Unsung Hero

Tom Reiss
The Black Count:
Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo
(Crown, 2012)

Tom Reiss’s works read like adventure novels, but the details are scrupulously researched and true. The Black Count is Reiss’s third book, and a seven-year obsession. The Upper East Side author, 48, recently told a New School journalism class about his compulsion to resurrect the life story of an unknown soldier, General Alex Dumas, whose swashbuckling escapades inform his son Alexandre Dumas’s novels. Biracial like Obama, General Alex Dumas rose to power despite—or perhaps because of—the French “Code Noir,” which allowed the son of a French nobleman and a black slave both to be sold into slavery and join the ranks of the French aristocracy.

To research the biography, Reiss traveled to Egypt, France, and the Caribbean during his seven-year writing process. Feeding his obsession with Revolutionary France, Reiss surrounded himself with period props and limited his playlist to Napoleonic marches. Though he credits his study of history at Harvard for honing his academic research skills, Reiss told the class, “My detective personality got me access to the hard-to-find people and documents I used for the biography.” Key letters written by General Dumas were found in a safe in Villers-Cotterêts, a small town 50 miles north of Paris. Infamous for its debauchery in 18th-century France, the town now boasts the Musêe Alexandre Dumas. The French librarian who had promised Reiss access to the documents passed away suddenly and the deputy-mayor of the village wasn’t interested in Reiss’s cause. After Reiss plied the man with compliments and wine, he was allowed to blast the safe open.

In his previous biographies, The Orientalist and Führer Ex, Reiss, the son of a Holocaust survivor, said writing about Nazism and the Holocaust indulged his fantasies of “going back in time and outwitting the real Nazis.” In an echo of Holocaust literature, the novelist Alexandre Dumas’s worst punishment for his characters was to be forgotten. A statue of General Alex Dumas, erected in 1913, was melted down by the Nazis in the winter of 1941. The statue was destroyed because of its subject matter: “a mixed-race fighter for liberty, equality and fraternity.” And so, Reiss was driven to uncover the lost history of the black count, saying: “The worst sin anyone can commit is to forget.”

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Amy Wolfe

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