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Peter Gay: 1923 - 2015

The death occurred last week at his home in Manhattan of the biographer of Freud and eminent historian of the European Enlightenment, of the Victorian era and of Weimar Germany, Peter Gay. Gay was born in Berlin in 1923 as Peter Joachim Israel Fröhlich and became, as an American citizen, Peter Jack Gay (fröhlich in German means happy).

Gay’s second book, in 1959, was Voltaire’s Politics, (his first, seven years previously, was a study of the revisionist socialist Eduard Bernstein, based on his PhD). This intellectual vein was further explored in the two-part The Enlightenment: An Interpretation” (1966 and 1969). Later notable works were Weimar Culture: The Outsider as Insider (1968), the five-volume The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, published from 1984 to 1998, Freud: A Life for Our Time in 1998 and Schitzler’s Century in 2002. He also wrote books on modernism in the visual arts, a study of Mozart and a memoir of his youth, My German Question: Growing Up in Nazi Berlin (1988)

In 1938, the young Gay was forced out of his school, and his father’s share of a glassware business appropriated by his “Aryan” partner. The family was lucky to be able to emigrate, arriving in the United States via Cuba. Gay graduated from the University of Denver then did a master’s and a PhD at Columbia. He taught first political science and then history there and in 1969 moved to teach history at Yale, where he stayed until his retirement in 1993.

Gay came from a non-religious family and was himself non-religious, believing that he was made a Jew only by Nazi decree. “Jewish awareness? Jewish identity? These were empty slogans to them — and hence to me,” he wrote in My German Question. Another way of putting it was that he was “a Jew without God”.

The Yale historian Jay Winter, who was an undergraduate at Columbia when Gay taught there, described him as “a man who writes like an angel”. “The world of ideas was an elegant idea; [Gay] thought it should be expressed in elegant prose,” said Jon Butler, a former Yale history professor who overlapped with Gay in the department for nearly a decade. “There were very few historians who could or would equal his achievements.”