By CHUCK OFFENBURGER
SHENANDOAH, Iowa, Dec. 1, 2020 – Back in the 1960s here in my ol’ hometown, there surely must have been some wondering, “Whatever is going to become of the youngest Welty girl!”
You want it short and sweet?
In the late ’60s, Harriet Welty meandered half the world by herself, twice jumping ocean-going freight ships to take her on her adventures. On one of those trips she shared a ship’s cabin in steerage “with two fat Spanish nuns.” When the ship docked in Cadiz, Spain, she decided to go to Morocco with “two homosexual guys from Mexico. That was such a great time, partly because I didn’t have to worry about either of them trying to hit on me.”
In 1971, she landed permanently in Paris, France, and soon married the coolest Frenchman you can imagine, engineer-industrialist-banker Philippe Rochefort. They have three sons – neurologist Nicolas, who lives and practices in Marseille, France; Benjamin, a software engineer who lives in Montreal, Canada, and David, a writer who lives in Paris and has produced three highly-acclaimed novels for France’s leading book publisher and has a fourth one on the way.
The Rocheforts at a recent dinner celebrating Harriet’s 75th birthday.
Meanwhile, Harriet became an outstanding reporter and writer. She roamed all of France doing news stories as well as features on the people and culture, for 10 years as a stringer for Time magazine and as a free-lance contributor to many other publications. In the last 20 years, she published three books that occasionally made her the talk of Paris, with her hilarious descriptions of an American’s life among the French.
And now, at 75, she is introducing her first novel, “Final Transgression.”
The 329-page book, written and published in English, is deeply researched and extremely well-written.
The story is set in World War II France and is smart, educational, historical fiction – yet also tender and romantic. It is based on something that actually happened to Philippe Rochefort’s aunt late in the war. It’s a must-read, and it should also be a movie. You can order it from Amazon by clicking right here.
So, the youngest Welty girl turned out just fine. But there were indeed times that justified the long-ago hometown wonderment.
In January, 1961, her father Paul Welty, owner of his own very successful insurance & real estate agency, as well as a small loan company, had a massive heart attack and died at the age of 54, leaving his wife Doris and the four children. Oldest daughter Miriam was studying at Grinnell College then, son John was at Drake University, another son Ward was a senior at Shenandoah High School and Harriet was a sophomore.
“We were all devastated and frankly I have never recovered from the shock of losing my dad and not having him in my life as I grew up,” Harriet says now.
But she accepted quick consolation and constant support from her friends and completed her high school experience as a girl she says was “a mixture of shy and bold, and a student who buckled down to interesting things like English and French classes, and avoided math classes and physical education.” Like her sister, Harriet wrote all four years for the student newspaper, the “Shen-Hi-Can.” She sang in the choir, was a class officer two years and made the academic Honor Society as a senior.
Harriet Welty in her 1963 high school senior yearbook.
“What I loved most about school were my friends!” she said. “I had one friend, Lynda Nicholls (now Stephens), who came and walked to school with me every single day. My next-door neighbors were Beverly Greever and Carla Johnson. So I had plenty of friends who lived really close and that I saw almost daily.”
In 1962-’63, their senior year of high school, five close friends in the youth group at the Congregational Church were starting to feel their oats. Coming from five of the leading families in the community then, they were Mike Powers, Harriet Welty, Annette May, Connie Ratliff and the boy who became the valedictorian of their 1963 graduating class, Lorry Sallee.
“We were having fun among ourselves and decided that Shenandoah High School was trying to control us more than we needed,” said Powers, now a semi-retired medical neurologist in Phoenix, Ariz. “So we started calling ourselves ‘The Unholy Five’ and were minimally reactionaries. It was the early ’60s, and there were some undercurrents happening.”
One thing Harriet never waivered on in her adolescence – she wanted to go to France.
THE WELTY ROOTS go very deep in the Shenandoah area of southwest Iowa. Harriet is fifth generation here. Her great-great paternal grandfather Andrew Jackson Welty came to Iowa in 1850 and started farming near Shenandoah in 1869. Two generations later, Richard Welty was running the farm when the Great Depression clobbered the economy. Young Paul Welty, then a student at the University of Nebraska, had to drop out to come home and help his dad save the farm.
