Monday 6 September 2010
The woman who managed Jacques Cousteau's ship
A new blog tribute to women of the planet has just alerted me to - yet another - unsung woman working at sea: Simone Melchior Cousteau (1919-90. Her biographies show she was not merely a quiet landlubbing lady behind a famous man.
She was: the first woman scuba diver; in effect the bosun - and only woman aboard - a high-profile undersea exploration vessel; a maritime/media business manager. She learnt Japanese at five and was a mother too.
But as with so many wives, the historical record subsumes and naturalises her multi-skills into a story of what inspiring wives and mothers do.
Not only did she raise funding for her explorer husband Jacques-Yves Cousteau. undersea by selling her jewels for fuel for the Calypso, and her fur for a gyroscope.
She also managed after the 40-strong male crew. Her nickname "La Bergere" (the Shepherdess)summarises the way men represented her role. Sonia Paz Pachi Baronvine's blog records:
In 1980, in an interview, a journalist asked him if it was difficult to command the Calypso, Cousteau answered: " Not, if Simone is on board, she is the cook, the mother of thirty sailors, which advises, which finishes the fights, who tells us to shave, which challenges us, which our best critical one, caresses us, the hairdresser on board, our first admirer, who saves the ship of the thunderstorms. It is the smile every morning and the greeting before going to sleep. The Calypso might have lived without me ... but not without Simone " .
But it's a mistake to see this as 'just what good wives do.' Actually she must have learned her expertise in personnel management on ships partly from her father and both grandfathers. They were admirals in the French Navy
In the circumstances, how remarkable is it that - as Sonia Paz Pachi Baronvine points out (in rather unclear English) - with no formal training in navigation Simone steered the ship in an eight-hour storm while the divers were in the sea. She saved the converted minesweeper.
Her achievements were, of course, enabled by her being an elite white person. But she was happiest out of camera range, whalewatching up in the crow's nest.