Gasping for Air
Jacques Cousteau’s importance fades with each passing year to the point where he’s remembered more and more through cultural shorthand. I know him for his formidable French accent and scuba diving abilities. Somewhere along the way those characteristics stuck with me, and I have no idea how.
At one point, Cousteau (1910-1997) was one of the most recognizable people in the world, and Brad Matsen’s Jacques Cousteau: The Sea King offers a stirring reminder of the man’s greatness. Cousteau’s accomplishments are so numerous and influential that they border on parody. He invented the Aqua-Lung, which allowed people to breathe comfortably underwater for the first time. Inspired by the silent film 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Cousteau took underwater filmmaking and oceanography to unprecedented heights, bringing images and information that opened millions of minds. He won two Academy Awards for his documentaries (a young Louis Malle was head cameraman for The Silent World) before transitioning into a legendary career on television. Before it was cool to care about the planet, Cousteau’s specials exposed the oceans' fragile health and other environmental issues. Nothing was handed to Cousteau. For years, he built his legend on a part-time basis, not leaving the French navy until age 47 to pursue his passions full-time. Lacking funds for a desperately needed ship, Cousteau leased the famed Calypso from wealthy businessman Loel Guinness for one pound a year in perpetuity. “Like so many other people who fell under the spell of Cousteau’s charm and ambition, Guinness was willing to help him, but as a businessman, he knew where to draw the line,” Matsen writes.
Matsen excels at (re-)introducing Cousteau to the world; some of what he unearths isn’t laudatory. Cousteau was a shameless womanizer who kept a second family secret for years. Six months after wife Simone died, Cousteau married his longtime paramour, former flight attendant Francine Triplet. And, in a classy move, the ceremony took place on the twelfth anniversary of his son’s death. After Philippe Cousteau perished in a plane crash, the old man never mentioned his son and collaborator in public again. That reaction may stem from Cousteau’s brother, Pierre-Antoine, being imprisoned as a Nazi collaborator in 1946. Pierre-Antoine’s life sentence forced Jacques to keep his distance and to learn, according to Matsen, that “all relationships are transitory.” You might want to add stormy. Jacques and Simone objected to Philippe marrying an American, refusing to attend the ceremony. Their wedding gift was a certificate enrolling the bride in a French language course. Following Jacques’s hasty, distasteful second marriage, son Jean-Michel stopped working for his father. Jacques’s response: “. . . As he had with everyone who committed the ultimate act of betrayal by leaving him, he banished Jean-Michel into the unmentionable recesses of the past,” Matsen writes.
Matsen, an established marine science and environmental writer, obviously looks up to Cousteau. He hopes the book provides “a respectful, honest remembrance of the man who brought the oceans and rivers of the world to life for all of us.” But Matsen doesn’t live up to his objective. He does a wonderful job showing how Cousteau introduced the world’s waterways to the masses, but by offering a glimpse into Cousteau’s personal life Matsen makes a promise to show that side of the man. It’s a promise the author can’t keep, and one of several holes that sink the book.
We never learn what made Cousteau stray from Simone and how their marriage turned into a loveless slog. Cousteau’s second family is mentioned throughout the narrative, but we learn next to nothing about them. How did he include them in his busy life? Was he a good father to these children, whose names we never learn? Matsen writes that Francine Triplet “disappeared completely from public view for 14 years.” That explains the lack of information I suppose, but it doesn’t excuse leaving these questions unanswered. It’s not acceptable to offer a startling secret and have that pass as sufficient reporting, as proof that a cherished public figure was indeed human.
If Matsen had been a little less enamored with his subject, he would have discovered that Cousteau also had significant professional faults. Bernie Chowdhury’s The Last Dive makes it clear that Cousteau didn’t adapt to advances in scuba diving. Here, the author describes watching a Cousteau special with divers Chris and Chrissy Rouse, the book’s subjects:
When one of the Cousteau team threw the spent flare aside, we all went into hysterics. The team was violating the most basic principles of cave conservation at every turn. We had all been drilled with the mantra of cave explorers: “Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but bubbles.” The Cousteau team polluted the cave unnecessarily with their flares, when underwater diving lights would have served them far better, and they threw their trash away in the cave with complete disregard for the environment. That this icon of environmental protection should be doing so in front of an international audience was too much for us. Not only that but their breathing tanks were woefully inadequate for the dive, with insufficient reserve gas for an emergency, and they did not use equipment invented by Dr. [George] Benjamin himself [who was in the special]—which had become standard in the cave-diving community and which would have made this dive safer.
Despite Matsen’s approach, The Sea King is informative, exhaustively researched, and enlightening in regards to Jacques Cousteau the institution, Jacques Cousteau the innovator. But even when Matsen examines Cousteau’s legacy, it's hard to stay engaged. Matsen’s utilitarian writing style, which relies on lengthy paragraphs and sparse quotes, often saddles The Sea King with the flow of a particularly well-written Wikipedia entry or textbook chapter. It doesn’t help that Cousteau’s dives and inventions are described in frequently impenetrable detail. For those whose grasp on the mechanical and scientific is less than sound, those passages will feel like homework. The Sea King requires a certain amount of patience from readers, and with all the obstacles to overcome it’s a matter of time before readers return to the surface for another option.
Pete Croatto’s essays, criticism, and humor writing have appeared in MAD, Publishers Weekly, BookPage, and the (Newark) Star-Ledger. He also reviews movies for ICON and FilmCritic.com, and maintains a movie blog. Pete currently lives in central New Jersey with three bookshelves made by his dad and an overused library card. Contact Pete.