Somewhere along the line, Jacques-Yves Cousteau, inventor of the aqualung and the jet-propelled two-man deep diving saucer, pioneer in underwater photography, underwater living, ocean ecology, winner of two Oscars, nine Emmies, the Chevalier de la Legion d'Honneur, the International Environment Prize, holder of honorary degrees from Harvard, Berkeley and Brandeis, producer of more than 70 films and 32 books and professor of 22 broken bones, turned into the Walt Disney of the ocean, Lowell Thomas with flippers.
It's a modern American tragedy and parallels similar trends in publishing, media, government and the arts, where people of substance find the popcorn lure of superstardom increasingly seductive, convenient, necessary, even unavoidable. From the televised smile we move to easily consumable personal details: the Adventures of Norman Mailer, Susan Sontag, Jerry Brown, Teddy Kennedy, Jacques Cousteau. In these terms, the most memorable image of the space program is a golfball on the moon.
By the same token, we're left with Captain Cousteau in his red hat and yellow-striped diving suit petting sharks, riding on whales, ballooning over the Antarctic, flying up the Nile.For an hour our television sets become acquariums, full of bright fish, tiny men, the miniature mothership Calypso, submarines and well-programmed adventure, including the idea that the whole liquid world we are watching is in mortal danger from pollution. "Zhe ozheans aire dhayeegn!" Very close to fantasy, except it's really happening. Or is it? Whether fantasy or reality, it doesn't matter. The American people have spoken. Three years after his TV debut, the Home Testing Institute rated Cousteau fifth most popular of 250 television stars.
The image gradually took on the kind of ultimate pop dimensions that have prompted singer John Denver (a Cousteau Society advisory board member) to write his song "Aye, Calypso," toy companies to market Calypso models and to try, but fail, to get the captain's approval for a Cousteau doll with removable diving suit, and other familiar articles of clothing.
The parallels between Cousteau and Disney were strengthened this year when Cousteau unveiled plans for a $20-million-or-more, "Cousteau Oceans Center" to be built on the Norfolk waterfront. One of the original Disneyland exhibit designers is a consultant to the project and Cousteau's staff hopes to have science fiction author Ray Bradbury as chairman of the design advisory committee. The center will use rides, exhibits and a giant dome screen theater to put visitors into a controlled, artificial fantasy environment. Like the Disney theme parks, there will be no living animals, but plenty of models. According to the preliminary feasibility study, the center would draw 1.5 million visitors a year even if its namesake, now 70, should die. Also like the Disney parks, the Cousteau Center will function as something of a monument -- the final docking place of Calypso, the end of the line. With the death of his son Philippe in 1979, there seems to be no new Captain Cousteau in sight -- his eldest son Jean-Michel has never been inclined to assume the role. So personal is the image it's almost impossible to imagine the ship or even the Cousteau Society going on without one.
I went down to Norfolk to talk to Cousteau about all this with some sense of trepidation. The real Cousteau has a mercurial reputation. He dislikes above all else discussing his public image.
Norfolk has been trying to reel in Cousteau for years, competing with other cities such as Miami, St. Petersburg, Ft. Lauderdale, Jacksonville and Baltimore. The Cousteau image is so powerful he is seen by city fathers and businessmen in terms of raw drawing power. They believe he will attract people to hotels and retail outlets; real estate values will soar. The Cousteau people turned down the losing cities for being too blatantly venal, but Norfolk's aims were higher: they wanted to make the Cousteau Center the crown jewel in an ambitous $100 million waterfront renewal project. cHe and his museum of the sea are seen as the ticket to revitalizing downtown.
It needs a lot.Downtown Norfolk is a classic example of urban renewal run wild. Practically the entire waterfront has been leveled and great swatches of desolation now alternate with high-rise bank buildings, corporation headquarters and limited-access highways. "The Cousteau Center is going to be a tremendous step," says John Sears, president of the Home Federal Savings and Loan Company and a leading member of the civic group that has been working with Cousteau's staff. "It is going to be as exciting as Disney World, yet basically educational in nature. You know, 400,000 people turned out to see the Calypso in Detroit. The magnetism of the man is unbelievable. In fact, somebody told me that the two most identifiable men in the world were Muhammad Ali and Jacques Cousteau."
