It is 11 a.m. in Paris and Michèle Bennett Duvalier is sipping her morning coffee while catching up on the news. This particular morning, another grande dame from Haiti has been hospitalized in Port-au-Prince. She speaks of the woman with a bit of nostalgia, another one of her contemporaries fading away.
She’s had her own bouts of health scares as recently as February. She squeezed in this interview between ongoing appointments with doctors and specialists. She also recently tested negative for COVID-19 after her closest domestic employee exposed her to the coronavirus. “I’m on my own in isolation right now,” she said. “Managing the house, the dog, everything.”
For the next hour and 43 minutes, she relived memories, spoke highly of her four children and set the record straight about her often-villainized, former husband.
“I haven’t thought about many of these things in a long time,” she concluded toward the end of our no-questions-off-limits interview. She was neither pretentious nor overly humble; rather she seemed interested, at long last, to share at least part of her side of the story. It was the first time she has spoken on record since her 1986 TV interview with Barbara Walters.
She referred to her former husband repeatedly as The President. I called her Mrs. Duvalier during our interview; however, for the sake of this feature, I referred to her as Michèle, as many of the central characters share a common last name, which could be confusing to the reader.
“Never complain, never explain,” she said to me multiple times during our interview. “That’s my motto. In general, you don’t complain, and as long as you don’t owe anyone anything, you don’t have to explain either.”
Josh Jakobitz, San Francisco, May 5, 2021
Her carefully worded, autobiographical title is simply, “First Lady of the Republic of Haiti from 1980 to 1986,” but for anyone living in Haiti during those years, those 11 words are layered with meaning, drama, context and a little bit of magic.
Haiti was known as the Pearl of the Antilles rather than the poorest country in the West Hemisphere during her husband’s 15-year presidency. The story of that era neither begins in 1980 nor ends in 1986. Rather it begins in 1957 – and as for the ending, Michèle Bennett Duvalier is actively writing that from her apartment in a lovely neighborhood in Paris.
Her social media followers cling to her every word in posts and essays, sharing and reposting her longer thoughts, “Mes Points Sur Le Ï,” broadly. The subjects range from memorializing friends and loved ones to celebrating birthdays and holidays – sharing just enough personal, behind-the-scenes insight to remain as relevant as ever. But her most popular posts are disparaging discourses of the present state of Haiti. She often will quote her ex-husband, “What have you done with my country?” in her lectures to government leaders. My country – because it was her country, it was her child of sorts – is how she still thinks about Haiti.
From 1980 to 1986, she was its First Lady, its mother. Like a child separated from its mother, life in exile didn’t disconnect Michèle from Haiti. Instead, it’s commonly argued, she became the first-ever active First Lady in Exile, receiving Haitian dignitaries and visitors in the same grand fashion as she once did at the Villa d’Accueil in Port-au-Prince. In the 1980s and 1990s, she stayed connected to Haitian culture, society and politics.
Social media’s rise in the 2000s – Michèle’s preferred platform is Facebook – gave her a new avenue to connect with both supporters and haters. The last five years of Haiti’s painful tailspin have provided plenty of targets for her Points Sur Le Ï, because a mother never stops being a mother; a mother never truly abandons her child. And she has a lot to say about that for anyone who’d like to listen.
In order to understand her position as First Lady in Exile, we need to start at the beginning of the end.
Haiti - 1978
In 1978, Michèle was a beautiful divorcée, educated abroad, friendly with emerging artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat and an otherwise busy mother of two young children from her first marriage. She worked at the Bennett family business, mostly focused on the exportation of coffee. Her first marriage lasted only five years and she wasn’t looking for a repeat.
“I didn’t need a husband to support myself,” she said bluntly. “I was doing fine on my own: house, pool, nice car. The family business was more than capable to care for my financial needs.”
There was one very eligible bachelor in particular to whom Michèle’s characteristics appealed greatly, and he was about to change the course of her life.
The president of Haiti, Jean-Claude Duvalier, was only 27 years old in 1978, but he’d been president for eight years already. He inherited the position of President for Life from his father, Dr. François Duvalier, who had secured the family’s grip on power through a series of changes to the Constitution and consolidating the Parliament, complete with an election that all but ensured his victory. His first-born son and natural successor Jean-Claude became president at 19 unexpectedly. He desired a different kind of government – his own legacy – but he was largely surrounded by the administration he inherited from his father.
