To the Congo and into the Navy
To the Congo and into the Navy
Abstract and Keywords
Latouche interrupted his Broadway career in order to go to the Belgian Congo (1942-43) to help research and write a documentary with filmmaker André Cauvin for the Belgian government in exile, Congo (1945). The trip also resulted in a travelogue, called Congo as well and released in 1945. After his return from the Congo, Latouche entered the navy, joining the Seabees, and serving in California and in Hawaii (1943–44). On his return to New York, he separated from his wife, and began a new phase in his career
“New York is very exciting in war time,” Latouche wrote Charlotte Dieterle in early 1942. “The people are finally gay again and the theatre particularly has taken a new lease on life, this late in the season … New York has become a young and irridescent [sic] metropolis with an elderly substrata of last-minute farewells.” Receiving a military classification of 1A, he himself faced the prospect of armed service; but thanks to the intervention of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, both admirers of his work, he received a year’s deferment so that he could travel to Africa in order to help prepare a documentary about the Congo sponsored by the Belgian government.1
Home to about twelve million blacks and thirty thousand whites, the Belgian Congo (now, two nations: the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the Republic of the Congo) had been a private colony of King Leopold II of Belgium for almost a quarter century (1884–1908) before international outcry over administrative mismanagement and cruelty led to a takeover by the Belgian government, which subsequently ran the colony for over another five decades (1908–1960). After Nazi Germany occupied Belgium in May 1940, the Congo not only remained loyal to Belgium’s government-in-exile, ensconced in London, but actively supported the Allied cause, sending their segregated military, the Force Publique, to fight in various campaigns, and supplying Great Britain and the United States with such valuable raw materials as rubber, tin, copper, and uranium, deposits of which helped the United States create the atomic bomb. Accordingly, Britain, the United States, and the exiled Belgian government all had compelling reasons for maintaining good relations with the Congo, including promoting a positive image of the country’s colonial administration, whose reputation had been tarnished by a long history of violent repression, especially under Leopold’s rule. In this context, Belgium’s Minister of Colonies Albert De Vleeschauwer and Foreign Minister Paul-Henri Spaak, further concerned about the effect American world hegemony might have on their control of the Congo after the war, commissioned the Belgian filmmaker André Cauvin to create a documentary about the Congo in particular for American distribution.2
Cauvin (1907–2004) already had established himself as not only one of Belgium’s leading documentarians, but one especially familiar with the Congo, having created two short films about the country in 1939: Nos soldats d’Afrique and Congo, terre (p.172) d’eaux vives. He arrived in New York in July 1942 to find and assemble a crew, including an American to write the film script. Cauvin reportedly heard good things about the twenty-seven-year-old Latouche through friends in the émigré community, and deemed him suitable for the job at hand, his fluency in French, the Congo’s official language, no doubt a strong point in his favor. Latouche’s reputation among liberals and leftists offered the additional advantage of helping to counteract the perception that this undertaking represented an exercise in imperialist propaganda, as suggested by the fact that from the start the mission aimed to disclose, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, “that all the stories told about the behavior of the Belgians in the Congo are not true, show how far civilization has been brought in that land and how greatly the Congo can help the United Nations by producing war materials.”3
Offered a salary of $500 per month plus expenses, Latouche joined a team that also included the British cameraman Arthur Fisher, assistant Peter (Pierre) Navaux (“a young Greek and Latin scholar from London,” noted Latouche), and secretary Lucienne Harvey Meurisse, a close friend of Cauvin’s (and described by Latouche as a “sweet curly blonde”). The group aimed not only to prepare a documentary, but broadcast radio shows from Leopoldville (now, Kinshasa), and gather material for possibly two books: a volume of captioned still photographs and a study of Congolese folklore. In the end, the venture resulted in a short film documentary, Congo, and a single travel book, also called Congo, with a text by Latouche and photographs by Cauvin (both released 1945, with a French edition of the book appearing in 1949).4
Departing by boat at different times, the team rendezvoused in Leopoldville in late October 1942. On his arrival, Fisher became ill with bladder cancer, and was flown to England, where he died shortly after; unable to find a replacement, Cauvin took responsibility for the camera work himself. Assisted by some seven native helpers, the remaining foursome traveled—by plane, automobile, river-boat, and other vehicles—the enormous length and width of the colony, nearly one-third the size of the contiguous United States. They visited villages and cities, schools, medical clinics, mining towns, an army base, a silkworm farm, an elephant training camp, and a leper colony, all the while observing and recording native songs, stories, and dances. Aside from the tragic loss of Fisher, the mission proceeded relatively smoothly, notwithstanding a car accident, some theft of property, and other mishaps. Cauvin had imagined the trip lasting two or three months, but the crew wound up spending about seven months on location.5
Latouche gained some elementary knowledge of two Bantu languages—Bangala and Swahili—and assumed the role of amateur journalist and anthropologist, interviewing colonialists and natives alike, and in some instances transcribing native songs and stories. He read history books and travel memoirs, and kept a diary of his own, now lost, although remnants survive in his Congo book. And characteristically, he enjoyed simply immersing himself in the country’s life and landscape. His few (p.173) surviving letters from the Congo complement his more formal published account of his experiences there. “Africa a pippin … ,” he wrote Virgil Thomson, for instance, “Nice food, gay people, bright cities, indigenous natives very much so.” After visiting an elephant training camp, he told his friend Eleonora Mendelssohn about how the latter would “immediately weep” on seeing the “little jumbos” violently separated from their mothers, and about a Yiddish folksong he had learned from a Polish refugee pianist living in the area. He wrote especially uninhibitedly to Dawn Powell, alluding to drinking parties and “prowls in the bush,” and stating, with respect to his health, “I’ve been trekking around the native quarter, and I’ve probably got beri-beri, tse-tse, or one of those double diseases. Maybe it’s somebody I ate.” He further informed her, “Cauvin has been filming, with a zest that makes me feel languid, all the phenomena that glitter here under the black sun.”6
