Rediscovering an Unsung Champion of the French New Wave

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History is filled with secret heroes whose behind-the-scenes actions are essential to the exploits of public-facing heroes. Bringing these figures out of the shadows is a key role of historians. Helen Scott is one of those hidden heroines. Scott was the American film publicist, then translator, best known as François Truffaut’s collaborator on his book of interviews with Alfred Hitchcock. Her extraordinary, lifelong range of activities, in and out of movies, is matched by her literary depth of character. The writer who brought Scott’s life and work to light is one of Truffaut’s biographers, Serge Toubiana, who wrote a fascinating, fervently researched biography of Scott, titled “L’amie Américaine” (“The American Friend”), published in 2020. Toubiana also edited “Mon Petit Truffe, Ma Grande Scottie,” a collection of the correspondence between Scott and Truffaut, from 1960 to 1965, that came out in May.

In these two volumes, which are yet untranslated into English, Toubiana does more than reconstitute Scott’s life story; he also reveals her captivating voice as preserved in her letters. The relationship between her and Truffaut was central to both of them. He was, in effect, both the platonic love of her life and the beacon of the art that provided her deepest satisfactions, and she was both the prime mover of his practical success in the United States and the secret sharer of his deep confidences. Like Scott, Truffaut was essentially literary, and his letters to her provided him with a reflective outlet unlike any other in his copious published correspondence.

The story of their friendship is a tale of cinema. The book of letters, spanning the early sixties, coincides with the time of Scott’s work in the French Film Office, in New York, where she promoted films by Truffaut and his French New Wave cohorts, such as Jean-Luc Godard and Agnès Varda. The correspondence distills the story of the movement’s early days, its struggles for success, and the hostility that it faced. It also contains a treasure trove of details regarding releases and reviews; the personalities of filmmakers, actors, technicians, and even critics; the practical maneuvering that went into the promotion of movies; and the delicate threads and odd chances on which a movie’s success and a director’s career depend. Throughout, the story of Scott and Truffaut’s friendship is one of cinematic history in the making, and of her hidden but crucial role in making it.

Yet, remarkably, Scott didn’t turn her attention to the cinema until her mid-forties. She was born Helen Reswick in New York in 1915, to a Jewish couple. Her mother, Bessie, born in New York to a family from Hungary, wasn’t yet twenty. Her father, William, a journalist from Ukraine, headed to Russia after the Revolution. (He broke the news, in the international press, of Lenin’s death.) In 1923, he brought his family to Paris, where they lived for nearly a decade before returning to the U.S. in 1932. Helen, an indifferent student, had left school at fourteen; in New York, she took a job with a Communist-affiliated union, where she wrote tracts and often found herself on the front lines of strikes, facing police and goon violence. (She told the French director Claude de Givray that she knew all the so-called witnesses, a group of real-life interviewees, depicted in Warren Beatty’s 1981 film, “Reds.”) She was briefly married to Frank Scott Keenan, also a union activist, and kept his name. After Nazi Germany attacked France, a prominent French journalist named Geneviève Tabouis moved to New York to support the Resistance; there, she hired the polyglot Scott (she also spoke Russian and Yiddish) as her assistant.

Tabouis was prominent and connected, and Scott was pulled into the lofty ambit of Tabouis’s activity (including weekly visits to the White House with members of the State Department). In 1943, Scott was recruited by a Free French official to work for its extensive radio operation in Brazzaville, Congo, then a French colony and a center of the Resistance. After the Liberation, she worked for a female member of Congress, for another government office, and then, in 1945, was hired and sent to Europe to work as the press attaché to the Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson, as he was serving as the chief U.S. prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials. Returning to New York that year, she worked as chief editor at the newly founded United Nations Security Council.

Toubiana discovers significant evidence indicating that, from 1940 at least to 1945, Scott was likely spying for the Soviet Union. She was never formally accused, but, in any case, her Communist affiliations emerged. In 1948, she was fired from the U.N., stripped of her passport, and subjected to harassment by the F.B.I. She worked briefly on a startup left-wing newspaper and then for another labor union. For most of the fifties, she scuffled, making a meagre living at such jobs as babysitting and typing, and felt that the major part of her life was over. As she wrote to Truffaut, “In my youth, I was a ‘personality,’ but then, I sank into obscurity and eventually reconciled myself to the fact that I’d been bypassed by history, and that, from then on, I’d go unnoticed.”

