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Oreste Pucciani; UCLA Teacher Helped Bring Sartre's Ideas to U.S.

Obituaries

May 05, 1999|ELAINE WOO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Oreste F. Pucciani, a pioneering foreign language professor who was instrumental in introducing the ideas of French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre to American academics, has died.

Pucciani, who taught French at UCLA for 31 years and chaired its French department from 1961 to 1966, was 83 when he died April 28 in Los Angeles of heart disease.

He was a champion of the "direct method" of language teaching, which banned English from the classroom from the first day and called for all instruction to take place in the target language.

Although such immersion is standard practice today, it engendered much skepticism in the 1950s, when foreign language instruction in the United States primarily involved English translation and the repetition of foreign words and phrases.

The immersion method was originated by professor Emile B. de Sauze, who taught Pucciani when he was an undergraduate at what was then Western Reserve University in Cleveland in the late 1930s. The method was little known outside of Cleveland public schools until Pucciani, a native of the city, began to popularize it through textbooks he wrote with Jacqueline Hamel in 1967 and with Jose Rubia Barcia in 1973.

Pucciani helped to refine De Sauze's method, grounding it in a philosophy of the mind that sprang from his study of Sartre, said Robert Ellis, a colleague and professor of Spanish and French at Occidental College.

"It was the notion that the student generates the language, produces the language, rather than having it implanted in his head by the teacher. It was very significant in its time" and shaped current classroom practices, Ellis said.

Pucciani saw languages as primary points of entry to foreign cultures and believed they should be taught through great literature. He recommended that students begin to read such works in the original language by the end of the first year of study.

According to Ellis, Pucciani saw himself primarily as a philosopher. After earning his doctorate in French at Harvard in 1943, he studied in postwar France, where he met feminist and author Simone de Beauvoir and Sartre.

When Pucciani returned to the States in 1947, he lectured at Harvard, then joined the faculty of UCLA in 1948. He began to teach courses on Sartre before the philosopher's works were translated into English, and he helped spread his ideas in U.S. academia.

"Oreste formed generations of scholars and was the leading proponent of existentialism in the United States and France," said Alain Cohen, a colleague and professor of comparative literature at UC San Diego.

The French chose Pucciani to write the entry on Sartre for the encyclopedia Histoire de la Philosophie. The professor was a frequent speaker at French conventions on Sartre, lectured at the Sorbonne and was recently honored for his contributions to Sartre scholarship by the North American Sartre Society. Pucciani's dedication to French philosophy, language and culture earned him the Knight's Cross of the French Legion of Honor in 1965.

A longtime Hollywood resident, Pucciani left no survivors. He lived for more than 30 years with fashion designer Rudi Gernreich, the creator of the topless bathing suit, who died in 1985.

"They had a real marriage," said Peggy Moffitt, Gernreich's most famous model, who described their relationship in her 1991 book on the revolutionary designer.

Both men kept their relationship private during their careers, according to Stuart Timmons, a friend and chronicler of gay history. Gernreich once said that he believed it would be bad for his fashion business if it was known that he was gay.

But Pucciani shed the reticence in 1993 when he established the Gernreich-Pucciani Endowment Fund for gay and lesbian rights for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.

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