Serge Toubiana is the doyen of cinephiles. The film critic who was born in Tunisia and grew up in France, is one of the most prominent cinema journalists worldwide who was appointed Commander of Order of Arts and bestowed with the highest order of merits in France, the Legion of Honour.
Serge Toubiana was at the helm of the Cahiers du Cinéma from the Seventies through to the early Nineties. He was the one who relaunched the prestigious magazine providing its peak circulation in the Eighties and was very close to its founder, François Truffaut, of whom he co-wrote his monumental biography.
His competence and professionalism have always been unanimously recognised, which led him to become director general of the Cinémathèque Française in Paris. Since 2017 he is president of Unifrance, the organisation in charge of promoting French films in France and abroad. He is the author of several books, and through two of his publications he has unveiled the life of a woman who was a life long friend of François Truffaut. But besides that, she was a talented lady in the cinema industry. She received recognition in her lifetime for her work: in 1965 she received the French Liberty Medal from the French Embassy in the US and in 1986 she was appointed Knight of the Order of Arts and Letter. And yet history seems to have forgotten about her.
Her name was Helen Scott.
Her father William Reswick (the family surname sometimes changed to Resnick), had Ukrainian origins and from a young age joined revolutionary circles. He then fled from the pogroms and sought a better future in New York, where he worked as a waiter, farmer, laundry man and even graduated at NYU in law and joined the Bar. He even attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and wrote articles and scripts. He then met his future wife Bessie Schwartz, with whom he had three children: Murray, Helen and Joseph. Willliam returned to the USSR, but for safety reasons sent his family to France, before they all moved back to New York. He had some very adventurous experiences with his work: William Reswick was the first foreign journalist to announce the death of Lenin in 1924, while riding a horse to a telegraph station to send his message to the press office in the US, and even interviewed Trotsky. It was inevitable for Helen to absorb that same passion for politics.
While growing up Helen was the only one of her siblings who abandoned her studies very soon, and spent time with with communist circles in both countries. She even worked at the Executive Committee of the Workers Alliance, where she met her future husband: Frank Scott Keenan. She married him in 1941, and they live together for a couple of years in Pittsburg, but then the marriage sizzled off and she went solo on her new quests.
From an early age she forged her career as someone who dedicated herself to others. In fact, she became the assistant to one of the most influential figures of the French resistance in New York: Geneviève Tabouis. This gave her the chance to visit the White House so frequently that when she met some members of staff — she knew her from her days at the workers’ unions — they greeted her warmly.
Helen also worked at the United Nations and collaborated with the French Free Radio in Brazzaville, Congo. After the war she worked for the first female elected politician in Ohio, Frances Payne Bolton, and joined the Office of Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs, as editor and later as press officer of the judge of the Supreme Court Robert Jackson. Helen joined Jackson during the preparation of the Nuremberg Trial. Her role was to inform the French-language press of the proceedings on the 21 Nazi war criminals.
There is also reason to believe she was a spy. Evidence suggests that the Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs was penetrated by Soviet intelligence during World War II and Helen Gract Scott Keenan’s name appeared in the list of people in the Venona project of the NSA. Through various decrypted messages, by the secret service, counterintelligence and KGB Helen is present under different code names: FIR, SPRUCE, FIRTREE, EL. At the time Helen requested to be transferred from the OCIAA to the Office of Strategic Services (the intelligence agency of the time, the ancestor of the CIA). According to American historians specialised in Soviet espionage — John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr — Helen Scott was a Soviet Agent, one of the many American citizens who served the USSR during the 1930s and 1940s.
Scott was blacklisted as a Communist activist during McCarthyism, her passport was taken from her and she was put under surveillance by the FBI. This haunted her for the rest of her life, as she shared with Truffaut and other friends like Claude de Givray.
She worked as publicist for the United Electrical Workers Union but had a hard time to make ends meet, so she took jobs as babysitter, cleaning-lady, typist for a cement and steel import-export company. During that time she kept being harassed by the FBI who came knocking at her door in the middle of the night.
And then came the position that changed her life: in 1959, she replied to an ad in The New York Times that was looking for a bilingual secretary for the French Film Office. Her boss, Joe Maternati, was be the one who told her to go to pick up a young French filmmaker and take care of his New York stay.
