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A Mysterious Man?

In response to:

Ego, Prince of Id from the February 21, 1980 issue

To the Editors:

Professor Weightman’s review of St. John Perse: Letters gives an unremitting picture of Perse (Alexis Leger) as a cold, reserved, and selfish man. Leger was a frequent house guest at my mother’s home from about 1953 until he returned to France at the very end of his long life. Never have I met a more kindly; warm, and unpretentious man. His posture was rigid and he was impeccably polite, but his interest in other people, particularly the young, was always keen.

Many times I saw Leger’s friends, old and new, flee from the breakfast table in fear of being late for work knowing that if Leger saw them first he would ask a myriad of personal questions in the kindest manner and that they could not leave the table until Leger was satisfied their lives and careers were in good order.

Leger enjoyed talking about Washington politics (he liked Stevenson but also admired Kennedy’s youth and courage) and about art. Above all Leger was an endless raconteur. One of his favorite stories illustrates his typical support of the underdog and his most remarkable enthusiasm for life (“la vie d’homme“). As a young man, Leger loved ocean cruising. One summer he sailed into Cowes at the end of regatta week. He had his black tie with him and was invited to the Yacht Club Regatta dinner. Later in the afternoon two young Americans sailed into the harbor in a tiny boat having crossed the Atlantic. Leger went over to visit them and hear about their courageous undertaking. He was shocked to learn that the Yacht Club had not invited the bearded and unkempt young Americans to the dinner. Leger, the diplomat, then persuaded the British that the Americans’ crossing was just as triumphant as the deeds of the race participants and the Americans were finally invited to dinner—dressed as they were.

Weightman was misleading about Leger’s financial position. Leger hardly could afford a change of clothes but fortunately when his finances were at their lowest ebb he received over $40,000 for his Nobel Prize. If there is truth in Weightman’s portrayal of Leger, it can only be a half truth. The Leger I knew was a warm and inspiring man.

Gordon Douglas

John Weightman replies:

On the basis of a reading of St.-John Perse’s correspondence, I raised various queries about his life: what exactly lay behind his reserve? what were his reasons for not supporting de Gaulle, for not going back to see his family, for not accepting re-employment in France, for not writing his memoirs, for having no recorded relations with women before the age of seventy, etc.? The fact that he was a charming and well-liked guest in certain American households does not solve any of these puzzles. I queried the truth of some of his statements, but I was not attacking him; I was speculating about the mystery of his personality.

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