In those days, Haitian people and Haitian families were either Duvalierists or not. To be a Duvalierist during his father’s administration meant unflinching, unquestioning loyalty to the presidency. By the late 1970s, many Duvalierists expected to be rewarded for this loyalty. And a marriage between a prominent Duvalierist family and the Duvalier family was considered the ultimate accomplishment.
“Every Duvalierist family in Haiti had a daughter for the president,” said Michèle. “I was not anyone’s choice. I was wrong in every way.” The administration blocked the president’s social advances with Michèle, but he wasn’t dissuaded. Michèle Bennett caught – and held – his interest. She was everything he was not: glamorous, well-traveled, foreign-educated, experienced in the ways of the world and, most obvious of all, mulatto. François Duvalier had gone to great lengths during his presidency to instate the country’s black majority into power, effectively alienating influential members of the wealthier mulatto community. Michèle represented the mulatto community in every sense of the word: her father owned vast amounts of land, growing coffee for export, claiming indigenous Taïno ancestry, rather than African roots, as well as a direct descendancy from King Henri Christophe. The family lived in privilege inaccessible to the majority of the population. The Bennetts were also Church of England Episcopalians in a Catholic country, which would later present a challenge of its own.
None of these things deterred Jean-Claude, so he invited her to his villa for cocktails. A butler served Champagne and the two renewed their friendship, continuing to see each other both socially and privately. “(Jean-Claude) was a breath of fresh air,” said Michèle. “His father had been feared, but he was the son of Haiti: he grew up under Haiti’s watchful eye. Haitians from every walk of life were naturally protective of him.”
Michèle’s influence on the president was physically noticeable during their courtship: he slimmed down to a healthier body weight and popped up strategically in towns across the country, surprising delighted Haitians with his signature one and two gourde coins, pressed into the palms of children or thrown from the back of a car. She still didn’t think marrying Jean-Claude was an option, but he insisted, so she set a wedding date.
Her religious affiliation to the Episcopal Church and complications from her first marriage to Alix Pasquet, also Catholic, had to be overcome.
“The president called Archbishop (François-Wolff) Ligondé for an audience,” recalled Michèle. The archbishop surprisingly noted that Michèle lacked the necessary dispensation for her first marriage to Alix due to a clerical oversight. The clergyman’s official position was that her first marriage had been invalid in the eyes of the Church.
“When the archbishop told me that, my first thought was ‘How will I ever tell my children?’” said Michèle. Then she exploded. “The archbishop advised me to calm down and gave the president specific guidance on handling the dispensation we needed,” she said.
Jean-Claude wrote to the Vatican, explaining the situation and requesting their dispensation. The Vatican, having been the recipient of François Duvalier’s political maneuvering decades earlier, quickly and quietly granted it in two months’ time. By contrast, The Vatican took 11 years to annul the first marriage of Princess Caroline de Monaco during the same period.
In May 1980, the two married in the social event of the decade. The wedding, which took place one year before Lady Diana Spencer married Prince Charles, cost an unheard of $3 million and was televised on the government-operated TV network in every municipality, village and city. Around the world, the Haitian diaspora watched the wedding on local TV, too. She wore Givenchy couture, designed and fitted in Paris by Hubert de Givenchy himself.
“I was worried about the dress accentuating my curves. I was thin, but particularly conscious of the back of the dress,” Michèle said. Hubert reassured her: it was very flattering. He insisted on designing a custom headpiece, rather than a traditional veil, which formed a crown-like starburst that accentuated her striking silhouette and features. Haitians danced in the streets to celebrate the marriage of their president.
“I read in the newspapers how much the wedding cost,” Michèle said. “But I was in charge of two things: the dress and the date. The president and his sisters chose everything else… they had excellent taste and made all the decisions about décor and expenses. At one point, someone asked me which kind of flowers I liked – white orchids, I said – and they incorporated those into the decor. Newspapers reported that we served imported caviar and other delicacies at the reception; but in reality,” she said, “The food was all locally made – it was a very Haitian wedding for all of Haiti.”
When Michèle moved into the Presidential Palace, she encountered her first obstacle to truly becoming First Lady: her new mother-in-law. The wife of the late president for life saw herself as First Lady for Life and it took Michèle time to transition into the role promised to her, intended for her: First Lady.
