His name was Michel de Decker…
He left this world on 17 August 2019 aged 71 years, after a long illness. In homage to this illustrious author and historian, we have gathered personal accounts from his friends, family and colleagues, who all pay tribute to his erudition, cheerfulness and talent as a speaker.
“A historian lives with the dead,” he explained to us in September 2017. “If we don’t bring them back to life, my god, how boring it would be!” Michel de Decker was an amazing storyteller and was keen on anecdotes. He communicated his knowledge with such energy that, as Stéphane Bern puts it, he made “history contagious.” Through his inimitable eloquence, this former history and geography teacher brought Louis XVI’s escape back to life for us, transported us to the Sun King’s love life and led us into the Alcove Bedroom to experience the unique life of Napoleon III. “We will miss his way of recounting history in such a vibrant, eager way,” lamented the author and radio personality Franck Ferrand the day after his death. “His storytelling ability was without equal,” confirmed his partner Pascale H. “He was passionate and fascinating, larger than life and full of humour.” The charismatic Michel de Decker kept his audience on the edge of their seats. “He recounted history like an actor playing a part in a scene,” commented Valérie Kay, book show organiser. In fact, who wouldn’t have loved to sit in on one of his history classes! “Listening to him was like being at the theatre: he used his hands, body and speech,” explains Frederik Romanuik, a radio host on France Bleu Haute Normandie. “He had been cultivating this art for a long time, since he was a secondary school teacher. One day, with laughter in his eyes, he told me about a student who came up to him after a class in which Michel had related the story of Joan of Arc and told him that up until the end of the story he thought she was going to survive!”
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Who better than this ‘history magician’ – as the late André Castelot labelled him – to become one of the iconic figures of the Secrets d’Histoire TV show on France 2 in 2011? With his humour and daring, he peppered his reports with delicious anecdotes. According to the show’s producer, Jean-Louis Remilleux, Michel de Decker “knew everything about official history but was also interested in the unspoken tales, secrets and idiosyncrasies often neglected by the current academic and educational publications which tend to make history quite dry. And he did it with such personal humour and such command of the French language, with all of its colour and charm, which our viewers loved.” Since 1991, he was also popular with listeners of the France Bleu Normandie radio station.
Michel de Decker, who was also an author, was made Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres (Knight of the Arts) in September 2000. “This scholar, who was so generous with anecdotes and puns, was a talented speaker as well as a writer,” explains Frederik Romanuik. “His humour made history accessible even to the most unwilling readers and listeners.” Did you know that he wrote some thirty books, including 12 Corsets Qui Ont Changé l’Histoire (12 Corsets That Changed History, 2011, Pygmalion) and Napoléon III ou l’Empire Des Sens (Napoleon III: The Sensory Empire, 2008, Belfond)? And up until his death, he chaired SADN, the Society of Authors in Normandy, which he co-founded in 1981 with André Castelot? At his funeral, Carole Duplessy-Rousée, the association’s secretary, paid tribute to a “talented, generous author dedicated to helping emerging authors. We’ve lost count of the times he gave an invisible helping hand.” “He helped many young authors get published,” confirms Valérie Kay. “And he supported so many cultural projects in his region!”
That was because Michel de Decker had another passion in addition to history: the region of Normandy. Sebastien Lecornu, Minister of Regional Authorities, posted on Twitter that, “the Eure region and the town of Vernon have lost an important figure and friend in addition to a lover of history.” Living in Notre-Dame-de-l’Isle, neighbouring Giverny, Michel de Decker was of course passionate about Claude Monet’s extraordinary life. He wrote an enthralling biography, “Claude Monet, Une Vie (Claude Monet: A life, Perrin, 1992) which is now considered a reference work. And in the 1970s he had the clever idea of knocking on the doors of Giverny residents who had known Claude Monet personally or in passing. He was even lucky enough to step inside the impressionist master’s den in the spring of 1973, where he took photos. Using those images, he recounted the property’s deplorable state in a series of articles published in the local paper, Le Démocrate Vernonnais. “Later on, Gérald Van der Kemp admitted to me that if my article hadn’t come out, it would have taken another decade before the restoration of the Giverny estate began,” explained Michel de Decker in a 2017 interview with us. “Yes, we do owe him so much,” confirms Hugues R. Gall, Director of Fondation Monet. “His articles lit the fuse. He sounded the alarm and, without him, the wake-up call would have come much later!” “He was quite proud to have played a small part in triggering the estate’s restoration,” confirmed his partner. The solid ties between Michel de Decker and Fondation Monet never weakened: “We all loved this likeable, warm, feisty man with his knack for communicating. Every time we called on him, he was kind enough to step up,” says Hugues Gall. “And how many times was he a guide at Giverny for our friends and family?” adds Pascale H. “He spoke of Monet as if he had lived with him. People gathered closer to listen, surprised, amused and captivated by his eloquence and pithy anecdotes. A true delight!”
“He was simply one of those people you come across only a few times in your life,” concludes Frederik Romanuik. Now that he has taken his place among the others that form history, we can take comfort in thinking that Michel de Decker is finally chatting with all those historical figures he so loved to describe…