Dickey Chapelle, the Lotus Eater

Why photojournalists play only marginal roles in fiction is a question that throughly troubles me. I, for one, believe they live more interesting lives than lawyers, academics or scientists, who are constant staples in books. (Full disclaimer: I don’t read ‘novels’ with a shirtless man on their covers, I don’t know whether muscular photographers play an important and steamy role with their nymphette models in these boudoir novels). So it was with mild astonishment that I opened a gift book last week and discovered a photojournalist as the protagonist. The novel was “The Lotus Eaters” by Tatjana Soli, the title being a not-too-subtle reference to an island-dwelling race in “The Odyssey” who eat the opiate fruit of lotus and share it to those who wash ashore, so they won’t want to leave.

The protagonist is Helen Adams, a young photographer from California who starts out as a freelancer and eventually gets a job with Life magazine. In between, she goes to Vietnam, sees all the horrors of war, falls in love with a Pulitzer-Prize winning photographer Sam Darrow, losses him to the war, takes an iconic photograph, and marries her Vietnamese assistant. By describing Helen’s transformative experience, Soli was comparing addictiveness of war reporting to that of the lotus flower: many journalists who experience the horrors of war ironically refused to go back to their mundane jobs and remained the chroniclers of war, pestilence and famine.

The models for Soli’s characters were real photojournalists of the Vietnam era: Larry Burrows, Sean Flynn, Henri Huet and Catherine Leroy. Even Helen’s last name and iconic photograph she takes, that of a sudden execution of a harmless-looking old man, seems directly borrowed from another famous Vietnam photographer: Eddie Adams. But Helen Adams was clearly based on another photographer, who briefly but spendidly reported on the Vietnam War in the conflict’s early days: Dickey Chapelle.

Dickey Chapelle covered the battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa for National Geographic, was captured and jailed for seven weeks covering the Hungarian uprising for Life. In the meantime, she learned to fly an airplane and jump with paratroopers. She arrived in Vietnam in the early ’60s, and described her early experiences in her 1962 book “What’s a Woman Doing Here?” On November 4, 1965, when on patrol with a Marine platoon, the soldier in front of Chapelle activated a boobytrap (a mortar shell with a hand grenade). The explosion hurled Chapelle off her feet, and a piece of shrapnel slit her carotid artery, wounding her mortally.

The Associated Press photographer Henri Huet took a photograph of Chapelle as she lay dying, a picture that captured the same life-and-death drama that she herself reported before. In Huet’s photo, Marine Corps chaplain John Monamara administers the last rites to Chapelle, as an American Marine and a South Vietnamese soldier, both carrying M-14 rifles, look on. Blood puddles in the dirt near her head; from her left earlobe, a small pearl earring glistens. The Australian bush hat, which is her signature as much as her pearl earrings are, lies nearby, complete with a tiny bouquet of pink flowers she tucked in its band earlier.

Vietnam proved to be an extremely dangerous war for the journalists. Huet himself would later die in the same helicopter crash that killed Larry Burrows. But Chapelle’s death had a special meaning to it, not least because of the above haunting photograph. Chapelle was the first female war correspondent to be killed in Vietnam, as well as the first American female reporter to be killed in action. Chapelle was so admired by the Marines with which she was embedded that her body was repatriated with an honor guard of six Marines and was given full Marine burial. One of the eulogies read: “”the kind of reporter all women in journalism openly or secretly aspire to be. She was always where the action was.”