Michèle’s experiences abroad, tastes in fashion from her time interning in New York’s Garment District and general desire to expand Haiti’s presence on the world stage culminated into a PR plan: this one aimed at the international community. With her mother-in-law still in the way, perhaps she couldn’t summon an ambassador to the Presidential Palace, but no ambassador could miss a complimentary headline from Haiti’s daily newspaper, Le Nouvelliste.
Michèle – sometimes accompanied by the president – looking every part a glamorous First Lady in striking suits and coordinating hats, supported extremely popular causes and initiatives, and her instincts ensured that the press was present to capture every smile, touch and endearing moment of her campaign. In 1981, Michèle received Mother Teresa at the Presidential Palace, where the hallowed Mother told the press approvingly that she had never seen poor people so familiar with their Heads of State.
“No one knew that I met Sister Theresa years earlier at my father’s office,” Michèle said. Her mother, Aurore, had been a long-time supporter of the Missionaries of Charity. Her mother’s benevolence – “I saw her write a big check to Sister Theresa, and I asked, ‘How will Dad react to that?’” Michèle recalled. “This is the one expense your father never questions,” Aurore replied – instilled a baseline for charity work into Michèle.
Over the years, she actively fundraised for Mother Theresa, while also establishing the Fondation Michèle Bennett Duvalier to support health, nutrition and education initiatives in Haiti. “I never set out to become famous or popular myself,” Michèle said. “Everything I did, built, funded… it was all to, first and foremost, support the president, while providing jobs and services.” Her foundation, the first of its kind and only one of its kind in regard to depth and breadth of success, developed and operated hospitals, clinics, pharmacies, canteens and schools.
By 1985, she had completed three hospitals – in Bon Repos, La Saline and Place Cazeau – and was breaking ground on a fourth in Delmas. There were hundreds of clinics, each paired with a pharmacy. The two largest were in the Bel-Air neighborhood of Port-au-Prince and the rural city of Port-de-Paix. The foundation funded schools, both existing and new construction. Over 15,000 students a day benefitted from “canteens,” nutrition programs that served school-aged children a hot midday meal. Michèle was personally involved in every aspect, from planning to human resources. And her foundation was well-funded, both from the private sector as well as the public. “When we left Haiti, the foundation bank account had a balance of $3 million (USD) to sustain the work,” she said. “I still have the bonds (to prove it).”
Newspapers, TV and radio hosts and later, bloggers, fixated on how much the Duvaliers ‘stole’ and ‘took’ into exile, typecasting them as villains and pillagers; meanwhile, the funds in the Fondation account were emptied, the projects abandoned, the buildings burned and as a result, denied school children their plat chaud, the daily midday meal previously provided by the canteens.
One last note on the Fondation: all the building, fundraising, organizing and operating listed above took place within a five-year span of time. It was a massive undertaking, the likes of which Haiti has never again experienced under successive governments – or First Lady agendas.
In addition to her responsibilities with the foundation, she oversaw the development and opening of the MUPANAH, a museum dedicated to the forefathers of the nation and the preservation of Haitian culture and art. The MUPANAH not only survived the social unrest in 1986 and beyond, but it withstood the earthquake that toppled most other buildings in its proximity.
The combination of her initiatives and successful projects coincidentally sidelined her mother-in-law. Simone Ovide Duvalier, beaten soundly in the press by her daughter-in-law, relinquished her title and power of the First Lady position to Michèle. The country had a new mother, and her name was Michèle Duvalier.
What followed in those short few years puts both Haitians and historians at odds with each other. To a vocal, critical contingent, Michèle was an underminer-extraordinaire, completely out of touch with the reality of her impoverished homeland, a “Dragon Lady,” according to a salacious piece published by People Magazine and the most successful looter of the national treasury since Haiti’s inception in 1804. Reports indicate the Duvaliers once amassed up to $800 million in personal wealth. That would be an extraordinary achievement for today, in 2021, let alone in 1986. It must be noted that actual charges for these alleged actions have never materialized.
