Aubelin Jolicoeur Obiturary

Greg Chamberlain – The Guardian

For nearly half a century, Haitian journalist Aubelin Jolicoeur, who has died aged 80, cheerfully tried to convince the world that his country was better than its horrific image of political brutality and extreme poverty, that it was worth visiting and could be enjoyed.
His own image took a knock when Graham Greene immortalised him in his 1966 novel The Comedians as “Petit Pierre,” a dandyish bon vivant and probable spy for the murderous dictatorship of François “Papa Doc” Duvalier and his family.
But the tiny, animated boulevardier with bedroom eyes and posh English accent, who flounced about in a white suit and silk ascot twirling a gold-topped cane, thrived on the smear because it brought him the fame he craved. And, thanks also to his unctuous courting of other foreign celebrities, probably a shield against the whims of the mercurial dictator, whom he called his “father.”
He was introduced to Greene in Haiti by American writer Truman Capote in 1954 and the pair soon gravitated to the romantic, creaking Grand Hotel Oloffson, where Greene set his novel. For the next 40 years, Jolicoeur hobnobbed there, in the lingering ambiance of Haiti’s “belle époque,” with a world-class panoply of showbiz, literary and media glitterati.
He was delighted when they nicknamed him “Mr Haiti” for greeting them at the airport and gushingly writing them up in his newspaper column. He called himself “Haiti’s first public relations man.”
His counterpoint was useful to Papa Doc as the dictator grappled with international revulsion and boycotts of his regime. Jolicoeur showed the acceptable face of Haiti and the distinguished foreigners were charmed, despite the occasional body glimpsed on the airport road.
Vain, boastful, buffoonish and bending this way and that to the political winds, he was nevertheless an astute, cultivated and industrious journalist. Under the Duvaliers, he mostly stuck to chronicling the social and literary doings of the country’s political, cultural and business elite, laced with the obscure classical references once de rigueur for recognition by Haiti’s mannered upper class. He said Papa Doc liked him because “I write good French.”
But he disdained the “vulgar” regime of the dictator’s clueless son Jean-Claude, who took over as “president-for-life” in 1971, and eventually joined veiled press criticism that helped nudge the dynasty to its end.
He then became a more open political commentator, disgusted at the endless incompetence sinking the country into ever deeper poverty and political disorder. “There’s a thug inside every Haitian,” he liked to say. He thought Haitians were “not ready for democracy” and harshly criticised the recent excesses of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, with whom he was bitterly disappointed.
Jolicoeur was born in a cemetery (“among the spirits,” he joked) in the southern town of Jacmel when his mother went into premature labour. His father was a local coffee and cocoa trader. The young Aubelin hungrily learned French, the language of the ruling class, and it became his ticket to success as a journalist in the capital, Port-au-Prince, in days when being his shade of black was a clear social disadvantage.
The few minor political posts he accepted turned sour – press secretary to a fleeting general who rigged elections in 1957, four months as a post-Duvalier director of tourism and an even briefer tenure as deputy information minister that ended when he spat in anger at a crowd of strikers at the ministry.
His way with women was legendary. He greeted female guests at the Oloffson with poetic flourishes in his ringing voice and they gigglingly checked the next morning’s paper to see who had won the best encomium – brilliant, princess, sparkling, divine, breathtaking and other extravagances. Jolicoeur, whose name means “flirt” and who contrived to expire on St Valentine’s Day, had a dozen children by as many women, the last only a few years ago.
He was never rich like the upper class he fawned over or the marquises and counts who put him up on his occasional expeditions to Paris. He opened a small art gallery named after his then-wife Claire, a Canadian, and tried to wheedle tourists into buying the paintings but few did and he gave many away. For years he received a small stipend from Bollinger for mentioning their champagne in his columns. “Haitians are comedians,” he would say. “It’s all a show.”
When he was evicted from his rented house several years ago, he moved into a shabby hotel where he lived amid cardboard boxes of his memories and out of shame rarely ventured to the nearby Oloffson. His famous gold-topped cane was stolen and its replacement was only a silver one.
Enfeebled by Parkinson’s disease and prostate cancer, his renowned flamboyance vanished and he spent his last years at a seaside hotel in his home town run by an old Duvalierist friend.
Aubelin Jolicoeur, journalist, born April 30 1924; died February 14 2005

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