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Eugen Weber, 82; UCLA historian was a prolific writer on France

May 20, 2007|Claire Noland | Times Staff Writer

Eugen Weber, a noted UCLA history professor who wrote prolifically about France and brought a joie de vivre to his lectures that formed the basis of the PBS documentary series "The Western Tradition," has died. He was 82.

Weber died of pancreatic cancer Thursday at his home in Brentwood, the university announced.

French culture and politics were his forte, and he delved into the country's history time and again in his books, starting in 1959 with "The Nationalist Revival in France, 1905-1914" and continuing with "Action Francaise: Royalism and Reaction in Twentieth-Century France" (1962), "Peasants Into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France, 1880-1914" (1976), "France, Fin de Siecle" (1986), "My France: Politics, Culture, Myth" (1991) and "The Hollow Years: France in the 1930s" (1994).

Rather than the meditations of the intellectuals of the day, Weber was fascinated by the everyday lives of the masses. In "France: Fin de Siecle," he dug up details on bathing, dining, sports and leisure, and the reaction to then-new technologies such as electricity and the telephone at the end of the 19th century. Then he wove the many patterns into an illustration of the era's standards and practices.

"Weber's approach to history," observed Financial Times writer Paul Betts in 1991, "is to make the past accessible and relevant to the present, all written in a vibrant and witty style."

As Weber put it in a 1999 interview with the Toronto Star, "I don't think you can be a scholar without the wild desire to want to pass on [what you've learned]. You sit in rooms or libraries or archives or caves and read, read, read, and what do you do with it? At the very least, you want to get it into print so somebody can know about it. It's even better if you can get 20 or 200 people in a hall and have a captive audience whom you can bore to death or, better still, whom you can excite."

Many students were introduced to Weber through his 1971 textbook "A Modern History of Europe," which became widely used on college campuses. Then in 1989 he was exposed to an even wider audience as host of "The Western Tradition," a 52-part documentary series on Western civilization produced by Boston public television station WGBH.

A member of UCLA's faculty since 1956, Weber was dean of the College of Letters and Science from 1977 to 1982. He won a UCLA distinguished teaching award in 1992 and held the university's endowed chair in modern European history, now named for him.

Born in Bucharest, Romania, in 1925, Weber was educated in England. He enlisted in the British army during World War II and after the war studied history at Paris' Institut d'Etudes Politiques and Cambridge University. In 1950 he married a Frenchwoman, Jacqueline Brument-Roth, his only survivor.

Weber took various teaching posts before arriving in Los Angeles. "After we saw the palm trees, we never wanted to move again," Weber said in 1999.

A visit to southwest France in the 1960s stoked his interest in that country's culture.

"I thought I knew France when I lived in Paris," Weber said later, "but in Bordeaux, I looked around me and realized there was another France. I realized there were a lot of Frances."

Though an admitted Francophile, Weber wrote scholarly books and articles about many subjects, including apocalyptic myths, intellectual history, anti-Semitism and fascism.

He also wrote opinion pieces and book reviews for The Times. He indulged his love of mysteries and thrillers, especially the works of George Pelecanos, Robert Parker and Henning Mankell, in his "L.A. Confidential" column for The Times Book Review from 1999 until 2005.

"One of his most endearing qualities was the way he wrote his reviews for us," Times deputy book editor Nick Owchar said. "He banged them out on an old typewriter, and you could spot the black blotchy typed characters from across the office. In the middle of a storm of e-mails and faxes, his missives were a reminder of another era, a calmer, gentler one in which knowledge was exchanged over a glass of brandy and a cigar or during a long lunch."

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claire.noland@latimes.com

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