Louis Bayard Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Louis Bayard

Louis Bayard

How to pronounce Louis Bayard: LOO-iss BY-erd

An interview with Louis Bayard

Two essays from Louis Bayard: In Jackie and Me he introduces Jackie Kennedy and the "First Friend"; and in the second interview he discusses The Black Tower, an historical mystery set in early 19th century Paris which brings to life the mighty and profane Eugène François Vidocq, history’s first great detective.

Jackie and "the First Friend"

It started with a photograph.

Two young men,1930s collegiates, leaning against a stone wall, their mouths smiling dreamily, their left hands perched flirtatiously on their hips, their hips thrust at the camera. Lovers, that was my first thought, from the pre-Stonewall era, seizing this one moment with the camera before slipping back into hiding. Then I looked more closely at the man on the left. Fair, slightly built, rather pretty and ... familiar. Before I knew it, I was looking at John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Not the engraved figure of cultural memory but a liminal creature on the cusp of maturity. The only remaining question was: Who was the other guy? The tall, bespectacled blond with the overbite and the air of hilarity so pervasive you can almost hear him laughing.

So began my acquaintance with Lem Billings, whose main claim to renown, in his and everybody else's eyes, was being Jack Kennedy's best friend.

But my initial response wasn't too far off. Lem was also a closeted gay man—or, to quote the old phraseology, a practicing homosexual. (I used to wonder: If they keep practicing, will they get it right?) In those days, that meant finding connections where you could. The bathroom at the Princeton library. The bathroom at Grand Central. A frat party. A wedding. A park. An alley. The church vestry. Praying the whole time that the other guy wasn't an undercover cop or a thug or just somebody who would rat you out a minute from now or thirty years from now.

Lem would have run the gamut of all those possibilities, but the more I learned about him, the more I came to see that his heart was reserved for one man. When Jack needed somebody to accompany him in his post-collegiate tour of Europe, Lem was there. When Jack needed somebody to help with his first Congressional run or his first presidential run, Lem was there. When Jack needed "complete liberation"—the freedom to be who he was, without judgment— he picked up the phone and called Lem.

Then I came across another photograph.

It's Jack and Lem again, only this time there's a young woman sitting between them. No question who she is. Jacqueline Bouvier, in her then-fashionable poodle cut.

The mood is light—some joke seems to have passed among the three—but what draws the eye is Lem's arm curled around Jackie's shoulder. Drawing her away, as if to protect her.

Lem would have had reason to feel protective because he knew what marriage to his friend Jack would be like. Isolation, endless rounds of campaign appearances, the serial humiliation of infidelity ... these would be the fate of anyone taking on the mantle of "Mrs. Kennedy."

But I think Lem would also have seen how much he and Jackie had in common. They were both, in their way, outsiders: aristocrats who lived among great wealth without having any of their own, Europhiles who cared more about art than politics—or touch football. Two rather lonely people who happened to love the same man, more than perhaps they should have. I wondered: Who would Jackie Bouvier, presented with the problem of Jack Kennedy as a suitor, have turned to for counsel or encouragement? Wouldn't it have been Jack's best friend?

On the heels of that speculation came Jackie & Me, a different sort of love story and one that shows us a Jackie we don't necessarily know. In the early '50s, she's a career girl, ambitious enough to land Vogue's prestigious Prix de Paris and to talk her way into a daily journalistic gig as the Inquiring Camera Girl, where she conducts man-on-the-street interviews for the Washington Times-Herald. It's a grueling, six-day-a-week job that's not about to land her a Pulitzer, but she's already declared that her mission in life is "not to be a housewife."

Yet she's also a young woman of her time. So when she meets a charismatic congressman from a wealthy and powerful family, she finds herself drawn into a new world of wealth and power. Who better than Lem to help her negotiate it? And who better than Lem to provide a ringside seat on an epochal American courtship?

That seat might have begun to chafe. After Jack's death, Lem became a surrogate father to the next generation of Kennedys, trying to steer them onto a straight or at least straighter path (while also doing pretty serious drugs with them). Yet there are signs that, in his final days, Lem grew increasingly embittered about the Kennedy family and what he had renounced for them. And the more I thought about Lem—about his Remains of the Day arc from adulation to lonely disenchantment—the more I thought he would make a great fictional memoirist. Camelot, from the inside out.

At the same time, in refracting those long-ago events through memory, Lem couldn't help seeing all the roads not taken, the choices that he and Jackie might have made and that they might, in some alternate world, still make. So Jackie & Me also became a meditation on contingency—the moments in every life where a particular future pivots on a single, possibly finite point of possibility.