Helen Scott met the legendary François Truffaut in 1960 when she welcomed him at JFK Airport (that at the time was called Idelwild). She spoke fluent French and had the task of chaperoning him to the New York Film Critics Circle, that was giving him the Best Foreign Language Film Award for his film The 400 Blows. The shy burgeoning filmmaker from France was 28 years old. Helen Scott was a 45 year old sturdy woman who loved classical music, especially Bach, and French singers such as Charles Trenet and Maurice Chevalier.
Since their first encounter they started a correspondence and friendship that lasted a lifetime, that Serge Toubiana has immortalised first in his 2020 biographic book L’amie américaine and most recently in the publication “Mon petit Truffe, ma grande Scottie”: Correspondance, 1960-1965.
They confided in each other their romantic entanglements. Truffaut mentioned several women: a 17 year old he was infatuated with when he was still married; Mireille, a girl from his youth who eventually ended up in the streets; and the beguiling yet fragile Jeanne Moreau. Helen’s romances were both real and platonic. Scott, besides her husband of whom we know little, had a couple of pygmalion-figures in her youth: Pierre Graff (in charge of the Radio in Brazzaville) and Pierre-Laurent Darnar (a man whose communism was tinged with a libertine vision of the world and transformed a 23 year-old Helen into a political activist). Later she got involved with Harrison Starr (a film producer), an affair that didn’t go well and she joked with Truffaut that she provided material to make a film L’Amour a 49 Ans, referencing his film L’Amour a 20 Ans. There was also a boyfriend who was born in Argentina who was forced to leave the US, and Jean-Pierre Rassam (a film producer who tried to take over Gaumont). She had continuous infatuations, the most amusing of all being the one for Roberto Rossellini (that Truffaut called his “Italian father”), since she defined herself as Truffaut’s “American mozhaire.”
But for Helen Scott, François Truffaut was “the love of her life” as she wrote, and exposed in a beautiful letter dated October 23rd 1963, a true declaration of affection: “I conclude that love can take very unexpected forms, since I have been content for several years with the fraternal affection that I bear for you. Maternal love is possessive and restless, sexual love — let’s not even talk about it! While the relationship I have with you is completely reassuring, and completely restful. There are more highs than lows, there are never crises. If I am not ‘loved’ in the generally accepted sense (and wrongly for that matter) I am, in any case, playing a role in your life. And what is much more important, I find in you the ideal object of an affection that was flouted in my childhood as well as in my sentimental life.” Helen felt an emotional osmosis for François as she wrote to him; “what bothers you, bothers me” and emphasised: “Even in the sorrow that we feel, we know, deep down, that we will be in love again, and that each time, it is true, and wonderful. Your Scott, in any case, finds you irresistible and loves you for life. If it were in my power, I would protect you from all sorrow.”
Scott was crucial in helping the French filmmaker bring to life the book of interviews with Alfred Hitchcock. This was a dream come true for Truffaut who had always admired the “master of suspense” since he first met him in 1955. The young François, with Claude Chabrol, met Hitchcock at the studios de Saint Maurice (where he was working on the post-production of To Catch A Thief) to interview him for the Cahiers du Cinéma. But the two critics fell into a frozen pool in the studio courtyard. They were drenched and the heavy tape recorder was dripping. The meeting was postponed the same evening at the Plaza Athénée Hotel, where Hitchcock was staying. A year later, while staying in Paris, Hitchcock recognised the two critics at a preview party, and told them “Gentlemen, I think of you two every time I see cubes of ice crashing into a glass of whisky.”
Without Helen Scott it is likely the book Hitchcock/Truffaut might have never come to life, and despite many of Truffaut’s attempts to gain familiarity with English, Scott remained his “American Voice.”
During the first year of their correspondence (1960) Helen sent François 25 letters, he sent her 9. She wrote to Truffaut four to five times more than he did, nevertheless he gradually opened up to several expressions of affection towards her, the first being one of gratitude for their first encounter: “Thanks to you, I felt in New York as comfortable as if I had been born there, together we had a lot of fun and I love you almost as much as I love myself, which is, damn it, no small thing.” This marked the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
The letters selected by Toubiana are a real gem, because he also includes the ones where Scott and Truffaut use sophisticated narrative modes. In one exchange they express themselves in rhyme, and in one of Helen’s letters she writes using a stream-of-consciousness, using a back-and-forth dialogue with herself in which she expresses the overthinking she goes through every time she writes to François.
