Juliette is a French chanson singer who in the late 1950’s starred in some 20th Century Fox international film productions. She was born in Montpellier in 1927. They include “The Sun Also Rises” in 1957 with Tyrone Power, Ava Gardner and Errol Flynn, “The Roots of Heaven” and “The Big Gamble” with Stephen Boyd. Ms Greco died in 2020.
Juliette Gréco was born on February 7, 1927 in Montpellier, Hérault, France. She is an actress, known for Bonjour Tristesse (1958), Le regard de Georges Brassens (2013) andBrel, Brassens, Ferré, trois hommes sur la photo (2008). She has been married to Gérard Jouannest since 1988. She was previously married to Michel Piccoli and Philippe Lemaire.
We’re at Gréco’s house on the Côte d’Azur, sitting by a huge open fire crackling away in the middle of a vast whitewashed room with African masks on the walls and two big sofas. I was hoping we’d chat beneath the lemon trees on her sun terrace, but today the Côte d’Azur is buried in mist and drizzle, which lent the lush landscape a strange melancholy as I ascended the winding roads to Gréco’s den in the hills above St Tropez.
The icon of French chanson shares this place with her third husband, Gérard Jouannest, the pianist and composer who co-wrote the music and lyrics for 35 of Jacques Brel’s greatest songs, including Ne Me Quitte Pas. Gréco still looks astonishingly youthful, even though she wears no makeup, apart from her signature kohl eyeliner. This may be because she has never taken life seriously. Despite her astonishing, deep voice, she is prone to giggling like a teenager. Next to her, one can’t help feeling ancient and slow, not least because she has just released a new album – at the age of 86.
In Gréco Chante Brel, she delivers 12 songs by the Belgian legend. One of the most striking is Amsterdam, which Gréco has turned into a kind of psychedelic oratorio, evoking the Dutch capital’s prostitutes and sailors drinking themselves into oblivion. It certainly captures Brel’s dark inner world. “I met Brel in 1954,” she says. “He was a gentle genius. His world, unlike mine, is violent and coarse, but the great thing about being a woman is I don’t have to imitate him. I can be myself.”
This, besides her singing, has always been Gréco’s great talent: being herself, a survivor, unique and untamed. Gréco was just 16 when the Gestapo arrested her and her older sister in Paris in 1943. Their mother, arésistante, had vanished shortly before. Gréco was released, alone, a few months later. Wearing just the blue cotton dress she’d had on when she was arrested, and with no home to return to, she stepped out of the notorious Fresnes prison into one of the coldest winters on record – and walked the eight miles back into town.
She turned to her mother’s friend Hélène Duc, an actor and fellowrésistante who lived in a shabby little hotel. Duc found her a room and some food, but Gréco had nothing to wear apart from that blue dress and raffia sandals. “I was so cold and so hungry,” she says, “that I stayed in bed for two years.” Male friends, aspiring actors and art students, gave her clothes. Except they were far too big, so she rolled them up: shirts, jumpers, jackets, trousers, the lot. In the streets and cafes, heads turned – and a new fashion was born. And a star, too. Gréco’s look and intense gaze would soon be immortalised by the giants of photography: Willy Ronis, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Doisneau all shot Gréco.
Postwar life was harsh: food was scarce, housing shabby, but the feeling of freedom was a joy. “We were poor,” she says. “But it didn’t matter, for we were free at last, and we all shared the little we had.” Gréco, like all the artists and intellectuals of the time, lived on the left bank, renting a room with a bath tub. She never locked it, so other people could use it. “The room wasn’t great for sleeping: there were always a few friends who needed a shower in the middle of the night. I’d find some of them asleep in the corridor – they’d passed out before reaching the door.”
Gréco in 1961. Photograph: Erwin Lowe/RexWith her long black hair and fringe, her penetrating stare and her oversized clothes, Gréco became the left bank’s muse, its existentialist mascot, the gamine girl photographers never tired of. She was keen on acting, but when she started singing, things took off in that direction. “I wanted to be a tragedian, but a friend suggested I use my voice differently. I loved poetry and literature, so why not voice poems?” Voicing is a good way of describing Gréco’s singing style. “I am no Maria Callas, that’s for sure,” she laughs, “but I have had this truly astonishing career, touring the world, singing all those wonderful things in front of large crowds.”
