In memoriam: Claude-Anne Lopez

Claude-Anne Lopez, whose work in the Yale library transcribing letters of Benjamin Franklin led her to become a world authority on the founding father’s private life, died at her home in New Haven, on Dec. 28, at the age of 92. She had been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, according to her son Lawrence Lopez.

Claude-Anne Lopez

Born Claude-Anne Kirschen in Belgium, Lopez was studying classics when the Nazis overran her country in 1940. She fled through France, Spain and Portugal, managing despite a serious injury she sustained in France to secure passage on the Spanish steamer SS Navemar to the United States.

In New York she met her future husband, Robert Sabatino Lopez, a historian of the Middle Ages and a refugee from Italy. They worked — and wooed — at the Office of War Information, and his appointment in 1946 to the Yale history department brought them to New Haven.

“In the mid-1950s, President Harry Truman decided that every document relevant to the founding of the Republic should be made available to the public, along with introductions, footnotes, and illustrations,” wrote Lopez in a brief autobiography posted on the U.S. History.org website. While many of the original documents remained in Philadelphia at the American Philosophical Society (an organization Franklin founded), the editorial work on the comprehensive papers — including Franklin’s written work and correspondence spanning his lifetime, 1706–1790 — became a Yale project, headquartered in Sterling Memorial Library.

A desire to work from home while raising small children led Lopez to enter the workforce as a typist. Her fluency in French — it was her native language — landed her the job of transcribing the handwritten correspondence in French to and from Franklin.

Lopez acknowledged in her autobiographical “My Life With Franklin” that her job transcribing letters was opportunistic and did not spring from a love of America’s venerated founder. As a Belgian schoolgirl, she knew him only as the author of aphorisms — which seemed, she confessed, “irrelevant” to her generation. “Your words of wisdom left me cold,” she noted in “My Life,” directly addressing the statesman, inventor, entrepreneur, and scientist.

Knowing that the letters she was working on would not be published for years, she started writing articles and books on her own, sharing her unique perspective on the man she had come to know through his private papers. Her first book on Franklin, “Mon Cher Papa: Franklin and the Ladies of Paris,” was a critical and popular success when it came out in 1966.

Several more books and articles on Franklin followed. These include “The Private Franklin: The Man and his Family,” with Eugenia Herbert (1975) and “Le Sceptre et la Foudre” (1990), a French version of “Mon Cher Papa.” A “diary” she wrote in the voice of Franklin’s grandson and secretary, Temple Franklin, for the ushistory.org website was her only published venture in fiction.

She also lectured at Yale and elsewhere on other topics, including French women from Joan of Arc to Simone de Beauvoir.

Thirty years after joining the Franklin Papers as a transcriber, Lopez was named editor-in-chief of the enterprise, which has now published 40 volumes of the founding father’s collected papers.

Lopez went into semi-retirement in 1987 but remained a senior research scholar at Yale, and was sought after as a consultant by documentary producers and aspiring Franklin biographers including Walter Isaacson, Stacy Schiff, and performance artist Josh Kornbluth

Among the honors she garnered was a 1976 PEN award in history for “The Private Franklin.” A 2002 PBS mini-series about Franklin on which she was a consultant received a Primetime Emmy Award.

She was knighted by Belgium’s King Baudoin and won fellowship and residency from the Guggenheim and Rockefeller Foundations.

She is survived by sons Michael Lopez (and Nga Lopez) of Washington, D.C., and Lawrence Lopez (and Brigid Sullivan) of Cambridge, Massachusetts; and granddaughter Caroline Lopez (and Nicholas Miranda) of Alexandria, Virginia. A few years after her husband’s death in 1986, she began travelling widely with Yale Law School professor Boris I. Bittker, who died in 2005.

A memorial service will be held later this spring or fall. Donations in Lopez’s honor may be made to The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, Doctors Without Borders, or Alzheimer’s research programs.

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