The New York Times
December 31, 1997
Simone Duvalier, Haiti's 'Mama Doc'
By LARRY ROHTERMIAMI -- Simone Duvalier, who rose from a childhood of poverty and abandonment to become the wife of one Haitian dictator, mother of another and a power in her own right, died of undisclosed causes in a clinic outside Paris on Friday. She was in her mid-80s and had lived in France since being forced into exile almost 12 years ago.
During the nearly 30 years that her husband, Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier, and son, Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier, dominated the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere through a combination of brutality, intimidation and guile, Simone Duvalier was often regarded as a power behind the throne. Because of her acquired status, her reputation for vanity and her imperious bearing, ordinary Haitians often referred to her sarcastically as "Mama Doc."
Mrs. Duvalier's influence probably reached its peak after the death of her husband in 1971, when her son, still a teen-ager, succeeded his father as Haiti's "president for life." She relished the title of first lady and the power it conferred, and was said by associates to deeply resent having to relinquish that role after Jean-Claude Duvalier married Michele Bennett in a lavish wedding ceremony in 1980.
Like her rapacious husband, who systematically looted Haiti's treasury during his years in power, Mrs. Duvalier was reported to be a voodoo adept, and inspired dread among Haiti's poor and illiterate masses. Nevertheless, she cultivated the image of a benefactor, dispensing charity to inhabitants of "Cite Simone," a "planned settlement" named for her that is known today as "Cite Soleil" and is perhaps the most miserable slum in Latin America.
Mrs. Duvalier's own origins, however, were exceedingly humble. Born Simone Ovide, she was the illegitimate daughter of a well-known mulatto merchant and scholar, Jules Faine, and one of the maids in his household, giving her a socially dubious lineage that in her later years she sought to conceal.
Though Mrs. Duvalier was never willing to disclose her precise date of birth, she is believed to have been born about 1913 near the southern Haitian town of Leogane. At an early age, however, her mother gave her up, and she spent much of her childhood in an orphanage in Petionville, an upper-class suburb in the hills above Port-au-Prince.
Because some members of the local elite took an interest in the institution, the wards of the orphanage were encouraged to acquire some sort of vocational skill, a phenomenon unusual in Haiti at that time. As a result, Simone Ovide was trained as a nurse's aide, and was working in that capacity when she met and was soon being courted by a young doctor named Francois Duvalier.
Then as now, Haitians fortunate enough to enter a profession ordinarily would not marry beneath their class. But Simone Ovide's light skin, good looks, unusual height and haughty demeanor were apparently enough to overcome any social handicaps, and the couple married just after Christmas in 1939.
As Francois Duvalier rose through the Haitian bureaucracy, becoming minister of public health and labor in 1949 and winning election to the presidency in 1957, Simone was right beside him. Throughout his 14 years in office, she zealously guarded access to her husband and developed and promoted her own coterie of palace favorites.
"She had a lot of power, but it wasn't an idyllic marriage," said Bernard Diederich, author of a biography of Francois Duvalier. "The old dictator and his wife were often at odds over family matters."
During her son's years in power, Simone Duvalier's taste for luxury, exceeded only by that of Michele Bennett, grew even more pronounced, and corruption markedly increased. A tense relationship with her daughter-in-law encouraged Jean-Claude to build lavish palaces and weekend retreats, and Mrs. Duvalier was the moving force behind the construction of an elaborate mausoleum for her husband, today a museum, where she, too, planned to be buried.
But when her son was ousted from power in February 1986, Mrs. Duvalier joined him and his wife in exile, first in the French Alps and then in Paris. She was rarely seen in public from that point on, and was reported by old acquaintances in Port-au-Prince to be pining for Haiti and eager to return to her homeland when political conditions allowed.
In recent years, after Jean-Claude's bitter divorce from Michele, Mrs. Duvalier was again said to be with her son in France, amid widespread reports they were living in a state of virtual poverty.
Such speculation is sure to be fed by the decision to cremate Mrs. Duvalier's body, a procedure that believers in voodoo normally seek to avoid, rather than incur the cost of a burial plot.