The correspondence between Helen Scott and François Truffaut is akin to the great French literary tradition, both confiding their states of mind and their torments in an innocent and fragile way that overwhelms us readers.
In this Exclusive Interview, Serge Toubiana shares his literary analysis of the Gemütlichkeit between Helen Scott and François Truffaut:
Q: You knew François Truffaut, did the two of you ever talk about Helen Scott?
S.T: The first time I met François Truffaut was during November of 1975. I saw him several times over the following years, until 1983, a year before his death. During our meetings, he never mentioned Helen Scott.
Q: You met Helen Scott the year of Truffaut’s death, what was your impression of her?
S.T: I met Helen Scott shortly after Truffaut’s death, to include her account in a special issue of Cahiers du Cinéma, published in December of 1984. All of François Truffaut’s collaborators, relatives, friends, actors, screenwriters contributed to this special issue, as well as filmmakers linked to the French New Wave: Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer, Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, Jean-Luc Godard, and international filmmakers such as Miloš Forman and Steven Spielberg. Helen Scott’s account was called: Frank Truff et Scott l’intrépide (Frank Truff and Scott the Fearless). The title said it all! She recalled their friendly and professional relationship in a vivid, amusing, sympathetic and moving way.
Q: Something Scott and Truffaut had in common was a conflictual relationship with their mother. Helen was hit and reproached for being too fat, something that affected her for the rest of her life. Little François, as we have seen in The 400 Blows received little consideration from his mother. He even wrote to Helen that they shared a “rotten childhood” and “lamentable adolescence.” Do you think this could be one of the reasons they understood each other’s need of approval?
S.T: You’re right, there was a great bond between them, no doubt linked to the same feeling of abandonment on the maternal side, and to a chaotic youth. This implied they had to create their own references, outside the family and school circle. I am convinced that Truffaut liked Helen Scott’s adventurous side, her political courage, the fact that she was never afraid to bring forth her strong opinions. And Helen Scott, in my opinion, very quickly immersed herself in the role of surrogate mother for her “Truffaut chéri”, her “Truffe-Truffe”, “Francesco de mon coeur”. A kind of “Jewish mother,” in a way.
Q: In 1960 Truffaut signed Jean-Paul Sartre’s Manifesto of the 121 and was blacklisted, which made him remember how in his youth he was incarcerated for attempting to desert the army. Helen in 1962, with the Cuban Missile Crisis, relived the dangerous confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union. Do you feel the way they were both haunted by their political activism strengthened their bond?
S.T: François Truffaut signed the “Manifeste des 121,” which was a declaration on the right to insubordination in the midst of the Algerian war. Only a few filmmakers signed it: Claude Sautet, Alain Resnais and Jacques Doniol-Valcroze. Note that Godard did not sign it. Truffaut signed it in memory of his military troubles: a dozen years earlier, when he volunteered in the French army he was sent to Germany with the occupying troops. He lived this experience very badly and deserted the army. He then went to Paris and started attending cinema screenings and Henri Langlois’ Cinémathèque. This is the reason why he was a military prisoner, on the verge of being sent to Indochina in 1951. From 1950 to 1952, Truffaut lived dangerously, taking all sorts of risks. He asked his friends André Bazin and Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, to get him out of trouble. But it was also a time when he dedicated himself to reading various novels by Proust, Balzac, Jean Genet, with whom he would correspond and become friends.
As for Helen Scott, her political commitment is deeper, linked to her youth in Paris, to her association with communist and union circles. She has a real political education, linked to her long stay in Paris with her mother and her two brothers, Murray and Joseph, while her father, William Reswick, an American journalist of Jewish and Ukrainian origin, returned to the USSR to report on the catastrophic situation of the Soviet economy at the beginning of the 1920s. However, in their Correspondence, Truffaut never tackled political matters, the main topic of conversation for him was cinema: his films and those of his “buddies of the New Wave.” Sometimes, Helen Scott evoked certain current affairs, for example the missile crisis in Cuba in 1962, or the assassination of Kennedy in November 1963, but this remained superficial because it did not interest Truffaut.
