Babette at the Movies

One of Babette’s greatest joys, perhaps second to her love for music, was viewing films. As I recounted in my book, we often watched them together after dinner, followed by lengthy philosophical discussions. One of my favorite memories is sitting together on the couch in her upstairs parlor, listening to my professor gush about favorite directors and actors.


The first we ever saw was Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘The Trouble With Harry.’ It’s far from his best film, yet still a charming black comedy, incidentally featuring Shirley MacLaine’s first starring role. This turned out to begin a strong theme over the years, as Babette adored Hitchcock, considering “Dial M for Murder’ a particular favorite. However, she always emphasized his filmatic genius only, declaring it a mistake to learn too much about the personal qualities of people one admires.

To keep it under 100,000 words, I cut out several parts from my original manuscript relating to her vast film collection. It filled hundreds of VHS tapes that ran along shelves in the basement and filled two trunks. She organized them using index cards, the titles scrawled across them in wobbly handwriting. Sometimes a small review or other information would be taped to the back. This system needed an upgrade. I typed up every title and completed an alphabetical list, all the way from ‘Le 400 Coups’ to ‘The Life of Emile Zola.’

While Babette certainly enjoyed highbrow cinema, for every ‘La Passion D’Anna Karenina’ there lurked a Monty Python short. Indeed, I was amazed to discover Babette harbored no small amount of fondness for ‘Mr. Bean.’

Still, her main attentions focused on tragic dramas, all the better if they featured a dominate, cruel and manipulative female lead. Among those, she loved especially: ‘Belle de Jour,’ ‘Cousin Bette,’ ‘Diabolique,’ ‘The Last Seduction,’ and ‘Letters to an Unknown Lover.”


(above) Cherie Lunghi preparing to ruin Jonathan Pryce

However, a multipart series called ‘The Praying Mantis’ absolutely topped her list, featuring Cheri Lunghi as one of a female pair who maneuver against one another, using men as pawns in their devious games. My professor went completely giddy during many scenes, actually bouncing off the cushions beside me, her round face aglow.

The last film Babette saw was, fittingly, ‘Babette’s Feast,’ just after hosting a dinner party for several of her favorite students. We had previously watched it together, so I stayed downstairs washing dishes, listening to her loudly deliver a pre-show lecture before playing it. As always, she loved sharing her passions with friends.


(above) Babette’s Feast, the movie version

Here is a partial list of some other favored English language films and series:

Are You Being Served?
A Bed Among Lentils
Bless Me, Father
Agatha Christie Mysteries
Closely Watched Trains
Dr. Mabuse: Demon of Crime
Fear in the Night
The General Died at Dawn
Germany: Year Zero
Hands Across the Table
Knight Without Armor
Night Watch
The Postman Always Rings Twice
Reilly: Ace of Spies
So Evil, My Love
The Thin Man

On Babette’s Trail in France, Pt. 2

After waking up to a delicious breakfast of eggs, bread and cheese in Pierre’s farmhouse, our generous host agreed to drive us into Bazas on his way to work. Eric and I piled into his little white van and bounced along narrow country roads until reaching the highway.

We wanted to start there as my professor attended Catholic school at the University of Bazas when she was a teenager, until 1944. She always spoke of what a formative experience that location was, both in solidifying her religious upbringing– and making her a complete atheist.

The Bazas cathedral

The Bazas cathedral

At last we arrived in Bazas, a small town with winding cobblestone streets where our car seemed always in immediate peril of crashing into something picturesque. Pierre pointed at the cathedral and explained he was sure the school had stood nearby but didn’t think it existed anymore. He parked and we prepared to say our farewells. Pierre frowned. “Work can wait.” he declared. “Let’s visit someone I know at the library in town and see what they can tell us.” I grinned. Babette’s story had claimed another victim.IMG_1690

In the Bibliotheque Mediatheque, a librarian listened to us with interest and pulled down a book with an old picture of boys school, which was named St. Jean. We learned that the university back then also included a girl’s school called Gisquet, though the building had eventually become an art gallery. St. Jean now operated as a retirement home.

St. Jean school in 1940

St. Jean school in 1940

The librarian took us upstairs to his office and we spent some time picking through group photos of students at the school, but my professor’s round face stared out from none of them. He ran several of her names into a database: Albert Ellsworth, Robert Brown, Ellsworth Brown…none of them registered. With a shrug, we gave up and returned to the street, still in discussion about Babette and her incredible life. Then the librarian spied an old man walking nearby. He hailed him, and the two spoke rapidly in thick southern accented French. Indeed, this gentleman had attended Bazas University, but graduated in 1949, too late to have known Babette. Another dead end.