Then, though, the curtain rose on the second act. In 1959, Scott responded to an ad for a bilingual French secretary at the French Film Office, a quasi-governmental agency that promoted French cinema in the United States. She became a publicist there and found an altogether different outlet for her revolutionary spirit. After she read about the rise of a “new wave” of young French directors, Scott, then only a casual moviegoer, got the movement—and the term—prominent attention in the press. Then New Wave lightning struck. In January, 1960, she was sent to Idlewild Airport to greet and accompany the then twenty-seven-year-old Truffaut, who was coming to collect an award for his first feature, “The 400 Blows,” from the New York Film Critics Circle. As he emerged from passport control, their eyes connected, and, for Scott, it was love at first sight.

Scott saw and adored “The 400 Blows,” and the presence of Truffaut completed a kind of conversion experience. They became fast friends—platonic ones, but connected by a seemingly instant bond that soon developed into a multidimensional professional collaboration. They forged their friendship during Truffaut’s stay in New York, and Scott quickly amplified it in a batch of letters that she sent to him after his departure. (When his responses were businesslike, she reproached him for not writing personally.) Truffaut, though initially reserved, poured his heart out to Scott: about his marriage to Madeleine Morgenstern and their divorce; about his adulterous romances with Jeanne Moreau (the star of his third feature, “Jules and Jim”) and the seventeen-year-old actress Marie-France Pisier; about his political activism in protest of France’s Algerian war; and about his fears for his career. In turn, Scott discussed her own political fears as they arose during the flood of anti-Communist rhetoric surrounding the Cuban missile crisis; her trouble at work (she was summarily fired, then rehired); her romantic intrigues with the critics Eugene Archer, of the Times, and Andrew Sarris, of the Village Voice; and the caddish advances of another Times journalist, Milton Bracker, of whom she wrote, “Since you asked for news of my love life, be advised that Bracker wasn’t only as vile as you’d predicted but, to top it off, was also impotent!”

The year before Truffaut was moved to create his own book of interviews with Hitchcock (in order to counter the low critical opinion of Hitchcock among most American critics), Scott wanted to create a book of Truffaut’s inspirations, a collection of his own published interviews that would be a work of self-portraiture. (They didn’t do it.) With Truffaut’s long-distance tutelage and the flood of New Wave films that Scott was seeing in New York, she was getting a cinematic education, and her learning curve was spectacularly sharp. She was immediately taken with Godard’s first feature, “Breathless” (which was released here in early 1961), and had a series of warm and mutually admiring meetings in New York with Godard, of whom she wrote to Truffaut, “One may admire his facility; he has ingenious inventions but, if he doesn’t evolve as a man there’s not much hope for his work.” She found that he did evolve greatly, and appreciated his films proportionately; she also saw fit to avow, “After a certain age, true love is well-being for two. Unless, as for Godard, love = suffering.”

Scott got along swimmingly with Varda and Jacques Demy, and enthused about their films. She admired the work of Alain Resnais, too, and had friendly relations with him, but she criticized both him and Godard: “The great weakness of [Godard] is having contempt for the audience—as for Resnais, he doesn’t understand it, being personally too far from the human race.” The filmmaker with whom she became second-closest to was Hitchcock, who—in the course of the interviews (of which she was the on-location translator) and the many meetings (for which she was the crucial go-between)—appreciated her intelligence and her sharp, ribald humor. In a conversation, the sixtysomething director wondered why he hadn’t heard from her during a brief stay in London, and Scott told Truffaut how she responded and why she was distracted: “I told him that, given that he hadn’t learned the facts of life (menstruation) until he was twenty-five, I found him still a bit too young for me to explain to him the phenomenon of menopause.”

