Using court records, family papers, household accounts and government archives, Ms. Vella constructed a gripping family drama that told a larger tale, shedding light on “the complexities of class, marriage, family economy, politics and the law, both in France and in Louisiana, spanning four generations of two families,” Angeline Goreau wrote in The New York Times Book Review.
Ms. Vella told the reference work Contemporary Authors in 2006, “History is above all a human drama, and peering into it can be as exciting as opening a diary you find in an attic.” She added, “Any analysis of great movements in history is far more fascinating and trustworthy if we can distinguish individual faces among the masses and hear their voices within the din of abstract ideas.”
Christina Vella was born in New Orleans on March 14, 1942. Her father, Mario, was a traveling salesman who married a distant cousin, Nicolina, with the same last name. She was a homemaker.
The family moved to the tiny town of Pearl River, La., when Christina was young, but she attended school in New Orleans, about 40 miles from home.
She enrolled in Louisiana State University but left to teach in the public schools of St. Bernard Parish, near New Orleans. Through correspondence courses she earned a bachelor’s degree in history in 1965. She later took night courses at the University of New Orleans, which awarded her a master’s degree in history in 1971.
Ms. Vella taught history for several years at St. Bernard Community College (now Nunez Community College) in Chalmette, La., before earning a doctorate in 1990 in modern European and American history from Tulane University, where she was an adjunct professor of history for many years. Her dissertation, on the Baroness de Pontalba, was the basis for her first book.
In 1980 she married Robert Riehl. The marriage ended in divorce. In addition to her daughter Robin, she is survived by another daughter, Christina Riehl.
“Intimate Enemies” established Ms. Vella as a meticulous historian with a flair for description and an eye for the telling detail.
She also had a nose for a good story, regardless of the historical period. “The Hitler Kiss: A Memoir of the Czech Resistance” (2002), written with Radomir Luza, plunged into the world of the Czech resistance during World War II, seen through the eyes of Mr. Luza and his father, a Czech general.
“Indecent Secrets: The Infamous Murri Murder Affair” (2006) served up another helping of scandal, this time in turn-of-the-century Bologna, where Count Francesco Bonmartini was found stabbed to death in his apartment. Ms. Vella unearthed the details of a celebrated trial involving the count’s wife, Linda Murri, the free-living daughter of a celebrated surgeon — the newspapers called her “the enchantress” — and a cast of co-conspirators.
“It stayed on the front pages of every newspaper in Italy from 1902 to 1906, and it was still surfacing in articles as late as 1910,” Ms. Vella told The Times-Picyaune of New Orleans in 2006. “It was bigger than the O. J. case!”
The composer Thea Musgrave turned “Intimate Enemies” into an opera, “Pontalba,” which had its premiere in New Orleans in 2003.
Ms. Vella also wrote “George Washington Carver: A Life,” published in 2015, and at her death had completed a biography of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the father of modern Turkey.