Connecticut College Magazine · Fall 2012

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First Person: The French Connection

First Person: The French Connection
From left: Jean Thibaudeau, visiting lecturer in French; Marion Monaco, chair of the French and Italian department; and Knowlton “French hostess” Nathalie Chasseriau.

A professor's international vision sparks a lifelong friendship

By Betsey Nodler Pinkert '67


In 1966, during my junior year in Paris, I received a letter from Marion Monaco, chair of the French and Italian department at Connecticut College. Miss Monaco was an inspirational figure who passionately believed in the value of cultural immersion and encouraged her students to experience life abroad. In her letter, she requested that I make contact with 19-year-old Nathalie Chasseriau, a Parisian student, who had been selected to live in Knowlton House as the “French hostess” for the coming academic year.

Nathalie was the grand-niece of the poet Philippe Soupault, who was a friend of Monaco's. Soupault was a pillar of the Surrealist movement and an associate of Louis Aragon, André Breton, Guillaume Apollinaire, Salvador Dalí and others.

I arranged to meet Nathalie at her grandmother's home in Paris. Six feet tall, energetic and smiling, Nathalie introduced me to Soupault. He inscribed for me a small volume of his poetry that still resides in a place of honor in my library.

When Nathalie's ship sailed into New York the following September, my parents and I greeted her on the dock. We became her American family; she came home with me to Philadelphia on school vacations. We shared a unique bond with conversations alternating from French to English.

At Connecticut College, Nathalie presided “à table,” speaking French in the dorm and coordinating French activities on campus. We sought one another out frequently. We were both experiencing culture shock. For Nathalie, the challenge was adjusting to what she called “a girls' university.” The strict parietal hours and the restrictions on socializing with men mystified her. And the cultural differences of Paris and New London were stark. Whenever I missed Paris, Nathalie's companionship was invaluable. I helped her to navigate life in America and the charged political climate of the '60s. Most important, Marion Monaco supported us both, intuitively grasping the challenges we were experiencing.

Soon after graduation, Nathalie and I lost contact.

Forty-four years later, I was promenading in the Quartier Latin of Paris, where I had spent much time as a student. As I passed the Hotel des Grands Hommes, opposite the Pantheon, a gold wall plaque caught my eye. It was a tribute to the artists André Breton and Philippe Soupault.

It was as if Soupault were calling from the past, reminding me of Nathalie.

On New Year's Day, 2010, thanks to Google, I found Nathalie's number and telephoned her in Nice. I cautiously announced myself as a “voice from 40 years past.” Instantly, she responded, “Is it Betsey Nodler?” She had searched for me in Philadelphia without success. Now an author of books on health and Far Eastern philosophies, Nathalie is a journalist writing in both Italian and French.

The following June we experienced an emotional reunion in Nice. We knew that it was not just happenstance that brought us together, either the first time or the second. Philippe Soupault was the deus ex machina of our encounter — with quite a bit of assistance from Miss Monaco.
Au temps retrouvé et au futur à partager!


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