Franklin in Paris

The words Franklin in France are pretty much guaranteed to elicit a smile, a raised eyebrow, a mischievous wink, and at least one of the following words: frisky, randy, lecherous, dissolute. In great part this is the legacy of the portraitists: the French Franklin has made his way into our imagination courtesy of the artists who have relied on him as an excuse to paint a crop of European beauties, and a lot of European cleavage. It helps to remember that those are 19th- and 20th-century portraits, and that Franklin went to France in the l8th century. It also helps to remember that he has never been played on the screen by Nick Nolte; that was Jefferson in Paris. It helps as well to remember that Franklin’s most difficult colleague in France was John Adams, who contributed more to making Franklin a ladies’ man than did Franklin himself.

Franklin went to Paris in l776 not on a lark, or to cement his reputation as a rake, but on a crucial mission. When he crossed the ocean that November he did so for the seventh time in his life—and for the first time as a traitor. Months earlier he had signed the Declaration of Independence; had he been captured at sea he would have been hanged in London (so the British Ambassador to France made clear when he heard of Franklin’s unexpected arrival). To the Englishman’s mind the 70-year-old American—widely referred to as “the chief of the rebels” or as “General Franklin” was dangerous. The British Ambassador regretted that some English frigate had not met and dispensed with him on the high seas.

The ambassador was not alone in his surprise at hearing that the famous American had washed up on French shores. Franklin met with an electrifying welcome—he was the best-known American in the world, largely on account of his scientific work—but no one could say with any authority what exactly he was doing in France. The theories were multiple. Franklin had come for his health, the climate of France being gentler than that of America. He had come to supply his grandsons with a European education. He had come to see his works published. It was equally asserted that Franklin had sailed as a fugitive, having quarreled with Congress; in order to protest his countrymen’s decision to reconcile with England; to discuss a commercial treaty with France; to sue for peace with the British; to secure his bank account; to ensure that future American generations would be “Frenchified.” The Portuguese ambassador reported on Franklin’s plans to retire to a Swiss chateau with his immense fortune. The Saxon ambassador stubbornly refused to believe that “the chief of the rebels” could conceivably even be in France at all. According to the Sardinian envoy, Franklin had fled America with his family and fortune, having deluded his countrymen with the false promise of a foreign mission. Everyone waited breathlessly for the great man to divulge his plans.

Those were perfectly simple. Congress had declared independence in large part so as to attract a foreign partner in the American rebellion. For a long time that assembly discussed which should come first, the requests for foreign assistance or the formal break with Great Britain. The best orator in Congress argued that a declaration of independence was a necessary step for securing that aid; in that light the document was drafted as an SOS. In l776 the colonies were without munitions, money, credit, common cause. They knew, however, who their friends were, or at least who England’s enemies were. France figured at the top of that list. And in fact—unbeknownst to Franklin, or to any American—the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs had been studying an American revolt far longer than the colonies had even considered one. Striking at an established power through the Achilles heel of her far-off colonies was standard operating procedure at the time; France felt that Britain had done so in the 1760s, when Corsica had rebelled. And it is vital to remember that in the 18th-century hallways of power—which is to say in the European Courts—the American colonies were about as large, about as real, and about as important, as the French island of Corsica. Most Frenchmen had trouble locating the Americas on the globe. It was equally possible that they bordered Turkey or were part of India. The average Frenchman was uncertain as to what language was spoken there. It was not unusual for a French volunteer to expect to be greeted on arrival in the New World by panthers.

It was Franklin, from France, who more than anyone helped to put those colonies on the map. Fortunately, he waltzed into a Paris that was already on many levels ripe with Enlightenment ideals, and he had on his side immense fame and prestige. He appeared, as well, as something that the French had themselves invented, in sense and sensibility a joint production of Voltaire and Rousseau. Nothing could have been more appealing. Nor could anything have worked more potently in Franklin’s favor, as he was up against almost insuperable odds.