Upstairs in the Bibliotheque archives...

Upstairs in the Bibliotheque archives…

Pierre walked with us near the cathedral, where part of an old medieval wall still ringed sections of the town. “I’ve really got to go now,” he admitted, as we gazed across the countryside. “But I think we learned a lot. That school, St. Jean, it wasn’t just any Catholic school. It was a Batharram institution. That’s a really severe Cistercian sect that started in the Pyrenees. I actually went to one of their schools, and it was no joke. If your professor had an issue with the Catholics, that may be your answer right there.”

We hugged our new friend goodbye and moved onward to investigate the cathedral.

On Babette’s Trail in France, Pt. 1

On November 5th, 2015, I arrived in France to begin a weeklong trip researching Babette’s story. This was a journey I’d anticipated ever since my professor began telling me tales about her childhood, over fifteen years before. But I couldn’t do it alone. My old friend Eric Smiley provided invaluable assistance through linguistic skills, traveling expertise and generosity with his frequent flyer miles.

I took a train into Toulouse, in Southern France, where Eric and I met up. We then arranged a Blablacar for our next destination. Blablacar is a European rideshare system where people driving to certain locations can connect with others going the same way. A couple cheerful Blablamotorists picked us up and drove us further south, to a little town called Sauveniac.

Pierre's farmhouse, built in the early 1700s.

Pierre’s farmhouse, built in the early 1700s.

There we met a young fellow named Pierre, who had agreed to keep us for the night through couch surfing dot com. He took us along winding roads deep into the countryside, nothing but trees and brambles visible outside his little white van. At last an old stone farmhouse entered into the headlights. Pierre worked as a forester in the region, which he told us possessed one of the largest woodlands in France, originally set aside by Napoleon III.

Pierre's French cat with a French mouse.

Pierre’s French cat with a French mouse.

At this, I couldn’t help but share some of Babette’s story, as my professor considered Napoleon III one of her heroes and always kept his bust prominently displayed. Pierre found this fascinating and listened, while carving paper thin slices of cured ham off a large shank. He made us up a wonderful meal with this, plus delicious cheese, fois gras and bread.

Eric and Pierre look up the Bonnefonts.

Eric and Pierre look up the Bonnefonts.

Upon hearing about Babette’s family, the Bonnefonts, Pierre pulled down a large old book titled, Dictionaire des Dictionaires and began looking up genealogical information on them. Later we discussed my professor’s love of literature and I mentioned a favorite, the 19th century writer Charles Paul de Kock. Pierre jumped to his feet at this and retrieved several books by him, including a few autographed copies. “How wonderful!” he enthused. “Even in France no one reads de Kock anymore!”

"love to my biggest fan" -CPdK

“love to my biggest fan” -CPdK

At last, full of food and wine, we collapsed in a guest room, ready to begin following my professor’s trail further the next day.

Babette at Wong’s Garden

IMG_1597 (1)With the increasing gentrification of Portland, many locations that featured prominently in my book are no more. Fiddleheads, the charming restaurant near SE Milwaukie and Bybee where we once enjoyed late desserts and discussed Alfred Hitchcock has gone out of business. Semaphore, the dive bar where I discovered many intreguing secrets about Babette’s Canadian convent, is long gone.

Even Wilhelm’s Funeral Home, where her ashes were cremated, moved locations years ago. The grand old building next became a show venue, oddly enough, complete with the original antique furniture. I once found myself at a dance night there, bouncing to electro beats in the main open chamber, and ordering drinks from a bar where, post cremation, the receptionist awkwardly handed Babette’s clothes over to me in a black plastic garbage bag. The space is now a gastro-pub of some kind.

IMG_1598 (1)
Of all the monuments remaining however, Wong’s Garden still serves classic American-Chinese food, just up SE Woodstock from Reed College. It’s where my professor first took me out to lunch and began pursuing our friendship. After breaking her out of the hospital, it’s also where she insisted we go eat, despite fresh wounds from tearing out her catheter tube. Here’s a short synopsis: There was much blood and we were forced to leave the restaurant in a hurry. This was seventeen years ago and I’m sure the seating has been often cleaned since, but for squeamish patrons, avoid the second booth from the rear.IMG_1599 (1)

Babette’s Apocrypha: The Observations of Gaston Bonnefont

If Babette’s story contains an apocrypha; as in, additional content from unknown or dubious sources, one particular text fits that description: A sheaf of 54 typewritten papers in an unlabeled blue binder that turned up amidst old teaching supplies after her death in 2002. I glanced at them, and faced with more pressing concerns, simply filed everything away in storage.