Forty miles north in Oakland, Doris Anderson grew up, went to high school, and then enrolled and graduated from the Iowa State Teachers College two-year teaching certificate program. She taught briefly at a country school outside Oakland, then took an elementary teaching job in Shenandoah, where she met and in 1937 married Paul Welty.
“Both of our parents really regretted never being able to complete four-year college degrees, but they’d grown up in hard times,” said Miriam Welty Trangsrud, now of Tucson, Ariz. “Education was very, very important to them, and there was no question ever that the four of us would go to college. Dad also served on the school board. We all read at home, and we’d have dinner every night with all six of us around the table, and we’d have discussions of everything from the news of the day to how to improve our table manners.”
The Welty family in a 1953 snapshot. When Harriet sent this picture, she commented, “This photo is rather hilarious when I think about it. We were lined up for a formal photo and guess who wrecked it by taking her own pose? Yes, me, of course! Dad and Mom and Miriam and Ward are perfect and John is as well except his eyes were closed. And then there is Harriet, always doing her thing. You know how I wrote in my novel ‘Severine always does what she wants’? Well, I wasn’t thinking of myself but there is a similarity. Good Lord, my parents were SAINTS!”
That was at the stately Welty home at 200 S. Center Street, beautifully built with stained glass and opulent woodwork by the legendary owner of one of Shenandoah’s large seed & nursery businesses, David Lake.
“It was a great time to grow up in Shenandoah,” said Lynda Nicholls Stephens, Harriet’s friend since childhood, now retired after a 38-year teaching career and still living in the community. “No one was really rich, and no one felt they were any better than anybody else. Most adults had what they needed and not a lot more. We kids thought we had the world by the tail – and we did – thanks to our parents. We ran all over town, but we never got in serious trouble because we had older siblings looking out for us.
“Harriet and I would get on our bicycles and ride wherever we wanted. We’d stop everywhere. At Jay Drug’s soda fountain, at the Henry Field Seed & Nursery building, where they had a snack bar and sold the best popcorn in the world. On the back of the building, they had a monkey ‘Maggie’ that could come out through a hole in the wall into a cage. We fed Maggie a whole lot of Henry Field popcorn.
“We’d ride on to the swimming pool and another one of our stops that was maybe a little strange, was at a big mausoleum up on the hill in the middle of Rose Hill Cemetery. The doors were always unlocked, and you could go in there and it was just beautiful, with all the marble” and other stonework. “You could stand there and read the plaques on the tombs, and Harriet and I were always fascinated by that.”
When Harriet was 6 years old, her grandmother Effie Welty, who lived on the family farm outside town, died. Two years later, her grandfather Richard Welty began seeing Blanche Schweize Leonard, who had ties to the Shenandoah area and who had taught French at Grinnell College in east central Iowa. They married in 1953.
“I remember that Grandpa married a beautiful woman with lovely skin and white hair and blue eyes, and we were to call her ‘Aunt Blanche’,” Harriet remembered. “I can’t imagine her living out on the farm, but I guess she did. She would always bring me little presents and teach me French words and give me books about France, and she was the main inspiration for my wanting to go to France.”
Another French inspiration back then for young Harriet was the Siminel family, all French, who came to the U.S. after World War II, settled in Shenandoah for a time and opened “The Normandy Inn” restaurant in the central business district. The Siminel parents and their adult daughter Micheline, who had a young son Johnny Riffle, became friends of all the Weltys, who frequently dined there.
“The Weltys were a very nice family, very well-liked and respected,” said Joan Hamilton, of Shenandoah, who worked as an assistant to Paul Welty in the insurance, real estate and loan office. “He was a really smart man, very personable, and a big man – I called him ‘a gentle giant’ back then. He was all over town on business, pretty much all day, so everybody felt like they knew Paul. And that helped make him a real leader in the community.
“When he died so suddenly in early 1961, it was a real blow to the whole town,” Hamilton said. “The Weltys and Ed & E.J. May were on a vacation trip to Mexico when Paul had the heart attack and died there. They had quite a time – I think Ed May took charge – in getting Paul’s body prepared in Mexico City and then delivered back to Shenandoah.” Ed May at that point headed both Earl May Seed & Nursery Co. and KMA radio, both of which had been founded by his father Earl.
Joan Hamilton, by the way, has become a major fan of Harriet Welty Rochefort’s writing. She’s purchased Harriet’s new “Final Transgression” and has donated it to the Shenandoah Public Library.
