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Matt Weinstock -- March 3, 1959

March 3, 2009 |  4:00 pm

Death of a Fighter

Matt_weinstockd_2 Rene Belbenoit, a gallant man, goes to his grave today at Pierce Bros. Hollywood cemetery.

Rene, 59, was found dead, sitting in a chair, in the little desert store he had operated the last seven years in Lucerne Valley. There in the desert he found the peace which all his life had eluded him.

A quarter of a century ago, Rene, small in size but a giant in courage, did the impossible -- he escaped, on his fifth attempt, from the infamous Devil's Island off the coast of French Guiana.

Then began another kind of fight, a crusade for a full pardon from the French government. Rene felt he had been unjustly sentenced to the penal colony. Even though his book, "Dry Guillotine," telling of his ordeal, helped do away with the living death, he never gave up.

1936_0823_belbenoit_01_2 HIS PLIGHT was first brought to print by Ernie Pyle, then a syndicated roving reporter. He talked to Rene when he was a fugitive living in the Central American jungle.

It was through Ernie that I became acquainted with Rene and when Ernie was killed on le Shima in 1945, I helped tell Rene's story. I last saw him in 1956, the day he received his American citizenship. It was a proud moment for Rene as he had been a man without status since his escape. We had a drink on it at Frascati's on Sunset Boulevard.

Rene, slowly sipping a Dubonnet, reiterated his intention of getting a pardon from France, presenting his case, like Emile Zola, in a book. He was rewriting the book, "Anatomy of Justice," when death overtook him.

There was a final irony to his death from a heart attack. About four months ago he had trouble breathing but he attributed the condition to his terrible time in the jungle. However, he promised his wife that on his 60th birthday, April 4, as a gift to her, he would go to a doctor for a check as she had been urging. He waited too long.

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1936_0823_belbenoit_02_2 NOT LONG AGO the Supervisors presented a resolution to Walter Brennan for his contribution to clean entertainment. As always, there were hecklers at the ceremony. One of them called out, "Ha Walter, did they tell you how much that resolution cost the taxpayers?"

"No, they didn't," he retorted, "but offhand I'd say the taxes I pay are at least 10 times what you pay so I'm not kicking."

* *

ONLY IN HOLLYWOOD -- One day last week Mrs. E. L. saw a strange black dog in her neighbor's yard. Later, while at a nearby market, she looked at the free ads on the bulletin board provided for customers and saw one offering a $25 reward for a dog answering the description of the pooch in the yard. 

She took the number and phoned it when she got home and explained the situation to the man who answered. In a few minutes an elderly gentleman came in an old car, looked, said, "No, that isn't my dog," and went away.

A few minutes later an elderly woman drove up in a new car, called to the dog and it happily jumped in the car.

Mrs. E. L. remains amused. She doesn't need the money and wouldn't have taken the reward. She simply loves dogs.

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1959_0303_abby_2 YOU CAN'T FOOL the children. There was a gripping scene in a TV western the other night in which a naughty blond, shot by mistake in shielding the hero, hovers between life and death as sad-faced townsfolk, suddenly realizing her sterling qualities, look on. At which a girl watcher named Jane remarked, "She's dead. You can tell because the violins are playing."

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AT RANDOM -- Let there be no further speculation on the identity of Lately Thomas, author of the forthcoming book "The Vanishing Evangelist," the story of Aimee Semple McPherson's sensational "kidnapping" and reappearance in 1926. It isn't a pseudonym. Lately Thomas writes from S.F., "I'm sorry to disappoint but there is no mystery. The name is the name" . . . A man driving a small foreign car on W 2nd Street yesterday was wearing a gas mask, the goggle and hose kind firemen use. . . . A man on W 38th Street has a license plate tab stating, "Faubus for President," which he says is being circulated by the American Protective Assn. of Jackson, Miss. Wonder how the Civil War's going?