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Passport to Fame?

In his new book, border-busting Garry Davis recalls his life as a "world citizen"


Published March 28, 2001 at 8:48 p.m.

Near the front door outside his beige, two-story house in South Burlington, Garry Davis has installed a plaque that reads: “Sovereign World Territory.” Ironically, just a few feet away a city public works sign insists: “No Parking. Tow-Away Zone.”

These seemingly conflicting messages — one man’s demand for freedom and a municipality’s need for restrictions — might well symbolize the paradox that frequently greets this 79-year-old idealist on the global stage. For half a century Davis has been a proponent of “world citizenship,” which stems from his absolute certainty that “there is a higher level of law applicable directly to the individual” rather than to that individual’s nationality. Davis maintains that being human is the only necessary qualification to go from place to place. Government bureaucracies see it differently.

Although he’s a regular at Queen City lectures and peace demonstrations, many of his political allies probably don’t realize Davis has dropped bombs on Nazis, plotted protests in Paris with the likes of Albert Camus, sought wisdom from an Indian guru, criss-crossed the planet to demand world citizenship and, for his troubles, been jailed 34 times in nine countries.

Casual observers might regard him as daffy-looking but, with a rebellious mane of hair tied back in a long ponytail, he’s a gray fox whose bespectacled blue eyes blaze with conviction. Davis, who turns 80 in July, is part Don Quixote, part flimflam man.

Religious zealots are often Bible-thumpers, but the equally ardent Davis brandishes the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, devised 53 years ago by the United Nations. That text is the basis for what he calls a World Passport, available to anyone who requires identification, and issued by his World Service Authority from offices in Washington, D.C., and Tokyo.

In a 1957 photo on the cover of his fourth and latest book, the autobiographical Dear World: A Global Odyssey, Davis holds up one of the earliest World Passports. He was then a dead ringer for Lee Harvey Oswald, but his role was more like that of a Johnny Appleseed spreading the message that “nation-states” have no authority to corral human beings. Davis has traveled widely by finagling his way across borders with that self-authorized document. Unenlightened officials often challenged its validity, no matter how sternly Davis warned them they were breaking international laws.

“I didn’t care about anything but being a World Citizen,” he recalls. “The consequences were not my concern.”

Conversely, those consequences included a notoriety that satisfied his keen instinct for self-promotion. For a brief time, Garry Davis was a household word. With a curious blend of big ego and tenacious purpose, he was adept at capturing headlines for a good cause. He continues to ceremoniously bestow passports on public figures, such as the Czech Republic’s Vaclav Havel, although some of them look a bit perplexed in the photographs Davis retains as mementos.

If there is one shining moment in the Davis saga, it surely came in 1948. Fueled by painful memories of war, he sought peace by launching the World Government movement. To renounce his American citizenship, he surrendered his U.S. passport in France. Sardonic humorist and Davis friend Art Buchwald chronicled it all in his 1996 memoir, I’ll Always Have Paris: “A star was born… Clad in his leather bomber jacket, Garry became a hero and an instant celebrity. For fifteen minutes, people were transfixed by the idea of World Citizenship.”

The dream is not so fleeting for Davis, who reveals the method behind his mad dash for distinction on behalf of a noble goal: “My father used to say, ‘It doesn’t matter what they’re saying about you, as long as they’re saying it. Make them write about you, Garry.’”

The advice stuck with Davis, whose astonishing combination of confrontation, courage and chutzpah is rooted in show business. His Jewish father, Meyer, was a celebrated bandleader dubbed “the Millionaire Maestro” for performing “society music” at dances and diplomatic functions. Hilda Davis, Garry’s Irish mother, played piano.

The upscale Philadelphia family — Davis was the third of five children — had homes in several states. “I went to private schools in Rolls Royces driven by chauffeurs,” he says.

After one year in college, Davis headed for Broadway at age 18. He was cast in the chorus line and as Danny Kaye’s understudy in a hit musical, Let’s Face It. But in 1941, the country entered World War II. With two siblings already in the armed forces, Davis enlisted in the Air Corps.

Any notion of patriotism began to wane while he was still in training. That’s when Davis learned that his 22-year-old brother had been killed in action off the coast of Italy. Bud’s was the only U.S. ship — of 122 — bombed by the Germans during the invasion of Salerno. “He was a poet; we were going to write musicals together. I just wanted to get revenge after that,” he says.

