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Juliette Gréco, actress, singer and muse of postwar France, dead at 93

Juliette Gréco
(Handout)

French chanteuse and actress Juliette Gréco was the muse of existentialism during France’s postwar years, an untamed gamine all in black, whose rich, velvety alto gave her bleak laments an irresistible ardor.

In the 1950s, she had an affair with Miles Davis, caroused in St. Tropez with Orson Welles and inspired poet Jean-Paul Sartre. Known for her dark, kohl-lined eyes and thick bangs, Gréco was immortalized by photographers Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Doisneau. And Darryl F. Zanuck and David O. Selznick both wooed her with movie stardom.

But it was Gréco’s melancholic chansons, such as “Je Suis Comme Je Suis,” “Parlez-moi d’amour” and “Si tu t’imagines” that made her France’s national treasure and kept her performing for 70 years.

“Gréco has a million poems in her voice,” wrote Sartre. “In her mouth, my words become precious stones.”

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Never out of the limelight for long, Gréco has died at her home near St. Tropez, the Associated Press reported, citing French media. It was unclear when she died. She was 93.

Born Feb. 7, 1927, in Montpellier, France, on the Mediterranean coast, Gréco was the younger of two daughters of a Corsican police commissioner. Her father left the family early and her mother moved her daughters to Bordeaux to live with their maternal grandparents.

Gréco was a shy girl who attended a rigid convent school until her mother returned in 1933 and took her daughters to Paris. There, Gréco studied dance and was classically trained at the Paris Opera.

Gréco was 12 when World War II broke out and she and her family were forced to hide out in the Dordogne region of France, where her mother joined the resistance. When Gréco was 16, her mother and sister were arrested by the Gestapo and deported to a concentration camp. Gréco was held for three weeks in a women’s prison and released to the streets, alone and penniless.

She took refuge with her teacher in the Saint-Germain-des-Prés quarter. As the war wore on, she became a fixture of the intelligentsia that flourished there, studying drama and performing in local theater.

She wore the hand-offs from actors and art students she met, many of them men. Gréco cultivated a style that eventually defined the severe, all-black bohemian look and earned her the nickname the “black muse of Saint-Germain-des-Prés.”

After the 1944 liberation and reunion with her mother and sister, Gréco started singing in cafes along the Saint-Germain-des-Prés. She helped establish the cellar club Le Tabou, which drew a crowd of French existentialists along with Marlene Dietrich and American ex-pat writers William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway.

In just a few years, Gréco went from earning five francs per show to having Jacques Prévert, Albert Camus and Sartre write songs for her.

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“I wanted to be a tragedian, but a friend suggested I use my voice differently,” she told the Guardian in 2014. “I loved poetry and literature, so why not voice poems? I am no Maria Callas, that’s for sure. But I have had this truly astonishing career, touring the world, singing all those wonderful things in front of large crowds.”

Gréco enthralled audiences with her unique enunciation and animated gestures, a persona that landed her a starring role in Jean Cocteau’s 1950 classic “Orpheus.” And in 1951, she earned her first major hit with “Je Suis Comme Je Suis”, written by Prévert with music by Joseph Kosma. Around the same time, she met and married actor Philippe Lemaire. They divorced two years later. Their daughter, Laurence-Marie Lemaire, died in 2016.

Gréco landed in the U.S. in 1954 to pursue a film career, appearing as a gypsy singer in Jean Renoir’s 1956 Ingrid Bergman film “Elena and Her Men,” and co-starring with Errol Flynn and Trevor Howard in John Huston’s 1958 film “The Roots of Heaven.”

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Gréco returned to Paris in 1959 and spent the 1960s mentoring a new generation of singers, collaborating with Serge Gainsbourg who wrote “La Javanise” for her along with Léo Ferré and Guy Béart.

While her concert tours continued to draw tens of thousands, Gréco earned TV fame in the mid-1960s as co-star of the French fantasy series “Belphegor, Phantom of the Louvre.” She married another French actor, Michel Piccoli, in 1966 and they remained together for the next 11 years.

After a few fallow years in the early 1970s, Gréco collaborated in 1975 with pianist Gérard Jouannes, and the two eventually married in 1989. Jouannes died in 2018.

She continued to tour and perform through her 80s, releasing “Gréco Chante Brel” in 2014 and launching a farewell tour with concerts around the world. But in 2016, she suffered a stroke and was forced to cancel the remaining dates.

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Gréco lived out the rest of her life on the Cote d’Azur.

“I’m not afraid of dying,” she told the German newspaper Die Zeit in 2015. “I’m only afraid of having to stop singing. But you have to know when something is over.”

Piccalo is a former Times staff writer.


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