Jean d’Ormesson, ‘Immortal’ French Man of Letters, Dies…

ALAN COWELL

When he began his writing career in 1956 with the publication of “L’Amour Est un Plaisir” (“Love Is a Pleasure”), his eminence as a literary figure seemed in doubt. None of his first novels did well, and in 1966, his seemingly likely departure from fiction inspired him to write a valedictory novel called “Goodbye and Thank You.”

It was only in 1971 that “La Gloire de l’Empire” — translated into English as “A Novel. A History” — secured a lasting place for him in 20th-century French literature.

The book, a fictional compendium of imagined history, won the academy’s coveted Grand Prix.

“This has to be one of the most engrossing histories ever written — yet not a word of it is true,” William Beauchamp, a French literature scholar, wrote in The New York Times Book Review when the book was published in English in the United States in 1975.

He added: “Jean d’Ormesson’s empire is pure invention; his book, fictional history. If numerous details suggest the real empires of Rome, Persia, Byzantium, of Alexander or Charlemagne, they are devices designed to achieve verisimilitude — the illusion of reality.”

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Mr. d’Ormesson in 1973, the year he entered the the Académie Française at 48, making him its youngest member.

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Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

When Mr. d’Ormesson entered the academy in 1973, at the age of 48, he was the youngest of its 40 members, all of them committed to maintaining the purity of the French language and to promoting French literary merit.

All were also men; the body had barred women since its founding in 1635. But that changed in 1981, when Mr. d’Ormesson sponsored Marguerite Yourcenar, a writer and classical scholar, to join the academy. Though he incurred much criticism and not a few misogynistic jibes for his championing her, she was accepted.

Ms. Yourcenar remarked at the time, “One

cannot say that in French society, so impregnated with feminine influences, the academy has been a notable misogynist: It simply conformed to the custom that willingly placed a woman on a pedestal but did not permit itself to officially offer her a chair.”

Jean Bruno Wladimir François de Paule Le Fèvre d’Ormesson was born in Paris on June 16, 1925, the son of Andre d’Ormesson, a French diplomat, and Marie Henriette Isabelle Anisson du Perron, whose family owned the 15th-century Château de Saint-Fargeau in Burgundy, where he spent his early years.

Following his father’s diplomatic postings, the family also lived in Bavaria, Romania and Brazil. In 1962 he married Françoise Béghin. She and their daughter, Héloïse, survive him.

In the manner of the French elite, Mr. d’Ormesson studied philosophy at the École Normale Supérieure, one of France’s most prestigious places of higher education. In 1950 he joined Unesco (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) in Paris, heading its international council for philosophy and humanistic studies.

He was the publisher of Le Figaro, the conservative French daily newspaper, from 1974 to 1977, and wrote a column there for many years afterward.

At the same time, his career in letters was advancing. He was elected to join the French academy in 1973, filling the seat of Jules Romains, the French poet and author, who had died. Mr. d’Ormesson later became the body’s dean.

He maintained close contact with French decision makers at the highest level and showed little appetite for formally retiring. Indeed, in 2012, at age 87, he made his debut as a movie actor, playing the part of President François Mitterrand in “Les Saveurs du Palais” (released in the United States as “Haute Cuisine”), a fictionalized version of the relationship between the statesman and his cook, Danièle Delpeuch.

The part seemed fitting enough for a figure who had spent much of his life mingling with the great and the good, enabling him to boast that, in life, he had shared a meal with the real Mr. Mitterrand on 26 occasions. In fact, Mr. d’Ormesson was the final visitor Mr. Mitterrand received on his final day as president in 1995.

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