So she has gone at last, one of the great French icons of the 20th century, Juliette Gréco. To me, she is in the pantheon of great gals, along with Diana Rigg, Debbie Harry, Patricia Highsmith and Frida Kahlo. A lot of smouldering, a lot of kicking ass and a fair amount of chain-smoking. So cool. Especially when you are a podgy, freckly teenager growing up in the Home Counties, like I was. What I would have given to have cheekbones and live in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, drinking black coffee with Existentialist poseurs, like Juliette did! She was my idol. If you YouTube her, her voice pours into your ear like blood – rich, dark, vital, pulsing. She is Édith Piaf, without the histrionic vibrato. Her life reads like a French Arthouse movie in itself – the bewitching chanteuse with famous men at her feet – the childhood rejection by her mother, imprisonment by the Nazis, muse of artists like Cocteau and Sartre. Paul McCartney wrote ‘Michelle’ inspired by her: ‘Michelle, ma belle – sont des mots qui vont très bien ensemble’ – nice try, Paul. She effortlessly racked up an impressive tally of lovers as well as three marriages, including the love of her life, trumpeter Miles Davis. He would never marry her. He feared the racist backlash to her in the US.
Apart from being just so damn French, which is a seriously important thing to achieve, and something I will always regret being no good at, Juliette also defined those great French inventions: nonchalance, insouciance and sang-froid. Nobody intimidated her after her stint as a teenager in a Gestapo jail. She vowed after that to spend the rest of her life fighting for ‘the only treasure that is worth preserving at all costs, the right to live as we choose.’ When one of the temperamental celebrity poets she hung out with criticised her readings of his works she told him bluntly ‘If you don’t like it, it’s hardly my fault.’ This was her style – sincere but fearless, bohemian but also worldly. She was a woman very much in a man’s world, acknowledging one piece of patronage by a famous man simply as ‘he must have liked my face.’ For sure – that wonderful face, like a sphinx, or latter-day Cleopatra.
Paris has lost a goddess very much of its own making. Next time you are there, heaven knows when of course, have a ‘noisette’ in the Café de Flore, put her voice on your spotify and swoon at the power which was, and always will be, Juliette Gréco.
Juliette Gréco, chanteuse, actress, Grande Dame, idol, goddess – 7 February 1927 – 23 September 2020
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