On January 3, 1943, in the midst of this African sojourn, various newspapers, including the Atlanta Constitution, the Baltimore Sun, and the Los Angeles Times, published a short story by Latouche, “This One Weakness,” akin to the author’s radio playlets, illustrating the reciprocity among his work in different mediums. The story tells of a German soldier, trained from childhood to be a fighting machine, on a mission to destroy a dam in enemy territory; encountering an old woman and a young couple, the soldier raises his pistol with the intent to shoot, but an allergic reaction to ragweed allows the three civilians to apprehend him—the moral involving the futility of attempting to create “a human devoid of almost every instinct except the combative one.” Having this story published around the nation in the midst of war, with himself many thousands of miles away, seems just another of the lyricist’s improbable feats.7
While in Africa, Latouche also wrote some poems, two of which later appeared in the 1943–44 issue of Hemispheres, a quarterly of French and American poetry edited by Yvan Goll. A distinguished writer and poet of Alsatian-Jewish heritage, the exiled Goll (born Isaac Lang, 1891–1950) ostensibly had befriended Latouche even before the latter left for Africa, given not only his involvement in Latouche’s The Marseillaise, as mentioned earlier, but the fact that he also published his own French translation of a poem by Latouche, “Ce temps n’est pas pour nous” (“This Is Not Our Time”), in the November 3, 1942, issue of La Voix de France (“The Voice of France”), a French resistance paper published in New York during the war. The original English version lost, this earlier poem would seem to reflect on Latouche’s deteriorating relations with his wife in the context of wartime destruction abroad, although the poem ends optimistically with the thought, “Le temps viendra pour nous” (“The time will come for us”).8
On his return to New York, Latouche apparently showed several of his recent poems to Goll, who published a pair of them as Two Poems from Congo. Latouche wrote the first, “Yangamgit,” in February 1943; the second, “Pelican Song,” the month before. The meanings of these two deeply felt poems, both rich in jungle imagery, (p.174) remain elusive, especially the abstruse “Pelican Song,” which reminds literary historian David Perkins of the early Robert Lowell. The more accessible “Yangamgit” reads in part,
- Come, Come proud love
- Through the plantations of night gathering stars
- Come in disguise of unchanging season and clement wind
- To justify the avid avatars
- That for gay union our two selves designed
The publication of these poems, released during his time in the navy, came as a surprise to Latouche, who regretted that they bore no dedication to Cauvin as intended. Indeed, as evident from his correspondence with the Belgian filmmaker, Latouche held Cauvin in tender regard.9
For his part, Cauvin, who thought of Latouche as “an American Rimbaud,” came to greatly admire the lyricist, not only his wit—he especially relished his impersonation of Queen Victoria in the lavatory, with the pulling of the chain a high point—but his amazing memory, shrewd insight, and profound originality. “It was an extraordinary mind,” he later recalled. “Through John Latouche one can get into the psychology and spirit of a man who is outstandingly gifted. Very few people can comprehend and appreciate Latouche’s gifts. While we were together I went into his heart, and became, I believe, his substitute father.” At the same time, Cauvin found Latouche childlike and exasperating, writing in his diary in March 1943,
John is a spoiled child. Particularly in the morning. He presents himself at breakfast like a boxer who has lost his last match … he has a very sure instinct to ask for the food that is precisely impossible to obtain—and that gives him a case for argument. He nearly never raises his voice but turns his head from left to right while his blue eyes follow the strange curve of his feelings. I have the impression of finding anew yesterday’s comedian who tries to become the dramatic actor.10
After Latouche returned home in July, such gossip columnists as Leonard Lyons and Earl Wilson occasionally commented flippantly on the mission. Two anecdotes in particular made the rounds. In one, the papers quoted Latouche as saying that he expected to find “savages” and “cocoanuts” in the Congo, but found instead Pittsburgh. Another story—which possibly originated at a dinner party hosted by Sara and Gerald Murphy, with Dorothy Parker and Dawn Powell in attendance—concerned Parker, who quipped, in reference to the popular series of Broadway shows New Faces, that Latouche had traveled to the Congo to prepare an all-leper review called No Faces.11
In late August 1943, Cauvin presented a rough cut of some 40,000 feet of silent film for an invited audience that included Belgian officials. The Times announced (p.175) that the completed picture, with a narration by Latouche, would be ready for distribution in another two months, but the documentary would not be released officially until February 1945. Part of the delay concerned Latouche’s dawdling, which although characteristic enough perhaps indicated some ambivalence about the whole project. In February 1944, while stationed in California, he finally completed a draft of the scenario, but about this same time, Cauvin, impeded by Latouche’s absence, hired dialogue director Frank Beckwith to help co-write the script, with both Latouche and Beckwith receiving credit for the film’s narration.12
Meanwhile, Latouche persuaded Paul Bowles to write the film score; and although the latter wondered “whether it was logical, or even ethical, for me to associate myself with a vehicle of colonialist propaganda,” he took some comfort in knowing that Paul Robeson was to read the commentary, even if that task ultimately went to the radio actor Truman Bradley. Cauvin assisted Bowles by providing him with recordings of Congolese music, which found their way into a soundtrack that showed at times the influence of Copland. Bowles allegedly subverted the film’s intentions by transforming the Belgian national anthem into “a strident conqueror’s march,” but the score, at least as heard in a cut version released by Warner Brothers that might have bowdlerized the original music, seems to oblige the film’s rhetoric, with a stirring rendition of the said anthem at the film’s end.13
The picture, to its credit, implied some integrationist sentiment, as in the phrase “black hands working with white hands,” and conceded, moreover, the enduring value of some aspects of traditional Congolese culture, such as “the principle of equal distribution”; but the narration essentially put forth a standard colonialist discourse by presenting, in stark duality, tribal Africa as primitive and quaint and the industrialized Congo as enlightened and progressive. Nor did the picture—at least in the version released by Warner—address the issue of foreign occupation and governance, let alone exploitation. However, given the script’s coauthorship and editorial oversight, Latouche’s precise involvement concerning all this remains difficult to gauge.
