The author who made Kolkata slums a tourist attraction

Dominique Lapierre was among the last generations of scribes who witnessed World War II firsthand

By Clay Risen

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Published: Wed 14 Dec 2022, 10:53 PM

Last updated: Wed 14 Dec 2022, 10:54 PM

Dominique Lapierre, a footloose French journalist who documented beauty, hope and peace amid war, poverty and disease in a long series of popular books, including Is Paris Burning? (1964) and City of Joy (1985), died on December 2 in Sainte-Maxime, a town on the French Riviera. He was 91.

His daughter, novelist Alexandra Lapierre, confirmed his death, in a nursing home. She did not provide a cause but said her father had been in decline since hitting his head in a fall in 2012.

Lapierre was among the last of a generation of European journalists, including Ryszard Kapuscinski and Patrick Leigh Fermor, who witnessed World War II firsthand and later channelled those experiences into long careers as foreign correspondents, travel writers and popular historians, making sense of the horrors of that war by documenting the world it left in its wake.

He had already written several well-received travel books when he and American journalist Larry Collins published Is Paris Burning?, an account of the Nazis’ last-ditch plan to destroy the French capital in 1944 and the race by Allied forces and underground partisans to stop them. The book was a global success, eventually selling 20 million copies in more than a dozen languages. The film version, co-written by Gore Vidal and Francis Ford Coppola and released in 1966, featured an enormous international cast, including Jean-Paul Belmondo, Orson Welles, Anthony Perkins and Gert Fröbe.

Lapierre and Collins wrote several subsequent non-fiction books. All were similarly brisk sellers: … Or I’ll Dress You in Mourning (1968), about a toreador during the Spanish Civil War; O Jerusalem! (1972), about the founding of Israel; and Freedom at Midnight (1975), about Indian independence. The last book required Lapierre to spend long stretches traveling around India. Along the way he met Mother Teresa, and through her began to think of what to do with the material profits from his literary success.

In 1981 he and his second wife, also named Dominique, returned to India as humanitarians. They lived for two years in a slum in Kolkata, which was then known as Calcutta, in a 4-by-6 room without running water. “We left the slum every few weeks to take a good long bubble bath,” he told Metro, a French magazine, in 1986.

Lapierre wrote frequent dispatches from Kolkata and used his extensive reporting to write City of Joy, a 1985 novel populated by loosely fictionalised characters based on people he had met along the way, including a priest and a rickshaw puller. The book was another giant hit — more than 8 million copies were sold — and it was adapted into a 1992 movie starring Patrick Swayze. It brought attention to the conditions of India’s very poor, with mixed results.

The Indian government committed billions to bring running water and other services to Kolkata’s slums, but the light the book cast on the city also attracted thousands of international tourists to see the poverty for themselves. “On the streets of Calcutta these days, the book is often seen clutched in the hands of Western tourists,” wrote the Los Angeles Times in 1987. “If Paris has the Guide Michelin, Calcutta has The City of Joy.”

Lapierre promised to give half his royalties from the book to improve public health in the city’s slums. He created a nonprofit to direct his efforts, and over time spent more than $1 million of his own money on things like mobile health clinics. Others gave as well: Within a year of the book’s publication he had received more than 40,000 letters from readers seeking to help. Some sent cash or cheques; one sent a wedding ring taped to a piece of paper.

Dominique Marie Lapierre was born on July 30, 1931, in Châtelaillon, France, to parents whose careers clearly pointed the way toward his own. His mother, Luce (Andreota) Lapierre, was a journalist, and his father, Jean Lapierre, was a diplomat.

Dominique’s first encounter with America came when he was 13. His father was appointed French consul general in New Orleans and took his family with him; Dominique attended a local Catholic school and even had a paper route. Later, when he was 17 and back in France, Dominique worked his way across the Atlantic aboard a ship, arriving in the United States with $30.

He spent several months touring North America, covering 30,000 miles and keeping copious notes along the way. Those notes became the basis for his first book, Un Dollar les Mille Kilomètres (“A Dollar for A Thousand Kilometres”), published in 1950.

He studied at the Sorbonne and then returned once more to the US, this time on a Fulbright grant to study political science at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania. Publisher Henry Luce spoke at his graduation commencement in 1952, encouraging students to go out to see the world.

Lapierre took that advice to heart. As a correspondent for the magazine Paris-Match, he covered Eastern Europe, Asia and the Algerian War for Independence. He and his first wife, Aliette Spitzer, spent their honeymoon circumnavigating the globe, an experience he recounted in his book A Honeymoon Round the World, which appeared in France in 1953 and in the US in 1957.

In 1956 he and Spitzer, along with a Paris-Match photographer, spent weeks driving around the Soviet Union, a journey that provided fodder for yet another travelogue, Once Upon a Time in the Soviet Union (2005).

Lapierre and Spitzer later divorced. He married Dominique Conchon in 1980.

In addition to his daughter, his wife survives him, along with a granddaughter and two great-grandchildren.

Before becoming a journalist Lapierre served as a conscript in the French army. He was stationed at Nato headquarters, which was housed at the time in an office complex outside Paris. There he met Collins, who was serving in the US Army, and the two became friends. They reconnected in the early 1960s, in Paris, where they were both reporters. They decided to try writing a book together — Is Paris Burning?

Their fortunes assured by the book’s immediate success, Lapierre and Collins left their day jobs to become a book-writing duo. They bought adjacent homes on the French Riviera, divided by a tennis court. They did their interviews together but wrote separately, alternating sections in their native languages, then translating and editing each other’s work.

Lapierre wrote several other solo books, including Beyond Love (1990), a semi-fictionalised account of AIDS doctors in New York; a memoir, A Thousand Suns (1999); and Five Past Midnight in Bhopal (2001), an account of the 1984 chemical disaster that killed at least 3,700 Indians.

Despite his often grim subjects, he insisted that his later work was a search for the good in life, even at its darkest moments. “I decided I was going to tell positive stories,” he told Vanity Fair in 1991, “about those on this Earth who do things for others, who, confronted by something terrible, are really models of humanity.”

– This article originally appeared in The New York Times

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