That British Ambassador was a charismatic and indefatigable man, the favorite of most French society women; he could not speak more loudly, or more eloquently, of the deceits Dr. Franklin was spreading about the colonies, and about how the gullible French were eating them up. Advertising revolution in a monarchy is a sticky business, to say the least. Franklin could not be openly welcomed by the ministers at Versailles, who were as eager to preserve a cordial public relationship with England as they were covertly to undermine that nation. And Franklin was encircled by spies, French spies followed by English spies, all of them marvelously deft reporters; there was no keyhole in France too small for them to slip through. Routinely they pilfered locked drawers and dove into closets. They stumbled over each other. Early on, one agent purloined Franklin’s mail while it was in transit with a fellow agent’s wife. As much as Franklin was a man of universal ideas, he was also a man of a very different universe; he could have had no idea of how to enter a French drawing room or hold his glass or arrange his sword. And his French was, to say the least, rudimentary. Franklin gives great hope to those of us who speak that language imperfectly. On the page he veered from the clumsy to the chimerical. He acknowledged that a man plunging into a language not his own automatically sacrifices half his intelligence. And he simultaneously established an enduring truism of French life. His was the brand of freestyle French permitted only to those of exceptional talent who, attempting to clamp their jaws around that language, are understood—regardless of the results and by virtue of their audible disregard for their inhibitions—to be acknowledging with every mutilated syllable the superiority of France.


(Let me insert here the results of Franklin’s posthumous report card. It was offered up in the l950s by a tough 20th-century grader, Cornell University’s Morris Bishop. And it is nothing to brag about. Franklin took home a hard-earned A- in oral comprehension, a B- in spoken French, and a downright F for his written skills. That failing grade came with the caveat that Franklin’s error-riddled compositions were, however, utterly clear. In a nutshell, that was also why they were not French.)

What Franklin did within the limitations was dazzling, however. Essentially he ignored them. He forged ahead, in fractured French, indifferent to the informers, oblivious—in a sort of Mr. Magoo way—to the social gaffes, seemingly oblivious, too, to the impossible odds his countrymen faced across the ocean. His arrival in Paris coincided with news of General Washington’s late August defeat at Long Island. Franklin shrugged that report off as insignificant. Everywhere he went he carried the same message. Long Island afforded the British no strategic advantage. They would need an army of 200,000 men to subjugate a people so attached to their freedom. Short of that, the war would stretch on for a decade. The American army was in fine shape and lacked for nothing. It was repositioning itself and would fight on indefinitely; by spring it would number 80,000 expertly trained men. The farther the British troops penetrated the continent, Franklin warned, the more resistance they would encounter. None of this was true, of course; there was no gunpowder to speak of in the American colonies, and Washington commanded something closer to 14,000 men. “I have helped them here to recover their spirits a little,” Franklin assumed Congress the morning after—unknown to anyone in Europe—Washington scrambled to the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware, and days after Congress had fled to Baltimore, to hold sessions in a deserted tavern.

In other words, Franklin fought a war of disinformation with very little help from the New World. Congressional dispatches were intercepted more often than not (a complete set of them can be read today either in the British Library or in the French State Department archives), which meant that Franklin was generally starved for news. For the first year he heard almost nothing from Congress; what he did hear was by no means uplifting. He engaged in a war of propaganda in which his very person qualified as a weapon. The French press was tightly controlled by the state. Fortunately that state—in the form of the French foreign minister, the Count de Vergennes—had every interest in helping Franklin, more so than even Franklin suspected. For his own political reasons Vergennes was intent on an American war, but he had plenty of enemies, too, and needed to justify the project to his king. It was one thing to insult the British in America. It was another thing to back a losing side.

For his first, nerve-racking 18 months abroad, Franklin therefore played a waiting game. Fortunately, he was an old man, who had come finally to embrace patience, who felt he had already proved himself, who was not, like his colleagues, burning with ambition. By nature too he was a good bluffer. Alone among the Americans in Paris he felt that time was on the colonies’ side.

Only in the fall of 1777 did Franklin’s nerves begin to fray. On the afternoon of September 7, he received a visit from a French officer who spoke fluent English and who qualified as one of the more prominent eccentrics in Europe. Franklin had been warned against the very charming Count de Lauraguais; he had a loose tongue and an idiosyncratic mind, enough so to have seen the inside of nearly every prison in France. Lauraguais also had reasons to ingratiate himself with Vergennes, and so reported to the French Minister every syllable of his conversation with the American envoy. After several glasses of wine, Franklin unburdened himself, with much emotion: “There is nothing better to do here than drink,” he lamented. “How can we fool ourselves that France might understand America better than Britain? How can we fool ourselves that a monarchy will help republicans, revolted against their monarch? How can your ministers believe what they cannot understand?” France wanted to crush her old rival, but would do nothing to help America do so. He was heartsick. He sorely regretted his failure to interest Versailles in an alliance, which would have been so much to the good of both countries. And while he understood that France feared for her colonies if America succeeded too well, he believed France could delay but by no means prevent that success.

