"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Born and bred in landlocked Wisconsin, Arthur Duperrault developed a love for tropical waters as a navy man in the South Pacific during World War II. In the years following his discharge, while building a reputation as one of Green Bay’s leading optometrists, he harbored a dream to take his family on a lazy island-hopping cruise in the Bahamas. In 1961, determined not to delay any longer, he took an extended leave from his practice, made arrangements with his children’s school, and headed down to Florida with his wife, Jean, and their three bright and vibrant kids: fourteen- year-old Brian, eleven-year-old Terry Jo, and seven-year-old René.
The initial plan was to buy a boat and spend the entire fall “vagabonding in southern waters.” Unable to find a suitable vessel, they decided to charter one instead. At Fort Lauderdale’s Bahia Mar yacht basin, they found what they were looking for: a sleek, sixty-foot, two-masted ketch called Bluebelle, skippered by a Hollywood-handsome forty-four-year-old named Julian Harvey who lived aboard with his wife of four months, a former TWA stewardess named Mary Dene.
Harvey was not only a former military man, like “Doc” Duperrault, but a bona fide war hero, a decorated bomber pilot in World War II and Korea. He was also a highly experienced sailor and former owner of a number of racing yachts. Everything about him inspired confidence. But as with most psychopaths, his inviting veneer concealed the dark, hidden truths of his life.
Julian Harvey had the kind of improbable life story that could have been concocted by a studio screenwriter. He never knew his biological father, who left his mother—a beautiful Broadway chorus girl—when Julian was still an infant. A few years later, she married a vaudeville impresario who indulged the boy’s every desire, reportedly buying him a sailboat for his tenth birthday, the beginning of his lifelong love of sailing. Though the Depression severely disrupted his home life, it didn’t affect the level of affluence he enjoyed. When his mother’s second marriage broke up in the aftermath of the 1929 crash, he was sent to live with a wealthy aunt and uncle who pampered him in the style he had grown accustomed to.
Scrawny as a child, he threw himself into bodybuilding, becoming a fitness fanatic decades before the workout craze took hold of America. By the time he reached adolescence, he had developed a splendid physique that he obsessively maintained throughout his life and never tired of flaunting. His face—ruggedly handsome and framed by golden curls—matched the beauty of his body. For a while, he worked as a male model for the famed John Roberts Powers Agency. A surviving publicity shot shows him posed in nothing but a skimpy swimsuit, aiming a drawn bow and arrow and looking like a combination of Tarzan and Cupid.
It was around this time that he first manifested a tendency that would remain a grimly recurrent feature of his life: a strange “affinity for accidents,” as one journalist put it. He was behind the wheel of his first car, a Model A Ford convertible, when a wheel came off. He and his passenger, a male friend, managed to leap to safety as the car spun out of control and flipped over.
After a few aimless years at college, he enlisted in the Air Corps in 1941 and quickly distinguished himself with his wartime heroics. He flew more than thirty combat missions as a bomber pilot, surviving two crash landings. By the fall of 1944, he had won a chestful of medals including the Distinguished Flying Cross, risen from lieutenant to lieutenant colonel, and been chosen to pilot the plane in a death-defying test involving the deliberate ditching of a B-24 bomber in Virginia’s James River—a feat that won him another major decoration, the Air Medal. No one doubted his coolness or courage, though there were some who looked askance at the glamour-boy look he affected: the “special-cut Eisenhower jacket, pearl-pink chino trousers, and yellow scarf ” he loved to parade around in.
He was, of course, irresistible to women, though notably bad at holding on to them. He’d had five wives before Mary Dene. None of those marriages lasted very long, and one of them ended under deeply suspicious circumstances that would come to seem even more ominous in light of later events.
On the evening of April 21, 1949, Harvey, then residing at Eglin Air Force Base near Valparaiso, Florida, was driving home from the movies with his third wife, Joann, and his mother-in-law, Mrs. Myrtle Boylen. As they crossed an old wooden bridge over a bayou, the car went into a skid, crashed through the railing, and plunged into the murky waters. Both women drowned in the submerged car. Harvey escaped without a scratch.
