Aubelin Jolicoeur: Mr Haiti

His exploits inspired Graham Greene. His friends included Truman Capote and Papa Doc Duvalier. And now a nation is in mourning
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If the old cathedral in the coastal city of Jacmel was not entirely packed for the funeral service, it was at least crowded. And many of the mourners were young women, attractively dressed and hurling themselves into outbursts of grief and misery, their terrifying screeches piercing the afternoon calm.

If the old cathedral in the coastal city of Jacmel was not entirely packed for the funeral service, it was at least crowded. And many of the mourners were young women, attractively dressed and hurling themselves into outbursts of grief and misery, their terrifying screeches piercing the afternoon calm.

Most of the people who knew the Haitian writer Aubelin Jolicoeur would agree that the old dandy would have liked and approved of this display of female emotion. The journalist and gossip-columnist, was a frontman for several murderous Haitian regimes and, perhaps most famously, the inspiration for the roguish Petit Pierre in one of Graham Greene's most celebrated novels, The Comedians.

In the book, Greene describes Petit Pierre (whose gossip column "always appeared on page four") at the beginning of Chapter 2: "He giggled up at me, standing on his pointed toe-caps, for he was a tiny figure of a man. He was just as I had remembered him, hilarious. Even the time of day was humorous to him. He had the quick movements of a monkey, and he seemed to swing from wall to wall on ropes of laughter. I had always thought that, when the time came, and surely it must one day come in his precarious defiant livelihood, he would laugh at his executioner, as a Chinaman is supposed to do."

Mr Jolicoeur was also something of a ladies' man. He used to say that his surname loosely meant "nice flirt". It is said he had 12 children by 12 different women, one quite recently. "Oh, he used to like the women," said Milfort Bruno, who runs an art shop opposite the entrance to the Oloffson Hotel in Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince, where Mr Jolicoeur was a regular at the bar and on the terrace. "And he used to be successful. He loved foreign women. English, French, Americans, they would all talk to him. He was a very powerful man. If you needed a permit, a licence to go somewhere, he could provide one. He used to be known as Mr Haiti."

Indeed, to many of his countrymen, Mr Jolicoeur, who died at 81 last week from respiratory failure after suffering from Parkinson's disease for several years, will always be known as Mr Haiti. Born in Jacmel, the former colonial capital whose narrow streets were designed for a time before cars, he rose to serve as a cabinet minister, own an art gallery and write a regular gossip column that tracked the comings and goings of the Haitian elite and the international community.

A recent appreciation of Mr Jolicoeur noted that he often travelled to the airport to meet newcomers to Haiti and would stand on the sun-blasted Tarmac, impeccable in a white, three-piece suit, silk cravat and handkerchief and carrying a gold-topped cane. He would step up to the startled first-timers and say: " Bonsoir, chéri. Aubelin Jolicoeur, Mr Haiti, at your service."

Friends said at the heart of his outlook was a belief that Haiti could do better, could be a better and more successful country. Despite being close to such tyrants as François "Papa Doc" Duvalier, a childhood friend from Jacmel, then of his son Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, even holding government positions in various administrations, his supporters claimed he was merely a survivor. Asked about Mr Jolicoeur's support for these despotic regimes, one person who knew him well said: "He lived through many despotic regimes."

To the wider world, Mr Jolicoeur was best known as the inspiration for Petit Pierre. It was hardly an entirely positive portrayal but he seemed to relish his fame. A name-dropper as well as something of a snob, he used to tell visitors he had been introduced to Greene by the American writer Truman Capote. When The Comedians, published in 1966, was made into a film starring Richard Burton, Mr Jolicoeur was also introduced to Burton. (Roscoe Lee Browne played Petit Pierre.)

One writer recently suggested that Greene - whose obituary Mr Jolicoeur wrote for a British newspaper - may even had got the idea for the title from a regular comment the gossip columnist used to make about his somewhat chaotic country: "We Haitians are all comedians. What you see here is all just a show."

Although Mr Jolicoeur was buried in his home town, above a brilliant blue sea that flashed and sparkled, his life was inextricably linked to the Oloffson Hotel in the centre of Port-au-Prince.