Q: Something I noticed reading their correspondence is that through the course of time they always kept the “vousvoyer” [the formal “vous”]. In your opinion why didn’t they ever switch to the tutoyer [the more familiar “tu”], is it related to a formality of past decades or a politeness they expressly chose?
S.T: Very few people have used the “tu” with François Truffaut: only Claude de Givray, and Jean-Pierre Léaud. He knew the latter since he was barely 14 years old, when he performed in The 400 Blows. Truffaut was close to Jean-Luc Godard but familiar with Eric Rohmer, no doubt because he was his senior and had been a professor of literature. This question of “vous” or “tu” also refers to a certain code of respect towards intellectual or literary figures, as well as Truffaut’s way of avoiding familiarity.
Q: Helen Scott enjoyed introducing people to Truffaut and helped the American public fully understand his work. On the other hand he educated her on cinema. Do you think their lives might have been different had they not met?
S.T: The exchange of letters between Helen Scott and François Truffaut, was mutual and their correspondence was dense and extensive (nearly 400 letters, between 1960 and 1984). Truffaut asked her for specific news concerning the career of his films in America and those of his friends from the French New Wave: Godard, Rivette, Claude de Givray, but also Alain Resnais, Jacques Demy, Agnès Varda. He asked her to work with him for the interview-book with Alfred Hitchcock, which came about in August of 1962, when Hitchcock received them both at Universal Studios. There, in Los Angeles, they spent a week together doing all the interviews. Helen Scott was essential during these long hours of conversation between the two filmmakers, since she translated “live” Truffaut’s questions, from French to English, and Hitchcock’s answers, from American to French. She was absolutely crucial in this project that was so dear to François Truffaut: it is clear that he could not have done it without her.
In return, Truffaut became very demanding with Helen, asking for her opinion on films; he expected her to have a point of view also on his scripts that he sent her. In short, he was shaping her into a cinephile. This is what is very moving for me in this Correspondence: how a mature woman (Helen Scott was 45 when she met François Truffaut) educated herself, by being in touch with a young man who was only 28 years old in 1960. In this two-way relationship, there were sometimes arguments, “bickering”, disputes…basically what would happen between a couple, but this was not a couple… Although Helen lived her relationship with François as a true love story, but from a distance.
Q: Scott had many nicknames for Truffaut, whereas he called Helen referencing Hitchcock, inspired by a couple of characters who shared an investigative background…
S.T: Yes, Helen Scott, while addressing François Truffaut, allowed herself to call him: “Mon petit Truffe”, “Beau gosse” (Handsome guy), “Mon François,” “Mon François chéri”…So many expressions of loving familiarity and…motherhood. As for him, he hesitated between “Chère Helen”, “Chère Hélène”, “Chère LN”, that was phonetic for Helen, but also a nod to the character of L.B. Jeffries in Rear Window and “Ma Scottie”, in reference to the character of James Stewart in Vertigo.
Q: You tried to look for footage of Helen Scott during the Nuremberg Trial, also watching detailed documentaries on the matter, but did not find any trace of her. Why do you think there is no material to prove she was present, as she told Truffaut and other friends?
S.T: This is a question to which I still have not found an answer. Helen Scott says she participated in the Nuremberg Trial and was part of Senator Robert Jackson’s team. No doubt, she was in charge of handling communications. I’m sure she played a part in it, but I don’t know more. Was she in Nuremberg during this long trial which lasted almost a year? Or was she in Paris taking care of the political communication, in French, on behalf of the United States? I don’t know, but I really want to know more, to find specific documents relating to this historical moment in which she participated.
Q: When you wrote an email to the FBI asking about Helen Scott, you found out that her folder had been destroyed in 2011. In your opinion did this happen because someone was trying to protect her?
S.T: I don’t think so, I just think that it happens that archives are destroyed because they are considered obsolete or non-essential. On this question too, further research is needed to know the precise political role played by Helen Scott after the Second World War.
