Jay Coupe Jr.
Captain, United States Navy
I was a young Navy Petty Officer assigned to the Navy Public Relations Office, Community Relations Division in 1978-1979. Captain Coupe was a Cmdr at that time. No Officer of the U.S. Navy had more impact on me as a person and member of our armed forces. I am deeply saddened to know that he is gone. Often, his memory of the time I spent with him in Washington, D.C., his roots to my hometown of Philadelphia, and joy his for life (by which I personally witnessed his joyful fervor in D.C.'s local restaurant scene).
Please pass to his family and friends that he is and always will be a father figure to me and his memory will live with us all.
Sincerely, PETER LISTA,November 2006
Jay Coupe Jr., 65, who died September 13, 2006, of liver cancer at Manor Care nursing home in Potomac, Maryland, never hesitated when presented with an opportunity to squeeze a little enjoyment out of life.
He had a serious job -- he was a spokesman
for the Joint Chiefs of Staff and had escorted U.S. prisoners of war home
from North Vietnam in 1973 -- but the Navy officer firmly believed in winking
at pomposity, even if it required chutzpah.
Captain Coupe entertained the opera star at Romeo Salta, one of New York's best Italian restaurants. He arranged for a friend to dine separately in the restaurant, greet him with feigned surprise and urge the amateur lyric tenor to favor the house with a song.
With Pavarotti's smiling encouragement (" Certo! "), Captain Coupe launched into " Na Sera 'e Maggio ," from a Neapolitan songbook. "I felt like a choir boy going up in front of the pope," Captain Coupe told The Washington Post hours later. But the scheme worked: About 50 patrons in the room applauded wildly, as did Pavarotti.
It wasn't the first time the outgoing entertainer had burst into song in public, said his wife, Patrisha Davis.
"His voice was like silk," she said. "He would stand up in the middle of any restaurant in Washington and start to sing. I would cringe, but . . . he had a big, boffo finish, and the whole restaurant would erupt in applause. People sent big bottles of champagne to our table. This happened all the time."
Captain Coupe had no fear of audiences. A Philadelphia native, he was recruited at 10 to join the Columbus Boychoir in Princeton, New Jersey. He traveled with his boarding school classmates to concerts around the world until his voice changed two years later. The allure of travel had settled in him, however, and he began collecting languages the way others pick up souvenirs.
"His opinion was because he had an ear for music, he had an ear for languages," his wife said. He spoke eight languages fluently: English, Spanish, French, German, Vietnamese, Mandarin Chinese, Russian and Tagalog.
He graduated from Princeton University, where he sang for four years with the school's all-male Nassoon choir. Commissioned an ensign in the Navy in 1962, he spent much of his service abroad, in Germany, China and eight years at NATO's Southern Command in Italy. Falling in love with the food as well as the music, this American son of English and Irish ancestry joked that if he could, he would have applied for political asylum in Naples. His friends nicknamed him Il Comandante Cativo -- the Naughty Commander.
A man of tremendous self-confidence, then-Lieutenant Coupe arrived in Vietnam in 1967 with a matched set of Gucci luggage and an intention to enjoy life as much as possible in a war zone. Based at Can Tho in the Mekong Delta through the Tet Offensive, the young public affairs officer cooked Italian meals for visiting reporters and military brass on stove or Sterno, usually capped with an operatic digestivo.
He returned to Vietnam in 1973, a year after he received a master's degree in communications from Boston University. His job then was to escort home the U.S. military troops who had been held captive in North Vietnam.
"Nothing in my life made a greater impression on me than the six trips I made to Hanoi to escort our POWs home," he said in a letter to the editor in 2000, after The Post had misidentified him in a historic photo with a gaunt, just-released Loeutenant Commander John McCain. "The smile on my face in that photograph is an accurate expression of the joy that we all felt that the bravest of our colleagues were returning to the country that honored and loved them. Nothing in the intervening 27 years has changed those feelings."
He later became special assistant and spokesman for Admiral William J. Crowe Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and handled crises such as the 1988 shooting down of an Iran Air flight in the Persian Gulf and the 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut.
While he was serving under Crowe, word came down that all officers would have to pass a physical. Captain Coupe, whose culinary talents outweighed his physical aptitude, evaded the directive until he was forced to set a time for the exam. Betting that the officer in charge of enforcing the edict would not nag an Admiral, Captaon Coupe promised to take the appointment immediately after Crowe. He never heard another word about it.
He retired in 1988. Among his military awards were the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, the Defense Superior Service Medal and the Bronze Star. He started an international public policy consulting firm and married, for the first and only time, in 1989 in Italy. His wife, of McLean, is his sole survivor.
Captain Coupe returned to public service in 1998, when he was chief of staff of the State Department's commission investigating the embassy bombings in East Africa that summer. The probe concluded that U.S. embassies worldwide were vulnerable to terrorism. In 2001, he became a special adviser to Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld.
Those tasks didn't seriously interfere with his off-duty fun. As a member of the Washington corps of L'Accademia Italiana della Cucina , Captain Coupe enjoyed opulent culinary repasts with fellow gastronomes and hosted countless dinners.
He was also a past president of the Cogswell Society, a drinking club named in honor of Henry D. Cogswell, a sober-minded campaigner against distilled spirits. Cogswell, who built ornate water fountains throughout the United States intended to encourage people to drink water, designed the distinctive crane-topped memorial at Seventh Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW, which for years stood in silent reproach of a nearby liquor store. The fountain is no longer operating.
The irony was not lost on Captain Coupe. He
wrote a letter to the editor describing the fountain's history several
years ago, and friends could almost hear his chortle when he wrote that
the club "would hope that all Washingtonians would appreciate this unique
monument to sobriety."
Jay was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, but was a resident of the world. A true Renaissance man, world traveler and virtuoso tenor, he graduated from Princeton University, completed his Master's at Boston University, served his country patriotically and with great distinction for 26 years. He built a successful international consulting firm after his retirement from the Navy and, if that wasn't enough, married for the first time at the age of 50. Captain Coupe was a member of the Metropolitan Club, the New York Yacht Club, the Army and Navy Club, and the Princeton Club of New York. He was the former President of the Cogswell Temperance Society.
He is survived by his adoring wife, Patrisha;
two cherished godsons, John Burnham and Christopher Behr; several cousins
and legions of friends around the world. Interment will occur on a later
date at Arlington National Cemetery after which a celebratory party to
honor Jay's memory will be held -- where a good time will be had by all.