Remembering Lee Fahnestock (1928 – 2022)

Lee Fahnestock on Thanksgiving 2012 in NYC ©Miguel Cervantes-Cervantes

Words of tribute by Norman MacAfee:

Lee Fahnestock and I met at the PEN American Center in New York in late 1983, during a meeting of the Translation Committee. We soon became close friends and remained so all these years.

Lee’s first book, The Making of the Pré by Francis Ponge, her translation of Ponge, had appeared in 1979, from Indiana University Press, followed by her translations of Paul Fournel’s Little Girls Breathe the Same Air As We Do; Françoise Sagan’s The Painted Lady, and (using the pseudonym M. L Linden) Elvire Murail’s Stairway C. In 1982, Random House had published my first book, my translations made with Luciano Martinengo of major poems by Pier Paolo Pasolini. Jonathan Galassi then at Random House, was the publisher. John Calder published it in London in 1984, and in 1996, Jonathan now at Farrar Straus & Giroux published it again, an edition still in print. I had wanted to translate Pasolini because I loved his films, and the poems are stupendous. But I was writing a lot of my own work—poems, an opera, a novel—and rejected several offers to translate more books.

Then in late December 1985, Lee phoned me. The editor LuAnn Walther at Signet Books wanted a new translation of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables and asked Lee to do it. In London the musical version had just opened, and we knew it was going to be very big. The Broadway premiere was set for March 12, 1987, at the Broadway Theatre, and the Signet version had to be ready before then. A completely new translation on that schedule would have been impossible. Lee suggested to LuAnn that I be brought in as co-translator. I loved the idea, but still with that deadline, we could not make a translation from scratch.

LuAnn suggested we use as the basis for our translaton the classic American translation from the early 1860s by C. E. Wilbour. We agreed. We worked frantically for five months, translating many sections of the Hugo not found in Wilbour, and making a new version for the twentieth century. Lee and I were neighbors: she lived on East 89th and I on East 79th. We delivered packages of pages to each other at the sign of the John Finley Walk in Carl Schurz Park exactly halfway between our residences, and got the book in sections to LuAnn and from her to the printers. LuAnn made sure that the musical’s producer Cameron Mackintosh granted our book the rights to use the show’s already famous logo—Cosette, in a drawing by Hugo himself, and the tattered tricolor flag of France—on our book’s front cover. We finished on time, and for our superhuman effort, the Cameron Mackintosh office gave Lee and me good seats to the opening night, March 12, 1987. We were more than delighted.

In 1989, Lee asked me to work with her again. Scribner had approached her about translating two volumes of the letters of Jean-Paul Sartre, edited by Simone de Beauvoir. I pounced. I had loved Sartre since the 1950s. From 1989 to 1993, Lee and I translated the first volume, which we titled Witness to My Life, and the second, Quiet Moments in a War. Our editor was Erika Goldman. Hamish Hamilton and Penguin published the books in England. The reviews were mostly splendid.
Our Les Misérables sold its millionth copy in 2016. Into its 35th year it continues to sell well.

Lee served as president of the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA) in 1991–1993.

Lee continued her fascination with Francis Ponge, translating three more books: Vegetation, The Nature of Things, and Mute Objects of Expression. The Making of the Pré by Francis Ponge, Vegetation, and The Nature of Things are out of print, and should be republished.

In 2000, the French Government made Lee a Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.

Lee and her former husband, Jack Leggett, bought the house on 89th Street, and also a house in Manchester-by-the Sea, Massachusetts, built in the mid-nineteenth century for Richard Henry Dana, Jr., author of Two Years Before the Mast. Lee invited my spouse, Miguel Cervantes-Cervantes, and me often to both houses. We liked to call the Manchester one “the mansion in the woods on a cliff by the sea.” Lee was a great sailor, as are her three sons and their families.

Lee had been in an assisted living facility in Massachusetts since the summer of 2018. She spent the 2021 Christmas holidays at the Massachusetts home of her son and daughter-in-law, Tony and Claire Leggett, and with their three daughters. She died on January 24, 2022 in hospice care, surrounded by family. She was 93.

–Norman MacAfee

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