By Emillio Mesa
He has won the respect of many for his landmark actions as a man of mixed race, who led a nation through a crumbling economy. No, not President Obama, this is the story of Thomas-Alexandre Dumas Davy de la Pailleterie (Alex Dumas). Tom Reiss’s new biography The Black Count (Crown) chronicles how the son of a black slave and a disgraced French aristocrat rose to challenge Napoleon and became the inspiration for his son, also named Alexandre Dumas, to write The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo. Alex skyrocketed through the military ranks from private to general, thanks to his focus while under attack, equestrian ability, and swordsmanship. Despite all racial injustices of the period, he became one of the most legendary cavalry generals in Europe. To this day, he remains the highest-ranking black military figure in a Western army, until Gen. Colin Powell 200 years later.
At Andaz 5th Avenue Hotel, overlooking The New York Public Library, while drinking a soy-cappuccino, Tom Reiss discussed his latest book and why a 48 year old Upper East Side husband and father of two spent 7 years writing this book.
Emillio: Interesting timing for this book with President Obama’s upcoming election. Was that your aim?
Reiss: (Laughs) No. I started researching the life of Alexandre Dumas seven years ago, long before President Obama came into the picture. If you want the real roots of my interest, I think it started with my mother, Luce, who was born in Paris in the late 1930s and then arrested for being Jewish when the Nazis occupied the city. She was saved by a pair of courageous neighbors and the blind eye of a policeman, who allowed them to take her off of a bus that was bound for a concentration camp. In an orphanage after the war, at age nine, my mom was given a book, the 1938 Hachette edition of Le Comte de Monte Cristo. She brought it with her when she came to the United States, and this old green edition still sits on a shelf in my parents’ library, along with the other Dumas novels that my mom’s adoptive father, my beloved Great Uncle Lolek, gave her in her new home in Washington Heights. These Dumas books always had a special connection to my family, spoke to me of a kind of hope in the bleakest hour. When I learned that the novels had been inspired by the most incredible race-crossing minority man, who’d risen above incredible prejudice to do incredible things, I felt even more connected to Dumas. I always wanted to investigate this incredible life behind the stories.
Your books are about history but also individuals who went on bizarre journeys to find their identity – bizarre collisions with history – why?
It’s because I’m a rootless cosmopolitan, a classic Jewish character. Before the founding of Israel in 1948, Jews were struggling to find their identity in history–they were like people adrift in the oceans of other histories and cultures–and I loved to explore that through my closest relatives. I began by interviewing them, about their life during incredible, dangerous times, and it made me realize how much history shapes individual lives. In some sense we really have no idea what the past was really like. History as it’s taught in school isn’t complete-everything is boiled down into clichés. The big historical events color the experience, it’s a footnote, but it really doesn’t describe the experiences of the people that lived during that time. History is just as complicated as the moment we’re living in. So it’s about rescuing the real people who lived in it, from being part of an oppressively bland construct “history” that’s essentially a steam roller that just runs over millions of lives-it’s almost an insult. Also, I was a strange little kid who liked to ride the bus and sit next to an old person, so that they could tell me their story. History is a lot about timing. There are periods where everything is up for grabs.
What makes a Jewish-American writer from Washington Heights obsessed with a free black slave during the French Revolution?
I’m obsessed with race relations and racism. I’m interested in people that were in high-risk situations and how they dealt with it. What is it that allows someone to survive, triumph, or causes them to sink into despair? Also, his story is universal, an individual who had to deal with his creativity and personal life, against an oppressive ideology and how he came out on the other side.
Why does Alex Dumas fascinate you?
I’m drawn to people who have a strong ideology. Alex, more than any of the people I dealt with before, lived out his ideology very actively. He’s from a time and a place where to be a man, you wanted to put your ideology in your body. He trained to be what we call today an “action hero”. In those times the movies were real life. He lived out, what we today, vicariously live through movies. I like periods where social-clubs about a higher ideal were formed, where they lunged to remake the world into a better place. Don’t get me wrong, I like our own period, our beautiful-hedonistic-materialistic culture but I also crave something more in life. The reason that I write these types of books and characters is because they give me that something more, that we’re missing right now.
I recently went to a book party and a European writer said to me “It’s very interesting how Americans prefer personal stories, compared to Europeans who prefer literature.” Do you think Americans will care about the story of Alex Dumas?
Because of my books I’ve traveled the world. That comment is based on the notion that Americans are arrogant and don’t care. If you scratch below the surface, the problem with Americans is that we care too much. Just like Alexandre Dumas, we’re all still trying to find ourselves.
Was researching the book like an Indiana Jones adventure?
It was like digging for human-buried treasure. At one point I had a safe blown up in order to recover an importance piece of the puzzle. He was written out of history, the Nazis melted the only statue of him, and he was literally white-washed, they painted a blond guy over his image. I had to retrace his steps from France, Egypt, to the Caribbean. It was fun having to resurrect this man and reconstruct his life…like rescuing an individual from the past and giving him the chance to speak in his own voice, because great measures were taken in order to make him disappear.
If The Black Count were being made into a movie, who would you cast?
Fifteen years ago it would’ve been Denzel Washington. I think it should be a young actor, maybe an unknown-someone with a presence of power. Morgan Freeman would be a great narrator.
If Alexandre Dumas were alive today, what would he say about the upcoming election?
What happened? You need to learn how to believe in yourselves again and find your enthusiasm. Embrace the true ideals from which your country was founded and help to create inspiration. To be an American is to be somebody from the new world, a new person of beliefs and ideas-someone who’s excited by life and never lets oppression have the upper hand.
There is still no monument in France commemorating the life of General Alexandre Dumas. Maybe with Reiss’s book that will change. On September 18, 2012, at McNally Jackson in Soho, Tom Reiss will read from his new book. To learn more about Reiss’s recent work visit http://www.amazon.com/The-Black-Count-Revolution-Betrayal/dp/030738246X
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