Aubelin Jolicoeur

Journalist and prototype for Graham Greene's 'Petit Pierre'
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The Independent Online

Although the Haitian writer and journalist Aubelin Jolicoeur wrote extensively on French Caribbean art and literature, he was best known as the gossip columnist "Petit Pierre" in Graham Greene's novel of broken-down lives in 1960s Haiti, The Comedians (1966). For almost half a century, he enjoyed the fame that Greene had brought him. A political conservative, Jolicoeur remained loyal to the 1956-71 dictatorship of François "Papa Doc" Duvalier. Yet for all his questionable politics, he passionately loved Haiti and its people. "When Aubelin dies", Haitians used to say, "a part of Haiti will die too."

Aubelin Jolicoeur, journalist and writer: born Jacmel, Haiti 30 April 1924; married (eight children); died Jacmel 14 February 2005.

Although the Haitian writer and journalist Aubelin Jolicoeur wrote extensively on French Caribbean art and literature, he was best known as the gossip columnist "Petit Pierre" in Graham Greene's novel of broken-down lives in 1960s Haiti, The Comedians (1966). For almost half a century, he enjoyed the fame that Greene had brought him. A political conservative, Jolicoeur remained loyal to the 1956-71 dictatorship of François "Papa Doc" Duvalier. Yet for all his questionable politics, he passionately loved Haiti and its people. "When Aubelin dies", Haitians used to say, "a part of Haiti will die too."

Jolicoeur was not known for his modesty. When Greene died in April 1991, he wrote in his obituary for a London newspaper, "I was grateful to Greene to have enhanced my legend to such an extent that some fans kneel at my feet or kiss my hand in meeting a man living his own legend." For most of his life Jolicoeur was a regular at the Hotel Oloffson, a splendid gingerbread mansion in Port-au-Prince with a languid South Sea atmosphere. (The Oloffson appears, thinly disguised, as the Hotel Trianon in The Comedians). An elfin figure, Jolicoeur would appear at the hotel bar dressed in a white suit and paisley ascot, dapper beyond belief with a silver-topped walking cane. He sought to impress tourists with the excellence of his weekly gossip column in Le Nouvelliste. His written French, though florid, was impeccable.

Typically, Jolicoeur claimed that he himself had given Greene the title for his Haitian novel. (During Greene's first visit to Haiti, in 1954, Jolicoeur had told him: "The Haitians are comedians, Monsieur Greene, they love stories.") Universally known in Port-au-Prince as "Mr Haiti", Jolicoeur had arranged for the novelist to go to his first voodoo ceremony and to the brothel where he met a madam who impressed him greatly. (This was Georgette John-Charles, the source for Mère Catherine in The Comedians.)

Although his origins are obscure, Aubelin Jolicoeur was born in Jacmel, on Haiti's southern coast, to a well-off French father and (probably) a Haitian mother. Steamships used to sail to Jacmel every month from Southampton, exchanging tweeds for coffee.

Jolicoeur moved to Port-au-Prince at the age of 19 and at first studied agronomy. However, he quickly changed careers when he was offered a job on Le Nouvelliste as a social correspondent. Past guests at the Hotel Oloffson included Noël Coward, John Gielgud, Marlon Brando and Mick Jagger. Jolicoeur interviewed all these and other celebrities, weaving tittle-tattle about them into his newspaper column.

However, many wondered how Jolicoeur had survived Haiti's political violence for so long. He was believed to have been in cahoots with Papa Doc's feared private militia, the Tontons Macoutes. A man who clung mollusc-like to the centres of corruption and power, he never allowed himself to be on the side of the losers. In the late 1980s Jolicoeur briefly served as Minister of Information under General Henri Namphy, and was chauffeur- driven round Port-au-Prince in the back of a Buick Sedan circa 1956.

Although he was an opportunist ("Mister Facing-Both-Ways"), Jolicoeur played dangerous cat-and-mouse games with authority. He was often accused of collaborating with Haitian dictators, yet was arrested twice by Papa Doc's government. Sometimes his newspaper columns in Le Nouvelliste (and, latterly, Le Petit Samedi Soir and Le Matin) could be interpreted as slyly critical of institutionalised corruption.

By 1999, Jolicoeur appeared to have fallen on hard times, and disappeared into a shabby rooming house in downtown Port-au-Prince. A group of friends clubbed together to transfer him to the Hotel Florita in his native Jacmel, a beautifully restored 1880s town house with teakwood floors and wobbly overhead fans.

When I last met Jolicoeur in the winter of 2003, he was a shadow of his old flamboyant self. No one seemed to know if he had depression or Alzheimer's or Parkinson's disease.

Ian Thomson



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