Juliette Greco, stylish survivor of radical chic Paris

Source: AFP Published: 2020/9/24 18:23:40

French actress and singer Juliette Greco, who has died aged 93, was the face and voice of radical chic postwar Paris, a friend of Left Bank intellectual giants such as Jean-Paul Sartre, and the lover of both the Hollywood studio boss Darryl F Zanuck and jazz legend Miles Davis.

A fresco by French street artist and painter Christian Guemy depicting French singer Juliette Greco in Fresnes Prison, France on July 3 Photo: AFP

Hers was an epic life, with a childhood straight from of one of the tragic songs with which she made her name in the nightclubs of the Latin Quarter as the French capital came back to life after the war.

A young dancer at the Paris ballet school when the Nazis invaded, she was arrested by the Gestapo when she was just 16 after her older sister and her mother - a member of the French Resistance - were sent to a concentration camp.

She survived prison only to be thrown onto the streets of Paris hungry and alone in the coldest winter of the war in nothing but a thin blue dress and sandals.

She only survived thanks to a friend of her mother's, begging and borrowing men's clothes from student friends and young actors from which Greco improvised her boyish, pixie style that would later be imitated the world over.

With fashionable Saint Germain des Pres fizzing with creative energy, her look was immortalized by photographers like Willy Ronis, Robert Doisneau and Henri Cartier Bresson, who shot her in the street or in smoky clubs like Le Boeuf sur le Toit (The Ox on the Roof).

Existential muse 

Invariably dressed in black, with dark sad eyes, jet hair and long eyelashes, the brilliant and uninhibited Greco was much more than the "existentialist muse."

She became one of the leading performers of French chanson, interpreting texts by the likes of Sartre, poets Jacques Prevert and Jean Cocteau, playwright Bertolt Brecht and composers such as Leo Ferre, Guy Beart, Georges Brassens and Serge Gainsbourg.

Her best-loved hits "Jolie mome" (Cute Kid) by Ferre and Gainsbourg's "La javanaise" were written for her.

With typical daring, she also persuaded the songwriters of the provocative "Deshabillez-moi" (Undress Me), written originally for a striptease artist, to give her the song. It was a massive hit.

She later compared singing to sex. 

"An audience is like a lover," she said. 

"You have to start slowly, softy, with a thousand caresses, tears and doubts... then give everything so that they love you."

Greco's circle was a "Who's Who" of the period. In addition to Sartre, Cocteau and novelists Raymond Queneau and Boris Vian, she hung out with the writer Marguerite Duras and feminist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir.

'Greatest love' 

Her long-running affair with the US jazz trumpeter Miles Davis was ultimately doomed by his drug taking.

He called her his "greatest love" - even though to begin with neither talked the other's language.

Greco's early success as a cabaret artist led to a series of performances in Paris's Olympia concert hall - then the temple of French popular music - in 1954.

Six years earlier she had begun what was to become a long film career, taking her across the Atlantic and into the arms of the powerful Hollywood producer Zanuck.

There she starred in adaptations of Ernest Hemingway's The Sun also Rises (1957) and Francoise Sagan's novel Bonjour tristesse directed by Otto Preminger the following year.

She went on to work with another Hollywood legend, John Huston, in The Roots of Heaven.

Although she never became a major movie star, Greco became a household name across western Europe in 1965 thanks to the success of French TV series Belphegor, a detective drama about a ghost haunting the Louvre museum.

Greco was born on February 7, 1927 in the southern town of Montpellier, but was mostly brought up by her grandparents near Bordeaux after her parents separated.

During World War II both her parents were active in the Resistance, and she was only spared deportation to Germany because of her age.

Her wartime experiences sealed her lifelong alliance to the left.

In 1981 she was practically expelled from Chile, then under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, for singing songs censored by the military regime.

She married three times: briefly in 1953 to actor Philippe Lemaire, with whom she had a daughter; then to the actor-director Michel Piccoli between 1966 and 1977 and finally to Gerard Jouannest, who cowrote some of Jacques Brel's greatest songs including "Ne Me Quitte Pas" (Don't Leave Me).

Still strikingly beautiful in old age, she toured and recorded right up until a stroke in 2016.

"I miss it terribly. My reason for living is to sing! To sing is everything, there is the body, the instinct, the head," she told the Telerama magazine in an interview in July.
Newspaper headline: Epic life

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