Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Meeting Madame Yourcenar

Photo by Philippe Gontier copyright Polly-Vous Francais
Chapter One. In the 1970s my family lived on Mount Desert, a majestic island on the coast of Maine best known for Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park, and its French discoverer, Samuel de Champlain. There were a number of luminaries living on the island at the time (many more so today) but mostly all of them were Summer People. Not Madame Yourcenar.

Marguerite Yourcenar, by then, had achieved great international stature as a Woman of Letters. Despite her relative fame, she lived a quiet, simple life at "Petite Plaisance," a small white clapboard house in Northeast Harbor, where she wrote many of her great works.

As a recent French Literature grad, I had heard of Madame Yourcenar, but was unfamiliar with her works, as her classics such as Memoirs of Hadrian were not in the canon of required study at the time. She lived on the island year-round, and also traveled a great deal with her lifelong companion, Grace Frick. This is where I came in.

My mother owned the only travel agency on the island. Always proud of her French-speaking daughter, Mom encouraged me to practice my French whenever possible, often to my embarrassment. One chilly March afternoon when I was Down East for a visit, my wily mother handed me Madame's just-booked plane tickets and nudged me out the office door, saying, "Go deliver these to Madame Yourcenar. She's expecting you."

I drove around the empty village streets for a while, delaying my arrival as I rehearsed potential conversation. What do you say -- in French -- to a great author whose books you've never read?

I strode up the stone path, shouldering the brisk breeze and clutching the ticket envelope. In the grey afternoon, the lamplight from the front hallway projected in shiny yellow squares through the windowpanes. Gathering my courage, I rang the doorbell of the cottage, nervous and cotton-mouthed. Madame Yourcenar opened the door. If ever there was kindness and wisdom personified, it was she. Her calm, enveloping warmth made me feel instantly at ease. I remained mostly awe-struck and tongue-tied, but she had a natural comfortableness with words that helped to fill in the empty spaces. I stammered a bit and gave her her tickets. She asked about my studies, and offered me Memoires d'Hadrien and Archives du Nord in paperback, autographed.

"A Polly. Bonne Lecture. ROMA/AMOR Marguerite Yourcenar"
Our conversation lasted about 5 minutes. I felt as reverent as if I'd visited the Pope.

A year or two later, in 1980, Marguerite Yourcenar was elected to the Académie française, the first woman in its history to join Les Immortels.

Next chapter. The following year, she received an honorary degree from Harvard University. Although I lived in Boston then, I wasn't at the commencement ceremonies. Harvard never releases the names of honorary degree recipients prior to awarding them; but a French photographer friend, Philippe Gontier, heard the rumor that she might be an honoree, and recorded the event. Philippe's masterful portrait above, of Yourcenar at Harvard 1981 graduation, captures her warmth and wisdom... and the perfect silk scarf, magically in place. This is one of the few photographs I've seen that expresses the same radiant essence of Marguerite Yourcenar that I experienced.

Philippe, knowing my anecdote of meeting Madame Yourcenar, gave me this photograph the following week. Later, he left Boston, and I've since lost contact with him. I think he may be in Paris, if it's the same Philippe Gontier. I've never seen this cherished photo published elsewhere. Maybe he has others.

Marguerite Yourcenar died on Mount Desert Island in 1987. Her house, Petite Plaisance, is now a museum.



What a beautiful blog! May I use the photo by Philippe Gontier on my own blog?

Polly-Vous Francais said...

You are welcome to use the photo if you 1) give credit to Philippe Gontier as the photographer, 2)Polly-Vous Francais as the copyright (or "via") and 3) with a hyperlink to this blog post, immediately under the photo. Feel free to contact me if you have any further questions.

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