Various Places, Mainly New York, Costa Rica, and California: 1938 to 1956. A collection of 40 letters, together with several greeting cards, and many original mailing envelopes, all sent by Rene Belbenoit, French American author of the bestseller Dry Guillotine, a memoir of his experiences in the French penal colony of Devil’s Island, off the coast of French Guiana. Arrested in Paris after committing numerous thefts, Belbenoit was sentenced to 16 years in Devil’s Island. He escaped from the colony in 1935, and reached the United States in 1937. Belbenoit worked towards the abolition of the penal colony, which he sharply criticized in his novels, the publication of which led to a public outcry against the colony and its eventual closure. The archive consists of two batches of correspondence: 30 letters (44 pages) sent to Reverend Cornelius Greenway, pastor of All Souls Universalist Church in Brooklyn, mainly between 1938 and 1941, together with 10 letters (15 pages), sent to Max Lamb, editor at 20th Century Fox in Hollywood, between 1951 and 1953. The letters document Belbenoit’s life in the United States as well as his struggle with the French government to receive a pardon, and his attempts to escape the American immigration authorities.
The letters from Belbenoit to Greenway begin in 1938, just after the publication of Dry Guillotine. Belbenoit was a member of Greenway’s church, where he lectured on his experiences as a French prisoner. These letters document Belbenoit’s first years in New York, where he wrote stories, and participated in lectures and other author events (“I work always…book, petitions, letters…I have about 1000 signatures and I wait for plenty more…”—New York, July 7, 1938). However, the publication of his book raised the concerns of the authorities about Belbenoit's immigration status, and his letters from late in 1938 reflect his anxieties about staying in the country:
“But I have so much troubles now. The immigration said it is my last extension and I have to leave the country before December 5 by myself or they will deport me. I have nothing from Canada and I am thinking where I can go…I am thinking about the South…Mexico or Central America…Some people suggest me to change my name…get a false passport.” (New York, October 30, 1938)
By 1940, Belbenoit had fled to Costa Rica, and the archive includes four letters documenting his time in that country, where he ran “a little shop where a girl sell my books, butterflies, flowers (orchids) to the American tourists. I write short stories for the magazine Spanish and my third book will be finish in two weeks. I make my living and I wait” (San Jose De Costa Rica, May 6, 1940). Throughout his letters from this period, Belbenoit frequently discusses his ongoing battle to receive a pardon from the French government for his crimes, as well as to abolish the harsh Devil’s Island penal colony:
“Here I think I am in peace. Costa Rica is a quiet republic and a true democratic…the life is very cheap. I paid 15 dollars for a furnish apartment with 2 rooms and a bathroom and I paid in a hotel 18 dollars a month for my foods…But I am not happy. I miss New York, Brooklyn, the Church…If Devils Island is abolish, I will be glad…I don’t know if some day I will get justice. If I will be able to go back to the states legally. IF I will be a free man in all the world…The worst is my wife—she don’t deserve this.” (San Jose De Costa Rica, January 22, 1940).
“I don’t like the idea because a man who ask a pardon is a man guilty and in my cause the French Justice is guilty and not me…I have a fight to do and I go ahead…If I have to go to France I will go…I won’t try to disappear…I take all the responsibility of all I have done.” (New York, November 28, 1939).
“Hell on Trial is more serious, and much better for the abolition of Devils Island…I get a letter from Courreges the last week. He stay there and the conditions are worst, question of food, they eat rice every day and few bread and bread is plenty for the French people. Plenty try to escape…I have no news from my friend Dadar and I am afraid he is loose in the sea.” (San Jose de Costa Rica, Feb 8, 1940).
Belbenoit returned to New York by 1941, where he penned an urgent letter imploring Greenway for financial help:
“I have not make plenty money with the publication of my books…Not only I have to paid fifty per cent of all my royalties to my translator and the man who make the introduction (he was not very right with me this man) but also of all the money I have made I have sent about 20 per cent of all to help the poor people who was in Devils Island…Today I need some help…My publishers have advanced money for my bond. I have spent all my money for my come back from Panama….” (New York, September 16, 1941).
The archive also includes a letter sent from Brownsville, Texas in 1941, and letters from Lucerne Valley, California in 1953 and 1956, the latter two referencing Belbenoit’s quest to gain American citizenship.
The next batch of correspondence, meanwhile, was sent by Belbenoit to Max Lamb, an editor with 20th Century Fox, between 1951 and 1953. By this time, Belbenoit had moved to Lucerne Valley, California, where he spent the last few years of his life operating a general store and writing stories. These letters discuss stories Belbenoit was working on, and his hopes to turn his stories into a film, while also providing details about his life in California:
“I am open for business now—and am not too busy. And there is no phone—no radio—and no movies—So its ideal.” (Lucerne Valley, September 22, 1950).
“Just get the news about my story ‘A Cross in the Jungle’ Readers Digest will publish it…and I will try to interest the movies. I am sure there is movie material in it..and I can add some scenes with a girl in them. Business is o.k. here…I am already making all my expenses…” (Lucerne Valley, Jan 5, 1951).
“Think if it will be better at the first person. Duval telling his own story. The way the story is in the Casbah Chapter is O.K. If the rest was as good…You have to be the judge. The story is O.K. we have just to write it well…not for a pulp but for a good magazine. Its the same amount of work.” (Lucerne Valley, Feb 4, 1951)
A significant archive documenting the life and struggles of a significant author and prison activist. Overall in excellent condition. Item #11424