During the COVID lockdown, Diana Nyad took members of her walking group, EverWalk, on two virtual journeys: one from Cuba to Florida (Diana walked on water!) and another along le chemin de la liberté, “The Freedom Trail.”
Those who signed up monitored their progress using a step-tracking app, WalkerTracker. For the Freedom Trail journey, they followed “the actual story of Diana Nyad’s mother Lucy” and her “escape from the Nazis over the famous Chemin de la Liberté in the Pyrenees.”
By the time Germany invaded France in May 1940, Lucy, then 15, had lived 12 years in Paris with her wealthy aunt and uncle, Ingeborg and Atherton Curtis. The Curtises collected art and, according to Diana, enjoyed entertaining “the exciting artists of the day, Henri Matisse, Paul Gaugin [sic], F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda, to name a few.”
Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas lived next door and popped over every now and then. “Ms. Stein encouraged my mom to write,” says Diana, “and Lucy as a 13-year-old won a continent-wide writing contest and was sent to England to meet the Queen.”
After the invasion, Atherton, Ingeborg, and Lucy fled to “a little beachside cottage in Normandie, on the English Channel coast.”
The three returned to Paris after the Germans occupied the city in June 1940. Atherton, Ingeborg, and Lucy remained there “until the beginning of 1943.” Nyad continues:
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.
Diana goes on to sketch Lucy’s perilous trip over the Pyrenees. German surveillance had “increased dramatically since November 1942,” but Lucy manages to evade it. She makes it to Portugal, where she boards a ship bound for New York.
“All my mother’s life,” writes Nyad, Lucy remained “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.” But “Lucy couldn’t speak when it came to her ‘parents’ perishing in the death camps.”
That’s because they didn’t.
Nor did much else in Nyad’s latest mining of the Holocaust for story ideas. Diana once again plundered public accounts of hardships and atrocities, exploiting other peoples’ suffering to gin up her tales.
On February 7, 1941, 15-year-old Lucy boarded a ship in Lisbon bound for New York. She arrived there ten days later. If she crossed the Pyrenees at all, she could have taken one of the easier routes — according to one historian, there were between 125 and 200, while Nyad implies there was just one — and would not have been subject to the increased security that began in 1942.
In October 1943, Atherton and Ingeborg died in their Paris home two days apart.
Nyad’s tale contains too many more lies to address here. For instance, there’s that “little beachside cottage in Normandie,” the “exciting artists” who visit the Curtises, and Lucy’s audience with the Queen (England had a king at the time). I’ve cataloged them on a separate page.
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If Diana’s first Holocaust survivor fabrication didn’t disqualify her from adulation, ratification, and whatever else she wants, this second misappropriation of Holocaust trauma should.
The Nazis murdered millions, but Atherton and Ingeborg Curtis were not among them. Thousands risked and often lost their lives escaping over the Pyrenees. However, according to Craig R. Gralley, a former CIA analyst who attempted to retrace the steps of American Virginia Hall, a World War II super-spy who fled over the mountains with the Gestapo in pursuit, those who risked the crossing were “British and American pilots shot down over Nazi-occupied France, Jews facing deportation to death camps, [and] Frenchmen escaping forced labor in Germany.”
I’m sure that’s not a complete list. But in 1940–early ’41, any inventory likely wouldn’t have included teenagers who came from wealthy families and carried American passports.
I’d gladly issue a retraction if Diana could prove otherwise.
Minimizing Diana’s Deceit
Despite the magnitude of Diana’s lies, we now have an industry devoted to minimizing them. Recent purveyors of Nyad puff pieces like Vanity Fair, Deadline, and Variety have allowed themselves to become participants in Nyad’s fraud by calling her lies “misstatements,” “exaggerations,” “ambiguities,” and other euphemisms that stray so far from “lies” that they become lies themselves.
Entertainment news outlets aren’t the only ones downplaying Nyad’s deceit. “Diana is a human being,” wrote Evan Morrison, cofounder of the Marathon Swimmers Federation, on August 30, “imperfect as we all are.” Nyad echoed Morrison the next day: “I’m human, and I like to think that I’ve lived a life that now makes me proud of who I am.”
If Nyad had a superpower, it would be the ability to remain proud of herself after conning people into believing her monstrous fabrications. If she had another superpower, it would be convincing people she’s not a compulsive liar and a charlatan.
Diana is human, but she’s not “imperfect as we all are.” There’s “I’m only human imperfect,” and then there’s Nyad-level, “They pulled the well-known works of art from the walls and ate their meals directly off the canvases” and “sent off my great-aunt and uncle to die in the camps” imperfect.
Learning from Lucy
Nyad ends “My Mother’s Journey” with a pep talk. She exhorts her WalkerTracker-wearing EverWalkers to learn from her mother’s generation the lesson she learned from Lucy Nyad:
Never, ever, give up. Onward EverWalk Nation! Let’s walk with each other through these challenges – and all that the world is giving us to be stronger, kinder, more compassionate and better human beings!
Notice she left out “more honest.”