To sweeten the pot, the city has made rent-free temporary quarters available (the better part of an abandoned community college) to house Cousteau's expedition equipment from Marseilles, membership files from New York, and film library from Los Angeles. It has arranged free docking for the Calypso and contracted for a $118,000 feasibility study, completed last September.
The Greater Norfolk Corporation raised $75,000 to pay for moving Cousteau's films, records and equipment. And the state earmarked $125,000 contingent on local matching services in kind to finance the operation over two years of a steering committee (formally established by city council vote in November) that will coordinate plans for the center among the Cousteau people, the government and local businessmen who have been supporting the project. Mayor Vincent J. Thomas talks about "creativity in financing," but says Norfolk taxpayers will be good for "at least $5 million," in land and site improvements through a bond issue and/or the city redevelopment authority. He sees $6 million more coming from federal urban renewal and scientific grants. The $12 million or so needed to build the exhibits are supposed to come from private contributions solicited by the Greater Norfolk Association and the Cousteau Society.
All of which prompted Robert Stanley Need, editor of the Times Advocate, which covers the shipping scene in Hampton Roads, to write in a front page editorial:
"The Cousteau Caper is just another one of these frantic attempts by so-called civic leaders to graft on some form of glaring gimmick they feel is going to 'save' and 'restore' public interest in Norfolk's presently bombed-out downtown desert. They'd spend a million dollars having Indire Gandhi walk nude on a tightrope across the Granby Mall if they felt it'd bring a dozen shoppers back to Smith and Whelton [the main downtown intersection]."
Need is in a minority, city officials say. They say that since Cousteau moved to Norfolk and committed himself to planning of the center, James Rouse, who designed harbor districts in both Boston and Baltimore, has shown increased interest in the Norfolk waterfront renewal project. A Norfolk group is now planning an office complex across the street from the Oceans Center parcel. And although Cousteau himself is never in Norfolk or anywhere else more than a few days at a time, Mayor Thomas says, "If he's on television saying that the Calypso is actually out of Norfolk, he's probably doing more for us than if he's actually here."
Such is the power of image.
Arranging an interview with Cousteau is always an exercise in creative suspense. Nobody on his staff, not even his son, seems able to say exactly when JYC ("Zheek") is due to arrive. Even at 70, the actual human being is moving almost as fast as his television image. He spends 10 percent more time in the air than professional flight personnel, in fact most of his work is done in planes: "My think cabinets," as he told writer Sara Davidson. "I warn the hostess: no drinks, no food, just bring me tea repeatedly and without request. Then I tear through stacks of magazines and books, ripping out things I can use and writing memos. It's a fantastic chewing process, where I try to keep up with the whole world: engineering, politics, religious stupidities, films and plays (which I never go to see, but I want to know what the critics say anyway.) The fascinating thing on this planet is that despite all the talk about over-specialization, to a person who's interested, it's much easier to know everything that's going on in the world today than it was for Leonardo da Vinci. This is a time for super-Leonardos."
It took two trips to Norfolk just to get to see Jean-Michel Cousteau, 42, the wry and unassuming elder son who had been persuaded to return from a kind of self-imposed exile after the death of his younger brother. Philippe -- pilot, cinematographer, adventurer, superstar, and heir apparent to the image -- was killed when the old amphibious Navy PBY he had outfitted as the Flying Calypso crashed on a test run in Portugal in 1979. At the time Jean-Michel was working for himself, leading field tours out of Hilton Head, S.C.
