Correction to This Article
A photo caption that ran Sept. 17 with the obituary of Jay Coupe Jr. incorrectly gave his rank as lieutenant. At the time the photo was taken, he was a lieutenant commander.

Navy Capt. Jay Coupe Jr.; Joint Chiefs Spokesman

Jay Coupe Jr., left, then a lieutenant, escorts Lt. Cmdr. John McCain to Hanoi's Gia Lam airport. The future senator was among the prisoners of war the officer escorted to the United States.
Jay Coupe Jr., left, then a lieutenant, escorts Lt. Cmdr. John McCain to Hanoi's Gia Lam airport. The future senator was among the prisoners of war the officer escorted to the United States. (1973 Associated Press Photo)
By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 17, 2006

Jay Coupe Jr., 65, who died Sept. 13 of liver cancer at Manor Care nursing home in Potomac, never hesitated when presented with an opportunity to squeeze a little enjoyment out of life.

He had a serious job -- he was a spokesman for the Joint Chiefs of Staff and had escorted U.S. prisoners of war home from North Vietnam in 1973 -- but the Navy officer firmly believed in winking at pomposity, even if it required chutzpah.

Perhaps his greatest act of bravado came after winning an $800 Washington Opera auction to have dinner with renowned tenor Luciano Pavarotti.

Capt. Coupe entertained the opera star at Romeo Salta, one of New York's best Italian restaurants. He arranged for a friend to dine separately in the restaurant, greet him with feigned surprise and urge the amateur lyric tenor to favor the house with a song.

With Pavarotti's smiling encouragement (" Certo! "), Capt. Coupe launched into " Na Sera 'e Maggio ," from a Neapolitan songbook. "I felt like a choir boy going up in front of the pope," Capt. Coupe told The Washington Post hours later. But the scheme worked: About 50 patrons in the room applauded wildly, as did Pavarotti.

It wasn't the first time the outgoing entertainer had burst into song in public, said his wife, Patrisha Davis.

"His voice was like silk," she said. "He would stand up in the middle of any restaurant in Washington and start to sing. I would cringe, but . . . he had a big, boffo finish, and the whole restaurant would erupt in applause. People sent big bottles of champagne to our table. This happened all the time."

Capt. Coupe had no fear of audiences. A Philadelphia native, he was recruited at 10 to join the Columbus Boychoir in Princeton, N.J. He traveled with his boarding school classmates to concerts around the world until his voice changed two years later. The allure of travel had settled in him, however, and he began collecting languages the way others pick up souvenirs.

"His opinion was because he had an ear for music, he had an ear for languages," his wife said. He spoke eight languages fluently: English, Spanish, French, German, Vietnamese, Mandarin Chinese, Russian and Tagalog.

He graduated from Princeton University, where he sang for four years with the school's all-male Nassoon choir. Commissioned an ensign in the Navy in 1962, he spent much of his service abroad, in Germany, China and eight years at NATO's Southern Command in Italy. Falling in love with the food as well as the music, this American son of English and Irish ancestry joked that if he could, he would have applied for political asylum in Naples. His friends nicknamed him Il Comandante Cativo -- the Naughty Commander.

A man of tremendous self-confidence, then-Lt. Coupe arrived in Vietnam in 1967 with a matched set of Gucci luggage and an intention to enjoy life as much as possible in a war zone. Based at Can Tho in the Mekong Delta through the Tet Offensive, the young public affairs officer cooked Italian meals for visiting reporters and military brass on stove or Sterno, usually capped with an operatic digestivo .

He returned to Vietnam in 1973, a year after he received a master's degree in communications from Boston University. His job then was to escort home the U.S. military troops who had been held captive in North Vietnam.

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