in Diana Nyad’s EverWalk journey over the Pyrenees.

[For context, please see “Diana Fabricates Another Holocaust Story, This Time About Her Family.”]

As often happens with Nyad’s tales, this one inflated over time until the last version bore little resemblance to the original.

In 2013, Diana wrote on Facebook that her  “mom came to the States from Paris during WWII.” She left it at that.

In a 2014 New Yorker profile, Diana says Lucy was 17 when the war reached Paris. She joined “a group of people” who bicycle and walk through southern France, then crossed the Pyrenees on foot.

In Find a Way (2015), Diana says her mom was 15  when the German army reached Paris. Her uncle and aunt worry for her safety, so they send her back to the U.S.

Nyad’s Pyrenees prevarications peaked in 2020 with her EverWalk version (archived). So, let’s take it step by step.

“Band of Others”

La Chemin de la Liberté (The Freedom Trail) was one of the most famous and perilous crossings during World War II undertaken by those seeking to escape Nazism. It was a journey my mother was forced to make as a teenager when the Nazis occupied Paris in 1940 and she found herself alone, the people who raised her having been taken to the death camps.

The people who raised Lucy Curtis, her aunt Ingeborg and her uncle Atherton, weren’t “taken to the death camps.” What’s more, Lucy never “found herself alone” in Paris. The truth is closer to the version in Find a Way:

The Nazi occupation stunned Paris when mom was fifteen. Atherton and Ingeborg were too old, then in their mid-eighties to leave France, but they worried for Lucy and sent her back to America. (p. 38)

(Her aunt and uncle didn’t live into their mid-eighties. Atherton died at 80, Ingeborg 73.)

In February 1941, when Lucy was 15 years old,  she boarded a ship in Lisbon, Portugal. Given Diana’s reputation for stretching or ignoring the truth, how Lucy traveled from Paris to Portugal is anyone’s guess. Here’s Diana’s latest version:

She joined with a band of others, mostly Jews, many of them children, and braved their way all the way from Paris to Lisbon, Portugal.

The composition of Lucy’s “band of others” changes over time. It began as “a group of people” in 2014. In 2015, it became “a group of French, American, and Spanish adults and children.” In her EverWalk version, she crosses the Pyrenees with the new “band of others, mostly Jews, many of them children.”

My mother, Lucy Curtis, was actually born in New York City but her father died when she was two months old and her young mother didn’t want her baby and thus sent Lucy to be raised by her Uncle Atherton and Aunt Ingeborg in Paris. They lived on Rue Notre Dame des Champs in the 8th Arondissement.

Lucy was born in April 1925. Her father, George Warrington Curtis, died in September 1927. Lucy was two-and-a-half years old, not two months.

Diana despises her grandmother, Jeannette, so she twists the facts to make her seem as heartless as possible. But available documents suggest that a caretaker, Helen Gerry, and possibly Jeannette, brought Lucy to Paris after she’d turned three.

A passenger manifest from May 1927 shows Gerry sharing a cabin with 2-year-old Lucy and her parents on a boat home from Genoa, Italy. Another manifest shows Gerry boarding a Boston-bound ship in Cherbourg, France, on August 29, 1928, almost a year after George’s death. Jeannette departs Liverpool nine days later.

The timing implies that the two left Lucy with Atherton and Ingeborg in Paris and then went their separate ways.

O là, là! What lies Diana has inflicted on the World!

Atherton and Ingeborg Curtis did live at 17 rue Notre Dame des Champs. But it’s in the 6th arrondissement (a term akin to “borough” or “district”), not the 8th. The 8th contains the Champs Elysées and the Arc de Triomphe. What’s a little fib among friends when it means your mom grew up in the shadows of such landmarks?

Uncle Atherton was a known art collector of the 20’s and 30’s, many of his collection of artifacts now housed in the famous Louvre Museum. He and Ingeborg entertained the exciting artists of the day, Henri Matisse, Paul Gaugin, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda, to name a few.

Curtis donated to many institutions besides “the famous Louvre Museum,” including Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. But they’re not as famous as the Louvre, and Nyad likes famous.

Which brings us to Atherton and Ingeborg’s guest list. Let’s start with Paul Gauguin. He couldn’t visit because he was dead. He checked out in 1903, the year before Atherton relocated to Europe, seven years before he married Ingeborg, and 22 years before Lucy arrived.

Nor is it likely any others on the list came to visit. Atherton loathed Matisse’s work. “Dore as a painter,” he wrote in a letter to his friend, artist Henry Ossawa Tanner, “could hold his own with Bouguereau, Manet, Matisse or any of them for badness. O là, là! What painting the world has had inflicted on it.”