In the other corner, a just-as-staunchly demonstrative, yet quieter and harder-to-pin-down crowd of loyal friends and supporters describe the era as a magical time in Haiti’s history: the First Lady oozed elegance and grace, the Presidential Palace was a center of grandeur that represented the pride of the world’s first free black republic – and the parties, they were neither more, nor less, excessive than any reception at the Quay d’Orsay in Paris. The military and police presence in the street encouraged orderliness and cleanliness. The people in this group leave kind messages on her Facebook posts, recalling the births of children at “her hospitals,” reminiscing of the good old days, wishing her well and pleading with her to come back to restore Haiti to its former glory.
Michèle, it seems, doesn’t mind the mystery surrounding those years at all. Over the three decades since she left Haiti on an airplane in the middle of the night, she’s avoided telling the whole story, turning away potential biographers one after the other until she agreed to speak to Polo Lifestyles.
She learned lessons with the foreign press the hard way – and as a result, she’s still careful about sharing too much. Upon her arrival in France in 1986, the tabloids were ravenous for details of the Duvaliers in exile. The paparazzi hounded Michèle and the headlines that the papers wrote weighed heavily on the entire family. Aurore complained about the constant photographers and way the headlines portrayed her daughter. But Maman, Michèle countered, How do I look in the photos?
“The photos are good,” Aurore answered. Then it’s fine, Michèle replied.
Haiti – 1983
In 1983, things were starting to break down inside the Duvalier administration. Pope John Paul II visited Haiti and in broken Creole declared that things needed to change in Haiti, calling on the Duvaliers to do something about the economic situation. In over 30 years, no one had spoken out against the government so egregiously and stuck around long enough to try it again. Jean-Claude responded, lowering food prices by 10 percent, but the silence had been broken and popular opinion was shifting rapidly.
Michèle invested more time in public appearances, fully believing they could regain the country’s trust. She appeared in public regularly, looking every part the perfectly coifed First Lady. Her standing hair appointment at La Noblesse Salon kept her long, thick head of hair moisturized, highlighted and shiny. The owner of the salon called her style the “Michèle Duvalier,” and it was her most-often requested ‘do among the other wealthy ladies who frequented her salon on the Champs-de-Mars across from the Presidential Palace.
Raising her four children in quasi-normalcy also demanded more of her attention: Francois-Nicolas, Jean-Claude’s eldest male heir, was the subject of a proposed change to the Constitution to name him personally as successor when he was only two years old. Michèle fought the change and Jean-Claude supported her. “The president was always so supportive of me, and especially sensitive when it came to my stance on the children. I felt the presidency is something you need to want – obviously at two years old, I had to protect Nicolas from that pressure,” Michèle said. “All of my children are precious to me, but the last two are miracles, and I have always protected them as such.”
Michèle’s OB-GYN had diagnosed her with cystic fibrosis (CF) following an initial miscarriage in the early years of her marriage to Jean-Claude. He, as well as specialists from Miami, discouraged her from considering pregnancy again, which was common medical advice for CF patients in the 1980s. Michèle, more determined than ever, produced two Duvalier heirs: in addition to Francois-Nicolas, their daughter, Anya, was born two years later.
By the end of 1985, the country was in crisis. Jean-Claude was considering abdicating the proverbial throne he inherited 15 years earlier. In early 1986, the pressure from foreign governments was too great and the Duvalier family and some 15-odd associates left Haiti in the middle of the night aboard an American military jet. Haiti descended into total political and social chaos without a president for life at the helm. The Duvaliers’ vacation homes in the mountains and at the beach were breached, vandalized and looted. Remaining high-ranking members of the administration were hunted down in the streets or forced into house arrest. Many simply just disappeared, never to be heard from again.
Mougins, France – 1986
The government of France declined to grant the Duvaliers asylum, but it didn’t enforce their temporary visitor status either. Michèle was spending vast amount of cash to outfit the chateau they were renting, and perhaps the local officials just decided they were good for the economy. The First Lady in Exile now faced multiple challenges, but raising her four children in a foreign country was at the top of the list. As children do, they adapted and excelled in French culture, never actively learning to speak Haitian Creole. Later, as an adult, when Francois-Nicolas returned to Haiti full-time, he had to learn the basics of the language from friends.
Michèle’s active social schedule in Mougins and Cannes contrasted with Jean-Claude’s more relaxed approach to life in exile. The two eventually split and later divorced, citing irreconcilable differences. Following the divorce and a security incident in Cannes, she moved the children to Paris and enrolled them into an American school in the 16th Arrondissement.