He later told investigators that he had seen “the accident coming, and at the last minute I opened the door and was thrown free.” The professional diver who went down to retrieve the bodies, however, found all four doors locked and the driver’s window rolled down, suggesting a very different scenario: namely, that Harvey had gone down into the water along with Joann and her mother, then opened his window and escaped, leaving the two women to drown. Joann’s father, convinced that Harvey’s story was full of holes—and made deeply suspicious by his son-in-law’s weirdly blasé reaction to Joann’s death—demanded an official investigation. One military doctor who interviewed Harvey during this period concluded “that underneath his veneer of charm and sophistication was an amoral man with no real empathy for others, a man who could be dangerous.” Still, authorities could find no hard evidence of any criminal action on Harvey’s part, and the matter was dropped.
A few months later, after collecting on his wife’s life insurance policy, Harvey was married again, this time to a young Texas businesswoman named Jitty. Though their marriage endured for three years, they saw virtually nothing of each other during that time. Just three months after their wedding, Harvey was sent to Korea, where he flew another 114 combat missions and added a bunch of decorations to his already impressive collection. When he returned to the states in 1953, he and Jitty were promptly divorced.
Within a year, he was married to his fifth wife, Georgianna. By then he had left the military and, fulfilling a long-cherished dream, had purchased a sixty-eight-foot yawl, the Torbatross. Less than a year later, with Harvey at the helm, the Torbatross sank in Chesapeake Bay after ramming into the submerged wreckage of an old World War I battleship, the USS Texas, that had been bombed in 1921 during a historic demonstration of military airpower. There were strong indications that the collision was no accident. The Texas, as one journalist reported, “was a notorious navigational hazard, marked by a buoy, and its exact location was known and visible.” Several witnesses, moreover, testified that Harvey had “deliberately circled the wreck twice” before his boat ran into it. Despite the suspicious nature of the incident, however, Harvey eventually won a settlement of $14,258 (around $112,000 today) from the U.S. government.
He used the money to buy another boat, an eighty-one-foot luxury yawl, Valiant. In 1958—in the midst of an ugly alimony fight with Georgianna, who was suing him for divorce on the grounds of extreme mental cruelty—he was captaining the Valiant in the Gulf of Mexico when the boat mysteriously caught fire and sank. Once again, Harvey escaped unscathed. This time, he collected $40,000 on the insurance, a sum that conveniently saved him from his financial difficulties.
By 1961, he had taken to making his livelihood by skippering boats for charter parties. In the summer of that year he entered into an arrangement with a Hollywood, Florida, swimming pool contractor named Harold Pegg, owner of the Bluebelle. Harvey and his sixth wife, Mary Dene, whom he had just wed, would live aboard the boat and “crew it for chartered trips on salary.”
Not long afterward, the Bluebelle was chartered by the Duperraults. On Wednesday morning, November 8, 1961, it set sail from Fort Lauderdale for a week’s cruise in the Bahamas.
Five days later, on Monday, November 13, a lookout on the Gulf Lion, an oil tanker bound for Puerto Rico, spotted a small wooden lifeboat drifting in the open sea. On board the dinghy were a “vigorous” Julian Harvey and the corpse of a little girl in an oversized life jacket, who turned out to be seven-year-old René Duperrault.
Rescued by the tanker, Harvey spilled out what Time magazine called “a tale of flaming horror.” The previous night, so Harvey claimed, the Bluebelle had encountered a sudden tropical squall. At around 11:00 p.m., a powerful gust snapped the mainmast in two. A fifty-foot length came hurtling down, piercing the deck and rupturing the fuel lines, which burst into flame. While Harvey single-handedly fought the blaze with extinguishers, his wife and their five passengers retreated to the stern. By then, however, the ketch was going down. While the others leapt into the water, Harvey launched the dinghy, dove overboard, hauled himself into the lifeboat, and made a desperate effort to find Mary Dene and the Duperraults, shouting himself hoarse in the darkness. No one answered. At last he came upon the little girl, floating facedown in the water, her body buoyed by the life jacket. He hauled her onto the dinghy, but she was already dead. The others had vanished into the sea along with the Bluebelle.
