The Sea King
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A warm biography of one of the icons of the environmental movement.

Matsen (Titanic’s Last Secrets, 2008, etc.) begins with the party where, as a young naval officer in 1936, Jacques-Yves Cousteau (1910–1997) met Simone Melchior, the admiral’s daughter who became the mother figure for the crew of Cousteau’s famed vessel, the Calypso. Cousteau arrived at the party with a movie camera, filming everything and instantly bewitching Simone. Matsen then shifts to Cousteau’s rather odd childhood. Raised partly in France, partly in America, he was the second son of a man who worked as factotum for a millionaire American playboy. Lonely and rebellious as a child, Cousteau discovered a passion for film at a time when the medium was in its infancy. Barred by injuries from his chosen career as a naval aviator, he began swimming in the sea to rebuild the strength in his arms—and discovered a new world. Almost everything else in his life grew out of that discovery. During World War II, in between espionage missions for the Resistance, Cousteau conducted experiments in underwater photography. After the war, he perfected the Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus (SCUBA), allowing him unprecedented freedom of movement underwater. His first glimpses of the undersea world, in a short film documenting shipwrecks, took the cinema world by storm. Cousteau sure-handedly built that success into an undersea empire, finding backers, acquiring and fitting out the Calypso, traveling the world’s oceans to create new films and developing new technology to allow even more spectacular diving feats. Matsen sketches the broad outlines of his career, but the inner Cousteau—by all accounts an intensely private man—never really emerges. In between accounts of the voyages, honors and growing environmental advocacy, we learn of family feuds, tragedies and Cousteau’s long-term affair with Francine Triplet, whom he married shortly after Simone’s death. Unfortunately, few of his close companions or family members appear in these pages, and those who do share little to reveal the man behind the mask.

Well short of definitive, but an entertaining summary of Cousteau’s life and career.

Pub Date: Oct. 20th, 2009
ISBN: 978-0-375-42413-7
Page count: 336pp
Publisher: Pantheon
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1st, 2009


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