Q: Do you think Helen retrieved some of the naïveté she lost in her youth, since François called her “poire” (pear), meaning she was too gullible?
S.T: François Truffaut “teased” his friend Helen, he sometimes argued with her or reprimanded her when she did not respond to his precise and professional requests. It very often happened that Helen got cross with François and made him “jump through hoops”, because she never gave in. She had personality, otherwise this long friendship and this long correspondence would have never have seen the light of day. What strikes me today is how a relationship was built, over time and duration, with loyalty, by writing numerous, full of information and feeling. Nowadays it is even more impressive since no one writes letters anymore…
Q: Helen always kept a very tight bond with Truffaut’s first wife Madeleine Morgenstern and his daughters Eva and Laura, who considered her a family member to the point they helped her financially after his death and found her a tomb next to Truffaut’s grave in Montmartre’s cemetery. Why do you think Helen and Madeline remained so close even after the divorce?
S.T: Helen Scott became a true friend of the entire Truffaut family, not only of François, but also of Madeleine Morgenstern, his wife, and their two daughters Laura and Eva. This family relationship took on its full scope when Helen moved to Paris in 1966. This relationship lasted after François and Madeleine divorced in 1965. Laura and Eva, who grew up seeing Helen Scott every week, considered her their aunt, even more so since they had neither uncles nor aunts: both François and Madeleine had no siblings.
When Helen Scott died in 1987, Madeleine Morgenstern took the initiative of finding a grave for her that was close to Truffaut’s tomb, so that she could be buried a few meters from her “François de mon coeur” (François of my heart).
Q: After Madeleine, Truffaut had some romantic partnerships with the most prominent French actresses that include Françoise Dorléac, Jeanne Moreau, Catherine Deneuve and Fanny Ardant. Did you interview them (or their relatives) about his friendship with Helen Scott?
S.T: I did not interview these actresses about the relationship between Truffaut and Helen Scott, I am of course talking about those who are still alive. But I’m sure they might know some things…
Q: You had the chance to interview Helen Scott’s nieces, Lisa and Michelle Reswick, and her grandniece Lillie Shelley, who live in America. Michelle made a 20 minute documentary about her aunt Helen. What is the most surprising trait you discovered about her through them?
S.T: Indeed, I saw this 20-minute documentary in which Madeleine Morgenstern is interviewed and gives her account on Helen Scott. What strikes me the most is that Helen’s family, her nieces and great-nieces, knew less about their aunt and great-aunt than Madeleine, Laura and Eva Truffaut. Simply because Helen spent quite a long period of her life in Paris, between 1966 and 1987, the year of her death. She was therefore far from her own family, that of her two brothers. The family is very happy that we are making Helen known, first through the book I published in 2020 – L’amie américain –, then thanks to this correspondence with François Truffaut. Her nieces and grand-nieces are very proud of their aunt.
Q: Helen was determining for Truffaut’s book of interviews with Hitchcock: she helped him share with a large public the technical description of how a film is made. Do you think this influenced Truffaut’s film Day For Night, where he shows what happens on a set?
S.T: I never thought about this possible link. But you might be right…François Truffaut has always been concerned about clarity in his films, probably because he is self-taught: he did not hesitate to repeat the same thing twice, so that viewers could have a good understanding of the story and plot twists. In Day For Night, he showed us the “behind the scenes” of a film production. He captured every detail and phase of the making of the fictional film Je vous présente Paméla (Meet Pamela). He showed the choice of the set design, the props, the lighting of a scene, the colour of a car. He showed an actor who threatens to leave the set, and what happens with the death of an actor when filming isn’t completed, therefore everything related to insurance, music, editing…We further see how the actors and crew experience several romances, during a shoot in the Victorine Studios, in Nice, when everyone is far from home. I think that Day For Night tells the story of the making of a very French film, both in its method and its approach to cinema. But the film is for audiences from all over the world. This was Helen Scott’s wish for the book Hitchcock/Truffaut.
Q: Listening to the tapes of the conversations between Hitchcock, Truffaut and Scott, that you found at the Carosse Archives, what impressed you the most of the chemistry between these three? And how was Helen’s voice and her famous laughter?