Latouche’s Congo monograph, described by the author in 1949 as a “too-hastily written view of an important variation on the colonial theme,” proved more nuanced and personal than the documentary in a variety of ways. For one thing, with its translations of native songs and lyrics, it revealed a more profound engagement with the traditional culture of the indigenous Congolese, notwithstanding some unconcealed expressions of otherness. (Of one tribal festival, for instance, he wrote, “I longed to leave the correct island of civilization on which I sat so firmly in their midst; I wished to leave my companions, and merge myself into the dark, anonymous body of many heads, arms and legs that shivered and shook with a terrifying unity before me. But it was too late, centuries too late.”) Moreover, disclaiming any “affection for imperialism,” Latouche undertook some critique of colonial rule, observing that the country’s progress “would be quicker still if the profits not already substantially diminished by governmental taxes were turned (p.176) back into Congolese improvements, rather than flowing into the oubliettes of abstract absentee fortunes.”14
At the same time, Latouche noted, under the Belgian “experiment,” advances in public health, education, and welfare as well as in the protection of the land itself, applauding the formation of Albert (now, Virunga) National Park, the continent’s first wildlife sanctuary. More controversially, the book presented admiring portraits of Leopold II and Henry Morton Stanley—the author pointed, rather, an accusing figure at the Arab slave trade, which Leopold, in fact, dismantled—and while not “in any sense” condoning former “brutalities,” castigated critics of the Congo Free State for using the colony as a “whipping boy” and for cultivating a “holier-than-thou” attitude (mentioning, in this context, America’s shameful treatment of its own native population). Nor did Latouche detail more recent abuses, going only so far as to say, “Quite often I saw things that irritated or puzzled me, but these things were so unimportant in comparison with the impressive scale of the human effort evident everywhere, that my desire grew to give a positive interpretation of the Congo picture.” All in all, the book embodied tensions not only between noble ideals and wartime exigencies, but also between tradition and modernity. “As we evolve,” remarked Latouche, musing on Congolese customs, “we must take forward with us the good that has been into the next phase of evolution. Or else we move into a darkness with no compass at all to guide us.”15
Although his close friend Ruth Yorck thought the travelogue, released in July 1945, a disappointment, especially as compared to the author’s personal accounts of his travels, Congo—published by Willow, White and Company, and distributed by Duell, Sloan and Pearce—received generally good reviews, including approving notices in the New York Times by both the South African writer Stuart Cloete and the distinguished African-American author W. E. B. Du Bois, who wrote, “While one may question the optimism in some of the conclusions, and the estimates of such men as Stanley and Léopold II, there is no denying the value of the book—if only as an eye-opener to the resources of a still-dark continent.” As suggested from the latter review as well as by those published by the Amsterdam News and the Chicago Defender, African-American readers seemed inclined to share Latouche’s admiration for the colony, although the Defender noted that the author’s “African idyll contradicts more authoritative reports, which must be believed until La Touche and the Belgian government can show more conclusive evidence that they have changed their ways.” As for Latouche’s skill as a travel writer, the Herald Tribune discovered “phrases worthy of Poe … and descriptions of Africa in the raw that outmatch [H.] Rider Haggard,” whereas the Saturday Review thought Latouche’s “letterpress” not quite at the level of the “wonderful” photographs, which showed the men and women of the Congo as “unmistakable and diverse human personalities.”16
Stating a preference for Latouche’s travelogue over anthropologist (and Paul Robeson’s wife) Eslanda (“Essie”) Goode Robeson’s African Journey (also published in 1945), Paul Engle, writing for the Chicago Tribune, thought that the author’s (p.177) “exact reporting” drove him “into the amusing position of having to say good things for imperialism” after “he had satirized it in earlier writings.” But perhaps the most evocative review came from the Madison Quarterly’s Sue Quinn, who saw the book as an example of the author’s ability, as in Ballad for Americans, to translate “the reality of ugliness, evil, and defection into the ideal of beauty, goodness, and perfection,” an accomplishment in part drawn from a repugnance with American racism that dated back to the author’s early years growing up in the South. Quinn elaborated on this perceived connection between Congo and the Ballad by writing, “He [Latouche] sings, in fact, the ballad of beauty for a land he learned to love,” and by comparing his art, in this context, to the visionary idealism of such varied figures as Martha Graham, Eugene O’Neill, Arnold Schoenberg, Thomas Wolfe, and Grant Wood.17
Correspondences similarly could be drawn between the Congo and Latouche’s subsequent work. The integration of song, dance, and fable discovered in Congolese ritual found an echo in Ballet Ballads, although even before his African sojourn, Latouche had experimented with such amalgams in the earliest of the ballads, Susanna and the Elders. (Indeed, on the occasion of the premiere of Ballet Ballads in 1948, he remembered his “surprise” during a Batwa ceremonial dance that the natives had been using what he considered such “new” forms “since the dawn of their culture.”) Moreover, a major theme of the Congo book—the impact of the metropole and modernity on traditional ways of life—formed a principal concern of The Golden Apple and, to an extent, such other works as The Vamp and The Ballad of Baby Doe.18
Awarded a knighthood (“Chevalier de l’ordre de la couronne”) for services to the Belgian government, Latouche remained involved with Africa after his return from the Congo, including publishing reviews of two books on African topics for Saturday Review: a February 1945 review of Hassoldt Davis’s account of his experiences with the Fighting French in Africa, Half Past When: An American with the Fighting French (1944); and his own August 1945 review of Eslanda Robeson’s African Journey (1945). Latouche plainly liked both books, Half Past When for its “candor,” African Journey for its “charm,” both for their “humanity and passion,” to quote the review of the Davis volume. But with the war over by the time of the Robeson review, Latouche seemed freer to strike an anticolonialist note, writing, for instance, “the Negro’s status in Africa—socially, industrially, and economically—is insecure and unfair even in the most hopeful locales.”19
Latouche’s appointment to the Council on African Affairs (CAA) allowed him to address such concerns in the political arena. Founded in 1941 by the black activist Max Yergan as an outgrowth of the International Committee on African Affairs, the CAA aimed to improve the social welfare and political freedom of Africans through various activities, including staging rallies and benefits, organizing conferences, airing radio programs, and publishing pamphlets and a monthly journal, New Africa. Led by such outstanding black figures as Yergan, Du Bois, Paul Robeson, and W. Alphaeus Hunton, the council also included a small, mostly Jewish white minority, including by the mid-1940s not only Latouche but his friends Leonard (p.178) Bernstein and John H. Hammond, a jazz record producer, civil rights activist, and heir to the Vanderbilt fortune.20
