- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 12, 2009

Sea stories

A new book about legendary ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau is exposing some dirty family laundry, and Jan Cousteau, the Washington-area widow of Cousteau’s son Philippe, is none too pleased with many of the revelations washing up on shore.

In “Jacques Cousteau: The Sea King,” published late last month by Pantheon Books, author Brad Matsen brings family secrets, feuds and estrangements to the surface.

For starters, Mr. Matsen says Jacques and his wife, Simone, objected to their son’s plans to marry Jan, a model-turned-environmental-advocate, whom they disdained as “an American whose sole achievement consisted of wearing clothes for photographers and fashion designers.”

Jan lives in Pentagon City and is active on the D.C. social circuit with her son, Philippe Jr., an ocean correspondent for the Discovery Channel and Planet Green, and daughter, Alexandra, who travels the globe as an ocean explorer and crusader.

She tells us she found the book’s characterizations of her “slanted, negative and mean” and that Mr. Matsen’s sources “had no firsthand knowledge” of the events described, particularly her courtship and marriage to Philippe Sr., who died in a 1979 plane crash.

The book says Philippe Sr.’s “defiance of his parents’ wishes sent shudders through the family and the rest of the Cousteau empire.” Jacques deliberately spoke only French in his daughter-in-law’s presence to exclude her from conversations and refused to attend his son’s wedding, according to the book.

Jacques did, however, deign to send a gift to his new daughter-in-law: “a gift certificate” for an “intensive French language course.”

It gets worse. The book says tensions between Jacques and his family, specifically his oldest son, Jean-Michel, reached a breaking point on June 28, 1991, when the family patriarch married his longtime mistress, Francine Triplet, with whom he had had two children during a secret decades-long affair. The wedding took place on the 12th anniversary of Philippe Sr.’s death.

Since Jacques’ death in 1997, Francine Cousteau has taken control of the Cousteau Society; Jacques’ beloved ship, the Calypso; and even the use of the Cousteau name, causing a bitter tug of war between her, Jan, Jean-Michel and other family members.

When Jan Cousteau and her children wanted to call their Washington nonprofit the Philippe Cousteau Foundation in honor of Philippe Sr., Francine Cousteau sued to prevent them from using the Cousteau name. The foundation, now known as EarthEcho International, is run by Philippe Jr., who recruits young leaders to take action on climate change and other environmental causes.

Mr. Matsen tells us that when he began researching his subject, he intended to write about Jacques Cousteau’s “technological inventions,” such as the scuba lung, which he developed in 1943. Instead, the writer became so mesmerized with “his family and the people around him” that he realized Cousteau’s life should be written as “a tragic story.”

He told us he interviewed Jean-Michel and his son, Fabien, but did not reach out to Jan Cousteau or her children, much to her consternation.

Jan Cousteau has been estranged from her late husband’s brother and his family for years. What she said she found especially “disturbing” was Mr. Matsen’s description of her husband’s plane crash, which is based on Jean-Michel’s recollections.

According to the book, Philippe Sr.’s badly mangled body was found under a pier off the coast of Lisbon. However, Mrs. Cousteau, who identified her husband’s remains, says he was found in the cockpit and that his face “only had a little scratch.”

Mr. Matsen, currently on a book tour, says because he had access to “primary sources,” he did not feel the need to contact Mrs. Cousteau while researching “The Sea King.”

“If you don’t get two sides of a story so that the items are not slanted in the wrong direction, I would say it’s a sloppy job,” Mrs. Cousteau says.

Club Fed

The District’s own 9:30 Club won Billboard’s 2009 Top Club prize on Tuesday.

The music magazine gives the award to the top live-music club in the world - repeat, the world - based on attendance.

But wait - how can terminally uncool and staid Washington be home to the best rock club anywhere?

“We’ve always been hip in D.C., but some people have been slow to notice,” 9:30 owner Seth Hurwitz explained to G2.

What draws fans to the 9:30 Club? we wondered. “It’s the cupcakes, obviously,” Mr. Hurwitz replied, referring to the chocolate-ganache-and-devil’s-food-cake desserts available at the club’s downstairs bar.

“We have the best cupcakes in the world!” he exclaimed, adding that cupcakes even help prevent hangovers if you eat one at the end of the evening.

We’ve never tried that but take your word for it, Mr. Hurwitz.

To contact Stephanie Green or Elizabeth Glover, e-mail undercover@ washingtontimes.com.

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