Friday, December 16, 1994
Requiem for a Visitor - Rene Heyum
Rene Heyum, an annual visitor to the Stuyvesant/Gramercy area until recent years, died in Honolulu on Dec 13, at the age of 78. She was an anthropologist, Curator Emeritus of the archival Pacifica Collection of the University of Hawaii, Chevalier de l'Ordre Nationale du Merite of France and my wife's aunt.
She knew and loved the South Pacific, having spent time every summer for 20 years traveling the islands, visiting each puny government office and personally collecting the publications which the carefree islanders could not be bothered to send to her nearly unique (The Aussies have another) archival collection. She was a Pacific-wide resource for the islands. She knew every police chief in the Pacific, and when the one in Fiji asked her for material on juvenile delinquency in the region, she duplicated all pertinent articles into a book and sent copies to his colleagues throughout the Pacific. Some 7 years ago, during a politically hot period, when we worried about her summer trips, it turned out that she had been in the Solomon Islands, Vanu Atu and Nouvelle Caledonie, the three trouble spots of the day. Semi-seriosly, we thought of asking if she was connected to the CIA, but did not dare. Rene had a reserved manner that discouraged certain types of inquiry, and her cool voice and ironic words could cut the conclusion-jumper to shreds.
Her stories were fascinating. For me, it was Jack London, the great author of my Polynesia and Melanesia, come to life. And Sommerset Maugham. She knew of the Papuan headhunters who moved directly from Stone Age into the 20th Century with their habits intact, and would drive into Port Moresby in their Toyota pickups and attack and clean out a house completely, because the predator life style was their custom since days immemorial. And of the few thousand Naurus, whose phosphate island would soon be mined out of existence, and who were putting their profits into banking, presumably to buy another island and live happily ever after. And the cargo cultists who 45 years after the war were waiting for the big birds with the fine goods to return. Trobriand cricket games and rules; Malinowski and Levi-Strauss. And the mahu, women-men, accepted as such in various island cultures. The many stories of islanders taken advantage of, subjugated and held captive. The colonialist powers as saviors and predators.
Rene was somewhat of a story herself. Born in Frankfurt, Germany, her father brought the family to Paris well before WWII, to open a tiny 25-room hotel at the fashionable address of 6 avenue Victor Hugo. The family were Jewish, French nationals, and when the Germans occupied France, the mother and the two daughters were hidden by a French baker in return for long hours of their labor 7 days a week. When Rene broke her leg, no doctor could be called, and she spent most of her life with a grotesquely sideways bent right knee, until 10 years ago a Hawaiian surgeon rebroke and righted the limb.
After WWII the family regained their hotel, and Rene, who had lost several years of education, labored there as an all-purpose hotelier - until she declared her independence, to study librarianship. The tri-lingual Renee did so well, in record time, that she was accepted by the Musee de l'Homme in Paris as assistant to a distinguished Irish-French anthropologist, Pere Patrick O'Reilly, the editor of the important annual bibliographies of the Pacific. She studied under him and eventually replaced him as the bibliographer.
In 1966 the University of Hawaii had a world-wide search for a curator of the American national archival library of the Pacific area, the Pacifica Collection, and the largely self-taught tri-lingual Rene was the top contender. Her first seven years were misery - I remember us sending her smoked German sausages and European delicacies from New York, at the request of her sister and brother-in-law (my wife's uncle), who were our hosts whenever we visited Paris. Their hotel had an elevator, Ascenseur Combaluzier, that held either two persons, or one and two bags, or three bags, with the guest using the stairs. Grandiously named Metropole, the hotel went from four-star to three-star rating when Uncle, at for him an immense cost, installed a tub-shower partition in each room. But the streetside rooms had a tremendous view of the Arche de Triomphe from the tiny front balconies, and it was said that the independence of Israel was cooked up in the private "salon" adjoining the all-white dining room, which eventually became breakfast room as Uncle Hermann and Aunt Caro grew older and less mobile. A nice safe nest it was for us, to drink wine and regard Paris in September.
The fledgling Rene did not seek a safe nest. She persisted abroad, made friends and grew to like Hawaii. Not a social researcher of the Margaret Mead type, she was an organizer and collater, and a most important resource for the students. This was known, and the question "Who is Rene Heyum?" would appear in anthropology midterm exams year after year. Formidable in her profession, she not only trained her successors but also helped her associates advance to such collections as the Bishop Museum.
After retirement at 70, Rene continued her work as a library volunteer. Always in frail health and with a painful back that fusing operations did not repair, she traveled to the mainland yearly, and went swimming at the Ala Moana beach daily when at home. Her apartment was a museum of what she described as "tourist quality" Polynesiana, including an important collection of fans.
But a stroke at 74, from which she recovered, thanks to her incredible will power, eventually conquered her. She will be remembered for the fully funded scholarship in Pacific studies for native-born Pacific Islanders which she gave to the University, to help her belowed local people acquire social standing and equality.
Aloha, Rene. Though a haole, you are also a kamaiana, an oldtimer, and your ashes will be rowed out and scattered in the Pacific by eight strong men in a longboat. And the French and academic community will have a party to honor you, as is the Hawaiian custom. You are remembered by a few people in a small island within New York City, a part of the whole, that you recalled fondly as a community. We too are islanders, trying to keep our culture - with a few among us acting as the Papuan predators, and a few more slightly like the cargo cultists. We are somewhat more akin to the Naurus, undermining our own island, but without the hope of buying a new one. We may need the Marquesan compass to chart our future.
Wally Dobelis explains that the Marquesan sailors found Hawaii by using a compass made of a complex board of sticks.