Over a decade later, after taking time to go through Babette’s archives in more depth, I found this artifact again and read it entirely. The papers are a short work of fiction set in 1963, absent author or title. It begins with the description of a French medical doctor en route to America named Gaston Bonnefont, who horrifies other airline passengers with his powerful smelling cheese. The persona is clearly Babette, likely written by a student of Albert Ellsworth, transformed into this loosely fictionalized character.


“Ersatz!” Poor Dr. Bonnefont confronts American coffee

Drama unfolds with Dr. Bonnefont visiting his sister, Michelle, in the amusingly titled Portland suburb of Mediacre. The conceit is that she impulsively married a US soldier after the war and now, almost two decades later, her brother desires to stay with their family while researching a book on American culture. It’s a satire about suburban life, written in florid prose, but contains many charming observations. Dr. Bonnefont hails from provincial southern France and finds the automated pace of American culture overwhelming. He complains: “All day long machines clank. All day long electricity hums. I feel at first that I am a guest in a hydro-electric plant. But I find upon investigating that this is not the case. No––this is Michelle doing her daily work as housewife.”

Much of the dialogue is classic Babette speak. For instance, Bonnefont discusses his “all-electric breakfast” with “scorched eggs” and a “furious mixing machine.” As much as the text was obviously written by someone who spent a good amount of time absorbing Babette’s mannerisms, some of it doesn’t ring quite true. One of the final chapters concerns a party the doctor attends, where he charms several women with intellectual wit, but is then taken aside by their boorish husbands. These men pester him for details about prostitution in Paris, remembered as being highlights from their war experience, but when Bonnefont protests ignorance, only familiar with southern France, one leers: “Ah, the Riviera!…I hear the girls are after a fast buck down there too.”

Of course, my professor was famous for her ability to shift gears and dominate erudite debates as well as more earthly conversations. The real Babette would have relished such an opportunity for telling lewd stories. However, this apparently wasn’t a side shared publicly during that era, preserving the author’s unblemished opinion of Albert Ellsworth.


Dr. Bonnefont (no old dog) refuses to give up the straight dope

Compared to other mysteries in Babette’s life, this anonymous story may seem of small consequence, but it presents an illuminating window into her life. I wasn’t the first person drawn in by my professor’s magnetic personality. It’s easy to see how a literary minded student, unaware of Babette’s true history, could sense something about her, a story needing to be told, and turn that curiosity into fiction.

Babette’s FBI File

Many months ago I filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the FBI for information concerning Babette– aka Albert J. Ellsworth, Robert F. Brown or Elizabeth Ellsworth. Yesterday, I received a PDF on disc in the mail along with a letter explaining 20 pages were being released for declassification with some redactions, out of 172 reviewed. Even with so much withheld, this remains a huge coup. Here is the basic summary:


In 1950, Babette was first reported to the FBI after raising the suspicions of a Portland radio station by insistently trying to obtain Hitler’s recorded speeches. There was no mention of further investigations and they seem to have let the issue drop.


In late 1961, her file was expanded to investigate affairs regarding East Germany. This was what I most expected to catch the FBI’s attention, as by that point, Babette had spent considerable time visiting the Communist bloc state and kept in open communication with various DDR officials using her home address. An initial questioning of Babette’s employer and neighbors uncovered that Ellsworth was “an individual who devoted considerable time to reading” and “enjoyed a very good reputation in the community…”

Then, by January of 1962, the FBI became aware of Babette’s other names: Albert James Holmes Ellsworth and Robert John Pierre Brown. Digging deeper, agents found that the Passport Office had an Ellsworth file from December of 1944, when she applied for a Swiss Identity Certificate while still living in France. In this report, Babette told Swiss officials in Paris that she had been abandoned at birth in Yakima and adopted by the French aristocrat Germaine Brown/Bonnefont through a Seattle based Catholic charity. With France in civil tumult, a desperate Germaine probably sought escape using Babette’s yet unestablished American citizenship via Switzerland to the US.


The Passport Office had promptly investigated, tracking down one former neighbor of the Brown’s in Clackamas. Even as a baby, my professor’s features were unmistakable. Years later, this woman recognized a picture of 15 year old Babette and stated she knew Germaine and Robert F. Brown’s child in the early 1930s as “Robert John Pierre Brown.” She recalled the Brown’s considered their son adopted, but expressed doubt it “was accomplished with legal papers and all.”