“The president called me because he heard our children were walking two blocks from the school to a canteen at lunch time,” said Michèle. “He wanted to beef up their security. They already had a driver and a nanny. I said, ‘Non!’ I was raising them as normal French children. I taught them how to navigate the Metro and the bus system, too.”
She describes herself as a traditional mother and she always tried – and tries – to remain a positive person and influence in their lives.
“My mother was such a positive woman,” said Michèle wistfully. “(Jean-Claude) was also old-school, like I was, in the ways of raising the children. The divorce split my family, which was so very painful.” She described the divorce as “an overnight destruction of my family.” The family – the one with Jean-Claude that she had worked so hard for, risked her health and life for – was separated both physically and emotionally.
Those who had initially gone into exile with the Duvaliers started to scatter, too. Some landed in Miami, others in Canada. She focused on being the best mother she could to her four children in Paris, because that’s how she could best respond to the circumstances in the moment. She remembered her roots in Haiti during difficult times. “The real mothers of the nation (of Haiti) are the ones who sacrifice their all for their children – they inspire me, then and now.”
Port-au-Prince – 2010
When an earthquake shook Port-au-Prince and the surrounding area on January 12, 2010, upward of 200,000 people died under pancaked cement buildings. The Presidential Palace shook, rattled, groaned and collapsed. Across the city, it was a hellish scene of chaos.
Up the hill, in a leafy neighborhood called Bourdon, nestled between the members-only Petion-Ville Club and the official residence of the American Ambassador to Haiti, the historic and beloved Hotel Montana crushed employees and guests when the weight of the cement structure could no longer withstand the relentless shaking of the earth. Lost in the rubble was Michèle’s beloved brother, Rudy Bennett. Her devastation knew no constraints. She returned to Port-au-Prince for the funeral and found the city unrecognizable. Blocks after blocks of buildings in the government district were flattened. The pristine hospitals she once dedicated were in shambles, overwhelmed with the wounded, the dying and the dead. She returned to Paris.
A year later, in 2011, Jean-Claude returned to Haiti for the first time in 25 years. During his three-and-a-half years back in Port-au-Prince, he faced corruption charges, to which he pleaded not guilty, but the court system wasn’t equipped to take the charges any further. He lived quietly on a tree-lined street in Petion-Ville. He died in October 2014.
Michèle was already in Haiti when he died, now coming and going frequently and freely. In the early morning hours following Jean-Claude’s death, she received a call of condolence and a promise of a state funeral from then-President Michel J. Martelly. For three days, she and the family waited for more information from the administration on the funeral plan. No one ever called. The government had succumbed to threats of violence from anti-Duvalier groups that promised destruction if the administration gave the former president a state funeral. Michèle took it upon herself to organize the funeral arrangements. Occide “Père Sicot” Jean agreed to give the funeral and the St. Louis de Gonzague school where Jean-Claude had once studied agreed to host it. Without any official assistance, Michèle pieced together a fitting tribute for a former president.
Paris – Present Day
Covid-19 lockdown restrictions have taken their toll on the world and Michèle hasn’t been immune from the pandemic’s fallout. Isolated from her entire family except Anya, she uses social media heavily to relive happier times. Never-before-seen photos from her years as both First Lady and First Lady in Exile splash across her Facebook and Instagram accounts. She responds personally to thousands of comments, radio emissions and messages.
“There are a couple of radio show hosts in Haiti (who stream online) who I like to surprise by calling into, whether to correct the record of something they said, or to clarify a historical moment,” said Michèle. These lines of communication keep her connected to the world around her, and as political crises mount in Haiti, her posts and comments both reprimand and extol various politicians.
She was hospitalized for a week in February when her diabetes spun out of control, but even that couldn’t keep her down. Her wealth these days is measured in memories, photos, mementos and calls with friends and family. She has always advocated for her children to make their own decisions and walk their own paths, following their dreams. She offers counsel – “Sometimes they take it, sometimes they don’t… often when they don’t, they come back later and say, ‘I should have listened,’” Michèle said. “I have a perspective; I’ve been through a lot.”
To her four grown children, she is and always has been a mother; to 15 million Haitians in both Haiti and the diaspora, she remains in many relevant and deeply personal ways, mother to the nation.