In doing research for other books, journalist Phil Keith, with his co-author Tom Clavin, kept coming across footnote references to a relatively obscure but legendary war hero, an American born in 1895 whose father had been the son of a former slave. Their interest was piqued, and what followed was further research. And a new collaboration, “All Blood Runs Red.”
When still a child, Eugene Bullard ran away from his harsh rural roots, and though he never went beyond the second grade, he did go on to become as the records have it “the first Negro combat pilot in World War I,” a daredevil ace who was made a member of the French Foreign Legion. But there was more: Bullard was also a champion boxer, a jazz drummer and Parisian night club owner, where the busboy once was Langston Hughes. Bullard also became a French Resistance spy in World II and finally, back in the states, after that war, a civil rights advocate, getting beaten up in the Peekskill Race Riots in 1949 over the appearance of Paul Robeson.
The people Bullard met abroad in the Roaring ‘20s – Hemingway, Josephine Baker, Picasso, Sophie Tucker, Gloria Swanson, Louis Armstrong, The Fitzgeralds, The Prince of Wales! The places he went. And the racism he endured when American GIs swarmed into Paris in World War II with their prejudices. The military, it will be remembered, remained segregated until Vietnam. The authors were amazed that there hadn’t been a major motion picture about Bullard’s life, let alone a substantial biography.
Bullard, who died in 1961, did write an autobiography, it turned out, but it was never published, and what additional material Keith and Clavin came across was sometimes sketchy and ambiguous. They used what they could, providing alternative narratives and stating clearly what they could not definitively corroborate. One fact, however, emerged as a constant throughout Bullard’s incredible 66 years. Despite late-life recognition in his birth country, which included a well-publicized embrace by a visiting Charles De Gaulle, and, in 1959, a deep tribute on the radio from Eleanor Roosevelt, Bullard never enjoyed the pursuit of happiness in America that he did in France, where he was awarded numerous prestigious honors. As Keith and Clavin write, “It was a proud moment for a black man not quite 21-years-old, far from home, and recognition he never could have received had he been on American soil.”
The title of their book, “All Blood Runs Red,” was actually the title that Bullard gave to his autobiography. He always flew his dangerous missions with a large red bleeding heart painted on each side of his fuselage and the inscription over it, in French, “All Blood Runs Red.”
This compelling narrative continually surprises. Back in the states after World War II, Bullard lived in Spanish Harlem with his two French daughters, whom he managed to get over. It’s not clear what happened to their white French mother (his one marriage). But work was chancy. It was only when he was working as an elevator operator at Rockefeller Center in the 1950s that his own country would get to know about him. Dave Garroway, then the host of the popular “Today” show, noticed the medals on Gene’s uniform (he loved wearing them) and decided that Eugene Bullard deserved wide recognition. Since then, there have been nods here and there, including Eugene Bullard Day in Georgia in 1994 when he was posthumously commissioned a second lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force. But New York has him. Eugene Bullard is buried in the French War Veterans section of Cemetery in Queens. Who knew. Any of it.