THE WELTY KIDS DIDN’T JUST ATTEND COLLEGE, THEY CONQUERED IT. Bright and motivated, they excelled not only academically but also in campus life, and then had easy starts in good careers. Well, except for Harriet, who took a more circuitous route to her future.
Miriam Welty Trangsrud, now 80, graduated from Grinnell College with a degree in English and journalism, and later picked up a publishing procedures certificate from Radcliffe College. Then her career in corporate public relations took her to Raytheon Company in Massachusetts, the National Merit Scholarship Corporation in Evanston outside Chicago, Baxter Laboratories in the Chicago area, and finally Abbott Laboratories in North Chicago.
It was a grand career that “required worldwide travel and adventures,” Miriam said, “such as meeting the Queen of England at the Abbott plant in England, and coordinating Abbott’s 100th anniversary celebration, which included Johnny Cash giving several performances at a picnic for 20,000 employees and their families.”
She moved to Arizona in retirement with her husband Chuck Trangsrud, who died in 2013.
Hometown note: Since March, Miriam and four of her Shenandoah High School 1958 classmates have met every Friday on a Zoom chat together. They include Suzanne Ely Muchnic in Los Angeles; Mary Ossian Redington in Frederick, Md., Anne Topham in Ridgeway, Wis., and Carolee Knittle Copeland in Overland Park, Kan. For 17 years before the pandemic, the five had gathered once a year at one of their homes.
John Welty, who spent his last two years of high school at Wentworth Military Academy in Missouri, and graduated in 1960 as salutatorian, earned his degree in business from Drake in Des Moines. He spent his career in insurance, rising to become comptroller of Aetna Life and Casualty’s southeast division, eventually retiring to southern Arizona, continuing to do independent insurance auditing.
He seemed to be a confirmed bachelor and world traveler, but in the first decade of this century, he fell in love with Ladda Wangjai, a 39-year-old woman in Thailand.
“John had to go through all kinds of documentation for the U.S. State Department, proving that he and this woman were in love and that this wasn’t a sham marriage for immigration purposes,” his brother Ward Welty said. “He spent a long time over in Thailand, putting together the paperwork, and finally got it approved.”
She took the name “June,” and on June 22, 2012, they were married and began enjoying life in Arizona. “About four weeks later, John was having trouble breathing, went to an emergency room and was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis. Around 10 weeks after the wedding, he died at 70 years old. It was tragic, especially for his young wife, who didn’t speak much English. Miriam took her in for a time and helped her eventually return to Thailand.”
Ward Welty, now 77, graduated from Shenandoah High in 1961 and followed John to Drake. After two years there, he transferred to the University of Michigan and graduated in 1965 with a bachelor’s degree in English. He went on for a master’s in English at the University of Wisconsin, graduating in 1967, then another master’s in advertising at the University of Illinois, graduating in 1970. He served in the U.S. Air Force during the Vietnam War, then worked as a writer and editor with the Tennessee Valley Authority.
In 1974, he returned to classrooms as a lecturer in communications at Queensland University of Technology in Australia. He later taught advertising at San Jose State University in California, Kent State in Ohio and Kansas State, and in 1980 earned his doctorate in English back at Drake. In 1989, he began his final 14 years of teaching as an English professor at Alabama A&M in Huntsville, where he retired and still lives.
He and his wife Jane married in 1972, and in 1973 traveled Europe “and dropped in on my sister in Paris – and met Philippe for the first time.” The big brother approved.
Harriet Welty spent her first year of college at Cornell in Mount Vernon in eastern Iowa and did well. She’d wanted to stay in Iowa since her mother Doris was going to be home alone in Shenandoah. But during Harriet’s freshman year, Doris moved to Minneapolis to be near friends there and eventually married Walter Bury there. She died in Arizona in 1999.
With her mother no longer in Shenandoah, Harriet decided she wanted a larger college than Cornell and transferred to the University of Michigan, where Ward was a senior.
“I got in and absolutely loved it,” she said. “Since my grades were good, I applied for and got into the Martha Cook Building right across from the Law Quad, and I lived there for three years. It was – still is – a gorgeous Tudor building reserved for women with a certain grade average and had a very refined lifestyle. We had ‘mixers’ with the law students, and we had a formal dining room with white tablecloths. I worked as a waitress for some of the meals. We always sang grace and hymns as ‘Martha Cook Sisters,’ and had tea in a large salon with a grand piano. I’m still in contact with ‘Cookie’ friends.”