On April 25, 1947, Latouche joined thousands of others in a mass meeting organized by the council, then at the height of its influence, that both celebrated the recent birthday of an increasingly vilified Paul Robeson and advocated “Freedom of the African Colonial Peoples—Through a Strong United Nations.” Held at the Seventy-first Regiment Armory, the event featured a pageant by Latouche that depicted the “world-wide struggle against imperialism,” according to contemporary sources, who also quoted the author as saying, with respect to his recent African mission, “As I met them [the African people] and later on, as I read the dismal figures on education, medical care, economic development, etc, one statement rang out: they will no longer submit to the domination of Great Britain or Belgium or any other power for imperialist purpose … There is no escaping the fact that this is ‘One World’ and colonial freedom is a ‘must’ for world peace. And that involves us.” Some friends, he acknowledged, had warned him against speaking out on such issues for the sake of his career, but he maintained that silence entailed the bigger risk. “Since the rally at which he [Robeson] will speak, incidentally marks his birthday,” he added, “I want to present the play [the Armory pageant] to him as my birthday gift.”21
Latouche subsequently became entangled in an internal rift that tore through the council as the Cold War escalated in the course of 1948. During that year, Max Yergan attempted to suppress council critiques of anti-Soviet and anticommunist policies in an attempt to maintain popular support, while others, including Robeson, in turn accused Yergan of red-baiting. On May 15, in the midst of this struggle, Latouche submitted a detailed four-page letter to Robeson and the council’s executive committee that he had co-written with two elder African-American statesmen and fellow council members, Mary Church Terrell and Henry Arthur Callis, and that charged Yergan with a long list of grievances, including alleged misrepresentation of the group’s aims and questionable handling of the organization’s finances. Although the letter generally avoided the matter’s larger political context, a reference to those council members “who insist upon the defense of the African peoples against the intensified exploitation and oppression entailed for them under the so-called European Recovery Program (‘Marshall Plan’)” indicated precisely the pro-Soviet bias that Yergan had attempted to quash. Some of the letter’s language suggests Latouche as perhaps its lead writer, as does the fact that his name heads the list of signatories. In any case, this document played some part in the council’s decision to suspend Yergan’s membership later in May and then to expel him in September. By this point, the council, in response to an increasingly hostile political climate, had begun to maintain a low profile, leaving behind no record of Latouche’s later participation, if any, with the organization.22
A rather different picture of Latouche’s involvement with the council, however, emerges in two sworn affidavits that he gave to the FBI in 1956. For a start, he (p.179) claimed that his dramatic piece for the 1947 Armory rally—which he referred to by the title Science versus the Jungle—had no political intent other than to illustrate “the principle that science and education would alleviate conditions in Africa by helping the natives help themselves,” and he denied the remarks attributed to him on that occasion, including the assertion that he meant the piece as a birthday gift to Robeson. Moreover, he claimed that Robeson and V. J. Jerome, the Communist Party’s cultural commissar, had come to him with “trumped up” charges against Yergan and that he subsequently resigned from the council because Robeson “was trying to use the Council as a sounding board on domestic issues which was contrary to the purposes for which the Council was set up”—the sort of argument that Yergan himself leveled against Robeson. But the evidence suggests that Latouche either misremembered or more likely misstated his role with the council in his sworn testimony. Indeed, if he commonly stretched the truth as a matter of course, how much more likely would he have been to prevaricate to the FBI, especially in light of the political tribulations he endured in the intervening years.23
“Touche got back from Africa having zigzagged in a boat for six weeks so no one knew what had happened to him,” Dawn Powell wrote to a friend on July 11, 1943. “He was welcomed by his draft board, income-tax collectors, process servers, editors who had not received the promised material, and long-faced representatives of his bank. This has left him somewhat crushed, but he exubers up if out of his orbit.”24
Powell further reported, “Touche said his wife looked so beautiful when he got back that he almost had a go at her himself,” with the lyricist’s extant diaries—which resume in August 1943 after a five-year gap—indeed suggesting some continuation of conjugal relations, at least to judge from such entries as that from August 17, in which he wrote, “I romped with Theo at bed-time, and scared her by making werewolf faces.” The two at least enjoyed reading aloud Philip Wylie’s best-selling Generation of Vipers with designer Frederick Kiesler and his wife, Stefanie, and socializing with Theodora’s brother, Nixon, and his fiancée and soon-to-be wife, sculptor Martha (“Toni”) Hughes. But in truth the marriage had begun to unravel. “We lay in the light, and I tried to reach her,” Latouche wrote in his September journal, “but I was too deeply still in the setting of my own fear—my sense of inadequacy swept off balance, and hampered comfort”; and again in October, “Theo was remote and odd: I tried to reach her without success; a wall wavered between us.” By this time, they had thought to divorce, although Latouche, about to leave for military service, harbored the hope that the marriage still could be salvaged.25
Latouche assumed much of the blame for the collapse of his marriage, with his unpredictably manic behavior surely taking its toll. On one occasion, as reported in his diary, he startled Theodora by running about the apartment “naked and joyful” shouting “Joy! Joy! Let us be free!” (an episode capped by reading Lao-Tzu’s Tao Te (p.180) Ching in the bathroom). And at dinner one night, he surprised his wife, along with Nixon and Martha, by announcing, “I think I’ve outgrown you all.” In general, although he hoped to complete a number of projects, including a treatment of the Hiawatha story for Walt Disney, he often found himself creatively blocked, which left him dejected and moody, as did the war itself, which caused him in one instance to “tumble off the wagon.” He might well have vented some of these frustrations when he met in August for coffee with fellow lyricist Lorenz Hart, whom he found “nervous and so sad.” Alike in many ways, the two lyricists presumably discussed, among other things, the blockbuster success of Oklahoma! which Hart’s former partner, Richard Rodgers, had written with Oscar Hammerstein, and a performance of which Latouche attended with painter Buffie Johnson shortly before leaving for service.26
His reprieve at an end, Latouche over the summer underwent a military physical examination—which put his height at about 5 feet 3 inches and his weight at 154 pounds, and noted as physical defects myopic astigmatism of the left eye (20/100), two missing back teeth, and an operated hernia—and was found fit for duty. On October 2, 1943, he was inducted as an apprentice seaman into the U.S. Navy Construction Battalion, the “Seabees,” a division of the armed forces responsible for such duties as storing and transporting materiel, and building bases, hospitals, roadways, and airstrips, including repairing damaged and destroyed equipment in the Pacific theater. (This division acquired its nickname “Seabees” by way of a pun on the initials for Construction Battalion, C. B., with “sea” alluding to their status as sailors, and “bee,” their reputation as “busy bees,” their logo showing a bee holding a drill, a hammer, and a wrench; in training camp, Latouche noted that the “bewildered, awkward men” themselves privately defined C.B. as “Confused Bastards,” adding, “we live up to it.”) With his background in radio propaganda, it would seem that Latouche would have made an especially good candidate for intelligence work, but he joined the navy, he asserted, specifically because the army would have given him a desk job. “I wrote plenty of words before the war,” he stated in July 1944, “and I expect to fill tons of paper after, but when the German fortified his ideas with tanks, I can’t fight back with a pen.”27
