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September 2001 Vol. 16, No. 9   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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The Bitter Legacy of Jacques Cousteau

from the September, 2001 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

The Caypso, Jacques Cousteau’s famous boat, memorialized by John Denver’s song Caypso, lies rotting in the French port of La Rochelle. To Alexandra Cousteau, the beautiful 25-year-old granddaughter of Jacques and the daughter of Philippe, Francine Cousteau is the culprit. A 55-yearold former air flight attendant, she married Jacques in 1990, months after the death of Simone, his wife of 50 years.

Jacques had lived a lie for more than a decade, fathering two children with his long-term mistress. When he died, aged 87, in 1997, he left control of the Cousteau empire, the rights to his name and his huge archive of television footage to Francine, who also runs the Cousteau Society. Alexandra is not even allowed to see the hundreds of hours of archived TV film he produced. She says: “Nothing is more terrible than what has happened to the Calypso. I visited her recently and I cried for two days when I saw the state she was in. I have been told that if nothing is done to prese rve her soon, she will sink within the year. It is a tragedy.” Ironically, the Calypso has sunk before. In January 1996 it was hit by a barge in Singapore and spent two weeks on the ocean floor before it was raised.

Alexandria says: “the Calypso signifies the work my grandfather and father did to introduce a different world to people everywhere. The Calypso should be preserved as a monument to those two great men. Instead, no one seems to care about her and there is nothing I can do. Legally, I am powerless.” She says that her stepmother has nothing to do with her or her family.

Alexandra, an avid scuba diver, vows to dedicate her life to furthering what she calls the “simple” Cousteau message on conservation and ecolog y. Last year, she and her mother, Jan, and her brother, Philippe, set up the Philippe Cousteau Foundation. They participated in the Bonaire Dive Festival in June, which was sponsored by the Coral Reef Alliance.

Her father Philippe, put Alexandra into the sea when she was just 3 months old. She says: “By nine months, I was water-safe.” Her father died in 1979 trying to land his seaplane, called the Flying Calypso, on the Taos River in Portugal. He was 39. “My grandfather never got over it,” says Alexandra. “He spent hours telling me about my father. He kept Dad very much alive for me.

“Dad was the one Jacques had groomed to take over everything. They were like two peas in a pod. My grandmother Simone ... was an unsung hero, who never sought any glory or attention, but she kept the Calypso running smoothly and she helped make my grandfather the man he was. He would never have been the Captain Cousteau everyone knows and loves without her.”

Weeks after Francine died, Jacques moved in with, and then quietly married, his secret mistress Francine Triplet. Then came another rift. Relations between Jacques and his other son, architect Jean-Michel, had never been good and in 1993 they hit rock bottom when Jacques sued to prevent Jean-Michel using the Cousteau name to plug a resort he owned in Fiji. They eventually settled their dispute.

Jacques Cousteau is buried in a tiny village cemetery in Bordeaux. It was another decision by his widow that appalled Alexandra and her family. “It would have been appropriate for him to be put to rest at sea rather than in the ground. It is not what he wanted.”

From a report by Caroline Graham in the London Mail, 05/20/2001; You may contact the Philippe Cousteau Foundation at P.O. Box 3719, Vero Beach, FL 32964-3719 or visit their website at cousteaufoundation.org.

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