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Vella, Christina 1952-

Vella, Christina 1952-

PERSONAL:

Born 1952. Education: Tulane University, Ph.D.

ADDRESSES:

Home—5500 Camp St., New Orleans, LA 70115. E-mail—[email protected]

CAREER:

History professor. Frequent speaker at colleges and cultural events; guest on television and radio programs on networks such as National Public Radio, C-Span, A&E, and the History Channel. Consultant for public television and the U.S. State Department.

AWARDS, HONORS:

Nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award, both for Intimate Enemies.

WRITINGS:


Intimate Enemies: The Two Worlds of the Baroness de Pontalba, Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 1997.

(With Radomir Luza) The Hitler Kiss: A Memoir of the Czech Resistance, Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 2002.

Indecent Secrets: The Infamous Murri Murder Affair, Free Press (New York, NY), 2006.

Contributor to books including Degas and New Orleans, New Orleans Museum of Art and Ordrupgaard, 1999; and Louisiana Women, University of Georgia Press, 2007.

WORK IN PROGRESS:

A biography of Kemal Ataturk.

SIDELIGHTS:

Christina Vella is a professor of European and United States history. In Intimate Enemies: The Two Worlds of the Baroness de Pontalba, Vella explores the turbulent nineteenth-century life of Micaela Almonester, the Baroness de Pontalba, and the architectural legacies she left in Paris, France, and New Orleans, Louisiana. The daughter of a Spanish colonial officer in New Orleans, Micaela was married at fifteen, and left at once with her husband for France. There she lived in the forbidding and joyless French Château Mont-l'évêque. She was abused by her neurotic father-in-law, who was angered because her already-substantial dowry was not larger. Eventually, he shot her four times before killing himself. She survived the assault and additional legal challenges and personal troubles until finally her wealth and independence were restored by the French courts. She assumed her rightful place as the family matriarch, and over the course of her life was responsible for the construction of spectacular architectural complexes such as the Hotel Pontalba in Paris, now the United States embassy residence, and the Pontalba Buildings in New Orleans. In her book, Vella creates a "spellbinding historical narrative out of painstakingly meticulous research," commented a Publishers Weekly reviewer, who concluded that her "passion for her subject infects every inch of her lively, witty, literate prose."

The Hitler Kiss: A Memoir of the Czech Resistance, written with Radomir Luza, tells the story of the involvement of Luza and his father (a general in the army) in the Czech underground resistance movement during World War II. "Luza's relationship with his father is at the heart of this moving, intelligently written book," noted Andrea Orzoff in the Historian. Admiring his father from afar as a child, Luza finally became close to him as they lived in hiding, both men hunted by the Nazis. Luza describes the workings of the resistance network he helped create and the stalwart bravery he encountered among the other members of the resistance. Luza's "narrative voice is persuasive and poignant, effectively bringing his experiences to life," Orzoff remarked.

Indecent Secrets: The Infamous Murri Murder Affair explores a sensational and scandalous 1902 murder case that captivated turn-of-the-century Italy. The marriage of Linda Murray to the wealthy landowner Count Francesco Bonmartini had long been turbulent, but in August, 1902, it ended with the brutal stabbing death of Bonmartini. Over the next three years, as the case was pursued by the authorities and suspects named and tried, the Italian public thrived on a salacious story as popular then as any celebrity murder case of today. Charged in the crime were Linda and her brother, Tullio, a well-known radical socialist; Linda's maid and Tullio's lover, Rosa Bonetti; Carlo Secchi, a doctor and Linda's lover; and Pio Naldi, a doctor and compulsive gambler who had been recruited by Tullio. Vella details how Bonmartini found himself trapped in a difficult marriage to Linda, and how the count came to realize that his life was in danger. She tells of how attention focused on Linda Murri, called "The Enchantress," whose extramarital affairs and possibly incestuous relationships with Tullio and her father, prominent physician Augusto Murri, compelled a fascinated European public to follow the case until its end. "Astutely melding legalities and personalities into the historical Italian society, Vella fashions a riveting reconstruction" of the crime and its contemporary setting, attested Gilbert Taylor in Booklist. A Publishers Weekly critic felt that Vella offers "a gripping narrative filled with complicated and enigmatic figures that should enthrall a wide readership."