Davis flew six B-17 bombing missions in 1944. On a sortie over Nazi-occupied Belgium, the lead bombardier in his squadron “had a date in London, so he dropped the payload 10 miles away from the target,” Davis recalls. “We wiped out a little Belgian village for no reason. It wasn’t war, it was just murder.”

Later that year two of his plane’s engines were knocked out by enemy fire. Unable to return to base in England, the aircraft landed in neutral Sweden, which was required to detain the Americans. They escaped after three months with help from the U.S. military.

When the Atomic Age dawned horrifically over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, “people called it the first bombing of World War III,” Davis remembers. “I thought it was a terrible mistake. It got me questioning. I’d been part of a war, now how could I be a part of peace? I began a long, introspective search.”

To earn a living back home, Davis appeared in a 1946 revue with Ray Bolger, who had been the scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz. As cold war took the place of peace, Davis was tormented. He looked to the writings of Socrates and self-proclaimed world citizen H.G. Welles.

Davis also found inspiration in Henry Noel, a veteran who renounced his citizenship in Paris with the statement, “I don’t want to be a party to the suicide of my civilization.” Noel then went to war-torn Germany to help rebuild a church. Davis wanted to go there as well. Although he’d just been offered a choice theatrical part, “I told the producer, ‘I’ve got to work for world peace.’ He thought I was crazy. I figured I’d make peace in a couple of years and then go back to show business. The arrogance of youth.”

Davis headed to Europe. “I felt totally, totally alone. But I knew it was right, an act of redemption for my part in the war, a real response to my brother’s death and a tool to awaken my fellow Americans.”

In May 1948, he got as far as France. After relinquishing his citizenship at the U.S. Embassy, Davis immediately alerted the Associated Press. “Because my father was famous, they took notice. The story was picked up by newspapers around the world,” he explains, opening one of many scrapbooks with old clippings.

Suddenly undocumented, Davis designed an International World Citizen card and had 1000 of them printed. He was about to be kicked out of France when he learned that an upcoming U.N. General Assembly session in Paris would take place on a site temporarily designated “international territory.” A week before it was scheduled to begin he simply began camping out there, fully aware that some 7000 journalists were expected to cover the event.

“I intended to issue each delegate a World Citizen card,” Davis explains. “I let the press know my plans. The newsreel cameras came. I was holding press conferences every 10 minutes. People heard about it and began to write to me. I got 20,000 letters. All the focus of the world was on that spot, and I was at dead center.”

On the sixth day, police wagons arrived. Davis was taken into custody and released, but he returned to find the U.N. gathering barricaded. Undaunted, he decided to stay in Paris in order to infiltrate the meeting before it adjourned in early December.

His novel ideas attracted many leading French intellectuals, including existentialist author Albert Camus. Together, they spent months strategizing how to disrupt the U.N. session. Davis and Camus created The Oran Declaration — named after the writer’s Algerian hometown — to be read aloud during the siege. “He told me, ‘It must bite,’” Davis recalls.

In late November, the group got onto the balcony overlooking the General Assembly. “I was terrified. ‘What am I doing here? I’m an actor,’” he says. “But I knew I had to go through with it, the public needed a symbol. The show must go on.”

Davis announced that he was interrupting “in the name of the people not represented here” and, although recognized to speak, his mind went blank. Stage fright. The police dragged him away, but he delivered his planned speech at a press conference Camus was holding across the street.

On a roll, the conspirators discussed their next move. “We had communists, anti-Communists, union leaders, bankers and peace organizers on our council,” Davis says. “These were people usually fighting like cats and dogs but, here they all were, supporting me.”

They announced a rally that drew about 17,000 people. Davis read a letter from the General Assembly’s president. “It said that the U.N. was not set up to make peace, only to maintain peace once it was crafted by the great world powers.”

There it was in black and white. Peace would never be a priority because “every nation-state was and still is a war machine,” says Davis. Yet, the proponents of world government failed to seize the day. “This meeting was one of the big events of 1949 but nobody knew what to do next. We missed a tremendous opportunity,” he laments.

As if a surprise gift from the gods, on December 10 the flawed U.N. General Assembly passed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This act was not an intentional response to Davis’ drumbeat for world citizenship, but it legitimized his agenda by stressing the sovereignty of individuals and their unassailable freedom of movement. “That, to us, was the answer. From then on, we had our program. We started running with it, and I’ve been doing that ever since.”

Flush with victory, Davis set up headquarters at the Hotel des Etats-Unis, which Buchwald quipped would some day become a shrine: “I always thought of Garry as Jesus Christ without a tourist visa.”

