252. Twelve Postcards

Mario Ruspoli to John Hewett, 1971

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When someone like John Hewett disappears, an archive of the endeavours of an extraordinary man are swallowed up by oblivion. He lives on in the memories of those lucky enough to have known him; in his influence on the taste of many who know only the effects of his vision and legend; in the traces left of him by the extraordinary works he handled. For these reasons, this series of twelve postcards sent to him by Mario Ruspoli as a thank-you letter, ephemeral as they may seem, are precious.

Mario was known as the ‘Prince of Whales’, because of his extraordinary cinema verité documentary, Les Hommes de la baleine, about whale-hunting by the last harpooners of the Azores, filmed up close in 1956. He was, besides, a real prince, inheriting an ancient title, and while Anatole Dauman’s comparison of Mario to Pico della Mirandola may be a bit over the top, the breadth of his interests and enthusiasms were thrilling to his entourage, and unusual for their depth at the time. So, no wonder that when Mario and John shared a Mediterranean boat trip in 1971, with George Ortiz among others aboard, they should have fascinated each other. John was one of the first to appreciate the magic of Inuit art, the whole folklore around the dour enterprise of whaling, and the refined products of its murderous enterprise. 

The text and drawings detail the extraordinary adventure that Mario Ruspoli experienced during the 1956 whale hunt. Like scrimshaw on postcards, it is a unique record of a way of life that has disappeared. The postcards themselves are stills from his film.

I

Dear John,
As I am sitting next to the lookout in Fayel, at the North West point,
I feel guilty for not having yet thanked you for your lovely esquimo harpoon,
which has won the admiration of the whole whaler’s fraternity.

II

Here are the open boats ready, as always, like in old Nantucket days
to hear the motto: “A dead Whale or a Stove Goat”. Aloft the Whale Launch.
Meanwhile, we are enjoying some hot stuff, “aguardente” with the boat steerer.
Maybe To-morrow will be a great day. The sun will soon set.
Time for some submarine fishing to supply supper.

III

Strong N.W. Winds. This morning at 5 o’clock. Rough sea and light mist
on the horizon. No whaling. So we wait and sober up. Boat crews display the odds and ends which may lead to odd ends.
Oars, wafes, mallet, harpoons, levers, gells,
buckets, bails, whaleline, steering oar.
Etc. –A day has elapsed, awaiting…

IV

But next morning, Tuesday 1st June, 1956, a sperm bull has been spotted
by the lookout somewhere about 25 miles off coast towards America.
Here we are rowing, Jose Batata’s boat and Std Barba’s, approaching the whaling grounds, hoisting masts and sail
– we’ll soon stop motors and embark the gliding canoos. Full sail, silent as the sperm is “sounding”.
10 o’clock.

V

Our look out, on the motor launch is excited,
as he located the spout, about 2 miles off.
Meanwhile we dash through the open ocean with a lovely
breeze as seen in No. 6.

VI

What a mighty glide! – Moby Dick is somewhere a mile and a half below,
in the plutonium bosom! Watch well mekids! Watch for the blow!
Batata is steering with the average rudder used when on sail.
Harpoon ready for dart on prow.
Wind slowly singing as it swells our sail.

VII

Ahoy! She blows before us! Manuel is getting ready to dart.
We lowered mast and sails as the breeze had fallen.
A mighty cahslot indeed! Roam, babes! The virgin is looking at you!
Break your arms, ye dogs! Bite your handkerchiefs.
Look in my eyes! On us!

VIII

Trancd! Get her! Right in the hump.
Manuel knows a quick dart.
5 in the afternoon.
The spermbull pulls us towards New Bedford!
She shouldn’t go that way! Maybe a masochist whale!
The island has disappeared in the horizon since 10 pm.
– We are in the wide Atlantic.

IX

What a day! (6 in the afternoon).
Took us 150 lance darts to get her in the “flurry”.
A bloody job. Now the sea looks like the Hebrews’ Red Sea.
We look a hundred years old, don’t we?
Manuel is ready for the final lance dart.
85 tons! 14 hours’ chase.

X

She’s dead and we pause for the camera before smoke, bread, and rough red wine.
Your friend Mario took this shot that day, as we were sailing
back to Fayal with a lovely western breeze. Took us 24 hours on the
vast ocean on an average open boat. Went home singing…
The whale dies fin up, saluting the dying sun.

XI

View of our capture. 68 tons.
The factory during the layout.

XII

A mighty set of scrimshaw in its original place!
All this is to say old captain Mario sends a wild salute to his friend John!
Mario
P.S. Why did I ever come back to this dull city?