He did not sound like the serene, unflappable Franklin of legend. At the same time, he made no public concession to despair. It was as essential that he appear buoyant in Paris as it was essential that he convince Vergennes that the Americans were perilously close to sinking. The papers constantly reported him in good spirits, despite the news that the British occupied Philadelphia. He was colorful in his pronouncements. Philadelphia, he insisted, would prove a grave for the British troops. Washington would blockade the roads; the Delaware would freeze; the British army would be cut off from its own ships.

As authentic as it may have been, his bad mood made for good strategy. It could be dilated upon, or dismissed, at will. Which is precisely what Franklin did with it, throughout a long, bleak season that came to a dramatic end on December 4. That Thursday morning an American messenger galloped into Franklin’s courtyard. He had left the colonies only a month earlier. He had not alighted from his horse when Franklin called out to him, “Sir, is Philadelphia taken?” “Yes, sir,” replied the young officer, at which Franklin turned in defeat, his hands clasped behind his back. “But, sir, I have greater news than that,” the messenger called to Franklin’s back, “General Burgoyne and his whole army are prisoners of war!”

From that point the race was on for a treaty. The French and British fell all over themselves trying to secure Franklin’s favor. The British were intent on a reconciliation and peace, the French on an alliance and war. Franklin made child’s play of everyone’s best efforts. The French won out; a treaty of alliance was signed promptly, so promptly that France went ahead without the consent of her ally. Spain would enter the contest only later, but without making any commitment to American independence. It was agreed among the ministers at Versailles that they had done something extraordinary. They had thrown over their closest ally for a new and unproved one, on which none of them had set eyes. They had entered into a treaty, in defiance of a power with whom they were not at war, for the sake of creating a republic that might one day devour Europe. They could well be creating a monster. The decision was an arduous one, but, sighed the French Prime Minister, Franklin had skillfully led them all by the nose.

All of that history can be read today, by the way, in the French State Department archives, at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, on the Quai d’Orsay. There are four pertinent series of documents, which break down roughly as follows: the American series includes the materials intercepted on their way to and from Franklin; the English series reveals what the French wanted the British to think; the Spanish series what the French really thought; the Mémoirs et Documents series what the French ministers discussed among themselves. And then there are the spy reports. The beauty of a world before e-mail and telephones is that everything—and I mean everything, including each dinner invitation and report on Franklin’s groceries—is on paper. As for what crossed Franklin’s desk, that material is two and a half times as great as all the paper we have today for the rest of his life. As far as I can tell, the British (and French) spies who surrounded Franklin were paid by the word; nothing was too trival to be reported, including the state of Dr. Franklin’s laundry or the size of his vegetable delivery.

From the middle of 1778 on, Franklin’s job consisted not in soliciting secret aid for America but in sustaining an alliance that was ill-advised and, in the end, ruinously expensive for France. It also consisted of fending off a most extraordinary number of callers and correspondents: the mail arrived in torrents; the visitors were unceasing, as were the solicitations of those who wanted to fight in America. A dazzling array of benevolent souls could supply top-quality blankets, shoes, beer, folding tables, playing cards, healing powders, at attractive prices. For every Frenchman who hoped to open a sugar refinery in Philadelphia or a glass manufactory in Virginia, there was another who was running away from his multiple wives, or who inquired if it were true that vast tracts of land in America were being distributed for free. They were followed by the industrious souls who had devised the means to blow up Gibraltar, a method to transform ordinary table salt into saltpeter, liquids that could fireproof wood. Most of Europe looked upon Franklin’s home as a kind of political shrine; every hard-luck story in Europe came his way, along with volumes of unsolicited advice.