Truffaut undertook the Hitchcock book, he told Scott, as a corrective of American critical misjudgment. But his prime motive was to learn from Hitchcock. Hitchcock confided to Scott, “For me, there’s the blank screen and two thousand empty seats. I have to fill both.” As both producer (with his own production company) and director, as a businessman of movies as well as an artist, Truffaut took the notion to heart. A significant measure of his prominence among American critics and his successes with American audiences was due to Scott’s activism with critics, journalists, and distributors. The effort was all the more important inasmuch as the New Wave had become nearly synonymous with flops—the failure, in critical judgment and at the box office, of such films as Varda’s “Cleo from 5 to 7,” Demy’s “Lola,” and Jacques Rivette’s “Paris Belongs to Us,” suggested a reactionary trend. In 1962, Scott reported to Truffaut, “The fact is that they’re over, the sunny days when people discovered with wonder the feats of the French New Wave. People use the term casually, of course, but in New York it has become pejorative and in the reviews of ‘Lola,’ the label is used as an insult.”

It took the New York Film Festival, founded in 1963—and which Scott helped to promote—and the rise in the mid-sixties of a new generation of viewers who were attuned to the filmmakers’ work to establish the New Wave as a fresh standard of movie art. By that time, Truffaut was already something of a young-old master. (In 1965, writing to Truffaut elegiacally about what the New Wave had been, Scott also emphasized Truffaut’s artistic and personal differences from Godard and advised him to make them known—a prescient anticipation of Truffaut’s emotionally violent break with Godard, in 1973.) If there’s a preternatural maturity to Truffaut’s art, as well as a rapid advance in the late sixties to a deeper artistry (as in such films as “Mississippi Mermaid” and “The Wild Child”), it’s due in significant measure, I think, to his friendship with Scott.

Throughout the early sixties, Scott was flirtatious and provocative in her letters to Truffaut, never concealing the intensity of her attachment to him, and psychologizing it finely and deeply: “Your letter stoked the flame of our idyll, or in any case my one-sided passion. From politeness toward Madeleine, one could perhaps qualify the nature of my obsession, but to what end? Asserting that her husband is too irresistible to inspire a platonic love, she always seems to have suspicions on the subject, and I yield all the more willingly to her wisecracks inasmuch as I’m very flattered by them.” The literary richness of the complex relationship became a part of Truffaut’s character; the friendship enriched Truffaut’s art, and it gave Scott a new life. In 1966, she sought to live it more fully, joining Truffaut in England on the set of his film “Fahrenheit 451” and moving to Paris to take advantage of his (and Madeleine’s) presence and of her wide range of movie-world connections there.

She became a pillar of that world, a presence at film festivals and gatherings, a subtitler, an intermediary, an adviser, an eminence, a friend, a welcome guest, yet even, in a perverse way, a mascot—a living emblem of the French cinema’s international reach and glorious rise. In 1968, she had droll adventures accompanying Warren Beatty during his promotional trip for “Bonnie and Clyde.” She appeared briefly in Godard’s 1967 film “2 or 3 Things I Know About Her” and in Truffaut’s “Bed and Board” and “The Last Metro.” She worked with Miloš Forman and Roman Polanski, Claude Lelouch and Claude Berri. She remained friends with Robert Benton (the co-writer of “Bonnie and Clyde,” which was originally written for Truffaut to direct), who connected her with Bill Murray when the actor was in Paris to do voice recording, around 1980, for the animated film “B.C. Rock.” Murray and Scott remained friends to the end of her life; Toubiana quotes a New Yorker report by Sarah Larson, from the New York Film Critics Circle banquet in 2015, where Murray mentioned Scott and said, “She could really curse. She could really, really curse.”

Despite her panoply of cinematic activities in Paris, Scott wasn’t making much of a living. In 1981, Truffaut bought from her the letters that she’d sent him, in view of publishing their correspondence and helping her financially, which is how they came to be preserved in the Truffaut archive, now housed at the Cinémathèque Française. Truffaut died, of a brain tumor, in 1984. After Truffaut’s death, Toubiana interviewed Scott, and encouraged her to write her memoirs, but she never did. She died in 1987, at the age of seventy-two; these letters are the memoir. Her correspondence with Truffaut is the literary monument to a friendship that secretly shook the film world. ♦


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