In Memoriam Danielle Haase-Dubosc

by Elisabeth Ladenson, Professor of French and Romance Philology, Columbia University

On October 4, 1980 I arrived in Paris as a Penn student on the Columbia-Reid Hall program.  (I remember the exact date because the previous evening I’d learned of the rue Copernic synagogue bombing, and wondered whether I was making the best possible choice for my sophomore year abroad.)  The director of the Reid Hall program that year was LeRoy C. Breunig, and I would like to salute his memory in passing, as he died in 1996, at 80, having served valiantly for many years as chair of the French department at Barnard (which cannot always have been an easy task).  Professor Breunig was affable and generous with his time and intellectually serious; he was the director, and a fine director he was too; with the result that I could not understand why everyone was always talking about someone named Danielle, or else (depending on the context) someone named Mme Haase-Dubosc.  Not the students, of course, because the students came and went, as students do (with a few exceptions), but the staff—the program’s administrative staff, and the seemingly permanent denizens of the building itself: pleasant M. Soyez, daunting Mme Boch, folkloric Mlle Tchistoganoff—I enumerate these names of people who are doubtless gone as well, to pay homage, because it was by talking to them that I learned the most French at Reid Hall, and it was from them above all that I learned about this mysterious Mme Haase-Dubosc who, though invisible, seemed to play such a key role in the life of Reid Hall.

Danielle Haase-Dubosc, I eventually gathered, was on sabbatical that year; Professor Breunig was her mere replacement.  I felt obscurely cheated:  both of and by this Mme Haase-Dubosc I kept hearing so much about.  But in the end some pleasurable if anxiety-tinged force of inertia got the better of me and at the end of the year I failed to leave.  September 1981 rolled around and there she was:  Mme Haase-Dubosc.  And there I still was, no longer a student at Reid Hall; in fact I wasn’t sure what I was doing exactly; I was just still there.  There was no reason for her to take an interest in me, but one of the solicitous staff members pushed me forward to introduce myself and I found myself swept immediately into the orbit of this glamorous, attentive, elegant woman who seemed as though she would have been entirely at home in something like L’Année dernière à Marienbad, or for that matter a Noel Coward play.  Or some other form of transatlantic adult narrative I couldn’t even imagine.  (What was her story?  Her English was American, flawless yet just very slightly inflected, enough to emphasize her exotic unplaceability, even though she’d told me she belonged to the generally unexotic Morningside Heights tribe.)

Although I knew I had no right or reason to expect anything from her, beyond perhaps a bit of advice, to my delight she seemed to regard me from the start as a sort of pet project.  I was taken aback by the unhesitating generosity with which she expertly gauged the contours of my situation and sent me off with the right things to say to the appropriate person at Paris-VII (then Jussieu) to be enrolled on my own as an international student.  Remarkably, it worked, and I came back to express my gratitude and say goodbye, as I’d imagined that once I was administratively housed elsewhere she would consider her job done and I would have to consider myself shoved out of the Reid Hall nest.  Danielle didn’t see it that way though, and for the entire second year I spent in Paris—now an official Paris VII student (with an official Paris VII DEUG degree to show for it, might I add)—Danielle made me feel at home at Reid Hall, and indeed in her home, where I occasionally babysat for her unnervingly precocious children.  I was entranced by the huge, comfortably cluttered Montparnasse apartment, the cat named Prunelle (as I recall), and my first encounter with a VCR, on which her daughter Vanessa watched Les Enfants du paradis, en boucle (literally; it was the easiest babysitting job I ever had).  

That year Danielle was making a film about the contemporary French feminist movement (or one of them), and I was beyond flattered when she asked me to do the English voiceover for one of the women in a discussion sequence.  It turned out to be only one short sentence, yet she made me repeat it seemingly hundreds of times in order to get exactly the right intonation.  I was impressed, and daunted, by her meticulous perfectionism, a side of Danielle I hadn’t really seen before, but was to have occasion to admire again.  (The following year, when I was back at Penn, she came to Philadelphia to show the film, and I practically pulled a muscle trying to identify my own voice among the chaotic argument scene voiceover audio, impressed anew when I saw the finished product and realized that an entire afternoon had been spent on such a tiny insignificant element of the whole.)

I would be pleased to detail each subsequent encounter I had with Danielle Haase-Dubosc, as I was lucky enough to continue seeing her every now and then, and then, after I came back to teach at Columbia in 2005, regularly, for both professional and personal reasons.  But there isn’t time, and there’s too much to say, and I’m not sure how to say it, but I would like to add that the distinction between the personal and the professional was never entirely clear with Danielle.  I hasten to add that I mean that (in this case, at least) in the best possible way.  As I hope to have conveyed, she was fantastically generous to me when I was a student, and this was because she was a gracious and generous person.  But as our improbable relation continued—and remember, I was not only never her student but never even a student at Reid Hall when she was director—it became clear to me that she was not just being gracious and generous, although that would have been just fine; she was also modeling a sort of specifically feminist mentoring.  I appreciated her making me repeat that sentence hundreds of times; it taught me something.  Our odd friendship, begun in 1981 when she gave me the tools to make my own way for a second year in Paris, continued, improbably, until just a couple of years ago when I last had lunch with her around the corner from Reid Hall.  I am glad and grateful to have known Danielle Haase-Dubosc, and with her passing mourn also the passing of an era at Reid Hall, which I am also glad and grateful to have known.