"The two brothers were the antithesis of each other, totally opposite," says Philippe's widow Jan. "Jean-Michel apparently had never been interested in what his father did, even as a small boy.Whereas it was Philippe's life . . . he was more than just a son. Zheek lost his future when Philippe was killed." Which is a little strong; before the split, Jean-Michel advanced expeditions, designed his father's Marseilles office, designed and supervised a marine museum aboard the land-locked Queen Mary in Long Beach, Calif. But he never shared his father's and brother's love for the camera, the Calypso and the spotlight.
Neither Jacques nor Philippe cared much about organization and tended to run the entire operation the way they ran the ship: "In a spirit of improvisation," as one associate put it. "They always had money problems, that is, raising money on the scale they wanted to raise it. There has never been any cost accounting or streamlining and so the move to Norfolk was actually a battening down, a kind of consolidation or retreat."
"It was very tempting to my father when my brother was killed to just say to hell with everything," Jean-Michel said. "He could have been free in six months. Instead, he decided to retrench. 'Let's close ranks,' he told me. I was waiting for it. I started here with the watchwords More for Less. I cut the staff by about 20 percent, to 80 or 90. There was a lot of deadwood. I closed my office in South Carolina, also one of the society offices in L.A. We reduced the other from 20 staffers to six. We drastically reduced the New York office, moving the accounting and membership offices here. We moved all the equipment here from Marseilles. The operational budget dropped by $100,000. [It was $4.5 million in 1978, mainly from membership fees from the 170,000-strong Cousteau Society and from film revenue. Of that, about $2 million were spent on Calypso, the rest on membership, but relations and management -- leaving gross profits of $377,769.] My job is to allow my father to be as efficient as possible, to take all of the boredom of details off him and give the world another 20 years of Cousteau."
With the death of Philippe it was evident to everybody that the image was no longer transferable. Jean-Michel, an architect, appears to be aiming not only to prolong it but to immortalize it with the Center. "Television is the most superficial way of reaching people," he said. "Books are a little more in-depth. A museum is the broadest and deepest way I can think of to transfer a message.
I was told that JYC himself was probably flying in from Paris the next day. He did. He stayed overnight and left early for series of meetings in New York. No time to see me. From New York he might go to Montreal, where the Calypso was docked, or he might come back. If I wanted to wait . . .
Cousteau's impatience with interviewers and autograph seekers is legendary. As I waited in the sterile conference room in Norfolk, I couldn't stop thinking about what happened to artist Jamie Wyeth, who had arranged a lunch with the Captain through contacts at the National Geographic. Wyeth was illustrating a set of plates with motifs from "the seven seas" and was looking for ideas. Cousteau thought for a second, pursed his lips in that famous French expression of distate: "I am sorry. I cannot help you."
When he actually appeared, he was wearing his off-ship brown polyester leisure suit and burgundy turtleneck (I remember him once saying he preferred drip-dry shirts because they required no attention at all) and looked smaller, older, paler and dryer than his TV persona. After a few minutes of sitting, enduring questions (In a burlesque of patience: "Ask me anything you want . . . don't be shy.") and photographs ("I'm smoking this week. Tell me when you are finished, so I can light my cigar.") he began a tight pacing and kept it up till the interview was finished.
One problem was obvious: he was not on the deck of the Calypso. There were no TV cameras carrying his words straight to the waiting millions. The Manfish was out of his element and while he was precise, patient, even humorous with most questions, he really engaged on only five occasions:
When he joked with his son about power and control.
When we were arranging various outdoor (as opposed to indoor) poses for the photographer.
When he talked about his philosophy.
When we discussed the quality of bulk wine Calypso used to be able to obtain from the French Navy.
When he talked about his "disappearance," as he preferred to call his death.
I was hoping to have something of a special rapport with Cousteau because, after all, I grew up on his books and inventions. But except in terms of statistics ("I have been on 51 expeditions . . ."), references to the past didn't break the ice. "Looking back is morbid," he likes to say.
