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Professional Genealogy in France - l'USGP

Qui êtes-vous?


Ah, the Fête de Saint Sylvestre, which is what the French call Amateur Night. It is also called Réveillon de Saint Sylvestre or Réveillon nouvel an. A réveillon is a big, elaborate, all-the-stops-pulled-out dinner at midnight. No réveillon would be imaginable without champagne and we came across the ad above in the 1924 edition of "Quit êtes-vous?", an elderly French version of Who's Who.

Back in the days before we tried to crush our very Californian heart, mind and soul into the Gallic mould, we experimented with publishing a biographical dictionary in San Francisco. We met our friend and colleague, who was to become our co-publisher, in an oil engineering firm where we had become employed unintentionally, believing when we applied that it was a Japanese entertainment company. (We were quite shocked, our first day on the job, to see photos of oil rigs instead of manga on the walls.) The work was stunning, in the sense that it had the effect on the mind of being hit on the head with a padded mallet every day.

Mindless chores, silly journeys to a massive photocopying machine the only justification for which was its terrific rhythm, a timid, English rose of a boss, a nut-case survivalist supervising her, such was our introduction to the corporate world. We whiled away the time working out tap dancing routines to the photocopying machine's beat. We met our colleague while she was composing a drum solo on one of those clunky old typewriters that had magnetic cards. It is our experience that boredom leads to creativity. As our friendship blossomed over margaritas in nearby Seamus McGovern's Bar & Grill, we hatched a number of get-rich-quick schemes.

We had just completed library school and had learned of the scorn had by research librarians for most biographical dictionaries and especially for "Who's Who". The term "Who's Who" was well-known but had not been copyrighted. A smarter person would have skipped the plot we hatched and simply copyrighted the term. Instead, we decided to bring out our own volume, "You Will Be Who", based primarily on the demographic theory of P.T. Barnum. We got a business license and the impossible: a post office box in San Francisco (our friend wore a garden party hat and flirted like a starlet). We typed out two hundred letters and forms on the mag-card typewriter,  inviting promising folks in all professions to complete the forms and send in the twenty bucks, and posted them. Then we went back to Seamus McGovern's and joyously drank up the profits that never rolled in.

The principle of biographical dictionaries remains about the same as in our scheme. They are outrageously unreliable, facts are not checked, those whose names are entered usually have paid for the privilege, and many different publishers of differing quality use similar titles. This is as true in France as elsewhere.

Bear in mind also that French culture has not traditionally embraced the worship of celebrity, making some even more inclined to fib on their forms. France is not a country where courageous and hardworking nobodies could make fortunes. It is an ex-aristocracy where those who flaunted their wealth and power had their heads forcibly amputated; a punishment that in later times was commuted to bludgeoning by the tax-man. In France, (but for the odd Elvis-imitator) those who show off are those who wish to possess wealth; those who possess it try to hide the fact from the authorities. 

A biographical dictionary almost never should be used as a reliable genealogy source. Nevertheless, it could be a starting place for the gleaning of a few hints that would then have to be verified by a more trustworthy source. So, googling -- especially in the books category -- in a broad search on the terms:

  • Qui êtes-vous?
  • Who's Who in France
  • Dictionnaire biographique
  • Annuaire biographique

will bring some interesting books from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The standard tidbits of information that they tend to contain are:

  • Full name (usually the truth)
  • Parents, spouses, children (occasionally untrue or partially true)
  • Lineage or family background (often pure bushwa)
  • Place of birth (beware of non-existent chateaux) 
  • Education (almost always exaggerated or false)
  • Career (early part usually false; more recent part exaggerated)
  • Publications (value of which are usually inflated)

 Occasionally good for genealogy; always good for a laugh.

Bonne année!

©2010 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy