Papa Doc was particularly fond of puns, but only in English. French puns, he claimed, inexplicably evoked in him a vague feeling of homesickness which, since he was already home, he found distinctly disturbing. Sometimes his sense of humor could be really lame. The idiotic "Voodoo? Who do?", for example, never ceased to break him up.
But he enjoyed more sophisticated wordplay as well. I remember one uproarious comment that I made during a private screening of Gone With The Wind at which just Papa, Baby and I were present. Right after Butterfly McQueen remarked that she didn't know nothin' 'bout birthin' babies, I— without missing a beat— piped up with "Come on, Butterfly, they come out of your coucoune!". Coucoune is Creole slang for "pussy". Papa almost had a coronary. Baby just frowned disapprovingly.
Speaking of GWTW, another little known fact about Papa was his great love for movies and all things Hollywood. He had a secret stash of fan magazines like Photoplay and Modern Screen. He would spend hours poring over them in his private study and loved to steep himself in Hollywood lore and movie minutiae. To mention Veronica Lake, Grace Kelly or Carole Lombard in front of him was to risk enduring not only an immature, glassy-eyed sexual rhapsodizing more suited to an acne-pocked teenage boy than to a brutal dictator, but also a pretentious, hours-long lecture about Hitchcock's use of the male gaze in Rear Window or how Sullivan's Travels changed his life.
Of his inner circle, only Papa knew— or cared for that matter— that Harold Russell, the double amputee who portrayed Homer in The Best Years Of Our Lives, was the only actor ever to win two Oscars for the same role or that Myrna Loy had turned down the Claudette Colbert role in It Happened One Night because another recent picture set on a bus had bombed.
He loved contemporary movies too, and in a wide variety of genres. He was as equally fond of a cutting edge picture like Bonnie and Clyde as he was of an overblown Hollywood epic like The Greatest Story Ever Told or a piece of forgettable fluff like Casino Royale, the latter co-starring a young Woody Allen who he thought was a big talent. He told anyone who would listen that the rising comic would be a big hit in the movies— prescient, considering that he didn't even live to see the release of Bananas, let alone the auteur's later, more important work. Regrettably, he also didn't survive to see the film renaissance of the 1970s. He would've loved Scorsese. There were few movies, in fact, that Papa didn't like, though he quite understandably wasn't fond of The Comedians, not only due to the subject matter but also because he found Richard Burton in general to be "a scenery chewer" (his words).
Papa took great joy in the fact that he shared a birthday with Julie Christie, John Gielgud and Rod Steiger, who became three of his favorites - as much, I would argue, because of the common history as for their respective acting talents. Steiger he adored in No Way To Treat A Lady. So moved and inspired was he after seeing Gielgud as King Louis VII in Becket on March 31, 1964, that he declared himself President For Life the following day, ignoring his advisors' vociferous admonitions to "not do it on April Fools". As for Christie, he had fallen in love with her as Lara in Dr. Zhivago long before he had learned that they had biographical details in common. After he read about her birthday, however, his infatuation grew until it bordered on unhealthy obsession, even occasioning a huge row with his wife Simone in which she was said to have screamed many bitter and untoward things about the teeth of the British. His love for "his Julie", however, continued unabated (though he was admittedly less vocal about it). It is rumored— though it has never been confirmed— that he was secretly shown an early rough cut of McCabe & Mrs. Miller although it wasn't released until two months after his death. In fact, on more than one occasion Papa was overheard saying "Robert Altman is the greatest living actor's director" to one of his Tonton Macoutes.
I arrived in Port-au-Prince in 1962, when Jean-Claude was 10 years old, and left in June of 1971— two months after Francois' death— at the request of Simone Duvalier, who never really liked me (I looked as if I hadn't aged a day in that span. The Haitians assumed that it was due to one of Papa's Voodoo spells). Actually, "request" is a kind word. I'd have stayed if I could've— to further the spread of the uprising that I had for so many years endeavored to quietly foment— but it was made clear, albeit subtly, that doing so might prove hazardous to my health. Baby was happy to see me go. I reminded him of his own stupidity and the fact that his father loved me more than him.