"I reached the bottom in a state of transport . . . I experimented with all possible maneuvers of the aqualung -- loops, somersaults and barrel rolls. I stood upside down on one finger and burst out laughing, a shrill, distorted laugh. Nothing i did altered the automatic rhythum of the air. Delivered from gravity and bouyancy, I flew around in space . . . underwater, man is an archangel."
The description is from The Silent World, which introduced the world to his invention in 1953. i must have read it 20 times. I saw the Oscar-winning movie whenever I could get the money.I only weighed about 80 pounds when my father, an icthyologist, finally strapped a child-sized aqualung on to me and took me down to discover it for myself. I felt the same sense of delirious trespass that Cousteau wrote about, and still do. You never seem to outgrow it, which is probably why seagoing animals in a zoo, like otters and seals, always have the most fun. A real diver is always slightly set apart from other people. They've got some kind of secret . . . you can never quite pin them down.
In the last paragraph of The Silent World, Cousteau defines his new frontier: "Our best independent diving range is only halfway down to the border of the continental shelf. We are not yet able to occupy the ground claimed by the statement. When research centers and industrialists apply themselves to the problem, we will advance to the 600-foot dropoff line. It will require much better equipment than the aqualung. The lung is primitive and unworthy of contemporary levels of science. We believe, however, that the conquerors of the shelf will have to get wet."
It's tantalizing to think what might have happened if Cousteau, the brilliant technical innovator, had never gotten involved with American television . . . whether he could have maintained direction and support for his pioneering visions, many of which still sound like pipe dreams. From the time he first tried his new invention in 1943, it seems, he had been dreaming of underwater colonies inhabited by human, harvesting fish, and the ultimate homo aquaticus who would undergo an operation (reversible) to provide him with man-made gills. Before his image ran off with him, Cousteau:
Invented a revolutionary two-man jet-propelled diving saucer that would be the prototype for Deepstar and other U.S.-developed small submersibles used in prospecting for undersea oil.
Developed new techniques for deep-sea remote photography.
Outfitted and promoted the former World War II minesweeper Calypso as France's chief oceanographic vessel and for 15 years staged research expeditions prospecting for oil, excavating archeological sites, charting ocean currents and studying marine topography and life.
Ran a three-stage underwater living experiment that finally allowed six men to live and work at 328 feet below the sea surface for 27 days.
Cousteau's final technological undersea experiment, development of a bathyscaph equipped with a diving lock that could travel long distances at great depths, was shut down in the early stages of development by the French government, which was financing it. Too costly, they said, and the actual benefits to France were not clearly defined. By that time the ABC series "The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau," had been underway for several years.
"People in France were pointing the finger at us and saying, 'Sold to the Yankees,'" Jean-Michel said. "It was very stupid, very insulting. The government was very tough on us, very unfair, taking away work that we used to do and making it very difficult for us to compete for new research projects. It really shocked us, really hurt. It made my father's life very difficult."
Money for undersea technology was beginning to dry up anyway. Energy and the environment were the coming issues and it probably wasn't coincidental that Cousteau's focus changed. "He's always done marvelously well staying ahead of the trends," says Joseph MacInnes, a marine scientist and underwater photographer.
In 1960 Cousteau showed he might have as substantial an impact on the politics of ecology as he had on the technology of diving. Working from Monaco, where he was director of the Musee Oceanographique, he fought Charles de Gaulle on the proposed dumping of nuclear waste in the Mediterranean. He got to Prince Rainier, and to the mayors of Nice and Toulon. "I think he even got to the pope," remembers Ruth Dugan, the widow of Cousteau's primary ghost writer. "It precipitated a rift between Monaco and France.
De Gaulle was forced to cancel the dump. It was Cousteau's first and last substantive ecological victory.
The ABC series was the idea of David Wolper ("Roots," "The Making of the President," "Plimpton!" who had produced the National Geographic Society special on Cousteau's underwater habitat -- Conshelf III -- in the Red Sea. As Wolper was watching the rushes, he had a brain storm:
"It suddenly occurred to me that when you look at a television set, it could be a fishbowl. I've got a fishbowl in my house; why not put some fish in it? This is science fiction, basically."