She majored in English, without having any real career plan when she graduated. “I never really had a plan like that,” she said. “About graduation time, each of us had to raise our hand one evening and tell what we were going to do. When I raised my hand, I held up a ticket to France and said, ‘I’m going to France with this one-way ticket.’ I just wanted to wander and discover. That is why my career, such as it is, was very erratic.”
BOTH HARRIET AND THE WORLD BEGAN TO CHANGE. After graduation in the spring of 1967, Harriet indeed went to Paris.
“I found out it was really easy to get jobs there then,” she said, “and I was hired to be a ‘Girl Friday,’ as it was called, for Bernard Redmont at Westinghouse Broadcasting.” He was an internationally known broadcaster and foreign correspondent for various media, and later became dean of communications at Boston University.
“Mr. Redmont would have me open his mail and go through the letters and news releases he was receiving,” Harriet said. “I thought it was really exciting to see some of these story possibilities that people were telling him about. I thought, ‘Oh, this is for me! Reporting is what I want to do!’ ”
Redmont told his young assistant she should enroll in the master’s in journalism program at Columbia University in New York City, and offered to recommend her. “I liked the idea of getting my master’s, but like an idiot I ignored his suggestion of Columbia,” Harriet said. “Looking back, living and working in New York City for a while probably would have been a good experience.”
Instead she applied for the graduate program at Northwestern University’s renowned Medill School of Journalism in the Chicago suburb of Evanston.
There was big news happening in Paris just when Harriet was leaving in May, 1968.
Daniel Cohn-Bendit, already a legend at 23 years old as a leader of protesting students and workers, was fanning anger against the regime of French President Charles de Gaulle. Cohn-Bendit, known globally as “Dany le Rouge” or “Danny the Red,” organized protests and strikes that temporarily shuttered the government and most business. “I left on the last plane out of Paris before they closed down the airport,” said Harriet, “with tear gas in my eyes.”
Student movements were stirring around the world.
Back in Chicago and enrolled as a student at the Medill School, she was immediately turned into a working journalist-in-training by her professors and assigned to various reporting beats around the city. She helped cover the violence-marred Democratic National Convention held in Chicago that summer.
“Starting at Medill, we had to choose whether we wanted to go into TV or print, and I chose print,” she said. “The professors acted as our editors, making assignments for real news situations, and they were real taskmasters – no nonsense. They’d rip apart our stories and make us re-do them. I got the ‘Hong Kong flu’ while I was there, and they said, ‘Get over it and get back to work.’ I’ve never worked any harder – the whole rest of my career – than I did at Medill, but it was also the best training I ever had.”
She graduated from Medill with a master’s in journalism in 1969.
And life gave her another sudden jolt.
“I had this boyfriend I planned on marrying, but it turned out that he didn’t have a plan to marry me,” Harriet said. It left her “deflated.”
She learned of an opportunity to write for a engineering trade magazine in Washington, D.C., moved and spent a year there. Bored, she decided to make a move toward more “wandering and discovering,” first in San Francisco. “I just wanted a job then that would let me make a little money, be around friends and have some fun,” she said. “So I took a job as a ‘hat check girl’ at a famous French restaurant there, the Fleur De Lys.”
MEXICO? MOROCCO? SPAIN? FRANCE? HEY, LET’S GO! Harriet soon enough had her fill of hat-checking, also had a little stash of money, got on a freight ship and boated to Acapulco, Mexico. She then “bused around Mexico,” winding up in Veracruz on that country’s east coast. That’s where she joined the “two fat Spanish nuns” in a small cabin on a freight ship that went on a three-week cruise to Spain. Then she went on with the gay guys to Morocco in northern Africa, back to Spain, then took a train north to Paris.
It was at this point, in the long interview I had with Harriet, that I asked just how her big adventures were being received by the folks back home in Shenandoah.
“Oh, I never told anybody what I was doing,” she said after a huge laugh. “My mother was just a saint. Here she had this crazy daughter running all over, but she didn’t try to get in my way. I do know that she worried a lot about me, and I still feel bad about that. My sister kind of got on my case, but I didn’t talk to her all that often then.”