And I doubt Atherton and Ingeborg wanted the wild Fitzgeralds anywhere near little Lucy, though the pair lived off and on in Paris between 1925 and 1930.

The Smithsonian holds many of Atherton’s letters, and none mention any of Nyad’s listees (including Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas, who lived nearby — see below). Other than Matisse, of course.

 The famous couple Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas lived in the home next door and would often tell Lucy fantastic stories. Ms. Stein encouraged my mom to write herself and Lucy as a 13-year-old won a continent-wide writing contest and was sent to England to meet the Queen and accept her award.

Famous, famous, always with the “famous.”

Stein and Toklas lived at 27 rue de Fleurus — not next door to Lucy but within a three-minute walk. Matisse, Fitzgerald, and many other famous folks famously did hang out with Stein and Toklas. Maybe Diana got confused. 😉

As for Lucy winning a continent-wide writing contest and receiving her prize from the Queen, I’d like to see some evidence. King George VI was Britain’s monarch at the time. His daughter Elizabeth didn’t become queen until 1952. (H/T AM)

By the time the Germans arrived in Paris in the summer of 1940, two thirds of all Parisians, particularly the wealthier ones, had fled . . . .

My mother with her aunt and uncle were among those fleeing Paris, not knowing if they would return, be captured by Nazis or strafed by bombers on the road. Atherton and Ingeborg had a little beachside cottage in Normandie, on the English Channel coast. This was their refuge that summer of 1940.

The “little beachside cottage in Normandie” was actually in Le Touquet in the Hauts-de-France region north of Normandy and about a 90-minute drive south of Calais.

Henry Ossawa Tanner painted Le Touquet, though not on a great beach day.  (Many of the Smithsonian’s letters attest to Atherton, Ingeborg, and Lucy’s friendship with the renowned painter. But Nyad never mentions Tanner, either because she doesn’t know about him or he isn’t famous enough.)

Above: Henry Ossawa Tanner’s “Le Touquet,” 1910, via Wikiart.

• • •

This excerpt is the most disturbing part of Nyad’s tale:

Once the Occupation began, many Parisians returned. My mother and her aunt and uncle did, too.

For a while, an uneasy peace settled over the city, until the beginning of 1943 — when Jews and foreigners and homosexuals and gypsies and degenerate [sic] artists and dissidents increasingly began to be arrested and deported by the Nazis into the concentration camps where most perished.

Because Atherton and Ingeborg were friends with a number of the Jews, artists and homosexuals that the Nazis sought to arrest and deport, they hid them in their garden basement.

It was a shocking day when the Nazis overtook my mother’s home on Rue Notre Dame du Champs. They pulled the well-known works of art from the walls and ate their meals directly off the canvases. And they quickly discovered the Jews Atherton and Ingeborg were hiding. Not only were the Jews sent off to camps, but my mother’s aunt and uncle were sent, too, for the “crime” they committed in protecting the Jews. From that horrific day, my mother only 17 years old, she never saw her beloved aunt and uncle again. And she learned later that they both died in the camps.

Lucy had an American passport and was set free.

None of that happened. Lucy left in 1941, not 1943. Atherton and Ingeborg died two days apart in their Paris home in 1943 — Atherton on October 8, Ingeborg on October 10. Unless Diana can present evidence to the contrary, we can assume that Atherton and Ingeborg hid no one in their “garden basement.”

Alone and in shock, she was quickly welcomed into a group of about 15 neighborhood adults and children who procured an agent to help them make their way down through France, over the Pyrenees and into Portugal, where she could get a boat to the United States.

Fifteen exactly? That sounds fishy. As does “agent.” People sought guides to take them over the mountains but not agents — as far as I know — to get them from France to the base of the Pyrenees.

Earlier in her story, Nyad described her group as “a band of others, mostly Jews, many of them children.” This time, she echoes her Find a Way version.  Plus ça change.

Trails of Freedom

The mountain path, now known as the Chemin de la Liberte, became the path to freedom from France to Spain. The hope, of course, in crossing the Pyrenees was to elude capture and enter Spain, crossing the country to either Portugal or Morocco and there find passage to the United States — and freedom!

This is what my mother and her small group hoped to do! But it would not be easy. The Chemin de la Liberté was one of the most perilous mountain crossings in the Pyrenées.

Nyad writes as if there were a single Chemin de la Liberté. However, Peter Black, a historian at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum,  “puts the number at 125 to 200.”

If Lucy came over the Pyrenees at all, it’s unlikely she crossed via the “perilous” route Nyad alludes. Diana likely thinks she did because she came across a website called Le Chemin de la Liberté (“The Trail of Freedom”) and assumed it commemorated the one and only path.

