Odyssey which ended in west Cork


Charles Fenn: Charles Fenn, who died aged 97 on May 29th, 2004, was at various stages of his life a bell-boy with the Cunard Line, a press photographer in China, a textile salesman in the US, a member of the US Marine Corps, an American agent in China during the second World War, a successful businessman in Hong Kong, a novelist and a playwright.

Fenn was also a close friend for many years of the famous British educator Henry Morris and Ho Chi Minh, about whom he wrote a best-selling book. For a time Fenn was married to Marian Greenwood, an American mural artist through whom he came in close contact with many well-known American artists and writers in the 1940s and 1950s. He was one of Ford Madox Ford's closest friends in the last year of the writer's life.

Born in Britain, Charles Fenn's working life began when he signed on at the age of 17 as a bell-boy with the Cunard Line, which employed him for six years.

He later recalled sailing into Cobh Harbour and seeing weeping Irish emigrants to the United States saying last goodbyes to their families.

But shipboard life was "unbelievable slavery" and at the age of 23 he took up an offer from an American passenger of a job in the US as a textile salesman. For five years Fenn stuck this job which involved "social relations" with customers, i.e., an apparently heroic amount of drinking mostly "bootleg" spirits in those Prohibition years.

During this time, Fenn had been corresponding regularly with Henry Morris, whom he met in 1929 when Fenn was the 22-year-old chief steward (tourist class) on board the Aquitania.

Morris introduced Fenn to the writings of George Bernard Shaw, acquiring for him from the ship's library The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism. Fenn wrote later that this meeting and that book changed his life, as Shaw became a lifelong influence.

On his marriage to Marian Greenwood, Fenn became a US citizen. He also found a new career, that of a freelance photographer, and in 1941 was assigned by a magazine called Friday to cover the long-running war in China, which had been invaded by Japan a number of years previously. Friday folded while Fenn was in China but he was then taken on by Associated Press and continued to file pictures from China and subsequently from Africa and Burma.

On returning to the US in 1943, Fenn found himself, because of his knowledge of China, the subject of overtures from the Office of Strategic Services - the forerunner of the CIA. Fenn agreed to assist in intelligence work, and to provide cover for his activities he joined the Marine Corps (later becoming a captain) and returned to China to enlist Chinese agents in a spy network.

It was around this time that Fenn first met Ho Chi Minh, and a remarkable friendship which was to last for many years developed between the two men. Fenn recruited Ho as an American agent and managed to smuggle him into Vietnam. All this is detailed in Fenn's book on Ho, which in its Japanese translation sold over 80,000 copies. According to Fenn, Ho, who had been a photographer in Paris and a pastry cook in London, saved 17 US pilots before the war ended.

At the end of the war Fenn went to Hong Kong, where he set up a number of businesses including a toy factory, an import/export agency and a publishing house. Within two years he had made enough to live on for a number of years. In the meantime, however, Fenn's marriage had come to an end, and he moved to London where he attempted unsuccessfully to establish himself as a writer. After six years he found himself almost broke.

"It was around this time," he wrote, "that fate threw at my feet another of those diamonds she occasionally tosses down in the causal manner of a spendthrift scattering £5 notes." This "diamond" was Mair Lewis, a sister of the second World War poet Alun Lewis, who came to be his second wife.

With their first child on the way, Fenn and Lewis, pessimistic about the post-atom bomb world, decided to leave Britain. And so, in the mid-1970s, "with about £1,000 between us", they arrived in west Cork. There they settled for the rest of their lives, eventually in The Standing Stone, an idyllic waterside haven in Schull which they originally ran as a guesthouse.

Up to the age of 95, Fenn continued to travel, visiting New Zealand, Africa, Europe, Costa Rica and the US. At the Dragon's Gate, his book on his wartime adventures, is to be published by the Naval Institute Press in the US next November. At the time of his death Fenn was working on his autobiography - Life Begins at 87.

Charles Fenn's wife Mair Lewis predeceased him in 1993. He is survived by his two daughters Alyn and Kathy and son Kerry, along with daughters-in-law, son-in-law, seven grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

Charles Fenn: born 1907; died May 29th, 2004.