Back in Paris in 1971, she looked for another job. “I’ve always been good about getting jobs,” Harriet said, “but not so good about keeping them. I wasn’t getting fired, but it seems like after a relatively short time, I’d decide, ‘I just don’t want to do this anymore,’ and so I’d go do something else.”
She had not planned to stay very long in Paris anyway.
“I had developed this fascination with Argentina,” she said. “You know, the Pampas and gauchos, all that stuff. I was just going to see a few friends there in France and then go to Argentina.”
One friend, a fellow she’d met on her stay in Paris in 1967-’68, told her that before she moved on to South America, he at least wanted to meet her for a drink and introduce another friend to her. Harriet agreed, and they met at Le Select Montparnasse, a restaurant made famous by such past customers as Chagall, Picasso, Hemingway and others.
It so happened he’d been a college friend and was now a co-worker of Philippe Rochefort, who was then 29. Harriet was 26.
“My friend had told me he would like to introduce me to his girlfriend,” Philippe recalled. “The three of us met for a drink at Le Select, and he disappeared after a few minutes. The only thing I could do was to invite her to dinner, and the rest is history.”
Harriet said she was immediately charmed, but thought she’d made a fool of herself.
“I learned soon that Philippe is very sophisticated and kind of reserved, and he has this low-key, almost deadpan sense of humor,” she said. “I didn’t know that then. What I remember is that he started talking, was just cracking me up and I was laughing out loud, probably too loud. And all the while he had this sort of blank, cool expression on his face. I think Philippe thought I was crazy, and I think he still does sometimes.”
Au contraire! He didn’t think that at all.
“When we met, I had just divorced a few months before,” Philippe said. “I thought Harriet was fun, interesting, exotic and refreshing, which was a dramatic change from my previous life.”
And for Harriet, it was goodbye, Argentina!
The Rocheforts on a stroll on the coast in Brittany in western France.
About two years later, after building a strong relationship, Harriet Welty and Philippe Rochefort were married in a small, family-only ceremony at Mairie du Seme of the 5th Arrondissement, the town hall for a section of Paris. “My family came from the States, except for Ward, who was getting ready to go to Australia then, and Philippe’s family was of course here,” Harriet said. “Philippe and I had to spend the wedding lunch interpreting because my family couldn’t speak French and his family didn’t speak English!”
If she was going to stay in Paris, she indeed was going to have to find a job.
So she briefly became a secretary at the Quebec Embassy in Paris, and “I hated it.” She moved on to a secretary job at the accounting firm Peat Marwick Mitchell, and fortuitously was assigned to work on a company “newspaper thing.” A woman she worked with on that publication was also moonlighting as a “stringer,” or part-time reporter, for Time magazine’s Paris bureau, and suggested Harriet apply there.
The magazine hired her and soon had her reporting stories all over the city and occasionally beyond. She reported and wrote about activities of France’s president then, Francois Mitterand. She covered the visit to Paris of the Muslim leader known as the Aga Khan. She wrote about the debut of the new Concorde jets. She covered business stories. Whatever Time’s editors needed.
And over the years, she had a long-term job with the “France Discovery Guide,” long published by the French Embassy in New York City, touting the places in France that tourists are always curious about. “I did that for 12 or 13 years,” she said. “They had me covering the whole of France, writing about famous people and famous places. I really loved it.”
PHILIPPE ROCHEFORT’S FAMILY HAILS FROM THE AUVERGNE REGION in what Harriet described as “the poor mountainous center of France,” south of Paris. “Many Auvergnats came to Paris to work in bistros or restaurants to make money, so they could return to Auvergne. Philippe’s dad did not return but rather stayed in Paris.”
Actually, Philippe’s grandfather had earlier started a wallpaper business in Paris, Rochefort Papier Peint, and Philippe’s father Henri Rochefort expanded the business during and after World War II. When German soldiers occupied Paris and much of France, the family stayed at a country house they had west of the city, near Chartres. Henri Rochefort kept an apartment in Paris and stayed there during the week, then on Friday evenings riding a bicycle the 40 miles out to the country house and riding the bike back to Paris early Monday mornings.
The Rocheforts, like nearly all in France, were directly impacted in many ways by the German occupation. Food was rationed, with the best of it going to German soldiers. Medicine, wine, clothing and other supplies were hard to purchase or acquire. Henri Rochefort had to trace his family heritage four generations back for the Germans, who insisted he prove he was not Jewish or turn his business over to a German administrator. He was able to satisfy them.