Within forty-eight hours of his rescue, Harvey was back in Miami, where an official Coast Guard investigation was held on the morning of November 16. Spiffily dressed for the occasion in an expensive new sports jacket, matching slacks, and open-collared shirt, Harvey appeared remarkably chipper for a man who had just lost his bride in a tragic accident. Throughout the interrogation, he remained cool and composed, never deviating from his original story. Though there were some highly dubious details in his account (the lookout in a nearby lighthouse, for example, had seen no sign of a blazing ship, while experienced seamen scoffed at the notion that a broken mast could puncture a deck in the way he described), he parried the most pointed questions with aplomb. In the end, the investigators had no choice but to accept his version of events. There were, after all, no living witnesses to refute it. Or so Julian Harvey believed.
He had just concluded his testimony when—with the kind of improbable timing that would seem hopelessly contrived in a Hollywood thriller—a Coast Guard official burst into the hearing room with the startling news that a survivor had been plucked from the sea.
“Oh, my God,” Harvey stammered. It took him a moment to regain his composure. “Why, that’s wonderful,” he said with a forced smile. Then, without another word, he rose from his chair and hurried from the room.
It was a Greek freighter, the Captain Theo, that found her—a little girl perched on a cork life raft, floating alone in the vastness of the ocean. As the ship drew near, one of the crewmen snapped a photo of the remarkable sight. Published in Life magazine— which devoted a full ten pages to the story of the “death ship” and the miraculous rescue of its only surviving passenger—the picture briefly made her an international celebrity.
Hoisted aboard, she was carried into a cabin and gently placed in a bunk. That she had been through a desperate ordeal was clear from her condition. Emaciated, dull-eyed, dangerously dehydrated, and severely sunburned, she barely clung to consciousness as the captain plied her with questions. Finally she managed to rasp out a few words before sinking into a coma: the name of her doomed vessel, Bluebelle, and her own name, Terry Jo Duperrault.
A telegraph from the captain—“Picked up blonde girl, brown eyes, from a small white raft, suffering exposure and shock”—brought an immediate response from the Coast Guard. She was helicoptered to Miami’s Mercy Hospital, where a throng of newsmen awaited the arrival of the “sea waif” (as the press quickly dubbed her).
For a child who had spent four days adrift without food or water after the annihilation of her entire family, she made a remarkable recovery. By Monday, November 20, five days after she was plucked barely alive from the water, she was strong enough to undergo a prolonged interrogation by Coast Guard officials. The story she related was radically different from the one they had heard from Julian Harvey.
On the night of the tragedy, Terry Jo explained, she had retired to her bunk at about nine o’clock. Some time later, she was jolted awake by “screaming and stamping.” She thought it was her brother’s voice, crying to their father for help. Creeping from her quarters, she saw her mother and brother lying motionless on the floor of the central cabin, blood pooling around their heads. Making her way up the companionway stairs to the main deck, she saw more blood near the cockpit. No one was in sight.
Suddenly, Harvey—his face contorted in fury—came rushing out of the darkness. “Get back there!” he roared, shoving her down the stairs. Stupefied with terror, she retreated to her bunk. She could hear water sloshing on the deck “and thought the captain might be washing off the blood.”
Gradually she became aware that “oily-smelling” water was rising from the bilges and running into her room. All at once, Harvey—clutching what appeared to be a rifle—appeared in the doorway. For a long, terrifying moment, he looked at her without saying a word, then turned and headed up the stairway, leaving her in the darkness.
The water in her cabin continued to rise until it was lapping the top of her mattress. Realizing that the Bluebelle was going down, Terry Jo climbed back to the cockpit. She spotted Harvey and asked him if the ship was sinking. “Yes,” he shouted. A moment later, he dove overboard and swam to the dinghy, which had been cast loose.
Abandoned on the foundering ship, Terry Jo suddenly remembered the flimsy raft of cork and canvas webbing, five feet long and thirty inches wide, lashed to the top of the main cabin. Undoing the knots, she managed to scramble onto the little float just as the Bluebelle went under. Why it sank she couldn’t say. Contrary to what Harvey had claimed, the mast was intact and there was no sign of a fire. The sea, she testified, was calm.