In the second week of October 1943, Latouche left for Camp Peary, outside of Williamsburg, Virginia, for some grueling basic training, about which he nonetheless wrote enthusiastically to his mother, whom he continued to assist financially, and to such friends as Frederick Kiesler, with whom, in a rare letter documenting their relationship, he indulged in some black irony: “I have also learned how to eviscerate a Jap with a machete; how to cut a Nazi throat with a hand bayonet, wiping off the blood onto the uniform; how to slice up with a trench knife, and side-step the guts as they fall out; how to burn bush and shoot down the enemy as they run out; how to kick the testicles in hand-to-hand fighting; and other bits of useful knowledge.” He especially exulted in his popularity among his mates, who called him (p.181) “Butch,” and who helped him learn how to properly make a bed and to roll and fold clothes. “I never realized how useless I was before,” he told Kiesler.28
However, in November he received some distressing news that dampened his spirits. First, with respect to a planned visit to New York, he heard from Theodora that she did not want to see him, “a brutal slap in the face” for which he turned to the writings of Emerson for consolation; and then, once arriving in the city, where he stayed at the Algonquin Hotel, he learned about Harry Dunham’s death in the Pacific—a double blow that left him deeply depressed.29
Assigned to the 131st Naval Construction Battalion, Latouche arrived at the Camp Parks naval base in Shoemaker, California, in early December after “a grisly trip across the continent in a dusty train.” At Camp Parks, located about thirty miles southeast of Oakland, Latouche spent much of his time in drill—on one ten-mile hike, he occupied himself by imagining paintings by Camille Corot, André Segonzac, and Salvador Dalí, and music by Mozart, Johann Strauss, and Igor Stravinsky—when not performing such menial tasks as moving supplies, digging ditches, and cleaning latrines. Much of this work he found tiring and tiresome; hearing a truck driver sing “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin” (Oklahoma!) while transporting lumber one miserably cold December day left him “close to homicide.” In mid-December, he came down with catarrhal fever and spent about a week in sick bay. “It’s amazing to traverse Africa without illness,” he wrote to André Cauvin, “and then fold up in healthy California.” In January, he contacted the Office of Strategic Services, the government’s intelligence agency, about a possible transfer.30
His situation improved in early 1944 as he began to write for the battalion newspaper, the Skipper, and received a promotion from seaman second class to storekeeper third class, whose rank he likened to that of an army sergeant; and when offered a desk job with the local public relations staff in February, he decided to stay with his unit, partly out of esteem for his commanding officer, Edward Dunham, and partly because he hoped to find “the actual pulse of the war” once his battalion shipped out to the Pacific. “I am very anxious to get into action,” he explained to Cauvin. However, in late March, a week after arriving at the Seabees base at Mauna Loa Ridge on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, Latouche learned from Cauvin that the Belgian embassy, in conjunction with the military, had arranged for his release so that he could complete work on the Congo documentary. “I have applied for three months leave, in lieu of a discharge: I have no desire to leave the service until the war is over,” he wrote in his journal. “However, I will be delighted to finish the film, and have the opportunity to write a few articles and to swell my low finances. And to see New York again.” After some delays, Latouche returned in mid-April to California, where he received an honorable discharge “by reason of his own convenience.”31
While with the Seabees, Latouche made some friends with whom he could play cards and horse around. “This contact with ordinary people has done me a great (p.182) deal of good,” he wrote to his friend Marian Dunham, although in his diary, alongside sympathetic character studies of his fellow troops, he occasionally expressed exasperation with their backwardness and bigotry. On one occasion, teased about his name in chow hall at lunchtime, he threw a fork at one of his mates, an action that left him “deeply ashamed of myself.” He also decried the level of navy culture, describing the hit song “Pistol Packin’ Mama,” for instance, as “a repellent example of the moronic ditty that occasionally is celebrated as a public mass to mediocrity,” and Superman and other comics as “another example of our degradation of ancient instincts.” Yearning for “civilized talk,” he eagerly looked forward to letters from home; he especially thought about Theodora, whose correspondence he found “charming and extremely moving, in a terse way.” “I long to be with her, to sustain her, to have her comfort me, to grow together with her, to feel the seed flowering into majesty,” he wrote in his diary in March, although he also told Marian Dunham at about this same time, “I love her deeply. But I must say it’s all quite a bore. If we separate or divorce, I haven’t any intention of being friendly or getting together later on … that’s a noelcowardish idea, and really indicates that Theo wants to have her cake and sleep on the side it’s buttered on, too. We will all have serious work to do after the war, and there isn’t any time to run around barefoot in each other’s egos as it was pleasant to do when we were younger.”32
In his spare time, Latouche wrote poems, studied mapmaking, and learned chess; left-handed, he also practiced writing with his right hand. As always, he read voraciously, noting in his journal lists of authors read, including Saint Augustine, Max Beerbohm, S. N. Behrman, Helena Blavatsky, Thomas Carlyle, Alexis Carrel, G. K. Chesterton, John Collier, Confucius, Emerson, Kathryn Forbes, Robert Graves, Muriel Bruce Hasbrouck, Gerald Heard, Aldous Huxley, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Mann, Somerset Maugham, Clifford Odets, I. A. Richards, Booker T. Washington, Eudora Welty, and Edith Wharton, as well as mysteries by Rex Stout and many others. His interest in several of these publications, not to mention the Bhagavad Gita and the Bible, evidenced his keen and diverse spiritual preoccupations; in a rating of one compilation of books, only Augustine’s Confessions (although read only in part) received four stars. Latouche even became active in the Christian Men’s Service League at Camp Parks, explaining in a letter to Dunham,
I dropped in to the meetings (you know my fondness for hymns—particularly sung in our own peculiar manner, and the zeal with which I joined in the singing must have impressed my mates that I had more piety than I seemed to have, because several meetings later I was voted in as battalion vice-president—which means delivering short bible-readings, etc.). I have leapt into the part with amusement, and the rather bewildered chaplain finds the bible texts leading inevitably at every meeting to the social issues of the day. However, being a left-wing Methodist, he is not displeased.33
(p.183) About this same time, reflecting in his journal on Schopenhauer’s maxim “The greatest of follies is to sacrifice health for any other kind of happiness,” Latouche referred to himself, at least by implication, as a “spiritual traveller,” writing,
Running across this [maxim] in crusty old fogy Schopenhauer reminds me of the paradox that we must seek truth not only among those who have observed it, but among those who violate it. So many philosophies are denigrated because the promulgators did not practice what they preached (Rousseau, Nietzsche). But these men knew more than any others what hells resulted from the flaunting of natural laws: out of their flaming pits, they shouted warnings to the spiritual traveller—because of their derelictions rather than in spite of they should be listened to with care and awareness.
