Wing historian highlights famous African-American for heritage month

  • Published
  • By Steve Larsen
  • 22nd Air Refueling Wing historian
Airmen, particularly those in the enlisted corps, may be familiar with the wartime exploits of Cpl. Eugene Bullard, one of 200 Americans who flew for France in World War I.

Corporal Bullard was the first African-American to become a combat pilot and shoot down an enemy aircraft. He was decorated 15 times for valor, primarily in infantry service. A composite character named Skinner in the movie "Flyboys" is said to be loosely based on Corporal Bullard's story.

What people may not know is Corporal Bullard's post-war life in the interwar years was just bit adventurous as what he experienced in the Great War.

In 1919, one year after the end of the war, Corporal Bullard found himself unemployed like many other veterans. He took up residence in the Montmartre section of Paris, known then as an enclave for those living the Bohemian lifestyle. By the end of World War I, the area became closely identified with American jazz music, and a number of clubs there featured this new form of American music. Following the trend, Bullard taught himself to play the drums and began playing with the house band at Zelli's nightclub. It was during this time a famous writer, Ernest Hemingway, became aware of him and dropped him into his legendary work, "The Sun Also Rises."

Eventually, Bullard started running his own club, "Le Grand Duc." There he entertained notable figures such as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Charlie Chaplain and the American actress Gloria Swanson. Bullard also hired Langston Hughes, a young expatriate who would later achieve fame as an American poet.

Clubs such as his became the rage in 1920s Paris. Through famous connections and local celebrities in the nightclub business, Bullard made a good profit and parlayed into business ventures outside the nightclub world.

Due to his expertise as a prized fighter and knowledge of physical fitness and therapy and eventually owned and operated an athletic gym. He trained notable people such as Louis Armstrong, Horace Dodge and famous playwright Noel Coward.

In France, Bullard also met Marcelle Eugenie Henriette de Straumann, the only daughter of a French countess. Bullard married her and with the arrival of their two daughters, they hired a nanny - an aspiring dancer named Josephine Baker. He enjoyed his domestic life, but did not care for the conventions of high society and he and his wife divorced.

As the Nazi party began to rise in Germany, more agents of the German government descended on Paris.

As manager of his own club, Bullard used his fluency in French and German to engage German agents in discussion and pass on the intelligence he gained to the French government. When war began, Bullard took up fighting once again, but he had to leave the country due to his involvement in the resistance. He eventually settled in New York City where he spent the rest of his life.

Bullard's inter-war years are remarkable for the circumstances he experienced and the people he associated with. His existence in the Parisian jazz-era would have been odd for anyone of humble upbringing and even more remarkable given he was an African-American in the 1920s. His decisiveness and faith in his own convictions allowed him to make the most of each opportunity.

Information in this commentary was provided by the Air Force Enlisted Heritage Research Institute and book, 'Eugene Bullard: Black Expatriate in Jazz Age Paris," by Craig Lloyd.