Vella told CA: "Everybody loves history, whether or not we realize it. We all want to know what it was like to be alive in another period—what did people use for toothpaste before Colgate? Were people in earlier centuries, with their epidemics and untreated miseries, tougher than we are? What were their private longings regarding sex? History is above all a human drama, and peering into it can be as exciting as opening a diary you find in an attic. Of course it is important to try to understand how large patterns formed and then dissolved into other patterns—how, for example, the Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth century in England figured into the rise of the bourgeoisie in the nineteenth. But any analysis of great movements in history is far more fascinating and trustworthy if we can distinguish individual faces among the masses and hear their voices within the din of abstract ideas. We need to have a sense that we are on the ground, in the middle of social change, at the same time that we are viewing sweeping forces from afar and interpreting them from our perspective. I like to write history, therefore, by limning one individual and stuffing the sides of the picture with all the historic information I can get into the frame.

"If the past is a human drama, just as the present is, it is also a human comedy and we ought to be able to laugh at it. I don't want people to read one of my biographies because reading history is a patriotic duty, but rather because it's absorbing, it exposes the humor and irony in life. Writing style is therefore as critical to history books as it is to fiction. Will Durant showed us all that one can write fifteen tomes without a single dull sentence or fatuous opinion. Robert R. Palmer and, when he is in the mood, the art critic Robert Hughes show us how good writing can take the reader into deep, digressive pathways without confusing or exhausting him. Edmund Wilson showed us how to encompass wide, general knowledge in the clear discussion of one historic detail. And then there's always Dickens for a model of sheer brilliance, the novelist who made fiction as fascinating as history. They are some of my models.

"I try to write from primary documents as much as possible. Research doesn't mean reading other people's books only, but examining the raw material of history before it is filtered through someone else's consciousness. The educated or self-educated general reader may never see a single primary document from the past except perhaps briefly, behind a museum case. Unless he has been privileged to have a historian's training, he wouldn't know what to make of it anyhow—a fusty mess of illegible handwriting, maybe in a foreign language, with the parts missing, so that he might have to decipher several laborious pages before he'd even know what he was reading.

"It is my job as a historian to describe those documents to him, extract all their information, point out the quirks and insights they offer, and use whatever knowledge I possess to tell the reader what I think the documents mean—how they can be interpreted. Since the reader is trusting me in a sense to read for him, I must be scrupulously truthful and fair-minded in what I report. I see my work as similar to that of a scientist looking through a microscope, trying to describe the thrilling, real world he sees through the lens to those people who don't have microscopes. I am overjoyed if I find out some other expert has read and liked my work, but I would be keenly disappointed if my only readers were other history professors and hapless graduate students constrained to fulfill an assignment.

"How to write history in a compelling way for intelligent, busy people who may have only a few precious hours for reading? I try to do it by assembling the documents of one marvelous life and using that biography as a window to reveal the larger world behind the subject. The biography of the Baroness Pontalba opens to us the funny, fractious tensions of an eighteenth-century Spanish colony, as well as the class-obsessed, materialistic mentality of post-Napoleonic France—along with the story of a little Creole spitfire who was shot four times by her father-in-law. The Hitler Kiss explains what a Nazi prison was like, how resisters hid for years from the world's most efficient secret police, and what the Communists did after ‘liberating’ those resisters—along with describing a young man's coming of age and coming to terms with his father in a world turned upside down. The Murri murder case brings us to Venice and Bologna in the twilight years of the old order, when doctors diagnosed diabetes by tasting the sweetness in their patients' urine and teeth pullers roamed the countryside—along with describing a trial that revealed incest, love, and various forms of nuttiness in the private life of one of Italy's most celebrated doctors. I was captivated by these people and their periods; I want readers to enjoy them, too."

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:


PERIODICALS


Booklist, January 1, 2006, Gilbert Taylor, review of Indecent Secrets: The Infamous Murri Murder Affair, p. 36.

Historian, winter, 2004, Andrea Orzoff, review of The Hitler Kiss: A Memoir of the Czech Resistance, p. 882.

Kirkus Reviews, December 1, 2005, review of Indecent Secrets, p. 1270.

New York Times Book Review, April 25, 2004, Scott Veale, "New & Noteworthy Paperbacks," review of Intimate Enemies: The Two Worlds of the Baroness de Pontalba, p. 24.

Publishers Weekly, June 9, 1997, review of Intimate Enemies, p. 30; April 19, 2002, "Holocaust Voices," review of The Hitler Kiss, p. 59; October 31, 2005, review of Indecent Secrets, p. 42.

Times-Picayune (New Orleans, LA), August 10, 1997, review of Intimate Enemies; January 15, 2006, review of Indecent Secrets.

Washington Post, January 1, 2006, review of Indecent Secrets.

ONLINE


Christina Vella Home Page,http://members.aol.com/vellavella/intimate.htm (July 22, 2006).

Simon & Schuster Web site,http://www.simonsays.com/ (July 22, 2006), biography of Christina Vella.

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