In another diary entry, Latouche similarly wrote of Hitler and Nazi collaborators Pierre Laval and Vidkun Quisling, “We should hold a measure of bitter gratitude for these men: without them we might have gone on our whole lives vegetating, accepting the wrongs and shortcomings of our selves and the dubious society we have created out of these selves … Their evil has forced us to the extreme of creating an at least temporary good.” Latouche would develop this line of thinking in the opera The Golden Apple, as encapsulated by Mother Hare’s “Without evil, how can the good ever change? Without change how can any man ever grow?”34
During his time at Camp Parks, Latouche also regularly visited San Francisco, where he spent time with Seabee sidekicks and “alcoherent amours,” went to the movies (including a double feature of two horror films, Son of Dracula and The Mad Ghoul), and attended operas and concerts, although he regretfully missed a Milhaud premiere with the San Francisco Symphony, explaining to Virgil Thomson, “I adore Milhaud’s music.” “At first it [San Francisco] seemed dreadful,” he further informed Thomson, “because it’s overcrowded with service men—and I confined my sightseeing to those centers catering to them. Now I’ve struck out and found all sorts of giddy endroits that have flavor and mystery.” While stationed on Oahu, he similarly made excursions into Honolulu, where he enjoyed the company of the “vain, affable, and extremely charming” British actor Maurice Evans, then serving in the army’s entertainment section. During his brief time on the island, he characteristically investigated native Hawaiian legends as well.35
In his war journal, Latouche often expressed the hope that his time in the military might help him better structure his life. On New Year’s Day 1944, he resolved “to learn orderliness” and “to achieve concentration,” adding,
These two lacks in my mental equipment will have to be acquired against a potent natural indolence, and an affection for the irons-in-the-fire mode of life. Also, cultivation of moderation and order will be a hard pull for one as prone to extremist thinking as I am. But perhaps the difficulty of achieving (p.184) these aims will compensate for their humdrum character. I shall borrow from Benjamin Franklin the habit of a daily check-up, in order to be able to estimate my progress.
Some two weeks later, he further wrote that his service in the Seabees “had not been futile up to now: it has given me a framework upon which to base a badly needed organization of my scattered resources.” Among other things, he aimed to moderate his extreme moodiness, very possibly the result of some kind of bipolar disorder.36
Latouche often placed such attempts at self-improvement in the context of his artistic aspirations, which never seemed far from his mind. At one point, he spoke of “the service I hope I shall render in the post-war world,” stating elsewhere, “I pray fervently for the end of the war, so that I may resume those responsibilities I so lazily avoided during the past two years.” He frequently sketched ideas in his journals for stories and theater pieces, and imagined possible collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock and Bing Crosby, among others. He stayed particularly close throughout this period with composer Jerome Moross, with whom he planned an opera based on Ben Jonson’s Volpone.37
After returning to New York in May for an assumed three-month leave from the navy, Latouche largely neglected his diary, making it more difficult to chronicle his life for the remainder of the year. He worked on his Congo book, for which he received the sizable sum of $4,000 paid out in various installments, and spoke eagerly about returning to military service, but the navy never recalled him. He seems not to have gone back to his 49th Street apartment either, to judge from a June 20, 1944, journal entry in which he mentioned occasionally meeting with Theodora for lunches and dinners, although the statement, “our talk is passionless so far,” implied perhaps continued hopes for the marriage.38
In this same June 1944 journal entry, Latouche also referred to sporadic sessions with the pioneering behavior therapist Andrew Salter (1914–1996), at thirty years old about six months Latouche’s senior. With no more than a bachelor’s degree, Salter already had published his first book, What Is Hypnosis: Studies in Auto and Hetero Conditioning (1944), a Pavlovian treatise that proposed conditioning neurotic behavior through hypnosis. (The novelist Richard Condon drew on Salter’s work for his 1959 political thriller, The Manchurian Candidate.) “Those of us who knew Salter personally,” wrote Gerald Davison on the occasion of the psychologist’s death, “appreciated his sheer brilliance, his wit, his warmth, decency and consideration for others, his supportiveness, his keen intuitive grasp of human nature, his infectious zest for life, his love of art and literature, and his devotion to family and friends.” That Latouche’s consultations with Salter formed part of a larger effort toward self-improvement on his part finds ample evidence in a compilation of personal “liabilities” and “assets” listed near the end of his 1944 diary, with his “problem” identified as the need to “conquer self, or be destroyed by it,” and the “solution” (p.185) necessitating “self-discipline” and “self-control”—reflections supplemented with quotes from Muriel Hasbrouck’s Tarot and Astrology: The Pursuit of Destiny.39
In one June diary entry, Latouche admitted that Salter, with whom he presumably practiced hypnotic and relaxation techniques, had “done little for me so far,” but he apparently remained at least lifelong friends with the psychologist, who inscribed a copy of his 1955 revised version of What Is Hypnosis “to John Latouche, a past master himself, with the best wishes of Andrew Salter.” The two men also collaborated in early 1945 on a two-act play, The Wax Flower, a nearly complete typescript of which survives, and a project apparently resuscitated as late as 1954 with the additional input of Latouche’s partner, Kenward Elmslie.40
Latouche and Salter based their play on George du Maurier’s 1894 novel Trilby, about the eponymous young woman’s rise to operatic fame under the mesmerizing influence of the Jewish hypnotist Svengali—a story that also helped inspire Gaston Leroux’s 1910 novel The Phantom of the Opera, famously adapted in 1925 as a film starring Lon Chaney. The Wax Flower concerns Jim Poynton, a psychologist interested in hypnosis, and his fiancée, Sylvia, who under the spell of a crackpot hypnotist, Rengo, becomes a zombified cabaret celebrity, Stella, the “wax flower” of the title—her change of name symbolic of her transition from her natural state to artificial stardom. Assisted by his friend Chuck, a veteran and a painter, Jim rescues Sylvia from Rengo, who dies, although in what appears to be the play’s final scene his ghost ominously returns.
