Who Was Mary Jayne Gold? The True Story Behind The Heiress Portrayed In Netflix’s ‘Transatlantic’

Published September 19, 2023
Updated September 20, 2023

Though she had a reputation as a wealthy playgirl, Mary Jayne Gold would make her way to Marseille during World War II where she worked to smuggle thousands of people out of the country.

Mary Jayne Gold

Varian Fry InstituteMary Jayne Gold used her fortune to help save lives during World War II.

To some, Mary Jayne Gold seemed like a vapid socialite. Beautiful, blonde, and rich, she could afford to live however she wanted. But during World War II, Gold chose to join forces with Varian Fry and the Emergency Rescue Committee to save thousands of at-risk people.

Under the shadow of the collaborationist Vichy regime in Marseille, France, Gold, Fry, and the ERC quietly facilitated the escape of artists, intellectuals, and others who were in danger. Gold not only donated much of her fortune to the cause, but also put herself in direct danger.

This is the true story of Mary Jayne Gold, the fearless American socialite played by Gillian Jacobs in Netflix’s Transatlantic.

The Lavish Life Of An American Heiress

Born on August 12, 1909, in Chicago, Illinois, Mary Jayne Gold lived the beginning of her life in luxury. She was the granddaughter of a man who made his fortune by inventing the first cast-iron radiator, and grew up very wealthy.

According to the Chicago Tribune, Gold also grew up in a family with a fearful mother, a stern father, and a risk-taking older brother, which helped form her own fearless personality.

In one story, she went with her brother to go tobogganing down a steep hill, and when one boy protested, Gold’s brother pushed back, telling him: “You don’t know my sister, fathead.”

As a young woman, Gold’s wealth inoculated her from the difficult economic times of the Great Depression. By the time the markets crashed in 1929, she was already attending school in Italy, and Gold moved to Paris in the 1930s.

There, Gold lived a glamorous life. She bought a large apartment in a stylish neighborhood as well as a Percival Vega Gull airplane that Gold, a pilot, used to “toot around Europe.”

But in September 1939, everything changed when Germany invaded Poland. With that, the dark days of World War II began.

“You felt it was the end of the world, that everything you believed in and everything that had been built up by humanity or decency for centuries was finished,” Gold recalled in an interview decades later. “And yet, there was another part of me that said, ‘We’re going to beat ’em.'”

Mary Jayne Gold Meets Varian Fry

At first, Mary Jayne Gold played a passive role in the unfurling conflict. Aside from donating her plane to the French army, Gold — like others in Paris — waited in uneasy suspense as the war crept closer.

As the Nazis neared in May 1940, Gold decided to leave the city and make for the port city of Marseille in the south of France, where she could catch a ship home.

But Gold had an encounter during her journey that convinced her to stay. En route to Marseille, she met Miriam Davenport, a fellow American living in France.

When they arrived in Marseille, Davenport decided to stay to help refugees escape the country, and Gold decided to stay alongside her. Before long, they met Varian Fry, an editor and journalist with the same idea.

Fry had been keeping a nervous eye on the developments in Europe for quite some time. As Biography reports, Fry heard early whispers from German officials about the Nazi’s plans to exterminate Jews and wrote several articles on an anti-Semitic riot he witnessed while in Berlin.

As things grew more dire, Fry joined 200 other Americans to form the Emergency Rescue Committee (ERC) after Paris fell in 1940 to help wartime refugees. The organization had the support of Eleanor Roosevelt — if not official support from the U.S. government, which was still neutral — and Fry arrived in Marseille that August with $3,000 and a list of 200 refugees.

Varian Fry

United States Holocaust Memorial MuseumVarian Fry, one of the co-founders of the Emergency Rescue Committee.

There were, of course, more than 200 people in need of saving. Davenport went to Fry with a list of her own, and he quickly enlisted her to work for the ERC. Fry liked Davenport, but initially disliked Mary Jayne Gold, who he saw as a “rich playgirl… with a passion for dukes and duchesses.”

Though Gold didn’t like Fry either, she attempted to charm him. And Fry, begrudgingly, accepted Gold’s help — and her money.

But Mary Jayne Gold soon proved she was more than a rich playgirl.

