Curtis Cate

American writer in Paris


Curtis Cate, writer: born Paris 22 May 1924; married 1965 Helena Bajanova (died 2002); died Paris 16 November 2006.

Curtis Cate was one of those post-war young Americans in Europe who seemed to embody a certain romantic ideal. Handsome, courteous, highly cultured and fluent in several European languages, he seemed a character out of a Henry James novel.

He was born in 1924 in Paris, into a Bostonian upper-class family. His father had volunteered to drive an ammunition truck for the French army in 1917, and had later returned to France as the representative of an American manufacturing firm. He grew up bilingual and was sent to England, "to learn the language of Shakespeare", and to board at Winchester College, because its motto was "Manners makyth man".

When the Second World War broke out, Curtis was sent to Santa Barbara in California, and in 1941 was admitted to Harvard University to read History. Two years later he was conscripted into the US Army, training as a gunner. Soon after he was transferred to the Intelligence Service as an interpreter, and ordered to learn German and Russian within a month. This he did with astonishing facility.

He saw action during the Battle of the Bulge, in Belgium, and in March 1945 he was sent to Bavaria and Austria, where he witnessed the liberation of the Mauthausen concentration camp, and was one of the first two Americans to effect co-operation with the Soviet forces.

Cate returned to Harvard after a spell in Mexico to perfect his Spanish, and graduated in history magna cum laude. He then returned to France in 1947 and took a diploma in Russian at the School of Oriental Languages, before going up to Magdalen College, Oxford, in 1949, to read PPE, graduating in 1952.

After a year in New York, Cate returned to Europe for good, settling in Paris as a writer and journalist. He travelled to Istanbul, Beirut and Tehran, writing for the New York Herald Tribune and other American publications. In 1954 he joined the editorial team of The Atlantic Monthly, serving three years in Boston and then eight years in Paris as European Editor, before leaving to become freelance, and to write books.

In the years that followed, Cate contributed to a variety of English-language publications, but his main work was writing five highly acclaimed biographies. The first was a life of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, author of The Little Prince. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: his life and times (1970) was awarded the Grand Prix Littéraire de l'Aéro-Club de France, and translated into many languages. The next, George Sand (1975), was picked by the Book of the Month Club in America. The Ides of August (1978) was a graphic account of the Berlin Wall crisis of 1961, and in 1979 he helped the American musicologist Boris Goldovsky to write his memoirs, My Road to Opera.

In 1985 Cate published The War of the Two Emperors, an account of Napoleon's campaign in Russia in 1812. It was translated in many languages, and was published in Russia in 2004. His André Malraux: a biography (1995) was widely praised. His final biography, Friedrich Nietzsche (2002), is considered one the best biographies of the author of Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

In an autobiographical note Curtis Cate once wrote: "Some human beings shoot up vertically, like a poplar, others spread out, more or less laterally, like a cedar or a Japanese pawlonia. It is to the latter species that I belong."

He combined the cedar's elegance and largesse with Wilsonian idealism, the best of America and of Europe.

Shusha Guppy

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