I see this same principle at work in my own career. For many years, I wrote Gothic mystery-thrillers like The Pale Blue Eye, but in recent years, to my own surprise, I've found myself pivoting toward a new genre: the courtship novel. With Jackie & Me and Courting Mr. Lincoln, the thrill has become finding something within the historical record— something that resists explanation—and plumbing it not for a solution but for the full extent of its mystery. Which ends up always being the mystery of the human heart.

The Good Guesser
An essay by Louis Bayard about The Black Tower, an historical mystery set in the early 19th century

Five years ago, I'm embarrassed to say, I didn't know who Eugène François Vidocq was. It took Edgar Allan Poe to bring us together.

In the course of researching The Pale Blue Eye, I reread Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," which is widely regarded as the world's first detective story. But is it? Turns out that Poe's great sleuth, Dupin, in the course of describing his methodology, makes a glancing—and slighting— reference to a gentleman named Vidocq, whom he immediately dismisses as "a good guesser" lacking "educated thought" and constantly erring "by the very intensity of his investigations."

Two things struck me right off. First, Dupin considered it important to get a leg up on his predecessor (much as Sherlock Holmes would feel compelled to do with Dupin). And second, this particular predecessor needed no introduction to the general reader.

In fact, by 1841, when Poe's story was published, Vidocq was a household name on both sides of the Atlantic, a figure who could be cited by Dickens and Melville without any explanatory glossing. We can attribute Vidocq's fame in large part to his gift for self-promotion. Specifically, he was the author of four bestselling volumes of memoirs. These books were at least partly fictional; two were unauthorized; all were ghostwritten. But taken together they represent perhaps the first sustained detective narrative in any language, and Vidocq himself stands as our first modern detective.

Before Vidocq, solving crime was an administrative matter; after Vidocq, it became a field of endeavor in which a man (or woman) could apply the full dint of his talent and intellect and call on the latest developments in both art and science. So it was that Vidocq was the first policeman to use ballistics evidence, the first to take plaster-of-Paris impressions of footprints, one of the very first to recognize the potential of fingerprints (decades before that potential would be realized). He was a master of disguise and surveillance, he held patents for invisible ink and unalterable bond paper, and when he left public service—under a cloud, as always—he founded the world's first private detective agency, the Bureau des Renseignements, which was the template for Allan Pinkerton's agency a quarter century later.

But to Vidocq's contemporaries—foes and allies alike—he was above all a convict. Initially imprisoned for a slight offense, Vidocq managed to escape from virtually all of France's penal institutions, each escape only adding more years to his next sentence. Eventually, he worked his way back to Paris, where, after being blackmailed by former confederates (one of them his ex-wife), he decided a change was in order. So he volunteered his services as a police spy.

In this capacity, he proved so invaluable to the Prefecture of Police that he was able to ascend the chain of command at a remarkable clip, and in 1812 he cofounded the Brigade de la Sûreté, one of the very first plainclothes police divisions. This was a controversial proposition in its day, especially because Vidocq insisted on staffing it with ex-convicts like himself, reasoning that they were the ones best suited to infiltrating criminal milieus.

And he was right. Thanks to the Sûreté's aggressive and creative policing, Paris's crime rate declined markedly, and Vidocq became a folk hero to the local populace. As comfortable as he was in working-class districts, he could play the other side of the street, too. He was an exotically menacing figure for the high-society hostesses of the Faubourg Saint-Germain, and his comrades included the likes of Balzac and Dumas.

If some of the outlines of Vidocq's life sound familiar, it's because they were appropriated by another author, Victor Hugo, for his masterwork Les Misérables. Hugo essentially split Vidocq in two, channeling the embattled convict years into Jean Valjean and transforming the fearsome servant of justice into Inspector Javert. I can't think of a better tribute to a man's significance than that he must be halved in order to be sufficiently understood.

Vidocq, I soon learned, was everything a novelist dotes on: robust, contrary, appetitive, and a good man to have in a brawl. If anybody could solve the mystery surrounding the Lost Dauphin, I knew it would be the baker's son from Arras. The life Vidocq contrived for himself was itself a kind of enduring fiction, and more than a hundred and fifty years after his death, he is still winking at us—and still shaping how we think and talk about crime and punishment.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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Books by this Author

Books by Louis Bayard at BookBrowse
Jackie & Me jacket Courting Mr. Lincoln jacket The School of Night jacket The Black Tower jacket
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All the books below are recommended as read-alikes for Louis Bayard but some maybe more relevant to you than others depending on which books by the author you have read and enjoyed. So look for the suggested read-alikes by title linked on the right.
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  • Isabel Allende

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    Born in Peru and raised in Chile, Isabel Allende is the author of a number of bestselling and critically acclaimed books, including The House of the Spirits, Of Love and Shadows, Eva Luna, Paula, and In the Midst of Winter. ... (more)

    If you enjoyed:
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    by Isabel Allende

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