If in the Philadelphia of his youth Franklin had recognized the value of seeming to work hard, in Paris, at age 70, he quickly mastered the essential French art of accomplishing much while appearing to accomplish little. Industry and efficiency were still foreign concepts in the Old World, calibrated in glory and style. (The French foreign minister was so irritated by his own reputation as a hard worker that when one of his aides calculated that he put in 11-hour days, he insisted that the aide scale back the figure. Vergennes did not want to appear a drone, which he was.) Few were aware of the actual drudgery Franklin faced daily, and to which he often devoted several hours in the middle of the night. The paperwork alone was appalling. At no time did he appear to bend under his burden, however, just as he never offended his hosts by arriving punctually, as did his countrymen. He now lived in a world in which tardiness practically constituted an art form. Rarely has a man so capably adapted to the rules of a foreign world, while at the same time playing that world to the benefit of his own. Franklin was a man of protean imagination and of multiple disguises, but in France the role he played was that of himself.

That strategy worked very well on the French, who were charmed by Franklin’s ease of manner. His friends admired his most French of abilities: “At whatever moment you called,” remembered a young neighbor who did so regularly, “he always made himself available.” His door was open. Dr. Franklin, the eminent scientist, who would spend much of the year apologizing for the dilatoriness of his correspondence, always had an hour for you. The approach—and there is no question it had something to do as well with Franklin’s age, and his insufficient secretarial help—did not impress his colleagues. Until the arrival of Thomas Jefferson in 1784, Franklin distinguished himself by getting along with only one of his American colleagues. With most, his relations were downright poisonous. And with no one did his approach to his desk—and his endless attentions to the French, who were of course bankrolling our revolution—sit more poorly than with Franklin’s intermittent colleague, John Adams.
To a great extent the difference was one of styles. Born 12 miles from each other, hard-driving, book-loving, middle-class sons of Massachusetts, staunch patriots both, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin had recourse to two very different vocabularies in France. That idiomatic divide was on display on December 4, 1778, when the commissioners met at the home they shared to discuss their next appeal to Vergennes. Without France’s help, America could not meet the interest expense on her loans. Adams was eager to press for a more robust naval commitment, which Franklin was loathe to do; he was all too well aware that the French Navy had had its share of embarrassments in the American contest. Her first efforts had not met with stellar success. Adams had no qualms about open French wounds. He sounded a theme that would resonate with him: he was never to recognize American indebtedness to France, where Franklin subscribed to the school of the great aphorist, La Bruyère, who held that “there is no excess in the world so commendable as excessive gratitude.” Surely, Adams insisted, France could bear a reminder that it was in her best interest to support the United States? And surely Franklin did not intend to ask her to do so purely “as a matter of mere grace?” Adams was altogether unimpressed by America’s ally, which, as he put it, “did not treat us with any confidence, nor give us any effectual assistance.”

Franklin violently disagreed. He would entertain no such reproof. France had acted impeccably, opening her coffers and providing a fleet. That fleet, countered Adams, had been useless, the subsidies pitiful. If the French had meant for their ships to be effective, they would not have wasted six weeks readying them in Toulon, in the south. A fleet from France’s west coast could have reached America in that time. Again Franklin objected. Toulon had been chosen expressly to conceal their fleet’s destination. At any other port the British would have guessed their designs and intercepted the ships immediately. Franklin’s colleagues protested that the British had not been fooled for a minute. It was time to remind the French that immediate aid to America was the sound basis of their foreign policy. Franklin flinched from Adams’s highhandedness, insisting they postpone any decision until he could impress upon his colleagues the wisdom of a more graceful approach. He was adamant that they should ask a favor first. Ultimatums could wait until later. (In this case Adams prevailed. The document made a succinct case for a powerful fleet to be sent to America. Vergennes, the French foreign minister, ignored it.) And the tension between Adams and Franklin only grew, fed by Franklin’s celebrity in France, and, relatedly, by his embrace of America’s benefactors.

