Monday, May 7, 2012

The Face of Jean Lafitte

When my first pirate yarn, "The Mercy of Jean Lafitte" appeared on the BEAT to a PULP* site a couple of years ago, I ran a short series about Lafitte and his legacy. Well, the fictional Lafitte is back, this time in "The Judgment of Jean Lafitte" in the the new eBook ACTION: Pulse Pounding Tales Vol. 1 (available HERE). Being once again in a piratical state of mind, I'm trotting these post out again.

Today we address the burning question, "Just what the heck did Lafitte look like?"

The most common image of Jean Lafitte (above) is based on an 1879 woodcut. It's a cool picture, but since Lafitte's heyday was more than 60 years earlier, it may look no more like him than I do.

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 (a building that once housed the jail) 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 and a magnifying glass. I was tempted to ask 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 (except with hair).

NOTE: 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 revisionist historians, but I prefer the two Ts. "Lafitte" was the more common spelling during his lifetime and in the literature published since.

*BEAT to a PULP's 2010 archives are currently off line, so "The Mercy of Jean Lafitte" is trapped in Limbo. I'll let you know when it escapes.


Deka Black said...

I think the anonymous portrair can be the closest one. For some reason, the clothing make me think "this man is a pirate".

You discovered me Jean Laffitte. Since then, i'm regretting he does not have more fame. Historical pirates are characters with real treasures in his biographies. And you discovered to me one.

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