April 30, 1990
April 30, 1990

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April 30, 1990

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Sacrebleu! Is no one sacred? Apparently not Jacques-Yves Cousteau, whose films and televised voyaging have made at least one generation of youngsters hunger to become marine biologists. He is the subject of Cousteau: the Captain & His World (William Morrow and Co., $19.95) by Richard Munson, who writes like Kitty Kelly in a wet suit.

This is an article from the April 30, 1990 issue Original Layout

Despite Munson's often petty approach, this unauthorized biography is of interest simply because Cousteau has led an interesting life. Cousteau's father, Daniel, a lawyer from Bordeaux, was the adviser-companion to a nomadic American millionaire named Eugene Higgins, the heir to a carpet-company fortune. As a result, young Jacques and his older brother, Pierre, spent two years in Manhattan, where "Jack" attended parochial school and learned to play stickball on 95th Street. In 1930, Jacques entered the French Naval Academy, in Brest. His class was the first to make an around-the-world cruise, and, foreshadowing countless hours of PBS fare, young Cousteau documented the voyage on film.

After finishing second in his class, Cousteau entered the fleet aviation academy, in Hourtin, France. A week before graduation, however, he was nearly killed when he drove his father's sports car off a foggy mountain road. The accident was providential. Cousteau was sent to the Mediterranean fleet, at Toulon, to recuperate from his injuries. There he met Frèdèric Dumas, a spearfisherman, and Philippe Tailliez, a fellow lieutenant who encouraged Cousteau to strengthen his injured left arm by swimming. It was Tailliez who gave Cousteau his first pair of swim goggles, and Cousteau's life changed forever "that summer's day when my eyes opened to the world beneath the surface of the sea." In that same year of 1936, he met 17-year-old Simone Melchior, the daughter of a retired admiral and an aristocratic Irish mother, and a year later they married.

During World War II—while the Nazis were occupying France—Cousteau, Tailliez and Dumas spent much of their time diving in the Mediterranean. It was then that, with engineer Emile Gagnan, Cousteau coinvented the first successful self-contained underwater breathing apparatus (SCUBA). Cousteau also provided the Allies with intelligence on German and Italian naval movements. His greatest coup, according to Munson, was his photographing the Italian naval codebook. Cousteau received the Legion of Honor and the Croix de Guerre with palms for his wartime efforts.

Meanwhile, brother Pierre had become an outspoken admirer of the Nazis. At the end of the war, Pierre was arrested. According to Munson, Jacques apparently offered Pierre and his wife fake passports and transit visas so they could escape to South America. But Pierre refused to leave, and he stood trial for treason. Pierre spent the next seven years in prison before being released, only to die of cancer. During his incarceration, Pierre grew increasingly bitter toward Jacques, believing that Jacques had forsaken him to pursue his career.

Munson claims that the younger Cousteau may have forfeited his naval career because of his brother. Deemed suspect because of Pierre's activities, Jacques was repeatedly passed over for promotion during the remaining years he served on active duty. But by then he was immersed, literally and mentally, in the sea. His first underwater film, Wrecks (1943), prompted the navy to assign him to the new Undersea Research Group, which cleared mines and retrieved cargo from sunken ships. In 1950, Cousteau bought an American-built minesweeper, which he renamed Calypso, to serve as a base for his underwater work. Three years later, he achieved celebrity status with his book The Silent World. Written with James Dugan, it would sell five million copies. In 1956, his film of the same title won an Oscar. Today, some 70 books, three Oscars, 10 Emmys and more than 90 films and television shows later, the 79-year-old Cousteau is both a world figure and an industry. The Cousteau Society, an environmental education organization that finances his expeditions, has 246,000 members; the Foundation Cousteau, which attempts to coordinate information and groups dealing with marine preservation, has 60,000 members; and his company, Aqua Lung International, has $60 million a year in sales.

Although Munson concedes that Cousteau is "clearly one of the great men of the twentieth century," that does not stop the author from peppering his manuscript with digs at his subject. Cousteau is described as "boastful," guilty of a "disturbing elitism" and "selfishness." And. incongruously, he is judged guilty of not doing enough to protect the environment.

Cousteau may not be a perfect being, but neither is his unauthorized biographer. After criticizing Cousteau's stance—or alleged stance, because Munson fails to document it—on the destruction of the ozone layer, the author preaches that "fossil-fuel combustion is depleting the stratospheric ozone, causing what appears to be a greenhouse warming of the earth." That statement is erroneous—and the problem is far more complicated—so it makes one wonder how many more of Munson's conclusions are simply ill-conceived speculation.

Though a public figure for more than 30 years, Cousteau, by choice, has remained an enigma. To the objective reader, Munson's biography does very little to change that state of affairs.