She chose poems by the likes of Jacques Prévert and asked composers to set them to music. One was Joseph Kosma, who wrote soundtracks forJean Renoir. When she sang Parlez-Moi d’Amour, it was a sign that her days of earning a paltry five francs per show were over. This 1930s classic, now recorded in 37 languages, is one of those inimitable chansons about love and kissing that made French singers – fromCharles Trenet to Georges Brassens to Serge Gainsbourg – famous the world over. Gréco joined their ranks, and now Prévert was writing songs for her. And Jean-Paul Sartre, too.
Yes, Sartre penned songs for Gréco. Ah, those were the days. “Gréco has a million poems in her voice,” wrote the world’s most famous intellectual. “It is like a warm light that revives the embers burning inside of us all. It is thanks to her, and for her, that I have written songs. In her mouth, my words become precious stones.”
Men were drawn to her. Women, too. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, the phenomenological philosopher, fell in love with her; Simone de Beauvoir, acting as chaperone, introduced her to Truman Capote and William Faulkner (who looked the other way when, starving, she stuffed her bag with petits fours at a famous publisher’s cocktail party). Miles Davis, playing in Paris with Dizzy Gillespie, fell madly in love with her. “Sartre asked Miles why we didn’t get married, but Miles loved me too much, he said, to marry me. You’d be seen as a ‘negro’s whore’ in the US, he told me, and this would destroy your career. We saw each other regularly until his death. He was one of the most elegant men I have known.”
Davis was just one in a long list of suitors: Gréco has left dozens of heartbroken men in her wake. Two committed suicide, and a few others made failed attempts. The press tried to make her feel responsible. “I don’t care what they say,” she wrote in Jujube, her 1982 autobiography. “I don’t believe I can inspire such passion.” Other men who fell for her included the Hollywood tycoon Darryl F Zanuck, who gave her starring roles in John Huston’s Roots of Heaven and Richard Fleischer’s Crack in the Mirror.
“I played alongside Orson Welles in both,” she recalls. “I don’t think I have ever laughed as much in my life as during those years. The writerFrançoise Sagan was always visiting me then, too – she was barely 20 and really wicked, in the nicest way. We were like children. Orson was a genius and a gentle ogre, Françoise was extraordinarily witty. We loved eating, drinking and being merry. You should have seen us all after a dinner, roaring with laughter in St Tropez’s deserted streets at night. We were very naughty.”
The movie mogul David O Selznick once sent Gréco his private plane so she could join him for dinner in London. He offered her a seven-year contract in Hollywood. “I declined politely, trying not to laugh,” she says “It felt too inappropriate. Hollywood was definitely not for me.” There was also the great French actor Michel Piccoli, who won her over during a dinner by making her laugh for the whole evening. “A few weeks later, we were married. And then, after a while, we both stopped laughing.”
Our conversation returns to Paris in 1943. She lived off Viandox – a cheap meat broth much like Bovril, served hot in cafes – and earned scraps here and there, working in theatre and films as an extra, always trying to get more parts. When Paris was liberated in August 1944, she went every day to the Lutétia hotel, where survivors from concentration camps were arriving. One day, among a crowd of skeletal, liberated prisoners, she spotted her sister and mother. “What I endured in occupied Paris was nothing compared to their two years in Ravensbrück,” she says. “We held each other tight, in silence. There were no words for what I felt at that instant.”
Gréco is still in constant demand, and France’s fascination with her shows little sign of dwindling. Hedi Slimane, the fashion designer and creative director for Yves Saint Laurent, recently photographed Gréco and asked her to be YSL’s brand ambassador. And today, when she walks the streets of Paris, women of all ages stop her and tell her she’s been an inspiration to them. “Phew,” she says, roaring with laugher. “I have been useful after all.”
Some even ask if they can give her a kiss. What does she say? “Please do!”
• Gréco plays the Paris Olympia on 16 and 17 May.
• This article was amended on 19 February 2014. An earlier version spelled David O Selznick’s name as David O’Selznick.
The above “Guardian” article can aso be accessed online here.
Obituary in “The Telegraph” in 2020.
Juliette Gréco, the singer and actress, who has died aged 93, was known in Paris as “the muse of Saint-Germain-des-Prés” and was reckoned not only an emblem of the ideas of Sartre, de Beauvoir and other Left Bank existentialist intellectuals, but also of 1950s France.
While still a teenage drama student, Juliette Gréco became a familiar figure on the Left Bank. Her daringly boyish uniform of black sweater and pedal-pushers teamed with her raven hair, dark eyes and ivory skin prompted Picasso to comment that “you moonbathe while others sunbathe”. Her personality, both fragile and fiercely independent, did not disappoint.
