In the year 1900, Laura Clifford Barney and Hippolyte Dreyfus met on the threshold of the Paris home of May Ellis Bolles. Laura was on her way to the visit the Canadian Baha’i in order to find out more about the Faith – which she accepted immediately, an unquenchable fire having been sparked in her heart. Hippolyte was departing May’s company. In the months that followed, Hippolyte became the first French Baha’i and in the years that followed he and Laura would both render priceless and invaluable services to the Cause. In honour of Laura’s passing which occurred 42 years ago on August 18th, I’d like to share some facts I’ve learned about them.
Laura was born on November 30th, 1879 in Cincinnati, Ohio to a wealthy family of artists and industrialists. She and her sister Natalie lived in luxury and privilege but owing to their parents’ strained marriage, they spent their childhood in both Paris and the United States. She studied the dramatic arts and sculpture, loved the theater and wrote 25 short stories and at least two plays. Laura was keenly intelligent, serious, inquisitive and insightful – qualities for which we are all grateful.
Between 1904 and 1906, Laura travelled to Akka multiple times. She was unmarried and in her twenties and the Master was still a prisoner of the Turkish government. Dr. Youness Afroukteh (whose wonderful recollections Memories of Nine Years in Akka is a delight to read) recorded these words:
In the heat and confusion of Akka, she [Laura Barney] joyfully pursued her solitary task of collecting the Writings of the Master. And as she meditated and soared in the realms of spirit, she beheld the light of the celestial flame in the Sinai of her heart and discovered many divine realities.1
It is because of Laura’s qualities and attributes that we are able to cherish Some Answered Questions, a collection of talks by the Master at the dinner table that were originally compiled simply for Laura’s personal study and spiritual growth. Mona Khademi, in her thorough article on Laura Clifford-Barney writes that she
was endowed with an avid enthusiasm for acquiring spiritual qualities and heavenly attributes and that is why Abdu’l-Baha honoured her with the title of Amatu’l-Baha. […] Sometimes weeks [would] pass before she would get her instructions. She said: “But I could well be patient, for I had always before me the greater lesson — the lesson of his personal life.” She was greatly favored by the Master because of her spirituality and He was content and happy with the process. The fact that He had no time to eat or enjoy His meals was not a problem. On one of these occasions, when the Master was showing a little tiredness, He rose and happily remarked: “It is encouraging that after all this labour, at least she understands the concepts. This is refreshing. What would I have done if after all this effort she still failed to comprehend the issues?”2
The process of compiling the Master’s answers and correcting and comparing their English and Persian transcriptions was a lengthy process. Dr. Afroukhteh explains:
Amatu’l-Baha, due to her strong faith and intense devotion, was able to compile her book properly and this received Abdu’l-Baha’s approval. Therefore, each word and line of that book should be considered as the revealed Word.3
It soon became evident that Some Answered Questions needed to be shared with the wider Baha’i community. Laura requested the Master’s permission to publish the compilation, then called Table Talks, and permission was granted.
When she was not in the Holy Land, Laura was an active participant in the community life of Washington, DC and of Paris. Hippolyte, six years her senior, was similarly very involved in the Faith in France. He was the only son of a well-known French family and had studied law. Laura wrote,
While he pursued his career with success he came close to the problems and difficulties of many people, and his generosity of heart gave him a subtle understanding of human nature. He had the rare quality of being more interested in others than in himself.4
After accepting the Faith, Hippolyte studied comparative religion, oriental studies and Arabic and Persian so that he might translate the Writings into French. Laura stated that:
Hippolyte Dreyfus was already an excellent linguist and his trained mind grasped readily the force and beauty of the idioms of the Persian tongue that he had decided to learn. His constant reading of Baha’u’llah’s works in this language and later on in Arabic gave him an unusual insight into the teachings and mission of this great Manifestation. Throughout the years he translated and published many of these works.5
That fateful meeting on the doorstep of May Bolles’ home was the beginning of a friendship and later a marriage so devoted to the Faith that is difficult to separate their individual services to the Cause. Even before their wedding, Abdu’l-Baha asked them to travel to Iran together and they were the first western Baha’is to do so. They would be instrumental in hosting and interpreting for the Master during His sojourn in England, France, Switzerland and the United States. Their linguistic skills made possible the collecting and publishing of Paris Talks, their diplomacy facilitated many tasks entrusted to them by Abdu’l-Baha and Shoghi Effendi and ensured successful external affairs work with organizations such as the League of Nations, and their passion and zeal for the teachings made them wonderful promoters of this Cause.
Hippolyte passed away in 1928 after a prolonged and painful illness. Shoghi Effendi wrote:
None, I can confidently assert, among the Baha’is of the East and the West, combined to the extent that he did the qualities of genial and enlivening fellowship, of intimate acquaintance with the manifold aspects of the Cause, of sound judgment and distinctive ability, of close familiarity with the problems and condition of the world — all of which made him such a lovable, esteemed and useful collaborator and friend.6
Laura outlived her esteemed husband by 46 years but never ceased in her service to the Cause. When she passed away on August 18th, 1974, Ugo Giachery eulogized her with these words:
Those who had the rare privilege of knowing her over a period of many decades can testify that her undaunted zeal for the objective of the brotherhood of man remained alive and glowing to the very last day of her life on earth.7