Next the Passport Office agents located Mildred Ellsworth, Babette’s birth mother herself. Mildred said Albert had been born in Yakima as the legitimate child of herself and Albert J. Ellsworth, Sr., but very prematurely and not expected to live. Soon afterward, she relocated to Redmond, WA without the child, but claimed she repeatedly wrote to the hospital without response, and finally assumed her baby died. Upon viewing a photo of Babette, Mildred instantly saw resemblance to herself as a 13 year old. She requested officials put her in contact with this long lost child.

It appears the Swiss documents were never issued, but on December 21, 1944, a Dept. of State communication directed the American Mission in Paris to regard Babette as a US citizen. Then, in March of 1945, both Germaine and Babette appeared at the US Consulate in Paris. Germaine claimed her papers on Ellsworth indicated the baby was born out of wedlock and abandoned, though she had one document with the father’s name as “John Doe” and another as Albert J. Ellsworth. This technicality apparently had prevented Germaine’s legal adoption of Babette in French courts.

During Babette’s interview, she showed an interest in returning to America, and (always playing to her audience) even promised to enlist in the US military, if WWII was still ongoing when she turned 18. With a new passport and $196 “repatriation loan,” she returned to the US alone in August of 1946.


After this substantial 1962 update, Babette’s FBI file remained closed until 1978, when it was expanded with many redactions. This was probably due to her frequent international travels, which then included China, as well as the USSR and East Germany.

According to the FBI, there are still other documents available which may eventually lead to other revelations in the future, but at least this release helps clear up several mysteries about Babette. I’m excited to see what new information it leads to.

Ellsworth Brown

One of the major mysterious themes in my professor’s life was revealed after I moved into her pantry and noticed several different names she received mail under. Over time, I discovered more of these pseudonyms and tried to keep her various personas straight, but they unfortunately remain one of the most confusing elements in my book. Here is a basic breakdown:

ALBERT JAMES ELLSWORTH, JR: Babette’s birth name in Yakima, 1928.

ROBERT BROWN, JR: Babette’s name on the 1930 US census.

BABETTE BONNEFONT: Babette’s French name, and how she liked me to call her.

DR. BOBBIE OR BOBETTE ELLSWORTH: Babette’s name in academia.

ELIZABETH ELLSWORTH: Babette’s Catholic name.

A. J. BOBBIE ELLSWORTH: Babette’s official name after her 1994 sex reassignment.

IMG_0892But if that isn’t enough, I recently came upon another one she used. Several weeks ago my old friend Eric Smiley was visiting from Seattle and I showed him some artifacts. These included a 1942-3 southern French yearbook from COLLEGE DE BAZAS, a Catholic school, in my archives. I’d never more than glanced at it before, but Eric began scanning more thoroughly. He found Babette recorded inside, though using yet another name!

IMG_0893She was listed 18th under “Classe de Quartrieme – EXCELLENCE” as “Ellsworth Brown, de Yakhona (Etats Unis)” and then under the same name:
6th place for “ANGLAIS”
and 1st place for “ESPAGNOL”

It is certainly no shock that even at age fourteen, Babette already developed a strong interest in religion. Why she was enrolled using yet another pseudonym remains a mystery, as this is something found nowhere else so far. I’m sure this is far from being the final revelation.

Interestingly, tucked inside the yearbook is a 1948 letter from the French ambassador to Albert Ellsworth, explaining his options for post-gradute study. Ever the ambitious student, Babette was still enrolled at the University of Portland and projecting years ahead to what would eventually become her first Master’s degree at the University of Bordeaux. As always, my professor never felt her education to be complete.

Awadagin Pratt in Spokane

Photo on 3-8-15 at 9.50 PMBabette’s favorite living pianist was the American artist Awadagin Pratt. We traveled together to see him perform in Yakima in 1999, where my professor memorably led a standing ovation by shouting at the audience “Are you dead?” Next came an amazing coincidence, twelve years later, that formed the final chapter of my book. I had randomly met the famous musician at a Sitka dive bar after being stormed into port while commercial fishing in the Gulf of Alaska.

Pratt playing the White House in 2009. Not your usual P-Bar hanger on.

Pratt playing the White House in 2009. Not your usual P-Bar hanger on.

After the book came out, I wanted to give Pratt a copy. But being a celebrity who constantly travels between international concerts, meeting him again presented difficulty. Then I discovered Pratt scheduled to play Bach Fest 2015 in Spokane, Washington on March 7th, 2015. My partner and I made the six hour drive from Portland earlier in the day and checked into our hotel.

