It was the kind of scenario that haunts the imagination of many newcomers to Manhattan: a sultry spring evening, a quiet side street and a pair of hoodlums lurking in the shadows. When Count Hugues de Montalembert was jumped, mugged and forced into his borrowed apartment in Greenwich Village that May evening eight years ago, the brutality that followed was like something drawn from a nightmare. Splashed in the face with acid when he resisted his attackers, de Montalembert staggered into the street, his face and eyes afire. Less than 24 hours after arriving at a hospital emergency room, the French-born painter and filmmaker found himself totally blind.
He was 35 years old at the time, a handsome world-traveling artiste of aristocratic bearing who had probed the secrets of voodoo in West Africa, studied Indonesian music and culture in Bali and embraced the visual world as the essence of his existence. Suddenly, he was reduced to dependence upon nurses and friends for his most basic needs. “I was terrorized, angry and filled with humiliation,” de Montalembert says today. “The first time I walked out of my hospital room needing the hand of my girlfriend to lead me, I felt as helpless as a child. It seemed that I was nothing but ‘a bag of darkness.’ ”
Now, the story of de Montalembert’s attack, his futile quest for a cure, his painful rehabilitation and the gradual acceptance of his fate is detailed in a powerful memoir, Eclipse: a Nightmare (Viking, $15.95). The book relates, in sometimes stark, often painterly prose, his journey from paralyzed isolation to defiant independence. It is a journey that takes him from a Manhattan hospital bed to a restorative love affair with a Russian ballerina he calls Valushka, from Braille classes in New York to a clinic in Barcelona, where he discovers that his eyes are ravaged beyond repair. Faced with the permanence of his sightlessness, his ballerina leaves him. He flees to Bali, where he rages against his blindness—”How can one survive this? How can anyone get used to this obscurity?” At length, he finds his answers and, at the conclusion of the book, attains a degree of serenity and the resolve to go on living.
“At the beginning your brain is in a sort of coma. You try to understand what blindness means,” says de Montalembert, sipping coffee in the kitchen of a friend’s Manhattan apartment, where he is spending several weeks before returning to the seaside cottage in Sasso, Italy that has become his temporary home. “You say to yourself over and over, ‘I am blind.’ It sounds completely abstract. What would life mean being blind—would it be an awful life, with all adventure, excitement, gone forever? It’s beyond despair, beyond depression. You don’t know if you’ll ever be able to cope.”
It was his affair with the dancer that finally brought him out of his self-pity. “I wrote the book for the girl,” says de Montalembert with a touch of Gallic swagger. “She brought me love and light—and when she left me, I was absolutely bouleversé [distraught]. I hoped that one day she would see the book in a store and get back in touch. Which, in fact, happened. I see her maybe once or twice a year.”
Still proud and youthful-looking at 42, de Montalembert maneuvers unsteadily about the huge, unfamiliar apartment with the aid of a thick bamboo cane, holding his head still and his back stiffly erect. His eyes, their lids sewn together, are hidden behind a reflective silver band of aluminum. The shield is a statement of “brutal arrogance,” he writes, to rule out pity. “Sunglasses are a pretense,” he says. “It’s like putting a sock on a wooden leg. There’s an ambiguity about it that I really hate. At the beginning the hospital gave me sunglasses, and I’d be handed a magazine while waiting for an eye exam, or told by a policeman to move a friend’s car. It was embarrassing.” The metal also serves a practical function, he explains. “I used to move very fast, and consequently I opened my forehead several times. I understood I needed not only sunglasses, but a bumper as well. Now I feel very protected both physically and emotionally.”
Perhaps most important, his avant-garde appearance (“People sometimes stop me on the street and ask me, ‘Wow—where did you get those glasses?’ “) is the brash statement of a man determined to defy the constraints of a life without sight. “There’s a mental and physical ghetto—you have to fight both,” says Hugues, who communicates a subtle condescension for people who passively accept their blindness. By spurning special “blind” apartments, Braille libraries (he listens to books-on-cassette) and the stereotypical sunglasses-and-white-cane, Hugues has sought to integrate himself as fully as possible into the normal world. “He has always been an extremely visual person, and if he sticks around other blind people, then he’s in real darkness,” says ex-wife Idanna Pucci, a New York-based writer specializing in Balinese culture. “His friends are artists, writers, people who see and who are active in life. Hugues has seen no reason to change the life he led before being blinded. For him, blindness is mainly just a damned bore.”
To that end, de Montalembert insists on maintaining the itinerant freedom he enjoyed before the attack. “If anything, I think he’s even more active now,” says Pucci. For nearly seven years he has had no permanent home, preferring instead to drift between New York, Great Britain, Paris, Italy, Singapore, Sri Lanka and Indonesia. In 1984 he even embarked alone on an expedition to the Himalayas, relying on the generosity of strangers and “a chain of miracles,” he says, to get him deep into the mountains. Like many blind people, his other senses became so acute that the India experience was tremendously satisfying. “If I think of it two years later, I can see vividly the landscape,” he says. “From feeling the thin texture of the air on my skin, from the way the sound traveled through the air, I knew you could see for miles and miles away. And the silence was incredible.”