S.T: When we discovered the original tapes of the Truffaut-Hitchcock interviews, with Michel Pascal, while making our film – François Truffaut: Portraits volés (1993), what immediately surprised us was listening to their voices, the serious and solemn one of Hitchcock, the shy and respectful one of Truffaut, and that of Helen Scott alternating English and French. She often laughed during these interviews, I think Hitchcock made her laugh frequently with his crude jokes, often of a sexual nature, which obviously do not appear in the book. Helen really got along with Hitchcock! The proof is that their relationship continued in the years that followed.
Q: In 1948 Scott co-founded The National Guardian, with Cedric Belfage, James Aronson and other writers. In her letters to Truffaut she mentioned she aspired to write again, which makes me wonder about the role of female film critics during those decades. There were two film critics who loved Truffaut’s work, who wrote for The New Yorker, Lillian Ross and Pauline Kael (the latter was even thought to be the protagonist of Tarantino’s upcoming The Last Movie Critic, which instead will be about a reviewer who wrote for a porno magazine). Do you think Helen Scott held back from being a film critic because of her reverence towards Truffaut?
S.T: You are right to mention these two names. Pauline Kael and Lillian Ross skilfully worked as film critics from the beginning of the 1960s. During that same period there were no equivalent female film critics in France. I don’t think Helen Scott ever considered becoming a critic, she was a publicist, in charge of press relations at the French Film Office in New York — what today would be the American office of Unifrance. In her letters to Truffaut, she told him she wanted to grow professionally, get closer to publishing, or write screenplays. It was her dream: to work with Truffaut, co-write a script, attend a film shoot. Later, when she settled in Paris, she worked for American companies looking for interesting scripts to produce and young talents to hire. She also did many subtitles for films by Claude Berri, Jean-Paul Rappeneau, Costa-Gavras and other French directors.
Q: Helen Scott helped a variety of male directors. What was her relationship with female filmmakers, since the only ones mentioned in her circle are Agnès Varda, and Suzanne Schiffman?
S.T: Helen Scott got along with Agnès Varda, with whom she was friends. I think there was probably a rivalry between her and Suzanne Schiffman. Because Suzanne Schiffman was essential to François Truffaut — she started out as his scriptwriter, then his assistant, finally his co-screenwriter. Furthermore Schiffman was perfectly bilingual. Hence the position Helen was aspiring for was already taken.
Q: Early in her life, Helen Scott took the habit of using amphetamines to lose weight. This created an addiction and destroyed her health as she suffered from many illnesses and had to go through different surgeries, but never gave up her pills. Do you think she also experienced Truffaut as an addiction?
S.T: We cannot consider him an addiction, but rather someone who gave purpose to her life. When they met Truffaut was young, talented, full of promise, and embodied the French New Wave: he allowed Helen Scott to live a second youth, so to speak. It is also for this reason that she chose to “cling” on to him and become essential to him. Without Truffaut, she was terribly bored at the French Film Office. He allowed her to dream of another life, even if she was often disappointed…
Q: In 1965 Helen Scott settled in Paris, the impact was strong and she felt homesick. She really wanted to be closer to her friend, but when she didn’t receive the attentions she was expecting she made new friends. Truffaut at one point writes to her that she probably substituted him with a “Czech filmmaker [Miloš Forman], or “Douche-Douche” [Jean Douchet], do you think he was jealous she had other filmmakers in her life?
S.T: It was a playful dynamic between Truffaut and Helen: he made fun of the fact she had other friends besides him. Among them, there was Claude and Anne-Marie Berri (Helen was invited to their wedding, in 1966), there was Jean-Pierre Rassam, Anne-Marie’s brother, whom Helen adored: he was a brilliant producer, in the early 1970s, producing the comedies of Jean Yanne which had an enormous success with the public, but also Just Great by Godard-Gorin, Lancelot of the Lake by Robert Bresson, We Won’t Grow Old together by Maurice Pialat and The Big Feast by Marco Ferreri! Helen Scott was also friends with Miloš Forman, who was very close to the Berri-Rassam family, Robert Benton, critics such as Jean Douchet (critic for Cahiers du Cinéma and great admirer of Hitchcock), Michel Pérez (the daily newspaper Le Matin de Paris and Charlie Hebdo), among others. Truffaut played the part of being jealous of all these friends, being well aware that he was Helen Scott’s favourite.