Perhaps its clearest manifestation was in the two men’s approach to the French language. The divide disguised a more essential truth. One man was trying very hard, while the other did not appear to be trying at all. In broad outline this was to be a contest between the classic overachiever and the classic underachiever. Eight days after his arrival in Paris, Adams registered his disillusionment at the state of Franklin’s French, which he had assumed was fluent. He was startled to note that his colleague’s grammar was inexact, even more surprised to hear Franklin confess, when queried, that he paid no attention to the stuff. That invited some sleuthing on Adams’s part: “His pronunciation too, upon which the French gentlemen and ladies compliment him, and which he seems to think is pretty well, I am sure is very far from being exact.” It is difficult to read in that line which was the greater offense: Franklin’s inadequacy; the high marks French society bestowed on this teacher’s pet; or Franklin’s seeming obliviousness to the preferential treatment. In settling the matter, Adams could not always procure the satisfaction he came increasingly to crave. After the winter of 1778, he began to collect the compliments he received at his colleague’s expense. He was delighted to hear a friend contradicted over a 1779 dinner table, when that friend asserted that Franklin spoke excellent French. He did nothing of the sort, protested a diplomat. Days later that diplomat further endeared himself by elaborating on the subject, to Adams: “You speak slowly and with difficulty, like a man who searches for his words; but you don’t sin against pronunciation. You pronounce well. You do so far better than Mr. Franklin. He is painful to listen to.” The triumph was short-lived. The diplomat’s secretary reminded Adams, as Adams often needed to be reminded, of the uses of flattery. The straight-shooting secretary then leveled with Adams. Both Adams and Franklin spoke French badly.

By the summer of 1782, when the two men were, along with several colleagues, to negotiate a peace together, Adams’s distaste had grown to a blistering contempt. Back in America there was some question as to how Adams would comport himself. As Thomas Jefferson put it, “He hates Franklin, he hates John Jay, he hates the French, he hates the English.” With whom would he side? Adams in fact handled himself brilliantly in the course of that negotiation, as did Franklin. In September 1783 they would together sign the peace that recognized America’s existence. But in the course of that year they could not have differed more greatly on the subject of American foreign policy, or how the war had been won. Franklin had a very good idea of his colleague’s sentiments, as well as a job to do. And the two were very much at odds. At the time of that negotiation, America was, as ever, entirely without funds. If the war were to be continued, it would be so at the expense of France. Were peace achieved, only France could enable Congress to discharge the army. Franklin was back at Versailles in January, having squeezed six million livres out of Vergennes. He was astonished by his success and, too, a little on the defensive. France could not meet its own expenses, he reminded Congress, “yet it has advanced six millions to save the credit of ours.” He allowed himself a few diatribes on “the ravings of a certain mischievous madman here against France and its ministers, which I hear of every day.” He hoped Adams’s words would not be given any weight in America. He said nothing to Congress of the personal assaults, which he acknowledged only privately, to a fellow peace commissioner: “I hear frequently of his ravings against M. de Vergennes and me whom he suspects of plots against him which have no existence but in his own troubled imagination. I take no notice, and we are civil when we meet.”


Meanwhile Adams sputtered on. And when John Adams sputtered, he rose to heights of incomparable eloquence. To his mind Franklin was nothing other than the love child of Machiavelli and the Jesuits, the greatest imposter on earth since Mahomet. He was an insidious man, and impossible to supplant. For both reasons Adams could only wish with all his heart that Franklin was already out of office, repenting for his sins, and preparing for the next world. In truth Franklin was by no means without fault when it came to his colleagues—he was secretive, he was peremptory, he was maddeningly vague—but there is no question that his approach to France was what stuck in Adams’s craw. (There also seems to me little question that Franklin incited his straight-backed colleague a little. There are a number of conversations that read to me like Adams-baiting.) Franklin also happened to be the only American envoy whom—both before and after the alliance—the French both liked and trusted. Nothing could have been more critical to our Revolution than that affection; every other American envoy who approached Versailles bungled along the way. Franklin was inventing the foreign service out of whole cloth. And he was, as we know from so many other realms, a brilliant inventor.

Franklin had the confident man’s ease about affecting subservience; he made it his business to acknowledge publicly the gratitude he genuinely felt. Without French aid the revolution would quite simply have collapsed. The majority of the guns fired on the British at Saratoga were French; the surrender at Yorktown had been to troops that were equal parts French and American, all of them protected by a French fleet. It was essential to Franklin to advertise the fact that America was a country that did not forget its benefactors. It took its friendships seriously.

