Iconic French singer Juliette Gréco dies age 93

Iconic French singer Juliette Gréco has died at the age of 93. We remember some of her most-loved songs from her 60-year career, and remarkable life, as President Emmanuel Macron pays tribute.

24 September 2020
Juliette Gréco on stage in 1961. The iconic French singer has died at the age of 93Juliette Gréco on stage in 1961. The iconic French singer has died at the age of 93.
By Hannah Thompson

Ms Gréco died on September 23, surrounded by family in her much-loved house in Ramatuelle, in the Var.

Her songs were loved as much for their iconic Parisian style as their original lyrics and memorable melodies; and she was well-known for her recognisable dress sense - nearly always dark or black - and heavy eyeliner.

Here are some of her most-loved songs.

Sous le Ciel de Paris by Hubert Giraud and Jean Dréjac

This song featured in the 1951 film of the same name, by Julien Duvivier. While Ms Gréco was not the first to sing it, she did popularise it and make it famous internationally, and would help to make it synonymous with the sound of Paris and France.

Déshabillez-moi by Gaby Verlor et Robert Nyel

Known as one of Ms Gréco’s most original and stand-out songs, this was welcomed as a homage to femininity, desire, and female sensuality, at a time (1968) when these issues were still seen as taboo.

La Javanaise by Serge Gainsbourg

Ms Gréco often chose to sing songs by new writers, as a way of granting them more exposure. In the early 60s, this would include Serge Gainsbourg, whose song La Javanaise she would sing in 1963, and continue to perform for years to come.

 

Je hais les dimanches by Charles Aznavour

Jolie Môme by Léo Ferré

The phrase Jolie Môme - which translates roughly as “cute kid” - would later become an affectionate nickname for Ms Gréco herself.

Il n'y a plus d'après by Guy Béart

In the 50s and 60s, Ms Gréco became known as an “icon of Saint-Germain-des-Prés” - the famous literary and artistic neighbourhood in the 6th arrondissement of Paris. She mingled with many intellectuals and artists, such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus.

The lyrics of the song Il n'y a plus d'après, by Guy Béart, pay homage to the area. They include: “There is no more after, in Saint-Germain-des-Prés; no more days after tomorrow, no more afternoons, there is only today, when I will see you again, in Saint-Germain-des-Prés.”

Ms Gréco continued to perform and appear on television right up until her final years, and in 2015, at the age of 88, she began a “farewell tour”, simply called “Merci!”. Her husband, Gérard Jouannest - the former pianist of Jacques Brel - accompanied her on piano.

She first met Mr Jouannest decades earlier, and their working relationship lasted more than 40 years, latterly crossing over into a personal one. The two married in 1989, and they continued to work together even as Ms Gréco’s career began to wane.

The tour was cut short in 2016 after she suffered a stroke, having had health problems since 1991.

 

Remarkable life

Although later known as an icon of both music, and the big and small screen, Ms Gréco had a remarkable life even before she became famous.

Born in Montpellier in 1927 to a Corsican father and Bordeaux mother, she and her sister Charlotte were raised by their grandparents after their parents’ separation. When their grandfather died, their mother moved them to Paris.

The young Juliette entered the Ecole de Danse de l'Opéra in the city, but when World War Two broke out in 1939, the family fled to Périgord. Juliette’s mother was involved in the Resistance, and was arrested in 1943, and deported to the concentration camp Ravensbruck along with her daughter Charlotte.

Juliette, then aged just 16, escaped deportation but was instead imprisoned in the infamous Fresnes prison, south of Paris. Upon her release, she contacted the only person she knew in the city; the actress Hélène Duc, who had also known her mother, and was previously Juliette’s French teacher.

Through Ms Duc, Juliette would discover the world of entertainment, and despite not getting into the Conservatoire, she found several roles in la Comédie Française. When the war ended in 1945, her mother and sister Charlotte returned, and the family lived in Dordogne for a while before returning to Paris.

In liberated Paris, Juliette would thrive among intellectuals and artists.

She once said: “I only had to go to the bistro, or go for a coffee, and I would meet people such as...Sartre, Camus...if I wanted to talk about painting, there were people such as Picasso.”

She would visit cabaret and jazz clubs too, and soon began to perform songs by writers including Boris Vian, Jean-Paul Sartre and Jacques Prévert. The poet Raymond Queneau gave her the song Si tu t'imagines, which would become one of her first hits, as her warm and sensual voice became a favourite with the public, and also appeared in films, including Orphée, by Jean Cocteau.

Personal life

Ms Gréco was a passionate anti-racist, at a time when many countries continued to outlaw mixed-race relationships. She had a controversial relationship with the black American jazz musician, Miles Davis, after meeting him at an international jazz festival in Paris in 1949.

She said: “In his music...I heard freedom. With him, I lived a violent and strong love story, which lasted all his life. We loved each other and shared everything. We went to restaurants when we could afford to pay. We were quite poor...I think that he was surprised by my freedom and my total lack of regard for colour.”

But the relationship ended when Mr Davis refused to allow Ms Gréco to accompany him to the United States, however, as he feared that the country - in which mixed-race marriages were still banned and racial segregation was still law - would be abusive and unwelcoming to his partner.

When Jean-Paul Sartre is said to have asked Mr Davis: “Why don’t you marry Ms Gréco?”, he is said to have replied: “Because I love her.”

She said: “He knew that black and white wouldn’t go together. He knew that I was unhappy and that I would have been treated as a second-class citizen in America. [Our love story] was so pure, so beautiful, so strange. We followed each other around the world, when he was in a theatre and saw my name, he would leave me a message. Sometimes, he called me.”

She recalled a painful experience when, while staying at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in the 1950s, she invited Mr Davis to have dinner with her. “They treated us the way they wouldn’t treat a dog”, she said, recalling how the plates “were thrown at our faces”. She said: “Black people were not welcome in these hotels. Nor were dogs, or Jews, almost. It was totally repugnant. It was incredibly painful.”

The two would continue to stay in touch right up until Mr Davis’ death in 1991.

Ms Gréco married actor Philippe Lemaire in 1953, and had their daughter in 1954, before divorcing him in 1956. She then had a relationship with the American producer Daryl Zanuck, who was 30 years her senior. At this time, she filmed several Hollywood movies, and met great American directors including Orson Welles and Henry King.

In 1965, she married the actor Michel Piccoli, and their relationship lasted 12 years. More than ten years after they split, Ms Gréco married Gérard Jouannest.

A new audience

In the 60s, Ms Gréco became known to a whole new audience: young children.

She played the infamous TV role of Belphégor, a ghost that haunts the Egyptology department of the Louvre Museum. The TV series, adapted by Claude Bama after a novel by André Bernède, was phenomenally successful in 1965.

Tributes paid

President Emmanuel Macron led the tributes to the great singer, writing on Twitter: “She was elegance and freedom [personified]. Juliette Gréco has joined Brel, Ferré, Brassens, Aznavour and all those who will perform the great French songbook in the Panthéon. Her face and her voice will continue to accompany our lives. The muse of Saint-Germain-des-Prés is immortal.”

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