In Greene's novel, the hotel appears as Hotel Trianon and after Greene stayed there he said of it: "With its towers and balconies and wooden frame decorations it has the air at night of a Charles Addams house in [an edition of] the New Yorker. You expected a witch to open the door to you or a maniac butler with a bat hanging from a chandelier behind him."

ike the world Mr Jolicoeur used to write about, the cocktail parties and the glamorous set who used to pour into Haiti during its belle époque era of the late 1950s and 1960s, the Oloffson is a shadow of its former self, albeit retaining some of the charm and elegance of an age gone by.

The present owner, Richard Morse, who has run the hotel since the late 1980s, said he saw Mr Jolicoeur just two or three weeks before his death on 14 February. By that stage, Mr Jolicoeur, wracked by his degenerative condition and prostate cancer, was reduced to living in a shabby hotel in the Petionville neighbourhood where his memories of a previous life were kept in cardboard boxes. He rarely ventured out to the Oloffson and even his trademark gold-topped cane was stolen and had to be replaced by a silver one.

"His death marks the end of an era. Or rather the end of an era that is already gone," said Mr Morse, who attended a memorial service for Mr Jolicoeur last weekend in Port-au-Prince. "That was what made him so sad. For Mr Jolicoeur, life ended in 1986 when Duvalier left. And then here he was in 2005, nearly 20 years later. He was waiting to die. He'd had enough. He had been waiting to die for the past 10 years."

Indeed, at Jacmel cathedral, where a brass band played dirges and a choir of young women sang beautifully in French, there was also a sense that Mr Jolicoeur did not belong to Haiti's present, troubled times. After a priest lit incense which filled the white-painted nave with a rich fragrance, one of Mr Jolicoeur's friends, Jorgen Leth, a youthful man with a wave of grey hair, told anecdotes.

Mr Leth, who serves as Haitian honorary consul for the Danish government and who could himself easily come from the pages of Greene, recalled the various positions and talents of his friend. Journalism, working for the government, serving as "Mr Haiti". The list went on. "He was a splendid talent," said Mr Leth. "But everybody must go, even the talented." Many who have written about the death of Mr Jolicoeur have tended to avoid mentioning the state of Haiti, racked by violence, and even more extreme poverty and political repression since the ousting of its elected president, Jean-Betrand Aristide, 12 months ago.

But for some, the death of Mr Jolicoeur, who liked to call himself Haiti's "first public relations" man, has been an opportunity to reflect on the state of the country, where politicians belonging to the exiled Mr Aristide's former government are routinely imprisoned and where human rights abuses and even summary executions are regularly committed by the police. As an indication of the lack of security, last weekend about 500 inmates, some of them political opponents of the government, escaped from the main prison in Port-au-Prince.

An hour before the funeral, another of Mr Jolicoeur's friends, Eric Danies, a businessman in Jacmel who owns the hotel where "Mr Haiti" spent much of his time during the last half-dozen years of his life, reflected on a vision of the country he and his friend shared and worked for. He said, unlike during the years his boulevardier friend would charm and flirt on the terrace of the Oloffson, tourists had not been coming to Haiti for more than 20 years, put off by the violence and political instability. "He helped promote the country," Mr Danies said. "He wanted it to be like any other country. He wanted to promote the quality of Haiti."

Mr Jolicoeur was born in Jacmel on 30 April 1924 to a well-off French father and a Haitian mother. He moved to Port-au-Prince when he was 19 and initially studied agronomy, but quickly changed careers when he was offered a job at Le Nouvelliste newspaper. "I didn't go to journalism," he told one interviewer. "Journalism came to me.''

While he was often accused of conspiring with the Duvalier regimes, Mr Jolicoeur - who also served as press secretary during the military regime of General Henri Namphy during the 1980s - was was twice arrested by the François Duvalier government. While he undoubtedly served as apologist for the despotism suffered by the ordinary people of the country, some have said many of his columns that appeared in papers such as Le Matin and Le Petit Samedi Soir and the English-language Haiti Sun, could be interpreted as subtle criticisms of the controlling regime. He used to joke that Papa Doc liked him because "he spoke good French".

There is little doubt that Aubelin Jolicoeur would also have enjoyed the final irony of his life and death. He used to tell the story of how he was born in the cemetery of Jacmel - "among the spirits" - after his mother went into early labour as she was walking past.

And it was there, after the service on Tuesday afternoon, after the songs, the prayers and the eulogies, after all the thoughts of a man who belonged to a different era and after all the reflections on Haiti's present woes, that he was laid to rest.