In Which Two Mysteries Are Solved (Sort Of)

Published:March 26, 2008 by Brendan Wolfe

You might recall from an earlier post a kind of epistemological angst where the great newspaperman Louis Isaac Jaffé was concerned. For instance, according to Encyclopedia Virginia‘s biography, the Pulitzer Prize-winner was only “apparently” born in Detroit. And unlike his parents he crowned his final e with an accent, leaving the curious among us to wonder why.

Enter Alexander Leidholdt, EV contributor and author of the 2002 Jaffé biography, Editor for Justice. Regarding Detroit, he points us to pages 24 and 25, in which he asserts that there is no evidence to contradict Jaffé’s own claim to being born there, even while the circumstances of his birth “retain an element of mystery.”

For the lowdown on the diacritical, we must turn to page 111:

When and why Jaffé assumed the henceforth standard pronunciation of his surname—the Gallic “J” and accented second syllable—make for interesting speculation. A Jewish senior citizen of South Boston, Virginia [where Jaffé’s brother and parents lived], remembering the family’s emporium there, called it “Jaffies'” and smiled at Louis Jaffé’s interpretation of the spelling as an affectation. Perhaps Jaffé’s pronunciation represented the family’s preference all along, approximating a European version that had been corrupted by clumsy Americans. (Indeed one of Louis’s uncles consistently called himself by the accented form of the name.) Many if not most acquaintances in France [where Jaffé served as a military officer during World War I and later as director of the Red Cross News Service] would naturally have applied French phonetics to a name so spelled, with or without an accent symbol. Whatever its basis, Jaffé arrived in Norfolk [in 1919] with a gallicized version of his surname, rhyming with “away,” permanently attached. It would become a colophone so distinctive as to provide, without appendage, instant recognition in a conversational reference or on the telephone.

Thank you, Dr. Leidholdt, for clearing that up. And for you fans of the 1998 television series Sports Night—on which Robert Guillaume’s character, the curmudgeonly editor Isaac Jaffe, pronounced his own name “Jaffie”—you now know better. A-way . . . A-way . . .

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