For Hugues, undertakings such as the India trek are like gauntlets flung down before the Fates—assertions to the sighted world that he refuses to be considered anything less than a full human being. “The best situation you can have is that after five minutes, the person will be interested in what you say,” he says, “not completely overwhelmed by the fact you’re blind.”
But the battle is difficult. Some old friends have shunned him, discomfited by de Montalembert’s handicap. “It’s an animalist fear,” he says. “The animal in us is afraid of the black, the darkness—even the darkness that inhabits your friend.” His father, a World War II veteran who was wounded while fighting against the Nazis, has accepted his son’s condition, but his mother remains troubled by the handicap. “It’s hard for me to visit her,” he admits. “I try to bring peace to her, but I feel this pain.” And he will never get used to the little insensitivities that plague him in daily life. “People don’t know how to address a blind person,” he says. “I’m in a coffee shop with a friend, and a man there will say to my friend, ‘You know, I saw him on television.’ Or I walk into a building, and the doorman says to my friend, ‘What happened to him?’ ”
He recalls with fondness the time that an artist acquaintance escorted him to a Manhattan exhibit of ancient Greek jewelry and described, in infinitesimal detail, the works before them. “She made me see them so clearly,” he says. “One positive thing about this blindness is that before I was perhaps too independent, not caring enough about communicating with other people. Now I find myself absolutely obliged to communicate. For 35 years I was not listening as much as I thought—but my God, I was looking.”
Indeed, before the blinding, de Montalembert’s life and livelihood were bound up inextricably with his vision of the world. Born to a family of gentleman farmers in Normandy, he studied law in Paris but quit school in the wake of the student riots of 1968 and came to the U.S. An excellent equestrian, he taught riding at a Vermont summer camp and worked as a translator at the United Nations, all the while pursuing a rather undisciplined artistic life. “He could paint, write, draw and sculpt,” says Pucci, who was married to Hugues for seven years. “He was never idle—in fact, one reason that he never finished anything was that he was always moving on to something else. People thought he had a million dollars. But in reality, his parents were not well-off, and Hugues owned little more than a couple of pairs of blue jeans.”
In the early ’70s the couple set forth on the hippie trail to Asia, traveling and writing magazine pieces in Laos, Vietnam and Indonesia. Then, in 1975, Hugues got a job on an Italian TV crew as one of the directors for a documentary about the people of Dahomey (now Benin) in West Africa. “He scouted and researched the world of voodoo, spending several months witnessing the secret ceremonies,” Idanna says. When Hugues returned to New York in December 1976, he remained fascinated by the occult world he had penetrated. He found voodoo worshipers in Harlem and began participating in ceremonies, horrifying neighbors by sacrificing chickens in bloody rituals in his MacDougal Alley apartment. That bizarre practice at first suggested to detectives that de Montalembert’s acid-blinding was somehow connected to his occult interests, a suspicion he rejects as absurd.
Detective Sal Mazzolo, now retired, discussed the voodoo connection with Hugues at the time but says now, “I don’t think voodoo had anything to do with it. It didn’t add up at all.” Ironically, as he relates in Eclipse, Hugues had foreshadowed his own blinding: The last painting he completed before the attack was a portrait of a man and horse—both rendered without eyes.
Eight years later Hugues says he “sees” when he writes—sometimes so clearly that he completely forgets he is blind. “The other day, after six hours of writing, I was dizzy with tiredness, and suddenly I stopped, and I looked around, and I thought, ‘Oh, I can’t see anything. It must be the glasses,’ ” he says with a laugh. “Then I realized what the real problem was, and I felt so stupid.” He is currently working on the sequel to Eclipse, typing his manuscript on an electronic typewriter, then giving the material to friends each night to check for errors. The work is not merely a substitute for painting, but an economic necessity. The New York Crime Victim’s Compensation Board has terminated his support after paying him about $40,000 over six years. “Thank God Eclipse was a bestseller in France,” he says.
He still cherishes the hope of seeing again—although both his eyes were terribly burned by the acid. Each New Year’s Day de Montalembert writes to several eye surgeons requesting updates on research and potential cures. “But nothing new has been discovered,” he says, “except for a kind of cameralike apparatus that you fit in your hat, and you have electrodes planted in your skull. My God! I don’t know. Do you say to your girlfriend as you’re getting into bed, ‘Do you mind if I keep my hat on?’ ” He laughs. “Horrendous. I prefer to be absolutely free and develop my other senses.”
Immediately after the blinding, he admits, such thinking would have been impossible. To be sightless was so overwhelming, he says, that “I couldn’t imagine what kind of life I could possibly have.” De Montalembert seems to have recovered his energy, pride and theatrical sense of presence. “If I could have it better I would be very happy,” he says. “But still—this is my life. We have only one life. And I’m trying to make it as intense and interesting as possible.”