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Ben Franklin

Claude

claudelopezMy friend Claude-Anne Lopez — “Claude,” to pretty much everyone who knew her — died last week at the age of 92, after a long period of suffering with Alzheimer’s.  That this cruel disease would have ravaged such a brilliant mind puts even more in doubt the possibility that a benign deity guides our lives.  Claude was a refugee from the Holocaust, a self-created scholar who became a transcendently great writer — mostly on the subject of Ben Franklin — a woman who possessed a regal and ironic wit, and a flirt.  Though she made me a wonderful risotto (from a recipe, she said, by the mother of her late husband), she insisted that she had been a terrible housewife.  But her husband had been a professor at Yale, and even a “faculty wife” was permitted to perform such relatively menial tasks as transcribing some letters to and from Ben Franklin from the great man’s years in France.  (The Franklin Papers are housed at Yale.)  Those letters became the basis of her first book, Mon Cher Papa: Franklin and the Ladies of Paris – which received (deservedly) rapturous reviews and launched her (much more successful) post-housewife career.

I met Claude when I was researching a stage monologue about Franklin, Ben Franklin: Unplugged.  I was on the road, performing another piece of mine in Hartford, and realized that the author of Mon Cher Papa (still my very favorite book on Franklin) lived nearby, in New Haven.  I got her number from the editor of the Franklin Papers, called Claude, and found myself invited to meet with her at her home.  So on an off-day I took the Amtrak train from Hartford (where, by the way, Ben’s son William — who had become an ardent Loyalist — was once imprisoned; I think I know the feeling), and Claude picked me up at the station.  (I had explained over the phone that, like numerous other New Yorkers, I didn’t drive.)  As we got into her car, Claude cheerfully mentioned that, since a recent eye operation, her driving had become particularly erratic — an assessment with which I fully concurred after just a few swerves down the street.

Somehow we both survived that short ride, and after a restorative bowl of her mother-in-law’s risotto, I found myself in one of the best situations that a person could possibly experience: in conversation with Claude-Anne Lopez.  It was, I imagine, like being at one of the famous pre-Revolution French salons that Claude described so well — except that, instead of speaking in French (which I don’t understand, despite having studied it for several years back in grade school), Claude was using her delightfully French-accented English.  Claude had a love affair with Franklin that suffered only slightly from the fact that they lived centuries apart.  She met him through his letters — particularly those he exchanged with the many women who, despite his (mostly self-generated) reputation for sauciness, he largely celebrated for their intellect.  She did not idealize the man — see her book The Private Franklin (coauthored with Eugenia Herbert) for some dirt on his thorny family relations — but celebrated that self-schooled genius in all of his contradictions.  And she was passionate about rescuing that complexity from the caricature that Franklin’s icon had largely been reduced to in popular culture.

But above all, to me, Claude was a writer – a glorious prose stylist for whom the life and work of Ben Franklin had provided a sustaining creative spark.  Ben gave Claude a reason to express her own genius, and she returned that favor with her meticulous scholarship.  That a Jewish girl from Belgium could end up as a historical life-partner with “The First American” is — like much of reality — a tale that would be hard to imagine.  That I got to know her is one of my life’s great blessings.

Birth of a Salesman

065wheelbarrowIn his autobiography, Ben Franklin tells how, as a young man, he carried rolls of paper to his printshop in a wheelbarrow.  The point — as with so many of his actions — was self-publicity: He made sure to do the wheelbarrowing when the streets were full of potential customers, so they could see what a hard worker he was.  (It must not have been much fun to be one of Franklin’s competitors: When someone else in Philadelphia put out an almanac, the next edition of Ben’s own famous almanac printed a supposed prediction of the exact date of his rival’s death.)

Today I might have cut a Willy Lomanesque figure as I rolled a big suitcase up Shattuck Ave. during a steamy Berkeley afternoon.  But in my own fevered imagination I was a latter-day Franklin, as the suitcase was carrying boxes of my Red Diaper Baby DVD from a storage unit to my downtown office for (that lovely word!) fulfillment of various orders.  As the grandson of a successful store-to-store hardware salesman who also happened to be a communist, I feel a special pride in “moving units” of my communist coming-of-age story (directed by the great documentarian Doug Pray).  And as a guy who looks like Ben, I feel proud to be a small-businessowner.

Progressive entrepreneurs of the world, unite!  You have nothing to lose but your bootstraps.