The Wax Flower seems to have provided its coauthors an opportunity to explore, if not exorcise, personal conflicts. In Salter’s case, this involved the uses and abuses of psychoanalysis and hypnotism, including mishandling of his signature contribution to the profession, assertiveness training—a concern epitomized in Jim’s observation, “Science is a two-edged sword: In the hands of irresponsible persons it destroys as well as creates. Airplanes can bring a world closer, or bomb its cities into oblivion overnight.” For Latouche, the play seemingly offered a means with which to vent his feelings about Theodora, including demonizing her own therapist. “I do not love Jim,” Sylvia/Stella says in a trance induced by Rengo. “Men are bad. I must think only of you, Rengo.” That Salter and Latouche meant to project themselves as dual heroes seems further suggested by the fact that the play’s two male protagonists consist of a psychologist and an artist.
Although more biographical implications easily could be teased out of this script, the authors intended the play as no mere psychological exercise, but rather a work of art in its own right. Not only did they copyright the play; they seemed to have secured a tryout performance in the summer of 1946 with the Montowese Playhouse in Branford, Connecticut, which on July 30 of that year premiered as part of their regular season Figaro, a Pierre Beaumarchais adaptation by Latouche that he reportedly hoped to bring to Broadway—one of the lyricist’s sundry works that seems to survive in name only. Reviewing this particular production, which starred Gino Caimi as Figaro, the New York Post reported that the material, further adapted by director (p.186) William Whiting and presented in the style of the commedia dell’arte, showed “potential charm.”41
By this time, Latouche had long moved on with respect to his marriage. Over the summer of 1944, he even appeared on the radio show Blind Date, a program produced by Tom Wallace and hosted by Arlene Francis, in which, on a divided stage, three women—typically actresses or models—would converse each by telephone with two servicemen on leave, and then select the one she preferred; the three losing men received consolation prizes, the winning couples, a chaperoned night out on the town at the Stork Club. No details about Latouche’s appearance have surfaced, but according to producer Wallace, he became the first Seabee to go on the show.42
Near the end of this same summer, Latouche found himself in a joyous new relationship, writing in his journal on August 24, “A wild, unexpected love has come—a love which makes me sure, instead of happy, which lifts me up, instead of chute-the-chuting. A strange love from the sweeping winds of the world.” And in September, he moved into an apartment of his own at 29 Washington Square West, a multistory complex facing Washington Square Park. A new period in his life had begun.43
(1.) JL to Charlotte Dieterle, Jan. 23, 1942, Marta Mierendorff Papers, University of Southern California.
(2.) Ruth Slade, The Belgian Congo, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1960, 1961); Roger Anstey, King Leopold’s Legacy: The Congo under Belgian Rule, 1908–1960 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1966); Jonathan E. Helmreich, United States Relations with Belgium and the Congo, 1940–1960 (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1998); Florence Gillet, “La ‘Mission’ Cauvin: La propagande coloniale du gouvernement belge aux États-Unis pendant la Seconde Guerre mondiale,” Les Cahiers d’Histoire du Temps Présent 15 (2005): 357–83; Matthew G. Stanard, Selling the Congo: A History of European Pro-Empire Propaganda and the Making of Belgian Imperialism (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2012); Guy (p.494) Vanthemsche, Belgium and the Congo, 1885–1980, translated by Alice Cameron and Stephen Windross (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012).
(3.) AHD; Rhea Talley, “John LaTouche to Join Expedition to Congo to Aid Belgian Contribution to Allied Cause,” RTD (Aug. 17, 1942).
(4.) JL to Dawn Powell, Jan. 12, 1943, Dawn Powell Papers, Columbia University.
(6.) JL to Virgil Thomson, c. 1942–43, VTP; JL to Eleonora Mendelssohn, c. 1942–43, Eleonora von Mendelssohn Papers, NYPL; JL to Dawn Powell, Jan. 12, 1943, Powell Papers.
(7.) JL, “This One Weakness,” Atlanta Constitution, Baltimore Sun, and Los Angeles Times (all Jan. 3, 1943).
(8.) John Latouche, “Ce temps n’est pas pour nous,” translated by Yvan Goll, La Voix de France (Nov. 3, 1942).
(9.) JL, “Two Poems from Congo,” Hemispheres 1 (Fall–Winter 1943/44): 57–58; David Perkins, email to author, July 23, 2014; JL to André Cauvin, c. March 1944, André Cauvin Papers, CEGES/SOMA, Brussels.
(10.) AHD (Drummond personally interviewed Cauvin, and received materials from him as well, most of which do not seem to survive in either ADP or Cauvin Papers; Drummond, who knew French, apparently translated this diary entry himself).
(11.) L. L. Stevenson, “Lights of New York,” Amsterdam Evening Recorder (July 17, 1944); The Diaries of Dawn Powell, 1931–1965, edited with an introduction by Tim Page (South Royalton, VT: Steerforth, 1995), 208; Earl Wilson, “It Happened Last Night,” Post (Aug. 2, 1945).
(12.) “Some New Shorts for the Home Front,” NYT (Aug. 22, 1943); AHD.
(13.) Cauvin to JL, Mar. 31, 1944, JLP; Paul Bowles, Without Stopping: An Autobiography (New York: Harper Perennial, 1972), 251; Gillet.
(14.) JL, Congo, with photographs by André Cauvin (New York: Willow, White, 1945), 97, 125, 192; JL, inscription to Earle Elrick, January 1949, Congo, in the author’s possession (“too-hastily”).
(15.) JL, Congo, 11, 36, 40, 97, 185.
