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Radu Florescu, 88; historian added flesh to Dracula myth

Professors Radu Florescu (left) and Ray McNally collaborated on books on Dracula and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The two taught at Boston College.

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/file 1989

Professors Radu Florescu (left) and Ray McNally collaborated on books on Dracula and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The two taught at Boston College.

By the time Radu Florescu and his Boston College colleague Raymond McNally were finished demystifying the vampire myths, Dracula didn’t know what bit him.

Beginning with their best-selling 1972 book “In Search of Dracula,” Dr. Florescu and McNally, who died in 2002, showed that the historical Count Dracula was Vlad Tepes, a 15th-century prince in the Wallachia region of Romania who alternately was revered and feared. Bram Stoker’s 1897 gothic novel melded accurate details about the prince with Transylvanian folklore to create a Dracula who, for all his neck biting, was more palatable than Vlad, whom Dr. Florescu called “fascinating, enigmatic, cruel.”

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Known as Vlad the Impaler for his preferred method of killing, the real-life Dracula dispatched tens of thousands in far more gruesome ways than the ends met by vampire victims in films and TV shows from Bela Lugosi’s 1931 portrayal to Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 film to the just-canceled NBC series “Dracula.”

“Many filmmakers, including Coppola, are beginning to incorporate Vlad into their Dracula figures,” Dr. Florescu told the Globe in 1992. “However, impalement presents a real problem for most viewers.”

Dr. Florescu, a Romanian-born professor emeritus of history at Boston College who formerly served as honorary consul of Romania for New England, died of complications from pneumonia Sunday in a hospital in Mougins, France. He was 88 and divided his time between Antibes, France, Scituate, and his homeland’s Transylvania region.

“My father was an interesting combination of qualities,” said his son John of New York City and Bucharest. “He was a gentle soul and a gentleman, and also somebody with tremendous drive and determination.”

Along with his Dracula best-sellers, Dr. Florescu wrote about the Frankenstein legend and published books and academic articles about the history of Romania and the Balkan region. Balancing the demands of scholarly research with the public hunger for pop culture tidbits could be challenging. “This is not a vampire book,” he said in 1989 about one of his volumes, adding: “We are historians. This is not a superficial thing.”

Still, his writings about Dracula and Frankenstein drew invitations to sit down with Johnny Carson on “The Tonight Show” and with David Frost for an ABC special. Fueling public fascination was Dr. Florescu’s personal connection: an ancestor had married Radu the Handsome, one of Vlad’s brothers.

“When he gained quite a bit of fame because of his Dracula books, the more fame that came, the more modest he was,” Dr. Florescu’s son said. “He never took his media attention too seriously.”

More vital for Dr. Florescu were the Romanian youths he helped bring to the United States to study on scholarships, the US politicians he advised on Romanian issues, and the research about his homeland that he conducted and promoted. Although he patiently served as an academic arbiter, assuring reporters that the real Count Dracula did not have fangs, he believed his real role lay elsewhere.

“To me, Romania is very serious. I don’t like to see it spoofed,” he told the Globe in 1989. “My chief objective has been to place Dracula in a Romanian and European context. He was a very major European figure, sadly vampirized in time.”

Radu R. Florescu was born in Bucharest. His father was a lawyer and diplomat who resigned from the diplomatic service at the outset of World War II and later taught college in the United States. Educated at The Sorbonne in Paris, and fluent in five languages, his mother was once dubbed “the most beautiful hostess of the Washington diplomatic corps” by a Washington newspaper.

At 13, with the war beginning, Dr. Florescu boarded a train in Romania at the urging of his parents to join his family in London. Awarded a university scholarship to Christ Church, Oxford, he studied under the historian A.J.P. Taylor.

In 1950, he married Nicole Michel, who is French, and they traveled by cargo ship to the United States. “It was true love because my mother would always get seasick,” their son said. “That was a difficult journey.”

Dr. Florescu studied at the University of Texas and received a doctorate from Indiana University before accepting a teaching position at Boston College in 1953. “He had very little money and he had to sell vacuum cleaners to pay for his studies when he was in Texas,” his son said.

A few years later at Boston College, his colleague McNally was watching the TV feature “Chiller Theater” one night when the accurate geographical details in Bela Lugosi’s 1931 “Dracula” film piqued his academic interest.

“I thought, if the author went to such pains, there must have been something to the real Dracula character,” McNally told the Globe in 1989. He approached Dr. Florescu for assistance, launching a collaboration that extended through the Dracula books and a volume about Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Assisted by Fulbright fellowships, the two professors spent some 20 years gleaning Dracula lore from libraries and archives in Romania, Yugoslavia, and Turkey. Dr. Florescu told the Globe in 1994 that his role was to establish that Vlad was “not just as a horror figure,” but also “a fascinating, enigmatic, cruel, and highly ambivalent personality.”

“As a historian,” he added, “you have to put this in perspective.”

During the decades when Romania was a communist country, Dr. Florescu tried to visit every year. In 1996, when Romania opened its first honorary consulate in the United States, he was named honorary consul for New England.

In recent years he donated family land in Romania to a hospice organization that provides care for younger terminally ill patients.

Writing until near the end of his life, Dr. Florescu cowrote a history of his own ancestry, “Dracula Bloodlines: A Florescu Family Saga,” with Matei Cazacu last year and attended a book signing at Boston College in the fall.

Dr. Florescu, who always used one of his seven manual typewriters, kept writing until “his hands and fingers were no longer strong enough to hit the keys and make a mark on the paper,” his son said.

A service will be announced for Dr. Florescu, who in addition to his wife and son leaves two other sons, Nicholas of Houston and Radu of Bucharest; a daughter, Alexandra Lobkowicz of Prague; a sister, Yvonne of Minster in the district of Kent, England, whose religious name is Sister John the Baptist; and 13 grandchildren.

In the late 1960s, during one of his visits to Romania, Dr. Florescu traveled with a great-uncle to definitively identify Dracula’s actual castle. Though as an academic, he could dryly recount the many atrocities of Vlad the Impaler, he found this site unsettling.

“Oh, yes, we discovered the castle,” he told the Globe in 1987. “It was an eerie place on a mountain top. There were some turrets left, but it’s basically an old abandoned fortress. I must admit, it was a bit scary.”

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.
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