Chris Pan Launois
“L’Américain” is the story of my father, John Launois, an impossible man with a beautiful heart. As a poor boy in France, he suffered a childhood that could have been imagined by Dickens. He once cut off the leather straps of his mother’s whips so that she could no longer use them on his younger brothers and sisters. She constantly told him he was worthless: “You’ll never amount to anything.”
World War Two brought the worst of times. Poverty for the least privileged of the French during Nazi occupation became life threatening. John’s father feared that his children, even if they survived, would never be free. Oppression fueled John’s rebellious nature. Defying the Germans at every turn and listening to clandestine broadcasts about the approaching liberation by U.S.-led Allied forces, the boy fell in love with America.
When free-spirited G.I.s finally arrived, personifying a democratic society so different from his class-ridden homeland, John was already such an enthusiast for all things American that his friends called him “L’Américain.”
Soon he had a grand vision of his future. Idealizing the land of his dreams, he vowed to turn himself into a “Yank” and work for Life, the greatest of the picture magazines. With nothing but $50 and a borrowed camera, he crossed the Atlantic. In time, after working a series of menial jobs in California and learning photographic skills, he crossed the Pacific.
While serving as a U.S. Army soldier, he finally gained his citizenship. He went on to his “noodle years” of low-paying photographic tasks before advancing to the highest ranks of international photojournalism during its “golden age.”
Freelancing for Life, the Saturday Evening Post, National Geographic and many other leading publications, he traveled to the ends of the earth —always enterprising, creative and fearless in a risky profession.
He covered wars, riots and natural disasters; mingled with the rich, famous and powerful as well as the downtrodden and always marveled that he had come so far from the lower depths.
John was the picture of the globetrotting adventurer–photographing conceptual essays around the world, interviewing presidents, befriending the Beatles, Bob Dylan and Malcolm X.
Ultimately, John was a Romantic who loved, lost and loved again. His two greatest loves—my Japanese mother and my Austrian stepmother—became close friends upon his death. The three of us, drawn together by our affection for such a passionate, contradictory man, had urged him on as he devoted himself to telling the story of his life.
For seven years, my father and I worked on his manuscript. Sometimes it was easy; often it was hard. He persevered because he felt he owed a debt to the nation that had liberated France and shared her liberty at home. With others who dared to carve out their own destiny, his name is engraved on Ellis Island.
He once promised a dear friend that he would write this book. It’s a memoir of a rebel and adventurous man. To keep a promise, this is the story of “L’Américain.”
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