Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Face of Jean Lafitte

I'm honored to have a short story called "The Mercy of Jean Lafitte" featured on BEAT to a PULP this week, and would be further honored if you popped over there to take a look.

But first, here's a look at Lafitte* himself.

The most common image of Jean Lafitte (above) is based on an 1879 woodcut, so while it’s a pretty cool picture, it may look no more like Lafitte than I do. When did Lafitte die? We'll tackle that mystery on Thursday.

The sketch above appeared in a 1926 Galveston newspaper, supposedly done in 1819 by someone who knew Lafitte. Not impossible, but far from proven.

In the painting above, attributed to John Wesley Jarvis c. 1821, Jean is seated and lifting a cup while singing a sea chanty. It's worth noting that his face and hair resemble those in the sketch, so they may be connected. Brother Pierre is standing, filling a clay pipe. Dominque You is at right holding a little brown jug. The figure at left is thought by some to be Rene Beluche, another famous pirate of the era. Visiting New Orleans a couple of years ago, I made a special trip to the Cabildo museum (formerly a prison) to see this painting, and dang near didn’t. It's tiny, no bigger than 7 x 9", and hangs seven feet off the floor in an obscure (and very dark) area of an upper floor. To appreciate it, you’d have to be an NBA center with a high-powered flashlight. I almost asked for my six bucks back.

The anonymous portrait above hangs in a library in Galveston, and that’s all I know about it.

Lafitte's true appearance remained a mystery until 1958, when it was discovered he looked exactly like Yul Brynner.

*Among the many mysteries surrounding Lafitte is the spelling of his name. Apparently he was known to sign it both LafiTTe and LaFFite. The version with two Fs seems to be in vogue with historians, but I prefer the two Ts. "Lafitte" was the more common spelling during his lifetime and in the literature published since. 

Tomorrow: The Life of Jean Lafitte (as told by marionettes)
Thursday: The Many Deaths of Jean Lafitte
Friday: The Memoirs of Jean Laffite


Deka Black said...

Seeing Yul Brinner with hair is a thing i believe almost impossible. He was bald or shaved his head?

Ron Scheer said...

Thanks. Well done. Once again, I thought the story was a gem. I didn't know you were writing about a real pirate.

Since there are paintings of him, there must also have been a lot of stories at the time. Good of you to keep that going.

David Cranmer said...

Having spent some time in Louisiana, about a year ago, I know everyone there knows the name Jean Lafitte. Even ten-year-olds that couldn't tell you who Abe Lincoln was knew Lafitte.