The night of the concert, I was amazed to discover the venue for Pratt’s performance would be the Barrister Winery, a venue with seating for only about a hundred. We arrived early and picked a table just fifteen feet from the grand piano. What good fortune!IMG_0791

Pratt was introduced by Zuill Baily, the event’s artistic director and a renown cellist, who I’d also met in Sitka. Then everyone quieted as Pratt settled down at the piano. He began softly with Variations and Fugue on a Theme Of Handel, Op. 24 by Brahms but soon his fingers thundered across the keys. Tears sprung to my eyes at his passion and the shared proximity. I could even hear his breathing between notes. At one point, Pratt’s glasses slipped off his nose and fell to the floor, yet he continued playing as if nothing had occurred.

Pratt's glasses hit the deck.

Pratt’s glasses hit the deck.

The barrage continued with a selection from Partita No. 2 in D Minor by J.S. Bach. It appeared Pratt possessed no fewer than ten hands. The piano trembled at his onslaught and it seemed no human being could maintain such pace. At last he unfolded the final piece, Sonata in B Minor by Franz Liszt. The audience sat immobile through it, stunned as surely as salmon by the blunt end of a gaff. I looked over at my partner. Her eyes were closed, cheeks relaxed blissfully. When the last noted faded, everyone leapt to their feet, hands clapping in exultation.

Afterward, Pratt sat before a table to greet admirers and sign autographs. I joined the line, but noticed Zuill Baily standing off to one side. I approached and introduced myself, mentioning our previous meeting. At this Baily grabbed my arm and brought me over behind Pratt’s table.
“Awadagin!” he cried out, “this is Ross from Sitka!”
Pratt actually dropped his pen mid autograph and rose, giving me a bear hug. “It’s so good to see you!” he enthused. “How are things going with your book, and wasn’t it about a strange professor who loved my music?”

Nobody complained that I cut the line here.

Nobody complained that I cut the line here.

I confirmed his memory was correct and presented a copy of the book to him. Smiling, he looked the text over. “Thank you so much. If you don’t have plans, would you like to join myself and some friends at a restaurant nearby to celebrate?”

Awadagin Pratt and Ross Eliot at Churchill's in Spokane 3/7/15

Awadagin Pratt and Ross Eliot at Churchill’s in Spokane 3/7/15

How could I refuse? We joined him, Zuill Baily and several others for food and drinks that lasted until well after midnight. Pratt eventually confessed the previous day had been his birthday, and at this revelation, Baily insisted on buying him a chocolate desert that we all passed around. Before leaving, as the festivities wound down, I asked my partner to snap a photograph of myself and Pratt together. What a night! Johann Sebastian Bach and wine. . . . travels across the Eastern Washington plains and chocolate. . . . then sharing Babette’s story with others who understood her passion for music. Truly, an evening she would have absolutely enjoyed.

Babette Party at La Vie de Boheme

On February 5th, the French restaurant La Vie de Boheme in Portland played host to a party celebrating Babette’s first year of publication and winning the 2014 Rainbow Awards.


Organized by book promoter, Lisa Kendall, we filled the backroom with artifacts readers would recognize, from Napoleon III’s bust to Bonnefont family military medals and a leather-bound edition of The Rule of St. Benedict, dedicated to Babette by Canadian “nuns” at their unconventional convent.


After a warm introduction by Lisa, I made a brief slide presentation with many recently uncovered photographs from the Ellsworth archives and also read a selection from unpublished excerpts cut out of the original manuscript. Of particular note on display for the first time, was the last known photograph of Judge Shoemaker, taken in his cosy book-filled study, shortly before his death in 1977.


In addition, there were many new snapshots of Babette as Albert, together with his second wife, Billie Shoemaker, who the kindly Judge shared with him for so many years.


I had a fantastic time and am so grateful to the people who made this last year one of the most amazing in my life. Thanks to you all! Photo credits to Kristin.


Babette’s First Year in Print


It’s a whole year since Babette: The Many Lives, Two Deaths and Double Kidnapping of Dr. Ellsworth came out and what a time this has been. From the release party at the Star Theater to any number of readings, tours in and out of state, plus all kinds of events, at every turn it’s more and more apparent how I’m not in this alone.

I’d like to thank Cricket Corleone of Heliocentric Press, Sage Adderly of Sage’s Blog Tours, Lane Browning, my editor and everyone else who has been such a help…you all know who you are…
–Ross Eliot