Sunday, February 18, 2007

Louise Vidaud

There's just one relevant hit if you google the name Louise Vidaud, and she deserves at least one more. Yale University's 2003 review includes this:

Prof. Peter Carey of Trinity College, Oxford, donated the papers bequeathed by Mme. Louise Vidaud de Plaud, collected in Cambodia and France from the 1960s to the 1990s
Louise died a couple of weeks ago aged 101 and Professor Carey spoke at her funeral, recalling the help she had given him when he had set up a charity to provide artificial limbs for land mine victims in Cambodia. He also spoke of his friendship with her. Louise was a good friend and a bad enemy; I didn't meet her until she was in her early eighties and a couple of years later had the honour of chaperoning her during a visit to the Vietnamese Embassy in London where we were received with immense courtesy by the Defence Attache who gently explained, during a four hour meeting, that his government would not kill Pol Pot, as she was proposing. She had even planned how they might go about it.

That might seem laughable, until you reflect what reserves of goodwill might have led a representative of the Vietnamese government to receive an old lady with such grace, and that as one of the first Europeans to visit Cambodia after the fall of the Khmer Rouge she had actually seen the Killing Fields with their mountains of human skulls.

She was born into a family of planters and magistrates in the Dutch East Indies not later than 1905 (various passports and documents showed different birth dates and, flirtatious into her nineties, she preferred to emphasise the later dates). Her ancestors had been exiled from the Netherlands for collaborating with Napoleon and, after a brief marriage to a brain surgeon and former olympic footballer, who had a cigar named after him, which ended by mutual agreement, she moved to Italy for a decade. There, she fell in love with a Spanish Duke who was being trained by Mussolini in Rome to fly fighters in the Spanish Civil War. Unable to follow him to Spain, she ended up in Paris in the salon of the Princess Eulalie, the Red Infanta who had been banished from Spain for her left wing political sympathies. Louise explained her situation, and the Infanta told her that her lover was a barbarian. Sitting behind the Infanta was a quiet Frenchman who followed her into a corridor and whispered "Puisque vous l'aimez, il vous adore". He followed her to the Spanish border and married her a couple of months later. His name was Baron Renee Vidaud de Plaud.

Her heart, passion and even language as old age became crueller were thereafter always French although she developed a great love subsequently for England and the English who, she maintained, had the best sense of humour and the most handsome men in the world. Her hatred for fascism remained undimmed until the day she died.

When the Germans occupied northern France, de Plaud's regiment disbanded and the couple moved just south of the demarcation line to the family home in the village of Celles sur Cher. From there, she became involved in the underground railroads, helping fugitives escape from the north. The Jewish painter Marc Chagall was one, passed on to her care by mutual friends in the Parisian art scene of the time, though she remembered best an English soldier who knew no French at all and had walked south for two weeks pretending to be deaf and dumb. He had told her the hardest thing had been not flinching when a car drove up fast behind him, honking its horn furiously.

As the German occupation spread, Louise, though seven months pregnant, was determined to join De Gaulle in London and she persuaded her husband to flee from Marseilles to North Africa. They found passage on a fishing boat to Gibralter and thence to Tangier where my friend Patrick was born in 1941. They then managed to secure passage on a British convoy heading for Liverpool during the height of the U Boat campaign - the previous convoy had been virtually destroyed.

Once in England, she moved to London to join De Gaulle. The marriage didn't survive the pressures of the war, and Louise had an affair with a French admiral while Patrick received a certificate testifying that he was the youngest volunteer of the Free French, which he still possesses.

When the War ended, Louise worked as a journalist for a southern French newspaper; on one occasion believing herself to be hot on the trail of Martin Bormann she travelled to Dublin. Following a lead to the docks, she encountered a heavy in a long coat and wide brimmed hat, who informed her that if she continued to follow her leads, her son would be an orphan.

In the late 1940s, following a terrible mine explosion in France during which a score or more men suffered terrible burns, she realised that British expertise in burns treatments was the best available and organised the transport of British surgeons to France to help tend the injured.

The 1950s saw her try to establish an import export business between England and France, with little success. For the rest of her life, she was never financially comfortable but a long term lease from St John's College on a flat in central Oxford gave her the stability she needed while humanitarian work came to dominate her life.

A sense of vicarious guilt on behalf of her adopted France brought her focus onto Vietnam. She knew an Australian communist called Wilfred Burchett who had close connections to the Vietnamese government, and his introductions allowed Louise to travel to Vietnam with a photographer from Oxfam to record the effects of Agent Orange; she played an important role in bringing this to the attention of the West and earned the lifelong friendship of the Vietnamese regime. It is worth remembering that by now she was in her sixties.

By the 1970s she was taking up the cause of the Palestinians, and her Oxford flat saw visitors like Hanan Ashrawi. Oxfam held drinks parties there as well and, when contacts in France - the nascent Medecins sans Frontieres - told her what they had been seeing in Cambodia after the Vietnamese overthrew the Khmer Rouge, she alerted Oxfam and, with the help of the television programme Blue Peter, an appeal was mounted that saved many thousands of lives.

As the 1980s began, she became increasingly concerned about the possibility that there were American servicemen still held by the Vietnamese in prison camps. This concern lasted the rest of her life; in 1992, I was sitting in her flat one afternoon when Ross Perot, then a candidate for the US presidency, telephoned to discuss her work with what was for him too a major preoccupation. In her nineties, she was argumentative, forceful, persuasive and coquettish. Her flat was piled high with papers, books; her mind was filled with the urgency of her work. This still included commercial schemes, such as a plan to renovate a Glasgow-built steamboat she had learned was sitting derelict on the Nile, and operate it as a pleasure boat. Travelling to London for a meeting with a potential financier, she stepped off the train wearing black crepe, a pill box hat and a veil, looking like a character from an Agatha Christie novel, and the sound of a steam whistle seemed again to blast through the air of Paddington Station.

Ave, Louise Vidaud, Madame de Plaud.

UPDATE - Welcome to the readers from Cambodia. You have lost a good friend.

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