Those nine years, though, were heady times. By 1963, I was privy to everything. It was fascinating hearing Papa hold forth. He loved to rant about Kennedy in particular. "That Irish prick would just as soon have me killed", Papa said on more than one occasion. "But now he needs me. Fidel Castro is the world's greatest insurance policy". Kennedy was killed that November, but Castro thrived. And Papa went from ranting about "that Irish prick" to ranting about "that Cowboy prick". The things I heard could fill an entire juicy book if I were so inclined.
This will probably come as no shock to you, dear reader, but Baby had a mean streak. I specifically remember one balmy Christmas afternoon. The three of us had gone outside to play some football. "We're very Kennedyesque" Papa had deadpanned, tongue firmly planted in cheek. It was me against Baby with Papa as all time quarterback— he called it "Quarterback For Life". He had no real arm to speak of but he was very efficient and made good decisions. That, coupled with his bespectacled look, would, in retrospect, remind me of Hall-Of-Famer Bob Griese (I can remember one game in particular during Miami's undefeated 1972 campaign, before Griese got hurt. It was about the third game of the season. I was back in the States, but still rooting for the Fins. After all, spend nine years in Haiti and Miami is your home team. The Vikes were ahead 14-6, late in the fourth. Miami kicked a field goal to inch closer— a 51 yarder, to boot— then Minnesota did nothing with the ball. Griese got! the ball back and led the team downfield with precision, capping it with a short touchdown pass to the tight end Jim Mandich with less then a minute and a half on the clock. I couldn't believe my eyes. "My God", I gasped. "That could be Papa").
At one point I was driving, moving the ball pretty much at will against Baby's soft defense— he was giving me plenty of room off the line because he had a thing about being touched. With only one completion to go for yet another first down, Papa called a simple post pattern. The hard count failed to draw Baby off sides, so Papa finally called "hike" and moved back in the pocket. Baby leg whipped me as I came off the line. I went down, hard. But that was Baby for you. A vicious leg whip during a friendly Christmas game of "two hand touch" pretty much says it all. Papa saw the whole thing and called the penalty. This gave me yardage and an automatic first down. I scored on the next play and went on to win, handily. Truth be told, I don't think Baby ever forgave Papa for it. I distinctly remember hearing him say in the huddle, practically spitting with anger, "Jesús, Papá! Maintenant vous décidez de jouer loyalement."
Baby and I did have some bonding moments over the years, however. One was over a girl that he liked when he was thirteen and just into puberty. Her name was Constance and he was afraid to talk to her because his voice was changing and every time he was in her presence he'd get a spontaneous and uncontrollable erection. Although I assured him that the voice part was endearing, and that she hadn't ever noticed the boner, he was genuinely mortified. So I acted as an intermediary, first passing surreptitious notes of the "I know someone who likes you" variety and then arranging casual meetings of the three of us, so that I could do most of the talking— always a litany about Baby and all that he had to recommend him— while at the same time serving as a human shield to block her view of his pants. Baby was able to just sit back— grooving to his Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs album, sipping one of his beloved cream sodas— and look cherubic. (Boy did he overplay that record. It was "Wooly Bully", night and day, all the friggin' time. That was bad enough, but to make matters worse, Constance turned him on to The Searchers and he drove everyone nuts singing "Love Potion Number Nine" ad nauseam). In the end, Baby lost his virginity and I scored serious points. To this day, however, I don't know if Constance actually liked Baby or if she was simply afraid that if she declined, Duvalier's bogeymen would butcher her family.
Please don't misunderstand. I wasn't enjoying any of this. Yes, Kurt Vonnegut wrote that we are what we pretend to be, but I was actually one of the good guys. Although I was in the Duvalier inner-circle for the better part of a decade, I was actually secretly working with the opposition, helping to plant the very earliest seeds of what would, many years later, become operation déchoukaj, the popular revolt which forced Mama, Baby and Baby's then wife Michele into exile in 1986.
Baby doesn't know this, but in late 1989 I saw him in a café on the Left Bank. He was drinking coffee at a small corner table, aggressively smoking a filterless Gitanes. I was walking past, hand-in-hand with my then wife Beth, a former Guggenheim fellow and closet renifleur from Young America, MN. He didn't see me and I didn't stop to say hello.
Sometimes it's best to let sleeping exiles lie.
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