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Feature

Ben and Me

By Lisa Rogers | HUMANITIES, July/August 2002 | Volume 23, Number 4

“I love detective work,” says Claude-Anne Lopez; which is a good thing because she has been deciphering the papers of Benjamin Franklin since the project started nearly fifty years ago.

Lopez’s journey to the Franklin Papers began when she fled her native Belgium during World War II, arriving in the U.S. just before Pearl Harbor and just short of graduating with a classics degree. The war years brought a succession of jobs, including two years at the news desk of the Office of War Information. “We were on the air twenty-four hours a day. There I fell in love with journalism. I loved writing under pressure. Then I got a job in Washington with the Belgium economic mission. I only stayed one month because through some luck and some chutzpah I got the chance to go to San Francisco at the first meeting of the United Nations as a secretary to a Belgian delegate. I still have my pass, signed by Alger Hiss. It’s a little piece of history.” Hiss is remembered as the state department official who was accused of being a Communist spy by Whittaker Chambers, and was subsequently convicted of perjury in 1950.

At the end of the war, Lopez returned to Brussels, where she married her Italian fiancé, a medievalist. They came back to America together when her husband took a job teaching at Yale University. “I was a faculty wife, which in those days, was the very bottom of the heap. We couldn’t even audit courses. We were just expected to hold parties for our husbands. I needed to find a job. Many people on the Yale faculty were wealthy, so they were offering me lots of volunteer jobs. I declined with varying amounts of grace.”

Jobs were hard to come by for faculty wives, both at the university, where employing faculty relatives was prohibited, and in New Haven, where town-and-gown tensions were endemic. “I thought, with my French I could sell perfume in the department store. But as soon as they heard about my connection to Yale, they told me not to bother applying. At last I got a job as a research assistant to a professor of history. He could hire me because my salary didn’t come from Yale. I worked three years for him.

“Then they started the Franklin Papers. The first editor was looking for a native French speaker. I knew French, Latin, and Italian. When they offered me 65 cents an hour, I jumped at it.”

The editor told Lopez that she would not be part of the team for ten years because it would take that long for the project to reach the period of Franklin’s sojourn in Paris. “Those ten years turned out to be twenty-seven years, but I managed to get on the team before that.”

Lopez worked at first as a transcriber. “I had to be careful to include the mistakes,” she remembers. With thirty thousand documents to make sense of, Lopez began on those from Franklin’s French sojourn, 1776 through 1785. Sorting through those papers was a challenge. Some correspondence that Franklin received was not signed and much was not dated. Many cryptic references to events and people could not be clearly understood for years until other documents were transcribed and cross-referenced. Lopez took to writing explanatory notes to help future researchers make connections between her transcriptions and the wider body of the Franklin papers.

One reference appeared on the back of page four of a “boring letter” from Franklin’s Paris banker in 1783. Half a dozen lines of names and numbers written in Franklin’s hand caught Lopez’s attention. After a few false starts, she realized that Franklin was reconstructing an event that took place sixty years earlier: his teenage escape from his brother’s house in Boston to a new life in Philadelphia. The fact of the journey had long been known, but the exact dates had been a mystery to scholars for two centuries.

It was Franklin’s personal and family life that mainly interested Lopez, even in her early work at the project. “At parties people mentioned what a womanizer Franklin was. Well, I didn’t know about that, so I started looking at the letters, but only the French papers--I wasn’t allowed to look at the English papers.”

Gradually two things happened. Lopez began to slip those helpful notes into the folders of papers that would be published in the years to come, and she became widely known for her scholarship on the parts of Franklin’s life not related to his public duties. She began lecturing and writing short papers on a range of subjects. “Then someone suggested that I collect the lectures and letters,” she says. These became her first book, Mon Cher Papa: Franklin and the Ladies of Paris. “It really was very successful. People say that it helped open the way for women’s studies, though I can’t take credit for that. After a favorable review in the New York Times, all the bookstores ran out. It gave me a taste for writing books.”

As for the rumors of Franklin’s amorous activities in France, Lopez is unconvinced. “There is no evidence that he had any affairs. The salons were influential, politically, and he attended several. He flirted, but they were not affairs. He was in his seventies and his health was not very good. . . . Anyway, why is there such an interest in his sex life? If he had affairs, so what? I think the seeds were sown by Adams, who never liked being number two. When he arrived in France and found out he wouldn’t be number one, Adams turned very sour.”

Lopez continues to write books about Franklin. In 2000 she published My Life with Benjamin Franklin. In many ways, the two have grown old together during the five decades of the project. “I was, in a way, relating to him all the time. We had in common that we both changed worlds; I came to America, Franklin to France. We each had to adapt to a completely different world.”