My favourite stowaway

Paulette Cooper on board.

I was on a ship this month and one night after dinner I spotted someone acting suspiciously, lurking in the dark corners of the promenade deck in the drizzly North Atlantic night, seeming to avoid the light. “I wonder, “ I said, “if he’s a stowaway.”

But even as I said it, I knew with a sad sinking heart he was not a stowaway. It’s 2019 and security is tight and everyone is so serious about these things now. The only stowaways these days are refugees on cargo ships trying to reach a better life, and where’s the fun in that?

No, that person out in the cold and the dark was almost certainly no Paulette Cooper. And then I remembered Paulette Cooper, and that she’s still alive and well in South Florida, and I smiled, because any world that still contains Paulette Cooper isn’t yet totally grim.

Where to start with Paulette Cooper? I love Paulette. She’s in her late seventies now and writes a column for the Palm Beach Daily News called “Pet-Set People”: she profiles local celebrities who own a dog or cat, and weaves the pets through the piece. The pets, she explains, are more important than the people. This is obviously splendid, but I first encountered Paulette through her claim to be the first modern woman to stow away on a cruise ship.

There was a time in the early 20th century when stowing away was fashionable among young women. In 1927 a Czechoslovakian immigrant showgirl named Rose Host stowed away on a ship to Los Angeles, so desperate was she to be in the movies. She was discovered along the way, reading a book of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essays, and the news spread on the wires. By the time the ship reached California there were agents waiting for her on the dock. Not FBI agents – talent agents. She was signed to a Paramount picture titled “Shootin’ Irons”, which sparked a boom in young hopefuls sneaking onto ships, but with the rise of the airlines and the decline of passenger ships, the fad faded away.

In 1969 Paulette Cooper was having drinks with pals on the East Side of Manhattan, expounding her theory that to successfully stow away in the modern age, you can’t sneak or skulk. Like Poe’s purloined letter, you had to hide in plain sight: make friends, chat, flirt, be sexy. You had to stand out from the crowd.

So that’s what she did. She snuck aboard the Leonardo da Vinci, bound for the Caribbean with a bikini under her cocktail dress and a change of clothing stuffed in a leather valise that she hid in a grand piano.

Of course, Paulette had already had quite some adventure in her life. She was born Paula Bucholc in 1942, the daughter of Polish refugees in Nazi-occupied Bulgium. Her father Chaim was arrested four days before her birth and neither he nor her mother ever returned from Auschwitz. She was rescued when a family friend bribed a corrupt guard camp guard with almost a million rand in today’s money, and spirited her away to safety in a gentile orphanage. After the war, at the age of six, she was adopted by the Coopers, a childless couple from New York.

Later Paulette became a journalist and wrote the first serious book-length expose of the Church of Scientology, which enraged L. Ron Hubbard so much that the church sued her 19 times in different countries around the world. She counter-sued each time, and seeing she was not intimidated, they launched two covert operations against her.

In the first, “Operation Dynamite”, they sent themselves forged bomb threats and tried to frame her for it. In the second, codenamed “Operation Freak-Out”, they tried to induce a mental breakdown. Tactics involved anonymously accusing her of paedophilia; breaking into her apartment to steal her teenage diary and sending photocopied pages to her friends and family; going around New York graffitiing her name and telephone number on the walls on men’s rooms, and posting classified adverts in her name in pornographic magazines. In later years the Church admitted it all, including their code-name for her (“Mrs Lovely”), blamed zealous bad apples in the church hierarchy and paid her a hefty out-of-court settlement.

But before all that, aged 27, Paulette Cooper spent a week in the balmy Caribbean, eating cocktail olives and breadsticks, pretending every night to have passed out drunk in the bar in order to sleep on the comfy banquette. She disembarked in New York on a winter’s day in her strappy shoes and summer dress, waving goodbye to all her new friends.

Paulette married at age 45 and has written more than 20 books of hard journalism and humour, including books about the African slave trade, an award-winning history of forensic science, the ghost-written autobiography of Harry Truman’s daughter, and a book that investigates whether Elvis was really Jewish. When asked about her stowaway adventure, she sighs and says, “Things were more casual back then.” How can we give up on a world that has Paulette Cooper in it?

Times, 20 November 2019