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(Pantheon, 336 pages, $26.95)
Brad Matsen’s new biography of Jacques Cousteau offers important clues to one of the great mysteries surrounding the deep-sea explorer, said Chris Mooney in Discover.com. Once among the most famous men in the world, Cousteau faded rapidly from public consciousness for no easily discernible reason. Awarded his first major award as a documentary filmmaker in the mid-1940s, the French diver and inventor peaked in influence when his 1970s TV series, The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, captured viewers by the millions. Matsen has discovered that Cousteau himself was shocked in 1974 when ABC refused to extend his contract. The humbling of one of the 20th century’s great popularizers of science began, it seems, when network execs fell in love with the bigger audiences being pulled in by the family-friendly sitcoms Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley.
Matsen’s polite account of Cousteau’s life is most revealing when it’s showing why the captain of the Calypso rose so high, said The Economist. The secret of his success had “nothing to do with the science of oceanography” and everything to do with the fact that he’d hit on “a near-perfect small-screen formula.” For nearly a decade beginning in 1968, TV viewers were invited into the “enclosed world” of the Calypso’s crew, with their “attractive French accents and film-star looks.” To this, Cousteau added the allure of ever-new gadgetry and, most important, a reliable amount of drama. Though “every episode made some claim to serious scientific purpose,” the race for ratings ensured that many of the shows co-starred “sharks, dolphins, whales, and buried treasure.”
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The dimming of Cousteau’s popularity can in part be attributed to his admirable campaigns to raise awareness of the dire damage humans have done to ocean life, said Jennifer Jacquet in Seed. But Matsen “tiptoes around” a far juicier story that might provide a better explanation. In 1990, when Cousteau’s wife died, the couple’s children were shocked to learn that their 80-year-old father had for 20 years kept a mistress with whom he had created a secret second family. Interfamily battles over the Cousteau name were just beginning when the patriarch died in 1997. Matsen might not want to say it, but “the public memory of Captain Cousteau” may well have been sunk by the “dramas” of his personal life.
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