World View: 'Mille mercis!'

Life has a way of coming around full circle.

Switching on the car radio as I drove in the St. Patrick's Day rain, I overheard an NPR report about a newly restored "Napoleon," the 1927 silent film masterpiece by French filmmaker Abel Gance, which was coming to a screen in the Bay Area.

When the reporter noted that Francis Ford Coppola presented his own restored version of this cinematic epic in 1981, and how, at the end of the screening, Coppola telephoned the nonagenarian Gance in Paris to converse with him from the stage, I recalled a memory frozen deep in my past.

My late mother and father were in the audience that day at Radio City Music Hall.

France has been on my mind lately. As I listened to the reporter wrapping up, it struck me that I had South Coast Repertory veteran actor Hal Landon Jr. to thank for unwittingly triggering a chain of recent events connected to my mother's homeland.

Had I not interviewed the thespian in January for an article about his cameo role as an actor playing none other than Napoleon Bonaparte in "The Artist," the silent movie that won this year's Oscar for Best Picture, chances are I wouldn't have seen the film in time to write my last column, which was about how proud the Frenchman in me was for France's triumph at the 84th annual Academy Awards ("World View: France shines at the Oscars," March 2).

That column provoked a set of very personal but separate reactions from two readers, Evelyn Morris and Claire de Simone, a pair of French women living in the Newport-Mesa area.

Now these two don't know one another, but the column touched them in such a way that they both reached out to contact me after its publication. In my 17-year career as a journalist, I'm used to taking flak from readers, but I've never received back-to-back, heartfelt compliments in response to one of my pieces.

On the morning the column was published, the phone at my desk tinkled. The voice on the other end, in an accent as think as bouillabaisse, blurted out: "Thank you, thank you, thank you!"

It was Morris calling me to say that we had to meet that day. Could I carve out a block of time that Friday, she pleaded, to visit her at the Showcase Gallery in South Coast Plaza Village, where an exhibit of some of artwork was winding down?

I couldn't turn down the request. I was intrigued to find out what had driven her to pick up the phone and call me.

She said the part toward the column's end — where I noted that my mother was born in France on the cusp between the end of the silent picture era and the rise of the Hollywood "talkies" — is what moved her. My mother's birthday fell on March 2 — the same day of the column's publication — and it so happened that the vivacious, extroverted and colorful Morris was born two months later in the same year.

Morris was a French pop singer in the 1950s and 60s. In 1957, while performing as the chanteuse known as "Carline," she won a Grand Prix — the French equivalent of a Grammy — from the Académie Charles Cros for four songs that came out that year. The collection was on a 45 rpm disc produced by the Odéon record label, Alain Fantapié, the academy's president, confirmed in an email.

In 1964, she gave up her singing career to marry Howard Morris, a Canadian entrepreneur living in California. Morris was 19 years her senior but, as she put it, irresistible and "as handsome as Curd Jurgens," the late German-Austrian actor. The couple lived in Palm Springs for seven years and then moved to Newport Beach.

Howard Morris died in October 1991, but his widow stayed on in Newport, starting out a career in her 70s as an artistic photographer.

A few days after meeting Morris, I received a letter in the mail. This was not just any letter. It was one of those rarities in this age of electronic communication: a hand-written letter.

The writer, Claire de Simone, a Costa Mesa resident, was so moved by the column — in particular my reference to Martin Scorsese's hommage in "Hugo" to the brothers Lumière, who were among the pioneers of early cinema — that she wrote to convey to me her "mille mercis!" ("A thousand thank yous!").

Touched by her letter, I called her up to thank her. I also arranged to meet her in person for coffee in Costa Mesa. De Simone, 72, has been living here for four years so as to be close to her two children.

There was something in her letter, written in English, that I couldn't grasp. In it, she mentioned a certain framed document in her possession. I asked her to bring it along when we met at Mimi's Cafe on March 13.

De Simone was born in Lyon, the hometown of Auguste and Louis Lumière, where, in 1895, they invented the so-called Cinematographe, a camera-like machine that captured moving pictures.

Over coffee she explained that as a four-year-old girl during World War II, she was sent away to live in the safety of her godmother's house. The godmother, Claire Rabilloud, was in Switzerland, where her French father, Florimont, had fled to as a conscientious objector during World War I. Back in the 1890s, Florimont's father, Yvon, was a Lyon-based patent lawyer.

His name appears on the last page of a legal document, dated Feb. 13, 1895, which patented the Lumière brothers' invention of the Cinematographe.

"The cradle of moving images was les freres Lumière at Lyon, so I was thrilled when I saw this," de Simone told me, alluding to a clipping of my column.

For the record, Claire Rabilloud is still around. On St. Patrick's Day, de Simone called the woman whom she is named after to wish her a happy 101st birthday.

IMRAN VITTACHI is the features editor for Times Community News. He can be reached at or at (714) 966-4633.

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