Having been introduced to Jean-Paul Sartre by the existentialist philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Juliette Gréco was embraced as the apotheosis of female liberation – as called for in de Beauvoir’s La Deuxième Sexe,.
In 1949 she was asked to make an appearance at the reopening of the Right Bank cabaret Le Boeuf sur le Toit. Sartre persuaded her to sing, arranged for the popular composer Joseph Kosma to accompany her, and picked three songs which would suit her. Although she described herself as “petrified”, she was “inoculated by the stage virus” and caused a sensation.
Sartre was the first of many influential French writers to provide lyrics for Juliette Gréco’s songs.
When asked why he and others such as Prévert, Mauriac and Camus should give their poetry to a mere chanteuse, he replied: “The writer often forgets the words have sensual beauty. Gréco’s voice reminds us. Gentle, warm and light, her voice rekindles their fire.” She referred to these songs as “my passport … my whole life”.
Juliette Gréco was born on February 7 1927 in Montpellier and began training as a dancer at the Opéra de Paris when she was nine. Her studies were cut short by the outbreak of war, and when she was 15 her mother and sister were sent to a prison camp for Resistance activities.
Juliette herself was imprisoned for a few weeks (for slapping a Gestapo officer, she claimed). On finding herself incarcerated with prostitutes, she characteristically made the most of things, using the time to learn about men.
On her release Juliette Gréco returned to Paris alone and began acting classes. Although she never claimed to be an intellectual or even an existentialist, her beauty and curiosity ensured her friendship with the philosophers, artists and writers who frequented the cafes and clubs of Saint-Germain.
After the enthusiastic response to her professional debut as a singer at Le Boeuf sur le Toit, Juliette Gréco soon moved to La Rose Rouge on the Rue de Rennes, and it was here that her reputation was made.
Wearing an austere black Balmain dress bought in a sale, she would replace the coy innuendo of the original lyrics with her own more explicit choices. One observer described her hanging on to the microphone stand “like a shipwrecked man clinging to a lifebelt”.
At La Rose Rouge she met Marlon Brando who, in his trademark white T-shirt, would take her home on the back of his motorcycle. Despite her later assertion that “rarely have I seen such a good-looking man”, he did not become her lover as he was pursuing the singer Eartha Kitt at the time.
Juliette Gréco’s first film was Jean Cocteau’s Orphée (1949) in which she made a memorable appearance as a leather-clad gang leader.
Her growing international reputation in the mid-1950s culminated in a short-lived Hollywood career, with well-received roles in such films as John Huston’s The Roots of Heaven (1958) and Richard Fleischer’s Crack in the Mirror (1960), both with Orson Welles.
But after ending an affair with the producer Darryl F Zanuck, she turned her back on Hollywood, preferring to concentrate on her singing
Of her numerous recordings, many – such as those written by Jacques Brel, Charles Trenet and Charles Aznavour – have become French standards.
Her collaboration with Serge Gainsbourg produced La Javanaise, which is now such a French institution that it is taught in schools. She carried on recording into her seventies, still keen to find young writers who would match up to those of her youth.
She also travelled widely, performing in more than a dozen countries a year, craving the “joy and terror” of being on stage. Her enduring popularity owed much to her ability to transport people back to a time when, as she put it, “we were free, and to be free is the most precious thing in life.”
Juliette Gréco had many love affairs, including one with the black American jazz trumpeter Miles Davis.
She was never intimidated by those who disapproved, once spitting into the hand of a New York maître d’ who practically refused to serve them. “In America,” she later wrote, “his colour was made blatantly obvious to me, whereas in Paris I didn’t even notice.”
Although in her later years Juliette Gréco lived just outside Paris, she would return frequently to the city, always staying at the Hôtel Lutétia, where she had been reunited with her mother and sister after the war. In her hotel bedroom, a stone’s throw from Saint-Germain, she would sleep with the curtains open so that she could see the Eiffel Tower.
In 1984 she was appointed to the Légion d’honneur in recognition of her status as an ambassadress of French song.
Despite her insistence that her three marriages were all undertaken merely to please her husbands, in her last marriage, in 1988, to Gérard Jouannest, a composer and pianist, Juliette Gréco appeared to have found an arrangement she desired. He died in 2018. Her previous marriages were to the actors Philippe Lemaire (1953), with whom she had a daughter, and Michel Piccoli (1966).
Juliette Gréco, born February 7 1927, died September 23 2020