Throughout 2019, in celebration of Adirondack Life’s 50th anniversary, we’re sharing an article per week from our archives—one for each year since 1970. This week we highlight a 1974 profile of a colorful Adirondack character, the arctic explorer and painter Jacques Suzanne, written by Terry James Gordon.
Although thousands of chapters have been written about the history of the Adirondacks, the story of one of its most famous citizens still remains untold. Jacques Albert Suzanne ( 1880–1967) epitomized the “call of the Adirondack wild” for those who remember this fur-bedecked dynamic character. Known as an explorer, painter, animal fancier, musician, actor, and renowned authority on dog sledding, this world traveler’s great yearning for the North led him to settle in the boundless beauty of the Adirondacks near Lake Placid, where his legend grew and flourished.
Suzanne was born in the French providence of Normandy in the small village of Deauville. He received a formal education at Bourgeon University in the fine arts of painting and sculpturing, studying under Rodin and Moutiers. He also studied painting at the Gislain College of Bourgoin in the French Alps under Lede and Paul Helleu.
His paintings reflected the exciting adventurous mood of the early twentieth century, but even more so, they epitomized his overpowering desire to play a vital role in the exploration of some faraway land. “As an art student in Paris,” he wrote, “I read many books about explorers. I was so taken with them I put my studies aside and set out to discover the North Pole, striking toward it across Siberia.” Driven by this desire for exploration, the young adventurer started out to explore the world; and before his travels brought him to the Arctic regions, he visited numerous countries, venturing into the role of tiger hunter in Bengal, Gaucho in Argentina, commissioned painter for the Russian Tzar, Nicholas II, adventurer in Australia, Java, South Africa, and for a short term, French “good will” ambassador to Russia.
In all of his travels, Suzanne carried his paints and brushes, for painting was his first love. When not painting, Jacques pursued his favorite sport, hunting wolves and became such an expert on the subject that he was commissioned to write a series of articles on the habits of the wolf for the French magazine L’Illustration. He later became a world renowned authority on wolves and was frequently consulted on the wolf’s behavior by government and private agencies.
In 1905 this young explorer set out in earnest to discover the North Pole but gave up when he heard Admiral Peary had already reached the “top of the world.” This rather disappointing episode in Suzanne’s life, however, led to an endearing friendship between the two men. Suzanne and Admiral Peary would remain close friends for some thirty years.
Suzanne’s love for the North and Arctic snows and his continual quest for adventure then led him on a second trek to the Arctic regions—he said, “I will be the first to drive a dog sled across the top of the world, through Siberia, across the frozen stretches of the Pacific, across Alaska and Canada to Labrador.”
Suzanne traveled for twenty months on this physically tormenting exploration, covering 5,000 miles by dog sled—the longest trek by sled ever recorded. The biting cold and harsh Arctic winds took their toll, and Suzanne suffered to the very limits of human endurance. Face to face with death, he was forced to consume his Siberian malamute sled dogs for food and warmth. Only one dog survived the grueling march through snow and ice. (Much of the remains of this trek and the dash to the North Pole can be seen at the Arctic Exhibit in Suzanne’s memory at Frontier Town, North Hudson, New York).
Suzanne abandoned his trek in Canada, however, his scanning eye for adventure turned to the prospects of movie producers who were interested in filming some of Suzanne’s Arctic experiences; and one of the producers, the Selznick Motion Picture Company, was responsible for bringing Suzanne to the Adirondacks. Around 1921, the company persuaded Suzanne to settle on Bear Cub road in Lake Placid where they were filming Alaska Bill.
Suzanne was only forty-one when he began his life in the Adirondacks, a life filled with widespread recognition yet loneliness and sorrow. In the early years on his Nordic style ranch Suzanne was involved with filming countless movies, and his home rightfully became known as the “Movie Ranch.” The setting was unique and had just about everything any movie producer could ask for. The ranch was located in the dense Adirondacks in a primitive atmosphere one could only find thousands of miles away, yet it was still within 2 miles of Lake Placid village. It was surrounded by large estates but it retained the simplicity of the wilds. The ranch itself was slapped against a rocky hillside covered with pine and spruce trees, and tethered to stakes driven into the rocks were malamutes of all sizes and colors.
Among the many movies filmed on this beautiful location were The Trapper’s Wife with Kitty Gordon, The Broken Silence with Zena Keefe, Arctic Explorers with Captain Baldwin, The Man From Beyond with Houdini, and Far From the Beaten Track with King Baggot. In many other movies such as The Golden Snare, Suzanne trained giant wolves and arctic dogs.