Potential deity aside, Davis never seems to tire of standing on a proverbial soapbox. He’s just self-effacing enough to laugh when acknowledging that anyone who asks him a simple question is likely to get a discourse on the history of humankind.

The International Registry of World Citizens, as his fledgling organization was christened in 1948, handed out identity cards by the thousands to European war refugees who, unlike Davis, were not stateless by choice. Harper’s magazine later published an editorial about the Paris showdown: “Six months ago, young Davis was a pathetic and somewhat absurd figure, staging a one-man sit-down strike on the doorstep of the U.N. Assembly,” the magazine suggested, adding that his standing had improved after luminaries such as Albert Einstein, Richard Wright and Jean-Paul Sartre offered their support.

In December 1949, Davis was still determined to make a beeline for Berlin. He got as far as Strasbourg, where a bridge across the Rhine River separates France and Germany. When guards prevented him from going any further, he began a vigil on the borderline that lasted for two months.

That’s also where he met the woman who would later become his second wife. At Strasbourg, the 17-year-old Esther Peter brought him food every night. “On Sundays, huge crowds gathered. Some people came all the way from Israel to find out if I was the new messiah. They were very disappointed.”

To make his bridge residency more comfortable, local architects built him a cozy little cottage, which eventually burned down. Davis remained in the region to begin writing the first installment of his autobiography, My Country is the World. In May 1950, he set sail for the United States to think about the future —and to meet Audrey Peters, a woman with whom he had corresponded ever since mutual friends “introduced” them sight unseen. They married and moved to Haiti, then came back to New York after six months. A baby daughter was born in 1951, but the marriage was in trouble.

By then, Davis had already hooked up with Nataraja, a guru from south India who told him, “I teach wisdom.” The normally skeptical Davis was fascinated by Nataraja’s philosophy. “He spoke with the kind of authority you find in the Bible. He told me that if I wanted world citizenship to work, I had to study with him.” After a stint in the theatrical version of Stalag 17 he decided to visit Nataraja, who had gone back to India. In addition to reviving the thorny passport issue, that choice began a long solo journey that would take Davis even further from his Parisian pinnacle of world renown.

He got as far as England, where he wound up in a psychiatric hospital for trying to see Queen Elizabeth in person. “The situation threw me into the world spotlight again,” he says. Released after a few days, he constructed a makeshift hut at Buckingham Palace. The police hauled him off to Brixton prison before summarily shipping him back to New York. There, a lawyer advised Davis: “You’ll be treated like a sack of meal for the rest of your life if you don’t have a government. Make your own passports.”

Eureka! It was the summer of 1953 when Davis declared himself the World Government while staying at his parents’ Maine vacation home. “In 1787, the whole U.S. government was only 55 guys sitting around a table,” he now says of the Founding Fathers, while looking out the window of his “World Govern-ment House” in Vermont. “Why not me? Why not you?”

To resolve that dilemma 48 years ago, the young firebrand printed 1000 World Passports and left for Bombay, wearing a modified Pakistani Air Force uniform he’d purchased to look more imposing at border crossings. After studying with his guru, he intended to prove the passport could take him anywhere. Broke, Davis set out walking, sage-like, across India. In the Punjab, nails began poking through his shoes and a sympathetic stranger brought him to a cobbler. There Davis sold some passports, allowing him to continue by bus — until he came down with malaria.

Fasten your seatbelts: 1956 was one bumpy ride. When Davis arrived in Afghanistan, a diplomat drove him over the rugged Khyber Pass into Kabul. Then it was on to Iran, where he flashed the World Passport to no avail. He asked for asylum at the Egyptian Embassy, but Teheran authorities deported him to Saudi Arabia. Reluctantly taken from there to the Netherlands, he languished in a Dutch jail before being sent back to the United States. He didn’t stay long.

After slipping into Canada, Davis sneaked onto an ocean liner, jumped ship in France and stealthily made his way to East Germany. Berlin, his desired destination, still remained out of reach. Back in Paris he was arrested for shoplifting expensive lingerie in a labyrinthine scheme that was supposed to force the French to honor his World Passport. But the plan backfired when he forgot to notify the press.

It gets stranger. Davis rowed an inflatable rubber boat across the Mediterranean to Italy, but the Naples police picked him up and imprisoned him in Frascati, a walled concentration camp. There he handed out passports to desperate detainees who lacked identification papers. After three months he was deported, arriving in the U.S. with seven visas attached to his World Passport. Davis felt triumphant.

