Francesca Stanfill was born in Oxford, England when her father Dennis Carothers Stanfill, a Tennessean, was studying at Exeter College as a Rhodes Scholar. Her mother, Therese Olivieri Stanfill, had grown up in West Haven, Connecticut and was the daughter of parents who had emigrated to the U.S. from Southern Italy in the early 20thcentury. Thus, from an early age, the connections to Europe and England would loom large in Ms. Stanfill’s life; so would the love of travel, history, learning and literature encouraged by her parents.
After Oxford, the family returned to the U.S., where Dennis Stanfill resumed his service in the Navy – he had attended Annapolis before Oxford — with his final post being at the Pentagon in Washington D.C. In 1960 the family moved to New York City, when Dennis Stanfill began his career as an investment banker at Lehman Brothers. They lived in Peter Cooper Village, and Ms. Stanfill attended Public School 40 on East 20th Street.
She was already an avid reader — biographies of historical figures especially — and had begun to study piano; from an early age she was an avid letter-writer and journal-keeper as well. The exposure to music and theatre in New York played an enormous role in her early life. She still recalls the thrill of seeing the Franco Zefferelli’s production of ROMEO & JULIET at the New York City Center, DON GIOVANNI at the Old Metropolitan Opera, and Gian Carlo Menotti’s modern operas AMAHL AND THE NIGHT VISITORS and THE MEDIUM. (She wrote to Menotti when she was eight years old after seeing AMAHL, and was thrilled to receive a postcard with his thanks, in return.) Trips to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, with her parents, made a profound impression on her and quickened her nascent interest in archaeology, mythology and painting.
Another profound influence was her godmother, Monica Dickens, a popular English novelist and the great-granddaughter of Charles Dickens. During the summer, she would visit Ms. Dickens, who lived in Cape Cod. It was then that she had her first glimpse of a writer’s routine, for Ms. Dickens would sequester herself in her study every day, from nine o’clock to one o’clock, afterward emerging to organize the household and spend time with her children.
In 1965 the family moved to Los Angeles when Dennis Stanfill accepted a position as Vice President Finance at the Times Mirror Company, working with the Chandler family. (In 1969 he became Executive Vice President of 20th Century Fox and in 1971 he became CEO, a post he held until 1981.)
The change from public school in Manhattan to Polytechnic, a small private school around the corner from the family house in Pasadena, California was momentous. It was there, in high school, that many of Ms. Stanfill’s earliest interests crystallized: her love of 19th century literature, poetry, Shakespeare and French. (She was mesmerized by the French film “Les Parapluies de Cherbourg” and came to know the libretto almost by heart.) She had always loved to read and write, but it was at “Poly” that she was taught the discipline of critiquing literature and writing about history. She also received a superb grounding in French, going on to receive an 800 on her college board. In her free time she read widely – Tolstoy, the Brontes, Henry James, Flaubert, Jane Austen, Chekhov – and studied Italian. In the winter she also continued to ski, a sport which she had learned in Vermont as a girl and which was to become a lifelong passion.
She was fascinated by stage acting as well, and had roles in many of the school musicals, including the lead as Lily in a production of “Carnival”, where she sang and danced. She was drawn to classical acting most of all, and by work of the British companies who came to Los Angeles – the Bristol Old Vic, and the Royal Shakespeare Company, among them. She would attend their productions — HAMLET, MEASURE FOR MEASURE and AS YOU LIKE IT — on her own, again and again. During that time, she began to read everything she could about Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh and the post-War British theatre. In the summer of 1968, she wrote Laurence Olivier a fan letter and will always remember the thrill of opening the mail box to find his letter in reply. (Now framed and in her living room, it remains one of her most treasured possessions.)
During the summers, the family – her parents, brother and sister — traveled to Europe; to this day she considers the Michelin Green Guides a crucial part of her education. The first trips to Italy, France and England had a profound impact on her and were detailed in her daily journals: glimpses of the ancient world in Southern Italy (Paestum, Chiusi, Castel del Monte), the cathedrals and castles of France, and, in England, visits to Stratford-upon-Avon, Oxford, and Yorkshire, where she made a pilgrimage to the Bronte homestead at Haworth. It was during that time, as well, that her mother, Terry Stanfill, became involved with the organization SAVE VENICE and subsequently an active member of its board. The family spent many summers in Venice at a small hotel on the Lido, the Quattro Fontane, which gave Ms. Stanfill an opportunity to explore Venice and its art.
In 1969, she considered attending Lady Margaret Hall College at Oxford University and took the grueling entrance exam that spring. She was turned down – her knowledge of Latin was insufficient – and applied the following year to Yale, Harvard, Princeton and Wellesley. She was accepted at all four, but decided on Yale because of its exceptional undergraduate and graduate Drama department. (At that point her dream was to become a stage actress and later study at RADA, in London.)
In 1970, Ms. Stanfill attended Yale University, a member of one of the early classes to admit women. She focused on English literature, French, History of Art, and medieval history. Certain professors made a lasting impression on her: Vincent Scully in History of Art, Roberto Lopez in medieval history, Traugott Lawler in English, Mark Rose in Shakespeare, John Freccero in Dante, Victor Brombert in Flaubert and George Hersey in Art of the Italian Renaissance. She also joined the Dramat, the undergraduate drama group, and appeared in a number of productions, including PEER GYNT, ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD, and Joe Orton’s WHAT THE BUTLER SAW.
Europe continued to exert its pull, however. She lobbied to spend her Junior year abroad, in Paris — a combination of classes at the Sorbonne and an academic program affiliated with Yale. She rented a room in the hotel particulier of an elderly Vicomtesse in the Seventh Arrondissement, Rue de Bellechasse, and traveled around France as much as possible. In the spring of 1973, Ms. Stanfill applied for a summer job with the public relations department of Christian Dior. She got the job and, that July and August, helped behind the scenes at the presentations of Marc Bohan’s couture collection and as a liaison with the international media.