“America has never been occupied by foreign troops, fortunately,” said Harriet, who since 1996 has had dual citizenship. “We can’t really grasp how hard and dangerous an occupation is. To have any kind of life during the World War II occupation, the French had to take many risks, and even minor risks could quickly turn into major risks with severe consequences.”
You will understand that much better after reading “Final Transgression.”
In 2005 or ’06, when Harriet had been part of the Rochefort family for nearly 35 years, she and Philippe were visiting his mother, Marie-Jeanne Rochefort.
“I noticed my mother-in-law had this small, framed photograph that I’d never seen before, sitting on a table,” Harriet said. “There was an attractive young woman, with clothes and hair in the style of the 1940s, with a little boy on her back. I was pretty sure I recognized that the little boy was Philippe, and I said, ‘Who is this young woman?’ ”
Marie-Jeanne Rochefort paused, then said, “My sister. She died in the war.”
Harriet said it seemed clear then that her mother-in-law did not want to say more.
“I thought it very strange that, here I’d been around since 1971 or ’72, and I’d never known about this sister,” she said. “I should know about this! When we were on our way home, I of course asked Philippe. He knew about his aunt, but he didn’t know she’d died in the war. I said, ‘I should write a book about this!’ And he said, “Why don’t you!’ ”
And thus began an incredible 13 years of off-and-on work on this book by Harriet Welty Rochefort doing deep research, interviews, writing and re-writing – always advised and often assisted by Philippe.
“Final Transgression” was published this past May – as the COVID-19 pandemic was raging worldwide.
“There are a couple of reasons why it took me 13 years to complete this,” Harriet has told crowds on 20 or more Zoom “book chats” she’s had this summer and fall with readers from all over the globe. “First, I’m an old journalist, I did not know how to write fiction. I had to learn that. And secondly, when I started developing the story, I was so excited about it that I was spending all my time talking about it with people – Philippe, our sons, friends, anybody who would listen.
“Finally our son David Rochefort, who is quite a successful novelist, told me, ‘You just have to shut up and write!’ So I made a sign that says just that, ‘Shut Up and Write!’ and keep it near all my files where I’m working.”
She said her first instinct had been to write a historical account of what happened to Philippe’s aunt, “but I realized that no matter how much research I did, I just wouldn’t have enough to write a factual account of it. The people actually involved were nearly all dead. The records that do exist wouldn’t give me quotes. I had to do it in fiction, develop the characters, create the dialogue – and I wanted to keep it as true to life as I could.”
I’m not going to divulge the central plot. But I will say the story is mostly set in World War II in Paris and in the “Perigord” region of southwestern France.
“There was particularly intense fighting in that Perigord region because the underbrush was so thick that the Germans had difficulty finding the Resistance,” Harriet said.
But there were many different factions involved – the German soldiers, Nazi special police, a few troops from the collaborating French government, undercover Resistance fighters, French Communists and the beleaguered French population. Late in the war, and just after, there was vicious fighting between all those factions in what was called “wild purge,” or in French, “épuration sauvage.” As Harriet said in book chats, “many old scores were settled.” More than 10,000 people were killed by their own countrymen.
One brief passage from the book I do want to share.
Late in the story, Harriet has a German “Kommandant” reflecting on France and the French that he is charged with overseeing:
“What a puzzling country this was, he mused, with its long history, fabulous food and drink, formidable monuments, varied scenery and alluring women. The French didn’t deserve such beauty. They were too unpredictable, flighty, quarrelsome and quick to anger. And yet, he had to admit, it was the contradictory combination of quirkiness, creativity, cold rationality and hot blood that made the country special.”
After I read that, when I talked to Harriet, I asked her about it. “Isn’t that about what I’ve read you writing about France yourself in your other books and articles?” I asked.
She laughed and acknowledged, “That’s not just the German Kommandant’s voice you’re hearing there. You’re hearing my voice, too!”
I asked what Philippe or other native French people would think about that description. Would they dispute it or even be angry?
“Oh, no, not at all,” she answered. “If I would read that to any French people, they’d agree! The French are much less sensitive about being criticized than Americans are. In America, you don’t say these things to each other – or you wouldn’t have in the past. In France, the people understand and even appreciate their eccentricities.”