"I got myself excited, and in 1966 I went over to Monaco and spoke to him about going around the world on his boat for an American series. I said, 'Lookit, this is showbiz, you can't use the same old stuff, that one tank hanging down the back. You need futuristic stuff, a lot of jazzy underwater inventions. The boat needs to look a lot more jazzy.' Jacques catches on very fast, and he's a very tough negotiator. He said he'd need a minimum of 12 one-hour shows, spaced over a three-year period, at $1.7 million a year, which comes out to about $400,000 a show. After he signed with ABC, he came up with a lot of great stuff, the yellow striped suits, the fancy backpacks, the helmets, the radio."
From then on, the real drama in Cousteau's life has been his losing battle with the great American popularizing mechanism.
"David Wolper has a spark of genius," Costeau said in his quick, precise, but heavily accented English . . . so heavily accented at times, in fact, that you have the uncomfortable feeling you are being made sport of. "He has a very sure instinct for the popular taste; I jumped at the opportunity to go with him.
"Yes, there is criticism," Cousteau said. "There is an underlying resentment of my television persona. They say that Cousteau is just an empty bubble. But there is no fantasy in our films. You have to be attractive, which is why we have spectacular equipment, such as the saucer and the Hovercraft. but they are all scientifically correct. Science is made with people's money, so it should be accessible and belong to the people. I am a very good translator of scientific jargon; I never claimed to be a scientist. If I want to have the best scientist in the world, they queue to come. They understand that I am helping them."
Eugene Clark, the scientist who worked with him on his first film in the ABC series, about sharks, does not completely agree. "All of us [scientists] have capialized on the image," she ways warmly. "We submit our applications for grants and there are people who sit on the boards who have seen the film. My present job at the University of Maryland was given to me by a man who had seen one of the films." But she complains she didn't get credit in the film for her original work on sharks, that she was portrayed as being aboard ship most of the time while the Cousteau people dove among the sharks, whereas the reverse, she said, was true, and that a rushed production schedule forced inaccuracies.
As the popular image has grown, Clark says, Cousteau has begun to lose credibility with scientific institutions in this country. "His films are misleading in a way, because they do portray him as a scientist. [Costeau's formal education stopped after being graduated, second in his class, from the French Naval Academy.] I can't think of any particular scientific contrubtions he's made, because he just doesn't have time. He's trapped. He needs to keep up that big image, to make it look like he's moving forward. When you get up there, when you have all that power, sometimes you lose track of what you started out to do. 'Vanity, vanity, all is vanity.' Isn't that what the Bible says?"
The television juggernaut also has a way of making popcorn out of some of the oceanic environmental issues that have concerned Cousteau. A film on the manatee of Florida produced so much interest in the already protected animal that new rules had to be passed to keep swimmers and divers at a distance. Same with the gray whales off San Diego.
Larry Swanson, chief of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration's ocean pollution program, complained that Cousteau's TV segment on the effect of sewage outfall in the New York Bight, by prematurely assuming the need for a radical alternative, could "force a technological solution to a non-problem.
"Cousteau has incredible visibility," Swanson says. "Some of his statements might be good for us, but he simply doesn't have the data to support the picture of doom and gloom he paints. He says the oceans are dying, but in fact he does not even come close to going into the depth you need to play with a full deck."
NOAA and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, however, seemed to have no hesitation using Cousteau to publicize their experimental satellite-relayed ocean monitoring and bathymetric measuring systems.
The image of the lucrative Cousteau Society, which the captiain formed in 1974, is along the lines of an active non-profit public interest group like The Fund for Animals, which as directly as possible tries to influence environmental policy.
The reality of the Cousteau Society may be somewhat different. "He doesn't have much impact here," says Ferris Webster, assistant administrator of research and development for NOAA. "Surprisingly, the Society doesn't generate mail and seems to have a low profile on the issues. I don't really know what area it devotes its attention to, quite frankly, but if he's not hitting us, he doesn't have many other places to go. We are where his action is."