She returned to Yale that fall, having decided to focus on writing and the History of Art rather than acting. For her mentor, Professor George Hersey, head of the department, she wrote two long senior research papers on art: the first on Leonardo da Vinci’s visit to Venice in 1500, and the second on the Dalmatian Renaissance sculptor of royal portraits, Francesco Laurana. She graduated from Yale cum laude in 1974.
Although she had been encouraged to attend graduate school, Ms. Stanfill was intent on a career in New York. Several weeks after graduating, she began to work at Women’s Wear Daily as a reporter — covering the New York designer collections, eventually – and, encouraged by her boss John Fairchild, also wrote many feature stories. (Profiles of Halston, John Richardson, Ellsworth Kelly, Harry Winston, Norton Simon, Rosamond Bernier, Diane von Furstenberg, Marella Agnelli, and J. Carter Brown, among them.)
In 1979 she was hired by Abe Rosenthal of the NEW YORK TIMES, where she wrote for primarily for the TIMES MAGAZINE, focusing on fashion/lifestyle. Her first major story, a profile of Gloria Vanderbilt and a study of the merchandising of the Vanderbilt name, was a cover story that fall. Her other pieces included interviews with Diana Vreeland, previews of books (ALLURE, edited by Jacqueline Onassis) and a controversial study of the ascent of Oscar and Francoise de la Renta – “Living Well is Still the Best Revenge” – also a cover story, in December 1980.
In 1981, she left the NEW YORK TIMES to write her first novel, SHADOWS & LIGHT, for which she had already received an advance. During those years, she had discovered The Alexandria Quartet, by Lawrence Durrell: enthralled by the novels, she wrote a fan letter to Durrell, who lived in the South of France. She received a letter from him in return and later, after finishing her first novel, she sent him a copy of the final draft. Once more he replied, calling her a “born writer.” SHADOWS & LIGHT was published in by Simon & Schuster in 1984, and subsequently by Hodder & Stoughton in the UK, Flammarion in France, and in Sweden and Spain.
By this time had married Peter F. Tufo, a lawyer, and had her first child, a daughter, Serena. All the while she continued to write for many publications – VOGUE, HOUSE & GARDEN, the LOS ANGELES TIMES BOOK REVIEW, NEW YORK MAGAZINE and the NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW, among them. In 1991, she wrote the first major profile of the provocative feminist Camille Paglia – “Woman Warrior” – a cover story for NEW YORK MAGAZINE. She also contributed short pieces to NEW YORK on the English actor Kenneth Branagh — after his film of HENRY V — and on Edith Wharton’s house, The Mount. (Ms. Stanfill had long identified with Wharton’s predilection for houses, décor, social analysis and European travel.)
In the meantime, she continued work on a second novel, WAKEFIELD HALL which was published by Villard/Random House in 1994. Set in the late 1980’s, WAKEFIELD HALL tells the story of a Shakespearean actress and the biographer, a reporter for the WALL STREET JOURNAL, who becomes obsessed with her subject’s life. The novel drew upon Ms. Stanfill’s studies of Shakespeare and her knowledge of the post-War British theatre which she had followed since her teenage “Olivier” years. (The novel was also published in the UK by Warner Books, and in Germany by Piper, where it enjoyed a success unusual for an American novel.)
Throughout the 1990’s, Ms. Stanfill continued freelance magazine work while raising her daughter Serena and her son Peter, who was born in 1986. (In 1999, she was divorced from their father.) Her pieces for VANITY FAIR include a story about the legacy of Jacqueline Onassis (1996) which analyzed the stipulations of Onassis’ will and previewed the auction of her estate at Sotheby’s; and an in-depth profile of Jayne Wrightsman, the New York art patron and grande dame (2002). (Many details from the article were used for the chapter on Wrightsman in the recent book on the Metropolitan Museum, ROGUES’ GALLERY, by Michael Gross.)
She pursued her study of history by attending Yale Alumni seminars in the late spring, from 1989 until 1993. The first of those seminars, “THE MIDDLE AGES: Creativity and Tradition,” was led by the prominent young scholar John Boswell, whose books she had greatly admired. Boswell’s lectures and those of the other Yale professors – Walter Cahn and Jaroslav Pelikan — rekindled her interest in that period.
Ms. Stanfill is currently at work on a novel centered on the life of the 12th century queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, a figure who has enthralled her since 1969, when she first visited the Royal Abbey of Fontevraud, in the Loire Valley, where Eleanor is buried. She has spent the last several years immersing herself in Eleanor’s world of the 12th century in France and England, and has traveled to Cyprus, Sicily, Syria and Turkey as part of the research. With the guidance of Professor Paul Freedman, she has returned to Yale to audit courses, both graduate and undergraduate, to provide a grounding for the book, and has renewed her study of medieval art, relics, and the Second and Third Crusades.
During the past ten years, Ms. Stanfill’s fascination with the Classical world has intensified, sparked by her collecting of Roman and Greek antiquities. She lives in New York City with her husband, businessman/arbitrageur Richard B. Nye, whom she married in 2003 and who has encouraged her interest in art and history. Mr. Nye, who majored in English literature at Harvard, also shares her love of reading and skiing, as well as her interest in world affairs. Together they have traveled with the Brookings Institution to China and India, and with the Council on Foreign Relations to Saudi Arabia. They spend weekends at their house in Eastern Long Island, where Ms. Stanfill’s latest project is the creation of a garden with classically-inspired statues of the Four Seasons.