The Fearlessness Of Mary Jayne Gold

Mary Jayne Gold did many things for the ERC. She gave the organization $3,000 (approximately $60,000 in today’s currency) to fund the evacuation of poorer refugees on the “Gold List.”

Gold and Davenport also interviewed people trying to flee the country to determine who was in the most danger. Though the ERC would save several artists, such as Marc Chagall and Max Ernst, they also sought to help average people.

“These people, some were very simple, but they were very brave,” Gold recalled. “They hadn’t written books or painted pictures… the people I interviewed were rank and file.”

Gold took a step back from the ERC at the behest of her boyfriend, a gangster named Raymond Couraud (who Gold called “Killer” because of how he “murdered the English language”). However, after she discovered Couraud had stolen her diamonds, she dumped him, and was ready to dedicate herself to the cause anew. The ERC helped get him out of the country, and she prepared for her most dangerous mission yet.

Mary Jayne Gold And Her Friends

United States Holocaust Memorial MuseumMary Jayne Gold, center right, between Raymond Couraud and Miriam Davenport.

With Couraud gone, Fry asked Gold to use her “feminine wiles” to help free four Germans being held at the Le Vernet concentration camp. Gold, though “nervous,” knew that the French camp commander was a notorious womanizer, and so she dressed up and went to speak to him.

The commander agreed to release the prisoners — if Gold would have dinner with him. Gold agreed, but the commander was forced to stand her up because of a dinner with the Gestapo. He was so embarrassed that he quickly acquiesced to release the prisoners, no questions asked.

Gold, Fry, and the others faced other dangers as well. History Net reports that she and Fry were arrested twice, and Peggy Guggenheim recalled to The New York Times that they were held prisoner on a boat for days when Philippe Pétain, the leader of Vichy France, visited Marseille.

“Before I arrived… Fry and Mary Jayne Gold… had been arrested and held incommunicado on a boat for days during Petain’s visit to Marseilles,” Guggenheim explained. “They had finally managed to get a secret note to the American consul, who rescued them.”

By then, Fry had entirely changed his opinion of Gold.

“It would be hard to find a better person for the job we had in mind than Mary Jayne,” he told his wife before he and Gold were expelled. “She has already given us thousands, and she is more interested in our work than anyone else I know.”

The Heiress’ Life After The War

Mary Jayne Gold saw her time in Marseille as the pinnacle of her life. According to The New York Times, a friend of hers commented upon her death in 1997 that: “[she] felt that only one year in her life really mattered and it was the year she spent in Marseilles… She was a very shrewd woman whose heart was on the right side of issues and who at a crucial turning point in history understood what was called for.”

Mary Jayne Gold In Old Age

United States Holocaust Memorial MuseumMary Jayne Gold speaking to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum about her experiences during World War II.

Her money helped facilitate Fry’s mission. The two helped between 1,500 and 2,000 people escape France and assisted some 2,000 more in other ways. They saved artists and intellectuals like Hannah Arendt, Jacques Lipchitz, and André Breton, as well as others who were in danger from the Nazis.

In the aftermath, both lived quiet lives. Biography reports that Fry felt “unappreciated” and grew “more and more troubled” after the war. Gold, for her part, returned to France and spent her final days living on the French Riviera, near where she’d spent that critical year of 1940-1941.

The two remained in contact until the end of Fry’s life in 1967 and were deeply appreciative of the role that they had played in each other’s lives.

In one of the last letters that Gold ever wrote to him, she noted: “Well, we shared our finest hours, my friend.”

After reading about Mary Jayne Gold, discover the story of Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz, a Nazi diplomat who saved almost all of Denmark’s Jews during World War II. Or, look through these stories of other World War II resistance fighters.

Kaleena Fraga
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Kaleena Fraga has also had her work featured in The Washington Post and Gastro Obscura, and she published a book on the Seattle food scene for the Eat Like A Local series. She graduated from Oberlin College, where she earned a dual degree in American History and French.
Jaclyn Anglis
Jaclyn is the senior managing editor at All That's Interesting. She holds a Master's degree in journalism from the City University of New York and a Bachelor's degree in English writing and history (double major) from DePauw University. She is interested in American history, true crime, modern history, pop culture, and science.