Cousteau sees the interactin on a more symbolic level. Last year, for example, he presented President Carter with a 27-page outline of suggested U.S. policy for the oceans, and a four-page suggested Global Ocean Policy to United Nations Secretary General Kurt Waldheim. "Our strength is public opinion," Cousteau said. "We attract the attention of our members on the issues, but we do not give them a blueprint. You know we are big supporters of the importance of the individual, that everyone should develop his own judgment. We do not dictate morality."
All of which does not impress the crusty National Information Bureau, a New York based rating service for philanthropic organizations which does not list the Society as meeting its standards for "wise giving." The society's cost of fund raising is over 30 cents on the dollar and certain board members, including Jean-Michel Cousteau, receive direct or indirect compensation from membership contributions.
The common thread tying these and other comments together is that since Cousteau signed with ABC and even more so since he shifted to the Public Broadcasting Service (because his ratings, while still high, couldn't match the sitcoms), he has had to move too fast to accomplish anything more substantial than riveting us to an image or a simplistic concept.
"When I picture him, I see him leaving great piles of paper everywhere," says his old friend Ruth Dugan. "I have always felt that if he stayed in one place long enough to let some of the questions be answered, he might be able to do more. What he seems to be doing is running away from the piles."
The television contracts, while they last, provide the way to run. After the current PBS contract expires this year, a three-part series on the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence Seaway will be aired at least in Canada and France and probably in the U.S. and Japan. The further voyages of Calypso, up the Amazon, to New Zealand, New Guinea, China, the Andaman Islands, have yet to receive backing.
"We would welcome going back to the networks," Cousteau said, with the insouciance of years of legendary fund-raising success. "PBS reaches a special segment only . . . it's almost elitist. That's not what we're looking for."
Which leaves us, in the end, with what's behind it all. It's no coincidence that right now Cousteau is writing his philosophy . . . or actually, as he has with his other books, dictating parts of it to a tape recorder, other parts to a ghost writer, scribbling a few parts on envelopes and meticulously correcting the end result with a green felt-tip pen.
"We are very close now to the point where I could disappear and the whole thing could carry on . . . in a few years we will be protected against my death. Jean-Michel is perfectly capable of taking the wheel and the Center will help to perpetuate what we have to say.
"You cannot think small when you think ocean. It is built in. I would like people to understand how global the water system is, and how united it is . . . It is the blood of the planet. We have only one blood, whether it is in the brain or in the feet. I will push into the center this one requirement. The techniques of how we do it are now available to anybody, but when Disney lets you have a space trip, he turns the stars into whatever you can see if you are really making a trip. I would turn to what a space shuttle orbiting the earth sees looking down on the ocean. How our earth looks from space, not how space looks from our earth. From space to our earth, emphasizing that this is a water planet. And at the center would be the variety and the unity of the ecosystem."
Cousteau thinks there are three basic philosophies in the world: the philosophy of the stones, based on building estates and acquiring things; the philosophy of the rose, where you try to appreciate and ornament each instant; and the philosophy of the wind: organized nothingness.
"Right now I'm consolidating the wind philosophy," he said lightly. "It cannot be easily summarized." A long silence. "The most difficult thing for a man is to reconcile himself with death. That leads to Western serenity, as opposed to Eastern serenity. Some wise guys in the Orient opted for serenity through introspection, by contemplating the navel, by immediate knowlege. They think that's the best way.
"The Western way is by looking outward, neglecting the interior of ourselves and concentrating on the global picture. We are just one violin in concert. This is serenity through action, but action not aimed at increasing estate . . . action for itself alone. It is summed up in a Spanish proverb: The road to heaven is heaven. That is the justification of action."
It sounded very like he was talking about the justification of television: the ultimate existential position . . . the momentary flicker -- here one minute, gone the next, yet appearing simultaneously all over the world.