Christina Vella

New Orleans author and historian Christina Vella died Wednesday of cancer. She was 65.

Vella's first book, "Intimate Enemies: The Two Worlds of the Baroness de Pontalba," was chosen as one of the best books of 1997 by the New York Times Book Review and Publishers Weekly, and was entered for the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award.

The baroness, among other things, built the Pontalba buildings that flank Jackson Square. 

"Vella interlards the telling of Baroness de Pontalba's story with discussions of the position of women in France and in America in the 19th century, strategies of upward mobility, political practices of Napoleon and his successors, the history of the Paris Commune and countless details of the material lives people a century and a half ago negotiated their way through," Times reviewer Angeline Goreau wrote in 1997.

"No one could tell (that) gripping tale better than Vella, whose passion for her subject infects every inch of her lively, witty, literate prose," Publishers Weekly wrote.

"Intimate Enemies" was followed by "The Hitler Kiss: A Memoir of the Czech Resistance," co-authored with Radomir Luza in 2002; "Indecent Secrets: The Infamous Murri Murder Affair" in 2006; and "George Washington Carver: A Life" in 2015. Her final book, a biography of Turkish statesman Kemal Ataturk, awaits publication.

"She had a wide-ranging mind," author and friend Jason Berry said. "She was interested in everything. As a conversationalist, she could go from the Baroness de Pontalba's architecture to whether the Saints had made intelligent trades."

"I'm just a historian, period," Vella told historian John Fea in 2015. "I think we all need to read as broadly as possible to see our country against the background of a complex world. Without that perspective, we are likely to think everything that happens to us is the best or worst event in the history of mankind. I decided on history sometime in college when I realized that it's a lot of fun and you can't ever run out of it."

Vella graduated from LSU and earned a Ph.D. in modern European and U.S. history from Tulane University. She taught history for more than 20 years, including at Nunez Community College and Tulane, before devoting herself mainly to writing and lecturing.

Tulane history professor Lawrence Powell, who was one of the advisers for Vella's dissertation on the Baroness de Pontalba, said he respected her work as a historian but considered her even more of a writer.

"She brought a real literary flair to the writing of history," Powell said. "She could easily reach a broader reading public."

She received the 2016 Louisiana Writer Award from the State Library of Louisiana and the 2010 Preservation Award from the Foundation for Historical Louisiana.

During the Words & Music festival in November, the Pirate's Alley Faulkner Society honored Vella with its ALIHOT (A Legend in Her Own Time) Award. A tribute from Faulkner Society co-founder Rosemary James cited Vella's "extraordinary talent for writing truly relevant nonfiction."

"Each of her nationally acclaimed biographies is proof positive that she takes seriously the business of getting the story right and, concurrently, giving her followers a great read," James said. 

"Christina was quite ill … during Words & Music, but you would never have known it," James wrote in an email. "She was dressed to the nines for every occasion and gave two highly enlightening and entertaining presentations on her own work and on the craft of writing biographies."

In 2003, composer Thea Musgrave adapted "Intimate Enemies" as the opera "Pontalba," which had its premiere in New Orleans.

Vella also enjoyed dancing and, at the time of her death, was taking an online course in watercolor painting.

One of Vella's close friends was Nora Wetzel, who left a career in nursing to start a catering business. Vella and Wetzel met through their mutual interest in dancing, especially the tango, and then became French partners, getting together once a week to speak French for two hours. Wetzel also became involved in a group that met weekly at Vella's house to study plays, from Shakespeare to Ibsen and Shaw.

After her years of nursing, Wetzel was particularly impressed with the courage with which Vella faced her cancer treatments.

"She kept a sharp mind to the end. And she was beautiful every day; she just got smaller and smaller," Wetzel said. "We were just miserable, and she was comforting us. In between chemo, she was going on with life. She was a trouper."

Survivors include two daughters, Christie Riehl, of Princeton, New Jersey, and Robin Vella Riehl, of Houston, whom she home-schooled through high school. Each went on to earn a Ph.D.

A memorial service will be held at 10 a.m. Sunday on the grounds of the Milton Latter Memorial Library, 5120 St. Charles Ave., in New Orleans with a potluck reception to follow. Baloney Funeral Home in LaPlace is in charge of arrangements.