The 20th century is still disclosing its secrets to the 21st, many of them having to do with the lives of African Americans demeaned and restricted in opportunity for much of the century’s first half and yet still finding ways to withstand, even overcome injustice, neglect and misapprehension.
One such life belonged to Eugene Bullard (1895-1961), who fled from the deadly perils of the segregated Deep South as a youth and made his way to France, for whose army he fought in the First World War, first as a ground combatant and later as a fighter pilot with the fabled Lafayette Escadrille. He remained in Europe after the war as a boxer, dancer, jazz drummer and nightclub impresario before one again risking his life for his adopted country as a spy conducting surveillance on Nazi soldiers at his club.
And that’s little more than half the story told in “All Blood Runs Red” (Hanover Square Press, $27.99), a biography of Bullard co-written by Phil Keith and Tom Clavin. The book’s title is taken from the legend painted in French above a heart on the fuselage of Bullard’s SPAD VII fighter plane.
In a recent phone interview, Keith, an award-winning specialist in military history who lives in Southampton, and Sag Harbor-based Clavin, author of "Wild Bill," recounted the process which led these professional historians toward Bullard’s rich, eventful and oddly unsung life story.
How did the idea for the book come about?
Phil Keith: I was researching a book on World War I and a chapter in that book was going to be about Americans who participated in aviation during the war. And while researching Eddie Rickenbacker, who was the most famous of those American fliers, in this one book, I saw a footnote down the end of the page that said there was this other fellow named Gene Bullard who was American by birth and trained as a fighter pilot with the Lafayette Escadrille. So I started digging, finding more and more pieces about this Gene Bullard and once I started piecing everything together it was like, wow, why hasn’t this been told before?
You draw upon Bullard’s unpublished autobiography for information. Yet there had to be so much about his life that must have been hard to track down and then to verify. Where did you go for your background?
Keith: Columbus, Georgia was the town that Gene Bullard ran away from to begin his life’s journey. And there’s a Bullard collection now based at Columbus State University, which is part of the University of Georgia system. The reason the archive exists at all is largely through the work of Craig Lloyd, who’s a professor at Columbus State and wrote a very nice volume about Bullard’s days as a jazzman in Paris. And the book pointed me to this archive, which consists of about 10 to 12 very large boxes was And we spent between three to four days going through these boxes …
That’s all? Sounds like it would have taken a lot longer.
Keith: Well, the material was pretty well organized and it was a good thing for us that Professor Lloyd was a particularly able researcher.
Clavin: One of the other things that helped us along the way is that Gene knew so many people in Paris during the '20 and '30s who left behind reminiscences referring to him, including [Ernest] Hemingway, [F. Scott] Fitzgerald, Cole Porter and Josephine Baker. Some of these references are really surprising. For example, in Hemingway’s novel “The Sun Also Rises,” there’s a black jazz drummer at a Paris nightclub who’s clearly based on Bullard, even though he’s not identified as such.
How was it possible to verify the information about his spying against the Nazis in the late '30s?
Keith: There was a lot of anecdotal evidence and Bullard wrote about it in detail in his own autobiography. But we also ran across records here and there to confirm his service as a secret agent. Although he didn’t receive his Legion of Honor until 1959, he was first nominated for it in 1939 and the nomination not only mentioned his service in World War I, but also his being wounded in action as a foot soldier.
Q: Even in recent years, with so much emerging about unsung African American pilots such as the Tuskegee Airmen, Bullard’s story still got lost somehow. Why do you think this was?
Clavin: Well, with the Tuskegee Airmen, you had pilots flying for the American military and placed in the position of breaking ground within America military tradition. So you had movies like “Red Tails” and so many books and films about the Tuskegee Airmen while a story of a lone African American flying with the Lafayette Escadrille in the First World War could never really gain traction.
Still he did gain a measure of fame before he died when he appeared on the “Today” show with Dave Garroway. I wonder if you could tell that story because it’s one of my favorites.
Keith: Well, by the late 1950s, when Gene took the job as an elevator operator in Rockefeller Center, he was moving toward the end of his days. But he wore his uniform proudly, showed up for work on time and was polite and cheerful to all the luminaries who worked at NBC in those days, including Garroway. So shortly after he got the Legion of Honor from the French consul’s office in New York in 1959, Gene was wearing this bright red decoration on his tunic.
And one day Garroway was on the elevator and looked at the ribbon and thought it might be a memento from a Negro marching band or something like that. But he kept looking at it and said to Gene, “I think I know that” and … when Gene told him how he’d earned it, Garroway was like, stunned. You know: “How was it possible that you accomplished so much and you’re now here?” And he told Gene, “We need to talk more about this. Let’s call your supervisor.” And that’s how Gene got to be interviewed on the “Today” show.