(16.) Ruth Landshoff-Yorck, Klatsch, Ruhm und kleine Feuer: Biographische Impressionen (Berlin: Kiepenheuer & Witsch, 1963), 132; reviews of Congo in the NYT (Du Bois, July 30, 1945); Chicago Tribune (Engle) and NYT (Cloete, both Aug. 12, 1943); Amsterdam News (Sep. 1, 1945); NYHT (Sep. 2, 1945); Saturday Review (Sep. 8, 1945); Chicago Defender (Sep. 15, 1945); Christian Science Monitor (Dec. 1, 1945); Greece Press (Jan. 31, 1946); Big Piney [WY] Examiner (Feb. 21, 1946); and Foreign Affairs 24 (April 1945): 563–64.
(17.) Sue Quinn, “The Artist and His Dream: An Interpretation of John Latouche,” Madison Quarterly 6 (March 1946): 49–54; see also Susan Quinn, “Off the Bookshelves,” RTD (Oct. 14, 1945); for a more recent view of Congo, see Charles Musser, “Presenting ‘a True Idea of the African of To-day’: Two Documentary Forays by Paul and Eslanda Robeson,” Film History 18/4 (2006): 412–39, which lauds Eslanda Robeson’s attempts to “demystify” Africa over Latouche’s idealization of the Congo.
(18.) JL, “Items Called ‘Ballet Ballads,’ ” NYT (June 6, 1948).
(19.) JL, “The Fighting French in Africa,” Saturday Review (Feb. 17, 1945); “In Africa Before the War,” Saturday Review (Aug. 25, 1945).
(20.) Hollis R. Lynch, Black American Radicals and the Liberation of Africa: The Council on African Affairs, 1937–1955 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Africana Studies and Research Center, 1978); Martin Bauml Duberman, Paul Robeson (New York: Knopf, 1989); Penny M. Von Eschen, Race Against Empire: Black Americans and Anticolonialism, 1937–1957 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997); David Henry Anthony III, Max Yergan: Race Man, Internationalist, Cold Warrior (New York: New York University Press, 2006).
(21.) “John Latouche Explains Reason for Penning Pageant for Council on African Affairs,” New York Age (Apr. 26, 1947); “5,000 Greet Paul Robeson at Council on African Affairs Rally,” Norfolk Journal and Guide (May 17, 1947). (p.495)
(22.) JL, Mary Church Terrell, and Henry Arthur Callis, letter to Paul Robeson, May 15, 1948, W. E. B. Du Bois Papers, University of Massachusetts Amherst.
(23.) JL, affidavits, Jan. 27, 1956, and May 18, 1956, FBI.
(24.) Selected Letters of Dawn Powell, 1913–1965, edited with an introduction by Tim Page (New York: Holt, 1999), 117–18.
(25.) Selected Letters, 118; JLD, Aug. 16, 1943; Aug. 17, 1943; Sep. 14, 1943; Oct. 9, 1943.
(26.) JLD, Aug. 16, 1943; Aug. 18, 1943; Aug. 20, 1943; Oct. 7, 1943 (for Oklahoma!).
(27.) JL, Military Records, National Personnel Records Center, St. Louis (his paper work also reported an average monthly salary of $600); JLD, Oct. 9, 1943; “John LaTouche Finds the Congo Is Like Pittsburgh,” RTD (July 7, 1944).
(28.) JL to Effie Latouche, c. October 1943, JLP; JL to Frederick Kiesler, postmarked Oct. 23, 1943, AFL; JL to André Cauvin, n.d., Cauvin Papers.
(29.) JLD, Nov. 12–27, 1943.
(30.) JLD, Nov. 12–27, 1943; Dec. 2, 1943; Dec. 5, 1943; Dec. 21, 1943; JL to André Cauvin, Dec. 14, 1943, Cauvin Papers.
(31.) JLD, Feb. 11, 1944; Mar. 24, 1944; JL to André Cauvin, received Feb. 7, 1944, Cauvin Papers; see also JL, Military Records.
(32.) JL to Marian Dunham, c. February 1944, JLP; JLD, Dec. 8, 1943; Jan. 21, 1944; c. Mar. 3, 1944; Mar. 13, 1944; Mar. 18, 1944.
(33.) JL to Marian Dunham, c. February 1944, JLP.
(34.) JLD, c. March 1944; JL, The Golden Apple (New York: Random House, 1954), 23.
(35.) JL, letters to Virgil Thomson, c. January 1944; c. February 1944, VTP; JLD, Mar. 26, 1944 (“vain”); July 16, 1945 (“alcoherent”).
(36.) JLD, Jan. 1, 1944; Jan. 15, 1944.
(37.) JLD, Dec. 21, 1943; Feb. 4, 1944.
(38.) JLD, June 20, 1944.
(39.) Richard Condon, The Manchurian Candidate (New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1959, 2003), xii; Gerald Davison, “Andrew Salter (1914–1996), Founding Behavior Therapist,” American Psychological Society Observer 9 (November 1996): 30–31.
(40.) JLD, June 20, 1944; JL and Andrew Salter, The Wax Flower, courtesy of Erik Haagensen; this typescript, housed in the manuscript division of the Library of Congress and copyrighted May 17, 1945, lacks a first scene, possibly the remaining scene referred to by Latouche in his journals, JLD, Apr. 20, 1945; Latouche and Salter likely completed the play in preparation for an attempted tryout at the Montowese Playhouse in 1946; JLD, June 30, 1954 (JL refers to ongoing work on “Trilby” by himself and Salter “with a collab. from Ken[ward Elmslie]”).
(41.) “Montowese Playhouse to Have Summer Season,” Brooklyn Eagle (May 29, 1946); “To Try New Script,” Branford Review (June 27, 1946); S. B., “Man in White Coat Stands by Montowese,” Branford Review (Aug. 1, 1946); Vernon Rice, “Whiting and LaTouche Have Fun with ‘Figaro,’ ” Post (Aug. 1, 1946); see also “Figaro,” Variety (Aug. 7, 1946).
(42.) “Garde, Donald Set on WMRC,” Greenville [SC] News (July 23, 1944); “Over the Local Skyways,” Poughkeepsie [NY] Journal (Sep. 1, 1944); John Dunning, On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 96–97.
(43.) JLD, Aug. 24, 1944.