PHILIPPE AND HARRIET WELTY ROCHEFORT HAVE A NICE LIFE. “We live in a garden apartment in Paris,” Harriet said. “This is very unusual where we are now. Formerly we lived in upscale neighborhoods in the west of Paris, the 16th Arrondissement, and Neuilly right in the Bois de Boulogne. But when the kids moved out and there were just the two of us, we decided to go east, and so live now in a very multi-ethnic neighborhood which is known principally for the Pere Lachaise cemetery and its historical monument and cobblestoned lanes which I often stroll. The east and west of Paris are night and day. The east is traditional working class, and the west the business and upper class.”
Harriet’s descriptions and columns about her walks around the city have become very popular posts on Facebook and on her website. She often includes photos. (That website, where much of her work is archived, is www.harrietweltyrochefort.com.) In normal times, pre-pandemic, she stopped often for coffee, tea or wine at cafes along her way, sometimes writing there.
Harriet Welty Rochefort, working a manuscript in 2017 while relaxing in a favorite Paris cafe.
“I make it a point to take the Metro or the bus or my feet to go to different parts of the city and get a change of sights and smells and flavors,” she explained on Facebook. “For me, that is the pleasure of living in Paris – constant discovery.”
Philippe began his own English-language website www.understandfrance.org in 1999, initially to promote “French Toast,” Harriet’s first book in 2001. Then came her second, “French Fried,” in 2010, and “Joie de Vivre: Secrets of Wining, Dining, and Romancing Like the French” in 2012.
“With time, my website became a kind of hobby, and became bigger and bigger as I was trying to explain my country and our culture to Harriet’s readers,” he said. “The design is terrible and that is now hurting the traffic, which was as high as 800,000 visitors a few years ago. Now it’s less than half of that.”
Ever curious about history, culture and business, Philippe decided to pursue a doctorate in history at the famous Sorbonne University in Paris immediately after he retired in 2005. “I started going to history classes there on the very first day of my retirement!” he said.
“I graduated three years later in Contemporary History and started working on my field of interest – business and the U.S.A. I wrote my Ph.d. dissertation on the history of American firms in France, from 1890 to 1990. After the Sorbonne, I wrote a few papers on the history of the U.S. community in France in three periods – in 1900, during World War I, and in 1920-’30.”
Philippe Rochefort at dinner at home this past May.
He does not present himself as a writer, however.
“My family has enough with two writers, and I do not want to add one more,” he said. “But I write a lot for myself, recently short absurd fables. And I have a newsletter for family and friends about what makes me upset in French politics – and there are many things. Other than the website, which is for English-speaking readers, all my writing is in French.”
Both Rocheforts have taught at the college level or for professional groups over the years.
They enjoy hanging out at libraries, and going to cafes and restaurants, in normal times. During the pandemic, they’ve been in two long government-ordered “lockdowns,” and while it was just the two of them at home, they still occasionally got dressed up and had fancy dinners at their own well-decorated table. “Philippe often says that the worse you feel, the better you should look,” said Harriet. “It means simply that if you are depressed and down and feeling, say, slouchy or ugly you should hoist yourself up and look as good as you can. Making that effort will be a morale booster. I have tried it and it works!”
Old friends notice, thanks to her spirited Facebook posts, and tag along.
“Harriet is a lovely person, certainly bright and personally enthusiastic,” said Greg Buntz, a retired college professor who lives in Grinnell and has known the Weltys since they were all kids in Shenandoah. “I’m so happy to have reconnected with her, which happened because I finally signed up for Facebook during the pandemic to stay in touch with people. I found her page, have read her book and loved it. But to your point, the Weltys were always a remarkable family.”
Harriet Welty Rochefort in a book chat on Zoom in mid-November.
Another old friend Jan Tabet, who has seen the Rocheforts in-person and often over the past 40 years, says Harriet and Philippe “have hosted Thanksgiving dinners and many others, contributing to the joie de vivre of their friends.”
Get this: Jan Hogg Tabet, one year younger than Harriet, grew up in the tiny southwest Iowa town of Coin, 15 miles southeast of Shenandoah. But they never met in high school. In fact, they never met until a mutual friend in Paris realized they were from the same home area in Iowa and introduced them!
