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‘Jacques Cousteau: The Sea King’: a life in and about the ocean

By John Hartl

“I loved touching water. Physically. Sensually. Water fascinated me.”

Trying to describe an early memory, of diving into a silty lake and opening his eyes under water for the first time, Jacques Cousteau was instinctively eloquent on the beginnings of a lifelong obsession.

“He was not at all frightened,” adds his Vashon Island-based biographer, Brad Matsen. “The water soothed him and banished all fear.”

Perhaps it was this trauma-less, literally eye-filling underwater experience that led to so many brave confrontations with death, so many narrow escapes, so many advances in the technology of underwater exploration.

When he died on June 25, 1997, Cousteau owned one of the most recognizable faces on the planet. Oscar-winning filmmaker, environmental activist, French resistance fighter and scuba diver extraordinaire, he seemed to jam many lifetimes into one very busy and public one.

Yet, as Matsen deftly demonstrates, we hardly knew him. For all his fame, Cousteau, who had an official wife and two sons, successfully led a secret life that included a mistress and two children. Only after the first wife died would he reveal that he’d had a second family for two decades.

During his later years, Cousteau continued to accept awards, create landmark movies and make speeches for his beloved Cousteau Society. But, as Matsen so wryly puts it, “he saw few people outside his immediate families.” Even then, Cousteau could be snippy. When his older son, Philippe, announced that he would marry an American, Jacques and his wife, Simone, refused to attend the wedding.

The black sheep in the Cousteau history was his older brother, Pierre-Antoine, an anti-Semitic journalist who became a Nazi collaborator. Around the same time, Jacques was spying for the other side, earning the French Legion of Honor for his work.

Possibly the strangest event in their relationship was a 1942 screening of Jacques’ early movie, “Sixty Feet Down,” for an audience of German officers and Vichy politicians in occupied Paris. Pierre-Antoine arranged the screening and a reception. After the war, he was nearly shot for following Nazi orders. Also after the war, Jacques’ follow-up film, “Epaves,” won a special prize at the first Cannes Film Festival in 1946. One decade later, he would return to take the top Cannes prize for “The Silent World,” which later won a documentary Oscar. In 1965, he would win another Academy Award for “World Without Sun.”

Matsen describes Cousteau’s Oscar winners as huge box-office successes, yet neither led immediately to other films. Cousteau was forced to go into television — where he had his greatest success, collaborating with David Wolper, PBS and eventually Ted Turner. Each of these relationships led to problems too, partly because Cousteau’s ratings winners (sharks, sunken treasures) were often followed by pessimistic programs about lead poisoning, nuclear waste and Japanese fishermen slaughtering dolphins. By the end of his life, he no longer believed that the planet was salvageable.

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