Betty Werther made a beeline for Paris after graduating from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1949 and embarked on a life of travel, romance and adventure. Somewhere along the road, she lost her passport.
More than 60 years later, a young Portuguese medical student is heading to Paris to return the tattered, 1950-issued passport to Werther. Last summer while studying there, Nuno Fonseca found the passport at a flea market, then embarked on an eight-month search for its rightful owner, enlisting help from residents of Werther’s hometown of Ardsley, New York.
“Mission accomplished!” Fonseca, 23, wrote in an email last week to those who helped him locate Werther, née Hatfield, now an 85-year-old American expatriate living in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower.
“I was wondering what had happened to that passport. I wouldn’t have thrown it out. It was my first passport. It was important to me,” said Werther by phone from her home in Paris.
Thumbing it from Paris to Cairo
Since 1950, Werther’s travels have taken her to Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Israel, Turkey, China, Mexico, Costa Rica, Algeria, Berlin and Zagreb, among other places. It was the exotic array of visa stamps – as well as the bizarre coincidence that Werther had lived in the same student housing complex in Paris where he was staying – that motivated Fonseca to buy the vintage passport at Charlety Stadium flea market.
“I knew I had to have the passport of someone who, 60 years before me, took the adventure of going to Paris and lived at the same address” on Boulevard Jourdan, said Fonseca, who is finishing up his final year of medical school at the University of Porto, Portugal. “And, of course, I wanted the thrill of finding the passport’s rightful owner.”
But Google search engines only took Fonseca so far, though they did turn up Werther’s hometown as well as her alma mater, UC Berkeley, where her grandfather was a former dean of commerce. So he emailed Ardsley Village Manager George Calvi, who put him in touch with members of the Ardsley Historical Society.
Among them was Frank Jazzo, who remembered some of the Hatfield family history: “Her mother’s family ran a bakery and confectionery on Elm Street in Ardsley for many years in the early 1900s,” Jazzo recalled. But most had no clue as to where in the world Werther now lived.
The big breakthrough came last week, when Fonseca received a Paris address from Werther’s former schoolmate Beatrice Caporale, 84. Next, Fonseca emailed Philippe Rochefort, who facilitates Franco-American relations in Paris. Rochefort noted that Betty Werther was a “well-regarded member of the U.S. community in Paris” and located her in the Paris phone directory.
When Fonseca called the number, he felt nervous. But the worldly Werther took the call in stride, and was impressed to hear how he had tracked her down with only her maiden name, Hatfield, to start with.
“Anyone with this much perseverance and initiative will be an incredible doctor. Who knows what diseases he will be able to cure?” Werther said.
Both Werther and Fonseca look forward to meeting.
“Through the stamped pages of her passport, I picture a strong-minded, brave and sophisticated woman whom I would very much like to meet,” Fonseca said.
The granddaughter of the late Henry Rand Hatfield, dean of UC Berkeley’s School of Commerce from 1916-1920, Elizabeth Ann Hatfield was born in Ardsley in 1927, the only child of Louise and Robert Hatfield. Her father died the year she was born, and her mother taught first grade.
Her summers spent with her grandparents in the Berkeley hills widened her horizons and led her to enroll at UC Berkeley in 1945. Among other campus organizations, she joined the Mortar Board national honor society of college seniors; the Prytanean Society, a collegiate women’s honorary society; and the Treble Clef Society, a women’s choral group whose audiences included U.N. delegations and members of the U.S Armed Services.
In 1949, at age 22, she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in political science and headed straight for Paris with her close friend Harriet, crossing the Atlantic on an ocean liner. They disembarked in Portsmouth and toured war-ravaged England before ferrying across the channel to France.
“Life was pretty dreary and difficult … and yet we could feel a kind of post-war euphoria; the killing and Nazi occupation were over. Everything seemed possible,” Werther said in a 2005 interview with the magazine France on Your Own.
Later, in line at the cafeteria at the Cité Universitaire Internationale de Paris, where she was staying, she said she struck up a conversation with Algerian-born medical student Gilbert Azancot, whom she later married.
But first, she had to satisfy her wanderlust. With a Swedish girlfriend she met while taking classes at the Sorbonne, she hitchhiked through Fascist dictator Franco’s Spain and beyond.
“She travelled all over Europe and the Middle East, a very audacious route, even today,” Fonseca said.
In 1953, Werther returned to New York to earn a master’s degree in political science at Columbia University, and wrote a thesis on “The French Mandate in Syria and Lebanon.” She married Azancot, who was doing a residency in New York City. A year later, they took a road trip to California and back, then headed to Paris to make a home.
After stints teaching English, she was hired by the International Herald Tribune in Paris to manage its archives. From there, she moved to TIME magazine, covering politics, arts and entertainment. She interviewed such luminaries as Salvador Dali, Yves Saint Laurent, Jackie Gleason, Shirley McLaine, Rod Steiger and Sophia Loren. Around that time, her marriage to Azancot ended, and in 1963 she married Maurice Werther, considered the French equivalent of American TV journalist Mike Wallace.
After leaving TIME in 1971, Werther landed a job with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and worked on such topics as bio-diversity, illiteracy and women’s issues. Throughout Werther’s travels, career and two marriages – she has two children and four grandchildren – Paris remains her home base. She blames her first and second husbands, both of whom have since died, for keeping her in Paris.
“The men in my life have been very good,” she said.
Fonseca shares her affinity for Paris. When he stumbled upon Werther’s passport, he was studying there at Diderot University. This summer, he will do an internship in Paris at the Pierre et Marie Curie University.
“I find that Paris is an incredible city where anything can happen when you expect it the least,” he wrote in an email seeking Werther’s current address from UC Berkeley. “And here I am, writing to Berkeley about a passport. I recognize one would expect a student application, not a detective story.”
“It’s an unbelievable story,” Werther agreed.
Read more about Betty Werther in a 2005 interview in France on Your Own