The site appears to be the source for much of Nyad’s information and every one of her Pyrenees-related images, all uncredited.

But after November 1942, when the Germans moved into the free zone and following the Allied invasion of North Africa, Nazi surveillance increased dramatically. During the final years of the war, over 2,000 guides were executed or died later in concentration camps, and yet — over 33,000 men, women and children escaped and found their way to freedom.

Thank goodness my mother was one of them!

But she wasn’t, at least not in 1943.

However, Nyad’s absolutely right that after November 1942, the Germans began making it more difficult to escape via the Pyrenees. “The Chemin de la Liberté only became a popular — if harrowing and dangerous — route in 1942,” writes Jessica Shaw in her New York Times piece, “Recreating a Family’s Lost Holocaust History, Step by Step.” By late that year, “anyone trying to escape had to climb higher and higher to evade the Nazis, who were by then controlling the region, and had brought in Austrian alpine skiers and tracking dogs to find escapees.”

Nyad continues with details of what she seems to believe is THE Freedom Trail:

Crossing le Chemin de la Liberté takes four days for strong hikers with good equipment in good weather. But of course, there were old people, women, children, people in poor health and malnourished, wearing whatever shoes and clothes they had crossing in all conditions.

The trail goes over many mountain passes known as Cols, in French. The scenery is spectacular, if you are viewing on a perfect summer day. But in a raging winter storm, it can be utter hell.

The ascent only gets steeper day by day — and with limited supplies and in poor health, many feared they would not make it. The passes get higher and higher and the oxygen more limited. Without a guide, it would be easy to get lost and die. The Spanish border is only reached after an arduous climb to the 2500-meter Col de Claouère and then an equally steep descent into Spain.

(See also the Chemin de la Liberté site: “The Spanish frontier is reached after a slow, arduous climb to the Col de Claouère at 2,500 m. This is followed by a steep descent into Spain.”)

It wouldn’t be a Diana Nyad story without suffering and death, even if Lucy risked neither.

My mother and her group were able to take a steamship across the Atlantic to New York. When they arrived at Ellis Island, my mother told me how heartbreaking it was for her to see her friends taken away from her. She was an American – and not Jewish. So her re-entry into America was processed at Grand Central Station, where she slept on the floor for a few weeks.

Lucy never saw her friends again – and never found out what became of them.

All of that is likely untrue. Diana’s traveling companions only became Jewish in this latest version of her tale.

All my mother’s life, she was . . . grateful and full of love for her Uncle Atherton and her Aunt Ingeborg for making her their own daughter and for giving her a magical childhood on Rue Notre Dame des Champs in Paris. Lucy couldn’t speak when it came to her “parents” perishing in the death camps.

That paragraph is likely accurate. Lucy probably had lifelong feelings of gratitude and love for Atherton and Ingeborg. And she didn’t speak of them “perishing in the death camps” because they didn’t. Diana once again plundered public accounts of hardships and atrocities to parasitize other peoples’ suffering.

But she did remember the shared bravery of that little band of people with whom she shared the arduous journey of the Chemin de la Liberte.

No, she didn’t. To the best of my ability to discern, no “little band of people” accompanied her on her “arduous journey.” There was no “arduous journey” — unless Diana Nyad can prove otherwise.

With no proof other than  Diana’s word — which is worth about as much as a bicycle without wheels — I’d say the odds Lucy made that trip hover around zero.

Survival Stories

Diana’s first memoir, Other Shores, includes nothing about Lucy growing up in Paris or walking over the Pyrenees. Nor does she mention Atherton or Ingeborg. But she does say she’s a collector of “survival stories — stories of people pushed beyond every single recourse” (p. 142).

A favorite story involves Jan Baalsrud, a Norwegian who attempted to sabotage German occupiers during World War II. “He was buried alive under four feet of snow for a week,” she writes. Eventually, gangrene forced him to “cut off his own toes with a blunt pocket knife” (p. 143-4).

But Baalsrud isn’t first on Diana’s list. “Probably the most devastating survival stories during the era of modern man,” she says, “are those of the Nazi concentration camp prisoners” (p. 142).

For “My Mother’s Journey to Freedom” and her survivor tale, she put those stories to work.

2 thoughts on “Band of Others: The Lies In Diana Nyad’s “My Mother’s Journey to Freedom””

  1. Mate, just see the film so you can judge for yourself. Don’t go by other people’s accounts.

    I saw it, and the film depicts her as three-dimensional. Full of gusto and drive, but also insufferable and full of herself. She’s not depicted as someone who always tells the truth.

    1. Unfortunately, the filmmakers depict her as someone who usually tells the truth. But she’s a serial fabricator. To paraphrase an old saw, even a compulsive liar tells the truth every now and then.

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