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  • In Memoriam:Francelia Butler, 1913-1998
  • R.H.W. Dillard (bio)

Francelia McWilliams Butler, founding editor of this journal and my friend of forty years, died on September 17, 1998. I was not only deeply saddened by the news but also deeply shocked, because Francelia was a battler and a survivor of such energy and courage that it seemed as though she could never lose a fight, not even one with death itself. I knew that Francelia was eighty-five years old and had been at war with cancer with every weapon at her disposal (including her great determination) for years, but I was surprised anyway. Some people seem to be born, to use Hemingway's phrase, to live life all the way up, and Francelia was certainly one of them. And what an interesting life it was.

Francelia McWilliams was born in Cleveland on April 25, 1913, but grew up in Elyria, Ohio. She was graduated from Oberlin College in 1934 and carried the liberal attitudes and beliefs she had gained there with her to Washington, D. C. There she lost one job writing a pamphlet titled "The Brotherhood of Man" for an education association because she dared to criticize Hitler, and she lost another at one of the best Washington hotels because she arranged an Oberlin banquet meeting that black alumni attended. She soon went off to Paris, where she married foreign correspondent Jerome Butler on July 4, 1939. She worked for her husband's paper, the International Herald Tribune, occupying several positions including that of drama critic. She met the literary lights of the day (among them, I recall, the novelist and professional Parisian Elliot Paul, with whom she was not at all impressed) as well as the members of the journalistic community. She actually was offered ajob by CBS News as an on-air reporter to work with Edward R. Murrow, but, at the urging of her husband, she turned down the job, [End Page 181] which Eric Sevareid took instead. One of my favorite photographs of Francelia shows her holding Walter Cronkite's attention at the International Herald Tribune Centennial Banquet at the Palais de Chaillot in Paris in 1987. The Butlers were among the last Americans to leave Paris before it fell to the Germans in 1940.

Francelia did not lose all her connections to the literary world after leaving Paris. For example, she took dictation and typed the manuscript for Stuart Gilbert's translation of Albert Camus's L'Etranger; she remembered that he was under a tight deadline and translated at top speed, pacing nervously back and forth across the room, seldom even pausing for a moment's reflection. That translation, published by Knopf in 1946, remained, of course, the standard English version of the novel for half a century. The birth of her daughter Annie, along with the terminal illness of her husband, soon turned her attention completely to home and family, however.

Jerome Butler died of cancer in 1949, and Francelia, while raising her daughter as a single mother, began her career in earnest as a scholar, writer, and crusader—and, of course, continued her life as an irrepressible character. As a memorial to her husband, she wrote and published a history of cancer and cancer treatment, Cancer Through the Ages: The Evolution of Hope (1955); it was during research for the book that she startled (and enraged) the curator of the medical museum of the New York Academy of Medicine by being unable to resist the urge to bounce the rubber dental prosthesis used by Grover Cleveland after his secret cancer surgery in 1893 on the museum floor. At this time, she also wrote the first draft of a novel based on her own abusive childhood, The Lucky Piece, which was not to be published until 1984 (but then with considerable success, going quickly into a mass-market paperback edition).

Once Annie was old enough, Francelia began her formal graduate study of English literature. She took her master's degree at Georgetown University in 1959 and continued her studies at the University of Virginia, where I, also a graduate student, first met her in the fall of 1959. Francelia...


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