Georgette Elgey, 90, Dies; Wrote Epic History of Postwar France

PARIS — Georgette Elgey, a French journalist, editor and historian best known for her six-volume history of France in the years after World War II, a project that took her nearly a half-century to complete, died on Oct. 8 in Paris. She was 90.

In a statement confirming her death, President Emmanuel Macron of France called Ms. Elgey “one of the greatest experts of the Fourth Republic.”

Ms. Elgey had started her career as a journalist, but she found more fulfillment in researching and writing about France’s Fourth Republic, a complex era that lasted from 1946 to 1958. She embarked on the project in the early 1960s and labored on it into the 21st century, delving deep into archives and drawing from oral testimonies. The first volume appeared in 1965, the final one in 2012.

Ms. Elgey’s “Histoire de la IVe République” explored a period marked as much by promise as by uncertainty. France experienced strong economic growth in the immediate postwar years under the Marshall Plan, the American effort to put a ravaged Europe back on its feet, and rebuilt its relations with Germany, a reconciliation that led to the formation of the European Union.

But it was also a time of intense political instability, fueled in part by decolonization and the war for independence in Algeria. Over a 12-year period, 24 separate governments controlled France.

For Ms. Elgey, however, history was not simply a subject of study; it was a presence in her life, leaving imprints of Roman Catholicism and conservatism, anti-Semitism and war.

Georgette Lacour-Gayet was born out of wedlock in Paris on Feb. 24, 1929, the daughter of Georges Lacour-Gayet, a prominent historian, and Madeleine Léon, who was part of the Jewish bourgeoisie and 45 years younger than Mr. Lacour-Gayet.

A member of the Academy of Moral and Political Sciences, a scholarly society, Mr. Lacour-Gayet had refused to recognize Georgette as his daughter. Her mother fought for years in court to have him acknowledge her, and though she was unsuccessful, the case tarnished his reputation.

Despite her father’s rejection, Ms. Elgey spoke fondly of her childhood in Paris, describing it as a privileged “cocoon.” That changed with World War II, when she and her mother were forced to flee under France’s pro-Nazi Vichy regime. Though they were Roman Catholic converts, they were also of Jewish origin, and they were stopped and imprisoned at the demarcation line between occupied France and the free south.

After being held for 15 days, Ms. Elgey and her mother were “miraculously liberated” by a German soldier and managed to hide in a home owned by French and German families, she recalled in an interview in 2012 with L’Express. She slept in a room with the window open in case German soldiers showed up and she needed to escape. The experience would inspire her to write her memoir “La Fenêtre Ouverte” (“The Open Window”), published in 1973.

After the war, Ms. Elgey returned to Paris to study. It was around this time that her mother lost her 16-year court battle with her father, and Georgette was ordered to stop using his surname. She fell into a depression and dropped out of university.

She would eventually enroll in secretarial school and find a job in a journalism training center. There she met the historian Robert Aron, who asked her to help him write the book “The Vichy Regime, 1940-44” (1954).

She also began freelancing for the journal La Nef and had to choose a surname for her byline. Initially as a “gag,” she said, she picked L.G., her father’s initials, spelling them out as Elgey. She kept the name.

After writing for L’Express and Paris-Presse for several years and helping to start a magazine, Le Nouveau Candide, of which she became the editor in chief, Ms. Elgey quit journalism in 1962 without completely explaining why. She said only that “a very specific episode — that I will keep to myself — convinced me that journalists must make too many compromises.”

In a conversation around that time with Roger Stéphane, a French literary critic, author and journalist, Ms. Elgey told him that her research on the Vichy government was the only work she had ever found intellectually satisfying. Mr. Stéphane advised her to “write the rest,” she said. Following his advice, she began researching what would become her life’s work, “History of the Fourth Republic.”

The first two volumes — the second was published in 1968 — were highly acclaimed, leading Ms. Elgey to extend the project.

Over the decades that she worked on the books, she was also a senior editor for the French publishing house Fayard in the 1970s and an adviser and the head of archives for François Mitterand after he was elected president of France in 1981. From 2007 to 2016 she was the president of the Conseil Supérieur des Archives, an advisory body tied to the culture ministry. She earned the highest rank of France’s most prestigious award, the Legion of Honor, in 2013.

After publishing the final volume of “History of the Fourth Republic,” Ms. Elgey revisited her memoir, fact-checking her memories and tracking down the German soldier who had set her and her mother free. The resulting book, “Toutes Fenêtres Ouvertes” (“All Windows Open”), explored her family history and her father’s rejection of her. It was published in 2017.

There was no information immediately available on Ms. Elgey’s survivors.

Ms. Elgey sometimes suggested that her successful career had been a matter of chance.

“Nothing foretold that I would become the historian of the Fourth Republic,” she told L’Express. “I sometimes have the impression that I never really wanted anything, but that things forced themselves upon me.”

Yet in the opening of “All Windows Open,” she revealed a different story.

She had been on vacation in the Alps in the summer of 1947, she wrote, and, while hiking, fell into a crevasse. “One thought wandered through my mind: It is not possible that so many people have gone to such exceptional lengths for me, and that I will die here foolishly.”

After pulling herself out of the crevasse, she recalled, she returned home thinking, “Nothing can happen to me until I do something with my life.”

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