Q: Throughout their friendship Scott and Truffaut never had an argument. Only in June 1974 there’s a temporary rupture between them. Did you find out what happened?
S.T: I have not found their letters linked to an argument they had. I am convinced that this rupture, which fortunately did not last, finds its explanation in Helen’s clumsiness. She probably broke their agreement of not revealing to others intimate or professional information, which Truffaut strived to keep private. He was a stickler for the rules when it came to matters of discretion.
Q: Amongst the American contemporary actors who were friends with Helen Scott, there is also Bill Murray, who mentioned her during a tribute to Adrienne Mancia. Did you have the chance to speak to him about her?
S.T: I dreamt of meeting Bill Murray, so that he would tell me about his friend Helen Scott. Passing through Paris, he phoned me one morning, while I was in a meeting at Unifrance, I asked him if it was possible to call back in the afternoon. I never head back from him! It is my greatest regret. I think they liked each other a lot.
Q: Scott’s life was devoted to others. In a letter she explicitly writes that she chose to be “a slave to others,” do you think she was bitter about it?
S.T: Helen lived her whole life at the service of others, whether it was for a political or historical cause: the French resistance in New York, when she was the collaborator of Geneviève Tabouis, her work at Radio Brazzaville (which will earn her the Medal of Free France), the Nuremberg Trial, the American unions, the newspapers she collaborated with, the United Nations. In the same way, she did not play an essential role within the French Film Office, until she meets François Truffaut in 1960. Her life changed, little by little and she gradually begun to steal the limelight…
Q: Helen had set her affairs in order and left her final dispositions to François, certain she would have died first. According to the people you interviewed, how did she change in the last three years of her life without Truffaut?
S.T: Helen, born in 1915, was was 17 years older than François. She obviously did not expect, like everyone else, that he would die on October 21st 1984. I think the last three years of her life were quite sad, she was not in good health, she really wanted to return to New York, and wasn’t able to do so.
Q: Helen Scott was an extraordinary and fascinating personality. Do you think Truffaut, besides giving her cameos in his films [Fahrenheit 451, Bed and Board, The Last Metro], ever thought of making a film about her?
S.T: Indeed, Helen appeared in some films by Truffaut, but also in Masculin Féminin by Godard (she plays pinball, in a Parisian café). These are friendly nods made by her filmmaker friends. She had quite a recognisable figure. Truffaut had bought back from Helen all their correspondence, to help her financially. Perhaps he intended to make a book about it at some point… We will never know. A movie? I don’t think so. When he died, Truffaut had film projects, but fiction.
Q: Just like Truffaut you’ve been director of the Cahiers du Cinéma, and in 2015 you worked on the documentary Hitchcock/Truffaut. Since Helen’s life has already been portrayed in Peter Yates’ The House on Carroll Street, have you considered a screen or stage adaptation about the Scott-Truffaut friendship, and perhaps directing it?
S.T: Yes, I thought about it, over and over again: a documentary about Helen Scott should be made…
Q: The friendship and correspondence between Scott and Truffaut lasted for 25 years and you shared the most meaningful letters only of the time period that goes from 1960 to 1965. Since you wrote two books about this friendship, should we expect a third one to complete the trilogy? Is there something still left unsaid about Helen Scott?
S.T: I chose to “limit” their correspondence to this period, firstly because my editor at Denoël, Dorothé Cunéo, asked me not to exceed a certain number of pages. Secondly, the period 1960-1965 is in my eyes fascinating, because we discover by reading their letters how the films of the French New Wave were received in New York — those of Truffaut of course, but also those of Alain Resnais, Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Rivette, Jacques Demy, Agnes Varda. And we follow, letter by letter, the making of Fahrenheit 451, and that of the interview-book with Hitchcock. The rest of the correspondence is important and could give rise to a second volume. We’ll see if there’s a sequel…
Serge Toubiana’s books “Mon petit Truffe, ma grande Scottie”: Correspondance, 1960-1965 and L’amie américaine are available on Amazon.
Photo Credits: D.R.