In his father's mighty wake Interview: Son of the late underwater pioneer seeks to put his own stamp on environmental causes.

Catching Up With Jean-Michel Cousteau

October 12, 1997|By Janice D'Arcy | Janice D'Arcy,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

Jean-Michel Cousteau swept into the National Aquarium gala like he was Somebody. He wore a shimmering burgundy jacket and relayed tales of his flight from Fiji in a flowing French accent. Partygoers responded accordingly. They clustered around him and laughed with gusto at his every quip.

Indeed, Jean-Michel Cousteau is Somebody -- an environmentalist, developer, writer, filmmaker. But most of all he is the son of a much bigger Somebody: Jacques-Yves Cousteau.

The renowned underwater explorer and co-developer of the aqualung, who died this summer, cast a towering shadow in which Jean-Michel spent most of his life. When the son stepped out from it, a family feud erupted in public.

After years when father and son did not speak, a quiet reconciliation just before Jacques' death this summer and continuing rifts with his stepmother, Jean-Michel is just now taking his Cousteau legacy in his own direction.

Founded group in August

"Thanks to the work of my dear father, we have learned so much about the ocean and waterways and coral reefs. We need better coastal management and monitoring of the ocean. I would like to bring people together to work on this. That is my goal," he said, explaining the mission of the nonprofit group he launched in August.

The Jean-Michel Cousteau Institute's stated mission -- to coordinate ocean protection efforts -- is similar to the goal of the Cousteau Society he founded with his brother and father in 1974. His institute will fund scientific research and mobilize public action for sea preservation.

At the recent aquarium reception, where Jean-Michel was promoting protection of coral reefs, the event organizer observed Jean-Michel from across the room. "It must have been very difficult under such a dominant father," said Wolcott Henry, chairman of the National Philanthropic Trust, who chose the younger Cousteau as a speaker at the fund-raiser. "I think he's really coming into his own."

Today, Jean-Michel doesn't look like anyone's cowering child. At 59, he has longish, layered, gray hair that makes his deep tan look darker, and he has an obvious air of confidence. Beyond his new institute, he oversees several "eco-friendly" business ventures, writes a syndicated column and is increasingly visible on the environmental crusade circuit.

He readily gives credit to heredity: "It would have been a lot more difficult for me, in terms of attention and credibility, to do my work if my name was du Pont." But the role of heir has not come easily to Jean-Michel.

Jean-Michel was 7 when his father first led him underwater. From childhood he and his younger brother, Philippe, accompanied Jacques on scores of expeditions. In 1979, Philippe -- the son the father would later reveal he had hoped would carry on the Cousteau legacy -- died in an aquaplane accident.

Jean-Michel soon took the reins as the heir apparent, working side-by-side with his father for the Virginia-based Cousteau Society and its sister organization in Paris, Equipe Cousteau. Although there were reports that the two were often at odds over the organizations' missions, Jean-Michel says now that the 14-year partnership was harmonious.

Family disputes

Fractures, however, became apparent in the Cousteau clan.

In 1990, Simone Cousteau, Jacques' wife and Jean-Michel's mother, died. The next year Jacques married his longtime mistress, Francine Triplet. When the Cousteau Society and Equipe Cousteau encountered financial troubles in 1992, Francine ordered the closing of the California offices where Jean-Michel was based.

That year, the younger Cousteau left to produce documentaries about marine life and design excursions for environmentally minded travelers. His father apparently wasn't sorry to see him leave the Cousteau Society.

Jacques later told Figaro magazine: "My succession is a perpetual tragedy. The one I had chosen was my son, Philippe."

Jacques expanded on that for Nouvel Economiste magazine: "My son Jean-Michel is charming, but not capable."

In 1995, Jacques filed a lawsuit against his son's use of the Cousteau name in promoting a marine sanctuary resort. Father claimed son was tarnishing his reputation, while son claimed a right to his own surname.

When the dust settled, the resort was called Jean-Michel Cousteau Fiji Islands Resort, and father and son were not speaking.

Last-minute reconciliation

Jean-Michel said they reconciled before Jacques died at the age of 87 on June 25. "Everything was resolved, completely. I was very close to my dear father at the end."

Stepmother and stepson have not made amends, however. She took over as director, CEO and chairman of the board of the Cousteau Society and Equipe Cousteau immediately after Jacques' death.

Soon after that, Jean-Michel publicly criticized her decision to publish his father's last book, complaining that mistakes were overlooked. He later belittled her appointment of New Zealand yachtsman Peter Blake to captain Jacques' research vessel, Calypso II.

Francine Cousteau, 52, was not available for comment, but a Cousteau Society spokeswoman, Clark Lee Mirriam, said there was no affiliation between Jean-Michel and the Cousteau Society.

Jean-Michel says the media attention was generally beneficial -- "wonderful publicity." But others admit the public feuding clouded the younger Cousteau's reputation -- among them Henry, who invited Jean-Michel to the National Aquarium.

"Yes, I was concerned," Henry said, " But when I met him, I was immediately impressed by his commitment to the environment."

As for the future, Jean-Michel plans to keep the Cousteau name in the spotlight. "My best skill is expressing complex environmental issues in language that the person in the street can understand, I want to do that as much as possible," he said.

Henry echoed that Jean-Michel is a valuable spokesman, as much for his speaking abilities as for another attribute:

"It's still the best-known name the environmental community has."

Pub Date: 10/12/97

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