Menocal remembered for vivacious spirit

María Rosa Menocal, a humanities professor known for her work on medieval Spain whose vivacious presence spearheaded a rapid expansion of the Whitney Humanities Center, died Monday of melanoma. She was 59.

A renowned scholar and author, Menocal became a Sterling professor of the humanities in 2005 and served as director of the Whitney Humanities Center from 2001 to 2012, where she launched an effort to rebrand the institution and broaden its influence. She emphasized bringing scholars from all fields, including the sciences, together to share ideas and cultivate a sense of academic community in the Center. Considered a “mother hen” figure by the doctoral students who worked under her, Menocal nurtured an extensive network of friends and mentees­ with whom she shared her passion for good food, music and scholarship.

“She had this ability to understand people that was unique and remarkable,” said Menocal’s husband, R. Crosby Kemper ’74. “Part of it was about work, part about food, but it was ultimately about her sympathy to character.”

Born in Cuba in 1953, Menocal left the country at the age of seven with her family as exiles of the Castro Revolution, Kemper said, adding that this “profound childhood experience” shaped the rest of her life. Impassioned by the idea of exile, Menocal lived in Cuba, Philadelphia, New Haven, Cairo, Madrid, Paris and New York, and her research popularized the notion that Christian, Jewish and Muslim groups played equally important roles in molding medieval Spain’s culture.

Kemper said Menocal’s identity as an exile helped her form strong relationships with others.

“She’s a genius at conversation in both the normal everyday sense and the larger sense, in the cultural sense of conversation across all barriers — cultural, ethnic, relgious, age,” Kemper said. “She was a genius in that, in part because of her very positive sense of exile, her sense that we’re all exiles in one way or another.”

Menocal’s former students praised her willingness to take them under her wing, and several said she had motivated them to pursue studies related to medieval Spain.

After reading Menocal’s book “The Arabic Role in Medieval Literary History: A Forgotten Heritage,” Lourdes Alvarez GRD ’94 said she was so inspired by the material that she contacted Menocal by phone and eventually decided to apply to Yale.

“I hadn’t even applied to Yale, and she was happy to talk on the phone for 45 minutes,” Alvarez said. “This was only the first glimmer of her unbelievable intellectual generosity.”

Though she initially commuted to New Haven from Philadelphia when she began teaching at Yale in 1986, Menocal frequently invited students to her home for “incredible dinner parties,” Alvarez said, adding that Menocal made an excellent paella.

Menocal’s cancer diagnosis in 2009 did nothing to stop her penchant for holding events for friends and colleagues. When her surgery required her to wear an eyepatch, Menocal hosted a pirate-themed party at the Whitney, Yale College Dean Mary Miller said.

“I went to this party not dressed as pirate and not carrying a parrot, and as a result I was made to walk the plank,” Miller said.

Humanities program Chair Howard Bloch said Menocal’s personality transformed the Whitney into a place where scholars from multiple fields and levels of experience came together through shared intellectual interests, “many of which only became apparent through the kind of intense dialogue she sparked.”

Early in her tenure as director of the Whitney, Menocal brought Salman Rushdie to hold a lecture in Battell Chapel that drew crowds snaking along Elm Street and “kicked off her directorship in a very exciting and visible way,” said Rolena Adorno, chair of the Spanish and Portuguese Department.

Menocal broadened the scope of the Whitney’s fellowship program, appointing 285 fellows to the Center during her tenure as director. Ryan Szpiech GRD ’06, who helped with administrative duties for the Whitney while he studied under Menocal, said the expansion internationalized the Center and made the institution “absolutely world-class.”

In a statement published on Yale News Tuesday, English professor and renowned literary critic Harold Bloom described Menocal as “the rarest of companions.”

“Walt Whitman thought that the soul’s survival depended upon being stored in the memories of those it had enriched,” Bloom said. “For many of us the enlargement of our lives testifies to some of the ways in which María Rosa Menocal will go on living.”

Menocal is survived by Kemper, her parents, three siblings, two children and one grandchild.

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