Many famous people visited this unique little ranch and added to its ever growing popularity. Among the notables from various cultural pedestals were Adolf Friml, Tschaikowsky, General Ledeortic (aide to General De Gaulle), Ivan Subasich (Premier of Yugoslavia), Ilya Tolstoy (son of the writer), Houdini, Lowell Thomas, and Leopold Stokowski.
The ranch was also a mecca for animal lovers. Among Suzanne’s four legged residents were giant Alaskan malamutes, Greenland dogs, descendants of Peary’s North Pole Expedition, Nova Zembla sled dogs, descendants of Suzanne’s own trans-Siberian expeditions, blue eyed Siberian racing dogs, golden palomino stallions, Lippizaners, Russian wolf hounds, wolves, wild cats, and coyotes. Besides using these various animals for the movies and sled rides Suzanne employed them as models for his paintings. Suzanne did all of his painting outdoors, and the turbulence of nature added to the various moods he depicted on canvas. In more than 90 of his murals the general theme throughout was that of adventure. In one of his most beautiful paintings, “Peary,” Suzanne portrayed the rigors of the Arctic and their effect on Admiral Peary and his sled team. The painting depicts Peary about to start out with his team of huskies in the bluish light of the midnight sun, realistically captured on Suzanne’s canvas in a soft blue color with a splash of gold in the background, setting off a panorama of white swirling snow. The mural took Suzanne three years to complete, and it measures 12 feet by 4 feet. Suzanne’s paintings have hung in salons in Paris, London, New York, and Petrograd. Presently, they can be seen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Arctic Exhibit at Frontier Town and in many private residences throughout the Adirondacks.
Suzanne’s activities in Lake Placid were not limited to movies and painting, for he soon became a well known attraction at the Lake Placid Club. The barking of huskies, the cries of “mush,” and the cheery laughter of couples would ring out like music as Suzanne started out with a group for a dog sled ride around the nearby countryside. Jacques and his team were a familiar sight around Mirror Lake, and during World War II he provided rides daily to overseas veterans and returnees in Lake Placid. During the war many sled dogs (and detailed arctic devices) were secured from Suzanne for use by the Army. Jacques had also handled eagles and falcons for over forty years and kept various kinds of birds of prey on his ranch. Hearing of his experience, the Army Signal Corps employed Suzanne as a consultant to study the effectiveness of falcons for attacking enemy carrier pigeons and even for harassing invading paratroopers. Because of this work with the Army, Jacques formed several close friendships with various units and presented the 101st Calvary, Sixth Army Corps of Fort Devens, Massachusetts, with a tractable marsh falcon named Placid which they kept as a mascot for many years.
In the late ’40s and early ’50s when Sportsmen’s shows were extremely popular Suzanne was a featured attraction at many of them. In Tahawus, Schenectady, Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake, and others Suzanne and his sled dogs attracted thousands of wide eyed spectators. It was at these shows that Suzanne became friends with the famous Adirondack hermit Noah John Rondeau and Archie “le Bobcat” Ranney, another hermit from Bakers Mills, New York. Suzanne described Rondeau as a “real philosopher and a lover of children. To them he is Robin Hood.”
In the later years of his life Suzanne remained active in almost every theatre of outdoor activity. He won awards for superior breeds of huskies, sculptured story high busts of Presidents from ice, appeared in movies such as The Hudson Bay Company (produced by the naturalist Ivan Sanderson), and continued painting outdoors until the brush no longer remained steady in his aging hands.
In the waning years of his life Suzanne was stricken with sickness and eventually housed at the Essex County Infirmary in Whallonsburg. Even here at the age of eighty he continued to portray memories of years gone by on canvas and tell “tall” stories (or so people thought) of a life that intrigued young and old. Jacques Albert Suzanne, a man who knew no fear, a man who was honorably described as “Herculean in stature” died in 1967 at the age of 82. He was buried next to his dear friend Noah John Rondeau in the North Elba Cemetery, and eventually his ranch, an Adirondack attraction visited by thousands, was leveled to the ground. All that remains is a memory of a life filled with adventure, but this dynamic character never asked for any more. His own words best describe his feeling towards life as he saw it best:
Purple mountains, silver cascades,
Lovely meadows of misty rose,
Artist’s palette of rainbow shades,
A poet’s dream, peace and repose.
Jacques Albert Suzanne