Terry Jo’s chilling account confirmed a belief already shared by most observers: that the Bluebelle disaster was no accident but—as one Coast Guard official put it—an act of “mass murder by a berserk man.” Exactly what had precipitated the atrocity no one could say with certainty. By then, its perpetrator was already dead.
Three days earlier, after learning of Terry Jo’s rescue, Julian Harvey had gone directly from the Coast Guard hearing room to the Sandman Hotel on Biscayne Boulevard and checked in under the name John Monroe. Sometime within the next twenty-four hours, he wrote a brief suicide note: “I’m a nervous wreck and just can’t continue. I’m going out now. I guess I either don’t like life or don’t know what to do with it.” After appending a final wish for burial at sea, he placed the letter on the center of the desk, pinned ten dollars to his pillow for the maid, and went into the bathroom, where, with a double-edged razor blade, he cut his left thigh down to the bone, daubed his own blood about the walls “like a child finger-painting,” then slashed his ankles, wrists, forearms, and throat. So savage were the self-inflicted mutilations that police officers initially “wondered if he had been murdered and a clumsy attempt had been made to make it look like a suicide.”
Struggling for an explanation, a few staunch friends insisted that he couldn’t face life without his wife, Mary Dene. Virtually every investigator believed, however, that his suicide was prompted by Terry Jo’s rescue and his realization that the jig was finally up—that the monstrous self he had concealed beneath his glamorous façade was about to be exposed to the world. That theory gained even more credence when detectives discovered that shortly before the Bluebelle set sail, Harvey had taken out a $20,000 insurance policy on Mary Dene’s life. Moreover, Harold Pegg, owner of the Bluebelle, testified that he had noticed deep scratches on Harvey’s right hand and arm when the latter got back to Miami. Harvey claimed that they were “wire cuts.” But Pegg knew fingernail scratches when he saw them. He also knew that Mary Dene had exceptionally long fingernails. From all these facts, as Life magazine reported, “more than one investigator came to the same conclusion: that Harvey had set out to kill his wife, by sudden impulse or careful plan, had been surprised in the act by one of the Duperraults, and so decided to kill them all.”
In the last week of November 1961, Terry Jo was released from the hospital and flown back home to Green Bay to be raised by relatives. In the misguided belief (typical of a certain repressive, midwestern ethos) that the best way to deal with disturbing emotions is to completely ignore them, her guardians erected a wall of silence around her traumatic experience. The Bluebelle tragedy was never mentioned at home, while friends, family members, neighbors, and teachers were instructed to avoid the subject. For Terry Jo (who eventually changed the spelling of her first name to Tere), this enforced denial resulted in years of emotional turmoil and a succession of marital crises. Thanks to her exceptional inner resources, however—the same strength of character that allowed her to survive the ordeal in the first place—she ultimately achieved a stable and fulfilling life.
She reemerged into the public eye in 2010 with the publication of a memoir, Alone: Orphaned on the Ocean, co-authored by psychologist Richard Logan. In this book (which received nationwide media coverage), Terry Jo reveals that in 1999 she agreed to undergo a psychological interview while under the influence of the sedative sodium amytal. Her long-suppressed memories unlocked by this “truth serum,” she recalled certain details of that nightmarish night—the pajamas her brother was wearing, for example, and a bloodied knife on the deck beside his body. Nothing she dredged up, however, shed further light on the events that precipitated the slaughter.
Along with Harvey’s motivation, another unanswerable question remains, first raised by Erle Stanley Gardner, creator of the famous detective Perry Mason. In a widely syndicated newspaper article, “The Case of the Bluebelle’s Last Voyage,” Gardner ponders what he calls “the mystery of the decade”: “How did little Terry Jo Duperrault live through a murderous rampage? Why hadn’t Julian Harvey shot her, bludgeoned her, or pushed her into the water without a life preserver? He had a perfect opportunity to destroy the last bit of evidence of his murderous acts. What stayed the killer’s hand as he faced the only living witness to his crime?”
From the book “Psycho USA: Famous American Killers You Never Heard Of” by Harold Schechter. Copyright © 2012 by Harold Schechter. Reprinted by arrangement with Ballantine Books, an imprint of the Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)