“That was at least 40 years ago and the friendship from that meeting has meant so much to me during my long experience of living in France,” said Tabet, who is now retired after teaching English for 35 years in the French university system. She has followed Harriet’s literary career closely, including being one of the proof readers on “Final Transgression.”
“I have read all of Harriet’s books and given many of them as gifts, especially to friends and relatives in America,” Tabet said. “I have also attended many of her book presentations at various libraries and events in Paris. She always had a big crowd and seemed to enjoy the contact she had with the public. I also have participated in several Zoom presentations for her latest book. She has worked hard under the present COVID restrictions to find a way to talk about her book to the public. I know she would rather have events where she could interact more closely with people, but she has creatively adapted to the present situation.”
WELL, LET’S GO TO THE CASTLE AND THINK ABOUT THIS. Harriet and Philippe also have a get-away home in the town of Missillac in the Brittany region of the west of France, not far from the coast, a five-hour drive from Paris.
It’s in a genuine castle!
The “Chateau de la Bretesche” was built in the 14th century, badly damaged during the French Revolution in 1789, rebuilt in the 19th century and now offers condos, hotel rooms and golf on a course built around the castle.
Harriet Welty Rochefort at the castle in western France.
“The last private owner of the whole castle squandered his money, and had to divide it up to try to keep it going,” Harriet said.
Early in their marriage, the Rocheforts lived in the nearby town of Nantes, where Philippe served three years as a city manager. “We knew the area, and we have played golf on that course around the castle,” she said. “We’ve always been kind of in awe of it. So in 2009, we saw that a few condos in it were being offered for sale, we talked about it just a little bit, went on a website and bought it. We’ve never been sorry, and we spend as much time out there as we can. Every time we go, we think, ‘OMG, did we really buy this?’ ”
In fact, Harriet says she wrote most of “Final Transgression” there in the condo, first drafts by hand “because I think better when I write long-hand,” then transcribing it to computer for proofing and revisions.
I asked her if she had a writer’s studio or office in the condo, and she said, “Actually, from our second-floor condo, there’s an old stairway that goes up 100 steps from our level to what was once a maid’s room. It’s a perfect place to write. It’s just got one window and no other distractions.” Out that window, she looks over a lake on one side of the castle, as well as the facility’s formal gardens.
SO, THE ROCHEFORTS’ LIFE IS FAR REMOVED FROM SHENANDOAH, IOWA. But they never forget Harriet’s hometown.
“I have been to Shenandoah maybe 10 times, and I’ve always enjoyed it,” said Philippe. “It is the image of America’s small towns that I discovered in my youth through movies, mystery books and The Reader’s Digest. I love the Midwest and small towns.”
Harriet mourns the loss of many businesses in Shenandoah that she remembers from her youth.
“This makes me want to cry,” she posted recently on Facebook, after another business announced its closing. “Small town America, what happened to you?
Harriet Welty Rochefort, ready for that recent birthday dinner at home in Paris.
“If my joy now in Paris where I live is walking into various small stores, it is because in my youth in Shenandoah, I could wander down main street to the hardware store and to Hansen’s Jewelers and to sit down at the counter at Jay Drug for a milkshake, and go see my dad, whose office was on main street. Not only was it idyllic but it meant that things were going on there on main street. It was the place to be! How cruel now that all the big box stores have robbed our small towns of the variety of small shops and especially the people running those shops with whom our relationship was more than that of vendor to customer. We knew these people and they knew us. Sorry to be so nostalgic, but how can one not be when comparing those days with the present ones?
“Anyway, I am so glad that I grew up in the Shenandoah of the ’50s and ’60s, and wherever I go in the world, I keep those memories of this very special hometown with me.”
I give the last word to David Rochefort, the rising star novelist in France. I asked him when he thinks of the lives and careers of his mother and her three siblings, if it makes him wonder about Shenandoah.
“There’s a record I love from the American guitarist Luther Allison, who moved to live in France,” David said. “One day, he gave a concert back in Chicago and the speaker introduced him by saying, ‘This man is here to prove that you can take a bluesman out of Chicago, but you can’t take Chicago out of a bluesman.’
“It’s the same with Shenandoah. No matter how far you live – and Paris is far away – I guess there’s always Shenandoah in you.”
You can email the columnist at chuck@Offenburger.com or comment using the handy form below here.