By contrast, Adams was entirely of the conviction that America owed France nothing. That power, he felt, had acted out of self-interest. It had essentially bought Franklin’s devotion with flattery. Even while the two men regularly socialized and collaborated, they had lost all respect for each other. Franklin’s famous formulation on Adams went that his colleague “is always an honest man, often a wise one, but sometimes and in some things, absolutely out of his senses.” It was an appraisal on which no one has improved. It was also temperate in comparison with Adams’s of him: “If I were in Congress, and this gentleman and the marble Mercury in the garden of Versailles were in nomination for an embassy, I would not hesitate to give my vote for the statue, upon the principle that it would do no harm.”

In Adams’s defense, I want to say this: not all of the qualities we associate with Franklin were on display in Paris, partly because those qualities are ones he put forth in his autobiography as ones we should aspire to—not qualities he himself necessarily possessed. And so the man who extolled order and sincerity was slovenly with his papers in Paris. He was misleading with his colleagues. He was in no way a master of detail. The man who sat on every committee in colonial America turned out to be a lousy team player, and an abysmal administrator; the prolific Franklin was, in France, a poor correspondent. Though he thought of himself as the soul of benevolence, he could be arrogant, insolent, vain. And as easygoing as he feigned to be, he was spiteful, a champion grudge holder, something of a dictator with his own children.

As early as 1783 Franklin begged to be recalled to America. He did so repeatedly, and as the years dragged by without a response from Congress, he began to despair. The request was finally granted in 1785; he sailed from France in July. He was nearly 80 when he set eyes for the first time on the country that had not existed on his departure, and which he had done so much to create. He had been gone for nine years; a certain Rip Van Winkle air clung to him. The disorientation was profound. He was able to recognize friends only by their voices. The American language had evolved since his departure. Philadelphia was a teeming metropolis.

Even before he had made that trip, Franklin had become painfully aware that he had been forgotten in his native country. He had asked for Congress to recognize his grandson, who had served as his secretary since his arrival. Over and over they had failed to do so. Franklin was cut to the quick, as he told anyone who would listen, many times over and many more times than was wise. “I flattered myself vainly that the Congress would be pleased with the opportunity I gave them of showing their approbation for my services,” he lamented. “But I suppose the present members hardly know me or that I have performed any.” For the first time that fall, just before his return, he had referred to himself as being “in exile.”

And the most famous American in the world had changed, too, in his Parisian years. The perfume of the Old World clung to him still; there would be no reward, no settling of accounts, nor even a syllable of gratitude for what he had done for his country. By the end of 1788 he was reduced to petitioning the government for some recognition of his services, an indignity no other Founding Father would suffer. He was understandably hurt: For good reason Franklin considered the French posting the most taxing assignment of his life. He had never worked so hard in any capacity. He knew Congress had generously compensated several of his colleagues for their European tours, in one case for a tour that had consisted of little more than obstructing each one of Franklin’s efforts. The nature of Franklin’s errand had something to do with Congressional ingratitude; he was associated in many minds with the dependent chapter of American independence. Some assumed the worst of any envoy to an overdressed, highly mannered European court; old enemies whispered that Franklin had profited handsomely from his French stay and had helped himself to government funds. It was true as well that Franklin belonged to a different generation; most of the members of Congress knew him by reputation, but not personally. For having extracted the equivalent of $13 billion dollars today and the bulk of the gunpowder used in the Revolution, Franklin went to his grave without any thanks whatever from Congress. In the end his greatest mission proved very costly to him.

It could be said that he did himself few favors. He never finished his autobiography, despite the advice of French friends, who pestered him to do so, reminding him that it was essential he offer up his version of his life. The Paris years were left to a more eloquent man, better at finishing books than was Franklin. And that man was John Adams. He alone wrote about Franklin in Paris; it is his French Franklin that has survived. And while it was true that Franklin was a flirt, Adams turned him into a womanizer. Sixteen years after Franklin’s death Adams was still setting the record straight about how much he had accomplished in Paris, and how obstructionist, indolent, and dissipated his senior colleague had been. He ranted most of all about Franklin’s secrecy, cunning, and silence, the very qualities, of course, that made Franklin America’s greatest diplomat and were so vital in winning us our independence.

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Stacy Schiff is the author of A Great Improvisation: Franklin in France, from which this piece derives. Her Vera (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov) won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for biography; Saint-Exupéry: A Biography was a finalist for the 1995 Pulitzer. She lives in New York City, where she is at work on a biography of Cleopatra.


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