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Obituary: Professor Nicholas Wahl

  • @RSkidelsky
The death of Nicholas Wahl at the early age of 66 is a grievous loss to his many friends and to the study of French politics. Nick Wahl was one of the small band of outstanding American scholars of post-war France. His knowledge of French culture and politics was encyclopaedic; he cultivated everyone in France worth knowing; and inspired generations of students with a love of France.

His personality and influence were not captured by his all too meagre publications. He was an unabashed admirer of the Fifth Republic, and his one single-authored book, The Fifth Republic: France's new political system (1959), was a sophisticated analysis of its constitution. His admiration for Charles de Gaulle dates from his days as a graduate student at Harvard. No one was more qualified to write a biography of de Gaulle. He toyed with different titles - "De Gaulle and the French", "De Gaulle and the Idea of France". But the book never got written, and as the years went by one realised it never would be. Wahl found writing a drudgery. What he really adored was talking and networking. In Oscar Wilde's phrase, he put his genius into his life, his talent only into his work.

Nick Wahl's parents were Hungarian Jewish immigrants to the United States. His father, a surgeon in the Hungarian army, practised as an obstetrician in New York, where Nick was born in 1928. Wahl never talked about his parents or his origins. But it is safe to say that education was for him, as for so many immigrants, the royal road to assimilation into American life. He graduated from the Stuyvesant High School, entered Columbia, but then, wanting to get away from home, switched to Wisconsin University, where he read History.

His love of France dates from a visit there he made at this time. He first met de Gaulle in the early 1950s, when he was writing a dissertation on the politics of the French Resistance. The Harvard graduate student and the French war leader struck up an improbable friendship, Wahl keeping meticulous notes of his many conversations with de Gaulle over the years. He told how de Gaulle ended one of their meetings, which had run way beyond its allotted time, with the words (which sound better in French), "Monsieur Wahl, I find myself in the unfortunate position of having to allow you to leave."

His access to the general and his entourage gave him an insider's view of the events of 1958 which led to de Gaulle's return to power, and more than that, as he is said to have advised on the drawing up of the Constitution of the Fifth Republic. The excitement of being involved in great events spilled over into the seminar at Harvard he ran with Stanley Hoffman in the late 1950s.

I first met Nick Wahl when I was a young graduate student at Nuffield College, Oxford, in 1962, and he a sophisticated young visiting professor from Harvard. Wahl talked French politics with Philip Williams and David Goldey, but I was drawn to him for more personal reasons. He was an exceedingly attractive man, with a glorious crop of thick dark brown hair. But it was his mixture of intelligence and fun which was irresistible. He had a strong didactic streak, and took in hand my personal and political education, dissecting my views, habits, and character with an infectious enthusiasm entirely devoid of malice, and no less assured for being quite often absurdly off-centre.

Wahl was capable of sharp, precise observation. But more usually he formed an idea of a person, and then built on it fantastical elaborations. He was distressed by my shaving with an electric razor, and his proofs of the superior merits of the Schick Injector razor blade had me convulsed with laughter. It was a game we played for the rest of his life.

In 1964 he became Associate, later full, Professor at Princeton and my wife Augusta fell for him no less strongly than I had when, in the early 1970s, we used to visit him there, or in Connecticut, where his first wife Sandy, a jeweller, had a house on a lake. I was writing a biography of Oswald Mosley at the time. When Gus and I came to Princeton, he would roll his eyes in what he took to be the approved Fascist style, declare "I am your Leader", and announce a detailed programme for our stay, which included infrequent intervals of "free time".

The break-up of his marriage to Sandy coincided with a move to New York. Wahl made the Institute of French Studies at New York University, of which he was appointed Director, the leading centre for the study of French politics in the United States. It accepted only graduate students fluent in the language. This fact, together with his own huge range of French contacts, made for a stream of visitors of extraordinary distinction: Jacques Chirac, Francois Mitterrand, Michel Rocard, Regis Debray and many others came over to give talks there and warm themselves in Nick Wahl's hospitality.

With his new wife, Charlotte Johnson, a talented English painter, Wahl found the happiness and stability which had eluded him earlier. My wife and I first met her when they came down to our house in the South of France for a gloriously sunny and funny Easter weekend in 1982. He got agreeably drunk at a luncheon party given by some friends of ours. This was followed by a hilarious evening as we helped him compose a witty letter of apology. Nick must have been a magical stepfather to Charlotte's delightful children. I often visited him and Charlotte in their beautiful flat overlooking Washington Square, hung with Charlotte's extraordinary paintings of imploding New York skyscrapers.

The clouds darkened in the 1990s. Wahl developed cancer in 1993 and when I saw him in New York in 1994 I was shocked by his frail and shrunken appearance. But his mind and spirit were undimmed. There were periods of remission in which the Old Nick was as we had always known him: intellectually sparkling and full of fun, with that mock disapproval which was part of his enduring charm for me.

Anthony Nicholas Maria Wahl, historian: born New York 7 June 1928; Assistant Professor of Government and Tutor in History and Literature, Harvard University 1958-64; Associate Professor/ Professor of Politics, Princeton University 1964-78; Milton Petrie Professor of European Studies and Director, Institute of French Studies, New York University 1978-96; married 1964 Sandy Walcott (marriage dissolved 1988), 1988 Charlotte Johnson (three stepsons, one stepdaughter); died London 13 September 1996.