Back at home, though, doors were closing. Work as an actor eluded him when World Citizen renown proved to be a liability. “I was anathema to Broadway. Nobody would touch me,” he explains.

Instead, he finished writing My Country is the World. Pub-lished by Putnam in 1960, it met with little fanfare. Fate intervened again when Davis received a call from Esther Peter, who had been partially paralyzed by falling from a tree. “I dropped everything and left to take care of her in Switzerland.”

The couple returned to Strasbourg when she had fully recovered, and proceeded to have three children together. Davis started a diaper service because there were none in the area, then went into business selling water purification systems. For almost a decade, he was just a hard-working family man with a funny passport.

In 1971, his true calling beckoned again when Davis met aliens from North Africa with no identity papers. After reprinting the illicit passports, the reincarnation of his world-citizenship career thrived — until the French police raided. Several arrests and trials later, his personal life came to an impasse. Feeling neglected, Esther said she resented that he was writing letters to refugees when the garden needed hoeing.

A 1975 divorce coincided with imminent eviction by the French government. In his umpteenth return to the U.S., Davis set up a World Service Authority office in D.C. In 1982 he lost a Supreme Court case to reverse his “excludable alien” status; in ’86 he ran unsuccessfully for mayor of the nation’s capital.

Less than a year later Davis announced his candidacy for U.S. president during a speaking engagement at Middlebury College. He settled for moving to Vermont when Ronald Reagan was re-elected. Burlington activist Robin Lloyd accompanied him to Germany to witness the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989; their relationship became romantic during a subsequent visit to Japan — a trip that resulted in yet another arrest and deportation for Davis. In 1992, from his booth at the international Earth Summit in Brazil, Davis worked the Rio crowds with the aplomb of a carnival barker.

Yet for all of his single-minded intensity, the world is still plagued by wars. “I should be cloned. There should be 40 of me doing this work. I haven’t accomplished anything in terms of resolving the situation. I know the answer but…,” he stops mid-sentence, his face saddened by the enormity of it all.

Davis has to take comfort in small victories. David Gallup, an attorney who heads the World Service Authority office in D.C., refers to the case of an Iranian man seeking asylum in Canada. “They would not recognize him or let him travel,” according to Gallup. “Finally, we got him to Costa Rica, but not his family. We’re trying to find a place they can all be together. I think the passport made a difference; the Canadians allowed him to leave.”

Other tales are more grim. “We get between 20,000 and 50,000 letters a year,” Gallup says. “Even if the final outcome is not successful, people feel as if they’ve regained their human dignity because we give them hope. The U.N. says there are 53 million refugees. We have a track record of helping them.”

In addition to passports, the organization issues birth and marriage certificates. “Six hundred million children were born without them,” Davis points out. “Yet without a birth certificate, you’re a nobody.”

The cost of a passport ranges from $45 to $100, depending on the expiration date. Other identity papers are less expensive. Davis says the corporation never turns a profit, and he makes too little money to pay personal income tax. Plus, he sees his “excludable alien” status, which remains in legal limbo, as sufficient reason not to get in bed with the federal government.

Critics of world citizenship view open borders as dangerous. “Look what’s happening right now,” says David Ray, associate director of the conservative Federation for American Immigration Reform, also in Washington. “After boasting about the European Union, those countries are quickly re-establishing national borders because of the foot-and-mouth epidemic. The spread of disease, terrorism, intolerable cultural practices — it’s essential for a country to welcome and assimilate people in a sane way. Without regulated borders, it would bubble over uncontrollably.”

Conflicts, Ray adds, “come from the heart, not from the border.”

With his own heart forever devoted to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Davis keeps restlessness at bay with “World Government One,” a single-engine, 1963 Navion Range Master plane that he pilots around North America. “I always wanted my own air force,” he muses. “A peace air force.”

While on the ground, Davis relies on his fax machine, e-mail and Web site in the ongoing quest to rescue the undocumented. In his unrelenting obsession with world citizenship, however, Davis was out of the loop for the Beat generation, the birth of rock ’n’ roll, the civil-rights struggle, the first giant step on the moon, the hippies, the Vietnam War — collective experiences that shaped the last half of the American 20th century. Does he have any regrets?

“TV was new in 1947 and someone I knew asked me to be an emcee on a variety program,” he says thoughtfully. “I was there at the beginning of television. The guy went on to become a top CBS executive and I’m poor, barely paying my mortgage, still an excludable alien. So, if I have any regrets, I guess it would be that I didn’t stay with show business. But I have a profound belief that this is what I should be doing. It justifies my being alive.”