Christina Vella, Author of Sizzling Works of Narrative History, Dies at 75

Historians in the News
tags: obituary, Christina Vella

Christina Vella, the author of several colorful works of narrative history, notably “Intimate Enemies: The Two Worlds of the Baroness de Pontalba,” a tale of wealth and scandal in 19th-century France and New Orleans, died on Wednesday in New Orleans. She was 75.

The cause was cancer, her daughter Robin Vella Riehl said.

Ms. Vella, a historian by training, found one of her richest subjects close to hand, in her native city. “Intimate Enemies,” published in 1997, told the story of Micaela Leonarda Antonia Almonester y Rojas, daughter of the richest man in New Orleans. Her marriage at the age of 15 to the son of a French baron set in motion a family scandal whose intricacies enthralled the novelist Stendhal.

The Baron de Pontalba, enraged when he learned that his daughter-in-law’s dowry was to be paid in installments and foiled in his 20-year attempt to seize her property, burst into her bedroom at the family’s country estate in France in 1834, took out a pistol and shot her three times in the chest. Wounded but still alive, Micael, as she was known, led him in a chase around the house that ended when the baron, admitting defeat, turned his gun on himself.

The newly minted baroness turned her hand to property development. She built the mansion on the Rue du Faubourg St.-Honoré that is now the American Embassy. On returning to New Orleans in the 1840s, she oversaw the design and construction of the Pontalba Buildings, two red-brick rowhouse complexes flanking the Place d’Armes, which was renamed Jackson Square after Andrew Jackson at her instigation. One of the chief features of the French Quarter, the rowhouses established the fashion for iron railings throughout the old city. ...

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